Brussels aims for boost in aviation

The European Commission is trying to boost its powers over the aviation sector, particularly in the sensitive area of airlines' rights to take-off and landing slots.

The industry's recent economic difficulties have reinforced a sense of frustration in Brussels that events have sometimes been beyond the Commission's control.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11 Brussels was subjected to particularly divisive lobbying, with transatlantic carriers demanding to keep the rights to slots they did not use and low-cost airlines arguing that this would shut them out of the market.

In the event the Commission could recommend only that independent slot controllers freeze rights to slots until the end of the winter 2002-2003 season. It has now drafted legislation that would give it the power to decree slot rights. This will be discussed by ministers in meetings in March and June.

The Commission is also hoping that the European Court of Justice will indicate in a preliminary opinion on January 31 that it is ready to give Brussels full negotiating powers over the use of European Union airspace. A final ruling would come some months later and, if favourable to the Commission, would be likely to overturn the series of bilateral "open skies" air traffic agreements between EU governments and the US. The plans of British Airways and American Airlines for closer links are predicated on a US-UK open-skies deal.

But Commission officials have been frustrated by other developments, including what they see as recent "disloyal competition" from US and Swiss airlines that have slashed their fares, an area over which Brussels has - as yet - no formal powers.

The Commission has struggled to maintain control over aid dispensed to the sector since September 11, trusting member states to keep their word to charge premiums for completing airlines' war-risk cover. Gerhard Schröder, Germany's chancellor, has said Lufthansa would not have to pay a premium.

Brussels is also heading for a confrontation with the Belgian government over its opposition to a E25m (£15m) loan to Sabena Technics, the maintenance division of the bankrupt Belgian carrier.