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10th Jul 2020

EU and US struggle to avoid air travel chaos

  • European airlines have to provide information on their passengers to the US authorities before they can touch down (Photo: European Commission)

The European Union and the United States are still negotiating a deal on air passenger data transfers in an attempt to avoid "legal chaos" despite a "temporary break down" on Saturday night, EU officials said.

The European Commission said on Monday (2 October) that negotiations on the data transfers are still "ongoing" after officials returned to Brussels having failed to reach an agreement in Washington on Saturday as planned.

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They brought with them a draft agreement already signed by the official responsible for the deal on the American side - US head of homeland security Michael Chertoff.

"This US proposal will be discussed by [member states representatives] and the [commissioners], most likely during the 5-6 October meeting of the EU justice and home affairs ministers in Luxembourg, in the hope of having an agreement with the USA as soon as possible," a commission statement said.

But the commission has refused to comment on the content of the US proposed deal "as a result of its confidential and restricted nature."

One EU diplomat told EUobserver that there are "new elements" in the agreement, hinting that Washington's desire to forward data to third countries represented is one of these issues.

The diplomat added that the secrecy could be due to the fact that "media speculations might harm the negotiations."

The Passenger Name Records (PNR) agreement between Brussels and Washington expired on Sunday (1 October) after being ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice in May this year.

The court set an end-of-September deadline for the European and US authorities to replace it with a new agreement on a different legal basis.

Critics have warned that the US would use the opportunity to push for more information about the passengers to be transferred to the US authorities.

The expired deal from 2004 obliged air carriers to forward information about passengers – such as credit card details, family links and addresses – to the US authorities 15 minutes before the departure of the flight.

Legal limbo

However, passengers travelling to the US are unprotected until a deal has been reached. According to US legislation, the states can refuse airliners to land on US soil if the information about the passengers has not been transferred.

On the other hand, unless the airline companies are covered by national laws, they could be sued by the passengers for transferring their private data on the basis of an expired agreement.

So far, airlines are continuing to provide the information needed to land in the states.

"This is a very serious situation. We need an agreement as soon as possible. From the start, the European Parliament was not happy with the contents of the previous agreement, but at least it offered a minimum of protection of citizens' rights, and some rules on the use of the data," said Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld in a statement.

Transatlantic air travel left in legal limbo

The EU and US missed a Saturday deadline for signing a new deal on air passenger data transfers which leaves airlines providing transatlantic travel open to being sued by passengers.

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