US air carriers shamefully playing on anti-Arab bias

The coalition of American airlines fighting against the growth of Gulf carriers have resorted to Arab-baiting, argues James Zogby

A Delta Airlines jet comes in for landing over an American Airlines jet at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. LM Otero / AP Photo
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Delta Airlines is leading an effort to petition the US government to sanction Etihad Airways, Emirates and Qatar Airways. They charge that these three airlines have received government subsidies and are unfairly competing with US carriers resulting in a loss of jobs for American workers. Americans for Fair Skies, the coalition formed by Delta, has submitted a brief of its complaint to Congress, started an online campaign and is sponsoring TV and radio advertisements to make its case.

What is troubling is that because its case is weak, the coalition has shamefully stooped to subtle and not-so-subtle Arab-baiting in the effort to demonise the Arab carriers.

In one ad, for example, Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways are described as coming from the “oil rich Arabian peninsula” and receiving “billions of government oil money”. If you didn’t get the point, an accompanying graphic shows an Oriental-looking structure that turns out be an Arab bank pumping dollars into an airplane. So much for subtlety.

One of the leaders of the effort, Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson, threw all subtlety to the winds in a mid-February CNN interview. Noting that the Arab carriers had rebutted the allegations and countered with the charge that the US airlines themselves had been the recipients of a $15-billion Congressional financial package after 9/11, Mr Anderson said it was “a great irony” that such talk came from “the UAE from the Arabian Peninsula” because “our industry was really shocked by the terrorism of 9/11, which came from terrorists from the Arabian Peninsula”.

An Emirates spokesperson responded by noting that Mr Anderson’s statements “were deliberately crafted and delivered for special effect”. His assessment is spot on. The crass comments and the content of the US airline coalition’s ads are part of a tried and tested strategy used by politicians and businessmen alike.

For example, in their effort to win public support for renewable energy, liberals, environmental groups and companies that would benefit from the expanded use of wind and solar power, could make an environmental impact argument or a case for resource conservation. Instead, all too often, they fall back on Arab-baiting. At the 2008 Democratic party convention, for example, then Montana governor Brian Schweitzer repeatedly referenced “Arab oil” or “Middle East oil”. Each time he did so with a snarl and each time, he was greeted by thunderous applause. And in a famous 2009 TV ad promoting energy independence, the same point is made by ominous-sounding Arabic music against a desert backdrop featuring burning oil wells guarded by American soldiers. Arabic script was thrown in for good measure.

All of this is deliberate. Pollsters who have conducted focus-groups on this issue have established that if a politician speaks about “dependency on oil” he gets a less emotional response than if he were to add “Arab” or “Arabian” or even “Middle East”. And just as politicians pay attention to such polling data, so do airline CEOs.

The US airlines’ campaign itself is based on flimsy charges of subsidies and protectionism. In reality, the US aviation industry was founded on both. In 1998, Congressional Research Services completed a study of US government subsidies to American aviation from 1918 to 1998. It totalled $155 billion.

In addition to the post 9/11 bailout and loan guarantee bills, the US government continues to fund infrastructure and operational services and to provide subsidies to US airlines for “essential air services” (subsidies underwriting costs for airlines to keep smaller markets on their routes) and the “reserve air fleet” (subsidies for agreeing to make their planes available, if needed, to the government). There’s also an indirect subsidy in the form of the requirement that government employees must “fly American”. Airports and the air traffic control infrastructure are built and maintained by tax-exempt entities. And a federal law prohibits foreign carriers from flying passengers between US cities.

As for the charge that the growth of Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways has cost thousands of American jobs, in fact, the opposite is true. At the 2013 Dubai Air Show, the three Gulf-based airlines announced purchases of Boeing aircraft totalling $130bn. The US department of commerce estimates it will support almost 500,000 US jobs. Add to that the jobs created and supported by past purchases by just Etihad and Emirates and over 200,000 American workers have benefited from the growth of these two airlines.

An additional charge by the US coalition to make its case that Emirates is “stealing passengers from US carriers” is that Dubai is building a mega-airport too large for the UAE’s small population. But this charge ignores the fact that the airport is being constructed to support Dubai’s hosting of the 2020 World Expo.

The bottom line is that the US coalition’s case is weak at best, and disingenuous at worst. And Arab-baiting appears to be its last resort. It may be a way to prey on fear and deep-seated biases, but a shameful attempt to try to win an argument. Shame on them.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa