By Alexander Cornwell
DUBAI (Reuters) - Emirates faces calls from its cabin crew to improve conditions and benefits as airline workers show increasing confidence in demanding more from the booming global industry.
In the latest sign of cost pressures that could temper a rebound in airline profits, Emirates cabin crew raised the issues at meetings last week with the Middle East's largest airline, four employees aware of the talks told Reuters.
Major airlines are having to adapt to changes, with Ryanair, Europe's biggest budget airline, reluctantly recognising unions last year to avert a strike, after a shortage of standby pilots forced it to cancel 20,000 flights.
Labour disputes are rare in Dubai, the Middle East financial and tourist hub where Emirates is based, and unions and industrial action, common elsewhere in the industry, are banned.
But in an indication of the strength of feeling among its staff, management at Emirates, whose Chief Operations Officer Adel al-Redha led the talks, have asked for time to consider the requests, employees said. Another meeting is planned for Feb. 19, a company email seen by Reuters shows.
"As no different to previous forums, feedback or matters raised by our staff are reviewed and when changes are made, they are communicated through the respective line managers," an Emirates spokeswoman said, confirming the talks which took place on Feb. 5.
"In any organisation there will always be differing views and opinions. At Emirates, we value staff feedback and try to incorporate it where applicable to make the company a better place to work," she told Reuters on Tuesday.
Emirates, which employed nearly 25,000 cabin crew, mostly foreigners, in its last financial year, offers staff perks that most other carriers do not, such as free housing and transport to and from work.
Despite these benefits, employees, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said cabin crew were pursuing changes including to rest periods on long flights and rosters.
"If they're smart, they're going to see that these things do have to change, otherwise more people are going to keep leaving," one of the Emirates staff told Reuters.
Emirates was the world’s largest airline in terms of international revenue passenger kilometres flown in 2016, according to data from industry group IATA, whose 2017 rankings have not yet been published. U.S. airlines are bigger by the same industry measure if their domestic traffic is included.
Around 3,000 employees left Emirates and associated group companies in the first half of its current financial year. The airline has not said which departments those staff were from.
Among the demands, cabin crew want Emirates to fully cover the cost of medical insurance policies, as well as the guarantee of ground jobs during pregnancy and not only if a role is available.
Cabin crew across the world may not work on board airplanes while pregnant due to health concerns, although some countries allow for up to three months into pregnancy.
Most airlines then find their staff work on the ground or place them on maternity leave. In Europe, pregnant women are protected from being fired or made redundant.
Emirates employees said ground jobs for pregnant cabin crew were becoming increasingly rare, largely leaving them without an income or benefits during their pregnancy.
There was a higher than expected turnout for the initial Feb. 5 meeting, requiring a second, unplanned meeting to be arranged for the same day, two employees said.
The Emirates spokeswoman said "it was no surprise that it was well-attended" given the presence of senior management.
Emirates, like other Middle East airlines, saw its margins come under pressure in recent years as low oil prices dented premium travel demand.
In late 2016 the airline largely froze a policy that gave its cabin crew thousands of dollars a year in allowances if they lived outside company accommodation.
However, profit surged in the first-half of Emirate's current financial year and cabin crew now want the allowance to be fully reinstated.
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell, additional reporting by Tom Arnold and Victoria Bryan; editing by Alexander Smith)