Etihad Airways teams up with US capital’s sporting greats to win hearts and minds in open skies row

Etihad will become the exclusive airline partner of the Washington Capitals ice hockey team, the Washington Wizards basketball team and the Washington Mystics women’s basketball team.

Washington Wizards forward Paul Pierce, centre, celebrates after scoring the winning shot during game three of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks. Michael Reynolds / EPA
Powered by automated translation

Etihad Airways is raising its profile at the heart of United States policymaking amid simmering competitive tensions between the Arabian Gulf and North American carriers over the future of open skies.

The Abu Dhabi-based airline has struck a partnership deal with three of the biggest sporting names in Washington DC.

Etihad will become the exclusive airline partner of the Washington Capitals ice hockey team, the Washington Wizards basketball team and the Washington Mystics women's basketball team.

The deal with Monumental Sports & Entertainment (MSE) also covers the city’s Verizon Center venue, which hosts more than 200 sporting events and concerts each year. But the agreement also reflects a major lobbying offensive by the Gulf carriers after they came under fire from Delta, United and American Airlines.

“This is all about raising awareness and it is becoming part of the battle to win hearts and minds,” said John Strickland, director of the UK-based JLS Consulting.

Last year Etihad appointed the former head of legislative affairs at Iata, the influential aviation industry trade body, as its lobbyist in Washington. The appointment of Matthew Jennings was regarded as a move to promote the airline’s contribution to the US economy and job creation.

It coincided with new Etihad services to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas-Fort Worth launched in rapid succession towards the end of last year.

Dubai-based Emirates and Qatar Airways have also been rolling out new routes to the US in recent months which has stoked tensions between them and their main US rivals fearful of losing market share.

That came to a head this year when the three big US carriers accused their Gulf rivals of receiving $42 billion in subsidies – a claim they have denied.

As the row rumbles on, both Emirates and Etihad are looking to raise their public profiles in the US as creators of jobs and drivers of economic growth, while their American rivals argue their unfettered expansion is having the opposite effect.

Sponsorship deals that have been used to great effect by the three largest regional carriers in bringing their brands to the biggest football teams of Europe are now being deployed in the US, and at a critical time.

“The sponsorship deals offer more than brand exposure – they are about Etihad showing that it’s a brand that is as much a USA carrier, part of the American fabric, as its classic US competitors including Delta, United and American Airlines. There is no clearer way to communicate this than to back some of the largest sports teams in Washington,” said Danny Wilding, a director at London-based Political Lobbying and Media Relations.

“Positioning itself as more American is incredibly important. By making these deals, Etihad not only secures the support of influential business leaders but also the fans of these large sporting brands who will see their teams benefit from investment. All of which is helpful in strengthening their position in a climate hostile to the Gulf state carriers.”

The dispute has drawn in several major industry players, forcing some of them to effectively pick sides.

“Companies like Boeing are walking a tightrope on this because the Gulf airlines are big customers but so are the Americans,” said Mr Strickland.

At a major international travel industry conference in Dubai last week, a senior official from Dallas-Forth Worth Airport even placed a dollar value on the effect that both Etihad and Emirates had on the local economy.

"We value the Emirates flights at about $300 million in annual economic benefit," said John Ackerman, the executive vice-president for global strategy and development at the airport. "Etihad is about $90m because it is coming three times per week with a Boeing 777."

The Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker travels to the US capital this week to meet government officials. “I am not going to mince my words,” he said in Dubai last week.

The visit of the airline executive known for his scathing and sometimes comical comments is expected to generate more publicity around the open skies feud.

Etihad’s partnership with three of Washington’s biggest sporting names is the latest in a long list of such alliances.

Etihad is already official airline partner of Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Nation’s Triathlon, which takes place each year in Washington. Other sponsorships include Manchester City football club and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Follow The National's Business section on Twitter