Special Report: Turbulent Times For Qatar Airways

Gulf Business reveals the trials of Qatar Airways CEO, Akbar Al Baker.



It hasn’t been an easy year for Akbar Al Baker, the outspoken CEO of Qatar Airways. As much as the airline has pushed forward with seven new routes so far in 2013, it’s also been a time of tense frustration and delays.

With a fleet of 123 aircraft, the Gulf’s second largest airline was most recently flummoxed by the grounding of its five Boeing Dreamliner 787s in January, after US regulators banned the planes from the skies because of problems with the airliner’s battery systems.

The beleaguered aircraft has now returned to service after a break of three months, but not before the state-owned airline lost $200 million in revenue up until April 2013, lamented Al Baker at last month’s Dubai-based Arabian Travel Market.

“Our big issue is with Boeing. We have told them that the delays in the 787 and the grounding have really impacted Qatar Airways’ expansion severely. We now have to claw back the new destinations that we have to launch,” he said.

“It is impacting my bottom line because we are expanding. We are planning 15 new routes this year and now I will have to settle for only 10. I’m very unhappy.”

Qatar Airways, which was the first airline in the Middle East to receive the 787s, has 30 of the aircraft on order and additional 30 on option.

Al Baker expects to have 10 of the aircrafts in service by the end of the year. However, the CEO was adamant that the aircraft shouldn’t have been grounded in the first place.

“There was a reaction by the regulators because of the unnecessary emergency evacuation of the Japanese aircraft and unfortunately people today are more sensitive to what the social media say rather than what should really be the facts.”

The CEO added that the Dreamliner delays would not affect Qatar Airways’ imminent integration into the One World global airline alliance programme.

“We will be integrated into the One World system by the early part of October this year, we are well advanced in integrating our processes and our systems,” he told Gulf Business.

Qatar Airways, which has a staff of 14,600 employees, is the Gulf’s first airline to join the prestigious worldwide programme, tapping into a network of carriers that includes American Airlines, British Airways and Cathay Pacific and operates from 860 airports in 160 countries.

The airline, which has orders worth over $50 billion for more than 250 aircraft, remains hungry for expansion, but another rub in Al Baker’s ambitious plans has been the continued delays on the reportedly over budget $15 billion Hamad International Airport in Doha.

The glitzy project was finally due to open on April 1 but was prevented from doing so because the project did not meet new building codes set by Qatar’s civil defense.

The new airport is now expected to open by the year-end and is designed to accommodate 28 million passengers and will include 270,000 sq ft of shopping space and a 23,000 sq ft public mosque.

“Once it opens it will be something that will create a serious ‘wow’ effect. No other airport in the world has been designed by an airline. We know what our customers want. We will not have a white elephant,” the CEO said.

Qatar Airways currently flies to 126 destinations across the world and has launched seven routes spanning Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Cambodia, the US, Africa and the Philippines this year, with four more routes planned by September.

Al Baker’s plans may not be flying at quite the speed he would like, but the juggernaut airline is still soaring exponentially by any standards.

Qatar Airways At A Glance

✑ Launched: 1994
✑ Headquarters: Doha, Qatar
✑ Ownership: Qatar government (50 per cent); private shareholders (50 per cent)
✑ Fleet: 123 aircrafts
✑ Destinations: 126
✑ Order book: $50 billion of orders for more than 250 aircraft, including Boeing 787s, 777s, Airbus A350s, A380s and A320s.
✑ Staff: 14,000 employees