The ambitious airline Etihad is under fire from Delta, United and American, which claim the carrier is only flying high thanks to heavy subsidies from its owner, the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Emerging from the desert like some giant steel squid, the organic forms of Abu Dhabi’s new airport terminal are starting to take shape.

The existing airport has become too small for the ambitions of its main tenant, Etihad Airways, the smallest and fastest growing of the three giant Middle Eastern airlines, whose expansion has sown resentment among the legacy carriers of North America and Europe.

For more than a decade, the Persian Gulf airlines have transformed international travel, focusing on an obsession with service and single-hub connections. They now fly to more foreign destinations and have more international seats than U.S. carriers.

Now, how Etihad operates — especially how it is financed — has become critical in an increasingly contentious battle with U.S. airlines and unions in the United States, which accuse Gulf carriers of stealing passengers with the help of generous government support.

A highly public rift erupted last month, when the chief executives of Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines met with senior government officials to argue that flights from the Gulf airlines into the United States should be scaled back. The effort represents a rare attack against open-skies policies that the United States and its airlines have promoted around the world for years.

Etihad is particularly exposed to criticism, given how fast it has grown since it was founded in 2004. It now has more than 100 planes and flies to 110 destinations, including São Paulo, Johannesburg and New Delhi.

By 2017, the sprawling $3 billion new airport here will have an annual capacity of 30 million passengers — as much international traffic at New York’s Kennedy Airport today — mostly driven by Etihad.

And increasingly, it is targeting the United States. It has six daily flights to the United States, up from one six years ago, while Emirates Airline and Qatar Airways each fly to nine U.S. cities daily.

James Hogan, Etihad’s chief executive, strikes an unapologetic tone. His mandate, he said, is to make money for his shareholder, the government of Abu Dhabi, and be a showcase for its hometown, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

“Wherever you are in the world, you play to your advantage,” said Hogan, an Australian. “What are we doing that’s so wrong? We are doing business in a tough environment. We are commercial. We have to be creative. We are giving customers choice.”

Etihad and the other Persian Gulf airlines operate the latest-generation airplanes, hire younger flight attendants and offer onboard perks, like bars and showers, that other carriers find frivolous.

U.S. carriers, Hogan said, had not adapted to a globalized economy and were trying to protect their business by blocking competitors.

It is a charge U.S. carriers reject. The Persian Gulf airlines, they respond, have received more than $38 billion in government subsidies, according to a 55-page dossier they have shared with government officials in recent weeks but have not made public.

Etihad alone received $17 billion in government subsidies in the last 10 years, they say. This includes $6 billion in interest-free loans from the government of Abu Dhabi to buy new planes from Boeing and Airbus, and $6.5 billion to cover operating losses.

Etihad is a good customer for both plane-makers. Its fleet includes 80 widebody jets, 36 built by Boeing. It has 70 more 787s and 25 of the new 777Xs on order. It has also ordered 62 Airbus A350s, and will add eight A380s to the one it now operates.

Etihad’s $640 million sponsorship of Manchester City, an English Premier League soccer club, was also paid by the government on behalf of the airline.

“Etihad’s argument fundamentally misunderstands the international consensus on the definition of ‘subsidy,’” the report said. “Given the company’s dismal financial performance over the last 10 years, if not for the subsidies, Etihad would have gone out of business.”

Hogan declined to comment on the accusations raised by his rivals, saying he had not studied them carefully. He acknowledged that the airline had the support of its shareholder, but denied any of that amounted to subsidies. Etihad says it has been profitable since 2011.

It is not the first time that rivals or governments have sought to slow the growth of the Persian Gulf airlines. Restrictions against unlimited service from such carriers exist in Canada, Germany, China and South Korea, said Will Horton, an analyst at CAPA Centre for Aviation.

But he said the attempt by American carriers to roll back open-sky agreements was “unprecedented.”

“If the U.S. carriers can limit growth, that will impact the Gulf carriers,” Horton said.

The calls for limits come after the U.S. government last year opened a Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance facility in Abu Dhabi for passengers flying into the United States, a move that angered airlines like Delta. The facility was requested by the U.S. government but is financed by Abu Dhabi, including salaries and lodging for the officers.