EU transport ministers in Brussels have today voted in favour of an EU-US open skies aviation agreement which is expected to take effect from 2008.
Unlike air services within the EU, where airlines can fly and charge more or less what they wish, services to the US have been governed by restrictions.
In the case of the UK it means that only four airlines – BA, Virgin, American and United - can fly between London Heathrow and the US along with those (Air India and Kuwait) who negotiated traffic rights decades ago. Airlines are free to start flights to the US from regional UK airports (these include Luton and Stansted, but not Gatwick) but they prefer Heathrow because that's where the money lies.
Now that officials have given the green light it means more airlines will be allowed to fly from more airports within the EU. It will provide greater choice (both in terms of airlines and products) and fares, especially in first and business class, will become keener.The biggest effect of open skies will be seen at Heathrow which is the EU's leading transatlantic gateway.
Britain's Bmi has said it would like to launch some US routes from Heathrow while US carriers like Continental, Delta and Northwest might transfer their services away from Gatwick. It would also mean that Air France or Lufthansa could, if they wanted, fly to the US from Heathrow.
On the other hand, UK airlines will now be free to serve the US from points in mainland Europe and likewise carriers like Air France and Lufthansa can fly transatlantic from the UK
But talking about new routes and putting them into practise are two different things. Bmi would have to acquire several new planes (or else drop some of its existing US services from Manchester) while carriers which are new to Heathrow will face difficulty obtaining 'slots.'
Report by Alex McWhirter