Does The Lack Of Regulation Make Gulf Carriers Unsafe?

Filed Under: Emirates

Roughly a week ago, a FlyDubai Boeing 737 crashed in Russia, killing all 62 passengers and crew onboard. The flight from Dubai encountered bad weather on approach in Rostov-on-Don, causing the plane to circle for a couple of hours. During the plane’s second approach the plane lost speed, eventually causing it to crash.


While the crash investigation is ongoing, a series of whistleblowers have emerged to share (what they consider to be) the reality of working for FlyDubai. The issues boil down to three main areas:

  • The pilots are overworked, with too many changes between daytime flying and nighttime flying, which causes fatigue and bad sleeping patterns; the first officer on the FlyDubai flight which crashed had only one day off in the past 11 days, and was switching between daytime and nighttime flying
  • The chief pilot at FlyDubai is apparently a tyrant, and has created a culture where diversions or bringing forward problems are frowned down upon
  • While other countries have regulatory authorities which are independent of the airlines, in the UAE the government owns the airlines and also runs the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority; so perhaps there is a bit of a conflict of interest when the country owns both the airlines and runs the aviation authority which is intended to regulate them (though that’s nothing new)


Well, this story is now extending beyond FlyDubai, as Emirates pilots are coming forward with similar allegations. RT has an exclusive with several Emirates pilots sharing their thoughts:

One former Emirates pilot told RT that the number one issue to investigate is the airline’s problem with fatigue, as seven pilots at Emirates are forced to do the same amount of work as 10 or 11 pilots at any European airline.

Meanwhile, another pilot still working at Emirates said that the number of pilots at the airline has been dwindling. “They are not able to employ enough pilots to make up for the losses… So what is happening is that pilots are working harder, harder and harder. It is becoming worse,” he described.

A third pilot, who said that he had experienced intimidation for filing a report over a potentially dangerous situation that needed to be fixed, as well as for taking a sick leave because of the emotional pressure he was subject to at the airline, elaborated on what he sees as an employment crisis at the company that is impacting the remaining pilots.

Then there’s discussion of how canceling a trip due to fatigue is frowned down upon, which leads to pilots instead calling in sick, given that calling in sick isn’t recorded with the UAE GCAA:

Emirates reportedly uses the threat of an internal investigation, which involves endless additional examinations for depression and other illnesses not related to fatigue, to keep their pilots from reporting their exhaustion.

“They will investigate you for depression, for alcohol abuse and various other things. So, most pilots do not call in fatigued even though they are fatigued.”

The pilot noted that calling in sick is easier because it will not show up on a pilot’s record with the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA).

“I know from facts that most pilots will not call in fatigued for fear of retribution, they just call in sick,” he said. “Sick is just sick … you can disappear, you do not have to give a reason for two days.”

While these are all just individual reports, the big picture issue here is the lack of any higher authorities that problems can be reported to — the CEO of Emirates is also the head of the GCAA, which presents a clear conflict of interest:

Pilots have no higher authority to complain to and any reports that do get out are usually quickly “covered up,” according to the former pilot, who stressed that such misconduct would be impossible with European or US airlines, where independent aviation watchdogs monitor procedures.

The pilot currently employed by Emirates explained that the aviation authority is controlled by the same people who are in charge of the airline. Specifically, he pointed out that the GCAA is chaired by the same person who is the CEO of Emirates airline & Group – Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum.


Bottom line

Independent of the FlyDubai incident, we’ve long known that corners are being cut in the Middle East. That’s nothing new. A countless number of people have died in the region (especially construction workers) due to a lack of proper safety procedures. At the same time, these airlines are the lifeblood for the region.

There’s a difference between doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, and doing the right thing because it makes sense financially. You’d certainly think doing anything which compromises the safety of these huge Gulf carriers would be avoided, given the ramifications of it.

While we don’t know the truth behind the statements from the Emirates (and FlyDubai) pilots who came forward, I think it’s safe to say that the lack of an independent authority to regulate the airlines is worrisome. When the head of the country’s aviation administration is also the CEO of the country’s largest airlines, there’s not really an independent authority to which problems can be reported.

Then again, that’s largely the basis of business in the Middle East, so I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Do these allegations change your perception of the Gulf carriers, or your willingness to fly with them?

  1. Interesting read! And very worrisome indeed. It’s surprising there haven’t been even more incidents given these problems.

    I hope this tragedy makes it clear to the authorities in UAE and the region that much more needs to be done to improve regulation and safety standards. Even aside from the obvious human reasons to make this as safe as possible, it makes sense from a reputation/long-term profitability standpoint as well.

  2. This is quite scary and it is information which I wasn’t aware of! If it has happened once, with the state that the pilots are in, it could happen again. I was aware of how construction was done in the UAE but never thought it would stretch to airlines! It has really given me a different perception of the carriers.

  3. Your title is unfair and misleading to the facts presented.
    Your title asks if Gulf airlines are unsafe whilst you clearly pointed out the the UAE has an airline CEO who is also head of the Civil Aviation Authority. This certainly isnt the case in the other 5 Gulf countries hence your title should really reflect scold the UAE rather than unfairly point the finger at all 6 Gulf nations.

    Your blogs always speak of fairness and you tend to point out to unfair issues; i hope you rectify this so as to not tarnish the other Gulf nations who do things the right way.

  4. It cant be a good thing that the bulk of their maintenance and ground workforce consists of disrespected, segregated, and oppressed foreigners.

  5. I disagree, HT. Having lived in the Gulf for four years (not in the UAE), I think these kinds of problems are endemic to the region.

    That the CEO of Emirates is also the head of the GCAA is typical: there is very little accountability in this part of the world.

  6. @ HT — Well, I actually think this extends to other Gulf nations in general as well. The UAE is extreme since the head of the GCAA is also the CEO of Emirates. But in other countries in the region the airlines are still government owned, so there’s the same conflict of interest between the aviation authority and airlines. Whether or not they have the same exact chair is a minor point, in my opinion.

  7. Psst, Lucky. Lucky! The UAE isn’t the entire GCC. If you believe that it applies to other GCC countries as well, you should list what those conflicts of interest are, and who those individuals are in those countries, instead of just broad generalizations. You can’t mention the GCC in the title and just refer to the UAE in the actual article.

    Also, given both the pugnacious relation between Russia and the GCC and the crash happening in Russia and the fact that Russia isn’t exactly know for freedom of the press, maybe RT dot com isn’t the most objective source in this instance. flyDubai and Emirates might be working their employees harshly, but a more credible source would be much better for quoting.

  8. @ Aaron — Seriously? First of all, I was referring to the “big three” Gulf carriers, so let’s talk about Qatar, in addition to the UAE. However, we can include other Gulf carriers as well, because it’s the same story. You don’t see a conflict of interest when:
    — The airline is government owned, with very blurred lines between the airline and the government?
    — A majority of the workforce is imported labor which has no rights to citizenship there, if the company/government (which are one in the same) decide they no longer want them there?

    C’mon! If anything, the UAE is the most progressive among the GCC. Or should we look to Saudi Arabia for how things should be done?

  9. “First of all, I was referring to the “big three” Gulf carriers”

    Except you never mention that anywhere in the article. Nor do you even mention any of the other airlines in the UAE besides the one in Dubai. No mention of Eithad or other Emirati airlines. And Qatar isn’t a part of the UAE.

    Actually, the only time you mention anything about other countries is the following:

    “While other countries have regulatory authorities which are independent of the airlines”

    What other countries? Countries in the GCC? The Middle East? Europe or the US or Asia? The styling you used could indicate other countries in the GCC, which runs counter to the title you used.

    If you’re going to title an article an article “Gulf Carriers” then maybe you should mention more than two airlines that are located in one emirate (out of a total of seven).

    I wasn’t disputing the content of your article. Just that it was a badly written one, for many of the reasons I mentioned.

  10. @ Aaron — Like I said, I’ll gladly apply it to all Gulf carriers. All six major airlines in GCC countries are government owned. That presents an inherent conflict of interest, given that the aviation authority and airlines ultimately have the same bosses. Furthermore, a majority of the employees are imported, so they don’t inherently have many rights in those countries.

    The headline was talking about Gulf carriers in general, because that’s the inherent safety question I was posing here. Is it unsafe for government owned airlines where most of the workforce is imported labor to have no independent authority auditing them?

    A vast majority of countries outside the GCC have more separation between these organizations and/or have locals working at the airlines, where they inherently have more rights than people in a country simply because of a job.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s Friday, and I’m going to go outside and enjoy the sunny afternoon…

  11. Yes but before you do, could you fix up the title and article so it fully articulates the points you just made that weren’t clear at all in the actual article? Thanks!

  12. Ben- So are you going to stop flying Middle East Airlines because of this?

    I wouldn’t fly any of these airlines and it is not just for this reason, but I have had this view for a long time. Although DL might be going overboard the US carriers do have a point about unfair competition from the Big 3 Middle East Airlines, besides the unfair subsidiaries this is another reason. This is new and interesting but pilot fatigue us nothing new, even for US airlines, but as you mention the lack of having an independent watchdog is worrying.

    I do think you should choose your airline based on how they treat their employees, and while they are not treated great in the US, at least they are treated better than many airlines in the world.

  13. I hope you published this article as click bate, its not well reasoned and narrow in its thought. If this really is your view and have these concerns then you shouldn’t be flying with these airlines.

    Pilots are free to move to other airlines, of course they will come out and say they are over worked, they are out for themselves, they want to work less, who wouldn’t.

    Being part of the ruling body of aviation and the airline is smart, it means there are no special interests and political fights, things can just get done. Any pilot could file a concern with any aviation body of any country to which the airline flies into, if there were such concerning safety issues being ignored. It would be easy to whistle blow to EU / US regulators.

    Why would it be in the interest of ‘Dubai Inc’ to be intentionally unsafe it would be completely counter productive to their goal.

  14. I’m not sure what is more interesting, the article/post or the comments haha. Seems like this post has fired up the troops. Anyways, cut lucky a break it is Friday…

  15. lol Jon, basically letting the free market to decide if pilots are overworked. Sounds like a wonderful solution. Just like the free market decides that slave labor is the way to go in building these new middle eastern cities.

  16. I know several pilots with several airlines, all over the world – including quite a few with Emirates, Fly Dubai, Qatar, and others. I wouldn’t hesitate to fly Emirates or Fly Dubai, and have on well over 100 occasions. I feel completely safe. It is true that the pilots complain of overwork. Then again, I feel like they complain about everything: salary, housing, work, living where they do, spouses, maids, the list goes on. Pilots in North America and Europe generally have easier schedules. However, pilots in many places in Asia, particularly with the LCC’s have it much worse.

    Not that I’m dismissing the complaints as false, but I think to attempt to lay the blame for a crash like this on the company when all the facts have not yet come to light is unfair. No workplace is ideal. Safety concerns are taken very seriously at Emirates. While it is true that the company, and the country, does not want their image tarnished by stories like this, it is even more true that they do not want their image tarnished by a crash.

    As for the conflicts of interest. These are the norm in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Not unique to the Gulf or the UAE. I feel fine with it in the UAE for 2 reasons: 1)Most of the people working in the critical jobs are true professionals (not true in many countries) 2)As most people are relatively well-paid, the temptation for bribes is much less than in many countries.

    In sum, I’m not sure there is really any new information in the past week for people like me. I feel extremely safe on EK and FD, and will continue to fly on them.

  17. El Al is owned by the Israeli government, which regulates the aviation. Yet it is one of the safest airlines to fly with.
    You can have both, as long as you do it right.

  18. Time to stop reading this rubbish. Posts getting less factual and more agenda led. Stick to telling folks what credit card to get.

  19. @ Jon

    Clearly you don’t understand the pilot labor market around the world, the fact that you believe pilot are relatively free to move around to find another job shows you don’t understand how it works.

    Pilot in most airlines in the world are bond to an airline due to their seniority. Let say a hypothetical 10 year captain who works at a major carrier, if he/she decided to quit his current job and go to another airline, he will has to start all over at the bottom again. Not at captain level, maybe first officer level, but if he join airline that has second officer, he will start as a second officer… So this makes it impossible for him to quit his current job because he will never find another job that pay him the same amount of money or similar amount of money that can support his family. If he quit to join let say a second officer, or an entry leve FO at another airline, he is not looking at 10-20% drop in salary… He will be looking at up to 70-80% drop in salary… So how do you think that hypothetical 10 year captain will leave? In any other job, if you have experience you move into similar level position. If you are manager at one company, you will generally be hire as manager or even higher position at another company will similar pay and perks.

    So because of this seniority issue, there is no free market in pilot employment around the world. Once you join an airline, you are lock in for life. It takes huge sacrifice for a pilot to leave. Imagine that same hypothetical 10 year captain will probably had a family and if he quit he probably won’t make enough to support his family. So when airline and their regulator start to be able to abuse their contract and working conditions without any over sight, it makes it very hard for them… If they complain too much, they get fired… If they company to much, they get punish… And there is no where to go… Some did decided to bite the bullet and leave but most just have no choice but to stay.

  20. Personally I see no difference between an independent regulator and an authority that sits on the same side as the carriers.
    If anything, it’d be just like the relationship between banks and the “independent” ratings agencies. The Big Short, anyone?
    Speaking up and letting the world know about the issues, that’s the only real way out.

  21. @lucky Having apparently decided that government owned airlines are a bad thing because of the inevitability of the aviation authority also being government controlled, does this mean you are anti a whole bunch of (government owned) airlines all over the world? Funnily enough I see recent and upcoming trip reports on several of these.

  22. I was on an Emirates flight from Brisbane to Dubai via Singapore in a seat that was next to one of the galleys and during the flight I could here 2 of the FA’s discussing a recent incident in which an Emirates flight from Dubai to Kuala Lumpur had some problem, which they didn’t elaborate on but what I did clearly hear them saying is that the flight was ordered to fly on to Kuala Lumpur and not return to Dubai even though it was closer as “management” didn’t want a fireball at Dubai airport they would rather have it at Kuala Lumpur as it would be a PR nightmare.

    My flight was back in 2013 so a while ago now but I have never forgot their conversation which I thought was disturbing and I don’t know how serious the problem was on the flight and if the pilots were “forced” to continue to Kuala Lumpur but it makes you think a little, however I still fly Emirates as I love their A380

  23. @peter, you have done a great job of explaining why unions need to be outlawed. The seniority rules are forced on Companies by Unions as a way of preventing the termination of incompetent or lazy employees.

  24. I know its not the focus area of your post but i wish we could get the facts straightened out. There are conflicting reports on whether the aircraft came down during its second approach (as you have said here) or whether it aborted the 2nd attempt when it struck a wing on the ground and was doing a go around again and lost lift while trying to climb and came straight down.

  25. Just another data point. I live in Dubai and are friends with a couple of EK pilots. They complain about being overworked and there being low morale at the airline too.

  26. I mostly agreed with Ben, until this happened:

    “C’mon! If anything, the UAE is the most progressive among the GCC. Or should we look to Saudi Arabia for how things should be done?”

    I find this statement quiet uncharacteristic of you to be honest.

    Why shouldn’t we look to Saudi Arabia? You said it yourself f, the GCC countries are quite similar except for some exceptions here and there. While I do agree that Saudi Arabia is behind on issues like women rights, it is ahead of the pack in other fields, such as healthcare, and education.

    When it comes to aviation, the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA), is an independent body overseeing operations in the kingdom’s 27+ airports, it has nothing to do with Saudia (which is being privatized by the way) and definitely isn’t chaired by the same person!

    I don’t know about you, but that sounds better to me than the situation in Dubai, of which you are critical.

    Your statement was based on an incorrect assumption that Saudi Arabia must necessarily be behind on everything, an assumption largely based on negative stereotypes precipitated by hostile media outlets that show you nothing but the negatives.

    You mentioned a desire to review Saudia and-I’m assuming- get a taste of what Saudi Arabia is really like. Until then, I hope you would keep any negative preconceptions aside and try to be more open to one of the world’s most misunderstood and misrepresented nations.

  27. Maybe certain bloggers ought to reconsider what amounts to their endless free marketing on behalf of these carriers. I would be quite happy to never see another review of EK, QR, ET, etc. Not to mention the constant stream of DXB hotel reviews. These amount to endorsements of a culture and set of business practices that are antithetical to many core western values.

  28. Chinese government owns a few airlines and these airlines are certainly safe for flight. In the meanwhile, a bunch of unsafe airlines are privately owned and have no conflict of interests with the local governments.

    The point that I would like to raise is that although the conflict of interests potentially correlates to the flight safety, it only attributes to a fraction of the safety. Therefore, it is less than prudent to argue backwards that an airline could be less safe than another airline because it is government owned. If one tries to determine if the Gulf airlines are safe to fly with or not, he/she needs to investigate it throughout. And this is certainly a big project.

    In addition, it is a global phenomenon that pilots are in short supply as the demand for air travel goes up quickly in the short time. Pilots are unfortunately over-laboured one way or another across the world. The fact alone does not dis-credit the Gulf airlines. It is the solution towards the unavoidable problem that really matters.

    My two cents

  29. The thing about Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar is that they have all seen tremendous ‘development’ in the past 20 years. The airlines and all the other infrastructure has grown much more quickly than the legal and regulatory systems. I get the sense that the same issues about fatigue wouldn’t feature in Kuwait Airways or Gulf Air (which was once the leading Middle East airline!)

    Bottom line is that the FAA will be involved as it’s a Boeing aircraft and I hope that if issues are identified, changes will be made. I have more confidence in the UAE to “do the right thing” than Qatar, having lived / worked in both as a lawyer on major construction projects.

    I do fly Qatar Airways but nothing I’ve seen (777 continuing to Doha after striking approach lights on departure from the US) or A350 aborting takeoff, gives me any confidence in their safety culture. I’ve also witnessed a bullying and intimidating crew culture and I’ve seen Cabin Seniors and CSDs talk other crew down and rush them for their checks – presumably because Captain will be pissed off if cabin isn’t secure, because company management will want to know why there was a go around / a delay. I’ve heard a Purser on BA tell another crew member NOT to rush when clearing up broken glass on approach – she just phoned the flight deck and calmly but authoritatively said they need more time and won’t be ready.

    On Emirates, full 777-300 on very short Doha-Dubai hop, I was right at the back of economy – Thursday night, full of businesspeople with wheelie bags, all clearly overweight and oversized – crew running around like mad trying to get secure. Passengers still standing in aisle – “cabin crew arm doors and cross check” – we commence pushback with passengers standing and the safety video started. About 30 people still standing so (a) couldn’t see the video; and (b) unsafe to have people standing and stowing luggage during taxi. It also gives overriding sense of rush – how thorough are cabin secure checks? Schedule over safety. Just can’t see senior crew allowing that to happen on any US/European etc airline either legacy or lcc. When we landed and had parked I did ask to speak to the Purser and she denied all knowledge, Captain came out and denied he knew either. I e-mailed both Emirates AND regulator because this type of BASIC thought should not be happening. I had no reply from either.

    If I see that type of thing as a passenger, what else goes on?

  30. As a professional journalist I think Aaron has a valid point. Rather than apparently flouncing off because it’s Friday afternoon may I gently suggest that Lucky acknowledges the error in the interest of his excellent blog’s continuing credibility.

  31. “I think it’s safe to say that the lack of an independent authority to regulate the airlines is worrisome… Then again, that’s largely the basis of business in the Middle East”

    Then you should quit flying Singapore Airlines, owned by the Singapore Government, which also runs the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). In fact, that’s largely the basis of practically all national airlines throughout the world – not just the Middle East – which is why they are called *national* airlines, with the exception of USA where the US government has no stake in any airlines.

    Therefore, USA-based airlines are the safest in the world. So for safety sake, please fly only US-based airlines. Leave the review of foreign airlines to other compeiting websites 🙂

  32. Lucky

    Looks like you touched a raw nerve. In other cases of national airlines, regulators are separate bureaucracies with enough checks and balances and there are other private airlines, incase you feel national carrier is not safe.

    Regulators in poor countries like Indonesia and India are struggling to catch-up with booming domestic aviation sectors with limited budgets and trained resources. They get pulled up by big boys for their deficiencies. Thailand is another example.

    Money is not an issue and ME3 don’t have booming aviation requirement, but they bought upon themselves into carrying others, so there shouldn’t be an excuse to create unsafe environment for pilots.

    ICAO, FAA, EASA are always busy auditing/downgrading/upgrading poor regulators like Thailand, India and Indonesia, but no one audits GCAA. FAA wrote up India for a temporarily deputed/transferred a B787 Air India pilot as Flight Safety Inspector at the regulator, as conflict of interest. AI being only B787 operator, only AI pilots could qualify as certified B787 FSI along with nationality requirement.

    Of course no one want to jeopardize large plane orders from ME3.

  33. Please dont bring a slum airline like ElAl into the conversation.
    Its a vile airline and they treat non jews like vile pigs.
    Thats exactly why our jewish german gay friend hasnt done a review nor been for that matter.
    That says it all

  34. RT is owned by Russian government, and it has been known for reporting stories from the point of view highly beneficial to it. Sometimes RT just simply lies.
    It may LOOK like respectable journalist at sight, but that’s about it

    Considering that Gulf states and Russia are currently at the opposite ends in Syria conflict, I would take anything that comes from this news organization with a very big grain of salt.
    It doesn’t mean that there are no pilot fatigue problems of course, but I would cross check the information from other more reputable sources

  35. @ken

    Seniority system had advantage for both the Union and the Airlines themselves. So I wouldn’t go so far as to blame the union for creating such system. Back in the day when seniority system was created, airline pilot job is consider a life time position. So a seniority system makes sense. Nowadays, maybe it is time to reconsider a system like this, but who knows, this discussion will be for the union and airlines to make.

    As for seniority created the potential to have lazy / incompetent people, I don’t believe that’s the cause of it at all.

    If you look at the airline pilot job environment, it is not design to allow for lazy / incompetent people. This is because airline pilot job (doesn’t matter which country you are in), is one of the the most scrutinize type of job you can find, there are no other work that has as many checking and training events every few months, with each checking and training events, all have the potential of a pilot to lose their license if they failed to perform to a certain standard. Not even doctor, engineers, who also had someone else life in their hands, need to have this many check and training event throughout their career. So the chances of lazy pilot slip through are quit slim.

    As for incompetency, I don’t know if incompetency is the right wrong. I don’t think anyone who reached the level of an airline pilot can be consider incompetent, but they could certainly be poorly trained. How well are they trained, will depends heavily on the airline and their training system and their safety culture. If you have an airline with a poor safety culture and not very good training system, you will most likely have pilots who are less well trained. So having a union or not doesn’t make any difference.


  36. This makes me worried. I’m a co-pilot with an Indian airline on the B737NG & today got an offer to come for an assessment for Flydubai. Hmm, anyone knows if the situation has improved there?

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *