Tuesday 11 December 2018

Fight and flight: Qatar chief on passenger battle

Al Baker weighs expansion of Dublin-Doha route, as first A350 takes to the air, writes Fearghal O'Connor

Akbar Al Baker
Akbar Al Baker

Fearghal O'Connor

Straight-talking Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker landed in Airbus HQ in Toulouse last week at a uniquely challenging time for an airline regularly voted the world's best.

He was there to pick up his latest high-spec jet, the sleek A350-1000. The long-range twin-aisled aircraft - for which Aer Lingus also has an unconfirmed order - is built with lightweight composite materials, has specially curved wing-tips that mimic a bird in flight and sports Qatar's innovative Qsuite business class layout, complete with private double beds as standard.

"I don't know what more we can do to raise the bar," Al Baker, who took the reins at Qatar in 1996 when it was just a small regional carrier, told the Sunday Independent.

"We pioneered lie-flat seats and now they are the norm. We introduced lounges on board our planes which everybody else copied. We are always introducing new things."

Al Baker confirmed that Qatar Airways is considering an expansion of its Doha to Dublin daily service, launched last June in direct competition with its bitter Middle Eastern rivals Etihad and Emirates. Asked is the airline considering expanding the service to double daily and could it be served by the new A350 rather than the current smaller Boeing 787 Al Akbar responded: "Yes. Yes. Yes. As we start to get more A350s, a lot of those routes will be replaced with the A350-900 or the A350-1000."

And the Dublin route will be one of those? "Yes, certainly," he said.

The increasingly competitive battle for eastbound passengers out of Ireland between the big three Middle Eastern carriers is just one small proxy in a much bigger war. That rivalry was further heightened last year when the UAE - home of Emirates and Etihad - along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and blockaded its land, sea and air borders.

It has created operational difficulties for Qatar Airways and Al Baker said it would post a loss for the year to the end of March.

"I don't want to speculate on the following year because with what is going on around the world, you really, as an airline CEO, cannot speculate what will happen," he said.

He is outraged by the blockade.

"What was achieved by our adversaries in implementing this blockade? Zero. They failed in intimidating my country, putting us against the wall, trying to take over our sovereignty, trying to dictate our foreign policy, trying to dictate who our friends should be. In every single aspect they failed. They made Qatar more independent, more resilient, more robust."

Most importantly, said Al Baker, the blockade had strengthened the Qatari people's "confidence in our ruler's ability to lead our country better than anybody in our neighbourhood".

"It was proven to the world that he is a leader of international standing, a person who would never get intimidated by anybody."

Al Baker expressed hope that "President Trump will impose enough pressure on our neighbours that this unjust act of blockading countries would not be allowed to be sustained in the modern world".

Asked how long Qatar Airlines could sustain such a blockade Al Baker was defiant: "We will persevere. We will sustain as long as it is there. We are not going to capitulate and the state of Qatar is not going to sell its sovereignty.

"President Trump is the only individual who can impose the lifting of this blockade. The United States is our ally. We are a partner in fighting terrorism. It has its biggest military base outside of the United States in my country."

Of course, Qatar Airways, and the other big Middle Eastern carriers, have been the focus of much criticism in the past by the big US airlines. United, Delta and American have accused them of availing of unfair oil-fuelled government subsidies as they have hoovered up passengers into sparkling new desert hubs. Last month, Qatar agreed to disclose financial information in what was reported as a victory for the US carriers.

Al Baker insisted to this newspaper that the financial information is nothing more than what is already readily available. "For the last two years we have been publishing our accounts. Anyone can get into our website and look at it. And all the acquisitions that we are doing ... we are taking finance on commercial terms from banks. So what is the problem? Nothing," he said.

But the American carriers, he said, "wanted to satisfy themselves with a memorandum of understanding, which was done because my country is a friend and ally of the United States and we don't want anything to be disruptive between our relationships".

The regional rivalry between the Middle Eastern giants is also playing out in the European market. Etihad bought 49pc of Alitalia only to watch it fall into administration. Al Baker moved quickly last year to buy 49pc in Meridiana, relaunching it last week as Air Italy with the promise that it would become Italy's "real" national carrier utilising a fleet of new Qatar Airways standard aircraft to fly 10 million passengers by 2020.

And Air Italy is not Qatar's only European investment - it has an almost 21pc stake in Aer Lingus parent IAG. Asked was IAG boss Willie Walsh doing a good job, Al Baker, who sits on the board of Heathrow Airport, responded: "A very good job, not just a good job ... he is from your country, running a British airline."

He said he does not interfere in IAG's business: "We are an investor in IAG. IAG has a very robust leadership. They have very good management so we leave them to do their job."

There is plenty to keep the Qatari executive busy as he looks to keep his own airline at the top of the ever-evolving aviation sector.

"We are very interested in supersonic flight," he said, confirming that Qatar is interested in a new 55-seat high-speed aircraft under development by a company called Boom Supersonic.

"Qatar Airways would be very interested to look at it and we wouldn't hesitate to be the launch customer. The only reason we are not committing to this is that they have still not identified who will be the engine manufacturer for this airplane. Once there is a proper commitment from an engine manufacturer to this programme, Qatar Airways would be very interested in a small number of these airplanes."

But for now Qatar's focus is on the A350 - a welcome relief for Airbus, which has undergone its own traumas in recent months. Even as it has pushed close to taking the lead in its ongoing competitive battle with Boeing, the European manufacturer has undergone a year of management upheaval.

Last week's A350 handover to Qatar in Toulouse, a city in which it employs 60,000 people, marked the last day in the job for Fabrice Brégier, the company's chief operating officer and erstwhile leader and reinventor of its commercial aircraft division, who lost out in a highly political management dogfight in his bid to takeover as CEO.

Al Baker was effusive in his praise for the outgoing man and lukewarm in his assessment of the new management: "We don't know them. We'll have to see how we get on."

Doubtless, the new Airbus management - like many others in the world of aviation - will be anxious to keep Al Baker, with money to spend and ambition to burn, firmly on side.

Sunday Indo Business

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