Is It Wrong to Fly an Airline When You Don’t Support Their Country’s Government?

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary,

    Unfortunately, whenever you choose to fly a government owned airline, you are supporting the government. There are fine North Korean restaurants in couple countries, with me having tried the one in Phnom Penh. The reality is that the money they earn go to support their despotic governments. I was a teenager and I really wasn’t aware of the situation.

    We cannot feign some justification behind our flying patterns. I know the tendency is there for all of us to justify our actions morally. But the fact of the matter is is that our lives are so closely tied to sufferings of other people. The clothes we wear, the cell phones we use etc etc.

    I accept this as the reality of a broken world. I can’t justify nor should I justify flying Qatar in any moral sense and neither should anyone else. Accept that your money is going to support a despotic government, and if inclined, try to put your money elsewhere. But, please let’s not try to cover it up with a show of ethical gymnastics.

  2. I lived in Dubai for two years and find that most Westerners and certainly most Americans don’t look deep enough into the problem. They see a gang of 20 Indians digging a ditch in the blazing sun and say (sniff, sniff) that is horrible, this Government shouldn’t allow it. What they don’t realize is that every one of those Indians WANTS to be there. They are earning $1 per hour and back in their home country they would only get $1/day for t he same hard work. They can marry, pay for their children to be educated, and buy a house – none of which they could get by staying in India. This type of globalization has brought million out of poverty. Don’t think of the Government of the country, think of the individual.

  3. It goes both ways, I suppose. As the biggest neo-colonial state, founded/funded/currently working on the genocide of the indigenous population and on the backs of the slave-trade, that has waged war and is directly or indirectly responsible to the destruction of countless nation-states, the racist systems of power still in place which have lead to the murder of its citizens, its very own gendered glass-ceiling, some of us only fly US airlines out of necessity. But by no way does that mean that we agree with it as a government for anything but the people it is meant to protect and support.

  4. You mention Riyadh, but it is a world different from UAE and Qatar. Both the latter countries enjoy a large western population, and though there have been some questionable decisions taken by their old arcane tribal-system judges, the US is no angel. A couple in Florida have been jailed for 2.5 years for having sex on the beach, something which couples in Dubai have been also persecuted for but later let go.

    You can be thrown in jail in the US for not paying tax and even stopped at the airports if there is a judgement against you (I’ve seen it happen to other people).

    And don’t get me started on how the Police act with blacks in the US 🙁 – it’s very distressing to see, something Obama has even recognized as a systematic prejudice in the system. This does not mean we should boycott.

  5. I don’t think you can ever disassociate a carrier with its country. I would never fly Saudia because doing so would in one way or another give some of my hard earned money to a country that represses its own citizens. Nor would I ever fly El Al for its human rights abuses in the Palestinian Territories. But then does that mean that we should only be flying carriers based on their countries human rights records? If that is the case, we may be restricted to flying Scandinavian airlines. And what does it mean for US airlines, after all our own government human rights record is not spotless…

  6. Of course it’s wrong… if you have to sit in coach.

    @Gwayrav … and you still live here knowing your government is responsible for all that? You should be ashamed.

  7. i don’t claim to know or make judgement on a country and their human rights issues. But if I know a few things that make me uncomfortable, then I just won’t fly that airline or visit that country. I think everyone has to go with their gut and decide for themselves. The Qatar human rights issues with building those worthless stadiums for World Cup soccer does it for me. I’m not jazzed to visit Cuba either. But if someone else wants to go, I believe in their right to do so.

  8. I fell for the click-bait title. So I am going to answer your question with another question –
    Is it wrong to fly an airline when you don’t support their country govt; but your country’s govt supports their govt ?
    Saudi Arabia is among the largest military allies of the USA. Qatar is home to one of the largest US naval bases. More than half a million troops passed through these countries. Thousands of tanks, trucks and armored vehicles, Food and Other essential supplies passed through Jebel Ali (a port in the emirates) that was vital to the American war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  9. I’ve traveled many times with UAE carriers and it’s only really in recent times because of all this talk on the blogs that I have started to think about going back to American carriers simply because I don’t intend to support companies or countries that wish ill will towards America. Like many people who are very travel savvy and subscribe to numerous travel blogs the problem that the bloggers seems to over look is they think that all those images of beautiful products are more important than ethics and fundementals. Truth is that the joke is really on all of them because after a while of having traveled in those products I’d venture to say that many Americans are keen to stick to what is in the best interest of our own nation -even if it’s not as nice. As long as I have a Boeing plane, a flat bed and a good captain I’m happy. -I’ve flown private, first and biz on all the greats but I’m not interested in companies that wish to kill jobs back home. So my recommendation is if I do fly on one of the three M.E. carriers I use miles cause I want cash revenue to go towards the thousands of jobs in the US aviation industry.

  10. EK sending the A380 to DFW is all about the product. It’s the only U.S. Market that doesn’t have an Indian airline or TK but all three ME and the EK A380 has a much better than their 77w or QR and matches EY.

  11. I don’t find cashing in frequent flyer miles to fly a Middle Eastern airline much of a moral dilemma. On the other hand, “lobbying” for their further access to American markets — even though everyone in the business knows these airlines don’t have to pay their bills like “real” companies do — seems much more troublesome.

    Perhaps the saddest part of this hyper-subsidy situation is that other airlines which offer good service (not American carriers) are bearing the brunt of the pain. Do you like flying Singapore and Thai? I do. But these carriers are struggling now in part because of the Middle East airlines. They’re retrenching. It’s of course odd that there’s no retrenchment among the Middle East airlines, despite the fact that the freefall in oil prices is making their loopy business plans twice as loopy. It would be like the USA entering a depression and the Big Three USA airlines deciding it was a great time to double capacity. But this is what passes for “sound business” in the Middle East. It’s past time to stop focusing on the bells and whistles and start paying attention to the bizarre-ness of this situation.

  12. For real, Vijay —

    I come down on Gary hard for clickbait titles but this title accurately represents the article topic and in no way sensationalizes anything for effect.

  13. Umm, IMHO there’s a big difference between visiting a repressive country and spending money there. I visited several commie East Bloc countries in the 80s and can attest to the horrors produced by their despotic regimes. But I spent the bare minimum, thereby adding very little hard currency to the coffers of the dictators.

    By flying a state-owned or state-subsidized ME carriers you are clearly endorsing the product and supporting it with your money. But to be fair there is a spectrum, and the UAE is not North Korea. I personally don’t have an issue with flying ME carriers even though I don’t agree with everything the governments do there (for the record I would not fly SA because I don’t need people telling me that I can’t enjoy a beer on my flight).

    But I could never spend a dime knowing it would go into the Supreme Leader’s pocket after reading about the horrors of his prison camps, which rival nazi germany. Would you fly Lufthansa if Hitler was still running the country?

  14. Interesting.

    There are so many issues within the US government I am at odds with and yet I fly our airlines weekly. I do shy away from and but mostly because of their infamous maintenance histories. Honestly, I don’t spend a great deal of time listening to the ‘controlled’ media reports regarding human rights. Most news (porbably all) outlets have their own political agendas and there are repeated examples of distortions and omissions in presenting news events.

    Me, I keep looking for good seats at low prices and let the rest of the world sort out their differences!

    I’ll sign off now, since, imo, their really isn’t a “travel subject” but just something else you like to use to stir up some interactions.

  15. @Vijay – I’ve also been critical of some click-bait titles, but there’s absolutely nothing click-bait about this title, or the associated post.

  16. Here’s what’s clickbait about your entire “blog” if you care to know at all.

    You claim to be an employed “educator” working under a tenured faculty member of a US based university, so therefore you make a majority of your income from let’s just use the term for lack of a better term “Students”. So instead of remarking about how royal family or celebrities travel, try examining how it is you’ve been able to travel so extensively.

    Yes I know many members of the ‘teaching’ class believe they have received their income and status in life by virtue of their own real world knowledge and savvy but truth is they’ve mostly figured out a way to make some kid go get subsidized loans for them.

    And most of the time, they give their ‘students’ nothing more than an attitude in exchange.

    So although I respect the fact that you don’t believe you owe anybody “more than that”.

    I beg to differ in the days ahead.

  17. How do you know which airlines are government owned or supported? Is an airline government owned just because it has the same name as a nation or is not government owned because it does not? I’m not going to take the time to find out.

  18. Although to be ‘fair’, looking even further into my own off the cusp analysis, the aforementioned background facts would also indicate that you were probably a DC resident for a number of years and as such received absolutely no representation in exchange for having paid your taxes, which may as well lead to certain ideological tendencies.

    Anyways, life keeps moving, happy travels in 2015 and beyond. All my “ex’s” live in Texas aint just a song son.

  19. Somehow I tend to doubt that Gary, but like I said, it’s a whole new world in 2015.

    And there’s plenty of “off the books” stuff that needs to be addressed in the days ahead beyond those which have thus far been disclosed in public filings .

  20. You’re coming from a world where it’s completely acceptable to discuss programs as if they have originated from a supposed ‘black’ budget.

    We all have our skeletons.

  21. My off the cusp analysis indicates that this Pacific individual has some kind of ask to rind and seams to have thought that crying, “clickbait,” was some kind of awl-compassing dig.

    (And for the record, I had this attitude long before I earned my degree.)

  22. The same people that will not fly these airlines but then they shop st Walmart or Hobby Lobby. The have no problem supporting employee abuses here and making women exclude birth control coverage from their health insurance but will cover bushes and penal implants

  23. @home I
    Exactly. Those same people buy products that are “made in china” – and fill up on gas that was likely imported from ME. Who are we kidding ?? one word : hypocrisy

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