‘We have improved our service’

Akbar Al Baker, CEO, Qatar Airways, talks to CARRY HODGE about his plans for the airline and more

By the end of 2005, Qatar Airways expects to serve over 70 destinations on its global network, including cities in North America and Australia.

Having a national carrier that is one of the fastest-growing airlines in the world is a great boon for Qatar’s tourism sector and each additional destination opens up new opportunities. By mid-January, the network had increased to serve 59 destinations, with the addition of Beijing, Seychelles and London Gatwick at the end of 2004, Yangon, Johannesburg and Cape Town in January 2005. Osaka, Athens, Tunis and Algiers will have been added by the summer.
Qatar Airways currently operates an all-Airbus fleet of 36 aircraft, one of the youngest fleets in the world, and placed a $5.1bn order with Airbus for 34 new aircraft to join the fleet over the next few years. The airline is also one of the launch customers of the A380 ‘super jumbos’ with two firm orders scheduled for delivery in 2009. In fact the New Doha International Airport will be the first airport in the world to have been designed and built specially with the A380 800 in mind.
TTN spoke to Akbar Al Baker, CEO, Qatar Airways, and a member of the New Doha International Airport Steering Committee, about his plans to take the airline to greater heights. Excerpts from an interview:

In the past, you have spoken of the advantages (for training and maintenance) of having an ‘all-Airbus’ fleet, yet recently you have been quoted as saying the airline is also talking to Boeing. Could you please elaborate…
We are talking to Boeing – for the 7E7 and Airbus for the A350s because we will be requiring in excess of around 60 aircraft in the not-too-distant future. When you have a small fleet of say 30 or 40 aircraft, it is advisable to stick to the same kind of aeroplane but when you grow to 80 or 90 planes, then businesswise it is more feasible to introduce another type. 

Qatar Airways has now inaugurated its new routing to South Africa; who do you think your passengers will be? Business travellers between South Africa and the Middle East or business and leisure passengers transiting your Doha hub?
Actually, I think it will be both, because there is the demand. South African businesses are moving more and more into the Middle East and Far East and there’s also a lot of interest for other countries’ businessmen in South Africa – because it has the strongest economy on the African continent.

When you chose Johannesburg and Cape Town as new destinations, were you influenced by the fact that we have increasing numbers of South Africans working in Qatar and the rest of the Gulf and that Qatar has a massive Gas-to-Liquids joint venture with South Africa’s Sasol?
That alone does not give sufficient reason to operate into a destination. There are several other factors; one, of course, is the growing relationship between South Africa and Qatar.

Have you got any plans to increase the frequency of flights to South Africa?
At the moment, we only have civil aviation authority permission for four flights a week. We hope that will increase, and we are in negotiations. If we do have more flights, then we would also hope to offer non-stop flights from Doha to each of Johannesburg and Cape Town. At the moment our Cape Town flight touches down in Johannesburg first.

You have added a large number of new destinations in the last couple of months – and you have more planned for this year. Does it put a strain on the airline to add so many routings so quickly?
It puts a lot of strain, but in Qatar Airways we are used to taking those strains, because we have been expanding for the past four years. Even though we are expanding at this rate, we have maintained – and even improved – our service standards.

Work has now begun on the NDIA. We’ve seen the plans for the terminal, the departure gates and other facilities, but you’ve also talked about the airport having state-of-the-art security. The first phase won’t open until 2008, but can you tell us any more at this stage?
What we are doing is keeping a cushion in NDIA that whoever will be selected to provide the safety and security equipment will do it on a rotating basis, to upgrade it as and when new technology is developed. At the same time, we are not waiting just for NDIA. In the existing airport we are going to install systems to further enhance security and at the same time to enhance passenger entry into, and exit from, the country. We are looking for systems that will be least intrusive on passenger movement through the airport; that will be at the same time passenger-friendly and very sophisticated.
We are also developing a separate data storage facility, outside our building, where all our records will be stored so that in the case of fire or any unlawful act, we will be able to move into that building and carry on operating normally. This system will also be offered to other large companies to use. We’re also moving into a phase where there will be a ‘redundant’ computer system available at all times in the airport to take over in the unlikely event of a failure in our system there, or that of immigration.
From the staff point of view, we already used chipped cards for staff entry into our headquarters building and all entries and exits are monitored. We are now upgrading that to have all staff information recorded on that chip and [the monitoring of movement] will be linked directly to our payroll system so that if staff are not attending their duties with the required hours, it will be deducted automatically from their salaries.

Might those systems include the kind of technological surveillance – as has been tried out on the London Underground system – that can ‘see’ a concealed weapon carried by anyone moving around?
Actually, in my opinion, in the next two or three years there will be systems available that are even more sophisticated. Ones that will be able to identify passengers while they are moving; who they are; that will be integrated into other systems to identify people who are ‘wanted’ even before their names are entered into immigration computer systems. There will be many sophisticated systems and we will install them as and when they become available.
And as operators of Doha’s international airport, you must have to work closely with Qatar’s immigration authorities?
Yes, and actually there are facilities which could be upgraded into the existing immigration systems, but unfortunately the Immigration Department hasn’t upgraded its IT systems as modern facilities become available. For example, all Qatari passports have a bar code, coded lettering, so that the information does not need to be entered manually into the system. When I go to the UK, they just swipe the Qatari passport into the system and they have got all the information, so it is a shame that our passport is electronically read in other countries, but not done the same in our own country.

You will have new aircraft maintenance hangars and facilities at NDIA. Will you be offering maintenance to other airlines?
Yes, we will be offering facilities to third parties on the types of aircraft we have certification for and at the same time, we are an approved Airbus Service Centre for their corporate jets and we are already doing third party line maintenance at Doha Airport.

Finally, we don’t hear very much about Qatar Airways’ corporate jets. Why?
At the moment, we are quite busy serving our own requirements with the corporate jets, but from June (this year) you will see there will be regular advertisements for people who will be able to lease our corporate jets.