Delta reignites open skies dispute on Emirates code share

The complaint is the latest exchange of fire in a two-year battle between Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways and some parts of the American airline industry.

JetBlue, the low-cost US carrier, does not fly to Europe so those routes are operated instead by Emirates. Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The ongoing dispute between Emirates airline and its American rivals has flared up again with a complaint from Delta Air Lines about the Dubai carrier’s code share deal with a low-cost US carrier, JetBlue.

Delta has written to the US General Services Administration (GSA), the body that oversees lucrative contracts for air travel for US military and civilian employees, asking the GSA to scrap a contract with JetBlue on the route to Milan-Malpensa airport. Because JetBlue does not fly to Europe, the Milan route is operated instead by Emirates.

Peter Carter, Delta’s chief legal officer, said: “Emirates will benefit from a revenue stream of US taxpayers’ dollars. That benefit will impair the ability of US carriers to compete in that market.”

The complaint is the latest exchange of fire in a two-year battle between Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways and some parts of the American airline industry, including Delta, over allegations of unfair state funding and anti-competitive practices. The Gulf airline has rejected the claims which are being considered by the American aviation authorities.

Mr Carter said: “Emirates is not just a foreign air carrier, it is a state-owned Gulf carrier that exploits an improper advantage over US flag carriers by receiving massive subsidies from its home government.”

Emirates declined to comment on the specific complaint by Delta, but did say: “Our code-share partnership with JetBlue has grown from strength to strength, and continues to benefit both airlines and our customers.”

A spokesperson for JetBlue said: “American, Delta and United [the three US airlines who have complained about ‘open skies’] have enjoyed the fully legal advantages of the international code-sharing model and government sanctioned antitrust immunity for years – including in their own GSA awards this year.

“Now that they have grown larger than ever, they wish to change the rules to shut out smaller competitors, like JetBlue, from having the same opportunities. It’s a classic tactic from a segment of our industry that routinely shows they would rather complain than compete,” he said.

Industry experts were puzzled by the Delta complaint. Karen Walker, writing on the Air Transport World website, pointed out that Delta itself uses a number of foreign airline partners to fly routes it does not operate itself.

“Turning on JetBlue for a properly awarded GSA route using a foreign airline partner seems like a case of Delta cutting off its nose to spite its face; a situation American and United seem to want to avoid … If it wasn’t so hung up on Emirates, Delta wouldn’t have played the ‘Fly America’ card,” she said.

Delta has already ceased flying to Dubai in protest at what it claims are unfair commercial practices by Emirates.

The dispute over “open skies” is rumbling on despite signs from the US authorities that they wanted an end to the increasingly bitter row. Talks have taken place between US and Gulf officials but no action has been taken over the allegations. Further talks are likely later this year.

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