Flying direct between New York and Milan has never been easier, but competition among hometown airlines and Gulf carriers has put controversial “fifth freedom” and “flag of convenience” flights in the spotlight.
In theory, open skies agreements level the playing field for all airlines flying international flights, but U.S. legacy carriers have long insisted that Gulf carriers such as Qatar, Emirates and Etihad aren’t playing fair. Perhaps, nowhere is this dispute better exemplified than in the crowded skies between New York and Milan.
U.S-based carriers have accused the Gulf carriers of taking advantage of unfair government subsidies, abusing so-called “fifth freedom” loopholes and in rare instances taking advantage of thinly veiled “flag of convenience” flights through subsidiary airlines. In addition to flights operated by American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, the Milan to New York route sees regularly scheduled flights by Gulf airlines that in some cases seem to highlight the most vocal complaints from North American airlines.
Emirates offers service between Milan–Malpensa Airport (MXP) and John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) under the fifth freedom clauses of current open skies agreements. Fifth freedom rights allow carriers to, in certain circumstances, operate direct service between two foreign countries, so long as those flights originate in the airline’s home country.
US airlines say that fifth freedom rights were envisioned to help airlines with respect to the logistics of long haul flights, allowing for stops to refuel, change crews or to connect passengers with other flights. Legacy airlines in the U.S. have accused Gulf carriers of abusing the rule. Not surprisingly, Emirates President Tim Clark strongly disagrees.
Currently, Emirates only exercises this “loophole” to operate two flights between the U.S and Europe, including service between JFK and MXP as well as service between Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) and Athens International Airport (ATH).
United Airlines employees 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 called out to put an end to the flights. There were similar complaints over the airline’s direct JFK to MXP service at the time it was launched as well.
“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 in a statement decrying the direct service to EWR. “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.”
Meanwhile, Business Insider’s Benjamin Zhang points out that the inaugural Air Italy flight between MXP and JFK may in practice give another Gulf carrier an important foothold when it comes to offering direct service between Europe and North America. Qatar Airways owns a 49 percent interest in the Italian carrier. Additionally, a large number of the aircraft operated by the airline formerly known as Meridiana are in fact leased from Qatar Airways.