Georgia officials push Trump administration to intervene on issue with Middle East air carriers


As Delta Air Lines and several other major U.S. carriers continue a years-long fight over what they call unfair competition from Middle East carriers, Gov. Nathan Deal and other Georgia officials are pushing for action on the issue by the Trump administration.

Deal sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao dated April 28 urging them to “take action” to enforce Open Skies agreements that govern competition between airlines from different countries “and enforce a level playing field for our U.S. international carriers.”

Echoing an argument by Delta, American and United airlines, the governor wrote in his letter that Qatar and the United Arab Emirates give “massive subsidies” to their state-owned airlines that allow Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates Airlines to “dramatically increase capacity and lower prices, forcing U.S. carriers to abandon international routes and putting U.S. aviation jobs at risk.”

Others contend Delta, United and American are afraid of foreign competition. In 2015, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker called the opposition by U.S. carriers to state-owned Gulf carriers’ growth “a real example of the bullying tactic that is being taken against us.” He also said then that U.S. carriers provide “crap service.” 

Qatar Airways launched flights to Atlanta last year, sparking a row with Atlanta-based Delta that resulted in a dispute over gate space and a decision by Delta to pull its sponsorship of the Fox Theatre after the venue hosted a Qatar Airways launch party with a performance by singer Jennifer Lopez.

In his letter last month, Deal wrote: “If the Gulf carriers are allowed to continue their subsidy-fueled expansion unchecked, more hardworking Americans in Georgia could lose their jobs.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and members of the Georgia Legislature including House speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Senate majority leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, wrote similar letters.

Georgia’s Congressional representatives also signed a letter to TIllerson and Chao asking them to review potential violations of Open Skies agreements with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson signed a similar letter earlier this year.

Georgia economic development commissioner Pat Wilson, who also wrote a letter, said “the Gulf carriers are not playing by the rules with their massive subsidies," according to a written statement.

And Georgia Chamber CEO Chris Clark, Metro Atlanta Chamber CEO Hala Moddelmog and Georgia Transportation Alliance executive director Seth Millican also sent letters to Tillerson and Chao with a comparable message.

Atlanta-based Delta is highly influential in the state, and is a major contributor to Deal, Cagle, members of Congress and members of the Georgia Legislature. Delta is also on the board of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber.

The letters are part of a broader, years-long campaign spearheaded by a group called the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies, a group formed by Delta, United, American and airline unions. Similar letters were sent two years ago by the Georgia Chamber, Isakson and others to the Obama administration on the issue.

The group’s aim is to push the U.S. government to start consultations under Open Skies agreements with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on the competition issue and to push for a freeze on new passenger service in those markets during consultations.

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AJC Business reporter Kelly Yamanouchi keeps you updated on the latest news about Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Delta Air Lines and the airline industry in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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