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Domestic Airlines Tactics Muddy Water with Key Middle East Ally

The “legacy” airlines – United, American, and Delta – recently reinvigorated a long-simmering campaign against a bilateral treaty between the United States and Qatar.  Simplified, this Open Skies agreement grants both American and Qatari airlines the right to fly to and from each country without interference from either government.

This dispute is not a new one, as the legacy carriers have been complaining about this agreement for years.  But in recent weeks, their campaign to undermine the U.S.-Qatar treaty moved from a commercial dispute to one that threatens this country’s vital national security interests at the worst possible time.

President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal with Iran was a bold step to extricate the United States from a failed Obama-era policy, and the subsequent sanctions are having the intended effect.  The Trump Administration’s combined strategy has clearly caught the attention of the regime in Tehran, and the weakened Ayatollah is predictably rattling his sabre.

In response to Iranian threats, the President has wisely deployed American forces to the Persian Gulf, including the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln strike group and significant Air Force assets like B-52 Stratofortresses and F-15C Eagles.  And that is where these two storylines merge.

The legacy carriers’ campaign against the U.S.-Qatar Open Skies treaty threatens the relationship between the two countries at the precise moment when the Trump Administration’s Iran strategy depends on our ability to stage American military assets in the Middle East.  Qatar plays host to Al Udeid Air Force Base, the largest American air base in the Middle East, where those B-52s and F-15s are currently based – and is an essential ally now more than ever.

Despite the clear national security implications, the legacy carriers are ratcheting up their campaign, running television ads criticizing the U.S.-Qatar Open Skies agreement as U.S. forces were deploying to the region.

What is even more incredible is the genesis of this dispute:  An investment by Qatar Airways in a small Italian airline, Air Italy.  The total value of that investment?  $41.6 million, or about what American Airlines spends on fuel every 48 hours.  The legacy carriers claim that, by virtue of Qatar Airways’ investment, that Air Italy is “massively subsidized” and can “ignore economic realities,” thereby threatening the legacy carriers’ lucrative transatlantic routes.

Putting aside the fact that the legacy carriers have no evidence for that claim, the truth is that Air Italy is struggling.  Recently, the airline announced and then canceled or significantly cut back routes to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Toronto, along with multiple flights to Asian destinations just weeks after launching them.  It certainly doesn’t appear that Air Italy is immune from economic realities.

Business disputes are a fact of life, but in this case, the potential consequences reach far beyond any one company’s bottom line.  If the legacy carriers get their way and the U.S. unilaterally restricts flights by Qatar Airways or Air Italy, it could have disastrous results, and not just for the airlines in question.

Any interruption in the United States’ ability to use its air base at Al Udeid, or even a small disruption in our ability to supply the warfighters deployed to the base, could have a detrimental effect on the President’s ability to keep pressure on the Iranian regime.

The legacy carriers are playing a dangerous game with their anti-Qatar campaign.  It’s time for them to take a break and let the President do his critical work in the Middle East without worrying about unnecessary distractions.

Cory Sprunger is an alumnus of President George W. Bush’s White House and the Republican National Committee.

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