Labor Strife an Unwelcome Novelty for Emirates Airline

Labor Strife an Unwelcome Novelty for Emirates Airline
Cabin crew complain of working longer hours and shortened layovers

March 20, 2015 9:20 a.m. ET
DUBAI—Emirates Airline is fighting an unusual headwind: labor trouble.

In the U.S. and Europe, the Dubai-owned carrier is fighting accusations by rivals that it benefits from unfair government subsidies. Back home, however, Emirates, the world’s largest international airline by traffic, is engaged in a rare tussle with its own cabin-crew staff.

According to current and former staff, cabin-crew employees have been complaining internally about a host of issues, including accusations the airline is asking crew to work more hours and shortening layovers between connecting flights. In response, Emirates is holding a series of unprecedented meetings where staff can air grievances directly to senior management. It also recently suspended a performance-evaluation system of cabin staff—conducted after each flight—that employees complained was too critical.

Labor trouble is a frequent headache for global carriers, where strikes and other job action can disrupt service. But in Dubai, a semiautonomous monarchy that is part of the United Arab Emirates, strikes and unions are banned.

Emirates has long been a demanding employer, especially for cabin-crew personnel—requiring rigorous training, including in etiquette and grooming. But cabin-crew staff also enjoy benefits not typical at many other airlines, including free accommodation and transportation to and from work. That has all helped keep a lid on labor strife among its roughly 20,000 cabin-crew employees until now.

The dissent comes as the airline is growing rapidly and recruiting aggressively to fill its cabins. Emirates carried 44.5 million passengers in its latest financial year, and forecasts 70 million passengers by 2020.

It plans to hire 5,000 more cabin staff this year, to accommodate growth and attrition. That fast clip is straining current staff, according to some employees.

Flight attendants say they are having to work more shifts, with shorter layovers. First-class attendants, who typically work their way up to their postings in premium cabins, are being asked to work in economy to make up for shortages there, according to these employees. Many cabin-crew staff had some annual leave allocation deferred last year, they said.

Emirates said in a statement that it hasn’t shortened layover times, and any changes to staff routines are exceptions that comply with safety rules. Staff have to work in other cabins at times, the carrier said. Emirates didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment about deferred leave.

The company also declined to comment generally about cabin-crew complaints, and to make executives available for interviews. Saif Al Suwaidi, director general of the General Civil Aviation Authority, the U.A.E.’s airline regulator, said issues about airline labor conditions are a matter to be sorted out between staff and management.

‘There are a number of subjects that are causing concern at the moment’
—Terry Daly, Emirates’ senior vice president of service delivery, in an email to staff.
The gripe sessions initiated this year are one way Emirates is trying to manage the complaints. In an email in January to staff announcing the meetings, Terry Daly, Emirates’ senior vice president of service delivery, wrote he was “aware that there are a number of subjects that are causing concern at the moment.” He called the meetings “an opportunity to talk about these directly with me,” according to a copy of the email reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Emirates has held three sessions so far. The first meeting, held last month at Emirates’ Dubai headquarters, lasted double the scheduled two hours, according to three attendees. In a statement, Emirates said the forums last month were just one of many ways employees could communicate with management. “We have always encouraged open dialogue,” the carrier said.

Emirates Chief Executive Tim Clark has weighed in. Late last year, he started to send a quarterly “update” email to employees, soliciting feedback from staff. But he also warned about gossip mongering: “I’m astonished by the range of colorful stories that sometimes do the rounds in our company,” he wrote in October. His advice, he continued, according to a copy of the email, is to “keep well away from naysayers and gossips and focus instead on our ambition to be one of the most loved lifestyle brands.”

Write to Rory Jones at