In what appears to be a divergence from the terms of the US and United Arab Emirates (UAE) new Open Skies side agreement, a top White House official told industry stakeholders that there is a freeze on adding routes to the US.

Peter Navarro, assistant to US President Donald Trump and director of the White House Trade Council, told aviation industry stakeholders during a briefing May 14 that the UAE had committed to a freeze on fifth freedom routes to the US as part of their agreement to continue the two governments’ Open Skies pact, signed in 2002.

“There will be no additional routes into the United States until further notice,” Navarro said. “That’s a promise that will be kept.” But he added the freeze applied only to passenger airlines, not cargo carriers. FedEx operates fifth freedom rights via Dubai, while Dubai-based Emirates Airline operates two fifth freedom routes, from Italy and Greece, to the US. Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways does not operate any such routes.

Navarro’s statements, however, do not sync with UAE government statements, which say the Open Skies agreement remains fully intact. Nor do they fit with the side document recording main points agreed—known as the Record of Discussion—which makes no mention of route freezes or fifth freedom restrictions.

Tori Barnes of the US Travel Association, who attended the White House briefing, asked for clarification about fifth freedoms, route freezes and changes to the Open Skies agreement rights, saying the association did not see any changes in the side document. US State Department assistant secretary Manisha Singh replied, “Your rights under the agreement do not change. That is correct.”

But Navarro then added, “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.”

When Barnes asked for further clarification, Navarro replied, “The US has the rights with the Qataris and the Emiratis over two separate agreements, they agreed to basically not schedule any more routes until further notice. You can call that a freeze. That’s a freeze to me. If you don’t want to use the language, that’s fine. But this only affects them.”

Washington DC-based lobbying organization, the Partnership for Fair & Open Skies, which was hired by those US airlines that wanted to restrict the ability of the major Gulf carriers to expand their US networks, issued a release touting Navarro’s statements as proof that the UAE airlines’ routes have been frozen.

“The UAE has committed to a freeze on fifth freedom routes to the United States,” the Partnership said. “Navarro repeatedly indicated that Trump officials disagreed with UAE Ambassador Al Otaiba’s characterization of his nation’s commitments to the United States, calling Otaiba’s comments “disconcerting” and saying that his comments “seemed to undermine the intent of the letter.”

The White House did not respond to an ATW request for clarification on the governments’ differing interpretations.

The US and UAE governments announced the agreement May 14, with the UAE posting the Record of Discussion. Much of the document is a diplomatic affirmation of the importance of the two government’s economic and security ties and an acknowledgement of the mutual benefits of Open Skies.

The document does not change the US-UAE Open Skies agreement in any way; the State Department also said that all the rights and provisions of the original Open Skies agreement “remain in force.”

Campaigns over three years by American AirlinesDelta Air Lines, and United Airlines, supported by unions such as the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) and Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), are believed to have cost them some $50 million as they lobbied to prove that Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways were heavily subsidized by their governments and therefore were contravening the Open Skies agreements with the UAE and Qatar. The US allegations were not proven, but led to government talks that resulted in the Open Skies side agreements with both the UAE and Qatar.

An agreement was reached with the Qatar government in January.

Karen Walker/ATW karen.walker@informa.com