Robert Silk
Robert Silk

"... full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The final half-sentence from one of the best known soliloquies in "Macbeth" reminds me a lot of the open-skies dispute between the major U.S. and Gulf carriers, which, hopefully, has finally come to an end.

To recap, for more than three years, Delta, United and American, along with U.S. airline unions, carried on a campaign against the Gulf airlines Emirates, Etihad and Qatar, which they accused of accepting more than $50 billion in government subsidies since 2004. Such subsidies, the legacy U.S. carriers allege, place the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is the home of Emirates and Etihad, as well as the state of Qatar, in violation of the open-skies air transport agreements they entered into with the U.S. in 2002.

In their campaign, the Big Three U.S. carriers initially asked that the government block the Gulf carriers from adding any new U.S. routes until the subsidy issue was resolved. Subsequently, those carriers scaled back their demand, asking instead that a block be put on new Gulf carrier routes that stop off in a second nation before continuing on to the U.S.

Emirates flies two such routes: Dubai to Milan to New York and Dubai to Athens to Newark. Both routes rankle the major U.S. carriers, which are zealous about preserving strength in the U.S.-Europe market.

The Gulf carriers, incidentally, have consistently denied accepting state subsidies.

After seemingly endless sniping, some of it shrill, between the major Gulf and U.S. airlines, last month the U.S. and the UAE entered into an agreement that might put the debate to rest. Nevertheless, it's a deal that largely maintains the status quo.

Under the agreement, Etihad will be required to produce audited financial statements that meet internationally recognized accounting standards at least annually. Emirates and the U.S. carriers already produce such reports.

The agreement also states that government-owned entities that do business with airlines should endeavor to provide those services at commercial rates. In other words: Avoid sweetheart insider deals.

In the agreement, the Gulf carriers make no admissions to accepting subsidies. Indeed, the word "subsidy" does not even appear. And the agreement does nothing to curb the legal right of Emirates or Etihad to add U.S. routes. It also doesn't make mention of those indirect flights -- known in industry circles as "fifth freedom routes" -- that the U.S. carriers made the more recent focus of their campaign.

However, the State Department said the UAE airlines did provide verbal assurance that they have no current plans to add new indirect routes to the U.S. from either Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

Both the written agreement and that rather hollow assurance more-or-less mirrored an agreement struck between the Trump administration and Qatar in January.

In light of the limited reach of the agreement, it didn't surprise me that the UAE and Emirates loudly proclaimed victory.

The discussions, said UAE minister of economy Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansoor, "confirmed what was clear from the very beginning -- that the UAE's international airlines have operated in complete compliance with the 2002 agreement."

Nor did it surprise me that the coalition of FedEx, Atlas Air, JetBlue and Hawaiian, which opposed the Big Three on the open-skies matter, also expressed satisfaction with the outcome.

But the exuberance expressed by the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies, the lobbying group comprising the U.S. unions and legacy carriers, struck me as a misapprehension at best and disingenuous at worst.

"For over a decade, the UAE and Qatar have provided billions of dollars in subsidies to their government-owned airlines, violating open-skies trade agreements with the United States and blocking fair competition with American businesses," the group said in open letters to President Trump that they ran as full-page ads in the New York Times and New York Post. "By acting to enforce our agreements and restore a level playing field, your administration has again shown that you stand with American workers and will fight for our jobs and economy."

In other statements, the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies stated that the deal would result in a freeze on new fifth freedom routes, a position that was never supported by the State Department. (Though White House National Trade Council director Peter Navarro did muddy the waters on the issue for a couple days, which forced the White House to issue a statement three days after the State Department first commented on the deal, essentially affirming that State's position on what the agreement said about indirect flights was accurate.)

In the aftermath of the deal's signing, Delta announced that it would resume service to Mumbai in 2019. Delta cut its lone India route -- a fifth freedom service which went from New York Kennedy to Mumbai via Amsterdam -- in 2015, blaming increasing competition from connecting services offered by the Gulf carriers.  

Despite all their professed ebullience, it would seem that the Big Three airlines, and certainly their shareholders who funded the open-skies campaign, should be disappointed with its outcome. After those three years of effort and expense, the Gulf carriers remain free to fly to any U.S. destination they want, and they can do so on a nonstop or via stopover service from anywhere they choose.

It could be true that, in practice, pressure from the Trump administration means the Gulf carriers are less likely today than they were back in January 2017 to announce plans for a new fifth freedom route to the U.S. That's when Emirates gave the word that it would begin that Dubai-Athens-Newark flight.

Then again, there's no evidence that the Gulf carriers are especially enthusiastic about those indirect offerings. Notably, neither Qatar nor Etihad are operating one to the U.S.

Qatar Airways, however, did find a way to offer proxy U.S. service from Europe through its purchase last year of 49% of the Italian carrier Meridiana, which has since rebranded as Air Italy, and this month will launch U.S. flights with service from Milan to Miami and New York JFK.

Air Italy's livery sports a color scheme and design that is reminiscent of Qatar Airways, and more U.S. routes could be coming as the company carries out a plan to grow its fleet from the present 13 aircraft to 50 planes by 2022.

Then again, it could also be that the Big Three carriers are simply happy to have found a somewhat graceful way out of a campaign that had long since lost its urgency but that they nevertheless had penned themselves into.

After adding a net 14 U.S. routes between 2012 and 2014, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar have added a net of just two U.S. routes since the beginning of 2016, data from the airline industry analytics company OAG reveals. Meanwhile, the total number of seats each airline is scheduled to fly to the U.S. this year is down from last year.

Those figures reflect the broader slowdowns in network growth at all three airlines since 2016, including reductions in capacity by Etihad.

The commercial threats posed by the then rapidly growing U.S. networks of the Gulf carriers were surely the primary motivation for the Big Three's 2015 launch of the open-skies campaign. But the carriers always presented it instead as a battle over fairness. We are happy to compete against the Gulf carriers on level commercial terms, went the argument, but competing against those airlines while they are subsidized is another matter.

Implicit in that argument was that subsidies have enabled Emirates, Etihad and Qatar to fly with cabin interiors and service offerings that are acclaimed around the world.

So when the Gulf carriers ran into hard times, Delta, United and American couldn't just extricate themselves from the fight they had begun. Not without some sort of claim that their rhetorical centerpiece about subsidies and transparency had been redressed.

Now they've got that claim. And if it means the open-skies debate can truly come to an end, that in itself is a victory for all.

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