Ethan Klapper

United Airlines and Emirates announce once-unthinkable partnership

United Airlines and Emirates join forces for a once unthinkable partnership.

The limited partnership, announced Wednesday in a hangar at United’s hub at Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), represents a remarkable thaw in relations between a U.S. carrier and a Middle Eastern carrier.

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Flanked by Boeing 777s from both carriers, United CEO Scott Kirby and Emirates Chairman Sir Tim Clark heralded the partnership as a new era of cooperation in international aviation.

Kirby said the partnership is serious — and could grow.

“Our partnerships are not partnerships of convenience, they are not short-term deals,” he said.

United will launch a flight next March between its hub at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) and Emirates’ massive hub at Dubai International Airport (DXB). Flight UA164 departs Newark at 10:15 p.m. and arrives in Dubai the following day at 7:40 p.m. all local times. The return flight, UA165, leaves Dubai at 2:15 a.m. and arrives in Newark at 9:05 a.m. The flight will be operated by a Boeing 777-200ER.

United will sell connections to Emirates flights for passengers who book United’s flight to Dubai. For now, passengers will only earn United MileagePlus Premier qualifying flights and points for United segments, although in a conversation with TPG after the event, United executive Luc Bondar hinted that the Loyalty integration would be extended.

Emirates, for its part, will sell connections to United flights at hubs at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and Chicago O’Hare International Airport. (ORD). An interline agreement between the two carriers will be in place at eight additional US airports.

Wednesday’s announcement comes after a decade of frosty relations between US carriers and their Middle Eastern counterparts. US carriers have long complained about unfair state subsidies that so-called “ME3” carriers – Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad – receive from their home countries. Thanks to subsidies, ME3 carriers can often provide superior service to US carriers and are able to offer it at a competitive price.

Another significant point of contention concerns the so-called fifth freedom routes offered by carriers, in particular Emirates. Emirates flights between New York area airports and Athens International Airport (ATH) and Milan Malpensa Airport (MXP) have become popular alternatives to offers from United, Delta and American Airlines. Fifth freedom rights allow a carrier to transport passengers and cargo from its home country to a second country and then to a third country. But now, in an incredible turn of events, Emirates’ flight from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to ATH will likely carry a United flight number, pending government approval.

United Airlines and Emirates have announced a new partnership at Washington Dulles International Airport. DAVID SLOTNICK/THE DOT GUY

While Delta Air Lines has long been seen as the leader of the anti-ME3 crusade, United has also done its part to push back against what it believes to be subsidy injustice.

In 2017, then-CEO Oscar Munoz insulted ME3 by insisting they weren’t even airlines.

“These airlines are not airlines,” Munoz said. “These are international brand vehicles for their countries.”

The following month, United ended its interlining agreement with five Middle Eastern carriers, including Emirates and its sister airline, Flydubai.

Earlier: Emirates and United would launch a codeshare partnership

But, industry turmoil in the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some airlines to rethink their battles with the ME3 – focusing on the benefits of cooperation and increased connectivity over competition.

United’s move comes after American Airlines deepened its ties with Qatar Airways. American recently began service from its hub at John F. Kennedy International Airport to Hamad International Airport (DOH) in Doha.

While United’s new partnership with Emirates is limited in nature, it’s clear there will be plenty more to come.

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