Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways has told staffers that the airline “simply cannot sustain the current staff numbers” and that a “substantial” number of jobs will be lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Doha-based airline, which is owned by one the wealthiest governments per capita in the world, has already laid off several hundred employees as a result of the crisis and has asked many more to defer a portion of their salaries.
Now, however, Baker says the airline is “facing adversity on an unprecedented scale” and that the outlook for the aviation industry “looks grim”. In its latest annual report, Qatar Airways said it employed nearly 47,000 employees worldwide. Many of its staff who are based in Doha are expat workers who represent around 150 different nationalities.
“Despite all the efforts and hopes for a quick rebound, we are facing adversity in an unprecedented scale,” the leaked memo which was sent on Monday to cabin crew reads.
“The global outlook for our industry looks grim and many airlines are closing or significantly reducing operations. Unfortunately, Qatari Airways is not immune to this challenge. Let me assure you that no effort was spared to keep all of our aircrafts in the skies,” the memo continues.
“Now, we have to face a new reality, where many borders are closed, rendering many of our destinations closed and aircrafts grounded as a result, with no foreseeable outlook for immediate, positive change”.
Unlike regional competitors like Emirates and Etihad, the Qatar flag carrier was allowed to continue operating and made much of its ability to repatriate citizens around the world with its slogan “we’ll get you home”. At one point, Qatar Airways recommissioned its grounded Airbus A380’s such was the demand for rescue flights when other airlines had already grounded their fleets.
“The truth is, we simply cannot sustain the current staff numbers and we will need to make a substantial number of jobs redundant,” Baker told employees in the email. He tells staff, including cabin crew, that the airline will try to rehire as many affected employees as possible “should the opportunity arise”.
In the meantime, however, many foreign workers won’t be able to travel home because of travel restrictions, closed borders and grounded planes. Baker says the airline will continue to provide housing and an unspecified “living allowance” for laid-off workers who will be stuck in Doha for the foreseeable future. Staff will also be paid their “contractual dues”.
In April, Qatar Airways launched what it referred to as a “solidarity programme” in which mid-level employees would be expected to defer 50 per cent of their basic salary for around three months. At the time, Qatar Airways said the deferred wages would be paid in full once the situation improved but clearly the situation has worsened considerably since that announcement.
With Qatar Airways now looking at mass lay-offs and repatriating expat workers to their home countries, attention will now turn to whether the same fate awaits foreign workers in other Persian Gulf countries – in particular, the UAE where thousands of expat workers are employed by Emirates and Etihad Airways.
So far, both airlines have announced wage reduction programmes but have shied away from laying-off frontline employees.