U.S. legacy carriers gained a powerful new political ally in the contentious battle with Gulf rivals this week when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich pressed the Trump administration to weigh in on the issue.
The bickering between US Airlines and Gulf state airlines has at times devolved into name-calling and exchanges of petty insults. In June of 2015, then Delta CEO Richard Anderson called Gulf carriers the greatest challenge to the North American airline industry and urged US regulators to block Emirates, Qatar and Etihad from expanding flights to the US. In response, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker famously accused Delta Air Lines of flying sub-par aircraft and ridiculed his rival of having a “weak personality.”
“The facts are pretty straightforward,” Anderson in turn told industry leaders. “We all remember, 20 or 30 years ago, the inequities of the trade regime between the U.S. and Japan around automobiles and the devastating effect that trade imbalance had on the automobile industry had here in Detroit. We’re facing a similar situation with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar Airways — they really aren’t airlines, they’re governments.”
“Let him come face to face with me in any forum,” Akbar al-Baker later retorted while speaking at a press conference. “I will hang him on a wall.”
Now former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has stepped into the fray. So far, the former Republican Presidential hopeful hasn’t resorted to insults and name-calling. Instead, Gingrich penned an op-ed column for the Washington Examiner calling on the Trump administration to begin reining-in Gulf carriers over perceived unfair competitive advantages (a course of action previous administrations have repeatedly resisted).
Richard Anderson’s successor at Delta, CEO Ed Bastian publicly expressed hope Donald Trump’s “America First” policy might lead to regulatory action against the Gulf-based airlines. Gingrich, a political ally of Donald Trump, appears set on bringing just that situation to fruition.
“Our Open Skies agreements allow the State Department to request immediate consultations with partner countries to address grievances,” Speaker Gingrich wrote in his December 2, editorial piece. “We should do so immediately. If we are refused, the Trump administration should announce it is freezing the addition of new routes from the Gulf carriers to the United States until UAE and Qatar come to the table.”
Not everyone, however, agrees with Gingrich and Bastian’s belief that US carriers are suffering at the hands of unfairly subsidized foreign competitors. In an opposing column titled “US Airlines Have Brought on Newt Gingrich to Pick Your Pockets,” the Boarding Area’s Gary Leff noted that if the Gulf carriers face sanctions, it will be air travelers who end up caught in the crossfire.
“Newt Gingrich leads with his historical support for free trade, hoping you won’t realize this is blatant protectionism, using the government to take money from consumers and give it to Delta, United, and American Airlines shareholders,” Leff wrote, adding, “They want the Trump administration, rather than consumers, to drive these decisions which will cost consumers more money.”