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US legacy airlines to push govt to re-look open skies

Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines are planning to urge the US government to re-evaluate its approach towards open skies agreements with other countries, amidst increased worry over competition from Middle Eastern carriers.

Sources tell Flightglobal that chief executives from the three airlines had initially scheduled a meeting with senior White House officials, including Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, during the week of 6 October, but postponed the meeting earlier this week.

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) confirms to Flightglobal that the meeting was postponed.

It is not immediately clear why the meeting was put off, but sources tell Flightglobal that the airlines' decision was linked to ongoing US-led airstrikes against extremist group Islamic State (ISIS). The USA is being aided in its military operations by several Middle Eastern nations, including the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which own the fast-growing Gulf carriers that the three US airlines have voiced concerns about.

Delta, American and United all decline to comment on the meeting when contacted by Flightglobal. A DOT spokesperson refers follow-up questions to Delta, identifying the Atlanta-based carrier as the airline which set up the meeting.

The Gulf carriers - specifically Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad - have drawn the increased ire of the US and European airline industry in recent years, as they have rapidly expanded their networks and ordered hundreds of new widebody aircraft. Delta's chief executive Richard Anderson, in particular, has been especially vocal.

"A number of those [Middle Eastern] carriers are not airlines, they're governments," he said at the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) convention in Los Angeles in July, adding that the Middle Eastern carriers have "huge subsidies and huge structural advantages".

"Broadly, we're in favour of open skies agreements but we're also in favour of fair skies agreements," Anderson said then. "While we certainly respect their right to operate, at least it needs to be on [a] fair and level basis."

Anderson's counterparts at American and United have also raised concerns about competition from Gulf carriers. American chief executive Doug Parker tells reporters at an event in Washington DC today: "You have to watch them closely and understand that they're a force to be reckoned with in the future if they keep expanding at those kind of rates."

United chief executive Jeff Smisek said at the GBTA convention in July that Middle Eastern carriers have a "huge advantage" compared to US airlines. "They're state subsidised, they're state controlled and they're viewed as an arm of the state itself for tourism, travel and trade.... Our government, and you've heard me say before, views us as an ATM machine or a piggy bank."

The Gulf carriers have repeatedly fired back at criticism from their US and European rivals, accusing them of being protectionist.

The bid by the three US carriers to seek a meeting with White House officials comes as US airlines appear to grow increasingly frustrated with the US government's polices in the aviation sector. US carriers have long called for a national airline policy that will benefit the country's airline industry, which they believe is overtaxed and over-regulated. DOT airline consumer protection regulations that have been rolled out in recent years have only contributed to the airlines' ire.

It is not immediately clear when the three US carriers will meet with senior White House officials in the near future, but sources tell Flightglobal it is only a matter of time before the airlines seek to make their views heard.

The carriers are likely to find some support in the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which has called on the US government to account for "unfair state-created competitive advantages" in air services agreements with other countries.

ALPA president Lee Moak says in a statement issued to Flightglobal: "Let's ensure that for our existing and future air transport agreements, when foreign governments fuel their airlines with billions of dollars in subsidies and other unfair government support, we have a process in our agreements that allows our carriers and their workers to challenge these subsidies."

Airline trade association Airlines for America (A4A) declines to comment on the postponed meeting when contacted by Flightglobal. An A4A spokesperson says it will not be appropriate for the association to comment on a meeting it was not part of. Delta, American and United are A4A members.

Any effort by US carriers to lobby authorities to re-look at the country's open skies agreements will likely draw opposition from several industry groups. Observers have pointed out that US carriers could likely face retaliatory measures in serving other countries if the US government was to curtail open skies.

The chairman of advocacy group Business Travel Coalition Kevin Mitchell says: "To persuade the White House and DOT to change the rules now after the open skies agreements have been negotiated - it's an outrageous ploy."

With additional reporting by Edward Russell

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