A petition circulating on Capitol Hill calling on the Trump Administration to take action on Qatar Airways over its support for Air Italy has generated a backlash from a US industry coalition including airports, cargo carriers, US travelers and New York-based JetBlue Airways.

In a draft letter to the heads of the US Departments of State, Commerce and Transportation, which was viewed by ATW, Rep. Debbie Lesko (D-Arizona) reiterated allegations made by the “Big 3” carriers (American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines) that Qatar’s financial support for Air Italy’s expansion into the US—the state-owned carrier acquired 49% share in Air Italy predecessor Meridiana in Spring 2017—violates a commitment made by the Qatari government in January 2018 not to initiate new fifth freedom flights to the country.

“Without funding from Qatar Airways, Air Italy would be unable to launch its new service, just as Qatar Airways would not be viable without direct support from the Qatari government,” Lesko wrote.

Qatar, for its part, denies its support for Air Italy is improper, and has characterized the controversy as a manifestation of the major carriers’ hostility to new entrants in the US-Europe market. Qatar wrote in a recent blog post that its investment in the Italian carrier “is the same level that Delta holds in both Virgin Atlantic and Aeromexico, and that Etihad held in Alitalia.”

The coalition of aviation groups is circulating a letter countering Lesko’s, in which they warn staffers about efforts to “perpetuate misleading and inaccurate claims regarding Open Skies agreements in general and, in particular, Qatar Airways.”

“The [Lesko letter] is premised on misleading claims promoted by parties that stand to benefit financially and its fundamental basis is incompatible with the facts regarding Open Skies and contrary to the broader economic interests of the US aviation, manufacturing and tourism industries, and the millions of American customers we serve,” the groups wrote.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who chairs the Aviation Subcommittee in the Senate, has called for a probe into Qatar’s support for Air Italy and previously indicated the subcommittee would examine the issue under his chairmanship. His house counterpart Rick Larsen (D-Washington) has done the same, although so far neither has scheduled a hearing into the matter.  

Ben Goldstein, ben.goldstein@aviationweek.com