FRIDAY FRUMP: Let Qatar be Qatar

Last week, the Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association (SWAPA) issued a statement calling on the president to force Qatar Airways to change practices SWAPA called discriminatory. Its focus on discrimination is, purely and simply, a smokescreen intended to distract from the real issue.

The association cited comments made by Qatar Airways’ CEO Akbar Al Baker about his airline's flight crews averaging 26 years of age, and his referring to U.S.-based cabin crews as "grandmas." SWAPA called these comments “[R]eflective of a pattern of discrimination and deceit by the airline,” and called on the U.S. government to “stand up to these discriminatory actions and stand up for U.S. aviation.” (emphasis added)

Those last few words are the most important. The organization is in fact asking for the government to "stand up for U.S. aviation" by restricting or eliminating the competition from Qatar as well as the other two Persian Gulf carriers, Etihad Airways and Emirates, and is using the highly emotional term "discrimination" as an attempt to secure the moral high ground.

Qatar flight attendants
In its tirade, the pilots’ association also pointed to the airline’s past practice of prohibiting female cabin crewmembers from marrying, being pregnant, or from even being dropped off for work by a male who wasn't a relative.

While we in the West may indeed view this as discrimination, SWAPA’s arguments that the U.S. should "stand up to these ... actions" are not persuasive for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, why do we Americans think we can tell the rest of the world how to do things?

The Qatari culture is far more conservative than the U.S. culture, and that extends to its attitude toward its women. While some may call it patriarchal or even repressive, others would term it protective. In any case, it is their culture and not ours to change.

My second point is with SWAPA’s issue over Al Baker’s comment that the average age of Qatar's cabin crew-members is 26 and describing U.S. aircrews as "grandmas." I know this will anger some people but, in general, I agree with him.

While safety has always been a F/A’s top priority, many of those I have encountered recently do not seem to understand that customer service is (or should be) a close second. And I believe the diminished level of service I encounter on far too many flights may have something to do with F/As staying too long on the job.

Working with the general public can be difficult, and the longer one does it, the more jaded they can become. Placing an age limit on F/As would ensure a certain level of turnover which would bring in fresh people who are new to the business, eager to dive in to their new position and deliver excellent customer service.

There is another issue which SWAPA did not address but which may be in play, and that is the structure of Qatar’s business model.

No one is saying it explicitly but it is conceivable that young, attractive flight attendants are part of the image Qatar wants to project. If that is the case, the airline may have established “appearance” as a qualification necessary to its normal operation, and that is explicitly allowed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

That portion of the act allows companies to discriminate on the basis of "religion, sex, or national origin in those instances where religion, sex, or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the particular business or enterprise." That is how restaurant chains like Hooters, Twin Peaks, The Tilted Kilt and others of that ilk are able to hire only attractive women as servers.

But all that is really quite beside the point.

Showing their true colors

While SWAPA may indeed be concerned about the rights of the Qatari flight attendants, that concern pales in comparison to their concern for their own profits. As the character Deep Throat said in the movie All the President’s Men, “Follow the money.”

“Despite these blatant discriminatory policies, the U.S. government has given Qatar nearly unfettered access to our markets,” SWAPA said in its statement. Although mentioned last, it is the access to markets that is the real issue, not discriminatory policies.

Access by Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates is a problem for U.S. carriers because every one of the three Persian Gulf airlines consistently outperforms each and every U.S. airline when it comes to customer service. For more details, read the article on the 2017 SKYTRAX World Airline Awards.

Qatar was the No. 1 airline of the 100 Best Airlines in the World in the 2017 awards, as voted by literally millions of air travelers. Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) was the highest-rated U.S. carrier, and it was No. 32.

Airline passengers want more than just to be transported safely; we also want to be treated like valued customers or guests, not like hostages. The Persian Gulf carriers treat their customers very well.

SWAPA also trotted out the hackneyed argument about unfair government subsidies creating an unleveled playing field.

Last November, Dr. Ashley Nunes addressed that topic in an editorial in Forbes. He pointed out that many state-owned carriers serve American markets including Surinam Airways, Caribbean Airlines and Kuwait Airways. So far, none of them has drawn the ire of the U.S. aviation industry.

“[A]s long as they don’t threaten the balance sheets of their American counterparts, all is well. Once they do, the latter cries foul,” Nunes wrote.

He also noted that Emirates began flying to New York in 2004 and Gulf subsidies were a non-issue until U.S. carriers began losing passengers and revenue to Emirates and the other Gulf carriers.

Further, he pointed out that the industry's stand about subsidies is dramatically inconsistent, as many U.S. airlines actually partner with subsidized carriers.

“In 2014, some $865 million in subsidies went to China Eastern and China Southern, both of which partner with Delta,” he said. “$162 million went to Air China, a United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) ally, and $82 million to Hainan Airlines that code-shares with Dallas-based American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL).” The collective hands of U.S. airlines are hardly clean when it comes to subsidies.

My take

The problems within the U.S. airline industry are largely of its own making and are not an outgrowth of competition from Qatar, Etihad and Emirates. It is the U.S. industry's choice to levy ever-increasing nickel-and-dime fees and to squeeze its passengers into ever-smaller seats. It is the U.S. industry's choice to overbook flights to the point that customers are dragged off by force. And I could go on; the airlines' missteps are legion.

Here's what the U.S. aviation industry needs to do:

Start (or get back to) delivering excellent customer service. That includes more space and fewer nickel-and-dime charges.

Stop whining.

If the competition is beating the pants off you, step up your game.

Finally, fight your own fight; don’t ask your uncle (Sam) to do it for you.

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Photo provided by Qatar Airways
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