Published On: Wed, Jul 12th, 2017

Who is writing politicians' letters complaining about the Gulf carriers?

CONGRESS is sick and tired of unfair competition to America’s airlines from the three big Gulf carriers, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. So on June 28th, 17 representatives from the state of Illinois wrote a letter to the secretaries of State, Transportation and Commerce complaining about the subsidies these airlines receive from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Illinois is home to one of the America’s biggest hubs, O’Hare International in Chicago. Nearly 25,000 people in the state are employed by American Airlines, United and Delta.

The letter followed similarones from congressional delegations in several other states. In it, the members wrote that “every time a US airline loses or foregoes [sic] a long-haul route as a result of subsidised Gulf carrier competition, American jobs are lost.”

Or at least they appeared to write those words. Their signatures certainly appeared at the bottom. But the phrasing did not originate from the halls of Congress. Instead, they came from a lobbyist for United Airlines.

This revelation, reported by Politico, is not exactly earth-shattering. Lobbyists are well known to have a strong hand in crafting all sorts of language employed by lawmakers. But according to Politico, the letter is “almost identical” to a draft written by the United lobbyist—and it sheds further light on the extent to which the political battle against the Gulf airlines is driven by the business concerns of America’s big carriers.

The merit of the airlines’ complaints, which centre on the allegation that the UAE and Qatar are violating their Open Skies agreement with America that prevents government subsidies inhibiting competition, is a point of much contention. The Gulf carriers, of course, deny it, saying they benefit from favourable geography, limited financial and policy support from the governments, and low wages in the region—and that anyway, Chapter 11 protection in the America amounts to the same kind of government backing. In 2015, a fellow Gulliver reviewed the facts and found the Gulf carriers’ argument wanting, concluding that “the Gulf carriers enjoy clear financial advantages over their American and European rivals, affording them a safety net which permits them to operate unprofitable services in order to gain market share.” The travel and aviation blogger Gary Leff has consistently made the opposite case, arguing that America’s airlines are so deeply subsidised by, and intertwined with, the government that their complaint is hypocritical, and that “the push for government action against Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar is pure self-interest at the expense of US consumers.”

Even in the absence of the Open Skies enforcement the airlines are seeking, America has done much in recent months to squash the competition from the Gulf airlines. President Trump’s administration has banned nationals of several countries in or near the Middle East from entering the United States (a stuttering process, as courts have alternately halted and allowed the bans), prohibited laptops and tablets in the cabins of planes coming from Middle Eastern airports, and supported an embargo on Qatar that has complicated flight routes for airlines in that country. All of this has put substantial pressure on the region’s airlines. Emirates cut service to America by 20% after the electronics ban, and repercussions from the Qatar embargo will likely prove worse.

The Gulf carriers are fighting back, both with legalistic responses to the airlines’ allegations and less formal rhetoric. Last week, the Qatar Airways boss took aim at his American competitors, calling them “crap” and comparing their flight attendants to “grandmothers”. (His own cabin crew, he boasted, has an average age of 26.) If America does not take retaliatory action against the Gulf carriers for violating the Open Skies agreement, perhaps it could do so for violating basic human decency. But members of Congress would be well advised to write their condemnation in their own words.

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Who is writing politicians' letters complaining about the Gulf carriers?