- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) — Starting this weekend, travelers on both sides of the Atlantic will find they have more options when booking nonstop flights between the United States and Europe.

They could fly between New York, and Lyon, France, or find a new flight from Salt Lake City to Paris.

What they won’t find many of when the open skies agreement between the United States and European Union takes effect Sunday are lower fares, despite a handful of introductory sales.

That’s because airlines already struggling with sky-high fuel prices and an economic slowdown see open skies’ relaxed route restrictions primarily as a way to attract more of the high-end business and affluent leisure travelers they covet and see as necessary to their financial survival. British Airways, for instance, is launching a new trans-Atlantic airline to take advantage of the agreement — aptly named OpenSkies — but will offer only 30 economy-class seats on each 82-seat plane, with the rest evenly split between business and first class.

“There is a move afoot … to use smaller [airplanes] flown nonstop to push leisure customers by the wayside … except for those willing to pay far higher prices,” said Robert Mann, an independent airline consultant in Port Washington, N.Y.

As oil has pushed past $100 a barrel, propelling jet-fuel prices to record levels, many carriers have cut domestic capacity and moved planes to international routes, where ticket prices — and profits — are higher. The open skies agreement appears likely to hasten the shift.

There will be some instances in which flights shifted from existing routes to new ones destined for Europe might push fares lower in the short term. But that will be balanced by fewer flights and less competition on other routes, Mr. Mann said. Still, popular destinations like London could see more competition, and some lower fares.

The open skies agreement was signed in May to end rules under which U.S. and European governments had to negotiate airlines’s access to new markets, often on a city-by-city basis. The restrictions were perhaps most prominent at London’s Heathrow Airport, where only four airlines could offer service to the United States: British Airways, Virgin Atlantic Airways, United Airlines and American Airlines.

Heathrow also will benefit from a new British Airways terminal, which will create more room for new flights at existing terminals by other carriers — Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines and US Airways — who are eager to offer service to one of the world’s busiest international hubs.

The old rules also prevented European carriers from offering nonstop service to the United States from another European country. For instance, Air France was prohibited from flying direct to the United States from London — any U.S.-bound Air France flight had to stop in France first.

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