The top US and European transport officials met on March 22 but no timetable emerged for a resumption of formal talks on lifting restrictions in the trans-Atlantic aviation market.

US Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot issued a joint statement afterward, asking their negotiators to review possible elements of an agreement with the goal of establishing a “solid basis” for resuming formal negotiations.

Both sides came very close to a deal last year but European transport ministers ultimately rejected the US offer.

A US official, who declined to be named, said the talks were a useful first step in devising a new process to get EU member state agreement before drafting a detailed document.

Barrot told reporters that the focus would be on arriving at a complete agreement. “We think that we should arrive at a global agreement,” he said through a translator.

Last week, Barrot had said he expected a “great deal” from his Washington talks and had held out the possibility of a series of smaller steps, perhaps starting with the liberalization of air cargo services.

Barrot said he would meet with transport ministers of EU member countries at the end of April to decide if there could be some kind of US-EU aviation summit in the near future.

US-EU aviation talks broke down in June last year, under Barrot’s predecessor, when the two sides could not agree on allowing European carriers to fly US domestic routes, known as “cabotage.”

The United States had been willing to let EU investors own up to 49% voting stock in a US carrier, up from 25%.

Britain, crucial to any EU open skies deal because of its large market share and because US carriers want more access to London’s Heathrow airport, was adamant about gaining more access to the US market.

At the time, Mineta called Europe’s 2004 rejection of the US offer a missed opportunity.

Barrot is still pressing for cabotage and thinks limits on foreign investment in airlines are an arcane holdover from the end of World War Two.

At a public forum ahead of the March 22 meeting with Mineta, one participant cautioned Barrot to focus on changes that were “doable” rather than have talks fail again.

“Small steps are one thing, and they are probably necessary but all the time you need to maintain a longer-term vision,” Barrot replied.

He said he knew his US counterparts had been disappointed with last year’s failure. “We had problems on our side,” Barrot conceded at the European Institute breakfast event. (Reuters)