Qatar Airways issued a sharp rebuke to what it described as “false accusations” from US lawmakers and the Trump administration, saying that its investment in Air Italy is “fully compliant” with the US-Qatar Open Skies Agreement, as well as the January 2018 US-Qatar Understandings and an accompanying side-letter.

The Gulf carrier, in a statement posted on its website, pointed out that its 49% stake in the Italian carrier “is the same level that Delta holds in both Virgin Atlantic and Aeromexico, and that Etihad held in Alitalia.”

“The ‘Big 3’ US carriers have consistently demonstrated their hostility to new entrants into the US-Europe market, and their attacks on Air Italy based on the identity of its minority shareholder are just another manifestation of this hostility,” the airline wrote. “Air Italy, the carrier the ‘Big 3’ cite as a major ‘threat’ to their survival, has a fleet of just 15 aircraft and only serves one US city—New York—with a daily service while other routes, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco are operated at a lower frequency.”

The January 2018 agreement reiterated that the Gulf carriers had no “current” plans to add new fifth-freedom flights, although documents that detail the agreements did not include such language. Fifth-freedom flying is permitted under Open Skies deals in place between the US and Qatar.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), during an April 11 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, alleged that Qatar had misled US negotiators regarding their intentions to launch fifth freedom flights to the US “at the same time” the January 2018 agreement was being negotiated.

That allegation was directly disputed by Qatar, which wrote that the investment in Air Italy “was a matter of public knowledge” at the time of the negotiations. To bolster its case, the airline provided a timeline showing it announced the investment in July 2016, well before the negotiations with the US began. The transaction closed in September 2017.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) asked US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who was attending the hearing as a witness, whether the administration planned to invoke a provision to the agreement that would call for formal consultations between the US and Qatar to work through the dispute.

Pompeo, in response, told Isakson “I don’t know if we’re quite there yet,” adding that “there are a lot of consultations taking place, but not through the mechanism you’re describing.”

“We thought we had put together a truly good deal that was good for US domestic businesses and that honored the commitment we had taken previously ... We’re looking very closely at this recent decision by Qatar to take on 49% in this airline. We understand the risk of the efforts to circumvent [the US-Qatar Understanding], and we look forward to making sure all parties comply with this agreement,” Pompeo said.

Ben Goldstein, Ben.Goldstein@aviationweek.com