Qatar Airways – Operational Excellence, but at What Price?
Qatar Airways is an airline I’ve flown quite a number of times. The planes are modern, the service is good and its flights usually arrive on time. Doha Airport – the current one – is efficient enough, though getting from the aircraft to the terminal can take some time. Flights are relatively affordable, though they are starting to get more expensive – perhaps because QA have managed to carve for themselves a decent slice of the Middle East market. The cabin crew are young and well trained, though they don’t seem to have the confidence to let their personalities shine through, in contrast to some of the more idiosyncratic employees of western airlines that I regularly use.
British Airways, for example, where the word “sir” is uttered by some staff with a slight curl of the lip which suggests that the person is using the expression only because they are paid to do so, despite it being against their better instincts and beneath their social standing. Or American Airlines, whose staff are often of advanced years and give you the impression that they’ve just stepped off their porches in rural North Carolina to dispense the time-honoured pizza that heralds journey’s end – y’all. Or Virgin, whose cabin crew are portrayed by the company’s ads as sex goddesses, but in the flesh often come over as matey and a bit giggly – rather like teenagers in their first jobs. Or even Ryanair, whose staff’s demeanour varies depending on whether or not you meekly accept the company’s diktats, designed to extract cash from the customer for the slighted infringement.Try encountering their cabin baggage police, for example.
With Ryanair, the buccaneer spirit of their CEO, Michael O’Leary, permeates the business. Qatar Airways have an equally high-profile boss – Ahmed Al Bakr. But unlike Mr O’Leary, whose public image is of a lovable rogue, QA’s chief seems to have a darker reputation – a cross between Genghis Khan and Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition.
Mr Al Bakr is said to be fanatical about quality – and I have heard this directly from a former senior manager at the airline. Unfortunately, he seems to use fear as the primary means of enforcing his standards. The airline’s treatment of its staff has raised eyebrows in the aviation world for some time.
When Qatar Airways joined the oneworld alliance, Paddy Crumlin, president of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) commented in a press release:
“The labour relations at Qatar Airways are a running sore on the face of the global aviation industry. Autocratic, overbearing and near-dictatorial, this airline gains control and competitive advantage by ignoring International Labour Organization conventions on worker rights. Its treatment of its employees borders on the appalling.
“In its current form it is not a fit partner for the members of the oneworld alliance. Its inclusion is a disgrace. If it is going to be accepted as a world class airline then it has to make fundamental changes throughout its entire structure. Those changes have to start at the top, with the replacement of its CEO, Ahmed Al-Bakr, who is responsible for much of the disastrous relations with its own employees – and then be carried right through Qatari society, as the recent shocking revelations about the treatment of construction workers there demands.”
Strong stuff. The ITF clearly believes that Qatar’s flag carrier is part of a wider attitude that prevails in the country. According to many reports, the same attitude manifests itself in the treatment of foreign workers involved in building the infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
So what’s the fuss all about? A few days ago the online version of the Swedish tabloid Expressen ran a story based on interviews with several former members of QA’s staff. Here’s an extract:
“The cubicle where the guard sits, at the entrance to Qatar Airways’ staff housing, is strictly guarded. There are cameras everywhere. At least that’s what the management says – that they should expect everything that happens at the entrance to be reported to the managers, to be registered and be incorporated into each flight attendant’s personal track record.”
“Any action on Gina’s part can be construed as an attempt at bribery. After all, the guard is there to monitor her. To ensure that Gina never sleeps anywhere but the staff housing. Never gets home later than mandated by the company. Never allows an unregistered guest into her room, never leaves during her leisure times or has anyone sleep over.
At the same time, he is below her in rank – at least Gina can apply to leave the country if she wants to visit her Swedish family. The guards change buildings every third month, to really make any friendly relations impossible between them and the flight attendants. But Gina has noticed that this guard is sick. And that he is getting worse. She defies the rules and starts talking to him every day. Convinces the guard to go to the doctor.
“What did the doctor say?” she asks the following morning.
“I have diabetes,” replies the guard at the staff entrance.
Gina is silent. She tries to solve the equation of insulin injections and the salary of a Nepalese migrant worker in Doha.
“He says I shouldn’t eat rice,” continues the guard.
“But you’re poor! All you eat is rice. What are you going to eat now?”
“I don’t know.”
Gina and the guard don’t talk again. He’ll soon be relocated to a new building anyway. But before he changes his posting, Gina figures out that there is a tiny blind spot in the entrance where the cameras don’t reach. One morning, on her way to a flight, she ducks into this corner.
On the ground, she leaves a blood sugar meter and a Qatari five hundred note. 500 riyal.”
On another occasion, the same person gets in trouble for her culinary technique:
Gina boils some eggs. She has only just arrived home from a flight. She is tired and removes her makeup slowly. The saucepan overheats when the water evaporates and suddenly the fire alarm goes off. Gina switches it off quickly and tells the security guards that it was a false alarm. Too late.
Three different managers from Qatar Airways arrive at the guarded staff building. Question her in detail about what happened and ask her to prove her story.
“You were boiling an egg? Show us the egg.”
Gina rummages through the garbage and finds the egg. The managers aren’t satisfied. They decide that she should be removed from flights for the next few days and she is summoned to the office the following morning. As there is a twelve hour resting rule before any work event, whether it is a meeting or a long haul flight, Gina is grounded until the time of the meeting.
At the office at Qatar Airways Tower, she is once more asked to give an account of the event. The fact that she was boiling an egg, how could she be so careless, how can they be certain that she will never do anything like that again? Gina is given a severe warning.
Then she is given a pen and paper. Qatar Airways now wants Gina to explain the egg incident in writing and to conclude by saying how sorry she is and that it will not happen again. They dictate and she writes. “I am very sorry, it will never happen again.”
The whole piece makes interesting reading. Mr Al-Bakr in particular comes over as the kind of boss that used to rule the roost in many cultures during the last century, but today is seen as something of a dinosaur. His style is in stark contrast to the chummy and collegiate style of Richard Branson, and the image of the cheeky chappie with a chip on his shoulder that Michael O’Leary emanates. In the Middle East and the Far East, though, authoritarian leaders survive and prosper. Take Vincent Tan, the Malaysian owner of Cardiff City Football Club, for example, about whom I wrote recently. But if Expressen is to be believed, Mr Tan is a pussy cat compared to the Qatar Airways boss.
Are the airline’s practices unusual in the region? Not really. There are authoritarian leaders aplenty, and many organisations in the region are equally harsh with their staff. But it’s rare to see such a comprehensive basket of alleged employee maltreatment in a single company. Intimidation, micromanagement, unpredictable dismissals and institutional humiliation of staff are the kind of practices you would expect from the late Muammar Gaddafi or Kim Jong Un, but not from an airline that represents a country keen to promote a positive image to the outside world.
Maybe the allegations in the Expressen story are exaggerated. After all, the article is based on accounts from ex-employees who clearly have grievances. But I have certainly seen instances of similar behaviour in the region on a regular basis. Bullying, exploitation and financial maltreatment of staff from developing countries are rife, but it’s rare to see those attitudes applying across all levels of an organisation, which appears to be the case with Qatar Airways. Certainly a culture of fear – and a sense that Big Brother, in the form of Mr Al- Bakr, is watching – could explain the curious reluctance of his staff to show their true personalities to the customers.
What is also rare for the region is the use of these tactics in pursuit of operational excellence rather than as the natural inclination of idiosyncratic owners and leaders. Qatar Airways is probably the most operationally excellent airline in the region. But Mr Al-Bakr’s leadership style may ultimately turn out to be a millstone around the airline’s neck if its rivals manage to emulate its good qualities and entice its best people into gentler, kinder workplaces. The likes of Emirates and Etihad are the vehicles of equally ambitious owners who have no intention of letting the Qataris barge their way to regional and global ascendancy.
Even Saudia, whose reputation in recent years has been of inefficiency and chaotic management (see this earlier post), seems to be turning round since its entry into SkyTeam. A couple of days ago I flew with them between Riyadh and Jeddah. The online booking and check-in were easy, the seats in economy were comfortable and the service friendly.
The culture at Qatar Airways will most likely last for as long as Mr Al-Bakr stays in his job. But with 2022 looming up, the ultimate owners of the airline may become increasingly uncomfortable with stories of its antediluvian management philosophy.
But then again, like Vladimir Putin, whose beanfeast at Sochi begins tonight, they might not give a damn.