Breaking Travel News interview: Akbar al Baker, chief executive, Qatar Airways
Phil Blizzard here speaks with Akbar al Baker, chief executive, Qatar Airways at the Arabian Travel Market 2014 in Dubai and starts by asking about the soon to be launched ‘all business class’ flights to London Heathrow Airport.
Akbar al Baker: A lot of people told me that you are making a big mistake by launching an all business class aircraft.
Because previously a lot of start-ups did this and then after some time, folded.
But they forget that behind this all business class service to the UK is very major airline.
We have a huge network through which we will feed to this very unique class of travel.
You will have a feel of a corporate jet in a commercial airplane with all business class, only 36 seats, with a lot of luxury with it.
I think it will be a very successful venture.
Breaking Travel News: Because, as you said, in the past, it has been tried. It has been tried between Dubai and London. I think it was Luton airport. That did not last very long.
AB: Yes. But we will prove to people that when there is a major airline behind such a venture that it will be successful.
BTN: Twenty-fourteen is another significant year for Qatar Airways. The year of the fleet, the arrival of the double-decker A380. So what are the key points of this year for you?
AB: The real key point for this year is the opening Hamad International Airport in Qatar. This is a world-class, very high standard airport, offering absolutely top class services and amenities for our passengers - built in the capital city of my country.
BTN: So when you say that, what can passengers actually expect of the airport?
AB: Well, they can expect unprecedented comfort, unprecedented duty-free shopping.
Because the shopping concept we have in Hamad International is of a large mall.
We have swimming pool. We have a full-fledged spa. We have signature restaurants and most importantly, we have all the requirements of a passenger.
We have quiet rooms. We have sleeping rooms. We have family areas. We have lounges, which no other airport ever has been able to afford.
BTN: So from what you are saying, it is a place to explore and spend a lot of time. You do not want a connecting flight to be too quick. You will miss out on the facilities by the sound of it?
AB: Exactly. Actually, the airport, Hamad International, will be a destination in itself. And we have a 200-room hotel where people will be able to relax and maybe spend a day in the airport.
BTN: Okay. So moving from this massive project in Doha to the biggest aircraft in the sky, the A380, and you will be taking delivery of your first one very, very soon?
AB: Yes. The first aircraft will be delivered to us later this month and soon after that, we will receive a couple of them and a fourth aircraft in September.
So altogether we will have the first four A380s flying in Qatar colours by the second – the third quarter of this year.
BTN: And what can we expect on board?
AB: First of all, you will get a five-star service on board.
We have an absolute amazing first-class product because first-class will only be available in Qatar on our A380s.
Then we have absolutely award-winning business class product on board the airplane and then we have a very innovative sky lounge on board the airplane and the best economical seats for our economy class passengers.
BTN: The Middle East is leading the world when it comes to aviation innovations especially with the aircraft like the A380. What is your perception on what the carriers are doing from this region?
AB: Frankly speaking, Qatar Airways was the leader in innovation.
We were the first airline after British Airways and especially the first airline in this region to have horizontal flat seats.
In our first class, we were one of the first airlines after British Airways to have lie flat seat in a business class.
You can see that once you innovate, all the other airlines follow.
Other than British Airways, nobody had 180 degree lie flat seats in first class.
We introduced it and then after us, everybody else introduced it.
So we were the first airline to have a lounge on board our airplane.
We introduced this in 2005 and then you can see that all the others followed.
So it is very important that we in the Middle East, we carriers, are seen as people that are raising the bar for other airlines.
BTN: You have mentioned to me several times that an aircraft is a very expensive piece of real estate, the actual seating area.
AB: That is right.
BTN: So you are not be going in for a three-room or four-room apartments or residences?
AB: No, I think I will be quite happy to just remain with normal first class seats and normal business class seats with ultimate comfort for my passenger.
BTN: Okay. Let us move back now into the region of the new airline, Al Maha. Give us an overview of that?
AB: Al Maha will be our venture in Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia we will be launching this towards the end of the year.
It will be a 100 per cent owned subsidiary of Qatar Airways.
We will start with eight Airbus A320 families of airplanes and then of course we will expand to larger wide body aircraft.
BTN: Now you are referring to this years’ Year of the Fleet. You have a massive inventory aircraft coming on stream. What are the challenge when it comes to launch – I am thinking of air traffic control in the region with so many flights coming in on narrow flight paths?
AB: It is a huge challenge because really it is becoming a gauntlet.
You have three major Gulf carriers using the same narrow channel of airways and we are trying to convince the authorities to open up and relinquish more air space for civilian air traffic control against the military that is for the time being.
BTN: Okay. Final question, back to the UK, London, not far from London, the Farnborough Airshow this year, what can we expect from Qatar Airways at the Farnborough?
AB: Well, actually we will be occupying Farnborough.
We will have four aircraft with our brand.
We will have an airbus A320. We will have an airbus A380 which will also do a flying demonstration.
We will have a 787 on static display and we will have MSN4 of A350, which is Qatar Airways branded aircraft.
Interview: Phil Blizzard