Saturday, December 19, 2015

It’s no reason to cry foul

The whiny campaign against Gulf carriers being led by Delta, United and American Airlines in the United States, claiming that Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways are competing unfairly because of the “subsidies” they receive, is fast becoming tiring.

The American carriers want the Obama administration to freeze all new flights between the Gulf and the United States, which in effect would invalidate the Open Skies agreements, the US has signed with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The chairman of American Airlines, Doug Parker, warned the New York Times recently that if the US government does not restrict the number of Gulf flights to the United States, the country will end up with no international services from US airlines.

But US carriers have already dropped most of their flights to India and the Middle East, claiming that they cannot match the lower fares of Gulf carriers. Delta will stop its daily flight to Dubai from Atlanta in February and United will stop flying to Dubai in January. American and Delta have both stopped flying to India, leaving only United with a nonstop flight to Mumbai from Newark. The reason for doing so is hard to believe considering the large population of Americans of Indian origin.

In contrast, Gulf carriers have been expanding flights to the US rapidly, with Emirates flying to 10 American destinations, Etihad flying seven times a day to the US and Qatar flying seven times a day to the US.

This demoralization of American airlines makes many long for the days when two American carriers, Pan American Airways and Trans World Airlines were America’s flag carriers to all parts of the globe in the 1960s and 1970s. Pan Am used to have around-the-globe flights using its Boeing 747s and flew to Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. TWA flew to Europe, the Middle East and India.

So what sets the Gulf carriers apart from American ones? 

Many have already experienced the two and know that Gulf carriers have much younger aircraft, better on-board service, food and inflight entertainment. Emirates started the trend by introducing individual video sets in the back of every seat in the Economy section, loaded with hours of the latest movies, TV series and music. American carriers have been slow to catch up, with Delta only recently adding video screens into most of their aircraft. An American Airlines flight I took this summer from Brasilia to Miami had no video screens, not even the overhead fixed screens. So it was seven and half hours without any entertainment. A friend suggested I read a book, but I find it hard to concentrate while squeezed into a small seat. Thank goodness it was a night flight, so most of the passengers slept.

Observers like to point out that American carriers have older flight crew members because most of their workers are unionized and cannot be fired easily. Gulf carriers on the other hand do not have unions and seem to only employ young women as flight attendants. That is why it is a common sight to see older flight attendants on American carriers.

Gulf carriers have defended themselves by saying that while they may be state-owned they are run as commercial ventures that must make profits. Emirates has long pointed out that while it may get cheaper jet fuel at its home base in Dubai, it pays worldwide rates at the destinations it flies to, just like all other airlines.

It would be a shame if US carriers stopped flying around the globe. But I don’t think this is going to happen. It is an exaggeration of US airlines, scared by the competition given to them by Gulf carriers. As the New York Times points out, American carriers still dominate flights to Africa, South America and Asia from the United States.

American airlines on international routes need to improve their inflight service with newer aircraft, friendlier staff, better food, a wider variety of inflight entertainment and competitive fares. That is the only way they are going to face the competition from Gulf carriers. Surely there are enough passengers to satisfy all airlines.


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