In its third version this week of what was agreed between the US and the United Arab Emirates on their Open Skies aviation deal, the White House now says there is an “understanding” that UAE airlines have “no current plans” to add fifth freedom flights, but makes no mention of a routes freeze.

The latest statement appears to clarify remarks by White House assistant to the President and trade council director Peter Navarro to aviation industry stakeholders during a telephone briefing May 14 in which he spoke of a routes freeze.  

“There will be no additional routes into the United States until further notice,” Navarro said during that brief. “What we expect moving forward is transparency, full accounting, stopping of subsidies and a freeze on routes until further notice. So, there it is. And that’s strictly on the passenger side.”

The Washington DC-based lobbying organization, Partnership for Fair & Open Skies, which was hired by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US airline unions to fight Gulf carrier expansion in the US, issued a release touting Navarro’s statements. It also posted a transcript of Navarro’s remarks. On May 16, however, the Partnership removed the transcript from its Twitter feed and website.

The new White House statement says that in the “newly negotiated understanding,” the UAE has informed the US that Abu Dhabi and Dubai carriers Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline “have no current plans to begin any new commercial fifth freedom flight routes, which are of particular concern to the US carriers.”

The White House adds, “The understanding mirrors the one made with Qatar earlier this year.” In response to an ATW query, a US State Department spokesperson reiterated the fifth freedom understanding, but did not address the issue of a routes freeze.

In January, the US reached an understanding with Qatar that, like the UAE agreement, does not change the Open Skies terms in any way, but which makes side assurances that Qatar Airways has no current plans to start fifth freedom services.

Fifth freedom flights are—and remain—legal in the Qatar and UAE Open Skies agreements, but only one passenger airline uses them. Emirates flies to the US from Athens, Greece, and Milan-Malpensa, Italy. Fifth freedom rights are important to US cargo carriers.

However, while Qatar Airways has said it has no plans to launch fifth freedom service, the Doha-based airline has taken a 49% stake in Sardinia-based airline Meridiana and, since the January agreement was forged, has made significant changes to the carrier that would give access to the US market via Italy. Now rebranded and operating as Air Italy, the carrier has been set on a fast-growth track.

As part of that growth, the airline will get Airbus A330-200s and Boeing 737 MAX 8s on leasing arrangements via Qatar Airways. Air Italy ultimately will also take Boeing 787-8s that were ordered by Qatar Airways, but which are now destined for Air Italy, and which would be able to operate transatlantic flights as part of the US-European Union Open Skies agreement.

As if to underscore that the UAE Open Skies accord, signed in 2002, remained fully intact, the UAE issued a statement by foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed May 17 in which he said that recent discussions with the US "validate all the rights and benefits--including fifth freedom services" of the original air transport agreement.

Karen Walker/ATW