The tail of an Emirates airline plane can be seen to the left of two aircraft of Qatar Airways. (Photo: Kamran Jebreili, AP)
WASHINGTON – In a pair of U.S. airline disputes with foreign carriers, the White House signaled Tuesday that President Trump’s focus will be on domestic jobs.
The question previewed a meeting Trump scheduled Thursday with Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian and United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz. Those legacy carriers and American Airlines have asked the administration to block additional flights from state-owned Emirates, Etihad and Qatar airlines because they received an alleged $50 billion in subsidies during the last decade, which the carriers deny.
The question also touched on Norwegian Air International, which won Transportation Department approval in December to serve the U.S. Airline unions have urged Trump to overturn the approval by arguing Norwegian is skirting labor laws with headquarters in Ireland, which the airline denies.
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Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, said Trump wants to talk with the Big 3 airline executives about economic growth and job creation. Spicer noted that Norwegian has hired American-based crews and is buying Boeing planes that provide “a huge economic interest” for the country.
“I don't want to get ahead of the president on that, but just to be clear, we are talking about U.S. jobs both in terms of the people who are serving those planes and the person who is building those planes,” Spicer said. “That’s a very big difference.”
Anders Lindstrom, a Norwegian spokesman, said the airline flies an all-Boeing fleet of 120 aircraft and has ordered another 120. The airline will take delivery of nine 787 Dreamliners, six 737 MAX and 17 737-800 aircraft this year, he said.
“No other foreign airline invests more in the American economy or creates more American jobs than Norwegian,” Lindstrom said. “We currently have 500 U.S. based cabin crew and is the only foreign airline to be recruiting American pilots, all of which are hired under local laws and regulations with competitive packages.”
The AFL-CIO, the Air Line Pilots Association, the Allied Pilots Association, the Association of Flight Attendants—CWA and the Transportation Trades Department have sued the government to overturn the Norwegian decision. Pilots have said they hope to work with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to overturn her predecessor's approval.
In terms of the Middle East airlines, the Obama administration conducted informal talks with the governments of United Arab Emirates and Qatar. But the previous administration didn’t reopen the so-called Open Skies agreements that provide unhindered flights between the countries.
"Obviously the president's going to want to talk about economic growth and job creation, how he's enacting orders to make sure the country's safe," Spicer said.
U.S. executives hope for a better reception from the Trump administration.
“The subsidies allow the Gulf carriers to operate without concern for turning a profit, unlike U.S. airlines, and therefore focus entirely on stripping market share and driving out competition,” Bastian, Munoz and American CEO Doug Parker wrote Feb. 1 to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “In fact, for every long-haul route lost or foregone as a result of subsidized Gulf carrier competition, more than 1,500 American jobs are lost.”
Parker won't be able to attend the meeting because of his airline's longstanding leadership conference in Dallas, according to spokesman Matt Miller.
"Doug shares President Trump’s commitment to modernizing our nation’s infrastructure and looks forward to working with his administration to ensure all Americans have access to safe and efficient air travel," Miller said.
Gulf carriers also buy a few planes. Qatar Airways, for example, announced an $18.6-billion Boeing order in October. The airline already has a combined total of more than 60 777 and 787 "Dreamliners" in its fleet. Elsewhere in the Gulf region, Emirates is the world's largest operator of Boeing's 777 wide-body, with more than 135 already in its fleet and another two dozen on order. Those orders are worth billions of dollars to Boeing. Fast-growing Etihad also has bought Boeing products, with nearly three-dozen Boeing wide-body jets currently in its fleet and future orders that could swell that number to more than 100.
Some U.S. carriers opposed the Big 3 effort, including JetBlue and Hawaiian, which offer connections to the Middle East carriers, and FedEx and Atlas Air, which fly freight to the region.
Vice President Mike Pence is meeting Wednesday with FedEx CEO Fred Smith.
Those airlines have grouped together to help form a coalition called U.S. Airlines for Open Skies, which is opposed to the push being made by the U.S. Big 3.
"The demands of the legacy carriers would reduce competition, undermine Open Skies, and harm the American economy," group spokesman Andrea McCarthy said in statement to Today in the Sky. "Rather than caving to these demands, we should support Open Skies agreements, which benefit American workers, the American military, made-in-America exports, and American travelers."