Qatar's Al Baker hits back at AEA's unfair competition claim

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Outspoken Qatar Airways boss Akbar Al Baker has responded angrily to a recent address by Association of European Airlines secretary general Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus, in which he called for help from ICAO in tackling the growing threat from the Gulf carriers.

Addressing the International Aviation Club luncheon in Washington DC on 18 January, Schulte-Strathaus explained that the Gulf's three network carriers Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways had more widebody seats on order than US airlines currently offer in their combined fleets. He also pointed out that with these carriers integrated vertically into commerce, tourism and foreign policy, their governments treat the airlines as "just part of that chain".

Schulte-Strathaus added that this policy is incongruent with those of several regions and countries, including the USA, the European Union, Australia and Japan. He suggested that new global aviation policies were needed and that ICAO should be responsible for developing that framework.

Stating that the AEA boss's comments are "factually incorrect and unfounded", Al Baker says he has "no problem" for ICAO to create a multilateral system similar to how the World Trade Organisation tackles free trade. "I would go even further: Why won't we apply the WTO principles on aviation to ensure that first and foremost the rights of the consumers and free competition apply across the board?"

Al Baker points out that most of the countries listed by Schulte-Strathaus are signatories of the Agenda for Freedom brokered by IATA, which calls for free market access. "Does he advocate that this policy of liberalisation should only apply when his member airlines are the beneficiaries and not vice-versa?" he says.

To compare the Gulf carriers' huge order book to the US airlines' fleets is "extremely erroneous", says Al Baker as domestic operations are the backbone of the US air transport industry. "The portion of the capacity deployed internationally as a ratio of the total capacity deployed by the US airlines is minimal," he says.

Al Baker also challenges the AEA's view about the Gulf airlines being part of a vertically integrated economic chain: "Can [Schulte-Strathaus] tell me of any country which does not consider its air transport industry, be that an individual airline or a multitude of them, as part of national interests?"

The Qatar Airways chief points to the financial assistance US airlines received from their government after 9/11 "in order to ensure the continuity of the US air transport industry" as well as "the billions of Euros that are allowed under the EU laws to pump into airlines for restructuring purposes".

He asks: "Is it wrong for governments to be supportive to their national interests? Is Mr Schulte-Strathaus advocating that airlines which have high unit costs and do not deliver consistently high service quality should be protected from efficient low cost and high service airlines?"

Al Baker concedes that European airlines were "pioneers" and that the Gulf airlines have "learnt a lot" from them, but concludes that "they should accept competition and the customer being in the driver's seat".