France’s Battle To Stop The Expansion Of Gulf Carriers

Qatar Airways’ recently announced route expansions included a new five times a week service to Lyon in France. This was unexpected, as Air France has been lobbying for years to not allow any further Gulf airline expansion into the nation. So what’s changed?

Qatar Lyon flights
How did Qatar get the rights to fly to Lyon? Photo: Qatar Airways

From Doha to Lyon

Qatar’s far-reaching expansion plans for 2020 included a few surprise routes, not least its new service into France’s second city, Lyon. With a population of over two million, Lyon is only just behind Paris in terms of size, so the fact Qatar wants to fly there is not really a surprise. What is a surprise is that the Middle East airline has been allowed to.

Over the Channel, the UK is a veritable playground of Qatar Airways. Up to 17 flights per day arrive in the country, and not just to London either. Qatar also flies to the cities of Manchester, Edinburgh, Birmingham and even Cardiff. It has long been keen to engineer the same type of expansion in France, adding frequencies to Paris and launching connections to second cities in the nation.

Qatar Lyon flights
Qatar will fly the 787-8 five times a week to Lyon. Photo: Qatar Airways

However, there has been a snag. Local airliner Air France has led a campaign to stop the Gulf airlines from expanding into their home country. Traffic rights for Emirates, Etihad and Qatar were ‘frozen’ for some time, but now it seems that a more relaxed outlook is being adopted.

Qatar plans to fly its Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner no less than five times a week to Lyon, much to the disgust of Air France. So why did France open the skies to a Middle East airline?

Traffic rights were secured some time ago

Although the flight announcement has only come in recent days, the traffic rights for this route were secured some time ago. Five years ago to be precise.

In October 2015, Lyon Enterprises reports that Qatar obtained traffic rights at Lyon Airport. It is speculated that this was agreed with the then President François Hollande in return for Qatar’s investment in the Dassault Rafale. Qatar (the nation) had signed a deal for 24 Rafales in May 2015, an investment pegged at €6.3bn ($6.98bn).

Dassault Rafale
The deal for the Dassault Rafale is rumored to have secret clauses. Photo: Dassault

At the time, there was much controversy around the specifics of this deal, with much speculation about ‘secret clauses’ contained within the agreement. Specifically, it was thought these included an enlargement of the French sky to the Qatar Airways airline.

Hollande denied this, but his denials fell on deaf ears. No doubt the accusers will be secretly grinning gleefully as their predictions now come true, and the countdown begins for the first Qatar Airways aircraft to land at Lyon-Saint-Exupéry.

Bad news for Air France

The addition of Qatar flights from Lyon will come as a blow to the French airline, who has never stopped fighting to prevent more Gulf carrier expansion. Already Emirates flies to Lyon, a route which has been touted a massive success, but which has brought Air France some tough competition on its routes into Asia and India.

Air France, Boeing 777, Stowaway
Air France has not been in a strong position to lobby. Photo: Air France

Having a second airline running hub and spoke operations between east and west will be an added headache for Air France. Although it may be the case that France is, at last, relaxing some of its protectionist policies, it is also felt that Air France lacked the strength to formulate a strong opposition to Gulf airline expansion. CEO Ben Smith explained to Forbes,

“When Air France has been in crisis and focused on daily fires, the ability to go to the French government and push an agenda on the value of better supporting, or creating a more level playing field in France, would have been much more challenging than we are in today.”

Having stabilized the business following extensive industrial action and falling profits, Air France is indeed in a far more powerful position. For the battle of Lyon, however, it seems Air France has had to cede.