JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes clearly aligned himself with the three major Persian Gulf carriers against the so-called “Big Three” U.S. airlines in the long-running dispute over government subsidies during a speech at the Aero Club of Washington on September 18. While promoting the “vital role” JetBlue plays in keeping the commercial aviation industry competitive, Hayes railed against the “startling” concentration of power American, United and Delta Air Lines have accumulated in the process of consolidation. He also characterized the complaints of the three U.S. legacy carriers about the Gulf carriers’ subsidies as “a perfect illustration of how we see megacarriers trying to use their muscle and deep pockets to limit competition.”
The three-year-old claim that the UAE and Qatar have breached and continue to breach Open Skies agreements with their support of the three major Gulf carriers now has become a subject of consideration for the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose protectionist tendencies appear to have further energized the lobbying group that represents the big U.S. carriers in the dispute. Nevertheless, the State Department hasn’t yet committed to a position in the case after both sides met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over the summer.
“If the Big Three had been more confident about their claims, they probably would have followed the established [Department of Transportation] process, filing an official complaint under the International Air Transportation Fair and Competitive Practices Act, and this matter would have been decided years ago based on facts and evidence,” Hayes said at the Aero Club. “Instead, they chose to whip up a massive and costly PR frenzy in hopes this would be decided in a more emotional, political context rather than an evidence-based process where they would probably not succeed.”
In response, the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies—the lobbying group led by the U.S. legacy airlines—charged Hayes and executives of other U.S. airlines opposing United, American and Delta with engaging in “delaying tactics” by advocating for a process unrelated to Open Skies. “Our Open Skies agreements specifically allow for consultations in the case of violations,” said Jill Zuckman, chief spokesperson for the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies. “Perhaps if JetBlue did not financially benefit from Emirates’ billions of dollars in illegal subsidies, it would acknowledge that fair trade requires that all parties abide by the rules of international trade agreements.”
JetBlue and Emirates operate a code-share agreement under which the New York-based airline flies connecting services from nine of Emirates’s U.S. destinations.