The United States and the European Union are getting close to agreeing an 'open skies' deal to free up their transatlantic aviation market, U.S. Transport Secretary Norman Mineta said on Friday.
The EU has been taking a tough line in talks aimed at clinching a European Union-wide deal to liberalize the market, replacing the current patchwork of U.S. agreements with individual EU member states.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to Prague, Mineta said he met last week with EU officials to discuss the deal and that "we really moved the agreement quite a bit".
"I think we are very close to doing that (working out the details of an agreement)," Mineta told reporters during a visit to the Czech capital.
"I am more than hopeful. I just feel very strongly we will be able to have the details of this agreement wrapped up so that our leaders will be able to sign it at the summit in June," he added, referring to an EU-U.S. summit due to be held in Dublin on June 25-26.
The EU side has said that for a deal to be done the United States must open some of its domestic routes to European airlines, but the Bush administration has refused, saying that opening up it domestic market to foreign carriers would require legislative changes it is not prepared to seek.
Instead, Mineta said that the U.S. is proposing to raise the allowable foreign ownership limit on U.S. airlines to 49 percent from the current 25 percent.
However, the issues of 'cabotage', the right of a foreign airline to fly domestic routes in another country, and 'establishment', the right of a foreign carrier to establish a domestic airline in another country, were "off the table".
"Both, from a legislative perspective, would be very difficult to get passed in Congress...That was something I would not be able to have as part of the discussion involving this agreement."
Mineta said that the foreign ownership level change must be approved by Congress, but he was confident the legislation would be passed.