If the CEOs of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines get their way, US Congress will hold yet another set of hearings this year on the seemingly never-ending quarrel over the US Open Skies agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

This time, the focus of the dispute—at least on the surface—is tiny Italian carrier Air Italy. The privately owned, Milan-based carrier was formerly branded Meridiana; operates 14 aircraft (three of those being Boeing 737 MAX 8s, grounded since mid-March); and ranks as Europe’s 39th largest carrier by passengers carried, slightly ahead of Pegasus Fly and Luxair. Air Italy announced in April plans to launch routes to Los Angeles LAX and San Francisco SFO, and add frequencies to Miami MIA.

Even given that LAX, SFO and MIA are major bases for American, Delta and United, their response has been sledgehammer-strong for a nut as diminutive as Air Italy.

The CEOs of American, Delta and United—Doug Parker, Ed Bastian and Oscar Munoz, respectively—have joined forces, relit the flames under its Washington lobbying organization Partnership for Open & Fair Skies, and paid for full-page newspaper advertisements to publish their appeal to US President Donald Trump to prevent this “grave threat to American jobs and the health of the airline industry.”

A coalition of Republican senators, including Texan Ted Cruz and others who represent states where the three airlines have a major presence, have taken up the cause and written to the Commerce, State and Transportation secretaries urging action against Air Italy’s “entry into this crowded market.” Cruz, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee’s aviation and space subcommittee, is looking to set hearings for May or June.

Air Italy, of course, is not the real target, which is Qatar Airways, because it owns 49% of the Italian carrier—an entirely legal and compliant situation that was approved by Italy and the European Commission in 2017. As a European Union-based carrier, Air Italy is also completely within its legal rights to operate between EU and US cities under the US-EU Open Skies agreement.

American, Delta and United, however, argue that Qatar Airways’ stake in Air Italy contravenes the US-Qatar Open Skies agreement and an adjacent Records of Discussion that the two countries agreed to at the end of the last long and fractious campaign run by the three US majors against what they see as infringement by Gulf carriers Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. They say Air Italy is subsidized by Qatar Airways and is essentially operating 5th and 7th freedom routes to the US on behalf of the Gulf carrier. 

In the opposing corner

Another set of US airline CEOs is having none of it. FedEx chairman and CEO Fred Smith joined Atlas Air Worldwide CEO Bill Flynn and JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes to strongly rebuke the Parker-Bastian-Munoz allegations.

In a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, they characterized the American-Delta-United campaign as a “disinformation campaign being waged by opponents” of the US Open Skies agreement and Records of Discussion.

“We are especially concerned by the latest efforts to distort the Understanding even further with a wholly unsubstantiated claim that the Understandings control Qatar Airways’ minority investment in Air Italy, a legally certified carrier. This false characterization of Air Italy’s flights as ‘de facto’ 7th freedom flights is contrary to established international law. The Air Italy flights in question would be legally permitted 3rd and 4th freedom flights operated by an EU carrier under the US-EU Open Skies agreement,” they say.

“If one were to accept this logic, Delta’s 49% investment in Virgin Atlantic would mean that Virgin’s flight from London to Dubai is a Delta 7th freedom flight. Further, American’s investment in state-owned and state-supported China Southern would turn flights from Beijing to Guangzhou into cabotage by American.”

Smith, Hayes and Flynn argue that the sort of action the US majors are calling for would invite retaliation against US airlines that have used Open Skies and 5th freedom rights to build their global networks. “Retaliation would also have a crippling impact on US passenger carriers seeking new service to the EU and halt any ability to bring down ticket prices in the outrageously expensive transatlantic market,” they say.

The US cargo carriers, and FedEx in particular, have always stood firmly for preserving the 5th freedoms inherent in Open Skies. 

New York-based JetBlue is a relatively new Open Skies champion, but now has a direct interest in seeing market access preserved. The carrier announced in April it intends to launch transatlantic service, starting with flights to London from New York JFK and Boston in 2021.

JetBlue’s Hayes, while being the CEO of a relatively much smaller US passenger airline, may hold the best cards for convincing Congress of the anti-competitive colors of the American-Delta-United campaign. US lawmakers may not care about shutting out an Italian competitor, but they should be far more cautious about doing something that could block entry into the transatlantic market by a US carrier with a reputation for good and innovative customer service.