Etihad and Emirates launch political salvo in Washington over allegations of unfair competition

The US air lobby has asked the American government to reverse 'open skies' principles that have governed global aviation for decades.

Etihad Airways’ Boeing 787 Dreamliner touches down at Dulles International Airport marking the Abu Dhabi carrier’s inaugural service to Washington DC. Paul Morigi / Getty Images for Etihad
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The UAE’s major airlines are going on the counter-attack in Washington against allegations of unfair business practices levelled at them by three American airlines.

James Hogan, the Etihad Airways chief executive, and Tim Clark, the president of Emirates Airline, are both in the US capital to argue their case that claims made against them by Delta, United and American airlines, and aviation trade unions, are without foundation.

They will also meet government transport officials to urge the US administration to resist calls by the US carriers to pull back from agreements on the liberalisation of air travel.

The US air lobby has asked the US government to reverse “open skies” principles that have governed global aviation for decades.

Mr Hogan is a keynote speaker at the 14th annual Aviation Summit in Washington DC, one of the global industry’s most influential gatherings. The theme of the summit is “the future of space and aviation in the global economy”.

It will be the first time the Etihad chief has formally responded to the charges levelled against his airline in a 55-page document detailing allegations of unfair government subsidy and other financial incentives the US airlines claim are in breach of open skies.

However, it is believed Mr Hogan will use the opportunity of his speech – in the presence of some of the leading lights of the global aviation industry – to emphasise the competitive choice offered to passengers by Etihad.

“He will underline the benefits travellers can enjoy on our planes, wherever they are travelling, in terms of service, schedule and value for money,” said an Etihad source.

However, it is also believed Mr Hogan will use the time in Washington to meet officials from the US department of transport and other senior policymakers.

Mr Clark is also on a mission to convince American officials and policymakers that the US airlines’ case is without merit, particularly on the issue of government subsidies.

The American carriers have alleged that Etihad, Emirates and Qatar have enjoyed unfair financial benefits to the value of US$42 billion over the past decade in contravention of the rules of open skies. "If we establish that there has been commercial damage as a result of what has been said about us, all options are on the table," Mr Clark told the Financial Times.

The Emirates chief has taken an even more determined stance, threatening legal action if it can be proved that the US airlines’ and unions’ allegations have caused the airline to lose business.

The US complaints have recently been echoed by European carriers, with Lufthansa and Air France particularly vocal in calling for a halt to new routes for Gulf airlines until the subsidies issue is resolved.

Mr Clark said that changing the open skies treaties would be a “huge error of judgment” that risked imposing a new protectionism on the world aviation business. It is not known whether Qatar Airways is planning a similar mission. It was also accused of unfair business practice, but a spokesman said he did not know if the airline was planning to travel to Washington.

Meanwhile, Etihad underlined its commitment to the American routes and to the American aircraft industry when it launched a service by its Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft into Washington airport.

A welcoming ceremony was held at Dulles International Airport to greet the new service. Etihad has ordered 71 of the aircraft, making it one of the biggest Boeing customers in the world.

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