I write frequently about the current dispute between the largest US airlines (American, Delta, and United) and the largest Middle Eastern ones (Emirates, Qatar, and Etihad). And I come down squarely against the US airlines, whom I believe are looking to use the government to reduce consumer choices and raise prices for their own benefit.
But that doesn’t mean I’m a defender of the Middle Eastern carriers as such. I don’t think they always make the best business decisions, like Emirates flying an Airbus A380 from Dubai to Dallas when:
- They weren’t filling premium seats on the smaller 777 they had on the route
- They’re facing non-stop competition both Qatar and Etihad from Dallas to the Mideast
Although I don’t think their product investments are as foolhardy as some make them out to be (over the top first class can create a branding ‘halo effect’ over the rest of the product, and at Qatar and Emirates business class really isn’t that impressive and coach certainly isn’t).
I certainly wouldn’t support the US government taking an approach to aviation that’s taken in the Mideast. I just don’t think US consumers should subsidize airlines for it, especially when those US airlines receive plenty of subsidies already.
That’s an important distinction, at least to me: While I come down against the US airlines, I am not an unabashed supporter of the Middle East ones.
Similarly, while I love using miles for Emirates first class on the A380 and for Etihad first class as well, these awards are easy to get and great values in part because there are lots of empty seats flying between the US and Middle East. The products exist, and I enjoy them, but that’s not an endorsement of their government’s airline strategies.
I make this point precisely because I recognize that there are many practices in Qatar and the UAE that are worthy of condemnation beyond the airlines. Life there isn’t the same as in the U.S., and while I try to be respectful of other cultures I do think there are absolutes as well.
No country is perfect, goodness knows the U.S. isn’t, but it’s worth knowing that when you travel abroad life and legal systems are very different. While it’s fine for a woman to travel through the Riyadh airport without covering herself, don’t let that fool you into thinking Saudi Arabia is a modern society that’s elevated the status of women.
It’s easy to be fooled when traveling through an airport, or staying at hotel that caters to foreigners, that where you’ve gone is just like where you’ve been. I’m often shocked by the attire of European tourists arriving in Male for a Maldives vacation. Outside the airport it would draw shock. Enroute to a resort island, not so much.
I’m reminded of this by a very unfortunate story of a man from the US living in the UAE. As reported:
- He spent 21 years working as a marine captain there. Ten years ago he had a heart attack and was hospitalized. He thought that the “credit shield” coverage he paid for would mean he didn’t have to pay his credit card bills while he was unable to work.
- After four months his employer fired him because they believed his medical condition precluded him from supervising large ships.
- He did however find a new job. He planned to return to the US to renew his captain’s license. But the bank issuing his credit cards imposed a travel ban of his $13,500 debt.
- He couldn’t travel, couldn’t renew his license, and hasn’t had steady work. So he hasn’t paid his debt. So he hasn’t been able to travel.
Now, something does seem somewhat off about the story. He’s only challenging the ban after 10 years. He had no other way of certifying his fitness for work besides travel to the U.S. He claims to have only learned of his mother’s passing “by mail” (there were no phones or email in 2010, even for a man that may not have consistently paid his utility bills?). I have no doubt the story is written for maximum effect in terms of its hardship, and that alone leads me to wonder whether he was really days away from the income to pay his debts if only the ban hadn’t been imposed.
And I’m sympathetic on the one hand to laws that might prevent someone from skipping out on debts, and on the other hand to stories of bureaucracies run amok as seems to have happened here.
But for all of the modern face portrayed by governments in the Middle East (and hardly exclusively there), you can easily run afoul of their rules and when you do you aren’t nearly as well protected as you might expect — even for unauthorized photography at the airport or public displays of affection.
Know the rules when you travel, and be willing to follow them if you go. If you’re gay and traveling with your partner to a major city or outlying area (though not necessarily if it’s a resort geared towards westerners), you may want to book a room with two beds even if you share one. Goodness knows it shouldn’t have to be that way.
While I object to these practices, it doesn’t mean I won’t fly the airline. I’ll travel to China too, despite their human rights record. I don’t condemn travel to Cuba, to Venezuela, to North Korea. (This last may mean flying Air Koryo and not on a mistake fare, to an airport whose designer may have been executed).
I think the experience and travel do help to modernize, maybe not one individual traveler in one individual trip but overall such that it’s not ‘supporting the regime’ to fly their airline especially on an award where there’s not much revenue to the carrier. And if you listen to US airlines, they don’t much care about revenue anyway.
I’ve written in the past that what I believe we do owe is:
- Pay attention, learn about the places we visit, get to know the conditions on the ground
- Get to know the people in the places we travel to, learn their stories and share your own back. Exchange knowledge about how their world works, and how the rest of the world works.
- Bring back that increased understanding, and use it to inform your own politics and what policies of your government you do and don’t support.
Generally the airlines of an oppressive regime are their most modern and liberal beachheads. They’re precisely who I want to engage with, what I want to succeed. They bring the nation’s people abroad to see and experience other cultures and norms. Their crews travel the world and, no matter how they’re treated, experience a different world than people unable to travel. And airports are probably the most open and tolerant parts of their countries. I wouldn’t want to walk away from that.