At last week’s hearing on airline service before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Transport and Infrastructure Committee, we heard a lot of criticism of an industry that every day brings together millions of people quickly, safely, reliably and at prices far lower than when the government set them. The recent incidents onboard United Express and American were disturbing and justify a closer look. But these anomalies do not represent what more than 800 million U.S. airline passengers will experience this year. Yet some are using this hearing not to propose customer-service improvements, but instead to distract from the tasks at hand.
There are those who suggest that the only “fix” is to invite foreign airlines, like Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways, to displace American jobs and begin flying within the U.S., to show Americans what quality service supposedly is. Before dismantling this seriously foolish idea, let’s understand the source: the people advancing this and other misguided thinking purport to represent the American travel industry and consumers, but in fact advocate for – and are funded by – foreign companies like the Gulf carriers.
These three airlines have grown quickly by exploiting a curious business model – low cost yet high quality – that is sustainable only with massive, treaty-violating subsidies (more than $50 billion proven since 2004) from their government owners, and by a cynical and abusive approach to managing and treating their workers. In short, Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways hire people from low-wage countries (90 percent of the workers at these airlines are migrants, far from home), give them short, fixed-term contracts, treat them badly, dismiss them easily, and then hire more. Given that there are millions of people in poorer countries keen to live a better life, and in this case wooed by promises of a glamorous career with a seemingly modern airline, this employee approach is as straightforward as it is unfortunate. Essentially, the Gulf airlines – who some claim would school their U.S. competition on customer service – depend on a “model” that at its core mistreats workers.
Not surprisingly, trade unions are illegal in the UAE and Qatar, ensuring that employees have zero power. More troubling, neither of these countries respect even the most fundamental norms for worker due process that most of us here take for granted. Complaints against employers never become visible, and when they are made, people either quit or are fired. When that happens, they sometimes have to pay their own fare home, and in many cases lose their contributions to the airline’s pension plan. Is that really a model we want to import into the United States?
Many Gulf airline labor practices would be unacceptable – if not illegal – in the United States, the EU or other industrialized nations. A 2015 report from the United Nations’ International Labor Organization found Qatar Airways violated international agreements and institutionalized discrimination against women. Qatar has received the most public criticism, although in a 2015 article in The Guardian, Qatar Airways asserted that its “employment conditions are not dissimilar to other airlines in the Gulf.” How bad are working conditions?
Until pressure and bad publicity in 2015 forced them to change, Qatar Airways’ job contracts allowed them to fire employees for becoming pregnant and expressly prohibited marriage without company permission. However, many intrusive provisions and practices remain. Female employees cannot be dropped off or picked up from company property by anyone other than their father, brother or spouse. Curfews are routine and enforced. Former flight attendants tell of dismissal for holding hands in public. Even well-paid pilots are quitting these airlines over disagreements about excessive duty time and other safety concerns. For example, the family that owns Emirates also controls the much of the airline regulatory body, the GCAA, and can simply rubber stamp flying-hour increases that cause pilot fatigue. Imagine if a U.S. airline CEO’s family ran the FAA – on top of major airports, banks and other regulatory agencies.
Careful monitoring of cabin crew – and other employees – is also part of their practices. Video cameras are everywhere. According to one comment on The Economist website, at a cabin-grew graduation ceremony Qatar CEO Ahmed Al Baker “proudly told us that he hired 60 spies to keep a watch on the employees and the number would go up to more then [sic] 100 in a year.” That’s a comment that sounds more at home in Cold-War East Germany than a supposedly “modern” airline.
Some of the ways the Gulf airlines treat their people resembles indentured servitude. At Qatar Airways, for example, if you are fired before completing two years of service, you have to pay a bond that most cannot afford. Under Qatar’s employment sponsorship protocol, called “kafala,” employees cannot seek other employment within the country but cannot leave Qatar without the airline’s authorization. And if they can leave, they may have to find money for air fare home to Manila, Hyderabad or Bangkok.
If you’re a young flight attendant from the Philippines or a ramp worker from Bangladesh, and your wages in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha enable you to send a few hundred dollars a month home so your little brother can go to school or your parents can buy a small refrigerator, you might be willing to put up with a lot of injustice.
These practices are certainly not a model we want to import to the U.S., and when someone holds up the Gulf carriers as an example of how to treat people, they are clearly missing the larger picture. What’s being suggested is that we offshore American jobs – while destroying an American industry – to businesses that care so little about the most basic of employee rights. This unsolicited advice should be seen for what it is: a distraction from the focus on the continual improvement of customer service on U.S. airlines, businesses that support American jobs with fair labor practices.