The Open Skies fight by American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines against Gulf carrier rivals Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad has produced some strange bedfellows.

Most notably Airports Council International—North America and the U.S. Travel Association have come out in favor of the Gulf carriers, the latter’s CEO Roger Dow stating last week “We wish we did not have to stand apart from our friends in the airline industry on this or any other issue.”

Realizing that they’re losing the public relations war, the carriers have turned to sometime antagonists, sometime rivals in labor unions. Yesterday, leaders of the Association of Flight Attendants, Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the Communications Workers of America, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters issued a letter [in full, below] arguing that USTA’s position is an attack on workers’ rights that actively supports discrimination, and called on the group’s board members at American Express, Google Travel, Hyatt Hotels, and Disney Destinations to take a stand.

“Employees of these airlines aren’t granted fundamental human rights that are enjoyed by most workers in today’s world,” the letter states.

These four unions, as well as the Air Line Pilots Association and the Allied Pilots Association are already part of the airlines’ Partnership for Open & Fair Skies group, which issued a report earlier this month alleging that the Gulf carriers received $42 billion worth of unfair subsidies.

Not all unions are supporting the airlines. Yesterday, Unite Here, a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, issued a report claiming that U.S. airlines receive state subsidies that it says amount to $1 billion a year (link opens PDF). The group is actively working with state governments to help remove these subsidies.

Fair and Open?

Using labor as a wedge issue is interesting, especially when Gulf carriers aren’t the only ones that don’t offer freedoms and protections that many U.S.-based employees of airlines enjoy.

U.S. airlines regularly outsource work, such as maintenance, to employees abroad who receive none of the protections and a fraction of the wages a U.S. employee would get. Closer to home, this past fall United Airlines outsourced gate agent work at 12 U.S. airports to contractors making a little more than minimum wage.

“The Association of Flight Attendants believes in a set of basic fundamental rights for workers around the world,” AFA’s International President Sara Nelson, told Skift. “Including the right to organize/join a union, bargain collectively, and a work place that’s safe and free of discrimination. Any trade agreement should not undermine these rights.”

“Our union beat back discriminatory practices long ago so that anyone with the heart of a Flight Attendant can become one. If discrimination exists anywhere, it’s a threat to us everywhere,” Nelson said.

An Emirates spokesperson did not answer specific questions about employee contracts, but told Skift, “Emirates adheres to the anti-discrimination employment laws of each country it operates in. Emirates does not ask prospective employees about their sexual orientation during any stage of recruitment and does not keep data on employees’ sexual orientation.”

“Emirates abides by the employment laws of the countries in which it operates.”

This is much more diplomatic, as well as less committal, than statements by Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker on CNN last month.

Responding to a claim from Delta CEO Richard Anderson that Qatar Air and other Gulf carriers tied flight attendants into restrictive contracts that penalized them for pregnancy or weight gain. “That is a load of bullshit,” Al Baker said on air. “That is people creating issues because we don’t have unions and they don’t like that. Rumors are being circulated and they are absolutely untrue.”

Full Text of Letter to Board of Directors, U.S. Travel Association

In recent weeks, U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow has ardently defended Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates despite overwhelming evidence that they are receiving massive subsidies from their governments in violation of Open Skies agreements.

Mr. Dow is defending companies with abhorrent labor standards. Employees of these airlines aren’t granted fundamental human rights that are enjoyed by most workers in today’s world. Mr. Dow is standing up for companies that demand female employees obtain permission before getting married or pregnant. And he is defending companies that bar lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from employment. In addition to gender and sexual orientation discrimination, the Gulf carriers have imposed archaic weight and appearance standards on their employees.

Furthermore, the Gulf States ban unions and employees of the Gulf carriers have no recourse or rights in the case of a dispute with their employers. In fact, any association that the government deems as a threat to the public interest can be abolished in Qatar. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates prohibits employees from joining unions or taking part in political organizations.

American carriers and unions overcame practices like these decades ago. Supporting Gulf carriers today returns us to a deplorable time in our industry’s history.

We are writing to you, a member of the board of directors of the U.S. Travel Association, to ask two simple questions: Do you support these labor standards? Do you want to associate your name and your company’s reputation with such repugnant practices?

We urge you to allow the Open Skies agreements to work as intended – by supporting government to government consultations to resolve the subsidies’ issue and restore fair competition to the aviation marketplace. We appreciate the U.S. Travel Association’s role in promoting tourism in the United States, and hope that the Association will stop backing the repressive policies of the Gulf carriers and the governments that support them.

Sincerely,

Sara Nelson, International President, Association of Flight Attendants
Laura Glading, President, Association of Professional Flight Attendants
Larry Cohen, President, Communications Workers of America
James P. Hoffa, General President, International Brotherhood of Teamsters

Photo Credit: Flight attendants posing in a promotional image from Emirates. Emirates