EU and U.S. officials met Monday to relaunch stalled talks that would open up U.S. airports to European carriers. The negotiations this fall are the last clear chance to make a breakthrough, said John Byerly, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for transport, ahead of the meeting.
The EU's executive office has warned it will take legal action next year to end bilateral air services agreements between national governments and the United States that EU courts ruled illegal in 2002.
EU airlines can only operate routes between their home countries and the United States, which caps the number of airlines flying the trans-Atlantic route.
The European Commission said an agreement would mean an extra US$5 billion (Ђ4 billion) and 17 million passengers for the aviation industry.
Some 60 percent of all world air traffic flies into or out of the EU and the United States and 40 million passengers travel between the two each year.
The talks are due to continue until Friday and reopen in Washington on Nov. 14.
Virgin Atlantic Airways chairman Richard Branson called on the EU to avoid a "one-sided deal" that only benefits U.S. carriers.
He said the U.S. government wanted to see American airlines able to fly within Europe, but was refusing to allow European airlines fly within the United States.
"What we don't want is an unbalanced deal giving the U.S. all it wants with little more than empty promises in return," Branson said.
Britain takes up the lion's share of the trans-Atlantic routes with 40 percent of all traffic between the EU and the United States. London's Heathrow airport is the world's busiest international hub.
The EU head office pressed its 25 member states earlier this year to renege their air service agreements with the United States and allow the commission to negotiate on their behalf.
In March, it sent legal warnings to 11 governments that have independent "open skies" accords with Washington, bringing to 20 the number of countries it has brought to court.
The commission argues that a 2002 ruling by the European Court of Justice gave it authority to act against member states defending the bilateral deals. The court said language in the agreements ran counter to the EU's authority.
The only EU members against which the commission has not opened proceedings are Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Cyprus and Slovenia.
"Open skies" agreements aim to improve market opportunities for airlines, promote common security, safety and environmental standards and foster technical cooperation.