Doha’s hosting of the IATA annual general meeting, set to kick off on 1 June, coincides with a period of dramatic change at Qatar Airways. In addition to moving its operations to the Qatari capital’s vast new Hamad International hub – of which it is the operator – the Oneworld member is poised to put its first Airbus A380 into service and by year-end will receive the first A350, for which it is the launch customer.
The Qatari flag carrier will shortly substitute an A380 for an A340 for one of its six daily frequencies between Doha and London Heathrow. In addition, Qatar has since mid-May been using an airliner at the other end of the size range in Airbus’s product line – namely an A319 – to operate an all-business service on the same route.
Qatar’s second A380 will be operated on its Paris route from 3 July, and airline chief Akbar Al Baker confirms that the double-decker type will generally be used for “increasing frequencies to our current network”. He says that routes to Frankfurt, New York and “destinations in the Far East” are among those on which the A380 will be operated.
Flightglobal’s Ascend Online database shows that Qatar Airways has 10 A380s on order and holds options for another three. Al Baker describes the total as “a very limited number” and says deliveries will run through 2017. “We will receive it over a period of time, so it will give us the ability not to dump capacity, but to grow… as the demand rises,” he says.
“We are exactly getting to fulfil our plans without disrupting the capacity in the market,” he adds. Six gates at Hamad International are assigned to the A380s.
Al Baker remains confident in his carrier’s vision for its Airbus A380 service – eight seats in first, 48 in business, 461 in economy – after the high-profile launch by Etihad Airways of a three-room “residence” to be offered aboard the Abu Dhabi carrier’s double deckers.
“They must have studied the market for that kind of product,” he says. “We don’t feel that in our airline that kind of product will fit. For me, I have to put the largest number of bums on the aeroplane, and I do not have space to do things like that… I would rather put more seats, still get the same revenue, than putting all this nice stuff, increasing fuel burn and only cater for a very, very limited market.”
As to Airbus’s newest type, Al Baker foresees his airline’s first A350 arriving “anywhere between October and December” this year. Qatar has a total of 80 A350s on order, split between the -900 and -1000 models: 43 of the former, 37 of the latter. Al Baker stresses that they are for replacement, of A330s, rather than for growth.
Vast growth potential is of course offered by shiny new Hamad International, where capacity is to expand from an initial 30 million passengers per annum to 50 million by 2017. In his assessment of the demand potential, Al Baker notes a global shortage of airport capacity and the rise of the middle classes in China and India. He also stresses the importance of the airport’s 24-hour operation.
“The thing that is impeding Europe’s growth is that airports are locked up from 11 o’clock at night until 05:30 in the morning, and this is a very, very critical time for east-west transfers and this is what we are catering for – but also we have other regions in the world that are underserved.”
Prime among them is Africa, he adds, labelling the continent a “huge sleeping economic giant which is absolutely underserved by every single airline” and suggesting it is the “highest yield generator” for the likes of Air France-KLM, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic because “there is less capacity and higher demand”. Closer to Qatar, the nations of Iran, Iraq and Pakistan are identified by Al Baker as being afflicted by a “huge shortage” in air services.
Preparedness to innovate in pursuit of market opportunities was evident when Qatar Airways started deploying a 40-seat A319 for premium service between Doha and the UK capital, and Al Baker offers an intriguing hint that there is more to come. “You know that everybody who did this business-jet concept in a commercial way failed. So if I’m doing it and planning to fail, I must be stupid,” he says. But he will offer little in the way of elucidation, for now: “There is a secret behind it which I would not like to tell you…I have a plan.”