Comment: Dreaming up a surreal plan to level US-Gulf airlines playing field

On a recent Emirates long-haul flight, I dozed off in front of my laptop and had a surreal experience. I dreamt I was writing a news story for The National about the open skies spat between the United States and UAE. I woke up to find the following words of raw copy on my screen:

In a dramatic escalation of the aviation war of words between America and the Arabian Gulf, US airlines have urged the UAE authorities to move Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports closer to Washington to ensure “level playing fields” in the global airline industry.

In what is thought to be the first time in history that one country has sought to have another country’s airports moved thousands of kilometres, three US carriers – Delta, United and American – are lobbying the White House to put pressure on UAE federal authorities to move the airports to the crowded American northeast coast.

They are also urging the government of Qatar to dismantle the new Hamad International airport in Doha and reassemble it on a site in New Jersey.

A spokesman for the American airlines said: “We have already asked for the governments of Qatar and the UAE to halt their blatantly unfair economic policy of support for their aviation industries, but we recognise that the real competitive edge Emirates, Etihad and Qatar enjoy is their geographical location in the centre of the world’s most lucrative trading and travel zones.

“We consider it grossly unfair, and contrary to the spirit of the open skies agreements, for these airports to be located so close to the cities of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, and call on them to be relocated in the USA, preferably near Washington DC and New York. Only then will we ensure Gulf and American carriers compete on a level footing,” the spokesman added.

The new call from the Americans took Gulf airlines by surprise as they prepare to respond in detail to claims of unfair business practice.

A source at Emirates said: “We will need more time to consider the request. We have already invested a lot on Dubai International Airport, as well as on Dubai World Central, and it would be a shame to have to rebuild it all over again on the eco-toxic site of a former steel works in upstate New York.

“The three US carriers have already asked the UAE to reverse government industrial policy, and change the country’s laws to impose a unionised workforce on the Gulf airlines. But physically moving the airports seems a bit excessive,” the Emirates source said.

A UAE aviation executive, speaking on terms of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks with US aviation officials, said: “We’ll consider it, like we have their other half-baked allegations and claims. I suppose we should have seen this one coming when we encouraged our airlines to fly places that people actually want to visit, from geographically convenient airports.”

The American airlines refused to comment on industry reports that it was asking its Gulf rivals to consider other measures to ensure open skies equality.

There has been speculation that the three airlines would ask Emirates, Etihad and Qatar to introduce hard, lumpy seats in business class instead of the comfy flat-beds they currently provide. It has also been suggested the Gulf airlines should send their cabin crew to a “rudeness school” to ensure the same standards of in-flight service as their North American rivals.

Absurd, of course, but I don’t know how to explain it. A weird nightmare, or perhaps a premonition?

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