Did Kuwait Kick Out United Airlines In Retaliation Against US Government Non-Discrimination Rules?

If the U.S. is going to enforce its non-discrimination rules against Kuwait Airways, which flies to the US, then it seems no US airline is going to be allowed to fly to Kuwait. That’s at least one interpretation of a spat over United’s Washington DC – Kuwait City service.

United – the only US airline flying to Kuwait – has just announced an end to service despite what appears to be their desire to continue service. So it may come at the direction of the Kuwait government in retaliation for the declaration by authorities here that an airline serving the US may not refuse to transport Israeli passport holders.

Back in September I wrote about Kuwait Airways denying boarding to an Israeli passport holder. They weren’t flying to Kuwait. They were flying New York – London.

Kuwait’s policy has been challenged under 49 U.S.C. § 40127, which prohibits discrimination “on
the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, or ancestry.” While the DOT initially held that discrimination “based on citizenship or passport status” isn’t actually national origin discrimination, they were sued in federal court and three weeks ago ruled that Kuwait Airways’ refusal to transport Israeli passport holders between New York and London violates US law.

Kuwait Airways flies 3 days a week non-stop from New York to Kuwait City. That flight isn’t an issue because Israeli passport holders cannot get visas for Kuwait, so Kuwait Airways refuses to transport them as passengers without a valid visa. Israeli passport holders may not transit Kuwait, either.

What’s at issue is Kuwait’s one-stop service New York – London – Kuwait City.

Kuwait Airways is between a rock and a hard place — a US law that says they must accept Israeli passport holders on their London flight, and Kuwait law that does not recognize Israeli passports. My guess was that they would respond by adjusting their schedule to fly only non-stops between the US and Kuwait.

Instead, the reaction of the government of Kuwait has apparently been to kick United Airlines, the only US carrier flying to Kuwait, out of the country.

United flies Washington Dulles – Kuwait City – Bahrain 4 Times Weekly

I asked United about the elimination of service to Kuwait coming at the behest of the Kuwaiti government. Spokesperson Luke Punzenberger responded,

We have taken steps to cease our service to Kuwait and Bahrain, effective January 13, 2016. We will continue to maintain an open dialogue with both governments and others who may be affected by this decision, and offer alternative travel plans or refunds to customers who could be impacted.

Tellingly, he did not deny that this is prompted by Kuwaiti authorities. Indeed, ‘we will continue to maintain an open dialogue’ sounds like an airline that would prefer to resume service.

Matthew Klint, who first connected the dots, writes:

What my contact tells me is that United was just notified a few days before the word went public and given the January deadline with no chance for appeal.

So it seems that airlines are once again being used as pawns for geopolitics.

Update: United followed up with me to emphasize that “The service is not meeting our financial expectations.”

Update 2: United is now willing to say that the characterization that they are terminating service at the behest of the Kuwait government is “inaccurate.”

Update 3: If United says the service isn’t meeting their financial expectations, but they’re in conversations with governments and suggest they hope to continue it, then they must be looking for subsidies. Even though United has taken the position that subsidies are impermissible under Open Skies agreements, and even though they are currently arguing that Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar should have their flying curtailed by the US government over accepting subsidies.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Given the US has changed its stance and is now refusing to allow a Kuwaiti entity to follow Kuwaiti laws in the way previously allowed, there is a claim that the US has changed the rules of the previously set game and undermined the ability of Kuwaiti parties to lawfully benefit from the US-Kuwait air service agreements as they were previously allowed. So it’s not surprising that the Kuwaiti response to the American change/move is to tell US carriers that the same legal aid service agreements are no longer applicable in the way they previously were unless and until the US returns to the prior position.

  2. Air* not aid.

    Given the decline in oil prices and a possible further draw down of military assets in Kuwait, I’m not sure why UA would really want to even continue this service.

  3. Next time they can kick Iraq out of their country on their own I guess. Between the French and Kuwait I am always amazed at the short memories of the sacrifices we made on their behalf.

  4. Since Kuwait owns the US and its allies their very existence. Why does it matter, if the US has service to Kuwait? Kuwaiti Airways wants their cake and to eat it as well. Really Gary, geopolitics? I expected better of you!

  5. Gary, in your view, exactly who suffers most here is Kuwait boots out US airlines and we kick Kuwait Airways out in retaliation?

  6. I’ve updated the post because I’ve finally gotten a denial from United. (Which they didn’t offer in earlier back and forth on this.) Doesn’t make it wrong, but there could be even more here to the story (eg what role do subsidies from the Kuwait government play in all of this?).

  7. It’s a stretch to say that Kuwait Airlines is ‘between a rock and a hard place’ when they choose to deny boarding to people who hold an Israeli passport on flights not going to their country. Since when is it acceptable for airlines to deny service to people solely based on what country issues their passports?

  8. The amount of bigotry and US-American exceptionalism in the comments section is disgusting!

  9. Do the Kuwaitis really owe the US much of anything? The Kuwaitis paid a huge amount of money to finance the first President Bush’s attack on Iraq. The Kuwaitis may owe the second President Bush for the second Bush’s attack on Iraq; but that second Bush attack on Iraq has put Kuwait in a pickle of a situation with a more powerful Iran on its doorstep while its neighbor Iraq is a destabilizing basket case that can no longer act as a buffer against Iran.

  10. I seriosuly doubt the Kuwaiti government would even be bothered with telling United to stop service. They pretty much know that if they did, the US governmetn can easily kick Kuwait Airways out of the US-Kuwait and US-UK market.
    It seems to me to be simply a case of either 1) United isnt making the returns it needs to sustain the route or 2) The Kuwaiti government has pulled away all future cargo contracts from UA without specifically banning the airline from flying in and out of Kuwait. This decision remains solely by United and its management.

    If indeed the Kuwaiti government is retaliating, they would have also ordered British Airways not to allow an American Airlines codeshare on their daily London to Kuwait route. For the time being, American Airlines flight numbers 6599/5698 are LHR-KWI and KWI/LHR codeshare with BA and this continues through to summer 2016.

    And before you or anyone would like to incorrectly say that governments cannot ban codeshares, let me say that yes they can and they do have that power: case in point: German government debating at the moment Etihad/Air Berlin codeshare agreements. Austrian govt banning an EK/QF A380 codeshare DXB-VIE in 2013, etc.

    It seems many would like like to go down the consipiracy threory – mostly because they enjoy a good blockbuster movie and/or enjoy the attention they get by throwing in such theories however it seems to me United is pulling out is just a matter of economics – the returns are just not there. plain and simple.

    BTW for many who say that Kuwait hasnt paid its dues for liberation, can this claim be backed with hard evidence? If not then lets resort to the US notion of “innocent until proven guiilty”.

  11. @Mark F – it isn’t acceptable but for Kuwait Airways the rock and hard place are laws that tell them they must do two contradictory things — they are bound by US law for US service saying they must accept Israeli passports, and Kuwait law saying they must not.

  12. I’m not sure it’s an assumption but just because a route doesn’t meet expectations doesn’t meet its not profitable at all and in turn dosent mean that UA is looking for subsidies.

    As far as the other comments on Kuwait. They do owe the US as they would not exist at all today if we hadn’t sacrificed blood and effort for them regardless of financial consideration. That, however is unrelated to all this in my opinion.

  13. Basically I think it is not in anyone’s interest to really explain to the public all the maneuverings going on, and nobody is going to come clean on what’s going on behind the scenes. If the Kuwaiti government really is forcing United to stop serving the route, then ours is certainly within its rights to force Kuwait Airlines to stop serving it too, and that would be a logical next step. Or the Kuwaiti government could back down just slightly from its bigotry, and allow Israelis to fly as far as London on the airline.

  14. @Gwayrav How about the bigotry of the Kuwaiti government re an Israeli passport holder? Though frankly I don’t understand that flyer’s airline selection in the first place.

  15. RAH “BTW for many who say that Kuwait hasn’t paid its dues for liberation, can this claim be backed with hard evidence? If not then lets resort to the US notion of “innocent until proven guilty”.

    I don’t even understand this comment so if I took it out of context I apologize. I am NOT sure you can compensation for their “life”??? You?

  16. A question that never got answered well : if isis beheads people is terrorism, but if Saudi Arabia beheads them, not a word from our esteemed leaders. The only explanation I can come up with is, it was because the Texas bush clan are pimps for the Saudis. Else everyone in the ME seems like a terrorist.

  17. @credit – while relations between the US and Saudi Arabia have been more tense over the past 7 years there hasn’t been a Bush in office and I don’t think the policy you describe has changed. In fact, a Clinton was Secretary of State for part of that time.

    Instead I suspect that the regime in Saudi Arabia is viewed as ‘moderate’ relative to what we’d otherwise get in Saudi Arabia. So while their actions and values may be anathema to the US, the realpolitik approach is applied that the alternative regime there would be worse so it’s worth supporting them.

    I’m not advocating that position, just suggesting that the explanation may be other than what you’ve suggested.

  18. This isn’t politically motivated. Look at the seat maps; those flights are something like 10% full.

  19. @Hamad – if you’ve ever flown this route you quickly come to realize that the seat maps mean very little. I’ve been on flights where at T-24 I’m certain that I’ll have ghetto F (three in a row) and come T-1 there is nary a seat to be had with even one adjacent empty seat.

  20. Gwayrav says: “The amount of bigotry and US-American exceptionalism in the comments section is disgusting!”

    Let go of your petty envy and accept American exceptionalism – you’ll feel much better.

  21. I say kick Kuwait Airlines out of New York, don’t let them fly to the United States, and let them fight their own wars from now on

  22. Conversation with governments could and may very well mean United trying got secure lucrative cargo deals. Plain and simple.
    Again you’re going down the conspiracy theory road just way too deep.
    If united can get Kuwaiti government cargo deals then they 777 can easily haul in $$$ even if their planes have no bums-in-seat. This is basic airline economics that a 12 year old can deduce from United’s statement. I don’t see Kuwait’s government have anything to do with this.

  23. “American Exceptionalism”. An interesting turn of phrase with two definitions. “Much better than average”, if one ignores the fact that we are behind in education, infrastructure, standard of living, worker’s rights, freedom of the press, public transportation and healthcare. Oh, the other definition is “Mentally or physically disabled”.

  24. First of all , any aircraft belong to kuwaitairways consider an STATE OF KUWAIT SOIL, because it’s an government airliner and in KUWAIT Law We do not recognize the existence of Israel but there are a Zionist colony in a Palestinian state called Israel, So any one can do the simple math.
    Second, with all my respect to all who commented on this news but there are some idiots said “we brings liberty to Kuwait and freedom from Saddam” my dear all the world know tgat Saddam couldn’t make a move with US blessing , so cut the shit of and put your tongue where its belong if you don’t know how to talk.
    Third, united airline want to stop there services to Kuwait according to economic issues and always no one like to say am broke.

  25. @Ahmad alrekabi: Thanks for your insightful comments. It is fascinating to see the real mindset of those who we have to deal with.

  26. it is funny how ppl go and attack Kuwait for no reason but their ignorance. the american subcontractors flying to Iraq , and the transfer of the american soldiers has finished now . Iraq has functional airports and The Us has finished her work in Iraq. I used to take the flight to DC and could not see loxals … all what I saw is soldiers and contractors … it was a financial decesion …

  27. Are there any further updates, because my itinerary for 16 February is not changed as of this date, according to United, and they are not aware of any flight restrictions being implored to Kuwait. they said it is business as normal. They better not wait until last minute to mess things up, I’ll be infuriated. If they are ceasing operations, especially for business purposes, then they should have altered ALL flights after the January 13th date, before coming forward with this information.

  28. The articale is rubbish and misleading! After The USA pulled out of Iraq demand on this route declined, Kuwait Goverment even offers UA a further discount on ground services and fuel charge unlike other airlines.

  29. The truth is that United Airlines lost the contract with the US Government. Jet Blue has the new contract. This has nothing to do with laws and such. United Airlines just lost the contract bid. Sad, because United Airlines had the best flight. Btw, this blog title is not accurate. The title should be, Why did Jet Blue get the contract bid over United.

  30. eiman I agree. People always jump to conclusions. I mean the title of this entire blog is just silly. United Air just lost the contract bid. Contracts are lost and gain everyday. This is just sad because of the weight of this contract had on our troops. I really hope Jet Blue is good

  31. Regarding an earlier code-share comment, United code-shares with Lufthansa and their, say, DEN-FRA-KWI route is still ongoing and can be booked through United’s website for this coming summer.

    It’s a bummer though. I’ve had a Platinum status with United for several years now, mainly using their KWI-IAD route…lovely direct flight that arrives at 6 am with no other arrivals in site at IAD’s passport control. On the other hand, most travelers on this flight over the years have been US citizens and if they did lose a US government contract along this route then this alone justifies United canceling it.

    Speaking as a Kuwaiti citizen, I think Kuwait Airways went too far and could’ve flown Israeli passport holders along their LHR-JFK route without breaking any Kuwaiti laws. Kuwait owns gas stations in Europe, for example, and I doubt they check people’s ID’s before dispensing fuel. Kuwait Airways has been on a very slippery downhill slide for many years now and they are just starting to get their act together with a renewed fleet coming online during 2015-2018. This spat is definitely not a good move for them.

  32. What would be the UA’s response if someone wanted to fly between Syria and Libya using a passport issued by Islamic State?

    Pretty much what is Kuwait Airways response to someone flying between New York and London (both hotbeds of Zionism) on an passport issued by Zionist State of Israel (A regime not recognized by Arab countries even though it holds territory, levies taxes, runs an education system and discriminates against those who do not follow the state religion. This is a regime which carries out terrorist assassinations and kidnappings in other countries. Note ISIL does all of the same)

    And cool factoid – the first hijacking and the first terrorist bombing of an airliner – both carried out by Zionist terrorist – read some history.

    Israelis can fly on Arab airlines when they stop discriminating against and killing Arabs. The point of sanctions is to change the behavior of other countries. When Israel gives up Apartheid and state sponsored terrorism the sanctions will be lifted.

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