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Unions Criticize Mideast Airlines For Discrimination Against Women, LGBT Community

Unions released an open letter criticizing the "abhorrent" policies at Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways, which include requiring female employees to get permission before marriage or pregnancy.

Posted on March 26, 2015, at 4:18 p.m. ET

Noah Seelam / Getty Images

Flight attendants unions served up some harsh words for the U.S. Travel Association today, publishing an open letter saying the industry group's support for Persian Gulf airlines like Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways amounts to support of repressive policies toward women and the LGBT community.

The letter is another escalation of the "open skies" fight, in which major U.S. airlines and their allies have launched blistering attacks on their Middle Eastern rivals.

The Association of Flight Attendants and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, together with the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, sent the scathing letter Thursday to the U.S. Travel Association's board of directors.

The letter says the Association's President and CEO Roger Dow "is standing up for companies that demand female employees obtain permission before getting married or pregnant. And he is defending companies that bar lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from employment. In addition to gender and sexual orientation discrimination, the Gulf carriers have imposed archaic weight and appearance standards on their employees."

The letter goes on to state that these practices were long ago quashed by American carriers, which the unions believe are at a disadvantage due to open-skies agreements signed by the U.S. and host countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, both of which are home to state-backed airlines that have emerged as the world's fastest-growing international carriers, gradually taking over the lucrative market for long-haul flights.

The U.S. has signed open-skies deals with more than 100 countries, but airline executives and lobbyists have focused their scorn on the Persian Gulf carriers, which American carriers say receive unfair levels of government assistance.

The U.S. Travel Association has voiced support for such agreements, and Dow, its CEO, dismissed today's letter.

"Casting about for ways to smear the Gulf carriers won't change the fact that Open Skies has been overwhelmingly beneficial for U.S. consumers, U.S. job creation and the U.S. economy," he said in a statement sent to BuzzFeed News. "If the Big Three airlines and their unions are ever able to present compelling arguments for breaking the agreements with those priorities in mind, we're all ears."

The union letter is the latest in a series of blows traded between U.S. and Gulf carriers. In February, Delta CEO Richard Anderson compared the Gulf carriers to 9/11 terrorists. And last week, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker accused Delta of operating "crap" airplanes.

"The unfortunate thing is that because they are so inefficient they want to blame us— whilst we are very efficient — for their failures and drawbacks," al-Baker said at a conference in Qatar, according to an AFP report.

But while the U.S. Travel Association, and the Gulf carriers, dismiss criticism as sour grapes from declining legacy carriers, the unions insist their complaints on discrimatory policies go to the heart of the union movement's history in the airline industry.

"Our union beat back discriminatory practices long ago, so that anyone with the heart of a Flight Attendant can become one," Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants and one of the letter's authors, told BuzzFeed News. "If discrimination exists anywhere, it's a threat to us everywhere, and especially in this case where clearly the intent is to drive other airlines out of business through unfair competition."

Here's the full text of the letter.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.