There is no question that the U.S. aviation industry has had its fair share of challenges over the last two decades. After great sacrifice by employees and dedication to turn our airlines around, today the major U.S. airlines are thriving, investing in better planes and infrastructure for passenger experience and workers are negotiating for a return on our investment and a fair share of the profits. However, a serious risk to the health of the U.S. aviation industry has emerged, and it is threatening tens of thousands of jobs and service to consumers due to the largest trade violation in our nation’s history.

Over the past decade, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar have poured more than $42 billion in subsidies and other unfair benefits into their state-owned airlines, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways. With the financial backing of their oil-rich nations, they are able to undercut competitors’ prices drastically, which is greatly distorting the international aviation market and threatens to choke out the U.S. aviation industry. The end result will be fewer options for consumers and less or no service to our smaller communities.


The fact is the enormous subsidies that are allowing the Gulf carriers to expand exponentially in violation of Open Skies agreements between the United States and these countries. The U.S. has 117 Open Skies agreements and the UAE and Qatar are the only countries breaking the rules. These agreements only work when both sides abide by them, which is not the case with the Gulf carriers.

These Gulf carriers have expanded rapidly without creating any meaningful new demand; instead, they are flooding the U.S. with new subsidized flights in an effort to dominate global aviation. Since the beginning of the year, the three Gulf carriers have announced they are expanding service to the U.S. by a whopping 25 percent. This is threatening American jobs, routes and service for travelers. Leading economists and industry experts estimate that every international roundtrip flight lost by a U.S. carrier results in the elimination of more than 800 American jobs.

Following Emirates’ subsidized entry into four key markets, bookings on U.S. carriers and their joint venture partners dropped an average of 10.8 percent in Boston, 7.6 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth, 21.4 percent in Seattle and 14.3 percent in Washington, D.C. The harm inflicted by the decline in bookings over time will result in cuts in service to these and other American cities by the U.S. carriers, who cannot rely on a blank government checkbook to keep those flights operating.

It isn’t just the major markets that are at risk. U.S. airlines serve small and medium-sized communities that Emirates, Qatar and Etihad have not even considered flying to because the destinations aren’t as lucrative as flying to large metropolitan areas. When a U.S. carrier is forced to cut an international route because they can no longer compete, service to smaller communities is at risk. And if you ask an airport director or a mayor, you’ll hear just how critical this infrastructure is to local economies – from encouraging businesses to locate to the jobs that are supported by the aviation industry. Even the loss of one route would have an impact.

The good news is that there is a solution. The Open Skies agreements allow the governments to request consultations to address these types of issues. The Obama administration has made it clear that they closely reviewing the issue, but have yet to take action. The Departments of Transportation, State and Commerce sought stakeholder comments through a public docket and over three quarters of the comments were in support of the government addressing the flow of subsidies and level the playing field for U.S. airlines and their workers. This included over 260 members of Congress, 22 senators as well as governors, local elected officials, business groups and airport directors from across the country. Now that the docket is closed and pages of pages of material has been submitted that document the subsidization of the Gulf carriers, the time has come for action.  

On behalf of tens of thousands of airline employees working in and serving our communities, we ask that the Obama administration act swiftly on behalf of American workers in this trade dispute and ensure all airlines are competing on a level playing field. We welcome competition and the frontline workers at U.S. airlines have proven time and time again that we can compete with the best international carriers. But our airlines should be competing with other airlines, not the treasuries of wealthy nations. Good American jobs depend on action by the administration.

Sara Nelson is the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO.