by Matt Alderton | March 03, 2015

A battle is brewing in the skies. In one corner: the "Big 3" U.S. airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines. In the other corner: the "Big 3" Middle Eastern airlines, Emirates, Etihad Airlines, and Qatar Airways. The subject of their skirmish: recent and future expansion by Gulf carriers into Europe and the United States.

According to The New York Times, which reported the story last month, the chief executives of American, United, and Delta recently met with key members of the Obama Administration, including Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, in order to ask that "Open Skies" agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar -- first signed in 1999 -- be reevaluated and renegotiated.

Supported by government and industry for more than two decades, Open Skies agreements are broad international commitments designed to facilitate increased competition, lower fares, and more flights in the international air travel marketplace. In the case of Persian Gulf airlines, however, U.S. and European airlines argue that they're at a disadvantage in their domestic markets because Middle Eastern carriers receive subsidies from their sponsoring governments.

"We welcome robust competition provided the playing field is level," American, United, and Delta said in similar statements. "A reopening of those Open Skies agreements is the first step and the right step to ensure competition is preserved and enhanced."

Middle Eastern carriers, which are world-renowned for their service and passenger experience, say it's all just sour grapes.

"By challenging Open Skies, you are not just challenging the aero-political situation, you are challenging the very essence of economic liberalization that the U.S. has championed for decades," Emirates President Tim Clark said in an interview, according to the Times. "I hope the administration will not stand for this nonsense."

The Travel Industry Reacts

Although the U.S. "Big 3" are major players in it, the travel industry so far is standing with Open Skies rather than against it.

"The U.S. travel community is alarmed and disappointed that anyone would give serious thought to tampering with Open Skies, which has both made it easier and cheaper for American citizens to travel abroad and helped expand the lucrative inbound international travel market to the U.S.," U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said last month. "No sane person would ever argue that U.S. businesses should not be as healthy and profitable as possible. But we believe any move to abrogate Open Skies would fly in the face of competition and consumer choice, and ultimately harm demand for travel to the U.S. We simply cannot see how that helps any domestic industry or the overall economy."

Another travel industry stakeholder, the Business Travel Coalition and its sub-committee, have called on the "Big 3" to make public a 55-page report reportedly delivered to the Obama administration outlining their concerns and asking for amendments to Open Skies.

"It is unconscionable that the three mega-airlines are jointly conducting meetings behind closed doors with U.S. and EU officials for the purpose of peddling a profound public policy switch that would have enormous negative consequences for everyone else," said BTC Chairman Kevin Mitchell said in a statement published yesterday. "What's worse, as grist for their lobby and propaganda mills, the Big 3 are relying on a secret report they paid for about these three carriers -- a report that they have not even shared with the very airlines they accuse of receiving government subsidies but do selectively share with media when they are angling for advantageous coverage … calls on the Big 3 to release the report publicly for fairness sake and to allow an informed debate among all concerned."

For a recap of recent top stories, check out MeetingNews Minute: