Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 July 2019

Aviation spat crosses the line into abuse

Comments by Delta’s CEO have no place in the discussion about aviation and open skies
Richard Anderson, chief executive officer of Delta Air Lines, has had to walk back explosive comments about Arabian Gulf air carriers. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg
Richard Anderson, chief executive officer of Delta Air Lines, has had to walk back explosive comments about Arabian Gulf air carriers. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

It was certainly not the highlight of Richard Anderson’s career. During an interview last week with CNN’s Richard Quest to do with the growth of the three main Gulf airlines – Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways – Mr Anderson, the CEO of Delta Air Lines, said they should not be complaining that their American counterparts received US government assistance after the attacks of September 11, 2001, noting that the attackers had ties to the Arab world.

This unnecessary and offensive comparison prompted immediate condemnation, as it should. Emirates president Tim Clark said Mr Anderson “crossed the line with what he said in regard to September 11”. Mr Anderson has since tried to limit the damage of his words, but unsavoury and misguided comments aside, the issue about government subsides, open skies and competition between US and Gulf carriers is a pressing one.

The comment comes in the context of recent claims by the US carriers that Emirates has received substantial government subsidies, an assertion Mr Clark also strongly denies.

With the Gulf carriers taking more market share, at the expense of US airlines, it has become popular for executives of American carriers – with Mr Anderson prominent among them – to blame their lacklustre performance not on their inability to offer a great product but on the supposed unfair advantages of carriers in the Gulf.

While building market share has been an integral part of the Gulf carriers’ long-term strategy, the reality is that some airlines in this region are generating substantial profits through the quality of their product. Emirates posted a Dh1.9 billion profit for the first half of 2014. One cannot fault Emirates or Etihad for taking advantage of US open skies agreements, which are designed to allow the best carriers to succeed. This is the essence of the free market.

Notwithstanding Mr Anderson’s ill-chosen remarks, a healthy debate about greater Gulf access to American aviation markets is in the interests of all the countries involved. But incendiary and unhelpful comments – such as the September 11 comparison – do not help the debate. Calmer heads are needed so a balance can be drawn that allows competition to determine success and profitability, which is in everyone’s interests – especially the travellers.

Updated: February 19, 2015 04:00 AM

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