When American Airlines chief Doug Parker took a second question in the carrier's post-IATA AGM joint press conference with Qantas about the Gulf carrier row, there was a slightly forlorn hope in his voice as he reminded the assembled press corps that the executives really wanted to be talking about the expansion in US-Australian services.

"I do want to note that today what we are excited about is this announcement," said Parker. "We have been awfully vocal about what you are asking about. I'll try again, but we'd prefer not to turn this into yet another series of question on that topic."

Like it or not, Parker and virtually every chief executive in Miami for the AGM was always going to be asked about the row. Parker dutifully dealt with the question as he had previously during the AGM, pointing to the carrier's view that this as a "public policy issue".

In doing so he, like others, was trying to walk the line between holding a position and not allowing the hugely divisive issue to overshadow the AGM. Ironically, airline bosses appeared to find unity in their efforts not to further inflame their differences in public.

Emirates president Tim Clark addressed the Wings Club in New York the day after the AGM. "Like some of us present today," he said, "I came here, surprisingly unbattered and unbruised, from the IATA AGM in Miami, an event our media friends had hoped would descend into a colossal inter-airline brawl."

Media interest was certainly heightened amid the simmering row over US airlines' moves to ask the government to look again at the open-skies agreement with the UAE and Qatar in light of their claims of large subsidies – rejected robustly by the Gulf carriers. But on the surface, at least, the spat didn't boil over.

Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr noted that IATA's executive board meeting – which features several vocal leaders on both sides of the argument, and was held ahead of the AGM – had not been overshadowed by the row.

"It hasn't been a big issue – you might be surprised – in today's board of governors meeting," said Spohr. "Those airlines who are active are those airlines who are affected."

Everyone was keeping their positions to the sidelines in Miami this year, suggested Spohr.

US transport secretary Anthony Foxx, whose department is being called on by the US majors to investigate the existing open-skies relationships with the UAE and Qatar, chose to ignore the issue in his keynote address to the AGM.

IATA director general Tony Tyler, during his address to the AGM, sought to keep the association out of the argument. "It is no secret that there is an underlying tension in our industry," he acknowledged, but he added: "Regardless of your viewpoint, IATA is not the battleground on which any resolution will be achieved. And you, our members, have not given us a mandate to take a position on such issues."

Even the intervention of Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker, responding from the floor to argue that IATA should take a position, failed to elicit any bites. Nobody appeared to have the appetite to take the fight into the public forum of the AGM.

Indeed, airline chiefs from both sides of the equation spoke either around the issue or used humour to take the heat out of the split during the afternoon's high-level panel discussions.

But the public show of unity does not overcome the issues at hand. Even in playing down their differences, chiefs underlined firmly entrenched positions either side of the argument.

"It makes our discussion more credible because it's now a global discussion," said Lufthansa’s Spohr of the US carriers’ push. Lufthansa is also a joint venture partner with United Airlines between Europe and North America.

With Delta Air Lines' Richard Anderson and United's Jeff Smisek keeping a conspicuously low media profile during the event, it was left to American's Parker – who as AGM chairman was in the spotlight – to toe the US carrier line. Parker has been seen as the least vehement on the issue, perhaps because his carrier is the most conflicted in its stance given its close co-operation with IAG – now part-owned by Qatar Airways – and its partnership with the latter within Oneworld.

"I met with Akbar the day before yesterday, we had a nice talk... We clearly have a disagreement on this point; that's fine. That doesn't affect the business relationship [as] this is a public policy issue," he told journalists at one briefing.

"It has nothing to do with protectionism. The United States and the US carriers are the largest proponents of open skies in the world. This is about being able to compete against airlines instead of governments."

Air Canada chief executive and outgoing IATA board chairman Calin Ravinescu echoed the view air traffic agreement are part of the industrial landscape. "So, whenever you look at any of these questions, it involves many issues around ownership – is it appropriate for state-owned enterprises to have one level of access and so on, and is it appropriate in other cases for trade agreements to put restrictions," he said. "That is the debate. It will be up to governments to decide how that is regulated."

Emirates president Tim Clark meanwhile briefed the media on his position during the AGM and likewise in New York addressing the Wings Club yesterday.

He suggested that the "underlying tensions" referred to by Tyler measured 7.3 on the Richter scale.

Clark said US mainline carriers who want the open-skies deals to be revisited should be stripped of the anti-trust immunity they have in joint ventures if open-skies deals were to be dropped.

"If you shut down open skies, anti-trust immunity has to go out," he said. Any action to limit Gulf carriers' growth under existing open-skies deals would be an "unilateral hostile action", he added: "If you restrict growth, you breach open skies."

Emirates plans to respond formally in a US government information docket opened to review the claims made by the US majors that Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways received more than $42 billion in state subsidies. "Sooner than you think," Clark said in response to a journalist's question on when the airline planned to file its comments. "We are hoping it will be dealt with once and for all."

Qatar's Al Baker meanwhile raised the possibility of leaving Oneworld if American was to work against it. This outlined just how complicated the positions are and how widespread is the impact of the US-Gulf carrier subsidy row.

Oneworld itself quickly pointed to the productive meetings held by their CEOs during the AGM, while Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce – a more than interested bystander given its growing relationships with Oneworld partner American Airlines and Emirates – pointed to the flexible approach taken by the alliance.

"Oneworld has always been an alliance that focuses in and allows these partnerships to happen. Both American and Qantas are founding members of Oneworld. We do deals with carriers inside and outside Oneworld. If there's opportunities, it's always been a very flexible alliance and allows carriers to have those arrangements," he said.

IATA's Tyler likewise pointed out that the carriers involved are in some cases are commercial partners in some ways, underlined by Air France-KLM and Etihad both talking about expanding their co-operation.

"These are big airlines operating in big markets," said Tyler at the end of AGM press conference, but he noted it is only a portion of global revenues. "It's an important issue, especially if you are directly involved in it, but we do have to keep it in perspective."

Source: Cirium Dashboard