US is waking up to open skies

America’s justice department has sided with the Gulf airlines. That’s a good first step

An Etihad Airways plane prepares to land at Abu Dhabi airport. Three of the main Gulf airlines are engaged in a dispute with US airlines over competition. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
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“Our competitors can’t match it,” said Richard Anderson, CEO of the US airline Delta, talking about the airline’s performance so far this year. Delta has just posted a record profit of US$1.4 billion (Dh5.14bn) for the third quarter of this year.

American consumers might point out that the reason Delta’s competitors can’t match them is because the airline has very few genuine competitors. This has been the prime reason for the long-running dispute between three of the United States’ largest airlines – Delta, United Airlines and American Airlines – and the three largest Gulf carriers, Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. The US companies simply fear the competition and want to limit the ability of Americans to choose which airline they use.

Even America’s government agrees – or at least, for now, a part of it. The justice department this week sided with the Gulf carriers, pointing out that the demands by the US airlines that the government legally stifle the free market would lead to higher fares and fewer choices for consumers. For now, the department’s views are not being officially taken into consideration. The Obama administration has tasked three other departments with making policy recommendations on this issue.

But the involvement of the department, which also investigates anti-competitive behaviour in other industries, will be a powerful signal that the demands by the US airlines are fundamentally indefensible. The reason why so many people want to fly Etihad, Emirates and Qatar is because, simply put, the experience is better. Forcing consumers to stick with old airlines and an outdated experience goes against the spirit of open skies – and, as others have pointed out, against the spirit of American capitalism.

In a new commercial for Emirates, Jennifer Aniston, dreaming that she is on a regular American airline, suddenly wakes up on an A380, a plane with superior facilities and service. Consumers who have the chance to do so have already made their choice, and it is good that parts of the US government are waking up as well.