Flying high

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker talks to Gina Coleman about his life, career and more
A lounge at Doha International Airport, which also comes under the purview of Al Baker.

While most airlines around the world are still struggling to recover from the global downturn in travel caused by weak economies, September 11 and, of course, SARS, Qatar Airways is expanding by leaps and bounds.

It has continued to record 40-per-cent passenger growth rates and has carried more than 3.4 million passengers in the 2003 financial year. While most people are still wondering how the airline has managed to notch up such outstanding  performance, nobody is any doubt who’s behind this success: CEO Akbar Al Baker. Clearly Al Baker, who has taken the airline to new heights after relaunching it in 1997, is more than just a man with a vision. Some would describe him as a ‘workaholic’, some call him ‘focused’, while still others insist he’s ‘determined’. But no matter how one chooses to describe him, one thing is for certain: the words ‘no’ or ‘not possible’ don’t seem to figure in his vocabulary.

Attached to the phone for most of the 24 hours in a day, he keeps a close watch on every single aspect of Qatar Airways’ operations -  and that extends way beyond flying passengers from A to B and beyond. “My work is my hobby. And that’s why I’ve always worked long hours - on average 14 hours a day. Fortunately my wife is very understanding, and knows I have certain challenges to meet; she is very supportive,” he tells TTN.
Back in 1997 Al Baker told me “Whatever the future holds for me, in the short-term, my aim and determination is to make the airline an international name, and an equal player in the region.” That he has certainly achieved. Qatar Airways made history in September 2003 when it became the first airline in the world to pass the new International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Operational Safety Audit (IOSA), with 100 per cent compliance. The independent airline quality monitor, Skytrax, voted Qatar Airways’ cabin crew best in the Middle East and fifth best in the world and the UK’s Institute of Transport Management recently voted the airline as Best Middle Eastern Regional Airline last year.

As we enter 2004, Al Baker regards Qatar Airways as providing a unique  service. One that enables him to focus on its future development without regarding other airlines in the region - new or established, regular or budget - as “competition”.
“Qatar Airways has proved itself to be one of the fastest-growing airlines in the world,” he says. “Building on a reputation of premium customer service, the airline has launched an aggressive growth plan to ensure that it can offer people a greater choice of destination, a greater choice about when they fly to a destination and the latest inflight products and services.”
Having said that, he’s still loathe to name the new 12 or so destinations planned for 2004 and 2005. Al Baker’s reluctant to give other regional airlines new ideas - and he still enjoys the prestige of Qatar Airways creating a ‘first’.

Al Baker rose steadily - and then speedily - through the ranks of Qatar’s Department of Civil Aviation before taking over the role of CEO at Qatar Airways. However, he says, that far from choosing that path himself, it was selected for him, mainly because of his fluency in English - the language of Civil Aviation. “My father was a Qatari merchant with major partners in India; they told him I would benefit greatly from being educated in English and recommended he send me to India for the purpose.” His father heeded their remarks and Al Baker left Qatar for boarding school in the sub-continent at the tender age of four! He remained there for his secondary and tertiary education, graduating from university in commerce and economics  at the age of just 18, by which time he was fluent in five languages.
“Being away from home from such a tender age taught me self reliance but deprived me of the normal family love that surrounds a child at home.  However, it also made me very compassionate,” he says. And far from  resenting the fact he was ‘sent away’, he says the experience made him very  close to his family. “I love my parents very much,” he adds.
During his early childhood, Al Baker favoured a career as a doctor. “I was  very good in chemistry and biology, but not so strong in physics, so I began  to look for an alternative.” He majored in accounting but wasn’t sure how he would fit into the Qatari job market on his return, particularly since he hadn’t studied Arabic at school. The Civil Service had never seemed an obvious option, but that’s where he presented himself when he returned to Doha. They, in turn, deemed the newly-formed Civil Aviation Department was  just the right place for him. “They needed Qataris who were fluent in English and I was appointed as an assistant accountant. The director at the time, Mr Al Kuwari, was also newly appointed. He had graduated in Britain,  and we made a good Qatari team, working initially out of a small five-bedroom apartment near the Grand Mosque.”
Hired as an accountant he, nevertheless, found himself working for an expatriate who gave him all sorts of work except accounts - as storeman,  inventory clerk and procurement clerk. Still, Al Baker was not one to complain. “What he didn’t realise was he was actually doing me a favour because I got to know so many different functions, picking up all the different jobs easily,” Al Baker points out. “As a result, I was asked to take over as head of the accounts department.” And from there, he never looked back. He became head of finance, then head of finance and administration and secretariat at the Department of Civil Aviation before making that all-important move to Qatar Airways.  During the 1980s he also learned to fly and was heavily involved in day-to-day administration at the airport, so he had developed his knowledge of a wide range of civil aviation activities - especially since the department had taken over the running of technical services from the UK-based I.A.L. in 1988.
As a businessman in the private sector, he was just 18 when he opened Babycare in Doha, as an upmarket version of the children’s shop, Mothercare, that he had seen in the UK. Next were ladies fashions and, then, a garment factory (ironically, with a former president of Gulf Air!) exporting to the US.
Nonetheless, running an airline is a job Al Baker takes very seriously. He’s proud of Qatar Airways and supremely proud of his country. And together with his analytical approach and overwhelming determination, that’s an almost unstoppable combination!

What Al Baker has been known to refer to as ‘my airline’ is now responsible for the operation of Doha International Airport, its own regional hub that also receives 22 other airlines. Qatar Airways has invested millions in upgrading and expansion of the existing facilities and also defined the parameters for a new airport, to be completed in three phases between 2008 and 2015. The 2,200-hectare airport site is to the east of the existing Doha International Airport and will be developed in three stages, with work onsite to start in the middle of 2004.
For the record, Qatar Airways operates a number of subsidiary companies including Qatar Aviation Services, Qatar Aviation Catering Company, United Media International, Qatar Airways Holidays, Doha International Airport, and Qatar Duty Free and the airline is also in the process of acquiring Aladdin’s Kingdom Fun Park.
Wearing an ‘alternative hat’, Al Baker is also chairman of the Qatar Tourism Authority, giving him an overall perspective of the development of the tourism industry to, from, and through, the country. In other words, Al Baker sees the ‘whole picture’ and not surprising then that he wants Qatar Airways to be the best airline in the world. Given the fact that he usually gets his own way, that’s not a statement to be dismissed lightly.

Qatar Airways currently operates 29 aircraft, the largest ‘all-Airbus’ fleet in the Middle East, comprising mainly Airbus A330s and A320-family aircraft. What’s more, it will become the first carrier in the region to take delivery of the Airbus A330-300 in September this year and is a launch customer for the A380-800 ‘super jumbo’. But that, however, is just  ‘the tip of the iceberg’. Apparently, there will be over 50 aircraft in the fleet by 2008.
Following the announcement of a major deal for 34 new aircraft in the summer of 2003, the airline then placed further orders at the Dubai Airshow in 2003, signing a contract with Airbus for 14 planes, including four firm orders and ten options - the deal is valued at US$ 3 billion.
“The deal extends Qatar Airways’ previous order to buy 34 Airbuses, worth  US$5.1 billion,  placed at the Paris Air Show last June, by US$1.2 billion,” says the intrepid CEO. “We want to ensure that our passengers fly with one of the youngest fleets in the world. In addition, we are also investing US$ 2.5 billion in a new Doha International Airport which will give our passengers connecting times of just 30 minutes, and an unrivalled airport experience. It will also be the first airport designed for the double-decker A380-800 and by 2015 will be capable of handling 50 million passengers a year.”
Deliveries of the Airbus A340-600s will begin in June 2006; those of the A380s in early 2009. Both aircraft will feature three-class layouts - the A340-600 seating 325 passengers, and the A380s 460. “We see a need for the A340-600 on our medium to high-capacity long-haul routes, as well as for the larger A380 on our most heavily-travelled services,” says Al Baker. “And we look forward to the commonality benefits that our all-Airbus fleet will bring us in both cost savings and operational flexibility. The Airbus A330/A340 family is the most modern and successful in its class, with the best fuel efficiency, the lowest maintenance costs, and the most comfortable cabin. It is the preferred choice of both full-service and low-cost airlines, as well as enjoying a consistent lead in independent passenger and operator surveys. Thanks to their fly-by-wire flight controls the aircraft offer full operational commonality with other members of the Airbus aircraft family.”
In addition, in mid-December last year, GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS) announced it will lease three Airbus A330-200 aircraft to Qatar Airways. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed however the first two aircraft will enter service early this year; the third is a new aircraft scheduled for delivery in June 2005. (Qatar Airways already leases an A320 from GECAS and will take delivery of two new A330-200 aircraft on lease from GECAS in the summer of 2004.)
Most recently, Qatar Airways has signed an agreement with the global reservation company Infini, which will allow customers in Japan to book seats on Qatar Airways flights through more than 6,000 travel agencies.“Infini is one of the largest seat reservation systems that operates in Japan and offers Qatar Airways direct exposure to the large Japanese market, “ says Al Baker. “Our agreement with Infini means that we can now give the Japanese traveller easy and convenient access to our high-quality airline service. Japanese travel agencies using the Infini reservation system can now book their customers directly on any Qatar Airways flight, including our flights from Bangkok, Seoul, Shanghai, Jakarta, Singapore, Cebu, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur.’
Tokyo is definitely on the cards as a new Qatar Airways destination, but Al Baker won’t yet give even a hint of the date the service will start.