Qatar’s Al Baker on top form

There is nothing better the Qatar Airways chief Akbar Al Baker likes to do, it seems, is spar with the press.
He was positively beaming as he took his seat at the airline’s annual press conference at World Travel Market in London the other day. The room was packed, for Al Baker is good value. He says stuff: Often controversial stuff.
But what’s this, he starts with an apology. He had promised last year that his airline would launch 10 destinations during 2006. It didn’t, it only launched one (in March it kicked off a daily service between its Doha hub and Hong Kong).
The reason was because “of protracted negotiations with Boeing and Airbus for our next aircraft order”, said Al Baker. Those negotiations were fruitless and Qatar could not get its hands on the airliners to launch its new routes.
That will all change in 2007 as all four of its A340-600s come into service and first of 20 777s start flying towards the end of the year.
Now what: green taxes? Al Baker is not in favour. He favours putting collection boxes at airports so that people can contribute voluntarily. “The biggest polluters are countries that have a total disregard (for climate change),” he says.
Also, he believes, green campaigners should look harder at those dirty military fast jets rather than bleating on about the more fuel-efficient civil airliners. I felt the PR team wince at that one.
Next: low-cost carriers in the Middle East. Now Al Baker’s been asked that one a few times before. “I’ll have to record my answer,” he says, and play it back the next time. The answer is that low-cost carriers are a no-no for Al Baker in his region. A lack of market access and strong passenger demands to carry a lot of luggage are just two good reasons why it won’t work.
What about access to Australia? Unfortunately not yet, he says resignedly. “Australian carriers are very troubled by competition from Middle Eastern carriers. We are being restricted by the government of Australia which is putting up unacceptable hurdles.”
The way out question. Sometimes at press conferences you get a question from the left field. Al Baker’s came from a journalist determined to pin him down about a recent trip he had made with Qatar. The vegetarian meal he had ordered did not come, there was some sort of delay at Singapore Changi that was down to Qatar and his application for a frequent flyer card had not been processed.
Al Baker took this in his stride, apologizing and promising to look into these matters. In fact, his commercial general manager, Peter Spencer, who was also on the podium, took the chance to e-mail Doha HQ and find some answers while the conference continued. Later he passed the reply back to Al Baker. His boss could reply right away to the miffed journalist, at least on one point. The answer: he had not filled in the application properly – no address was supplied. Oh no, said the scribe, I did fill it out. Puzzled looks all round.
Al Baker turns to Spencer, who is confident his team has unearthed the errant form, and says it will all be checked, and adds: “If he’s giving you the wrong information, you know what happens!” We all snigger in jest, for Al Baker is alluding to his reputation of something of a tough task master. We all know however that he is only half joking.
Roll on the next Qatar Airways press conference. They are top value.

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