Qatar Airways CEO fires back at major U.S. carriers in subsidy debate


If you thought the campaign for the American presidency was getting nasty, wait until you hear the latest salvos in the feud between the top U.S. carriers and the big Middle Eastern airlines.

The nation’s three big carriers — American, Delta and United — started the conflict by accusing Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline of competing unfairly in the U.S. because they receive financial support from their oil-rich government owners.

The U.S. carriers have even urged the Obama administration to investigate the Middle Eastern airlines for allegedly violating the “open skies” agreement, a bilateral accord meant to promote fair competition among international carriers.

During a news conference last week to announce new service from Los Angeles to Doha, Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker didn’t mince words when asked to comment on the accusations by the U.S. airlines.

“What they are talking about is sheer” nonsense, although he used a much stronger word before a crowded conference room at the posh Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel. (Emirates also announced recently the addition of a second daily flight from Los Angeles to Dubai.)

Al Baker charged that the U.S. carriers are on the attack because they can’t compete with the superior service of the Middle Eastern airlines. He also accused the U.S. carriers of hypocrisy, saying they have accepted fuel subsidies and have taken advantage of U.S. bankruptcy laws to reduce debt.

He noted that the French government is a major shareholder of Air France but the U.S. carriers have not complained about the French airline. “Why are we playing these double standards?” Al Baker asked.

He vowed to trounce his competitors by expanding from Qatar’s current 155 destinations to 220 within three years, including flights starting in June to Atlanta, the biggest hub for Delta Air Lines.

“I like to rub a little salt on the wound of Delta when I announce these flights,” Al Baker joked.

Jill Zuckman, a spokeswoman for the three U.S. airlines, fired back:

“Mr. Al Baker can say the moon is make of cheese but it won’t change the fact that Qatar Airways has received more than $17 billion in subsidies from its government.”

To read more about travel, tourism and the airline industry, follow me on Twitter at @hugomartin.

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