Trump and airline chiefs in Apprentice-style showdown

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July 30, 2019
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Photo: Qatar

An attempt by the big three US carriers to enlist US President Donald Trump in their long-running range war with the big Gulf airlines appears to have backfired.

A detailed account by NBC of a meeting between Trump and executives from both sides of the argument in the Oval Office has been described the showdown as worthy of “The Apprentice” and says he ultimately sided against the US carriers.

Read: BA’s swish new A350 lands at Heathrow.

The simmering feud reignited when Air Italy added new flights to the US after Qatar Airways bought a 49 percent stake in the carrier in 2017.

The US carriers believe a joint statement issued last year prevents the Gulf carriers from starting fifth-freedom flights between Europe and the US and the Air Italy move is an attempt to circumvent the rules.

The Gulf carriers disagree with that interpretation and Qatar says its investment is fully compliant with the US-Qatar Open Skies agreement.

During a heated meeting attended by both sides of the debate, Trump reportedly ribbed American Airlines boss Doug Parker about the company’s low stock prices, scolded Delta Air Lines chief executive Ed Bastian for failing to attend the meeting and for buying aircraft from Europe’s Airbus.

NBC said it drew on interviews with 10 people who attended or were briefed on the July 18 meeting for its account.

One person who attended the meeting said Trump kept returning to Bastian’s failure to show up.

“There was a lot of yelling,’ he said.

Joining Parker and United boss Oscar Munoz was Qatar chief executive Akbar al Baker and CEOs from  FedEx, JetBlue and Atlas Air, all of whom are on the opposite side of the fence from the big three.

“The meeting quickly turned to confrontation,’’ NBC reporter Josh Lederman wrote.

“Al Baker, the Qatar Airways CEO, called the American and United CEOs “liars.” Trump ribbed him back, telling al Baker he takes money from the Qatari government.

“FedEx CEO Fred Smith rattled off statistics about how many jobs his industry creates in the U.S. and warned of dire economic harm if the administration were to intervene to help the big passenger airlines.”

Rather than support the Big Three, Trump told them to take their case to the US Transportation Department. Officials there told the network the US carrier would probably lose if they proceeded.

Dubai-based Emirates weighed into the argument in its government affairs journal, Open Sky.

It said the message to the US “Troika” was clear: the airlines should use the Transportation Department’s “longstanding, fact-based process” for their allegations.

“For over four years, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines (the “Troika”) have spent tens of millions of their shareholders’ dollars lobbying against US Open Skies policy and the much-needed competitive choice Emirates provides to consumers.

“As confirmed by recent developments, it is becoming increasingly clear that their protectionist campaign is a colossal failure.”

The journal noted that a meeting between US and United Arab Emirates government officials in June to follow up to the record of discussion signed in 2018 reaffirmed the ongoing commitment of the two governments “to fully maintain all aspects of the Open Skies relationship”.

“Simply put, that was also a huge victory for consumers and longstanding US Open Skies policy, and a significant defeat for the US carrier oligopolists who failed in their quest to further tighten their grip on the US-Europe and broader international air service market,’’ it said.