American carriers have repeatedly used airline lobbying groups to make some tall claims to push their agenda. Back in the day, in 2015, they made a lofty claim that Middle Eastern Carriers such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar had an unfair advantage because of their state-owned stature. In 2020, American Airlines and Qatar Airways sewed up a Strategic Partnership; in 2022, United partnered with Emirates. So, in five years, their doubts withered away, and the opportunism was given in to make a new partnership which made them both money (US and Middle-Eastern carriers).
United’s Scott Kirby takes offence with access to Russian airspace.
United’s CEO, Scott Kirby, who moved to United from American Airlines a few years ago, and is an aviation executive who I generally have a lot of respect for, made an off-the-cuff statement at the recently concluded IATA AGM earlier this week in Istanbul that had me a bit puzzled with his stance.
He told media persons present at the IATA AGM 2023,
I worry when airlines are flying over Russia and they have American citizens onboard.
When planes fly over Russia, you use Russian airports as a place to divert airplanes. If there’s a mechanical issue or a medical issue, you land in Russia. What’s going to happen if an airline lands in Russia with some prominent U.S. citizens on board? That is a crisis in the making, and I think we should solve it before the crisis happens.
And as if on cue, an Air India aircraft flying from Delhi to San Francisco had to divert in Russia. Air India is organising relief flights at the moment.
United has much to lose in this case because of the ban that American carriers have to fly over Russian Airspace for now. India is a market on growth, the most populous country in the world and almost everyone in the aviation business wants access to India. United has had to reduce flights to India and only operates a Newark – Delhi – Newark flight because they do not have the equipment to operate more flights, such as from Chicago to India. Additionally, while the American carriers used to fly over Russia for years, they were blocked from using airspace at the start of the war. American Airlines also just operates on the Delhi – New York JFK route.
While Kirby was sufficiently vague about not taking names in the comments, he was worried about the US – India business, as in the next breath, he mentioned that the overflying ban is affecting United’s India services. Kirby said,
It’s clearly a big impact to us. Pre-pandemic, we were almost going to five flights a day between the US and India, for example, and now we fly one, and it’s an extra two hours. We literally can’t fly the other four routes, even when taking extra time. That’s disappointing, but that’s part of being the largest airline in the world and being the flag carrier the United States.
On the other hand, the Indian political dispensation has not placed any such rules on the Indian carriers and not on the American carriers. India and the US have an Open Skies agreement, and Air India has been operating flights to the US since 1960, while American carriers have come and gone from the market. So, Air India, at the moment, operates non-stop flights between India and New York, Washington DC, Newark, Chicago and San Francisco, and is the only carrier which has extensive connectivity between the US and India.
As much as the customer experience on these non-stop flights is sub-par in many cases when flights are operated with Air India’s older equipment, the older folk still prefer to fly with Air India because of the non-stop nature of the flights. Remember, there is a strong Indian diaspora in the US, and the two significant democracies are involved in trade and a tonne of relationships as well. So, non-stop connectivity remains essential, which only Air India is able to provide at the moment at scale.
Essentially, Kirby wants curbs on Indian carriers so that, if he can’t, no one else should have it as well, and the customer should suffer in the process, arguably.
Kirby continues to keep the partnership with Emirates.
While Kirby made a comment out of the goodness of his heart and having fear for the American citizen, he had no such words for his new best friends at Emirates, who have also been using Russian airspace and operating all their west coast flights via Russian Airspace. In fact, at the time I write this, three Emirates flights are cruising towards the US after having flown through Russia. Oops. United continues to partner with Emirates, which operates the flights.
Emirates and United recently sewed up a new deal where United Airlines and Emirates have their code on each others’ routes, a move rejected under current India – Dubai bilateral agreements.
It amuses me no end that Scott Kirby felt the need to advise the US Government that there should be a level playing field but did not offer the same comment in the context of the US airlines’ partner and friend Emirates, which also uses the same airspace. Was it a minor detail or just a comment of convenience?
United CEO Scott Kirby felt the need to make a media comment at the IATA AGM about the safety of the US Citizens being flown over Russian Airspace. However, he kept the partnership with Emirates signed under his leadership just a few months ago. On the other hand, he asks for a level playing field.
What do you think of Kirby’s comments on the use of Russian Airspace?
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