“We’ll take flying to new heights”

AKBAR AL BAKER, the CEO of Qatar Airways who has just won the coveted Airline Personality of the Year Award, talks to SHAFQUAT ALI about himself and his plans for the airline
Al Baker … ‘we want our passengers to enjoy the creature comforts of flying with us’

Akbar Al Baker had much to be proud of at the World Travel Market, held in London last month.

Not only did the Qatar Airways chief executive officer pick up the coveted 2005 Airline Personality Of the Year Award, his airline went on to scoop awards for World’s Leading Flat Bed Seat, Best Inflight Meal Service and Leading Airline in the Middle East. But that’s not all. The Doha-based carrier added a fifth accolade by winning a World Travel Global Award.
No small achievement that. As one of the world’s youngest and fastest growing airlines, Qatar Airways has come a long way since it was relaunched in 1997 from a small regional carrier with a handful of routes to a global airline covering 67 destinations. And, if anything, these accolades once again reflect the sharp rise in the global recognition for the airline.
Since taking over the top position, Al Baker has single-handedly shaped the airline into an award-winner. He has been instrumental in steering Qatar Airways into a powerful airline in Middle East aviation and a leading global carrier, all the while stressing the airline’s commitment to deliver the highest levels of passenger service. TTN caught up with Al Baker to find out the secret of his success. Excerpts from an interview:

TTN: You must be a very happy man now that Qatar Airways has scooped five travel awards including the coveted Airline Personality of the Year Award that you have picked up…
Akbar Al Baker: Frankly speaking, all these accolades are not really meant for me. I represent my country and whatever we do has put Qatar very strongly on the tourism and airline map and this is exactly what I am doing and I will continue to do as long as I am the CEO of the airline.
But yes, it’s an honour to be honoured by the world’s travel industry professionals. It is a great privilege to find ourselves being honoured in front of distinguished guests from around the world.

Qatar Airways has come a long way in its short history, where do you plan to take it from here?
Since the relaunch, the airline has made huge strides in a highly-competitive aviation world and the recognition we are receiving demonstrates our ability to prove to the global marketplace that Qatar Airways can successfully compete in the international arena and prove our standards are among the best in the world.
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.
We realise that, in today’s age of travel, customers are becoming more experienced and more demanding. They are looking for more choice and the highest levels of service, so Qatar Airways will now be taking the flying experience to new heights with the launch of an innovative style of service across our premium cabins. Everything from new cabin interiors, signature menus, presentation style, service ethos and even fabric on the seats, has been revamped.
We have also introduced a Fine Dining experience for passengers travelling in our premium cabins on the London Heathrow-Doha route, with plans to gradually roll out the concept across all our long-haul routes over the next few months. Developed over the past 18 months by Sydney-based Performa, the concept focuses on providing passengers with greater personal attention and treating them with more style onboard. Trolley service in First and Business Class has been replaced by a la carte plates individually prepared and served by cabin crew to each passenger. Glass plates, individual glass bread bowls and chinaware designed by German company Bauscher and French-designed cutlery by Guy Degrenne all feature in the new service.
Passengers are presented with dining menus especially prepared in leather-bound folders and a selection of champagne and wines from around the world feature in both cabins. First Class passengers are served with individual tea sets and have the additional touch of a personal caviar service, luxury full-size bed pillows, soft white linen mattresses and Australian wool blankets.
The service is chic and reflects the Fine Dining experience of a five-star restaurant or luxury hotel. Our award-winning cabin crew have been carefully trained in the new service and we look forward to welcoming our passengers on all our long-haul routes to experience this unique level of service over the next few months.
In addition to the food service, the cabin interiors have been modified to provide a fresher look and feel with the highly-visible burgundy corporate colours of the airline evident in the redesigned seat fabrics and curtains. New look amenity kits have also been introduced throughout. Business Class passengers will be handed kits featuring Aigner products whilst those travelling in First Class will get luxury kits full of Bvlgari products.
We are doing all this because we want our passengers to enjoy the creature comforts of flying with us.

We can see that after expanding the routes, you are now concentrating on further upgrading the service. Is this how you planned to go about things?
As a matter of fact, during the expansion we have been upgrading ourselves. We have been constantly improving our quality of service because we realise that if you just keep on expanding your product and then try to consolidate it, you may not achieve the desired result.

Do you think airlines in the Middle East are becoming increasingly designer-friendly?
I don’t know about others but I can tell you about my airlines. Yes, we are.

Do you have any plans to shore up the Economy Class?
A revamp of the Economy Class interiors and inflight service is also planned next year. We are going to change the concept of service in the Economy Class. And it’s going to be the first of its kind in the region.

What can we expect?
You are a journalist, so I won’t give out too many things now because then next year I will not have any surprises. Besides, it is still in the middle of development.

As one of the fastest growing airlines in the world, what’s in the pipeline as far as new routes are concerned?
We launched Nairobi in November and, this month, we will be flying to Madrid (December 2) and Berlin (December 15). In addition, we have will launch scheduled flights to Hong Kong with a daily non-stop service from March 26, 2006, and we also plan to fly to Australia. By the end of 2006, Qatar Airways’ global map will stretch to 80 destinations.

And your fleet will increase accordingly…
We have recently signed a letter of intent to acquire up to 80 aircraft, comprising 60 of the new generation A350s and 20 Boeing 777s worth a total $15.2 billion. We are one of the launch customers of the twin-deck A380 ‘super jumbos’ with four aircraft on order and scheduled for delivery from 2009 to coincide with the opening of the New Doha International Airport. In sum, our fleet is likely to almost triple in size over the next ten years to 110 aircraft.

What’s behind this aggressive expansion?
Nothing. It is just the correct strategy; the vision.

In the last 12 months, Qatar Airways has added more than a dozen new routes making it the most dramatic months in the airlines history. Why did you choose to accelerate now?
Every business flourishes when you do it right and that you have the right thinking and the right focus. And this is exactly what is making Qatar Airways progressive.

For one, the competition in the skies is getting hotter…
Yes, but believe me, there is business for all of us – whether it is Emirates or Etihad Airways or Gulf Air, we will all flourish.

Given that you were a pilot as well, how was it like steering Qatar Airways into this exciting new phase?
The only think what is good is that it is helping me do my job properly…
I would not like to do commercial flying in the airline, it was necessary in my previous job to know how to fly and I did it.

Since you are also the CEO Doha International Airport, how will the opening of the new airport in phases from 2009 boost Qatar Airways?
We will be able to further increase our fleet. Besides, with its opening, Qatar Airways will become the first airline to have its own dedicated First and Business Class terminals separate from the main airport. As for the airport itself, it will be world class and we are going to have facilities inside the airport that will also be of world class.

You are the chairman of Qatar Tourism Authority and the CEO of several divisions of Qatar’s national airline. Do you have time to do justice to everything and spend time with your family?
Well, there are 24 hours in a day. As for my family, yes, I don’t get much time to spend with them but they are very understanding; they know that I have a challenge and they know I have to deliver and serve my country.