Few airline chief executives seem to enjoy their job as much as Qatar Airways head Akbar Al-Baker, who clearly takes a paternal interest in the growth of his airline, writes Colin Baker.
The term “his airline” can be used rather loosely, but in this instance, is not far from the truth. While the Qatari government may own the airline, there is very little doubt about who is in charge.
Holding court at this year’s World Travel Market event in London during early November, Al-Baker was in his element talking about new routes, enhanced products and expansive fleet plans. Chapter 11 or cost-saving plans that are the day-to-day reality for so many North American and European mainline carriers seem a world away.
And some of Al-Baker’s peers, especially in Europe, would argue that this is in part thanks to generous government support. The issue of subsidies, always a sensitive one in the Middle East, is the one subject which Al-Baker is not so comfortable talking about. That said, he is clearly practised at fending off questions on this matter with a very straight bat.
“Everyone keeps on talking about subsidies,” he says with more than a hint of annoyance. “If I am the government and owner of an airline, and I want to recapitalise, what is wrong with that?” he asks, adding that he believes that anyone who feels that Qatar Airways is being subsidised should take their complaint to the World Trade Organization. He is also at pains to point out that European and North American carriers are hardly strangers to subsidies themselves. Al-Baker says that a UK government department recently asked to inspect the carrier’s books in order to agree an export finance deal, and found nothing untoward.
While this issue is unlikely to go away, there is still plenty for Al-Baker to smile about. “We are on the crest of the wave. We are growing at an unrivalled rate,” he beams, pointing to the fact that the airline now has 66 destinations (up from 53 last year) and is about to add services to Nairobi, Madrid and Berlin in the run-up to Christmas. “This is not far off the 70 destinations that I promised you last year,” Al-Baker says with a glint in his eye.
The 42-strong fleet will grow threefold over the next 10 years, Al-Baker predicts, revealing that two-third’s of the airline’s 60-strong order for Airbus A350s will be for the larger -900 type. Clearly proud of Qatar Airways’ reputation for quality, he is at pains to stress that this impressive expansion rate will not be at the expense of service levels. “Many carriers tend to lose focus with growth – not Qatar.”
The carrier has already built a strong reputation for offering a quality product for first and business class passengers. Al-Baker is now turning his attention to the back of the cabin, with the airline soon to reveal a new economy class. “A revamp of our economy class product is also in process. We are also looking at improving the seating and amenities. We will soon announce this. You will see it displayed at one of the exhibitions in the not-too-distant future,” he says.
Service quality levels will be boosted when the new Doha Airport comes on stream in 2009 – Al-Baker freely admits that the present airport is struggling to cope with Qatar’s rapid growth. Delays in the construction of the new facility led Qatar to put back the delivery schedule for the A380 from early 2007 to 2009. Al-Baker jokes that if he had known that Airbus was going to delay the introduction of the A380 he wouldn’t have pushed back this timetable. “I could have made money out of them.”
On the issue of alliances, Al-Baker seems keen to give the impression that all three of the major world groupings are interested in Qatar and appears to enjoy the media speculation linking the carrier with Star. “You will just have to wonder about that,” he says. “We still have plenty of time to choose which alliance we would like to join.” He is certain that the airline will “definitely” be part of an alliance but is in no rush. “It could be one year, it could be two years, it could be three years,” he says.
The speculation regarding Star comes from the fact that Qatar has recently signed a codesharing deal with United Airlines, which adds to existing codeshare agreements with Lufthansa, bmi and All Nippon Airways. However, Al-Baker says another alliance has approached the carrier about the possibility of codeshares on Middle Eastern routes.
As far as new routes go, Qatar will start daily flights to Hong Kong from March next year, and is also keen to take advantage of a relaxation of UK fifth freedoms rights for airports outside the London area. “This could be as early as the middle of next year,” he says. “I believe that the policy proposal has been approved and Qatar Airways will apply to fly beyond the UK. We have several options to fly beyond, not only the USA.” Fifth freedom carriers have traditionally struggled to take on incumbents, but Al-Baker seems confident that there is a place for Qatar on this market. “Always, people look for quality,” he says. “And people are ready to pay for that.”
Melbourne, which has previously been out of range for the Qatar fleet, is also on the agenda. “We will take delivery of long-range aircraft next year and with the outcome of talks with the Australian government, we are planning to have services next year or at the latest by 2007,” he says.
With new aircraft coming on stream at a steady rate, there is likely to be plenty more route announcements in the not-so-distant future. Al-Baker can look forward to plenty more of the press conferences he so clearly enjoys.