Akbar Al Baker - chief executive of Qatar Airways - is the living embodiment of "hands-on" management. He prides himself in the attention to detail he applies to every facet of the airline and is the first to admit that he is probably the most demanding customer Airbus and Boeing representatives have ever had to deal with.
This is how Al Baker has run his nation's flag carrier since he took the helm a decade ago, transforming it from a Gulf regional airline into a global network carrier serving over 80 destinations from its Doha hub. The airline, which carried eight million passengers in its last financial year, is growing at 40% annually and this year alone has accumulated an order backlog worth over $30 billion of next-generation Airbus and Boeing widebodies.
Qatar Airways operates 58 aircraft, having grown from four aircraft when Al Baker relaunched the airline and is on target to have a fleet of 110 by 2015. Al Baker's personal involvement in every aspect of the business is legendary - even our interview is interrupted by a call from a diplomat seeking an upgrade which Al Baker swiftly authorises after checking loads. In parallel with his role at Qatar Airways, Al Baker is also leading the development of the new Doha International Airport, which is due to open in three years' time and will be able to handle 50 million passengers annually by 2015.
The recent confirmation of a deal for 30 Boeing 787s (plus 30 options), combined with the order for 80 Airbus A350 XWBs announced at the Paris air show in June, concludes the airline's immediate fleet renewal requirements. The next major milestone will be putting the airline, which is owned 50/50 by the Qatari government and private shareholders, on to a consistently profitable footing. Al Baker concedes that the airline is "losing money" but points out that it has "been in the black in two of the last 10 years". He adds: "We'll not go on losing money forever. We should be in the black by 2010/2011. Once we've been in profit for three years we'll go for a public offering."
The airline's current fleet of 59 aircraft comprises 40 widebody airliners - seven A300s, 28 A330s (19 -200s and nine -300s), four A340-600s and its first 777-300ER - as well as 16 A320 family narrowbodies and three A300Fs with the cargo division.
The airline has firm orders for around 140 widebodies for delivery over the next 10 years, plus options on a further 35, suggesting that the fleet could number over 200 aircraft within a decade. But Al Baker is quick to emphasise that much of the new equipment is earmarked to replace the existing fleet: "We will replace aircraft when they are five or six years old to maintain a young fleet age," he says.
A local leasing company dubbed Oryx Leasing will be used to facilitate this revolving door fleet plan, providing the airline with a vehicle for the phase-out of its existing fleet, beginning with its A330s and A340s. "The A330s will start to flow out about 2013 when we are receiving the last of the 787s we have on order," says Al Baker.
The airline is turning its attention to new generation 100-seaters as part of a strategy to develop high-frequency regional services within the Gulf. Al Baker says types under evaluation include the Embraer E-Jet family as well as offerings from Bombardier and Mitsubishi.
The Bombardier CSeries, which is moving towards a launch in 2008 following the airframer's selection of Pratt & Whitney's GTF geared turbofan to power the 110 seater, is set for a 2013 service entry which "suits us very well", says Al Baker. He adds that an order for up to 20 aircraft is envisaged - 10 firm plus 10 options.
A longer-term evaluation of developments from Airbus, Boeing and the engine suppliers is underway to replace the A320 family fleet from the second half of the next decade. A deal for at least 40 aircraft is envisaged (including 20 firm orders plus additional options).
During the last 12 months Qatar Airways has added 11 new routes including its first US services - to New York and Washington DC - and three additional Indian points - Ahmedabad, Chennai and Nagpur. India is the airline's most important market in terms of destinations, with its network to the country spanning eight points. Network growth will be lower in 2008, with fewer new destinations likely than in 2007, although a third US city - Houston - will come on line.
Two major markets currently absent from the Qatar network are Australia and South America. The airline has landing rights for Melbourne, but Al Baker says that services are unlikely to start before 2009 due to aircraft availability. South America is also on the radar, but no plans have been formally announced.
The bulk of Qatar Airways' employees are ex-patriot workers, but the airline offers a career development programme to entice Qatari nationals into the business. Al Baker concedes that to Qataris "working for an airline is of lesser interest than other trades in the country", but proudly points out that it was an all-Qatari flightcrew that recently undertook the ceremonial delivery flight of the first of 35 777s from Seattle to Doha: "I'm sure they did a better landing than the pilots that were accompanying them from Boeing!"
Airline Business interview with Akbar Al Baker