US labour union's fury over Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways has been drawn into a labour dispute in the US after moving terminals at New York's JFK airport.

Members of the Transport Workers Union protest near Qatar Airways's North American headquarters in Manhattan. Courtesy Transport Workers Union
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Qatar Airways'move to a new terminal at New York's John F Kennedy International Airport has drawn it into a dispute with a labour union.

The Transport Workers Unionhas picketed the New York offices of the Doha-based airline and placed an inflatable rat at the premises this month in protest at not being used for ground-handling services.

The carrier stopped short of making an official comment on the issue, but officials said the airline had been using a non-TWU company for ground handling at JFK for four years and did not see why it should switch because it was moving to a different area of the airport.

The development thrust Qatar Airways, based in a country where trade unions are illegal, into the realities of the US marketplace, in which unions, though declining in influence for decades, still hold have a vocal presence in some industries.

The Doha airline has been operating flights to the US financial capital since 2007 and has used Swissport International for ground handling services. However, the airline will move its operations from JFK's Terminal 4 to Terminal 8 next month under an agreement with American Airlines, which has traditionally operated from that section of the airport.

While the American carrier has used TWU union workers for ground handling, Qatar Airways chose to continue working with Swissport, drawing the TWU's ire.

"If Qatar doesn't want to make use of the trained and experienced workforce at the American Airlines terminal, they should take their business elsewhere," said Dave Virella, the president of TWU Local Chapter 501.

"No one ever came to Terminal 8 and did our job," he said. The union leader added that he feared the move would pave the way for other airlines to hire non-union companies.

Qatar Airways is one of the world's fastest-growing carriers, using its Doha base to carry transfer traffic from Asia and the Middle East to Africa, Europe and the Americas.

In the past four years it has significantly expanded its operations in the Americas, opening routes to Houston, New York, Washington, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires. The airline plans to begin service to Montreal in June.