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In an Oval Office meeting earlier this month that featured “a lot of yelling,” according to one attendee, President Trump took US airline executives to task over their ongoing dispute with Middle Eastern carriers.
NBC News first reported on the meeting, which was attended by the CEOs of American and United, as well as Qatar Airways, JetBlue and cargo carriers FedEx and Atlas Air.
The meeting revolved around the claim by American, Delta and United that the three biggest airlines in the Middle East — Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad — are violating the so-called Open Skies agreements regulating air traffic between their nations and the US. The US airlines are especially concerned that the three Gulf-based carriers are also eating into their lucrative transatlantic market share by exploiting “fifth-freedom flights“, which stop in Europe on the way to the Middle East.
US airlines have long complained that the flights represent unfair competition, claiming that the Gulf-based airlines receive high government subsidies that allow them to sell cheap tickets on overseas flights. The issue has come to a renewed boiling point recently after Qatar Airways purchased a 49% stake in Air Italy, a move that American carriers viewed as a way for Qatar to skirt the rules and use Air Italy to carry passengers between Europe and the US — even though Qatar does not hold a majority of the Italian airline.
A trade group representing the US airlines even aired commercials on Fox News to try to draw the president’s attention to the issue, according to the report. But, when Trump got the airline executives together in a room, he mostly criticized the performance of the US carriers, according to people who attended the meeting.
Trump was particularly incensed that Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian did not attend, despite the fact that he was a key voice in complaints against the Middle Eastern carriers, according to NBC.
On one side of the meeting were the American and United CEOs; on the other the CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar al Baker — who once called Trump “my friend” — plus the CEOs of FedEx, JetBlue and Atlas Air, which disagree with the other US airlines on the issue and side with the Gulf carriers.
In the end, Trump encouraged the American companies to take their complaints to official channels if they want to pursue a legal remedy to the disagreement. The Department of Transportation has an appeals process for such issues, but the US carriers have been hesitant to pursue that complex avenue, and the department has also been hesitant, since it would pit some US airlines against others.
A Trump administration official quoted by NBC said the DOT was likely to find in favor of the “Middle East Three” if that process were to move forward.
Featured photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images.
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