Insider Series: True Life of an Emirates Flight Attendant

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Editor’s note about our Insider Series: TPG Contributor Carrie A. Trey shares some of her most interesting stories and perspectives in this Insider Series article. Please remember that Ms. Trey’s opinions and statements here are her’s and her’s only, and they do not reflect the opinions of the TPG Team. Disclaimer out of the way….please enjoy this latest installment from the one and only Carrie A. Trey!

Flying first class on Emirates was one of my all-time favorite travel experiences for its sheer luxury, its onboard showers, and its warm, impeccable service. Ever wonder what it’s like to be a flight attendant aboard one of the Middle East’s opulent carriers? As part of our new Insider Series, here’s TPG Contributor Carrie A. Trey‘s behind-the-scenes, anonymous report from a working Emirates flight attendant.

When it comes to ME3 flight attendants, there's a lot of fear and sadness beneath those red hats and behind those gleaming smiles
When it comes to ME3 flight attendants, there’s a lot of fear and sadness beneath those red hats and behind those gleaming smiles.

The three major airlines in the Middle East—Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad—are often collectively referred to as the ME3, and all evoke images of pretty, young girls wearing red lipstick and patiently waiting on you while you luxuriate in your private suite, winging your way to some exotic locale. However, many customers say this smiling, gracious service seems more forced than genuine—and they’re right. The real story behind those flight attendants’ strained smiles is one of fatigue, gross mistreatment, abhorrent living standards, deception, mistrust, and even alcoholism, depression and suicide.

Those girls in little hats serving you onboard your ME3 flight fly almost twice as much as their counterparts at European carriers. Some U.S. airlines allow their crews to fly high hours, but they have rules in place for work and rest that are largely ignored by the ME3. Fly in from Manchester at 7 a.m. and go back out to Perth at 2 a.m. the next morning? This type of schedule is par for the course at the ME3, yet would be illegal in the U.S. or Europe.

I remember a flight from SFO to Dubai that was diverted to Kuwait, where we sat on the ground for four hours; by the time we landed in Dubai, we had been on duty for over 24 hours, with only a three-hour break. At any European or U.S. carrier, the crew would have timed out and a relief crew would have been flown in, or the passengers would have been rebooked on other flights. It would have been inconvenient for the passengers, but surely a better alternative to having a fatigued crew trying to handle a potential emergency.

Flight attendants for the ME3 are considered easily replaceable, and rarely granted time off —even in the event of a family tragedy. For instance, a dear friend of mine who works at an ME3 airline went to her manager to explain that she’d need emergency leave to be with her dying mother, but was told she’d be granted two weeks’ leave only after turning in a death certificate. In a case like this in the U.S. or Europe, the company would likely bump a revenue passenger in order to get an employee home, then give them as much leave time as they might need. Management at my airline would not only make room on the next flight out, but likely send flowers to express their condolences. At the ME3, though, management views their employees as little more than robots who exist only to deliver service; if you don’t like it, you can go home—for good.

Flight Review: Emirates First Class A380 Dubai-New York JFK
I recently flew Emirates First Class on their A380 between Dubai-New York (JFK).

What about the nice girl in the red tabard who cleaned up the shower in first class after you used it? Did you know that when she applied for the job she’s currently doing—probably at an open house event in Manila or Mumbai—she was told the title was “spa manager”? I don’t imagine an actual spa manager would willingly sign on to scrub toilets in Economy on a 14-hour flight from Dubai to Sydney. The girls with these particular jobs are treated even worse than the flight attendants they work alongside: they get only two-hour breaks on 14-hour flights, are shoe-horned into bedrooms with several other girls in their home-base accommodations, and are paid salaries that would make a fast-food worker in the states look like a millionaire. The ME3 see nothing wrong with misrepresenting their positions and deceiving their employees if in the end it brings in the profits on which they thrive.

Notice how the crew who respond to your every whim seem to be just a little bit afraid of you? That’s not your imagination: they are afraid of you. If their customers complain about the service they receive, anxious ME3 customer service staff are eager to assuage them with miles and upgrades, while the flight attendants are punished. At Emirates and Qatar, the first formal step of discipline used to be the loss of one’s profit-sharing check for one to three years; these days, though, the benefit of profit-sharing is no longer extended, despite these carriers’ record profits. Current ME3 sanctions against employees might be negative letters of recommendation in their personnel files or docked pay.

The ME3 culture of fear isn’t confined to the attendant-passenger relationship, but also extends to interactions with other employees. All of the ME3 airlines promote a “report-and-rise” culture, whereby employees are praised for turning in other colleagues for any infraction. A close friend of mine was turned in to management at Qatar Airways for posting on Facebook that the passengers on his previous flight had “worn him out.” The result was suspension with half-pay for two months before he was finally told to pack his bags and leave. This environment of mistrust amongst both one’s colleagues and passengers results in low morale amongst ME3 flight attendants.

On top of all this, those lovely crew members with the strained smiles and tightly-wound up-dos don’t get to let down their hair when they get to their layover or to their homes in Dubai, Doha or Abu Dhabi. At Qatar, for example, crew are required to swipe their badge in and out of all company buildings/residences, and must be in their assigned company accommodation by 3:30 a.m. or face disciplinary action—and that’s just on a day off. When on duty, the curfew cutoff is twelve hours prior to the start of a shift.

Emirates has strict restrictions for their flight attendants.
Emirates has strict restrictions for their flight attendants.

Cigarette smokers are in special trouble at Qatar, where smoking is a terminable offense at any time, in or out of uniform, even on a layover or on leave. Catching you smoking would also be a great opportunity for other colleagues to rise within the company; out comes the camera phone, out you go and up they go. At Emirates, smoking is forbidden in uniform but is otherwise allowed.

If your go-to for stress relief is sex, again, be careful. Pregnancy is also a terminable offense amongst the ME3, and if you happen to be both pregnant and unmarried, you could be deported from the U.A.E or Qatar.

These restrictions can become too much for some people, but seeking help is next to impossible. Health insurance is provided by the airlines, so the company will see any doctor bills incurred, along with the conditions they address. Being drunk or high is technically illegal in most Middle East countries and warrants termination from the airlines, but there are no anonymous support groups or services for those seeking help with substance abuse and/or addiction. Clinical depression is also a condition that warrants termination amongst ME3 airlines, so employees avoid going to a doctor for a diagnosis and help; even if they could get help, most depression meds are illegal due to draconian drug laws in the Middle East.

While I was working in the Middle East, the pressures of working within the ME3 became too much for two of my colleagues, both of whom took their own lives. Suicide is illegal in the U.A.E., so both deaths were reported as “accidental falls,” while their families were sent the associated bills for cleaning out the apartments and repatriating the bodies.

Next time you’re buying a ticket or spending miles, if you do chose to fly with the ME3, please remember to be kind to your crew. Behind those veils and red lips is almost always a story that’s sadder than it is happy, and all of your attendants deserve a break.

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