Trump meets with US airline CEOs and their Qatari rival amid tensions over Gulf state subsidies

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U.S. airline executives left a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House this week without securing a commitment to take actions in a long dispute over Middle Eastern air carriers, according to White House officials and people familiar with the meeting.

The private session in the Oval Office with executives from United Airlines, American Airlines, among others, highlighted tensions between the U.S. air carriers and the White House over steps taken by a Qatari competitor. The Doha-based airline serves the U.S. from Qatar but also has a minority stake in Air Italy, which has in recent years added routes to the U.S. from Milan.

U.S. carriers have sought to limit the expansion of carriers which they argue receive unfair government support. The meeting came amid bruised feelings both at the White House and in the industry, although all participants sought to put a good face on the session.

The episode revealed that there are limits to the president’s generally protectionist approach to benefiting U.S. companies at the expense of their foreign competitors. In this case, Trump didn’t take action to benefit the American carriers, an outcome that was beneficial to the Qatari airline. Qatar is also proving a tricky piece in the dispute since it is a big consumer of U.S. goods.

At issue is a dispute between U.S. carriers and Qatar Airways over what the large U.S. airlines see as unfair government backing for their competitors in the Middle East.

U.S. airline executives were “shocked” that Qatar-owned airline Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker was also invited to the meeting, according to a person familiar with the meeting. White House trade advisor Peter Navarro also wasn’t too pleased that Al Baker was there, a senior White House official said.

The president told U.S. carriers to go through the normal process of filing a complaint through federal regulators, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

“The outcome was to encourage the aggrieved U.S. carriers to use the mechanisms available in law to adjudicate their grievances,” the senior White House official said. “That outcome would have been the same without Qatar being there.”

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and other executives were circumspect upon leaving the meeting.

“We had a good meeting,” Parker said in an interview outside the White House. “Talked to the president about American jobs and the threat to American jobs from subsidized carriers outside the United States being able to fly from Europe into the United States.”

The bottom line is that the U.S. airlines left the session without getting what they wanted.

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