Qatar Airways’ CEO Akbar Al Baker on the rise of the airline

Qatar Airways’ CEO Akbar Al Baker on the rise of the airline

Qatar Airways stole the show at ITB in Berlin when the airline unveiled its first-class cabins for the new Airbus A340-600s.

By launching a corporate-jet style lounge area at the front of the plane Qatar hopes to up the ante with rivals Emirates and Etihad Airways in the ultra-competitive battle for premium traffic to and from the Middle East.

It is also revamping its business-class product on the A340-600s, the first of which go into service on the London Heathrow-Doha route in July.

And once the airline secures rights to fly to the U.S. later this year, two A340-600s will fly a new daily New York route.

E-ticketing comes into play on May 1, as part of a major project to replace paper documents, it will also assist with the growing passenger numbers, which are projected to rise sharply in 2006 to more than six million.

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But Qatar Airways also has grander plans - the airline is acquiring up to 60 of the new generation Airbus and Boeing planes for over $15 billion and will almost triple its fleet size to 110 jets by 2015.

The airline is also the launch customer for the A380 super jumbos with four aircraft on order for 2009.

This will coincide with the opening of the New Doha International Airport.

With a lot in the pipeline, Breaking Travel News caught up with the chairman of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker to ask him about the airline’s meteoric rise in the industry.

BTN: What will the 15th Asian Games do for Doha? You are the official sponsor for the event in December. What kind of benefit will this bring to Qatar Airways?

Al Baker: The Asian Games will put Doha and Qatar firmly in the international spotlight. We believe the country will capture significant attention not just in Asia, but worldwide. Around 25 percent of our global network is concentrated on Asia, including the Far East and the Indian subcontinent. Qatar Airways will operate additional flights to help facilitate travel for athletes, their families and spectators.

The airline is spreading the message of Qatar around the world. Our Asian Games branded aircraft will further enhance the image of this sporting event and Doha, spreading the message that the city has become a major contender in hosting world-class sporting events.

BTN: Is event tourism the way forwards?

Al Baker: The future of the tourism industry in Qatar and our airline go hand in hand. Airlines represent the national identity of their home country. Qatar Airways is no exception.

It is both the airline’s role and duty to promote Qatar as a business and tourism destination. We work very closely with the Qatar Tourism Authority in building the profile of Qatar. In line with the fast moving infrastructure development, the airline is growing rapidly and will meet the needs of the expected influx of tourists and business travellers into the country.

BTN: Qatar Airways launched its First Class lounge onboard its Airbus A340-600 aircraft at Berlin, what will this bring to the market?

Al Baker: Passengers flying in this premium cabin will have the added benefit of a dedicated onboard lounge allowing them to relax and eat in the comfort of their very own special area.

We are operating in one of the most competitive industries in the world where passengers have greater choice and are more demanding. Therefore, our efforts in creating a first class lounge reflects the importance we place on our premium class passengers who are looking for that little more attention, privacy and comfort.

BTN: Why did you revamp the livery and drop the word ‘Airways’?

Al Baker: We dropped the word ‘Airways’ from Qatar on our aircraft because we are positioning the airline as the national symbol of the State of Qatar, which has become an economic force on the global stage. It also reflects the confidence of the airline, moving from a small regional player a few years ago to a full-service quality international airline.

BTN: You have called the livery change and the new A340 first class lounge the “giant step forward” - why is this?

Al Baker: Qatar Airways is entering a new era. We are a confident and progressive airline, which is why we are unveiling a bold new look that projects us as a more powerful brand.

BTN: Analysts say that the Middle Eastern airline market may be overheating, what is your view?

Al Baker: The market is buoyant in the Middle East and all signs are that this region will experience one of the fastest growth rates over the next 10 to 15 years. Qatar Airways is gearing itself up to meet the anticipated demand, which is evident in our continuing growth plans.

BTN: You have said that among the reasons for Qatar Airways’ rise is that it dares to fly to cities shunned by your rivals – such as Yangon in Myanmar for instance. Is this policy paying off? If so why?

Al Baker: We have always maintained that an airline has the power to create demand when taking a decision to fly to new destinations. This has certainly been the case with destinations such as Yangon.

As with all of our destinations, however, our Commercial Department conduct extensive feasibility studies in order to ensure that all of our destinations are commercially sound and viable.

BTN: Qatar Airways has always put a premium on improving in-flight services, why is this a priority?

Al Baker: In today’s age of travel, customers are becoming more experienced and demand more choice, as well as the highest levels of service. Qatar Airways has raised the stakes and it is all about expressing sophistication and lifestyle. We want our passengers to enjoy the creature comforts of flying with us and we believe we have taken our service standards to new heights.

Many airlines tend to lose focus with growth. At Qatar Airways, we are committed to maintaining and increasing our service levels, that is what wins and retains customers.

BTN: Singapore Airport Terminal Services or SATS has been taken on to provide management services at Doha International Airport, what will they bring to the picture?

Al Baker: Qatar Aviation Services (QAS) is engaging SATS to provide it with management services at Doha International Airport (DIA) under a two-year collaboration agreement. The services will be provided in the areas of process re-engineering, performance measurement, planning, training and review of systems and procedures, for QAS’s ground handling operations at DIA.

We expect that this collaboration with SATS will improve the quality of our ground service product and enhance Doha International Airport’s status as a premier airport hub in the Middle East region.

BTN: How do you see Middle East air travel landscape evolving over time?

Al Baker: The Gulf region is one of the fastest growing areas - in terms of air travel - in the world. Prosperous growth is foreseeable and is inevitable, which is why Qatar Airways has been expanding to so many new destinations.

BTN: You have said that low-cost carriers are unlikely to thrive in the Middle East. Yet the hotel industry is already looking at mid-range hotels in the region. What is your view on the low-cost travel scene?

Al Baker: Qatar Airways has seen no real impact on its business or operations as a result of the arrival of low-cost airlines in the region.

We have a very strong business model which we have no intention of moving away from. Qatar Airways is, and will always remain, a full-service airline operating high levels of service that we are renowned for. Our passenger loads on our flights are extremely healthy and forward bookings are looking very strong indeed. The low-cost carriers have their market and we have our own.

By Jilly Welch