- Associated Press - Monday, April 24, 2017

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) - The CEO of one of the Middle East’s largest carriers said Monday passenger numbers to the United States have dipped slightly over fears by some Muslim passengers that their visas may be rejected upon arrival, but expressed confidence in President Donald Trump as a “very good businessman.”

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker said uncertainty about travel to the United States is “affecting the business, but to a very small extent.”

“We didn’t have massive decline like other carriers so we still have robust loads to the United States and we will continue our commitment to our passengers in the United States,” al-Baker said.

Emirates, the Middle East’s largest airline, slashed its flights to the United States by 20 percent last week.

Dubai, where Emirates is based, and Doha, Qatar Airways’ main hub, were among the 10 cities in Muslim-majority countries affected by a ban on laptops and other personal electronics in carry-on luggage aboard U.S.-bound flights.

“Qatar Airways does not plan and will not reduce frequencies to the United States,” he said. “I am sure that these uncertainties that passengers have soon could be resolved by statements from the United States’ government.”

Speaking to reporters at the Arabian Travel Market convention in Dubai, al-Baker said Qatar Airways is planning to launch a new route to San Francisco and will fly to Las Vegas next year. The airline currently flies to more than a dozen U.S. cities.

A pressure group called The Partnership for Open and Fair Skies - which includes American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines - said the planned San Francisco expansion represents “another subsidized route into the United States.”

“Qatar Airways receives billions of dollars in illegal subsidies from its government in order to fly to our country and trash American jobs,” said the group’s spokesperson Jill Zuckman in a statement.

Al-Baker, however, expressed hope that Trump would resist pressure from the three American carriers to block aggressive expansion into the U.S. market by Gulf-based carriers.

“I have repeatedly mentioned that President Trump is a very wise individual and a very good businessman, and I don’t think that he will buy into bullying by the three American carriers,” he said.

The blunt and plain-spoken CEO described the U.S. competition as “wicked” for the way their passengers are treated and said they operate in cities where they “can swindle their customers.”

In a further dig, al-Baker quipped that if a flight was full, he would travel on a jump seat where cabin crew often sit because the airline’s policy is not to remove passengers. He was referring to an incident in which a United Airlines passenger was filmed being dragged off an airplane by airport security officers on an overbooked flight.

“We would never offload a passenger in Qatar Airways even if it is the CEO of the airline that wants to travel,” he said. “We would not drag out people out of an airplane.”

He said Qatar Airways has plans to expand to 26 new global destinations, adding: “The United States is not the entire world.”

The airline, he said, also has plans to apply with Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund for a license to operate a new domestic Indian carrier.

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