It’s not front-page news, but the three largest U.S. airlines are currently waging an intense P.R. campaign to enlist government support for restrictions on the flight rights of three Gulf carriers, Emirates, Ethiad, and Qatar Air.
The U.S. airlines argue that the three airlines are subsidized by the United Arab Emirates countries, and therefore compete unfairly against airlines that operate without such subsidies. Because such government support violates the terms of the Open Skies agreement, the offending airlines should have their route authorities rescinded or scaled back.
This week, Delta CEO Richard Anderson appeared on CNN to make the case for the U.S. majors (which has little support outside the core group). In his attempt to vilify the three Gulf airlines, Anderson alluded to “documented evidence of tens of billions of dollars in direct government subsidies” and called on the U.S. government to “level the playing field.”
That’s a substantive allegation, which can be investigated and either confirmed or refuted. But Anderson went further. Much further.
The overreach occurred when the interviewer pressed Anderson on the Gulf carriers’ contention that U.S. carriers have themselves had their hands in the “bailout trough,” through government support of their bankruptcies and restructurings. His response:
It’s a great irony to have the UAE from the Arabian peninsula talk about that 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.
His linking of the Gulf airlines to the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11, and his pointed repetition of “Arabian peninsula,” were transparently designed to conjure fear and prejudice toward countries with which the U.S. has a fraught relationship.
Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker minced no words in responding to Anderson: “He should be ashamed to bring up the issue of terrorism in order to hide his inefficiency in running an airline. He should compete with us instead of cry wolf for his shortcomings.”
This mini-drama is playing out against the backdrop of airlines from the Gulf states capturing an increasing share of the world’s commercial air passengers, and winning praise from flyers for their high service standards and modern equipment. In other words, the U.S. Big Three have good reason to be nervous about competition.
Rather than stoking paranoia that his competitors are somehow associated with the forces of darkness, Anderson would be well served by focusing his efforts on making Delta a more competitive airline.
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This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.