It’s 10 a.m. in Doha and more than 200 Qatar Airways flight attendants are gathered in an airport hotel ballroom. Taking the microphone, one woman fires off a query about a policy barring cabin crew from using their mobile phones in public while in uniform, garnering murmurs of approval. Another asks why those living in company-owned housing must be in their rooms from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m., getting a round of applause.
Fielding questions is Rossen Dimitrov, the senior vice president who oversees the carrier’s 9,500 flight attendants, 80 percent of whom are women, from places as far-flung as Peru and India. Affable and at times even funny, Dimitrov explains a recent relaxation of policies on marriage and pregnancy, and pledges to review the curfew and other concerns.
Qatar Air’s rapid expansion from a regional carrier into a long-haul powerhouse has brought the conservative values of its home state into conflict with Western views on women’s rights. With a fleet of planes on order that will require thousands of new cabin crew, the carrier has planned about two dozen meetings this year to explain shifting policies and better understand the needs of workers.
“As the airline matures, the workforce matures,” Dimitrov said later (Qatar Air permitted access to the internal company meeting on condition that comments not be cited directly). “You can’t turn to someone who is 35 years old and say ‘No, you can’t have a family, wait.’ We want to retain people.”
The airline has already backed off some of the more intrusive rules. Crew no longer risk being fired if they marry within their first five years of employment or become pregnant. Under new contracts introduced in December, pregnant women will now be offered temporary ground jobs, and they can get married at any time after notifying the company.
Qatar Air isn’t alone among Gulf carriers in its struggles to maintain smooth relations with crew members. Etihad Airways PJSC of Abu Dhabi has been criticized for excluding a trouser option for women when introducing its latest uniforms, though the carrier says that’s because its flight attendants didn’t want them. Dubai-based Emirates has experienced some discord among cabin crew and in February began similar meetings to hear their concerns.
Qatar Air, though, has borne the brunt of criticism. In a report released in June, the International Labor Organization found the carrier’s policies on pregnancy and a ban on female attendants being dropped off at work by men to whom they’re not related amounted to discrimination. The U.N. agency acknowledged that things were improving, but said it was waiting to see whether the more relaxed rules are fully implemented.
The provision on male drop-offs “reflects a cultural norm in Qatar, which we must necessarily factor into our consideration of the matter, but we expect to be looking at this with the government,” the company said in an e-mailed response to the ILO report. Qatar Air said it should be given credit for what it has already done and for “accepting that there are still aspects on which it may need to work.”
The meetings themselves are unusual in Qatar. The flight attendants aren’t unionized -- unions are illegal in the emirate -- and Qatar Air Chief Executive Officer Akbar al Baker has made no secret of his antipathy to organized labor. When questioned about strikes at Deutsche Lufthansa AG last year, he said he was happy “we don’t have to take the crap of the unions.”
Dimitrov, responsible for overhauling the Qatar Air rulebook, says changes have been driven by the need to retain crew as the carrier expands. Qatar Air will add at least 6,000 flight attendants in the next two years, to staff 320 new jets worth $70 billion it has on order. Current recruits are drawn from 130 nations, lured by the sheikdom’s tax-free status.
A Canadian who worked as a flight attendant for Air Canada before getting his commercial pilot’s license, Dimitrov said Qatar is now bringing existing crew to recruitment drives to explain “the great, the bad and the ugly” of the airline.
“I’d like people to join with a clear picture of what the job, country and operation is all about,” he said. “If you decide this is not for you, it’s not for you.”
Dimitrov waded into the center of the controversy in March. He sent an e-mail to cabin crew members that included a photo of a jeans-clad flight attendant passed out in a doorway. Dimitrov said he was “ashamed and disturbed” by the behavior, and scolded the staff for being immature.
In a statement, Qatar Air said most flight attendants would agree that the woman had acted inappropriately, and that public drunkenness is “considered highly disrespectful” in the conservative emirate.
A top concern is a mandatory 12-hour rest rule before shifts, which Qatar Air enforces by monitoring employees in company housing. The airline has leased about 90 apartment buildings in Doha, where most crew members live rent-free. While compensation is generous by industry standards -- starting at roughly $33,000 per year -- most choose company housing because similar accommodation can cost $2,000 per month.
Despite restrictions such as the curfews and a ban on overnight visitors, Dimitrov said the housing proves that the airline takes care of its workers. He points to a new 914-bed development called Crew City scheduled to open in October. Intended as a perk for women who have been with Qatar Air for at least four years, Crew City features one- and two-bedroom apartments, a pool, gym, sauna, grocery store, cafe and laundry.
“Sometimes I want to go for a run at 5 a.m.,” but doing so would violate the curfew, said Athena Yousefipour, a Canadian who has been a flight attendant for the airline for almost two years.
Dimitrov insists that in its recruiting the carrier is always transparent about the cultural norms that crew members must adhere to. Qatar is a conservative place, he says, and anyone coming to work for the airline or any other company must accept and adjust to that.
“Sometimes it’s hard for people who’ve never been to this part of the world to understand,” he said. “I’m not saying bad or good, but beliefs are different and we need to accustom ourselves to the way things are.”
(Corrects comment attributed to ILO in seventh paragraph of story originally published Aug. 26.)