United Airlines has announced it will suspend service to Kuwait City and Bahrain on January 13, 2016.
I’ve flown the route twice and the plane was half full both times (and with only about 50 passengers the one time I continued on to Bahrain). The U.S. continues to scale down its presence in the Middle East and while U.S. service personnel will remain stationed in Bahrain, depressed needs for passenger service and cargo sound like a logical reason for the route cancellation. But the real reason may be much more political.
United released the following statement confirming its suspension of the KWI/BAH service:
I thought the wording “we will continue to maintain an open dialogue with both governments” was suspicious and reached out to a contact who would be at the forefront of this news. It seems the real reason for United’s conclusion of service to Kuwait is not that it was losing a lot of money, but that the Kuwaiti government felt the need to retaliate for the recent controversy over Kuwait Airways denying an Israel citizen transport on a flight departing from New York City.
If you recall, Kuwait Airways operates a Fifth Freedom route between New York and London which offers very reasonable fares. A man traveling on an Israeli passport was denied boarding because Kuwait does not recognize an Israeli passport as a valid travel document and the man filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
DOT ruled in his favor, claiming Kuwait Airways engaged in unlawful discrimination. The Kuwaiti flag carrier has not really publicly responded, other than to express its dismay and disagreement over the ruling via its American legal team.
What my contact tells me is that United was just notified a few days before the word went public and given the January deadline with no chance for appeal. Take this info for what is it worth, I will not name my source, but I do not have reason to doubt it. Oddly, the Kuwait Times (the first English newspaper in the Gulf and not a state-owned publication) saw fit to publish a story on United CEO Oscar Munoz’s health, but has not mentioned United’s departure from Kuwait City yet.
United will maintain service to Dubai and will take steps in the coming weeks to re-accommodate passengers already booked beyond January on the Kuwait flight. For those actually needing to travel from the States to Kuwait or Bahrain, flying via Germany will now be necessary to stick with Star Alliance, a much less convenient schedule.
I would suspect both United and the Kuwait government to deny geopolitics had anything to do this decision, but statecraft in which two airlines become unwilling pawns is nothing new.