The United Kingdom is effectively the backyard for Gulf airlines. Qatar Airways typically has 17 flights a day to the country. But nearby France? Qatar does not even have four daily flights. It is not for lack of effort. Qatar and peers would like to fly more to Paris and reach secondary and tertiary cities the way Qatar serves Manchester and Edinburgh but also Bristol.
Blocking development is Air France’s lobbying campaign against Gulf airlines that has been mostly effective but showed a crack with news that Qatar would start a new flight to Lyon from June 23. The five weekly 787-8 service is Qatar’s second service outside of Paris after its Nice flight. Emirates’ French destinations are also only Paris, Lyon and Nice.
From a Gulf perspective this might be seen as France easing protectionism after a previous deal with China to expand air traffic rights. But as effective as Air France’s lobbying seems to outsiders, to Air France it saw its arguments lacking traction during a period of business instability. Now that new management has brokered peace with staff unions and aims to restructure the airline, Air France wants the French government to improve aviation policies. That does not seem to bode well for Gulf airlines.
The primary theory for why Qatar in France received long-sought access (but still minuscule compared to Qatar’s size elsewhere) is that traffic rights were tied to Qatar’s government shareholder buying the Rafale fighter jet made by France’s Dassault. That speculation was mentioned by La Tribune this week but first surfaced in 2015 when Qatar bought the Rafale. If true, it is unclear why the new flight took so long to implement. Qatar in 2018 exercised an option for more Rafale jets.
Others look for hints in government. Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, transport minister since last July, was the face of opening up rail operator SNCF to competition. Former transport minister Elisabeth Borne backed Lyon via its new train line to Turin. She was not aligned to Air France’s interests, having supported a local eco-tax on flights.
Air France did not hide its displeasure at the tax, saying it would be “extremely penalizing” and would cost the Air France-KLM Group over 60 million euros a year. New group CEO Ben Smith told investors last November he is eyeing an over-haul in government relations after securing business cooperation from unions to reform the airline.
“The fact that we have stability on the social side at Air France puts us in a much more credible position when it comes to lobbying with the French government,” he said. “When Air France has been in crisis and focused on daily fires, the ability to go to the French government and push an agenda on the value of better supporting, or creating a more level playing field in France, would have been much more challenging than we are in today.”
But now, he said, “The reception we’re getting, although it hasn’t produced the type of change that we would like, or to a level that we would like, the interest and desire to understand what it is going to take to get Air France to produce and perform at a higher level, is there from our government partners.”
Smith did not specify areas for lobbying, but “level playing field” is commonly used to describe Gulf airlines, and sometimes also Turkish Airlines. Air France-KLM and Lufthansa Group were the most vocal at the European Commission. They were balanced by International Consolidated Airlines Group, whose CEO Willie Walsh supported Gulf carriers before Qatar Airways invested in IAG. Brexit risks losing the UK as a strong liberalising voice.
Unfair competition from the Gulf earned a mention when Smith discussed aviation hubs: “One city, one airline that has taken this model and brought it up a level, with a lot of subsidies, this is Emirates in Dubai.”
Flags from Qatar and France