I met a Swedish girl yesterday who is a flight attendant for Etihad Airways, the official airline of Abu Dhabi. She and her fellow attendants are required to wear seven types of makeup at all times while on duty, as the airline prides itself on having not only an internationally diverse flight crew but also an attractive one. This is superficial, yes. But it also demonstrates a care for customer satisfaction that seems to have ceased being a primary concern for American carriers years ago, and which went out the window completely when fuel prices soared earlier this year.
Not so in this part of the world. Compared to the bare-bones amenities on American airlines today, even the economy class on carriers in this region seems luxurious. Qatar Airways, billed as one of the world’s only five-star airlines, offers each passenger a personal TV screen with a library of hundreds of movies to choose from, has 180-degree reclining beds in the first-class cabin, and served a smoked salmon appetizer before dinner the last time I flew with them. On the forty-minute morning flight from Abu Dhabi to Doha, Qatar Airways passengers are treated to a breakfast of warm croissants and coffee, even though the flight is so short that the seatbelt sign never turns off. Bahrain-based Gulf Air, despite being one of the oldest carriers in the Middle East, boasts spanking clean planes, friendly service, and restaurant-quality meals. On Etihad, passengers order their dinner from a three-course menu, receive a complimentary pack of goodies on overnight flights that include ear plugs, a toothbrush, and socks, and enjoy the comforts of a fleet of brand-new planes. I’ve heard more than one American say that Etihad is the best airline they’ve ever flown on.
Americans who stay in America, however, have become sadly accustomed to shabby planes, canceled flights, surly flight attendants, and B movies shown on tiny screens either so far away that they're barely visible or so close that they're sure to induce neck cramps. Weight limits on luggage are enforced with a dictatorial hand, and many airlines now charge an extra fee for each checked bag. As for food, you’re lucky to get free peanuts on a six-hour cross-country trip, and when you’re traveling internationally, the meals are barely edible.
If you have any feminist sympathies, you are surely digusted by the thought of makeup requirements for flight attendants. The populist in you may cringe at the idea of so much money spent, so much attention lavished on something as relatively unimportant as a plane flight. Realizing that an unattractive person will never be hired by any of these airlines, your inner activist no doubt wants to sue them all for discrimination. But the next time you fly on one of our homegrown American carriers and disembark hungry, stiff, and three hours late only to discover that your luggage never made it past your latest transfer point, I challenge you not to wish that you, too, could travel on one of the Gulf's luxury airlines.