|TAP Special| The atmosphere at the IATA conference in Miami was surcharged with tension, with the animosity between Western and Middle Eastern carriers quickly dominating the proceedings. An interview by Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, in which he threatened retaliation against Western “protectionism”only aggravated tensions.
The issue isn’t on the agenda at the annual meeting IATA, but it was virtually inevitable that it would come up at an event that brings nearly 150 airlines together in one room.
Akbar Al Baker used the opening session to complain about “protectionism coming from certain circles in the U.S. and Europe.”
“Any rollback of liberal market access and open-skies policies will reverberate across the whole world and will lead to retaliatory protectionism that will affect all aspects of trade,” Al Baker said to murmurs from the audience, adding that IATA should take a stand in the dispute.
Al Baker said Qatar Airways expects to deliver its rebuttal to the U.S. airlines’ claims in the next few weeks. The three Gulf carriers are not coordinating their replies, he added, and he does not see any scope for negotiation.
“There is no olive branch on this issue,” he said. Under the agreements, “we can deploy as much capacity as we want in the United States and the United States carriers can deploy as much capacity as they want in my country.
In a roundtable with the media later in the day, IATA director general Tony Tyler said he supports “fair and free competition” but added that market access is an issue for governments to address, not industry.
“We are very much in favour of liberalizing, and the whole issue of opening up skies is good for the industry, it’s good for everybody, but within that description there’s room for sensible people to disagree about what fair competition means,” Tyler said.
Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu, who has largely stayed out of the debate, agreed with Tyler that the solution has to rest in the hands of policymakers.
According to reports, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, who is one of the executives leading the charge against the Gulf carriers, tried to downplay the disagreement Monday, saying he had a “nice talk” with Al Baker over the weekend.
“This is about being able to compete against airlines instead of governments,” Parker said. “Our dispute is not with any of those three airlines; we’re just trying to get the U.S. government to enforce fair policies.”