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Debate over Persian Gulf airlines shifts to national security

Etihad Airways

An Etihad Airways plane prepares to land at the Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates. A group of U.S.-based airlines claim that Etihad Airways, Emirates Airline and Qatar Airways are competing unfairly in the U.S. by taking subsidies from their oil-rich governments.

(Kamran Jebreili / Associated Press)

The long-running debate over whether to restrict three Middle Eastern airlines from U.S. airspace is now raising concerns that such restrictions might harm national security interests.

The national security fears are the latest wrinkle in the argument about whether Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways are competing unfairly in the U.S. by accepting subsidies from the oil-rich Persian Gulf governments that control the airlines.

A group of U.S.-based airlines and labor groups, headed by United, American and Delta airlines, has asked the U.S. government to investigate the Middle Eastern airlines and possibly freeze any future expansion plans in the U.S.  

The airlines have asked the Obama administration to take action on the issue. A comment period on the matter closed Monday, with nearly 2,000 of the almost 3,000 comments urging the government to investigate the Middle Eastern airlines.

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But another group of air carriers, including FedEx, Atlas Air Worldwide, Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue, jumped into the debate Monday with a letter to federal officials opposing any restrictions on the Middle Eastern carriers.

Not only would restrictions on the Persian Gulf airlines hurt competition but they might provoke the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to respond with restrictions on U.S. carriers, the letter from FedEx, Atlas, Hawaiian and JetBlue says.

The letter notes that the U.S. military uses commercial airlines to ship supplies for U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf.

“For the U.S. military, any such restrictions would cause significant delays in the transportation of essential supplies, impairing U.S. readiness levels and overall U.S. national security,” the letter says.

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The group of airlines and labor unions that are calling for an investigation fired back, saying the Persian Gulf governments “should support our national security efforts and they should uphold their economic agreements requiring them to play by the rules,” according to Jill Zuckman, a spokeswoman for the group.

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


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