Feds set Aug. 3 deadline for Open Skies comments

Feds set Aug. 3 deadline for Open Skies comments
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The Obama administration is giving airlines and travel groups one more month to weigh in on a dispute over foreign airline subsidies that has roiled the U.S. aviation industry. 

Unions that represent employees of the largest U.S. airlines, known collectively as the Big Three, have alleged Emirates and other Middle Eastern airlines like Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways have received more than $42 billion in subsidies since 2004.

The major U.S. airlines — Delta, United and American — say the payments to their Middle Eastern competitors violate the spirit of the Open Skies agreements between the U.S. and the governments of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which own the airlines. 

They want the Obama administration to launch a review of the claims with the Middle Eastern governments, which would involve a delicate set of negotiations that critics said would upset other areas of foreign relations.

The Departments of State, Commerce and Transportation said Wednesday they are closing the dockets for their domestic review that is preceding any potential international engagement on the Open Skies issue on Aug. 3. 

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"The U.S. Departments of Commerce, State, and Transportation announced an open forum on April 10, 2015, and issued a Federal Register notice on May 5, 2015, soliciting information and views on assertions that three foreign airlines – Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways – have received and are benefitting from subsidies from their respective governments that are distorting the global aviation market," the agencies said.   

"As reflected in the supplemental Federal Register notice, the Departments request that information be submitted to the dockets by 11:59 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on August 3," the agencies continued. "The Departments further request that any additional materials commenting on information submitted to the dockets be submitted by 11:59 p.m. on August 24. The Departments may establish additional deadlines at their discretion." 

The fight over the Open Skies agreements has exposed a rift between airlines and travel and consumer groups that argue U.S. carriers are trying to prevent competition for international flights.

Unions that represent U.S. airline workers have formed campaigns to pressure the Obama administration to question the Gulf carrier subsidies. 

Travel industry and consumer groups have, meanwhile, accused the airlines of trying to reduce competition for international flights. 

The review launched by the Obama administration of the airline industry’s claims falls far short of the full-scale international negotiation the U.S. carriers have called for, but it was still seen as win for airlines that the docket was established.