Before its first flight even takes off, Qatar Airways is hitting rough air en route to Atlanta.
The Middle Eastern airline, which is set to start Atlanta-Doha nonstops on June 1, held a press conference and private dinner event Tuesday to tout its new flights.
Instead of the feelgood vibes that usually surround such kickoffs, this one sparked criticism, created drama and added to a running feud between Qatar and Atlanta giant Delta Air Lines.
A national workers’ group took out ads calling Qatar “anti-women” and “anti-worker.” A flight attendants union tried — unsuccessfully — to get singer Jennifer Lopez to bail on her gig at Qatar’s evening event at the Fox Theatre.
And Delta, after finding out about the event, said it will end its sponsorship deal with the Fox.
Peter Carter, Delta’s chief legal officer, traced the decision to a harsh comment Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker made about starting the Atlanta flights to “rub salt in the wounds of Delta.”
“So we were very surprised and disappointed when we learned that the Fox Theatre, an organization that we’ve supported for years … [was] hosting the coming out party for Qatar,” Carter added.
The Fox said in a written statement that private events such as the Qatar party are “distinctly independent of any corporate sponsorship program” and don’t violate any contract agreements. “As we are not in tune with the industry politics of our sponsors, we are disheartened to learn that Delta has chosen to penalize the Fox Theatre for our decision to rent the venue to another airline.”
The bad blood adds unusual baggage to the arrival of a new foreign carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson International — one of two this spring. Turkish Airlines launched Atlanta-Istanbul service on Monday.
Qatar’s new flight has gained more attention. The fast-growing airline, which has added other U.S. cities in recent months and touts its Doha operation as a new global hub, plans to use an Airbus A380 super jumbo jet initially, though it will operate the route on a regular basis on a Boeing 777. The airline also plans to seek space for a lounge at Hartsfield-Jackson.
The Delta-Qatar feud stems from Delta’s contention, supported by some other U.S. carriers, that Qatar and other Middle East airlines are growing with the unfair help of government funding.
At one point last year, Al Baker noted pointedly that Delta and other carriers got their own government help after 9/11. Then-Delta CEO Richard Anderson retorted on CNN: “It’s a great irony to have the United Arab Emirates from the Arabian peninsula talk about [bailouts for U.S. airlines] given the fact that our industry was really shocked by the terrorism of 9/11, which came from terrorists from the Arabian peninsula that caused us to go through a massive restructuring.”
A few months later, Al Baker reportedly said of Anderson’s gripes about subsidies: “Let him come face to face with me in any forum, and I will hang him on a wall.” Last month, after another Delta executive questioned the number of Atlanta-Doha travelers, Al Baker said the exec must have been “sniffing glue.”
On Tuesday at his Atlanta press conference, Al Baker throttled back a bit. “I have to be very diplomatic. I am in your country,” he said.
“When you want to grow an airline, you have to have the guts,” Al Baker said. “We have a superior product and people are craving for an airline to come here” to give them the type of service Qatar provides, he continued.
Delta does not fly nonstop from Atlanta to either Doha or Istanbul, but said in a written statement that customers value its trans-Atlantic network from Atlanta, which includes connecting flights through Paris, Amsterdam and Rome, to other destinations including Istanbul and Gulf states.
Carter, the Delta legal chief, said the airline only found out about the Fox party by seeing an invitation.
“We felt that, you know, a real friend would have contacted us and had a conversation with us, and so we thought it was time for us to re-evaluate that relationship. And so we won’t be supporting the Fox going forward,” Carter said.
Asked if Delta has a problem with other partners or vendors doing business with Qatar, Carter said, “We would hope that all our partners and friends and the organizations we support would want us to flourish as a company and would appreciate the kind of battle we’re in with the Gulf carriers. But whether or not that means we would pull business, I just could never say.”
The city of Atlanta owns Hartsfield-Jackson. Mayor Kasim Reed, a staunch Delta ally who is close to Anderson, spoke at Qatar’s Tuesday evening event. “It’s the beginning of a relationship that I think will be unique and special,” Reed said. He also praised Qatar’s involvement in a youth literacy program.
Al Baker praised the Fox. “Not everybody can get intimidated by people,” he said. “We certainly never got intimidated by anybody.”
The left-leaning Alliance for Workers Against Repression Everywhere has taken out billboard and newspaper ads in Atlanta about Qatar, which it says treats women and workers badly and reflects the regressive policies of the national government. About 10 people with the group protested outside Qatar’s event at the Fox.
Qatar in a written statement called the group’s accusations “false and overstated. This has been a non-issue. In fact, employment with the airline is regarded as one of the most sought after and desired in aviation.”
Al Baker said he was “disappointed” with the protests and that the airline gives its employees a “very handsome salary” and benefits.
Staff writer Jennifer Brett contributed to this article.