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EU, US renew air-traveler pact, ending legal limbo

The two sides revived a 2004 accord enabling European airlines to hand over information about US-bound passengers without violating European Union privacy rules. EU negotiators bowed to US demands to let more American authorities see the data such as passenger names, addresses and seat numbers. „We are hugely relieved that a new agreement has been reached,” Francoise Humbert, a spokeswoman for the Association of European Airlines, said by telephone last Friday in Brussels. „The situation was uncomfortable.” The agreement, prompted by the September 11, 2001, attacks, comes as the EU grows increasingly concerned about home-grown terror threats. In August, the UK said it uncovered an Islamic-terrorist plot to use liquid explosives to bomb flights from Britain to the US. The UK plot led the EU to stiffen rules for liquids and bags carried on board. The bloc is also considering setting up a system to track passenger data on inner-EU flights.

Under the trans-Atlantic pact, European airlines will continue to transfer to US authorities as many as 34 pieces of information about passengers. The data include ticket-payment methods, contact telephone numbers, reservation dates and frequent-flyer mileage. The new agreement „will guarantee legal continuity on a very sensitive matter,” Franco Frattini, justice commissioner of the 25-nation EU, told reporters in Luxembourg after an overnight negotiating session with US officials. Europe and the US were forced to renegotiate the accord after the EU high court struck it down in May, because it was based on European economic rather than anti-terror law. The court set a September 30 deadline for a new legal basis. Both sides missed the deadline after the US Department of Homeland Security demanded more rights for its customs service to share the information. The new agreement lets the passenger data be passed to other Homeland Security Department sections, the Justice Department and its Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other agencies. US officials also will be able to receive the information sooner, „thus increasing our ability to identify potential terrorists,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement in Washington.

The European Parliament, which had complained that the original agreement undermined EU privacy protection, voiced fresh criticism last Friday. „The EU has once again caved in to US pressure at the expense of EU citizens' civil liberties,” Cem Oezdemir, a German member of 732-seat assembly's Green party, said in a statement in Brussels. The new agreement „allows the continued plundering of EU passengers' personal information.” It was a lawsuit by the EU Parliament that led to the European Court of Justice ruling in May, which the legislature greeted with mixed reactions at the time because the court upheld the substance of the agreement. The week-long deadlock over a new accord raised the threat that airlines including Air France-KLM Group and Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Europe's biggest carriers, would have to choose between violating EU or US law.

Without an agreement, airlines that transferred the information to the US faced the threat of lawsuits in Europe for breaching EU data-privacy rules and carriers that withheld the information risked losing US landing rights. Last Friday's accord avoids this dilemma by certifying that data transfers don't break EU privacy rules. Frattini stressed the need for all US recipients of the information to respect agreed norms for handling it. „We accept disclosure of data to other agencies provided they have comparable standards of data protection,” Frattini said. The Homeland Security Department said it would ask other US authorities who fight „terrorism and related crimes” for written assurances about respecting data-protection standards when sharing the information. Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy at the department, made the pledge in a letter to the EU that the commission released. The new pact will last through July 2007 and both sides plan to hold talks in the meantime on a longer-term accord. „Now it is time for governments to move on to further harmonization and joint recognition of standards in other areas of security,” Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said in a statement from Geneva. (Bloomberg)