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Emirates Airline's One Percenters

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 20/10/2015 Rob Britton
EMIRATES A380 © Thomas Trutschel via Getty Images EMIRATES A380

The new, $20 million Emirates Airline TV commercial featuring Jennifer Aniston is generating a lot of buzz. If you haven't seen it, the spot opens with Ms. Aniston dreaming about being aboard a U.S. airline. She's in her bathrobe, asking three flight attendants about the location of the shower and the bar. They laugh, telling her those things aren't on board. Then she wakes from the dream, and she's on an Emirates A380, where, while sipping a martini, she describes her "nightmare" to the bartender. Cute, huh?
If you're Emirates, based in Dubai, Etihad from Abu Dhabi, or Qatar Airways from that country, you can install showers, butlers and bars on your A380s because your government owners deliver wheelbarrows of subsidy cash. A marketing manager for one of the Gulf airlines, who spent many years at a real carrier (e.g., one owned by private investors who expect financial diligence and profit) recently told our mutual friend that inside the executive offices of the Gulf carrier the omnipresent attitude is that "cost doesn't matter on anything." Real carriers like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, or their European partners, and most other global companies must spend prudently. They don't have unlimited access to state treasuries.
All that subsidy money, over $42 billion for the three Gulf carriers just in the last decade, creates a tilted competitive playing field - and violates the provisions of the two "Open Skies" agreements between the United States and both the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The UAE and Qatar gained open access to the U.S. aviation market in exchange for promising to ensure fair competition. They have been violating their promises for years and harming American jobs.
A little travel tip: if you're flying Emirates from, say, New York to Dubai, don't expect to use the shower if you're flying Economy or even in Business Class. Only 2.9 percent of the passengers on a three-class Emirates A380 have access to the shower - Ms. Aniston and the 13 others in First Class. The remaining 475 people, 97.1 percent, will need to bathe after landing - or make do with their moist towlettes. And the showers are only on their 65 behemoth A380s: if you do the numbers for the entire Emirates fleet, only about 1 percent of seats have shower access - no inflight bathing on their 777s nor A330s. The one percenters are privileged.
A few more observations about the ad from a longtime airline marketing professional. First, Emirates has announced they are spending $20 million to secure airtime for the ad - but anything is possible when you have bags of government cash funding your company. Second, Emirates will likely have difficulty airing the commercial in the UK and other markets where advertising regulatory bodies more rigorously scrutinize ad messages - a casual viewer could well conclude that showers come standard, rather than just for the very privileged. In any case, Emirates and Ms. Aniston certainly do raise expectations.
Third, the handsome male flight attendant-slash-bartender to which Ms. Aniston confides her dream has blonde hair and an English accent. Although Emirates does hire some cabin crew from Europe, North America, and Australia/New Zealand, the vast majority are young women from poor countries - as are most of their staff on the ground (it's hard to find locals willing to load and unload bags when it's 140° F on the ramp in Dubai.) Staffing with expendable, low-paid workers is an integral part of the Gulf airlines' high quality/low cost business model. Unlike workers in the West, their employees cannot join a trade union or even enjoy basic worker due process. You mess up, you get sent home - and there are literally millions waiting to take your place (this reality allows Emirates and others to cynically crow about the tens of thousands of applications they receive every year.) And if you need a paycheck so you can send part of it home so your little brother in Manila can pay school tuition, or for mom and dad in Mumbai to buy food and have a mobile phone, you'll endure whatever is necessary.
So that prompts the question: given the Gulf airlines' massive subsidies that create an unfair competitive advantage and violate legal agreements, and considering their ugly labor strategy, do they really provide quality service? Do you feel good about that sort of luxury?
And here's a question for the U.S. government: Don't U.S. airlines and their workers have the same right as other industries to expect the government to enforce its agreements and defend American jobs?

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