Big five European carriers team up in bid for new strategy amid Gulf competition

Europe’s big five carriers have joined forces to lobby for a new EU aviation policy to cut passenger taxes and limit strike disruption amid mounting competition from Arabian Gulf rivals.

The chief executives of Europe’s five largest airline groups – Air France KLM, easyJet, the British Airways parent company International Airlines Group, Lufthansa and Ryanair – met on Wednesday in Brussels to agree on four key recommendations.

But unlike their US peers, they have taken aim at taxation, regulation and industrial action by air traffic controllers.

Their submission did not make any specific references to competition from the Gulf.

“This is more about regulation and efficiencies such as air traffic control,” said Stephen Furlong, a senior equity analyst at Dublin-based Davy Group. “IAG actively favours liberalisation and competition, as do Ryanair and easyJet, although they are not in long-haul markets.”

The rapid growth of Gulf carriers in the United States and Europe has stoked tension in the global aviation industry and triggered a series of tit-for-tat allegations and veiled threats.

The meeting in Brussels was in response to the new EU transport commissioner Violeta Bulc’s consultation on a new EU aviation strategy.

While not specifically referencing competition from carriers such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways, the European airlines urged the commission to establish a simple and efficient regulatory structure to boost jobs and competitiveness.

They also called for the removal of passenger taxes and moves to ensure that air traffic controller strikes did not cause disruption to passengers across Europe.

“Europe’s airlines form the most competitive sector in aviation, with a diverse mix of carriers offering competition and choice to consumers,” the five European airlines said in a statement that jointly quoted the chief executives Alexandre de Juniac, Carolyn McCall, Willie Walsh, Carsten Spohr and Michael O’Leary.

“This is the first time we have set aside our competitive battles to highlight the importance of a new european aviation strategy,” they said.

The joint approach taken by the European carriers contrasts sharply with the combative strategy adopted by US carriers in recent weeks, said John Strickland, the director of UK-based JLS Consulting.

“There is a different agenda here and it is a tangibly more constructive approach,” he said.

The five European airlines stressed that their recommendations would create “hundreds of thousands of jobs – particularly for young people at a time of high youth unemployment in countries such as Italy or Spain”.

The issue of job creation and protection has emerged as a key battleground for airlines on both sides of the Atlantic as they seek to influence industry regulators.

While carriers such as Emirates claim they directly and indirectly support tens of thousands of jobs in Europe and the US from plane manufacturing to ground handling, US airlines counter that the growth of Gulf carriers threatens American jobs.

Earlier this week Etihad urged the European Commission to put passengers first in its strategic rethink of aviation policy to produce a “bold, exciting and world-leading” industry.

The call came in a detailed response by the Abu Dhabi carrier to a European request for evidence as part of the public consultation process for its strategic aviation package, which is to be implemented by the end of this year.

Emirates and Qatar Airways were not immediately available for comment. Etihad declined to comment.

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