Exposed: How Qatar Airways risked lives of flight attendants for coronavirus PR stunt

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File photo from September 27, 2019 shows an Airbus A350 of Qatar Airways company after taking off from the Toulouse-Blagnac airport, near Toulouse. (AFP)
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Updated 31 May 2020

Exposed: How Qatar Airways risked lives of flight attendants for coronavirus PR stunt

  • State-owned flag carrier dons mask of humanitarianism even as it carries out layoffs and wage cuts
  • Whistleblower tells Arab News flight attendants were forced to work during coronavirus or risk getting fired if they didn’t

DUBAI: For a carrier that prides itself on the “five-star airline rating” granted by the ranking site Skytrax, Qatar Airways has surprised the global airline industry during the coronavirus crisis by flying headlong into a PR disaster.

At a time when almost every airline in the world was reeling from a travel slowdown and financial hemorrhage, Qatar’s state-owned flag carrier had the option of taking the path of least turbulence.

Instead, for reasons perhaps known only to top management at the airline’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar Airways has bet on a strategy that fuses virtue signaling and corporate bullying.

This is no surprise given Qatar’s well-documented record of simultaneously exploiting foreign migrant workers and making solemn public pledges to improve their rights.

Take the announcement of free tickets to 100,000 doctors and nurses to any destination it flies around the world.

On the face of it, the concept — picturized with the help of models stylishly posing as health-care professionals — demonstrates Qatar Airways’ appreciation of frontline workers who have been risking their lives since the coronavirus pandemic hit.




Qatar Airway's announcement of free tickets to 100,000 doctors and nurses to any destination it flies around the world. (Supplied by Qatar Airways Social Media)

And at a time when carriers across the world are facing severe cash-flow problems as a result of airport shutdowns and passenger-traffic collapse, CEOs and CFOs can hardly be faulted for trying to think outside the box.

But Qatar Airways’ free-tickets scheme smells so strongly of an attempt to divert media attention away from its mid-pandemic cost-cutting exercise, it is not just cynics who have dismissed it as too clever by half.

Ditto for Qatar Airways’ claim in March, when its competitors were cutting flights from their schedules, that it was adding extra seats back to its network because its mission was to “reunite stranded passengers with their loved ones.”

These stunts have collectively succeeded in drawing additional scrutiny of the carrier’s handling of its cutbacks and treatment of its flight crew, to say nothing of the pervasive violation of workers’ rights by Qatari companies.

IN NUMBERS

$314 billion - Airlines’ projected revenue loss this year.

$200 billion - Government aid required by airlines.

25 million - Jobs at risk globally due to virus curbs.

20% - Qatar Airways’ planned workforce cut.

(Source: IATA)

“We had no choice. We were forced to work on these flights or be fired. Managers would threaten us using abusive language, saying things like, ‘Take this flight or go back to your third-world country’,” said a Qatar Airways flight attendant from a South Asian country who did not want to be identified for fear of losing her job.

“Some staff with good looks or who are favorites of the management, especially Europeans, were asked to stage an act for CNN that (suggested) we were very happy flying health-care workers. They were paid very generously to do so, despite the fact that they didn’t necessarily serve on the flights or take any risks. But the (cabin) staff that were forced to work on those flights were given only threats.”

Analysts say the horror stories of freshly fired or under-pressure Qatar Airways employees reflect badly on a company that has played a key role in anchoring Doha as a commercial and international travel hub.

Qatar Airways Group, which counts the airline among its assets, had 46,684 employees at the end of its last reported financial year in March 2019.




Cars drive past the Qatar Airways office in Doha on June 6, 2017. (AFP/File Photo)

By its CEO Akbar Al-Baker’s admission, Qatar Airways will cut nearly 20 percent of its workforce.

Referring to the jobs being eliminated, he said in a recent interview with the BBC: “For me to let them go is really painful, but we have no other alternative.”

The words “really painful” probably do not even come close to describing how those at the receiving end of the wage and staff cuts feel.

The feeling is all the more “painful” as the layoffs coincide with a $10 billion lifeline thrown by the Qatari government to ideological ally Turkey, whose foreign-currency reserves have been drained by the coronavirus crisis.

Unofficial accounts suggest planned redundancies among Qatar Airways’ cabin crew staff could be as high as 5,000.




Chief Executive Officer of Qatar Airways Akbar Al-Baker speaks during a press conference in Doha on October 22, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

One criterion for deciding who will go, judging by social-media chatter, is whether they have served the airline for more than 15 years.

This has reinforced the notion, rightly or wrongly, that ageism is entrenched in Qatar Airways’ hiring and firing policies.

The quirky Al-Baker has never been shy about his views on the topic, having bragged in July 2017 that the average age of the airline’s cabin crew was “only 26 years” as opposed to the “grandmothers” who serve on American airlines.

Efforts by Arab News to get Qatar Airways’ side of the story did not elicit a response by the time of publishing.

However, one thing the airline need not worry about is being held to account by Qatari government authorities.




People wearing protective masks queue for services in Qatar's capital Doha, on May 17, 2020. (AFP)

As recently as February, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called out authorities in Doha for failing to act against a Qatari employer that did not pay its managerial staff for five months, and its laborers for two months, before workers publicly complained.

“The findings expose a systemic failure that has a bearing on all employers operating in Qatar,” HRW said.

Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW, put it bluntly: “Qatar has passed some laws to protect migrant workers, but the authorities seem more interested in promoting these minor reforms in the media than in making them work.”

Late last year, an Amnesty International investigation into three Qatari companies involved in construction and cleaning resulted in a 52-page report titled “All work, no pay: The struggle of Qatar’s migrant workers for justice.”

The UK’s Guardian newspaper said Amnesty International believed the true scale of the problem was probably far bigger, and quoted its deputy director of global issues as saying: “For all Qatar’s promises of labor reform, the rhetoric did not match the reality on the ground.”

Unsurprisingly, while many airlines are planning for a partial resumption of services by mid-June with the full gamut of precautionary health measures, Qatar Airways is focused on generating buzz for a coronavirus-era business model.

It has released photos to the media of its on-board staff clad in full body personal protective equipment (PPE) suits that they will be using on flights from May 25.

The move comes as part of new safety precautions that the airline says are designed to minimize interaction between passengers and crew.

“As an airline, we maintain the highest possible hygiene standards to ensure that we can fly people home safely during this time and provide even greater reassurance that safety is our number one priority,” Al-Baker said in a statement accompanying Qatar Airways’ latest gambit.




Qatar Airways released photos to the media of its on-board staff clad in full body personal protective equipment (PPE) suits that they will be using on flights from May 25. (Supplied by Qatar Airways social media)

Left unsaid was whether the on-board staff would have the right to opt out of the high-altitude experiment.

It would be unfair, however, to single out Qatar Airways for mishandling the situation when the country whose flag carrier it is has become a case study in coronavirus-crisis mismanagement.

With the number of infections crossing the 34,000 mark, tiny Qatar (population 2.7 million) has the second-highest caseload among Gulf Cooperation Council member states.

This week, the Qatari government admitted that 12 COVID-19 cases had been found in a jail after it was warned that other prisoners could be at risk of contracting the disease.




Employees of Qatar Aviation Services (QAS), wearing protective gear as a safety measure during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, walk along the tarmac after sanitising an aircraft at Hamad International Airport in the Qatari capital Doha on April 1, 2020. (AFP)

HRW had said six non-Qatari detainees “described a deterioration in prison conditions” at Doha’s Central Prison.

On March 31, a coalition of 16 NGOs and trade unions wrote to Qatar’s prime minister demanding adequate protection for foreign migrant workers amid reports of an outbreak of infections in Doha’s rundown Industrial Area.

“Now, more than ever, (Doha’s) promises need to be implemented and rights of migrant workers — who helped build Qatar’s economy and cared for its families — should be protected,” wrote HRW.

Between them, the country’s government and Qatar Airways clearly have a lengthening list of promises to keep — or break.


Libya’s speaker reveals details of meeting with US ambassador

Updated 49 min 26 sec ago

Libya’s speaker reveals details of meeting with US ambassador

  • In an exclusive interview, Aguila Saleh tells Arab news Richard Norland backs plans for implementation of Cairo Declaration and formation of new government
  • The two men also discussed the resumption of oil exports, the prospects for a ceasefire, and plans to base the new Libyan administration in Sirte

CAIRO: Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives, said that the resumption of oil exports, the situation in Sirte and the prospects for a ceasefire were among the subjects he discussed with American Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland during two days of talks in Cairo this week.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Saleh said that they talked about the damage to Libya and other nations resulting from the oil blockade caused by the civil war in the country, and the need to ensure that revenue from oil exports do not end up in the hands of militant groups or foreign proxies.

They agreed that to prevent oil revenues being stolen or diverted, they should be held in the Libyan Arab Foreign Bank and not the Central Bank in Tripoli, until a new government is formed. Saleh said that Norland agreed that the headquarters of the new authority should be in the city of Sirte, protected by the Libyan army.

The hopes for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of militias and mercenaries were also discussed, along with UN talks that aim to accelerate negotiations for a political solution that could allow a new government and Presidential Council to be formed by September.

Arab News: What were the results of the meetings you held with the high-level US delegation in Cairo?

Saleh: I met the American ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, and we discussed a number of important issues (including) the attempt to convince the Libyan people to resume oil exports, because the current situation of the oil corporation is negatively affecting the countries that benefit from exports, as well as Libya itself.

It was agreed to keep oil revenues in the (Libyan) Arab Foreign Bank, to prevent them being seized from the Central Bank in Tripoli by mercenaries. As is known (disagreements between) members of the Presidency Council (have revealed) the extent of corruption in this sector … and therefore oil revenues will not be disposed of until after a new Presidency Council and government are formed.

AN: Was the situation in Sirte discussed? Will the Libyan National Army withdraw, as has been reported?

Saleh: We had a previous proposal that was discussed, which is that the city of Sirte be the location of the new authority, the Presidential Council and the government, so that those in the east and west come to it. (Norland) was convinced by this proposal, and the idea that the Libyan National Army would protect the state’s headquarters and institutions. He also backed a ceasefire agreed through the support of the UN and the US administration.

AN: Will the other side in the dispute, led by the Al-Wefaq government and Turkey, agree to a ceasefire?

Saleh: (Norland) promised to convince them and end this tampering that is destroying the Libyan state. I believe that the meeting with him went very well and he understood everything that I proposed for the implementation of the Cairo Declaration. This includes all the initiatives (required for) a political solution that spares Libya and its people from the dangers of war, (highlights) the importance of peace and rejects foreign interference.

AN: What is the role of the UN during the next stage? Has coordination and communication begun yet?

Saleh: We have asked the UN to supervise the restructuring of the Presidency Council and the government in the near future according to the Cairo Declaration, which won almost unanimous support from Libyans and all parties that support ending a war that they see as a loss for all. The belief is that what can be achieved in peace is much better than the continuation of the war.

AN: Has a US proposal to demilitarize Sirte and deploy international forces been discussed?

Saleh: This matter has not been discussed and we have not seen any proposal for the presence of state forces. Rather, the Libyan National Army will protect the city and the new headquarters of the authority.

AN: Who will choose the members of the new government and Presidency Council? Will it guarantee that the model employed by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj, leader of the Government of National Accord, is not repeated?

Saleh: The government will choose the members of a dialogue committee formed by the House of Representatives and the State Council, known as ‘13+13’ in accordance with the Cairo Declaration.

It takes into consideration the three regions and, on that basis, a presidential council will be formed that consists of three members: the president and two deputies, one from each of the three regions.

Then, a prime minister will be assigned — from a region other than the one from which the president was chosen — and form a government that will submit its program to the House of Representatives for approval.

AN: Has a timetable for reaching this stage been agreed?

Saleh: We have agreed a timetable for the implementation of the stages of the Cairo Declaration. Meetings will be held with the UN from Aug. 16 to Sept. 16, until the new authority is formed. (Norland) supported this and confirmed his support for these dates.

AN: Can Al-Sarraj be convinced to support this?

Saleh: Al-Sarraj is not part of resolving the crisis. The solution is in the hands of both the House of Representatives and the State Council.

AN: How does Turkey explain its continued deployment of mercenaries and weapons to Misrata and Tripoli?

Saleh: The issue is about achieving interests, which will not be imposed on us by force. If Turkey wants to pursue its interests through peace, there is no disagreement. Consequently, we stressed to (Norland) the importance of the departure of mercenaries from Libyan land — and they have already started to flee.

We have previously assured the EU that the continuation of the Turkish war (in Libya) and an escalation will lead to great losses and damage to all of Europe. They are convinced of that and therefore they are keen for a calm and peaceful solution to be found, which is a way out of the current crisis for everyone.

AN: How do you view the Russian position on Libya? Are there any updates?

Saleh: I previously visited Russia and met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. They are supportive of the Cairo Declaration and the vision of parliament, and they listened well to what we presented to them. Likewise, during my tour of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan.

I sensed that everyone supports a political solution and the Cairo Declaration, which is the culmination of all of the initiatives, including Berlin.

AN: Do you think that there is now a US-Russian consensus on Libya?

Saleh: Certainly, because everyone is convinced that their interests are best achieved through peace and not a war that hinders pumping oil.

AN: How do you explain the tone of the Al-Wefaq government, which continues to announce the importance of restoring Sirte and continuing the war?

Saleh: The Al-Wefaq government reached a dead end and did not present anything. Recently they started disagreeing with each other and making blatant accusations about corruption. Al-Sarraj cannot make decisions because they are supposed to be issued unanimously, but with his disagreement with his deputies, all his arguments are dropped.

This, in addition to the allegations of corruption, made recently by (Deputy PM Ahmed) Maiteeq, means Al-Sarraj cannot present anything. He is delegitimized in the eyes of the people and the members and the House of Representatives. He wants to continue in his position to implement what the Turkish regime wants.

AN: So the legitimacy in Libya now rests with the red line (as the strategic city of Sirte was described in June by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi) that must not be crossed to prevent the further escalation of hostilities?

Saleh: Certainly, the red line has resulted in avoiding escalation (and) played a major role in protecting the unity of Libya, its land and people. It is, in my estimation, a large and important (step) in reaching the peace that everyone seeks, in a crisis that has gone on longer than it should have.

Therefore the red line, announced by President El-Sisi, is considered a great effort to stop the bloodshed among Libyans and convince everyone that a political solution is better than continuing to fight. I consider it a historic position for Egypt and its leadership.

AN: Did you agree with Norland any plans for further rounds of talks?

Saleh: We agreed to continue the dialogue. The ambassador emphasized the interests of the American administration, which has intervened at the appropriate time — and it is a very important intervention.

It is expected that I will visit the US to speak before the American Congress and present to them the facts of the situation on the ground, and the vision of the Cairo Declaration and the implementation mechanism.

AN: What is the role of the Libyan House of Representatives during this stage? Will it meet soon?

Saleh: The council is ready to take any practical positions and there is no disagreement about the political solution. We have a constitutional declaration that the required amendments can be introduced, with regard to the new authority, and approved.

AN: What about national reconciliation?

Saleh: Efforts are constant and there is no dispute among Libyans over support for a political solution and a fair distribution of power and wealth. These tasks will be completed by the new authority after it is formed on the basis of the three regions.

AN: What is your view of the security and economic situations in Libya?

Saleh: The security situation is stable and under the control of the National Army. So is the economic situation. Salaries are paid regularly and food commodities are available.