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04-16-2015, 11:23 AM
Pilot Workload at Emirates Under Question - WSJ (

April 9, 2015 9:59 a.m. ET

DUBAI—Emirates Airline faces questions from regulators and staff over whether it overworks pilots, adding to challenges for the carrier that include criticism of its expansion abroad and discontent among cabin-crew staff.

According to current and former pilots, Emirates, the world’s largest airline by international traffic, underreports time on duty to the aviation regulator in the United Arab Emirates, meaning pilots at times exceed daily-duty limits that exist to protect their health and the safety of flights.

Ismail Al Balooshi, director of aviation safety affairs at the General Civil Aviation Authority, the U.A.E.’s airline regulator, said in an interview he would now investigate allegations that state-owned Emirates isn't fully reporting pilot duty hours. He added, though, the airline is monitored closely and there have been no significant complaints about safety, including via an anonymous system for reporting such issues.

Concern over pilot health has elevated in the wake of the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. The plane’s co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had a history of depression and appears to have deliberately crashed the jet into the French Alps, killing himself and 149 others onboard. There is no indication work stress contributed to Mr. Lubitz’s actions.

Emirates said in a statement responding to the allegations it never compromises on safety and fully complies with its regulator’s mandates. The state-owned carrier, which wouldn’t make executives available for this article, also said it had a “proactive” fatigue-management procedure.

Emirates acknowledged discontent among its more than 3,700 pilots, though it called those speaking out an unhappy “vocal minority.” It urged them to engage with management, adding it had set up an open forum for pilots to provide input.

Pilots and airlines in Europe and the U.S. often spar over duty hours as airline managements seek greater flexibility in scheduling cockpit crew.

At Emirates, mandatory preflight briefings occur before the airline reports the pilot as officially on-duty, according to current and former pilots who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. That policy can sometimes lead to duty times being exceeded on daily return flights to destinations in the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Europe, allowing Emirates to operate those flights without extra staff, these pilots said.

Pilots also say Emirates routinely requires them to work into a period known as “discretion,” a procedure that exceeds normal work hours. Regulators allow such leeway in unforeseen circumstances such as delays and only if the pilot deems duty time extension safe.

Emirates said discretion is a tool available for use on the day of operations if the captain “assesses that it is safe to do so and provided it is in accordance with state-approved regulations.”

Mr. Al Balooshi said reporting requirements for duty time should be “black and white” and begin when a pilot is expected to report for work and finish when his or her last flight taxies into the gate. Emirates said it abides by state-approved flight-time limitations.

Emirates is deemed one of the safest carriers in the world, with a seven-star rating by, a website that tracks and rates safety. It has achieved that strong track record amid rapid growth. The airline has increased the annual number of passengers it carries fourfold over the past decade, to 44.5 million last year.

The pilot discord comes as Emirates already is battling criticism on multiple fronts. U.S. and European rivals accuse the Persian Gulf carrier of relying on market-distorting state subsidies to fuel its growth, a charge Emirates denies.

At home, cabin-crew employees have voiced concerns over work conditions, prompting the airline to hold a series of meetings with staff. It also suspended a review process for cabin-crew staff that drew particular ire.

For years, U.S. and European pilots flocked to Dubai to seek cockpit jobs at rapidly expanding Emirates as other airlines restructured and retrenched. Emirates offers generous expatriate packages that include accommodation, education and medical benefits. It flies some of the most modern jets, including Boeing 777s and Airbus A380 superjumbos that are coveted assignments.

But some pilots now are returning home to the U.S. and Europe as they view overall benefits have diminished, while workload and their cost of living have increased, according to pilots and recruitment firms. Emirates said it was seeking to recruit around 500 pilots in the current financial year and that it saw “little change” in turnover rates.

Emirates said its pilot pay is “among the highest and most competitive in the industry.” Over the past seven years, salaries increased every year except in 2009, when Dubai was hit hard during the global financial crisis, the carrier said. Accommodation allowances have risen even when housing costs in Dubai have fallen, it said.

A dozen current and former Emirates pilots and U.A.E. aviation officials, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, said pilots are flying more hours than before and are subjected to onerous procedures to report sickness or fatigue, discouraging them from doing so. Safety regulators rely heavily on pilot self-reporting of medical conditions that might not be detected by annual medical screenings.

Adel Al Redha, chief operations officer at Emirates, who oversees pilots and other staff, said in an email the airline was setting up an internal portal for any operations personnel to air grievances with management. Given the “expansion of the airline and the growth of employees,” Mr. Al Redha said in the email dated April 2, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, “it is vital we maintain close communication links.”

Write to Rory Jones at [email protected]