Middle East Careers: Al Baker's gameplan

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It may not have the glitzy grandeur of Dubai, but selling Doha to overseas job-hunters is easier than it was. Although Qatar Airways has been a blue-chip global airline brand for some years, able to attract recruits from around the world, its home town has been seen as something of a dusty outpost.

The World Cup has changed all that. Last year's decision to award football's four-yearly international tournament to Qatar in 2022 has put the Gulf city on the international map. A huge spending programme on stadiums and other infrastructure has already kicked off, but the month-long competition is not the only impetus for Doha's dramatic development.

Like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Qatar sees high-end destination tourism and convention business as a vital part of diversifying an economy reliant on the export of natural gas and which is expected to grow by one-fifth this year. While Doha has become a major hub for long-haul travellers on Qatar Airways, the government wants more of them to stay longer in the country. In recent years, Doha's city centre skyline has been filling with striking new office blocks, shopping malls, cultural centres, hotels and apartment complexes as the city transforms itself into a regional business and leisure hub.

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©BillyPix
Under Al Baker, Qatar Airways has become one of the world's highest-regarded airlines

Next year, a new airport will open on 2,200Ha of mostly reclaimed land next to the current airport, capable of handling, initially, 24 million passengers, rising to 50 million by 2015. It will give Qatar Airways - which has been outgrowing its rather cramped current home - a base to rival Emirates' Dubai International hub.

Since launching in 1997 under the leadership of chief executive Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways has firmly positioned itself at the premium end of the airline spectrum. A decade younger than Emirates and six years older than the third leading Gulf carrier, Etihad of Abu Dhabi, the airline has been able to carve out a distinct brand position with a service-oriented passenger experience (in 2006 it opened the industry's only dedicated premium terminal at Doha) and a fleet based around smaller aircraft than those of Emirates.

Its 95 airliners include 29 Airbus A330-300s and -200s, 32 A320 family aircraft and 21 Boeing 777-300ERs and -200LRs. Although it has five A380s on order, the superjumbo will fill only a niche role in its future fleet and most of its 170 commitments are for A350s and 787s. The airline has just added its 100th destination - Aleppo in Syria - and six more will follow this year, including Kolkata, Montreal and Oslo.

Qatar Airways' fleet expansion means it needs to recruit 30 pilots and 400 employees across the group each month, including engineers, cabin crew and backroom staff (current workforce is 13,000, with a further 6,000 in associated businesses). Al Baker says it is "very difficult to get the pilots we need", admitting: "We are very focused on quality, so we are very selective. We get large numbers applying, but when we put them through their paces, a lot of them are shed because of our high standards."

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Qatar Airways will shortly operate over 100 aircraft to more than 100 destinations

Consistency in the customer product is vital for Qatar Airways and its employees are key to delivering this, he says. "For an airline that is less than 15 years old to be one of the top five-star rated airlines in the world is proof that the kind of people we recruit are the right kind of people."

Although "not everyone is happy with the strict discipline", the rewards of working for Qatar Airways are many, he says. "We offer a tax-free salary and other benefits, a very safe environment for themselves and their family, and the opportunity to fly a very modern fleet. There is also the fact that you can be part of a very aggressive growth story."

That growth includes several 787s due next year, with the carrier's first A350 earmarked for end of 2013 delivery, subject to Airbus's wavering certification schedule. The delays in both types have been frustrating for Al Baker, who is determined to keep average fleet age below five years.

The new airport - which Al Baker admits is "desperately needed" - is also key to Qatar's expansion strategy. Although the current Doha International continues to be developed, its small footprint means aircraft have to be parked remotely. "The airport is the backbone of the airline," he says. "Passengers need a seamless travel experience or they avoid travelling with us."

Al Baker claims to be relatively unfazed by the rapid growth of Etihad and Emirates and sees the bigger opportunity in snatching market share from legacy airlines struggling to deliver a first-rate passenger experience because of ageing fleets, lack of finance, congested hubs and fragile labour relations.

"We do not follow what our [Gulf] competitors are doing," he says. "We have our own plans to make Doha a very successful Middle East hub. Our destinations are different from our neighbours' and we are going into routes that our competitors are not thinking about. There are still a lot of markets that are not served or under-served and we are looking at these opportunities."

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 ©BillyPix
Doha's skyline has been changing rapidly