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April 15, 2015
Earlier this year, APFA joined the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies in order to help defend Flight Attendant jobs in the United States. American, Delta, and United commissioned a team of experts to investigate the unfair government subsidies that three Gulf carriers – Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways – had been receiving from their home governments. The American carriers’ investigation proved beyond any doubt that the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar were unfairly distorting the market. By pumping billions of dollars in subsidies into their home airlines, the governments of the UAE and Qatar have violated Open Skies agreements with the US, intentionally undercut our carriers to transfer market share and put thousands of American jobs at risk. Their strategy is to take connecting traffic that would fly through a European hub to their hubs in the Gulf. They also plan to add so-called “fifth freedom flights” like the route Emirates currently operates from JFK to Milan to Dubai. When the company approached me with this startling report, it was immediately clear to me that APFA needed to play an active role in the partnership.
But I also told the company that Flight Attendants care deeply about human, women’s, and workers’ rights. Not only are the Gulf carriers threatening our flying and our jobs, but the stories of abuse their flight crews face are notorious. In fact, at the annual congress of the International Transport Workers’ Federation last summer, I heard about those abuses firsthand. Brave Qatar Airways Flight Attendants spoke out against their employer and its labor practices. They talked about gender-segregated, locked-down, and closely monitored crew lodging. They explained their version of a “contract” which is to say, a commitment to work as a Flight Attendant for a particular period of time. They explained that if an employee fails to meet that commitment (if, for example, she gains weight or becomes pregnant), then she can be taken off the line and forced to either pay back the earnings she had made since being hired, or finish her contract commitment in a ground-based job. The allegations are many and varied and they have been reported extensively in American news outlets. Knowing these stories, I told the company that APFA would not pass up the opportunity to shine a light on this important issue.
In the past few months, the Gulf carriers have received a great deal of media attention, both as a result of the case the Partnership is making about the subsidies as well as the controversy over their labor practices. The negative press is influencing the opinions of important policymakers in Washington. Some of that coverage centered on an open letter I sent to Nicole Kidman, Etihad’s newest paid spokeswoman, on April 2nd. As you may know, Nicole Kidman has a long history of advocating on behalf of women’s rights worldwide. She is a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and she has done incredible work to support disadvantaged women and girls. That is why it seemed so strange for me that she would accept a paycheck from a company like Etihad. Not only are the airlines’ abuses of flight crews well-documented, the Gulf carriers are wholly-owned by some very oppressive governments. There is just no way to reconcile Nicole Kidman’s two roles. So I seized on an opportunity to highlight the Gulf carriers’ labor practices and since sending the letter, APFA has actually been contacted by former Etihad Flight Attendants who were subject to these abuses before being terminated for exceeding the company’s limit for Body Mass Index. We still have not heard a response from Nicole Kidman, but I expect that once she understands the gravity of Etihad’s abuses, she would be happy to join our cause.
The two issues – the violation of Open Skies agreements and the abuse of flight crews – are inextricably linked. As a worldwide leader in Flight Attendant advocacy, it is incumbent on the APFA to do everything possible to lift our profession up. We have fought many battles over the years – with the company and with our own government. We turned our job into a profession. Flight Attendants at Gulf carriers still face the kind of abuses that we left behind in the 1970s. And if we do not act now, Flight Attendant jobs at American, Delta, and United will be undercut and transferred to Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways, and back into the dark ages of our industry.
In addition to the three US carriers and APFA, the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies consists of the Air Line Pilots Association, Allied Pilots Association, Association of Flight Attendants, Communication Workers of America, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and Transport Workers Union. I am pleased to report that we have already generated significant support from members of Congress. Additionally, the US Departments of Transportation, Commerce, and State announced last week that they will launch a formal investigation into the Gulf carriers’ Open Skies violations. You can read more about the Partnership and our efforts at www.www.apfa.org/partnership-for-open-and-fair-skies.
Thank you for all of your support and for your help to advance the Flight Attendant profession worldwide.