Note to Mid-East Airlines: You Have Some Questions to Answer

By Ted Reed

(Forbes)- On Thursday, Emirates will stage a Herald Square celebration of its fourth daily flight to Kennedy International Airport. The airline will invite the public to play a tic-tac-toe-like game called Connect 4, offering two business class tickets to any of its destinations as a prize.

Certainly long famous-Herald Square is a good place to attract attention, even if the great newspaper that inspired its name is long since gone.

But Emirates will find increasingly find itself in the spotlight in coming weeks, no matter whether it stages events in midtown Manhattan, now that the three global U.S. airlines – American, Delta and United – have begun to battle the three Gulf carriers – Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways – over whether massive subsidies from Middle East governments constitute violations of Open Skies agreements.

So far, the U.S. carriers have issued a confidential report detailing the $40 million in subsidies, along with the efforts to cover them up. The CEOs of the three carriers have met with Anthony Foxx, the secretary of transportation. Lee Moak, former president of the Air Line Pilots Association, has created a new organization, Americans for Fair Skies, to lobby for change. Delta CEO Richard Anderson went on CNN to voice concern about the subsidies, although he was temporarily sidetracked by tying the issue to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

On Friday, American CEO Doug Parker laid out the U.S. carriers’ case in an employee magazine, while Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents 25,000 American flight attendants, commented in an e-mail to members on the weak labor protections at the Mid-East carriers, particularly Qatar.

Also last week, in an interview, Moak discussed the deterioration of the relationship between Canada and the United Arab Emirates, home of Emirates and Etihad Airways, after Canada declined to allow more flights to Toronto by the two carriers in 2010. The UAE subsequently declined to extend an agreement for Canada to use a military base in Dubai as its troops fought in Afghanistan.

As discussions continued, Peter MacKay, Canada’s minister of National Defense, announced at a news conference in Afghanistan that Canadian troops would vacate the base, according to Wikipedia. Hours later, as MacKay and other high-ranking Canadian officials were flying back to Canada, the UAE denied landing rights and forced a rerouting to Europe, Wikipedia said.

Later, because of the dispute, the UAE lobbied against Canada’s 2010 bid to join the United Nations Security Council.

“What you find there is that if these countries don’t get their way, they take their ball and go home,” Moak said. “When Canada said there was no need for more seats (between the two countries), the Emirates got angry and said ‘Pull all your troops out of Camp Mirage.’ The message was ‘If we don’t get our way, we will punish you.”

It is a threatening approach for a country that is seeking to build an airport in Dubai that could one day accommodate 240 million passengers annually, a large chunk of the world’s international aviation business, and Moak says it underscores vastly different approaches to commercial aviation.

In the United States, Moak said, “we have a democracy, a president and free enterprise,” while “they have a dictatorship, a sheik and subsidized airlines.”

Meanwhile, Glading raised questions about working conditions for flight attendants at the Gulf carriers. While most U.S. airline employees are protected by union contracts, Qatar and the UAE prohibit collective bargaining, Moreover, according to Glading’s message to members, at Qatar Airways “flight attendants must ask permission to marry or to have children.

Also, Glading said, “They live in locked and closely monitored dorms. They sign employment contracts but if for any reason they cannot complete them, i.e. they no longer meet appearance standards, they are forced to pay back the money they earned. If necessary, this requires working for free in other capacities.”

In a prepared statement, Rossen Dimitrov, Qatar senior vice president/customer experience, denied that the carrier dismisses married or pregnant flight attendants.

“Qatar Airways flight attendants do not have to be, or remain single,” Dimitrov said. “Many of our cabin crew are in fact married. The employment contracts simply use the term ‘single status’ which is a common term in many Gulf companies’ contracts.” The term refers to being single “for benefits/housing purposes,” he said.

Additionally, Dimitrov said, “cabin crew do not have to ask permission before marrying,” but “for health and safety reasons” they do have to notify the carrier when they become pregnant.’ If they cannot fly due to pregnancy or other reasons, they “are assisted with finding suitable ground positions.”

We don’t think the heavily unionized airline industry has finished talking about the working conditions at the Mid-East carriers. And the U.S. public, for all of its complaints about service levels on U.S. airlines, may not like what it hears about those conditions.

Originally published on Forbes.com: Note to Mid-East Airlines: You Have Some Questions to Answer