The debate about the Gulf airlines’ European expansion is taking a new turn, following a report that Qatar Airways secured additional traffic rights into France as part of a €6.3 billion ($7.03 billion) deal between Paris and Doha for the sale of 24 French-built Rafale fighter jets and an option for 12 more. 

The Qatari national airline already operates three daily services to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) with Airbus A340 and A380 aircraft, and now appears to have secured traffic rights to fly three times a week each to Nice-Côte d’Azur and Lyon-Saint Exupéry, respectively, which are France’s third- and fourth-largest airports in terms of passenger throughput after CDG and Paris-Orly. Last month, the French senate approved the privatization of Nice and Lyon airports (Aviation Daily, April 23).

French President François Hollande did not outright deny the Qatar Airways’ new traffic right, but stressed the arrangement with the airline was separate from the Rafale deal. Hollande and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani signed the Rafale contract on May 4 in Doha.

“There have been discussions in other areas with Qatar, and with other countries, regarding the allocation of air routes, but this contract concerned only the Rafale aircraft and the material that will equip it,” French daily Le Monde quoted Hollande as saying during a press conference in Doha. 

“It is legitimate that there are discussions and negotiations so that a certain number of air routes could be opened on behalf of a nation that also will bring a lot of tourists, and no one can doubt the cities of Nice and Lyon are particularly in favor of this,” Hollande noted.

If confirmed, the new traffic rights for Qatar Airways could be bad news for Air France. Air France-KLM and Lufthansa Group are aiming to curtail the expansion of Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways to protect their European hub operations and market share to Asia and East Africa. The state-owned Gulf carriers, they claim, receive boundless subsidies from their governments, thus distorting competition among international airlines.  

Air France CEO Frédéric Gagey in a May 2 interview with Le Figaro accused the Gulf carriers of receiving sizable indirect subsidies in the form of very low airport charges in their country. “Every year, Air France and its passengers pay about €500 million to Aéroports de Paris. It is certain that if European airlines paid minute airport charges like those in the Gulf, their problems would be solved,” Gagey said.

Air France said it does not comment on speculation and noted that traffic rights are the responsibility of the DGAC, the French civil aviation authority.

The airline’s main pilot union, SNPL Air France ALPA, condemned the deal. “Withholding additional traffic rights to European airports for airlines that do not respect rules on competition is the only thing that still can protect European airlines against absolutely distorted competition,” the union said.

The union said it had warned the French government “time and again that it cannot abandon these slots, vital for our industry and [supporting] 100,000 jobs in the greater Paris region alone, with the sole purpose of concluding a defense contract.” The SNPL Air France ALPA vowed it would “not hesitate to mobilize its pilots to ensure the support of the government on this issue.”

The Rafale-Qatar Airways arrangement highlights the difficulty of governments in balancing the interests of their national airline (and in this case, the French state still holds almost a 16% stake in Air France-KLM) versus the interests of their OEMs, such as Airbus and Dassault Aviation, which manufactures the Rafale. Former Air France-KLM CEO Jean-Cyril Spinetta often complained that Emirates received further slots in France each time it bought a couple of A380s from Airbus.

Moreover, the deal will likely set a precedent as well. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), for instance, is considering the purchase of new fighter jets. Emirates already operates from its hub in Dubai to CDG, Nice (once daily) and Lyon (five flights weekly). Etihad is not yet present at France’s regional airports. Qatar Airways used to fly to Nice, but abandoned the airport in 2013 to focus its operations on CDG after it was unable to increase the number of weekly frequencies under the bilateral air services agreement between France and Qatar.