Saturday 18 November 2017

How do you Doha? Meet the Gulf's answer to Michael O'Leary

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker with cabin crew Bernadet Nagy and Maja Olovcic in Dublin
Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker with cabin crew Bernadet Nagy and Maja Olovcic in Dublin
Mark Evans

Mark Evans

One is the high-profile, soundbite-savvy chief executive of a hugely-profitable airline, who never takes prisoners when he feels the need to take a pop at a rival. The other is Michael O'Leary.

Yes, Qatar Airways boss Akbar Al Baker was in town during the week, officially launching Ireland's latest link to a Middle Eastern hub.

And he certainly made his mark, delivering a speech at the opening-night party (complete with Ronan Keating as entertainment) where he slated US airlines, with whom he has clashed swords in the past. Al Baker told the audience that the average age of his airline's cabin crew is 26, so there's no need to fly with "crap" US carriers "being served by grandmothers".

It raised a few eyebrows on social media, but I'm told the VIP audience was in stitches.

He does have a Ryanair-esque way with words, which is refreshing for a chief of a full-frills airline, when he says: "We are not an airline that feels the sun is shining through our asshole. We are humble."

And it's been a good last few days for Al Baker's airline, flying this last month from Dublin to Doha, with the US reversing the controversial laptop ban.

The ban is now gone for Qatar, as well as rivals Etihad Airways, Emirates and Turkish Airlines, following airport inspections by America's Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

"We were audited over the last two days as soon as the TSA put out the requirements," he said, adding that the still-secret latest US requirements are now a global issue.

"These (rules) are not just for the countries that were banned from carrying laptops ­- now this requirement has gone global, so all the 240-plus destinations that have flights into the United States will have to comply with the new, draconian requirements," he said.

With typical chutzpah, he talked up Doha's Hamad International Airport: "It's one of the foremost airports with the most sophisticated security equipment installed. I can say this with confidence because I am also the chief executive of the airport."

While there's not much love between Gulf airlines, they are united in a battle of wills with US carriers. On one side, America's big three - United, American Airlines and Delta - want to curtail their access to the US, alleging that they get unfair aid from their governments.

The Gulf carriers deny this, insisting that their American competitors are protectionist and afraid of being shown up by their glitzier product. And Al Baker managed to get under the skin this week of Doug Parker, ceo of American Airlines - a fellow member of global airline alliance Oneworld - who said he was "frightened" by Qatar's move to buy a 10pc stake in his carrier.

"You have already seen the statement from my dear friend Doug Parker," said Al Baker, adding that it was a business move, not a power grab.

"We are not interested in board seats, we are not interested to influence their anti-Gulf stance.

"We are strategy partners in airlines that we see are strong, well managed and have a big and long potential for Qatar Airways' investment return. We are interested in American because it is the best airline in North America."

But he couldn't resist a pop along the way at the dominant US carriers. "The American public want competition, they want good product, they want good value for money. They (US rivals) want us out so that they can swindle their passengers and their customers with very high, inflated air fares, which are far, far beyond the cost of operation. This is why they are making bumper profits."

He said the Americans, many with a history of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, had a cheek to point fingers, claiming that Chapter 11 is "a legal subsidy", adding: "I wish I had this in my country. In my country, I would have to sell my shirt to pay my creditors."

The one note of seriousness is when he turns to the recent blockade of Qatar by neighbours Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. He said: "This is just a bullying tactic because they don't like our independence, they don't like our way of living, they don't like our political acumen and they want us to be a province of their countries."

He said the timing - during Ramadan - was a particularly bitter pill to swallow. "Even God has mercy on souls in that month. For Muslim countries to blockade a brother country for food, water - what kind of culture are these people practising?"

But like O'Leary - "I admire him very much" - he's aiming for the last laugh. So far, Dublin-Doha load factors are five percentage points above expectations, with Al Baker looking to add a second daily flight if load factors remain above 85pc.

But in a market with established players Eithad (double daily), Emirates (also two flights), plus Turkish Airlines, is there really room for everyone? "I think you have to ask their ceos how much heat they can take from Qatar Airways."

Nice one, Michael. Er, Akbar.

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