The outspoken Chief Executive Officer of Qatar Airways (QR), Akbar Al Baker, was in Kampala for the inaugural flight between Doha and Entebbe and took the opportunity to address local, regional, and global media representatives at the Kampala Serena Hotel, where the various launch activities were centered, befittingly matching 5 stars in the air with 5 stars on the ground.
When questions were fielded at the end of the presentation, Mr. Al Baker commented on a range of issues, such as the EU’s ETS, which, while calling it the EU’s right to introduce, he also blamed for increasing fares and cost of air travel. In the same breath, he termed the current trend of government’s attempting to fill their empty coffers by taxing airlines with a range of “green or eco taxes” as “bullshit,” making it clear he did not think that any of those proceeds would be used to improve aviation facilities or in fact mitigate carbon emissions and climate change but simply as yet another tax to be spent on matters unrelated to aviation.
The presentation began, however, with Mr. Al Baker giving a broad overview about the history of Qatar Airways, where the CEO outlined the additional complementary services owned and operated at Doha International Airport, such as ground handling, catering, duty-free operations, and the Oryx Hotel, managed on behalf of the airline by regional hotel group Rotana. Notably, it was mentioned that over 250 Ugandan citizens are already employed by QR and deployed in a variety of positions with the airline in Doha, in Kampala, and at the Entebbe International Airport. It was understood from a Qatar Airways HR staff in Kampala for the launch, that more were being recruited soon for cabin crew and other positions.
It was also pointed out that an extensive interline agreement had been signed recently with Precision Air to widen the reach across Tanzania, where double-daily flights presently are operating to Dar es Salaam. New destinations in the region, after Entebbe, were given as Mombasa and Zanzibar, though no details on the flight routing was mentioned, i.e., a combination of both or an extension of some of the double-daily frequencies from Nairobi or Dar, respectively. Mr. Al Baker also expressed his interest in flying to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, which, however, is presently still under discussion, with negotiations going on for a bilateral air services agreement. What is clear though is a strong and growing commitment by QR to comprehensively cover the African continent and provide further options and choices for travelers connecting in Doha into the airline’s global network.
While discussing the flights to Uganda, it was also learned that Qatar Airways, probably in view of the A320 used on the route for the daily flights not being able to uplift palletized cargo, was now flying a dedicated A300F twice a week to Entebbe to airlift fresh produce, flowers, and fish to the Gulf and other consumer markets.
Once in Doha and connecting on the airline’s wide-body planes, the true extent of the 5-star service becomes apparent for passengers, as the cabin layout for instance in the B777 was a generous 2x2x2 flat-bed configuration in business class and an even more generous 3x3x3 configuration in economy class, generally a seat less in each row than QR’s closest rivals offer.
Al Baker, visibly beaming with pride when making this announcement, said the average age of the airline’s fleet was less than 4 years, and growing younger with the delivery of more aircraft at regular intervals, and that its order for the A350, now under development by Airbus, was the largest of its kind for the European manufacturer. The A380, of which Qatar Airways currently has 5 on order, will begin to join the fleet in 2012 and while not being drawn into more details, Al Baker did say that he will make a bombshell announcement at the Dubai Airshow in a week’s time, when – and here this correspondent has to speculate for the time being – a major additional order for the giant A380 will be made public. This aircraft notably will carry a three-class configuration, while all other wide-bodied aircraft “only” offer the award-winning business class and the equally award-winning and extra spacious economy class.
In this connection, it is noteworthy, and in fact a dead giveaway, about the forthcoming order announcement – here I personally think only the size of the order is in question and possibly stretching to dozens – that the new Doha International Airport, due to open next year, is actually designed around the A380 becoming the airport’s dominant aircraft. Developed at a cost of around US$14.5 billion the new airport, only a few kilometers from the present facility, will in its ultimate development stage be able to handle 50+ million passengers, a sign of the supreme confidence that Qatar has as a country and Qatar Airways has as the national airline in their ability to grow way beyond average and increase their market share, within the Gulf region and globally, at the expense of others faced with infrastructure constraints, lack of slots, ageing fleets, and lower service levels.
At the new airport, Qatar is setting another world first with the construction of the largest ever maintenance hangar, over a kilometer long and able to “accommodate” at the same time 2 A380 and 3 B777 aircraft, along with a number of other smaller aircraft. This state-of-the-art maintenance facility is primarily aimed at maintaining the QR fleet but will arguably also carry out contract maintenance for other airlines.
All the senior executives of Qatar Airways present never failed to stress the point that service, on the ground and in the air, was the key to the airline’s success and that they were truly pulling out all the stops to give the perfect service, or as perfect as humanly possible, to retain the global number one spot as established by Skytrax in regular surveys over the past years. Human resource development, and recruitment of the brightest and keenest, was, therefore, a cornerstone of the airline’s success, as was continuous training.
Sustainability was another area of the media briefing, when it was highlighted that Qatar was pioneering new fuels in cooperation with major oil companies to further reduce carbon emissions.
Asked though about his airline’s projected market shares a few years down the line, he was notably shyer and not commenting, in itself probably answer enough that when the new additional A380 order is announced in a couple of days in Dubai, the trend and intent will be written on the wall for all to see. This will apply for in particular the North American and European competitors who will continue to trail in the wake of aviation’s greatest earthquake in terms of market share re-distribution seen in a generation, moving traffic from the traditional “aviation powers” to the cash rich, visionary, and “enabled” leading Gulf airlines soon operating from new mega airports, which serve as their global hubs from where one can reach any point on the globe nonstop.
For now though, Uganda is rightly proud to have been able to attract Qatar Airways to come into Entebbe on a daily basis, unlike other airlines which after years and years of operation still fly only three, four, or five times a week – a bold statement by QR that they are here to make an immediate impact and take the market by storm, with excellent fares and the best service available in the air anywhere.