Big Fibs and Flawed Logic from the U.S. Travel Association

Mr. Roger Dow, President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, spoke yesterday to the International Aviation Club in Washington, and much of his talk continued the association’s support for the massively subsidized Gulf airlines – Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways – while criticizing the claims of the three major home teams – American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. Remarkably, he said this while sharing lunch with dozens of their uniformed pilots and cabin crews who were there to quietly bear witness to the reality that U.S. airline jobs matter.

I took issue with at least three of Mr. Dow’s main points, but before I could ask about even just one of them, he hurriedly left the dais. So I’ll state them here. My first objection: for more than two years, and again in the speech, the U.S. Travel Association has consistently – and I believe deliberately – misstated the arguments of the U.S. airlines. The untruth most often put forward is that American, Delta and United oppose the “Open Skies” aviation agreements the U.S. has negotiated with 120 countries. Here’s the truth: U.S. airlines have been vigorous supporters of Open Skies agreements because these pacts have been very good for American, Delta and United, enabling them to greatly expand their international networks with their own aircraft and through alliances (often joint ventures) with European and Asian airlines – a point Mr. Dow acknowledged in his talk.

In fact, the U.S. carriers criticize only two agreements of the 120, those with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, because both are violating terms of the Open Skies agreements by illegally supporting their airlines with wheelbarrows of cash. Toward the end of his talk, Mr. Dow showed a slide that repeated the big fib about the American-Delta-United position, purportedly a scorecard showing that numerous groups “supported” Open Skies and 10 (the 3 U.S. airlines and 7 unions) “opposed” them. A newspaper sports-page headline blaring a 138-10 drubbing might make good copy, but his premise was bogus. It’s convenient that Mr. Dow chose to ignore the countless members of Congress, business groups and of course American aviation workers who strongly believe that the U.S. needs to enforce its Open Skies agreements and stop Gulf airline cheating.

Objection two: Mr. Dow again urged Americans to get behind the Gulf airlines because they are super-good for the U.S. economy, by flying in massive numbers of overseas visitors who spend lots of money here. But while Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways transport visitors to the U.S., they do so only at the expense of American, Delta, United, and their European and Asian partners, and these fair-playing airlines are left unable to compete with the Gulf carriers and their bags of cash.

More fundamentally, even if the Gulf carriers were creating new demand, it’s not okay – and not logical – for them or their proxies to demand the right to violate legal agreements that hurt U.S. carriers, their employees, and their communities in order to benefit hotel chains, car-rental firms and travel companies. This is not a zero-sum game; every party gains when competition is fair.

Objection 3: Perhaps sensing shifting winds in Washington, Mr. Dow argued that Open Skies agreements are important because they help remove government interference from the market, thus promoting free competition. But aren’t massive government subsidies exactly the sort of government interference he dislikes?

It’s clear to most seasoned aviation observers in Washington that Mr. Dow and U.S. Travel have long dissed U.S. airlines, perhaps because they have never joined his organization. It gets better: if you click Membership on his website and filter the directory for airlines, you only see Emirates, Etihad, and a tiny U.S. start-up!

I spent nearly my entire working life in the airline business, an industry where precision matters greatly, not just in operations but also across the entire enterprise. Facts, data and logic are woven into how we think and act. So when I see inaccuracy, especially when it seems willful, I get cranky. And the arguments from the U.S. Travel Association make me cranky.

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