US businesses defend Gulf airlines in subsidies dispute

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A coalition of transportation and tourism businesses on Monday called on the US government to preserve aviation agreements with Gulf nations despite accusations of unfair trade by major US airlines.

Businesses including courier service FedEx, budget air carrier JetBlue and hotel giant Wyndham, oppose calls from Delta, American Airlines and United to renegotiate Open Skies agreements with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The three biggest US air carriers say Abu Dhabi and Doha have pumped billions in unfair subsidies into their national airlines Etihad and Qatar Airways, and they are lobbying the Trump administration to step in.

But, in a letter to members of Congress, a group of 28 businesses said Monday the three airlines were jeopardizing millions of American jobs by seeking to restrict access to the US market for Etihad and Qatar Airways.

“These airlines complain of unfair subsidies but have chosen not to use the Department of Transportation Procedures that Congress established to hear such claims,” the letter said.
The letter also was addressed to the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, among other officials.

“We urge the Administration to protect Open Skies by insisting that these claims be assessed on the merits and in the proper forum,” the letter said.

Qatar Airways earlier this month abandoned plans to acquire a 10 percent stake in American. The US carrier had ended code sharing agreements with Etihad and Qatar in July, citing the state subsidies.

In response to Monday's letter, the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies, a group linking the three US airlines as well as trade unions for pilots and flight attendants, accused the pro-Gulf coalition of risking US jobs to defend subsidized foreign air carriers.

“The truth is that Open Skies agreements already provide a way to deal with rule breakers and anything else is just an attempt to delay and derail American jobs,” Jill Zuckman, the group's spokesperson, said in a statement.

“We agree with President Trump that trade deals need to be fair, enforced and for the benefit of the American worker.”