Under the US-Qatar Open Skies agreement Qatar Airways can legally operate flights between Europe and the United States. They haven’t done so in over a decade, since they’ve acquired aircraft that can fly non-stop from the US to their capital of Doha. From there they connect passengers to places like India and North Africa.
However to settle intense lobbying of the US government by Delta, American, and United, Qatar Airways committed to greater financial transparency and stated they had no current intention of flying routes between the US and Europe.
At the time I observed they had no reason to do so. After all they’re already the largest owner of British Airways and Iberia parent company IAG, and they had taken a 49% stake in what’s now Air Italy.
With Delta partner Alitalia a ward of the Italian government, surviving on continued subsidies and thus far unable to find a buyer (after successive failures by Air France and Etihad to turn around the airline), Air Italy sees an opportunity to grow into Italy’s major airline.
Investing in Italian aviation has long struck me as a fool’s errand, but one that’s tempted any investors before. In contrast Delta’s 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic (combined with investments by Air France KLM taking joint control to 80%) seems like a better investment, given British carrier’s slots at London Heathrow, provided Brexit doesn’t go too badly. Same, too, Delta’s stakes in Aeromexico and Gol.
U.S. airlines are now lobbing grenades at Air Italy, which flies from Milan to New York, Miami and now seasonally to Los Angeles and San Francisco (cities with no other non-stop service on the route). Air Italy has a total of 15 aircraft in its fleet, and has already reduced service on the Los Angeles and San Francisco routes, and cancelled Chicago service before it even began.
Delta, American and United have no argument that these flights are illegal in any sense. Instead they argue the flights violate the spirit of Qatar’s agreement that they had no plans to operate their own Europe-US service.
- Qatar made that statement — referring only to the period of time in which they made the agreement, describing their current plans — knowing Air Italy would fly Milan to the U.S. Those plans were already announced, and I wrote about them. U.S. airlines were equally aware and still declared victory at the time.
- The strategy of the big US airlines is to appeal to the President’s protectionism. Their goal is to limit choices and raise prices on US passengers. They’re looking to use the government to transfer money from consumers to shareholders.
Air Italy, though, is defiant. They say they plan to launch two new North American routes in 2020, at least one likely just summer seasonal, and they hope to re-instate Los Angeles and San Francisco’s service to year-round status.
[C]hief operating officer Rossen Dimitrov..declines to specify the new destinations pending agreements with airport operators, but says one of the two will likely be seasonal. In addition, Air Italy sees potential for one of its two Californian destinations – Los Angeles and San Francisco – to convert to year-round service in 2020, says Dimitrov.
Air Italy also hopes to interline with US carriers – presumably JetBlue at New York JFK at least – and potentially partner more broadly over time.
In the current political environment it seems like Delta, American, and United might have more success lobbying the Trump administration to take a hard line against Chinese airlines, but Delta owns a stake in China Eastern and American a stake in China Southern. United partner Air China even operates a fifth freedom flight between Houston and Panama City of course. Despite Chinese airlines receiving subsidies… crickets.