Unhappy Birthday: The Anti-Open Skies Campaign Against Competitive Choice Turns 2

This week marks an unfortunate chapter in U.S. aviation history. It's the two-year anniversary of a dangerous and disappointing challenge to United States leadership in international aviation policy. Two years ago, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines and their partners publicly launched a campaign that called for the U.S. government to breach its fully liberalized air-service agreements (aka Open Skies policies) with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar by freezing so-called Fifth Freedom rights (the right of an airline to fly from one country to another and then another, and so on). They have sought to clip the wings of Mideast Gulf carriers Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways.

It is hard to forget the mysterious white paper the anti-Open Skies partnership (henceforth to be referred to as the partnership) secretly shared with U.S. Government officials and select journalists. In Capitol Hill briefings the partnership required staff to return copies of it at the end of meetings as if it were top-secret ACA Repeal & Replace legislation. Seeming to lack confidence in the allegations in their white paper, for more than one month they wrapped their accusations in it but refused to make it publicly available.

Most troubling, and contrary to American principles, they refused to even give a copy to the accused Gulf Carriers who they were tarring with it. Finally, on March 5, 2015, the partnership partially released the white paper at a Washington news conference. However, when asked if they would also release the accompanying exhibits that contained purported financial records that formed the basis of the allegations in the white paper, they refused to do so, saying they would take that request under advisement. With pressure mounting for fairness, it was not until May 2015 that the exhibits were finally released, giving the accused and the general public a full picture of the white-paper accusations for the first time.

While the partnership at first spun their campaign as being nothing more than a benign request for government-to-government consultations, over time they have candidly admitted in public the message they privately delivered to government officials: Their bottom line is that they want the U.S. government to block Gulf carrier competition in the U.S.-Europe market. In other words, all the anti-Gulf carrier rhetoric generated by this political and public relations campaign, which is rumored to have cost tens of millions of dollars, boils down to one thing.

With over 80 percent of the U.S.-Europe market controlled by the transatlantic oligopoly of the partnership and their European joint-venture partners -- shielded from government competition oversight by antitrust immunity grants -- they are seeking to block competitive entry by Gulf carriers in what they regard to be "their" market containing "their" customers.

On this anniversary week, it is instructive to consider what has happened in the ensuing two years. Have U.S. airline jobs been decimated by Gulf carrier competition as the partnership claims? Are U.S. airline employees better or worse off than two years ago? Have Gulf carriers provided any benefit to the U.S. economy, including creating and supporting American jobs? Have consumers and communities benefited or been harmed by greater competitive choice?

Let's examine what has happened over the past two years since release of the white paper:

Competitive harm to U.S. airlines: none
Profits at Delta and United have soared. Their combined 2015 and 2016 net profits were $28.8 billion.

U.S. carriers have benefited from their code-share and interline partnerships with Gulf carriers. American has earned millions of dollars from its commercial partnerships with Etihad and Qatar, and Emirates has successful and growing partnerships with JetBlue and Alaska Airlines, enabling the latter to compete more effectively with the Big 3 in domestic markets. In the 12-month period up until November 2016, Emirates alone transferred almost 371,000 passengers onto its U.S. partner airlines.

Harm to U.S. airline employees: none
U.S. airline employment has grown substantially. According to U.S. Department of Transportation BTS data, between January 2015 and December 2016, 90,673 U.S. airline jobs were added, a 15.3 percent increase year-over-year.

U.S. airline employee wages and profit sharing have increased substantially. Over $59 billion was paid out in annual salaries, wages and benefits for Delta, American and United over the last two years. In2016 alone employee profit-sharing payouts at Delta were $1.1 billion (down from $1.5 billion in 2015, the largest payout in the history of corporate profit sharing programs), $628 million dollars at United and $314 million at American.

Benefits for the U.S. aerospace jobs market: substantial
Over the past two years U.S. aerospace manufacturing jobs have been created and sustained by delivery of wide-body Boeing aircraft. Gulf carriers have taken delivery of 59 wide-body Boeing aircraft (compared to41 for the Big 3 U.S. carriers combined).

Emirates Airline alone has taken delivery of 28 G.E.-powered Boeing 777aircraft with a list price of $10.8 billion since March 2015. According to the Department of Commerce jobs multiplier for aerospace exports, these Emirates Airline aircraft created or sustained 62,278 middle-class American jobs, including throughout Boeing's nationwide supply chain of 13,600 medium- and small-sized businesses. As for the Big 3, American and United took delivery of a total of just six 777s. Delta took delivery of no 777s.

Delta, with the highest profits of the Big 3, took delivery of no Boeing wide-body aircraft in the two years since the anti-Open Skies campaign began. Instead, Delta took delivery of nine Airbus A330 wide-bodies to replace older Boeing aircraft. In December 2016, Delta canceled a pending order for 18 Boeing 787 Dreamliner's worth $4 billion in list prices. Based on the Department of Commerce's jobs multiplier, that Delta cancellation will cost around 23,000 middle-class American jobs.

Jobs and economic benefits for U.S communities from nonstop U.S.-Middle East flights: substantial

According to U.S. airports, Emirates Airline's U.S.-Dubai nonstop flights generate more than $3.2 billion in annual economic benefits and growing (excluding Washington Dulles, for which airport-provided data is not available).

Since March 2015, Emirates delivered 3,065,587 guests to the U.S. According to the U.S. Travel Association, those guests who were not U.S. citizens on average spent around $4,400 each during their U.S. visits.

In early 2016, Delta and United both pulled their only nonstop U.S.-Dubai flights. Delta redeployed the aircraft to the more profitable Big 3/foreign alliance/joint-venture partner-dominated and lucrative transatlantic market. Presumably United did the same.

The pro-competition, pro-consumer, pro-growth U.S. Open Skies policy is a made-in-America success story, representing the gold standard for bilateral trade agreements.

Kevin Mitchell is founder of the Business Travel Coalition (610-999-9247; [email protected]), established in 1994 to interpret industry and government policies and practices and provide a platform so that the managed travel community can influence issues of strategic importance to their organizations.