Washington: The US will hold informal talks with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates over claims they wrongly subsidised three Gulf airlines, stopping short of a request by US carriers for formal discussions on whether aviation treaties were violated, people familiar with the matter said.
State Department officials met with the US airlines and their backers June 24 to discuss the decision and will meet with representatives of the Gulf carriers on Wednesday, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the meetings were private. Official sessions with the governments of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are set for July, the people said.
The decision caps more than a year of squabbling among the airlines that began when American Airlines Group, Delta Air Lines and United Continental Holdings complained that Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways have received more than $40 billion in government support, providing an unfair competitive advantage. The three Gulf carriers repeatedly denied receiving government support.
"What you’re seeing with this middle ground approach is they’re saying, ‘We’ll have informal talks and see how it goes,’ ” said Paul Mifsud, a former vice president of government and legal affairs for the KLM unit of Air France-KLM Group. "This is a way to split the baby.”
The decision doesn’t affect operations by the three Gulf carriers in the US.
The US airlines argued the subsidies and other benefits, outlined in a 55-page investigative report, allowed the three Gulf airlines to buy new fleets of international wide-body aircraft and fly routes regardless of their profitability. The US industry has largely pulled out of certain areas such as the Middle East and India, saying it couldn’t compete. Delta blamed heavy competition from the Gulf airlines for its decision last fall to cancel a route from Atlanta to Dubai.
The Gulf airlines countered that the three largest US airlines are engaging in protectionism, and that they have received their own government subsidies, including debt forgiveness in the bankruptcy process.
The spat occasionally has turned nasty. Qatar Chief Executive Officer Akbar Al Baker said his airline’s new Doha-to-Atlanta route would "rub salt in the wounds” of Delta.