EU Legacy Carriers Press for Delay of Open Skies with Qatar

 - February 10, 2021, 10:19 AM

A group of European Union legacy carriers has intensified efforts to prevent the signature of the open skies deal with Qatar, calling the key elements of the agreement no longer appropriate due to the changed circumstances caused by the Covid-19 crisis. The advocacy, led by Air France-KLM and Lufthansa Group, started months ago and has received backing from the chair of the European Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee (TRAN), Karima Delli.

Delli sent a letter on February 3 to EU transport commissioner Adina Valean highlighting the need to delay the application of the deal due to the pandemic. “We have received the letter and we will reply in due time,” a commission spokesperson confirmed to AIN. Delli, a French politician and member of the European Greens grouping, did not respond to AIN’s request for comment.

In her letter, obtained by AIN, Delli also suggests the agreement should align with the EU’s new key political priority of the European “Green Deal.”

The European Commission and the State of Qatar concluded an EU-level comprehensive air transport agreement (CATA) with Qatar almost two years ago, in March 2019. The Commission initialed the agreement after representatives of all EU member states consented to the text; however, the territorial dispute over Gibraltar between the UK and Spain delayed the formal signing by transport ministers in the Council of the EU.

With Brexit now out of the way, the European Commission’s directorate-general for mobility and transport (DG Move) is eager to move the file forward. “The aviation agreement between EU and Qatar is in the process of finalization,” a commission spokesperson said. “There are some internal procedures which still need to be followed. Once these internal procedures are completed, the procedure for adopting a commission proposal for a council decision on the signature will have to follow.”

Executives of the EU’s largest network carriers and pilot union leaders aim to block that from happening.  

Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith and Lufthansa boss Carsten Spohr on January 13 penned a letter to the French and German transport minister, respectively, urging them to advocate a deferment of the signature of the EU-Qatar CATA and postpone the opening of the market for Qatar Airways until traffic has again reached pre-Covid-19 levels, an executive close to the matter confirmed to AIN.

The European Cockpit Association and Europeans for Fair Competition in December sent a joint letter to the transport ministers of the 27 EU member states, expressing their concern that under the current circumstances “any extra capacity to the EU market by granting additional rights to third countries would negatively impact the recovery of the EU aviation industry and would put additional jobs at risk.” 

It remains unclear whether or not the French and German governments would be willing to halt the procedure in the Council. Both France and Germany supported the granting of a mandate to the commission to negotiate an open skies deal with Qatar, and officials of their governments—and their flag carriers—were present during the five rounds of talks and fully agreed to the outcome.  The French civil aviation authority has publicly described the agreement as a “win-win” and acknowledged that the negotiations took into account the aspects usually covered in an air services agreement as well as competitive, social, and environmental aspects.

The agreement, marking the first such pact between the EU and a Gulf country, calls for the gradual market opening over a period of five years to the five EU countries with no bilateral open skies in place with Qatar for cargo and passenger air transport: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. The liberalization of traffic rights thus mainly affects those countries, hence the lobbying of Air France-KLM and Lufthansa Group. Italy appears not involved in the efforts to halt the implementation of the deal. The agreement also contains provisions on fair competition and on social matters, as well as on transparency on international reporting and accounting standards.

DG Move hopes that the council will formalize all four pending CATAs—with Armenia, Tunisia, Qatar, and Ukraine—in the coming month, clearing the way for their implementation.