While the arrival of Qatar Airways brings a relatively small 21 new destinations in five countries to the Oneworld network, the significance and symbolism of the addition of the airline to the global alliance stretches far wider.
Oneworld's latest and 13th airline member is not the first from the Middle East to join an alliance. Indeed, Oneworld already has one carrier from the region, Royal Jordanian, among its membership. But it is the first of the big three Gulf carriers to join one of the global groupings.
Many of the rifts between legacy airlines from the traditional hierarchy and the aggressively expanding Gulf rivals already appear to be on the mend. Qantas has teamed up with Emirates in a bid to revive its international business, while Air Canada and Air France-KLM are embracing Etihad through wide-ranging codeshares, where once they complained.
But none have gone as far as Qatar to embed themselves in the mainstream by joining one of the alliances. For Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker, membership of Oneworld is a further sign of changing attitudes. "This is such a global industry that you cannot isolate pockets," he said during the airline's Oneworld joining event in Doha. "This perception from [some] carriers in Europe [towards Gulf airlines] is changing. I don't think they see us in the negative way today they used to.
"There could be concern from some European carriers, but not Oneworld carriers. I assume each of these remaining alliances will be knocking on the door of the Gulf carriers." He adds, in typically bullish fashion: "They have missed the best one."
Certainly the significance of Qatar Airways joining is not lost on one of the carrier's chief advocates within the alliance. Willie Walsh, chief executive of IAG – whose British Airways unit sponsored Qatar joining process – was effusive in his praise of the airline and its larger-than-life leader.
"I've been fan of what Akbar has achieved here," he says, pointing to how Qatar and the other Gulf giants have become "significant players" in the industry. "We have embraced them and they have demonstrated they have a significant role to play. We would not be here today if we did not believe it was a significant and positive development. I believe it's one of the most significant and positive developments for Oneworld in a long time.
"Our strategy for the region [Middle East] is the same as all other regions: identify the best airline to meet our exacting requirements. The Gulf carriers have been embraced by consumers. Oneworld does not see why consumers that fly with these carriers should not get the benefits Oneworld can provide."
Oneworld chief executive Bruce Ashby points to the "very attractive" network the Gulf carrier brings to Oneworld, noting it is complementary to the existing partners' networks. Specifically he says while the alliance is strong on many key market flows – such as Europe to the USA or Latin America – Qatar brings new strength to is network in the Middle East, Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
Certainly there is little crossover in network. Just two Oneworld carriers – BA and Royal Jordanian – serve Doha. Qatar meanwhile serves Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, London Heathrow, Madrid, New York JFK and Tokyo today. New US flights next year to Miami and Philadelphia tie in with American and US Airways hubs – if the latter joins – while it also serves the Colombo and São Paulo homes of future Oneworld carriers SriLankan Airlines and TAM.
Qatar Airways route map: November 2013
Source: Flightmaps Analytics
Qatar is one of the key parts of Oneworld's busiest recruitment drive. Malaysia Airlines and LAN Colombia have already joined this year. TAM will join in March next year following its merger with Lan, SriLankan Airline will follow around the same time, and if its merger with American Airlines goes through, US Airways will follow TAM in switching from Star Alliance to Oneworld.
"Oneworld will have increased its scope more than 50% by almost every measure," Walsh notes, since Air Berlin joined in the spring of last year. If new members join, it will take Oneworld destinations from around 900 to nearly 1,000.
There were plenty of echoes of the German carrier's membership in Qatar Airways joining ceremony. Like Air Berlin last year, Qatar used the occasion to showcase its new home, in this case Doha's Hamad International airport. Like the German carrier, the new home is needed to ease the overstretched airport infrastructure. And like Brandenburg airport, the new home was meant to be open by now.
Air Berlin brought Oneworld-adorned aircraft to Brandenburg to mark its big day, yet 18 months later this has proved something of a one-off with no firm launch date for its full opening yet.
Qatar did likewise at its new Hamad home at the joining ceremony. Al Baker would not be drawn on an opening date beyond the early 2014 indication recently given by Qatar's transport minister. Given the arrival of its first Airbus A350 and A380 aircraft next year, Qatar will be hoping the similarities with the experience of its new German Oneworld partner end there.
Responding to questions amid rumours over whether he would remain in charge to oversee the next stage in the airline's journey following this summer's change in leadership of Qatar, the long-serving Al Baker says: "The enemies of Qatar Airways always have wishful thinking that I am leaving. I am a soldier of my government, and as long as my ruler requires me to be in Qatar Airways, I will be. The decision for me to stay or leave is dependent on my ruler."