Qatar is using the tiny, close-to-defunct Air Italy to skirt its promise to the U.S. to not add so-called ‘Fifth Freedom’ flights to the U.S, - Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian

This goes back to the long-lasting bad blood between the U.S. legacy carriers and the Middle East big three. American, United and Delta have long accused Qatar Airways (as well as Emirates and Etihad) of receiving government subsidies. According to the U.S. big three, the alleged state subsidies received by Qatar (and the UAE, where Emirates and Etihad are based) are in direct violation of the “fair competition" stipulated by the Open Skies agreements with the U.S.

Air Italy aircraft in its new livery (Image: Simone Previdi, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Proxy War by Qatar Airways?

A thaw in the long-running feud over unfair competition was seemingly reached at the beginning of last year when in January 2018, the President Trump’s administration and the Qatari government reached an agreement to settle the dispute on air transport issues between the two countries. At the time, it was hailed as a victory for the administration and a tribute to President Trump’s goal to protect American jobs.

Under the agreement, Qatar Airways was to commit to complete financial transparency and disclose detailed financial information of its state-owned enterprise. The carrier also pledged not to launch any more “fifth freedom” flights to the U.S., settling for routes that originated only from Qatar. A similar agreement was made between the governments of the U.S. and the UAE in May.

By exploiting its investment in Air Italy to create a loophole and dodge this pledge, Qatar has violated this [January 2018] agreement and the trust of the United States, - Scott Reed, Partnership for Open & Fair Skies 

However, the long lasting feud seems to have been revitalized with Air Italy’s expansion plans. The carrier’s response to the outrage from the U.S. regarding the doubling of its network there was the announcement of plans to add even more routes (to Chicago and Toronto). Chief operating officer Rossen Dimitrov said the new route to the U.S. “reflects the importance of the North American market to us,” Forbes quotes him as saying.

Qatar Airways CEO AL Baker threatens to withdraw from the OneWorld alliance due to a trade dispute between the state-owned carrier and its archrival and alliance member American Airlines.  

The Partnership for Open & Fair Skies, a coalition representing Delta, United and American Airlines, among other aviation bodies, has advocated that Qatar Airways is behind the Italian carrier’s rapid expansion. United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz have gone as far as saying that Air Italy is “The Italian version of Qatar,” Forbes quoted him as saying during a conference call with reporters earlier in December 2018.