In public comments at the IATA conference on Tuesday, Emirates President Tim Clark struck a defiant tone about the carrier’s right to offer direct service between Europe and North America.
Speaking at the the International Air Transport Association (IATA) General Meeting in Sydney, Emirates President Tim Clark insisted that the carrier has every right to exercise “fifth freedom” rights under current open skies agreements to operate additional direct flights between North America and Europe. The Gulf airline executive dismissed complaints by U.S. airlines and government officials that the flights violate current open skies agreements as “nonsense.” He stopped short, however, of announcing any plans to expand the airline’s use of the fifth freedom agreements to offer expanded transatlantic flights.
“If we wish to do more points in the U.S. or more intermediate points at some point, there is nothing that stops us doing it, contrary to what others seem to be saying to the media or believing,” Clark said in comments first reported by Skift. “Maybe they’re reading a different document. I don’t get it, frankly, when people say they can’t, they won’t. This is all stuff in nonsense.”
At the heart of the controversy are the so-called “fifth freedom agreements” that allow carriers to, in certain circumstances, operate direct flights between two foreign countries, so long as those flights originate in the airline’s home country. Currently Emirates only exercises this loophole to operate two flights between the U.S and Europe, including service between John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Milan–Malpensa Airport (MXP) as well as service between Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) and Athens International Airport (ATH).
United Airlines workers and lawmakers were on hand to protest Emirates maiden ATH to EWR flight last year. U.S. airline officials have called the flights a violation of open skies agreements and have urged regulators to put and end to the flights.
“Each time a U.S. carrier is forced to cut one of these long-haul international routes, American jobs are at risk,” United Airlines VP Rick Hoefling said at the time. “That translates into fewer jobs for pilots, ground crew, flight attendants and all of those who make our domestic aviation sector one of the best around the world. We look to the new administration to enforce our international aviation agreements and stand up for all U.S. aviation workers.”
Mexican authorities have faced similar calls to declare Emirates fifth freedom flights in violation of existing open skies agreements. Emirates plans for direct service connecting Barcelona–El Prat Airport (BCN) and Mexico City International Airport (MEX) have so far been held up by legal wrangling.
“We are going to look at all the legal mechanisms that are within our reach,” Aeroméxico CEO Andres Conesa of his airline’s efforts to block the flights. “We are going to give battle. This could affect connectivity. If they sell subsidized tickets, they will force us out of the market. If they force us out and we aren’t competitive with our flights to Europe, we will have to reduce our offerings.”
While Clark was adamant about his airline’s right to operate direct flights allowed by the fifth freedom clauses, he said the airline wan’t looking to substantially exploit those rights anytime in the near future.
“I’m afraid it has been hugely successful and it remains so,” Clark told Reuter this week. “But is it our intention to punch out fifth freedoms across the planet? Actually, No, We will take them where we can, but most of the time, we will be point-to-point entities.”