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OPINION: Gulf State Airlines Behave like Flying Sweatshops but Elite Flyers Love Them

Emirates aircrew at Suvarnabhumi Airport (Thailand). Source: Wikipedia
emirates
Emirates is one of many gulf airlines that have rapidly expanded over the past decade. Photo by: Jim Mumaw

The ‘Gulf Three’ are redefining the rules and not always for the better.

Unless you are an international jet-setter or perhaps an airline industry enthusiast, you may not have heard of three relatively new airlines that are taking the world by storm. Otherwise, you may probably be aware of the existence and may even have flown on one of these three airlines. They are collectively known as the Gulf Three and are made up of Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and Emirates Airlines. Etihad and Emirates are both based in the United Arab Emirates, while Qatar makes its home in Doha, Qatar.

Etihad, Emirates and Qatar, founded in 2003, 1985 and 1993 respectively, have grown from nothing to become global aviation powerhouses in a few short decades. They collectively employ about 112,000 employees and have a collective fleet of 526 aircraft. And they are fleets of big wide body airplanes, not puddle jumpers. Emirates, for example, has a fleet of 60 A380 Superjumbo aircraft, and is the world’s largest operator of the Boeing 777 with a fleet of 149 of those widebody aircraft.

These three airlines have been embroiled in a controversy about alleged subsidies they have received from their respective governments which I wrote about here. Leading the charge against the Gulf Airlines is a consortium of US based airlines and their associated labor groups. Their contention is that the governments of Qatar and the UAE funnel billions of government dollars into their hometown airlines thereby allowing them to undercut their competition.

Emirates aircrew at Suvarnabhumi Airport (Thailand). Source: Wikipedia
Emirates aircrew at Suvarnabhumi Airport (Thailand). Source: Wikipedia

For their part, the Gulf airlines counter that they deliver a far superior product to their customers than do American based airlines. This is the reason, the Gulf airline managements cite, for the competitive advantages they currently enjoy. All the Americans need to do to compete, they say, is to up their game.

And in terms of customer service satisfaction, the Gulf airlines do indeed deliver. The three Gulf airlines routinely wind up at the top of airline customer satisfaction surveys. For instance, the Gulf airlines took second, third and fifth place in the 2015 Conde Nast Traveller Reader’s Choice Awards.

In the Skytrax Awards, which bill themselves as “the Oscars of the aviation industry”, the Gulf Three placed first, fifth and sixth. Delta, as the top rated US international carrier, came in at a dismal 45th place while United and American placed quite a bit further down the list.

There’s Something Wrong in Paradise

So it would seem that the US carriers do indeed need to tighten up their customer service game a bit, but as usual, there’s more to the story. Over the past several years reports have leaked out about hiring practices and working conditions for cabin crew at the Gulf airlines and they don’t paint a very flattering picture.
The three Gulf airlines hire their cabin crew from all over the globe including many impoverished areas. For many of these employees, a job with an international airline is a dream ticket into a jet-setting lifestyle. Except that it apparently isn’t.
Reports of long hours, low pay and stringently enforced limits on marriage, pregnancy and weight plague the Gulf airlines. A 2014 Wall Street Journal article noted that pregnancy may result in termination at all three Gulf airlines. Flight attendants must also remain single for the first five years of their contracts as well or seek the airline’s permission to marry.
Other critics maintain that workers at the Gulf airlines live in a climate of fear for their jobs and are under daily surveillance in their company provided dormitories. The companies insist that strict security is necessary for the safety of their cabin crews. Qatar Airways in particular has a reputation for being quite severe in its treatment of cabin crew. From the Economist:

Allegations of harsh treatment and overbearing scrutiny are commonplace. Many complaints centre on the accommodation provided to cabin crew, where rigid curfews and restrictions on visitors create a less-than-homely atmosphere. Swipe-in door keys and CCTV on the premises have fuelled speculation–warranted or otherwise–that management are interested in more than just their employees’ safety.

Given that even appearing in public without a niqab can be problematic for women in Doha, having extra security precautions for a dormitory full of young, single women far from home in an Islamic country may not be unreasonable.

Union Sour Grapes?

Earlier in 2015, several US flight attendant unions also jumped into the fray when Etihad announced new service to Orlando, Florida claiming that the Gulf airlines had “abhorrent labor standards”.

One can’t help but notice that many of the complaints about working conditions are coming from labor unions. It should also be noted that unions are illegal in the Gulf states where these airlines are headquartered. It must be teased out, then, whether the conditions are truly as horrid as is being reported or whether the reports contain a measure of union hyperbole.

My guess is that there is a pinch of truth on both sides of this story. Emirates states that it receives over 400,000 applications annually from 143 different nations for jobs across their network so there seems to be no lack of enthusiasm for those wishing to sign on. Conversely, with those types of numbers, it can be easy to see that should an employee have an infraction or be anything less than completely submissive, it is far easier to sack them for a younger replacement.

Hypocrisy of the Elites

Getting back to the popularity of the Gulf Three airlines with elite status flyers, I must confess to being completely amused by the comment sections on the various news and opinion websites which report on this story. Here’s a good example (typos and grammar in the original):

Yes the middle east carriers have unfair working practices But I prefer to fly on those airlines than american carriers as the staff in general are rude and not interested in any service what so ever . Plus the middle east carriers have young crews who are either more motivated or scared not to do there job properly so makes for a more enjoyable flight. I think the american carriers have just realised that the gulf carriers are so much better and just jealous thats all

Yes, of course, who doesn’t appreciate young, attractive and motivated (scared) flight attendants? This commenter is likely more correct than he realizes: US airline managements are no doubt quite jealous of the freedom their Arab counterparts have to fire flight attendants when they get married, old or overweight…just like it used to be here back in the “halcyon” days of the 1960s.

Who also doesn’t have at least a bit of nostalgia for the image that Leo DiCaprio presented in Catch Me If You Can as he traipsed in his pilot uniform through the airline terminal accompanied by half a dozen young, alluring and razor thin flight hosties? One need not look too far into aviation literature to find a paean to the good old days of “coffee, tea or me?”

Well, we are living in the future that we created here in America. Oddly enough, we won’t buy tickets on our own airlines, but instead opt to be served by young hotties who can be fired on a whim.

I personally believe that there probably exists some middle ground between what is effectively third world indentured servitude as practiced by the Gulf Three, and the hardened battle-ax ingrates employed with depressing regularity by US airlines who seem to relish bashing into your kneecap with the cart.

Some lessons often need relearning. We should be careful for what we wish, for the aviation gods have a sense of humor and may smite us by granting our wishes.

Written by Rob Graves

Rob Graves

Captain Rob Graves is a veteran airline pilot and retired Air Force officer. He currently flies a Boeing 737 for a major American airline where he has over 25 years of experience. His Air Force career included flying the T-37 primary trainer, the KC-135 Stratotanker, and the C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft for worldwide operations. He is the author of This is Your Captain Speaking, an aviation blog. It can be found at robertgraves.com. We’re proud to have him on our Avgeekery.com team.