LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - The United States and Europe clinched a deal on Friday giving U.S. law enforcement agencies easier access to personal data on transatlantic air passengers to fight terrorism, ending a legal limbo for airlines.
The European Union's top court struck down a past agreement after a European Parliament challenge prompted by privacy concerns. That expired last Saturday, creating a legal vacuum airlines feared could expose them to breach of privacy suits.
EU lawmakers raised concerns the Bush administration was riding roughshod over data protection concerns in its quest since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to further a "war on terrorism" whose tactics many Europeans question.
But EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini said the deal, clinched in nine hours of overnight negotiations, would make it easier for U.S. law enforcement agencies to obtain the information without giving them automatic electronic access.
"We are not talking about more data or more exchanges, we are talking about making it easier to transmit data," he told a news briefing at an EU justice ministers' meeting in Luxembourg.
EU chief negotiator Jonathan Faull said the amount of data supplied would not increase and that the EU had received U.S. undertakings about how it would be used, by whom and how long it would be kept.
"We can be sure that all the American agencies provide an acceptable, satisfactory system of data protection," he said. "Not exactly the same as ours ... but of equivalent value."
Airlines quickly welcomed the deal. "This is an important agreement that will ensure normal operations for the 105,000 passengers who fly between these two jurisdictions each day," Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said in a statement.
European airlines must pass on up to 34 items of data, including passenger addresses, telephone numbers and credit card details, to be allowed to land at U.S. airports. The measures were introduced after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
The new pact, which EU governments should formally approve next week, will apply only until July 2007. The two sides will negotiate a long-term agreement in the meantime and Brussels is bound to face U.S. demands for more data and fewer restrictions.
Frattini said that instead of accessing data directly from airlines, U.S. authorities would have to request it, a system that would be piloted before the end of the year.
"It's not direct access and not a power to pull in data," he said, adding that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would "facilitate" disclosure to other agencies combating terrorism.
Faull said the data would principally be used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. He did not exclude its use by the Central Intelligence Agency, but added: "The CIA is not a significant authority in this respect any more."
Faull said the EU's executive Commission was working on a proposal for Europe's own passenger record system for flights landing in Europe.
French ambassador to the EU Pierre Sellal told reporters the new deal struck the right balance: "(It) permits the United States to protect against terrorist attack but at the same time safeguards the essential liberties of passengers."
In mounting its challenge to the old agreement the European Parliament paradoxically opened the way for easier FBI access to travellers' personal records.
"We created this mess," said Faull. "We had a perfectly good agreement which the parliament challenged and the court annulled on technical grounds, so everything was reopened."
Graham Watson, leader of the Parliament's Liberal and Democrat group called the deal the "least worst option" but said it remained very concerned.
"It seems clear ... that the current American administration is determined to extract ever more personal data and share it with the wider intelligence community. It is important that we agree where we stand here. We cannot continue as we are."
(Additional reporting by Mark John and Darren Ennis in Brussels, Stephanie Nebahay in Geneva)