Open Skies fight turns personal

Open Skies fight turns personal
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The fight over Open Skies agreements between the U.S. and Middle Eastern nations has taken a personal turn as airline unions accused U.S. Travel Association President Roger Dow of supporting “repugnant” business practices among foreign carriers. 

A group of airline unions that have been calling for a federal review of subsidies received by a trio of Middle Eastern airlines singled out Dow in a letter to the Travel Association’s Board of Directors, accusing the group’s president of “defending companies with abhorrent labor standards.” 

“Employees of these airlines aren’t granted fundamental human rights that are enjoyed by most workers in today’s world,” the groups wrote. “Mr. Dow is standing up for companies that demand female employees obtain permission before getting married or pregnant. And he is defending companies that bar lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from employment. In addition to gender and sexual orientation discrimination, the Gulf carriers have imposed archaic weight and appearance standards on their employees.” 

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Dow responded to the union criticism by accusing U.S. airlines of trying to “smear” Middle Eastern airlines because they are afraid of competing with them. 

"Casting about for ways to smear the Gulf carriers won't change the fact that Open Skies has been overwhelmingly beneficial for U.S. consumers, U.S. job creation and the U.S. economy,” he said in a statement that was provided to The Hill. 

“If the Big Three airlines and their unions' are ever able to present compelling arguments for breaking the agreements with those priorities in mind, we're all ears,” Dow continued. “Just because the Big Three have an air service oligopoly, other sectors of the economy that create scads of jobs thanks to international visitors should not be harmed just because the legacy carriers are afraid of a little healthy competition."

At issue is a claim by the airline industry unions that Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates Airlines, which are owned by the governments of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have received more than $42 billion in subsidies since 2004. The airlines say the subsidies violate the spirit of the “Open Skies” agreements between the U.S. and Middle Eastern countries, and should be reviewed by federal officials. 

The travel industry and consumer groups say airlines are trying to prevent competition for international flights. 

The letter this week was signed by the presidents of the Association of Flight Attendants, Association of Professional Flight Attendants, Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Teamsters. 

The labor groups asked members of the Travel Association’s board if they found the Middle Eastern airlines’ labor practices acceptable. 

“Supporting Gulf carriers today returns us to a deplorable time in our industry's history,” they wrote. “We are writing to you, a member of the board of directors of the U.S. Travel Association, to ask two simple questions: Do you support these labor standards? Do you want to associate your name and your company's reputation with such repugnant practices?” 

The Travel Association’s Dow has said airlines should be focused on delivering better service to passengers. 

"We wish we did not have to stand apart from our friends in the airline industry on this or any other issue,” he said in a statement released last week. “But with their efforts to reduce competition in the aviation marketplace having become so aggressive — and the negative impact of these policies upon consumers so abundantly clear — we simply cannot sit idly by."