Qatar Airways’ inaugural flight to Atlanta this week wasn’t just the airline’s first trip to the world’s busiest airport.
It was a foray right into the backyard of its most vocal critic.
For the past two years, Qatar Airways and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines have been engaged in a very public feud over allegations that Middle Eastern carriers — which are a major threat to the US carriers’ international business — are violating international agreements.
The complaint, which Delta has championed, is that Qatar, Emirates, and Etihad are unfairly supported by subsidies in violation of the US’s Open Skies agreements with their governments.
In Atlanta, the feud has taken on soap-opera like characteristics, including name calling and collateral damage including funding for a landmark theatre in Atlanta.
On Tuesday, 517 passengers on board Qatar Airways Flight 755 were caught in the middle.
After a 14-hour flight from Doha, the Qatari Airbus A380 superjumbo landed at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Once there it did not have a gate available for the passengers to deplane.
Even though Atlanta’s airport hosts more 100 million passengers a year, few travel using the double-decker Airbus jet and the airport has only one gate capable of handling the gargantuan aeroplane. And the gate just so happened to be occupied by Delta Air Lines at the time.
So the Qatari jet was eventually towed to a remote parking area where passengers were offloaded onto buses. It’s a procedure rarely undertaken at the vast airport in non-emergency situations.
But there’s more
This story isn’t just as straightforward as that. Yes, Delta was occupying the only gate Qatar could use. And Delta — which has been feuding publicly with Qatar — wasn’t going to give it up.
But it turns out that Qatar knew perfectly well in advance of the flight’s departure that it wasn’t going to get the gate.
Qatar has no intention to fly the massive A380 to Atlanta on a regular basis. And in fact, the Atlanta flight was originally scheduled to be operated by a 259-seat Boeing 777 (which is the aircraft that will make that flight on a regular basis, and can fit at any number of gates in Atlanta).
But Qatar decided in April that it was going to fly the A380 for the inaugural flight, no doubt a way make a dramatic entrance.
Although Qatar alerted the airport almost six weeks ahead of the flight, it was less than the 60-day notice period required to change an A380’s gate allocations.
“Due to the sheer size of the aircraft, time needed to service and short advance notice the Airport was given, aircraft operations would have been significantly disrupted and would have displaced four or five other aircraft,” Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport spokesman Reese McCranie told Business Insider.
And, in a letter sent to Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker the day before the flight, Atlanta airport’s interim general manager Roosevelt Council warned the airline that a gate would not be available between the hours of 10am and 8 pm. Flight 755 landed a 4:03pm.
So Qatar was prepared.
“We knew before the flight that we did not have a gate available,” vice president for the Americas Gunter Saurwein told Business Insider. “So we flew in our best people from around the country to help manage the turnaround of the plane.”
Still, on Friday, Al Baker called Delta “wicked” and its actions an “absolute violation of the air services agreement,”Bloomberg reported. In addition, Al Baker accused Delta of obstructing his airline’s handicapped and elderly passengers as well as its general check-in process.
“Delta in no way acted to obstruct Qatar’s ability to park its aircraft at an Atlanta gate,” the airline said in an emailed statement. “Delta offered solutions to allow Qatar to use the gates while ensuring our own schedule remained accommodated during a heavy traffic period at the international terminal.
As messy as the spat may seem, it was simply the latest salvo in the dispute between two of the world’s leading airlines.
While Qatar has been crowned the best airline in the world three of the last five years, few airlines have been as profitable and well managed as Delta has been over that same time.
Over the past few years, Delta — along with American and United — have lobbied the US government to re-examine and potentially renegotiate the bi-lateral agreements that allow airlines to fly freely between the US and the Middle Eastern nations of Qatar and the UAE.
Of the three US carriers, Delta and its management have been the most outspoken on the issue. In April, Delta’s newly minted CEO Ed Bastian reaffirmed the airline’s stance that Qatar and its fellow Middle Eastern Airlines have received more than $42 billion in illegal subsidies over the past decade.
Delta’s attempt to curtail Qatar’s growth in the US obviously does not sit well with Al Baker.
Earlier this year, the Qatari CEO said that his airline’s move into the Atlanta was designed to “rub salt into Delta’s wounds” Reuters reported.
And in May, Qatar celebrated the launch of the Atlanta route at the city’s historic Fox Theatre with a party headlined by Jennifer Lopez.
In response, Delta Air Lines announced that it will no longer sponsor the Atlanta landmark.
“When the CEO of Qatar first told the world that they would be flying to Atlanta, what he told the world was that he was going to start a flight from Doha to Atlanta… to rub salt in the wounds of Delta,” the airline’s chief legal officer told the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Kelly Yamanouchi. “So we were very surprised and disappointed when we learned that the Fox Theatre… were hosting the coming out party for Qatar.”
With Qatar now making daily flights to Atlanta. Grab some popcorn. There’s bound to be more fireworks.
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