The European Union and Qatar have officially signed their aviation agreement on March 4. It has been hailed by EU-commissioner Violeta Bulc as a huge improvement over existing agreements with the Gulf state country, but until we can read the full document and understand its implications many questions remain unanswered as to who is to benefit from what.
In a EU-press release, Bulc says: “The agreement sets out ambitious standards for fair competition, transparency or social issues. It will provide a level playing field and raise the bar globally for air transport agreements. This is a major upgrade compared to the existing framework, and our joint contribution to making aviation more sustainable!”
The most important part of the agreement seems to be the second bullet in the press release: “provisions on fair competition with strong enforcement mechanisms to avoid distortions of competition and abuses negatively affecting the operations of EU airlines in the EU or in third countries.”
So far, it remains unclear what exactly these provisions are and how EU airlines can compete fairly with Qatar Airways, which for years has been accused of benefitting from the country’s unlimited (oil) resources and funds. The release also fails to mention what restrictions Qatar (Airways) has to adhere to guarantee fair competition.
Qatar Airways has been rapidly expanding within Europe, especially since it has been seeking alternative growth options after the blockade from other Gulf states came into effect in 2017. The airline opened many new routes to countries in eastern and southern Europe but has been restricted by current agreements with Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, and The Netherlands. The new agreements say these countries will open their market gradually over the next five years. Again, the press lease doesn’t mention the conditions to which Qatar Airways and airlines from these countries have to adhere to.
Unions across Europe have reacted with skepticism on bullet number 4: provisions on social matters committing the parties to improve social and labor policies. This can be interpreted as EU countries having to improve their social policies, while in reality, it is Qatar that has been accused of (proven) violating social and labor rights.
A benefit to EU airlines might be that they are no longer obliged to work in Qatar through a local sponsor.
In a press release Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al Baker says the agreement “will open doors to a host of new opportunities for airlines in Europe and Qatar, ensuring fair access to markets.” Minister of Transport and Communications Jassim Saif Ahmed Al Sulaiti says the agreement will contribute to ‘increasing the mobility, tourism and trade exchange between Doha and EU cities, widening the partnership with EU countries and developing our national carrier’s network.”
Airinsight asked Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr about the implications of the agreement for Germany and his airline at the Airlines 4 Europe summit in Brussels, where interestingly the topic wasn’t discussed at all in public. Spohr said: “It has a fair trade agreement included and we will make sure that it is endorsed very strictly. Then I think it should only open up trade as much as it is fair. If it disciplines other airlines to have more fair trade than today it will be an advantage, but that depends on how strongly it will be endorsed”.
Airinsight has asked the commissioner’s spokesperson to provide further details on the new agreement, but so far hasn’t received more details.
Qatar Airways Airbus A321. (Airbus)
Active as a journalist since 1987, with a background in newspapers, magazines, and a regional news station, Richard has been covering commercial aviation on a freelance basis since late 2016.
Richard is contributing to AirInsight since December 2018. He also writes for Airliner World, Aviation News, Piloot & Vliegtuig, and Luchtvaartnieuws Magazine. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.