Comment: The fear factor

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Animals lash out when they are frightened, but often their fury is not really aimed at the one left sporting the injury. As the Gulf carriers once again face a barrage of accusations from their rivals, could the venom really be aimed at the regulators?

You would have thought that by now people would be tired of having a go at the Gulf "big three". But no, this is a hobby horse that looks set to run and run if the latest digs, this time from Europe's network carriers, are anything to go by.

The big three Middle East carriers - Emirates, Etihad and Qatar - are used to defending themselves. Let's face it, accusations of being subsidised in various ways - cheap fuel, cheap money via export credits, no taxation etc - have been around for ages.

An early example of what has become a continuous Gulf offensive was at the 2005 IATA annual meeting in Tokyo. In a surprise public attack, delegates witnessed rival CEOs looking to put Emirates Airline president Tim Clark in the dock. An irate Clark rebuffed the goading, which ran along the lines of "where will you get the money to buy all those Airbus A380s?". Emirates had recently placed orders for its first 55 of the superjumbo. In the intervening years, Qatar Airways chief Akbar Al Baker and, more recently, Etihad Airways boss James Hogan have become similarly practiced at defending their actions and those of their backing nation states. The simple fact is that their lofty ambitions frighten many. The logic behind developing three mega network carriers in such a tight geography constantly puzzles.

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 “AEA is using the fear factor to hammer home its point. The frightening ones are those Gulf nasties”

While some snipe at their Gulf counterparts, with Air France's Jean-Cyril Spinetta and lately Pierre-Henri Gourgeon among the most barbed, now they are pushing the Association of European Airlines into the front line. In a not-too subtly coded release, the AEA is getting forceful: "The airline CEOs voiced their strong concerns that, while Europe's airlines were held back by heavy-handed regulation and structural deficiencies, their global competitors were forging ahead, supported as instruments of national policy."

"Trade war declared on Gulf airlines" screamed one of the subsequent headlines. But is this really the agenda Europe's big boys want to follow? In quieter moments, some might admit to a large dose of envy at the march of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar.

In a speech as far back as 2006 to the UK's Aviation Club, Air Canada head Robert Milton put his finger on it: "We need to stop accusing companies like Emirates of breaking the rules and instead focus on changing those rules so that we can all operate on the same playing field, if that is truly possible."

This, too, is the AEA's central point. The main difference is that it is using the fear factor to hammer home its point. The frightening ones in question are those Gulf nasties. What traffic will be left when Emirates has over 100 A380s in operation, it asks? Listen up European regulators, they plead, otherwise your inaction will hobble us.

Contrast how the AEA feels to what Dubai Airports head Paul Griffiths said in defence of Emirates: "The only thing Dubai is guilty of is providing an environment that actually supports aviation." European airline bosses would weep for such support.

What does the AEA want changed? The list is long: stop the export credit distortion; allow hubs to grow; don't let expensive passenger rights legislation get out of hand; put the Single European Sky in place and do not burden the industry with poorly thought-out emissions taxes. These weigh down Europe's thoroughbreds as they seek to take on the Gulf stallions, argues AEA.

The recent knock about rhetoric of "us v them" makes spicy reading. More seriously, it does highlight the frustration European airline chiefs are feeling right now. This is not new. They have been beating on the doors of their governments and Brussels for years, often with little impact. What is new is they are waving the Gulf carrier ambitions in the faces of their political masters. Do nothing, they argue, and in just a few years time your tax-laden aviation industry will be powerless to fight back. Are you listening?