The day after the election of Donald Trump to the White House, the aviation advocacy group Partnership for Open & Fair Skies released a pitch in the form of a statement. "We are optimistic that the Trump administration will stand up to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, enforce our trade agreements and fight for American jobs,” said spokesperson Jill Zuckman.
The Partnership for Fair & Open Skies is a coalition of the willing, an alliance of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, and a slew of unions. These allies, who are usually at odds, formed the partnership to lobby the U.S. government into protecting U.S.-based airlines. Fort Worth-based American is a major partner, and Dallas-based Southwest's pilots' association is also a member.
This advocacy group's nemeses are Middle Eastern airlines that want to fly to more cities in the United States. These carriers enjoy government subsidies that enable them to fly airplanes that are unprofitably empty, undercut U.S. prices and claim more market share. That's the shared threat to the airlines and unions.
Here's where the U.S. government gets involved. There are international deals in place called Open Skies Agreements that govern flights in and out of nations. These enable a foreign carrier to land in the United States from abroad, and eases the transfer of passengers from carriers of various nations. (So you can fly to New York and connect to Paris on AirFrance, on the same ticket.)
These agreements cover international flights. The Middle Eastern carriers want to stop at more U.S. domestic airports, but the partnership argues that the Open Skies Agreements prohibit this. The Middle Eastern carriers, run from the UAE and Qatar (which are actual military allies), argue that these stopovers are just part of the flight and not an attempt to set up domestic routes inside the United States.
The United States government can choose to renegotiate these Open Skies Agreements. This is something the Obama administration has not done, despite soliciting reams on data and information from the U.S. airlines and, basically, kicking the can down the road.
With a Trump presidency, and protecting American jobs a prominent talking point, the airlines and unions clearly see an opening. "We look forward to briefing President-elect Donald Trump and his new administration on the massive, unfair subsidies that the UAE and Qatar give to their state-owned Gulf carriers,” Zuckman wrote. “The Gulf carrier subsidies threaten the jobs of 300,000 U.S. aviation workers and the American aviation industry."
The unions in the coalition include the Air Line Pilots Association, International; the Allied Pilots Association; International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Communications Workers of America; and the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association.
Labor unions are wary of Trump's pro-business positions, but union voters turned out in unexpected strength for the Republican. Part of the reason is the union backing of government global-focused trade policy. The idea that unions could score a win with a ruling, and Trump could score one himself and reward those voters, makes them likely bedfellows.
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That sounds like a win-win, but it might not sit so well with passengers who have been deprived of cheaper options on international travel. And reopening the Open Skies Agreements could lead to trade war slugfests that gut or dissolve the passenger swap system, leaving passengers waiting longer for connecting international flights and paying more for them.
There is another front to this war to keep an eye on — a battle to keep Norwegian airlines from an airport in Boston. On Nov. 9, the largest airline pilot union in the world, the Airline Pilot Association, issued a press release that "recognizes the commitment of President-elect Trump to a trade agenda that promotes the United States."
Their release contained a naked plea to intervene against the European carrier, which would reverse a preliminary ruling by the Obama administration allowing the permit. "ALPA remains committed to working with current and newly elected officials on collaborative efforts to call for the enforcement of U.S. air transport agreements and fair competition for U.S. airlines and their workers by opposing Norwegian Air International’s foreign air carrier permit application.”
If there is quick action against the Norwegians, it could be a sign that a more complicated negotiation may be coming with the Middle Eastern carriers. For those looking for an example of Trump's presidency in action, keep watching the skies.