Akbar Al Baker is fighting a war of words – and he certainly does not mince his own, writes Ben Flanagan.
As chief executive of Qatar Airways, Mr Al Baker – along with his counterparts at Emirates and Etihad – is currently embroiled in a battle with the three biggest US carriers, which claim the Gulf operators received $42 billion in unfair government subsidies over 10 years.
Mr Al Baker describes the allegations as “nonsense” – and claims his rival at Delta must be “smelling glue” in suggesting Qatar Airways’ new route to Atlanta is unpopular. Far from being deterred from the US market, Mr Al Baker said more routes are on the horizon.
“The Gulf airlines – or any other airlines in the world – have the right to expand,” he said.
Mr Al Baker fiercely disputes allegations that Gulf airlines have received government subsidies – and says some carriers in the US and Europe have, in fact, benefited from such financial assistance.
“The European carriers forget that for nearly seven decades they were receiving subsidies from their government, funds from their governments to operate,” the executive said. “As for the Americans, for years they have been losing money and getting legal protection, which to my understanding is subsidy. Chapter 11 is a legal subsidy.”
Here Mr Al Baker – in typically outspoken terms – describes his growth plan for Qatar Airways in the future.
Q&A with Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways
How has the last year been for Qatar Airways?
We will announce our results some time during June, as we have to wait for our audit to finish. It will be the best year we ever had.
The three big US airlines have made allegations that Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad have received government subsidies. Do you think at some point Qatar Airways will look to publish accounts on a structured annual basis?
Yes that is exactly our intention. As a matter of fact, even if you don’t do it to the public, they have already obtained our accounts from several regulatory bodies to which we declare our accounts. And it is very clear that the allegations made against us are unfounded. [The US airlines’ claims are] just a proxy war on behalf of their European partners.
Last year you travelled to Washington to address the subsidies issue. How were you received?
I was received very positively by the authorities. They were very open at our rebuttal to all these allegations. And I think we are at the end of that road – we are just awaiting the final decision from the authorities in the United States. I’m sure the authorities in the United States will realise that what we are doing in America is in the best public interest. Not, of course, in the interest of the US carriers, because they want to keep the cake and eat it themselves. This is business, it is for everybody. [The US carriers] cannot compete with us on quality, they cannot compete with us on pricing, they cannot compete with us on the hospitality which we provide on the aeroplanes. So of course, they don’t like competition.
You’ve said that Qatar Airways’ new Atlanta route will “rub salt in the wounds” of Delta, which is headquartered in the US city. But the Partnership for Open Skies, the lobby group campaigning on behalf of US airlines, says the route is about “petty peevishness rather than rational, market-based reasoning”. What do you think of that?
Statements coming out from the new CEO of Delta [suggest that] Qatar Airways will soon withdraw from [Atlanta] because there are only five or six passengers that will travel on that route to the Gulf. Well I think that, frankly he must be smelling glue. Because we already [have a high] load factor. And we have still not [started operating that route]. And once the people see the product we have to offer, I think we will have a huge following. Any new route from day one is not going to be profitable. A new route is a business under development. And it would take us a good part of a year, two years to really get recognised. We are there for the long term. We are not there to chicken out because we carry only 60 percent load factor.
It’s two years since Hamid International airport opened. Is it performing as well as you hoped?
We have already been receiving awards as the best airport in the Middle East. As the CEO of the airport also, I am not happy at that. Because we want to beat Incheon [airport], which keeps on getting [high global rankings]. And I’m sure that once we have done with our expansion plans, we will be by far the best airport ever built.
Qatar Airways is exploring a stake purchases in Italian airline Meridiana. What is your interest there?
This airline has huge potential… The only problem is that they have not been managed properly up to now. They have a very good potential to grow. And with the partnership of Qatar Airways, this will be a very successful airline, I’m sure, provided that they unions with whom we are now negotiating play ball with us. If we do not get the working conditions we expect from the employees, we are not going to take the stake. We are there to make the airline successful, and to grow the airline and provide more jobs. But we are not there to just bankroll employees. We want employees to deliver. Because we will grow the airline: It will not be any more a niche carrier. It will be a global brand, a carrier that Italy will be very proud of.
You have also shown interest in the African carrier Royal Air Maroc.
Why are we so keen in Royal Air Maroc? One, because it is a very well-known, old established brand in Africa. Secondly, its potential is under-utilised. Casablanca could be a major hub between Africa, Europe and the West – the United States, North and South America. But that hub is not being properly developed, because of a lack of investment, and the lack of focus to the standards of customer service. And we as Qatar Airways becoming a shareholder in Royal Air Maroc would develop that airline to be a very strong brand serving Africa to the world.
*This is an edited version of an interview Mr Al Baker gave at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai
Akbar Al Baker is chief executive of Qatar Airways, and holds other positions including board member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and nonexecutive director of Heathrow Airport Holdings (HAH), responsible for the running and development of the UK’s largest airport.
In his primary role he oversees several divisions of Qatar’s national airline, including Al Maha services, Qatar Executive, Hamad International Airport, Qatar Aviation Services, Qatar Aircraft Catering Company, Qatar Distribution Company, Qatar Duty Free and Internal Media Services.
Born in Doha, Mr Al Baker is a graduate in Economics and Commerce and worked at various levels in the Civil Aviation Directorate before becoming Qatar Airways’ Group Chief Executive in 1997. He holds a private pilot licence.