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Major U.S. Airlines Push Back Against Expansion Of Gulf Carriers


There's a fight going on between the U.S. and the Persian Gulf. It's not about terrorism or regional security. This fight involves commercial airlines. The three big U.S. carriers - American, United and Delta - are pushing back against the swift and successful expansion of three Gulf carriers. NPR's Jackie Northam has more.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: At any one of 15 cities across the U.S., aircraft from the big Gulf carriers - Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airlines - take off and land daily. Over the years, all three Gulf airlines have seen rapid expansion, buying new planes and competing on lucrative international routes. Now American, Delta and United Airlines are fighting to maintain their share of those markets and are pressuring the U.S. government for help, says Erik Hansen, a senior director at the U.S. Travel Association.

ERIK HANSEN: What they've asked for is a freeze in new routes and capacity from the Gulf carriers in the United States. They want to block all expansion from these three Gulf airlines. They want a protectionist policy. They want a freeze. They want to block out competition.

NORTHAM: Hansen says the move is a direct violation of international agreements that were meant to eliminate government interference in the airline industry. But the U.S. carriers say the Gulf airlines are already violating those agreements by taking billions of dollars in government subsidies. Jeff Smisek is the head of United Airlines.

JEFF SMISEK: Qatar, Etihad and Emirates are not just airlines. They're arms of the state. They are part of state policy to drive tourism and trade through the Middle East, and these three carriers are not stimulating demand.

NORTHAM: The Gulf airlines deny they receive government subsidies. But the U.S. carriers are particularly worried about competition in the fast-growing markets, like the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Asia, for them and their alliance partners. Hansen of the U.S. Travel Association says Etihad, Qatar and Emirates Airlines have benefited greatly from the geographical location of their hubs in Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai and their huge investments in modern fleets and new airports with world-class shopping.

HANSEN: And just by virtue of where they are in the world, they're providing faster connection times, shorter routes to certain parts of the globe. And when you add all that together, you often see customers voting with their wallets and deciding that they're going to fly on a Gulf airline.

NORTHAM: Timothy Clark, the head of Emirates Airlines, says instead of going after the Gulf carriers, the U.S. carriers should provide their customers with more legroom, better food and a higher standard of service.

TIMOTHY CLARK: Investing in product, investing in comfortable seats - it's not difficult, gentlemen, making the consumer enjoy their products.

NORTHAM: The campaign by the U.S. carriers is made more difficult by the news that they're making record profits and by a Justice Department investigation into allegations they colluded to limit seating and raise fares in domestic markets. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.