The rivalry between Middle East airlines and their American competitors has just gone to a whole new level. The Big Three U.S. carriers – American, Delta and United Airlines accuse the ME3 – Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways – of unfair business practices and state subsidies that create an unlevel playing field. Now, many people are seeing the American carriers getting their comeuppance.
It was perceived state subsidies that Gulf carriers allegedly enjoy which led United Airlines boss, Oscar Munoz, to say in a recent interview “Those (Gulf) airlines aren’t airlines.” It didn’t take long for Emirates to jump on the comments following the ill-treatment of a passenger onboard United flight 3411.
Of course, nothing can justify how 69-year old physician, Dr David Dao was treated onboard that flight. He was left bloodied and bruised when security officers forcibly removed him from the aircraft, dragging him down the aisle in front of his horrified fellow passengers.
Whether Dao was “belligerent” and “disruptive” as Munoz initially told staff in an internal memo is really not important. He was an innocent victim in a flawed United policy that saw them removing passengers in favour of United’s own employees. It’s commonly accepted that the incident was caused by United’s poor organisational deficiencies and nothing else.
The internet was suddenly awash with memes and parody videos throwing shade at United for its total disregard of customer service. Then, Emirates decided to get in on the act, creating headlines around the world for its witty trolling of their arch nemesis.
Emirates uses the video to highlight the five awards it won in the first ever Tripadvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards for Airlines 2017. The Dubai-based airline took home the Best Airline in the World accolade as well Best Major Airline – Middle East & Africa, Best Economy Class, Best First Class and World’s Best Airlines – Top 10.
“Our service teams work hard and put their hearts into providing the very best experience for our customers both on board and on the ground every day,” said Tim Clark, the President of Emirates when the awards were announced.
The Emirates video finishes by poking fun at United’s slogan: “Fly the Friendly Skies. This time for real.”
“No Re-Accommodation. Just Rest and Relaxation” – Qatar Airways
It didn’t take long for Qatar Airways to launch their own video, taking direct aim at United with the headline: “We’re united in our goal to always accommodate our passengers.” The clip goes on to highlight the onboard services and amenities available on Qatar flights.
Clearly, both Emirates and Qatar Airways are doing something right and are held in high regard as excellent airlines. Qatar is a Skytrax awarded Five Star airline with an impressive average customer rating of 8 out of 10 stars. Meanwhile, Emirates won the Skytrax, World’s Best Airline 2016 award (amongst many others) and has an average user rating of four and a half out of five stars on Tripadvisor.
But is Emirates and Qatar Airways being entirely honest? And is it even appropriate for them to be making light of the United incident?
All Airlines Overbook Flights
This whole sorry saga came about because the vast majority of airlines overbook their flights – Emirates and Qatar are no different. To imply that they don’t ever ‘bump’ passengers off flights is disingenuous at best. In the majority of cases, airlines will make upgrades or look for volunteers. But even the ‘World’s Best Airline’ sometimes has to deny boarding through no fault of the passenger.
In Europe, Emirates has been called out by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for “denying passengers the compensation they are legally entitled to for delayed flights.” The CAA claims that the refusal of Emirates (and four other airlines) to pay compensation on certain connecting flights breached EU law. That’s not so friendly.
United Passengers were Free to Film the Incident
And here’s the really important point. The reason we are talking about United flight 3411 is because video footage was captured by passengers on their mobile phones. The people sat on that plane were free to film the incident – they could share it, send it to news organisations and post it online.
Without those videos, none of us would probably even know about the incident, let alone still be talking about it days later. Maybe it would have made local news but would it have gone viral? Doubtful.
Filming on Emirates Aircraft is Expressly forbidden
Yet passengers on Qatar and Emirates flights don’t have that same liberty. You can only take photographs of other people in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates with their express permission. Both airlines forbid filming or photography onboard their aircraft.
Of course, the carriers are willing to overlook such rules for rave reviews about their First Class suites and luxury onboard bars. They’re not quite so forgiving when an ‘incident’ has occurred. Cabin Crew are instructed to demand passengers stop filming. They are trained to destroy any such footage and will even block customers who ignore their commands.
And yes, the authorities really do penalise tourists for simply taking photographs. In 2015, three British nationals were arrested while plane spotting at an airport in the UAE. They were detained for two months.
Arrested for Making Comments Online
When things do go wrong you might not even be able to make your voice heard. Yup, that’s right – posting anything online that could be deemed ‘offensive’ or ‘critical’ of a UAE-based company (including Emirates) can be considered a crime and punishable under UAE law.
Article 29 of the Cybercrime Law makes it illegal to publish content online “with intent to make sarcasm or damage the reputation, prestige or stature of the State or… any of its symbols.” In March, a Jordanian journalist was sentenced to three years imprisonment and fined AED 500,000 ($136,132 USD) for comments critical of the UAE he made on Facebook.
The law doesn’t just apply to Arabs either. In 2015 a U.S. citizen was arrested in Abu Dhabi for criticising his UAE employers on Facebook.
Is the UAE so Friendly?
Now, this post isn’t intended to be a critical swipe at the UAE or Qatar. The vast majority of tourists and Western expat workers have a trouble free time in both countries. They’ve become popular holidays spots and most visitors return home with fantastic memories and gushing reviews of both the destination and the airline that took them there.
But that isn’t to say that Qatar and the UAE are always so ‘friendly’ and ‘accommodating’. Homosexuality remains illegal, so too does sex outside of marriage and public displays of affection.
In November, a 25-year-old woman was arrested in Dubai for having ‘extramarital sex’ after she went to authorities to report being subjected to a brutal gang rape. The case was only dropped after an international public backlash. A similar case in Qatar saw the Dutch victim jailed for three months.
Then there’s the case of an expat woman and her partner who were recently detained after she went to the doctor with stomach cramps. When it was found she was pregnant the couple were held by the Abu Dhabi authorities for several months.
Qatar Airways Criticised for Violating Female Rights
There have even been calls to boycott Qatar Airways following allegations over the treatment of its female staff. The International Transport Workers’ Federation claimed female cabin crew were routinely harassed, subject to dismissal for becoming pregnant and barred from getting married.
The airline has said that the allegations have been addressed but The Alliance for Workers Against Repression Everywhere (AWARE), a US-based NGO recently called for a boycott of Qatar Airways. It claims that widespread discrimination is still ongoing.
Emirates / Qatar Response Unethical?
The videos are a witty response but have Emirates and Qatar Airways overstepped the mark? Are they behaving in a manner that really isn’t becoming of a professional organisation?
When an Emirates Boeing 777 jet bellyflopped onto the runway after an aborted landing last year, no airlines attempted to make hay of the tragic event. Nor have any competitors made light of the U.S. electronics ban that adversely affects the ME3.
Other airlines didn’t go there because it wasn’t ethical or appropriate.
Both Qatar Airways and Emirates are government-owned airlines – they represent their home States including the values, laws and customs of those countries. An old saying springs to mind: “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
At the time of publication, Etihad Airways had not made any public post that played on the United Airlines incident.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.