Ireland will seek a bilateral air transport agreement with the United States if a proposed EU-US deal fails, the Taoiseach said today.

Britain has raised concerns about the so-called 'open skies' draft agreement hammered out by negotiators from the European Commission and the United States last week.

'I am backing two horses in this race. I have spoken to Tony Blair on this and he is keen to get a deal. He has put forward a specific proposal,' Mr Bertie Ahern said.

The Taoiseach also confirmed he will address the issue, including possible bilateral agreements, during a meeting with US President George Bush on 17 March.

The draft 'open skies' deal outlined last week would allow airlines to fly more routes linking Europe and the US, and it a significant step towards a deal that would open up their airline industries to increased competition.

Talks have been going on for years but have always stalled on concerns it would prompt trans-Atlantic mergers and hurt security and jobs.

At the moment, Ireland does not have a bilateral agreement with the United States as some EU nations do, making it harder for its carriers to gain entrance to the US market.

Mr Ahern said today that Aer Lingus is seeking to enter three new cities in the States in the autumn, and clarity on this matter is crucial.