US airlines vs Gulf carriers: Redefining Open Skies

THE new American mantra for aviation is fair skies, not open skies. With the rise of the Gulf carriers and their increased presence in the US, home carriers are banding to press the Department of Transportation (DOT) to review the long-standing Open Skies policy and the agreements executed thus far. Their grouse: Unfair competition because of large government subsidies received by Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways that place US carriers at a disadvantage.

This is not a new argument presented by opposing airlines; even in the days of restrictive bilateral negotiations, it was a hurdle many airlines from the less developed countries in Asia faced as they expanded into the more lucrative markets of the western hemisphere. Their successes from delivering a product reputed for excellent customer service and operated on high productivity had been clouded by accusations of payouts by their home governments that enabled them to compete on cost.

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Emirates president and CEO Tim Clark warned: “If you go down this minefield, you must ask yourself to what extent all the foreign carriers serving the US are subsidised. Take China, take Thailand, take Malaysia, take Japan, take New Zealand. I could go on forever.”

Mr Clark may have unwittingly in his defence roped in other carriers into the contentious ring. But the US is unlikely to be interested in the reference, at least not for now. Broad brush strokes do not work; just because one person is not censured does not guarantee immunity for another person in a similar situation. Having said that, this does not necessarily mean the US has a case. The issue is much more complex than that. For one thing, the success of the Gulf carriers makes them more noticeable.

Note, however, Mr Clark is not saying Emirates is similarly subsidised by the UAE government. On the contrary, he insisted the airline did not receive any, rejecting the report produced by the American carriers that the three named Gulf carriers received US$42 billion in subsidies. Mr Clark said: “The requirement from the government of Dubai has been and remains the same. There will be no support for your operations, you will be required to make money.”

All the arguments for and against in the debate – depending on which side of the wall you stand – seem to centre on the issue of government subsidies, complicated by political affiliation and extending beyond support for the airlines to other related businesses including the funding of home airport development that is viewed as directly benefitting them. Where do you draw the line when ownership of several projects is traced to a common designator? In many countries, airport development is undertaken by the government as a national project and the facilities are viewed as common to all users.

Refuting the American accusation, Gulf carriers are pointing out how American carriers have also received government support. All the major airlines have sought refuge in the bankruptcy laws at some point. There were government bailouts after the 911 attacks. In some ways the US aviation policy is protectionist: The domestic market is not widely open to foreign carriers, and the government’s approval of consolidation to create mega entities only serve to limit competition. Etihad chief executive James Hogan countered that American carriers have been granted antitrust immunity (ATI) to protect lucrative transatlantic routes operated jointly with European carriers: American Airlines with British Airways, Delta Airlines with Air France, and United Airlines with Lufthansa. Mr Hogan said: “I think this is a protectionist move to protect the ATI routes across the Atlantic; that’s the irony.
Etihad courtesy etihad

The debate must bring us back to the genesis of Open Skies. For more than twenty years, the US has been championing open and greater competition that has resulted in lower airfares and more choices for travellers of airlines and destinations. US airlines themselves have supported the push, benefitting from new markets outside the US. Since 1992, the US has signed more than 100 open skies agreements. But the playing field is changing as global competition intensifies with the growth of more successful foreign carriers reaching into the heart of the US. It is fair to expect a customary review when circumstances change, but any compromise on the principle of competition may be a step back.

Mr Clark warned that the agenda of the American carriers is threatening “the bedrock of the modern day aviation system. By challenging open skies, you are not just challenging the aero-political situation, you are challenging the very essence of economic liberalization the US has championed for decades.” He expressed hope that the US administration “will not stand for this nonsense.” The American carriers on the other hand insisted that they “welcome robust competition provided the playing field is level. A reopening of those open-skies agreements is the first step and the right step to ensure competition is preserved and enhanced.”

The crux of the matter appears to be what constitutes a level playing field. Will a revised Open Skies policy be qualified by an attempt to box it in? The thrust of the policy has been competition, but makes true competition? Is the US being anti-competition in opposing the entry of Norwegian Air Shuttle, even with nary a hint of government subsidy? As Mr Clark warned, “Once you talk about fair skies, you enter into a quagmire of definition, and you have to be very careful how you go.” Indeed, is there such a thing as truly fair skies? Even as more countries have declared their support of liberalisation, many of them are still protective of their turf, rightly or wrongly. A case in point: Singapore Airlines (SIA) has tried and failed to gain access across the Pacific from London Heathrow to the US east coast, and across the Pacific from Sydney to the US west coast. Yet other airlines that came lately were granted those rights, which is anomalous to the often cited fear of overcapacity that would hurt the industry.

In 2011, Emirates tussled with Canada which rejected its application to operate more flights to Toronto. The Canadian government was concerned that UAE carriers (including Etihad which was also applying for access to Canada) would enjoy an unfair advantage over Air Canada in tapping into its international traffic, the outcome of which would be the loss of Canadian jobs; the unfair advantage was similarly pinned down to subsidies Emirates received from the UAE government. In apparent retaliation, the UAE evicted Canada from its military base near Dubai and imposed a hefty visa fee for visiting Canadians. It is so easy for what is a commercial matter to be politicised, adding to its complexity.

The industry is divided. An organization known as Americans for Fair Skies is campaigning in support of the US government. It says: “This is an important first step towards restoring fairness to our skies and stopping the largest trade violation in history.” Outside the US, not surprisingly, Lufthansa had openly stated its support of the US carriers. When Carsten Spohr assumed appointment to helm the German carrier, he expressed concerns about encroachment by Gulf carriers in Europe and set himself the task of tackling that issue. Interestingly even Etihad, an affected party to the dispute, actually “applauds” the US government “for setting up a transparent process to deal fairly and responsibly with the claims. Etihad Airways is committed to setting the record straight regarding these unsubstantiated allegations.” While Emirates argues in defence, Etihad is issuing DOT a challenge.

Conversely, not everyone in the US is supporting the US carriers’ pressure on its administration to review its Open Skies policy, if not specifically the agreements executed with the Gulf carriers. US airlines may feel the pinch of competition by foreign carriers, but US airports are welcoming of the increased traffic that those carriers bring. Then there are consumer groups who are benefitting from lower airfares, better service and wider consumer choice. Business Travel Coalition chairman Kevin Mitchell wrote in a letter to the government: “Now that US airlines have secured antitrust immunity, industry consolidation and concomitantly rising airfares and ancillary fees, and are achieving record unprecedented profits, some carriers shamelessly seek to close off US markets to competition from foreign carriers.” JetBlue chief executive Robin Hayes for one is not joining the protesters.

Mr Clark would remind the US government how Gulf carriers have contributed to not only the growth of traffic but also providing access to markets not previously served by any US carrier. An example was the connection between Seattle and Hyderabab in India via Dubai. He said: “Look at where these people are going and ask yourself where was Delta, where was Untied, where was American when the world was becoming more globalized?”

While DOT said it would address the concerns raised by the US carriers, its spokesman Brian Farber qualified that the administration “remains committed to the open skies policy which has greatly benefitted the travelling public, the US aviation industry, American cities and the broader US economy through increased travel and trade, and job growth.” There will be wide ramifications, no doubt. Open Skies is not just about a specific airline’s bottom line. In defending the case for Gulf carriers, Mr Hogan had said: “We make no apologies for offering new competitive choice for travellers. Open skies should be about customer choice.” But is it really, one wonders, in practice?

It is unlikely that the US government will turn the Open Skies policy topsy turvy and go for a clean slate, renegotiating the agreements with the Gulf carriers. One can anticipate new restrictions in the road ahead, and tweaks where ambiguity permits. Its impact will be global. Some European parties are already watching closely moves by Gulf carriers to gain a bigger slice of the European pie, not just the competition in offering seats but also in the bold acquisition of stakes in European carriers. In Australia, Etihad is a co-owner of Virgin Australia. Emirates operates a mega alliance with Qantas. It would be interesting if the Australian government grants Emirates, but not SIA, rights to fly transpacific from its ports.

Unbeknownst to many, there may be a price to pay for success. The Gulf carriers may have become victims of their own successes, in the same way that it is once said of SIA in its heyday.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.