When it comes to relations between management and labor, fights always make the news, while cases of collaboration are seldom mentioned. In the aviation industry, it's rare that you hear about airline management and employees aligned on an issue. For the past year, a strong partnership has emerged in the U.S. airline industry, with American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines joining with seven aviation trade unions to urge the Obama Administration to uphold provisions of legal agreements between the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
The three fast-growing state-owned airlines of these countries, Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways, received more than $42 billion in subsidies and unfair benefits just since 2004. The subsidies violate the provisions of the "Open Skies" agreements and give these airlines unlimited access to the largest market in the world. Importantly, these subsidies have allowed the Gulf carriers to grow without stimulating demand. In fact, just since January, the trio has added or announced plans to grow service into the U.S., expanding their daily seats to and from the U.S. by more than 35 percent. Their unfair advantage is harming U.S. airlines and their European joint-venture partners, and threatening good-paying U.S. jobs.
American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines employ tens of thousands of Americans in positions pay well above U.S. averages and deliver health care, paid-vacation, and other benefits that, sadly, are quickly disappearing from the American economy. These are precisely the kinds of jobs that elected officials love to talk about, and wish for more.
But unfortunately, these are the very jobs that are at risk as the Gulf carriers continue their campaign to dominate much of global aviation. In fact, for every U.S. route that a U.S. carrier is forced to cede to a Gulf carrier, more than 1,500 American jobs are lost -- hardworking pilots, flight attendants, ground crew, and others.
Airline unions and management are also aligned on the fundamental issue of worker fairness at the Gulf airlines. In the UAE and Qatar, not only are trade unions illegal, but workers have almost no access to the due process that every employee in the United States takes for granted. Much of this inequity stems from the Gulf airlines' human resources strategy of filling most jobs with workers from poor countries. Their approach is clever because places like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines are filled with millions of people eager to work in the Gulf or elsewhere, and send money home to their families. The power that Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways managers hold over their workforce offends the sensibilities of fair-minded Americans and U.S. airline leadership alike.
There's a disconnect here: the three Gulf airline brands exude quality, modernity, and luxury. But what is modern about a feudal employment model? And would you feel good about quality aloft knowing that the people delivering the service are so poorly treated?
Unfortunately, this trade dispute has become muddied with exaggerated rhetoric about "protectionism" and the like. In the nearly 40 years since the American airline industry was opened to genuine competition, U.S. airlines and their employees have learned to keep their edge. The adjustment was often painful, with wage reductions and the woes of bankruptcy reorganization, but in the end the business emerged stronger and better able to serve U.S. travelers now and into the future. No one is asking for protection nor special favors. The U.S. airlines and their workers are only asking for a level playing field.
In my 30+ years working for and near three large U.S. airlines, I sometimes disagreed with airline unions, but I always respected their right to organize workers and bargain with management. And I witnessed many occasions when the entire company - rank and file, union leadership, senior management, everyone - pulled together to get things done. This is another of those moments, and it's time for our government to step forward and do what's both legally and morally right to protect U.S. jobs.