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IATA Chief Warns of Trans-Atlantic Groundings Amid US-Europe Data Privacy Dispute


A top world civil aviation official is warning that trans-Atlantic air travel could come to a halt a month from now if the United States and European Union are unable to meet a deadline over security-related passenger data.

The head of the International Air Transport Association, or IATA, says a "big potential crisis" is looming for passengers flying across the Atlantic.

IATA Director General Giovanni Bisignani told reporters here Thursday that unless the United States and Europe reach agreement in the next 30 days, airlines may decide not to fly between the U.S. and the European continent.

The European Court of Justice three months ago annulled a trans-Atlantic deal on sharing airline passenger data. The European Parliament had challenged the agreement due to concerns about protection of privacy.

The court set September 30 as the deadline for a new agreement. With no new agreement, the current exchange of passenger information will become illegal in Europe.

Bisignani says that would force airlines either to comply with American law and violate European privacy regulations, or to refuse to hand over passenger data to the United States. The current agreement calls for heavy fines or revocation of landing rights if airlines do not comply with passenger information requests from the U.S. government.

"Airlines should not have to decide which country's law to break. If we do not follow the U.S. we are fined. If we follow the U.S. we go in jail because Europe has a privacy law that is different," he said. "This is a wake-up call for progress quickly."

IATA estimates that a shutdown of trans-Atlantic commercial flights would affect more than 100,000 travelers per week. U.S. and European officials have expressed confidence that a new agreement is possible.

This crisis looms just as the air transport industry is beginning to cut its bureaucracy and so its costs.

IATA, which represents 265 airlines worldwide, says the industry will cut its losses almost in half this year because of economic growth and further cost-cutting.

Asian and European airlines are forecast to be in the black but the industry overall is being dragged down due to continued net losses totaling $4.5 billion for North American carriers.

Overall, the association says that passenger traffic rose 6.4 percent and freight traffic by 5.3 percent in the January-to-July period compared to the same seven months in 2005.