The three U.S. network carriers (Delta, United and
American), along with 11 Republican senators, are again displeased with Qatar
Airways, accusing Qatar of breaking a promise not to launch so-called "fifth
freedom" flights to the U.S.
They object to new service by Air Italy, a carrier 49% owned
by Qatar. Air Italy will begin Milan-Los Angeles and Milan-San Francisco
service in the spring.
A fifth freedom flight is an indirect route in which a
carrier provides service between two countries that aren't its home country, as
part of a broader route connecting to its home country.
For example, Emirates operates Dubai-Milan-New York service,
leaving from its home United Arab Emirates but then flying nonstop between two
foreign countries -- Italy and the U.S.
The Air Italy routes to the U.S. are not fifth freedoms because
they are flown from Air Italy's home country. But because Qatar owns nearly
half of Air Italy, the routes are a proxy for actual Qatar Airways fifth
freedom flights, according to a statement from the Partnership for Open &
Fair Skies, a lobbying group that represents the U.S. network airlines.
"The Qatari government agreed that its state-owned
airline would not launch future fifth freedom flights to the U.S. By exploiting
its investment in Air Italy to create a loophole and dodge this pledge, Qatar
has violated this agreement and the trust of the United States," the
The U.S. airlines have 11 Republican senators on their side.
In a Dec. 3 letter to DOT secretary Elaine Chao, Commerce Department secretary
Wilbur Ross and secretary of state Mike Pompeo, the senators suggested that the
new Air Italy routes are a workaround for Qatar Airways, which Delta, United and
American have long accused of accepting state subsidies in violation of the open
skies aviation agreement between the U.S. and Qatar.
"Without funding from Qatar Airways, Air Italy would be
unable to launch its new service, just as Qatar Airways would not be viable
without direct support from the Qatari government," the senators wrote.
In a statement, Air Italy asserted its independence but
steered clear of some of the charges levied by the Big 3 and the senators.
"As has been stated previously, Air Italy is an
Italy-based and Italy-registered independent airline owned by AQA Holding with
two shareholders, Alisarda which owns 51% and Qatar Airways which owns 49%,
with investment reflecting the shareholders' respective ownership levels,"
the company wrote in an email.
Air Italy already flies to Miami and New York, having
launched the service this summer, after Qatar invested in the airline in late
In a deal last January that was meant to put an end to a
longstanding dispute between Qatar Airways and the Big 3 U.S. carriers, the
Qatari government pledged that Qatar Airways would begin issuing annual,
externally audited financial reports. The agreement, however, didn't include
any admission that Qatar Airways receives state subsidies.
Also, the formal agreement didn't address fifth freedom
routes. However, Qatar Airways did provide verbal assurance that it had no
plans at the time to add indirect flights to the U.S. Despite the objections of
the Big 3, fifth freedoms are allowed under the open skies treaty that the U.S.
and Qatar entered into in 2001.
Qatar Airways declined to comment on the allegation.
Air Italy plans to launch a Milan-Los Angeles flight on
April 3 and Milan-San Francisco on April 10. Each service will operate four
times per week.