France and Britain on Sunday narrowly avoided a showdown over landing rights at Paris’s Orly airport, resolving a dispute that threatened to escalate into a commercial air war.
An accord reached by the two nations will give British carriers access to Orly, as demanded, but will allow the French some time to adjust to the change, which could hurt France’s already-hobbled state-owned carriers. It will also assure better French access to Heathrow and other London airports.
The agreement halted a show of force planned for today by British airlines. The carriers had said they would fly to Orly despite France’s refusal of access.
Ten flights were reportedly scheduled to participate. They will now be sent to Charles de Gaulle airport.
“There will be no British planes arriving tonight or tomorrow” at Orly, French Transport Minister Bernard Bosson said in a Sunday radio interview.
A joint statement issued by Bosson and his British counterpart, John MacGregor, said the two agreed to open air traffic to Orly and to London airports as soon as possible and “at the latest by the end of June.”
British airlines said the accord amounted to victory.
“Our objective all along was to secure our right to fly to Orly and we have done that,” British Airways chairman Sir Colin Marshall said.
TAT European Airlines, British Airways’ French subsidiary, said it was pleased to “note that the French government is committed to respecting the decision” by the European Union Commission, which ordered France to open Orly to British carriers.
British Airways and TAT said they are confident that daily flights to Orly will start well before the June deadline.
British Airways plans four flights a day from Heathrow to Orly. TAT is also planning four daily flights. Air U.K. plans six.
The trouble began April 27, when the European Union ordered France to open Orly to British airlines. Complaints by state-run Air France and Air Inter, which carries passengers within France, pushed the French government toward a political crisis with Britain.
British airlines, which land at Charles de Gaulle airport, had hoped to capture some of the lucrative market of passengers flying from elsewhere in France through Orly.
Those flights have traditionally been reserved for Air Inter, a subsidiary of Air France.
France announced Wednesday that it would not comply with the ruling and that flights by British Airways, TAT and Air U.K. between London and Orly would be considered illegal. Paris argued that the European Court of Justice had to rule on France’s appeal of the European Union ruling before Orly was opened.
The dispute was the latest clash within the European Union over efforts to lower trade barriers within the 12-nation trading bloc and spur competition.
France has on several occasions been caught between its policy to promote European unity and its wish to protect certain sectors of its economy.
Competition has already hobbled Air France. The carrier lost about $1.4 billion last year.
Bosson called the air agreement balanced, saying it will allow the opening of Orly to British carriers “without haste,” permitting the two countries to resolve issues of safety, environment and congestion.
The British, in return, “have agreed to work with us on a balanced opening of London airports, particularly Heathrow,” Bosson said.
The discord came amid newly achieved harmony between France and Britain after the recent opening of the Channel Tunnel.