MIAMI – Earlier this month, flag carrier Qatar Airways (QR) and the European Union (EU) signed a new Air Transport Agreement.

The EU and QR declared the agreement is fair, and that both will benefit from it. However, some European worker’s unions said the agreement was unfair and needed to be changed.

The main consequence of this open sky agreement is that “All EU airlines will be able to operate direct flights from any airport in the EU to Qatar and vice versa for Qatari airlines.”, as specified in the EU press release. However, there are also a few limitations in order to keep “open and fair competition for air services between both [parts]”:

  • The first limitation is that “EU airports in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands will be subject to a gradual build-up of capacity until 2024.” It means that there will be a limit on the number of weekly flights between Doha and major european airports and/or countries.
  • The second one is that the fifth-freedom won’t be applied for passenger flights. It means that Qatari airlines will not have the right to operate passenger flights between two European cities. However, this freedom is allowed for cargo flights.

The agreement also says that Qatari airlines, and especially QR, will have to respect a few conditions. The airline will have to publish its financial results and adapt its social policy to respect the European policies. This is to ensure there is no unfair competition from QR.

The agreement asks Qatar Airways to respect some conditions. Photo: Iain Marshall/Airways

Benefits from the Agreement

The agreement was signed on October 18, 2021. The EU press release says that “In 2016, the European Commission obtained authorization from the Council to negotiate an EU-level aviation agreement with Qatar, which started on 4 March 2019. While the agreement still needs to be ratified by the parties before formally entering into force, it will start being applied from today’s signature.”

According to the press release, the agreement was needed because “Qatar is an increasingly important aviation partner for the EU. It was the 15th largest extra-EU market in 2019 with 6.3 million passengers traveling between the EU and Qatar.”

“Data from Eurocontrol’s website shows us that the Middle-East market is still very important. It was the destination where there were the most flights yesterday, with 914 flights. We can compare it to the 737 flights between the EU and the North Atlantic region (the US and Canada). “Ensuring open and fair competition for air services between both is therefore crucial.”

The European Commissioner for mobility and transport said, “This agreement, the first one between the EU and the Gulf region, is a global benchmark for forward-looking aviation agreements. It is testimony to our shared commitment to economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable aviation, based on a modern framework covering fair competition and closer cooperation on social and environmental matters.

The commissioner went on to add, “This agreement will bring new opportunities, more choice, and higher standards for passengers, industry, and aviation workers.”

Qatar Airways operates a big fleet of widebodies, including this A350. Photo: Alberto Cucini / Airways

Concerns for the Unions

The Syndicat National des Pilotes de Lignes (SNPL), a french pilot’s union, published a press release just after the agreement was signed. The union says its concerns about the agreement, declaring it unfair. “Given the low passenger volume Qatar represents for European airlines, the inbalance of this agreement is obvious !”.

For the Cargo activity, it is even worst, according to the union, especially because of this fifth freedom. “[The agreement] offers to the Qatari airline the possibility to operate cargo flights directly from the EU to any other countries.” As we know, Air Cargo is a very important market for airlines today, as it is almost the only aviation market that was not impacted by the COVID pandemic.

The SNPL remembers us that “With this agreement, Qatar made the commitment to suppress every discrimination, unfair practice and subventions” which do not respect the fair competition agreement. However, the union declares that “As Qatar Airways has always proved itself very opaque, this agreement seems risky to us.”

The SNPL, therefore, asks for “everything to be made, by the EU or the States members of the EU, to make sure that every condition of fair competition of the agreement is applied and respected.” The SNPL said it will make sure, “every existing possibility, including the removal of some advantages to Qatar, will be used in case of a violation of the agreement.”

Those open skies agreements are pretty common for the EU, as “Similar EU comprehensive air transport agreements have been signed with other partner countries, namely the United States, Canada, the Western Balkans, Morocco, Georgia, Jordan, Moldova, Israel, and Ukraine. Further air transport agreements with Armenia and Tunisia are expected to be signed in the coming weeks.”

Featured image: Qatar Airways is Qatar’s biggest airline. Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways