More Options for Trans-Atlantic Flights

NEW YORK -- Starting this weekend, travelers on both sides of the Atlantic will find they have more options when booking nonstop flights between the United States and Europe.

They could fly between New York, and Lyon, France, or find a new flight from Salt Lake City to Paris.

What they won't find much of when the open skies agreement between the United States and European Union kicks in on Sunday are lower fares, despite a handful of introductory sales.

That's because airlines already struggling with sky-high fuel prices and an economic slowdown see open skies' relaxed route restrictions primarily as a way to attract more of the high-end that business and affluent leisure travelers they covet and see as necessary to their financial survival. British Airways, for instance, is starting a new trans-Atlantic airline to take advantage of the agreement -- aptly named OpenSkies -- but will offer only 30 economy-class seats on each 82-seat plane, with the rest evenly split between first and business class.

"There is a move afoot ... to use smaller [airplanes] flown nonstop to push leisure customers by the wayside ... except for those willing to pay far higher prices," said Robert Mann, an independent airline consultant in Port Washington, New York.

As oil has pushed past $100 per barrel, propelling jet fuel prices to record levels, many carriers have cut domestic capacity and moved planes to international routes, where ticket prices -- and profits -- are higher. The open skies agreement appears likely to hasten the shift.

The open skies agreement was signed last May to end rules under which U.S. and European governments had to negotiate airlines' access to new markets, often on a city-by-city basis. The restrictions were perhaps most in focus at London's Heathrow Airport, where only four airlines could offer service to the U.S.: British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, United Airlines and American Airlines.

Heathrow will also benefit from a new British Airways terminal that opened Thursday and will create more room for new flights at existing terminals by other carriers -- Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines and US Airways -- which are eager to offer service to one of the world's busiest international hubs.

The old rules also prevented European carriers from offering nonstop service to the United States from another European country. For instance, Air France was prohibited from flying direct from London -- any U.S.-bound Air France flight had to stop in France first.

New routes that will be launched under open skies include:

• British Airways' OpenSkies flights from Brussels and Paris to New York

• Delta Air Lines service to Heathrow from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and Atlanta; to Lyon, France, from JFK and to Paris from Salt Lake City and JFK

• Continental Airlines service to Heathrow from Newark Liberty International Airport and from Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport

• Northwest Airlines flights to Heathrow from Detroit, Minneapolis and Seattle

• Air France-KLM service from Heathrow to Los Angeles and Amsterdam to Dallas