It's funny. Fifth Freedom flights — those are routes where an airline flies from a place other than its home country — account for roughly 1 percent of Emirates' capacity, according to the airline's president. And Emirates has only two such routes to the United States. But it's a hot topic among airline insiders, and it doesn't sound like that will change.
Emirates President Tim Clark on Tuesday would not rule out his airline adding more nonstop routes between Europe and the United States, despite recent assurances from U.S. airlines and American diplomats that the three biggest Gulf carriers would not launch new transatlantic routes for the foreseeable future.
“If we wish to do more points in the U.S. or more intermediate points at some point, there is nothing that stops us doing it, contrary to what others seem to be saying to the media or believing,” an adamant Clark said during a group interview at the IATA Annual General Meeting in Sydney, a conference of airline executives. “Maybe they’re reading a different document. I don’t get it, frankly, when people say they can’t, they won’t. This is all stuff in nonsense.”
The ongoing saga receives a surprising amount of attention considering Emirates only operates two nonstop routes between Europe and the United States — from Milan to New York and from Athens to Newark. Technically, both routes begin in Dubai, but under international norms called “fifth-freedoms,” Emirates is permitted to pick up and drop off passengers in Europe.
U.S airlines consider the European routes a threat and asked the State Department to look them, asking whether the Gulf carriers receive subsidies that make them unfair competitors. After recent negotiations between diplomats from the United Arab Emirates and the United States, news surfaced that Emirates had agreed not to add more. Its Gulf competitors, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways were said to promise the same, but neither operates U.S. fifth freedom flights today.
On Sunday in Sydney, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker endorsed that idea, saying the airline was pleased with “…what we saw from the agreements, which include not commitments but statements by those carriers that they do not intend to fly fifth freedom routes and that gives us confidence.”
Clark said the airline made no guarantee, though he noted fifth-freedom routes are not always viable and constitute about 1 percent of Emirates’ capacity.
Usually, airlines use so-called Fifth Freedom rights when a route is too far for a nonstop flight. For example, Emirates seeks to fly from Mexico City to Barcelona to Dubai because its aircraft are not capable of reaching Dubai nonstop. (Clark said that route is being held up because some Mexican regulators have similar concerns about fifth freedom routes as their American counterparts.)
But Emirates also has used U.S. Fifth Freedom rights to fly between underserved points, such as Athens to New York, which no U.S. carrier has flown in winter. Clark said the Athens route operates at roughly 85 percent load factor and is profitable.
“I’m afraid it has been hugely successful and it remains so,” he said. “But is it our intention to punch out fifth freedoms across the planet? Actually, no. … We will take them where we can, but most of the time, we will be point-to-point entities.”
U.S. Business Picking Up
Also on Tuesday, Clark said Emirates may add back some capacity it removed last year, when it struggled it fill aircraft as after the Trump Administration banned laptops on incoming U.S. flights from Dubai and made it difficult, or impossible, for travelers from some countries to secure U.S. visas.
In the past year and a half, citing weak demand, Emirates has gone from two daily flights to one to Seattle, Los Angeles and Boston, while canceling flights on some days of the week to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.
“We hated to take that down but as I often say, it was like a virus on your screen,” Clark said. “It just started to disappear on us and as an airline manager when that happens, you get into a real panic.”
Clark said Emirates is considering resuming a second daily flights to Seattle and Boston. In Seattle, Alaska Airlines carries Emirates passengers to U.S destinations in the Western United States, while in Boston JetBlue Airways does the same, so both airports can handle more flights than they otherwise might.
“We are optimistic about the U.S. market with more points coming,” Clark said.
No Pilot Shortage
All airlines remove capacity from markets because of changing travel demand, but in recent months Emirates has canceled flights and parked aircraft because it did not have enough pilots to fly them.
Emirates has about 20 aircraft on the ground.
“The pilot [issue] is right back where it needs to be,” Clark said. “I keep hearing about a global pilot shortage, but this was more of an internal thing. There was just a mismatch in where we thought we would be in terms of the operations of the airline and the number of crews that we were going to need.”
While Chinese airlines have been poaching Emirates pilots, Clark said the airline has a “steady flow” of pilot candidates. Still, he said it makes no sense to use the grounded aircraft until Ramadan ends on June 14.
“It’s no point flying empty aircraft if you know the demand isn’t going to be there when the Islamic world is not traveling,” he said.
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Photo credit: Emirates President Tim Clark speaks to reporters last year in Dubai. Clark said Emirates has made no promises about future U.S. fifth freedom flights.