Simmering tensions between US, Gulf airlines over restrictions
Tunis - Tensions continue to simmer between US and Gulf based airlines following implementation of restrictions on hand luggage on flights to the United States and accusations by US carriers of unfair competition from their Gulf rivals.
US officials have banned passengers on US-bound flights from certain Middle Eastern countries and Turkey from carrying electronic equipment larger than a cell phone in the passenger cabin.
US carriers Delta, United and American Airlines have called on US President Donald Trump to act against Qatar Airways, Dubai’s Emirates and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad, which they claim are using government subsidies to unfairly expand their networks.
Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al- Baker dismissed the allegations as “bullying.”
Emirates CEO Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, asked about the hand luggage restrictions, told the Associated Press that he “can’t dig into somebody’s mind.”
Emirates, the Middle East’s largest carrier, said it was reducing flights to the United States in response to “weakened travel demand” and was considering so-called premium economy seats among other measures. Sheikh Ahmed hinted that Emirates might develop a closer partnership with budget carrier FlyDubai, another government-backed airline.
Baker, whose airline is offering free use of airline-provided laptop computers to premium passengers in response to the electronics ban, said the commercial effect of the restrictions had been minimal.
“There was some decline. Something manageable. We did not have massive declines,” he said at the Arabia travel market in Dubai. “We still have robust business in the United States… and we will continue our expansion.”
Baker announced San Francisco would be opened early next year as a new destination, in addition to the ten US destinations currently served by Qatar Airways. A route to Las Vegas will be launched in the second quarter of 2018, he said.
Despite the recent lull in demand, many Gulf carriers have turned their home airports into major international aviation hubs, capturing a large volume of the travel between the West and Asia and Australasia.
Responding to charges of unfair competition from their US rivals, both CEOs affirmed their confidence in Washington, with Baker saying: “President Trump is a wise individual and a very good businessman and I don’t think he will buy into bullying by the three American carriers.”
The feud between Gulf and US carriers broke out in January when Emirates announced the opening of non-stop flights from Athens to Newark, New Jersey, a move Delta, United and American Airlines said contravened the United States’ Open Skies policy, which restricts flights to the United States to each carrier’s home country.
“By flagrantly violating its Open Skies agreement with the United States at the start of the Trump administration, Emirates is throwing down the gauntlet,” Jill Zuckman, chief spokeswoman for the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies, a trade group representing United, Delta and American, said in a statement at the time.
Critics of the call for US government intervention into the dispute have pointed out that US passenger airlines do not rely on the Open Skies agreements with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as none of the carriers mentioned, unlike a variety of US cargo carriers, fly to those countries.
Seizing on recent problems experienced by United, which suffered a public relations nightmare after a bloodied passenger was hauled off one of its flights, Sheikh Ahmed said: “Those people who dealt with it, they should be more professional. That is something that should not be acceptable.”
The incident has proved a disaster for United, wiping — at least in the short term — $1 billion off its share price and inviting widespread condemnation and mockery of its customer service practices.
US restrictions on hand luggage went into effect March 25, affecting nine airlines from Turkey, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
Britain followed with a similar ban from five countries from the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey.