From zero to hero: Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker


In 1997 Akbar Al Baker became CEO of Qatar Airways, then a little known local Gulf carrier. Today he heads a renowned global player powering ahead with new fleet and routes

At the recent Arabian Travel Market, I explored with him Qatar’s growth strategy and elicited his forthright views on the industry at large. To say it proved engaging would be an understatement!

I asked Al Baker if he was the Michael O’Leary of the Gulf “Of course, like Michael, I will be very aggressive in trying to achieve the aims that we have for the airline.”

He sees himself first and foremost as a businessman   He believes in seizing every opportunity which is presented. In his early years the objective was 35 routes and aircraft. Today he plans to grow to 170 routes and a fleet to match in the next 3 years. “People know that when I start something I finish it” he says.

Only a fool would underestimate him. This is no ordinary airline CEO. His hands on style has driven the airline to where it is today and he is ready to grab more opportunities.

His philosophy on route development is to explore many new and underdeveloped markets where others might not see the opportunity. Sometimes even to the disbelief of his network planners.

This has lead to a big push into Africa with destinations such as Rwanda coming on line in recent months.

“Africa is underserved. Africans deserve more air services. Tourism today is not only being fed by Europeans like in the past but by (growing) affluence in Asia and China and we want to tap those markets” What else is in his vision? “Latin America: a huge economic machine…two major power houses in the east, China and India. A lot of synergies between these two developments”.

But does this make business sense?  “Qatar Airways doesn’t fly aeroplane to carry fresh air to any destination …we are experts in moving capacity from market to market depending on the economic situation, the financial state of the world economy, the recession”.

Spoken as a true businessman, the singe mindedness and determination is apparent.

He believes in calculated risk taking based on macroeconomic indicators.

As far as aircraft manufacturers are concerned Qatar is not just a customer but gives a clear steer on what it needs and expects at the design stage. “Qatar is in the lead team (with Boeing). As a customer we sit in their aircraft development programmes, the same with Airbus”.

There have been some tense moments for Boeing and Airbus when they haven’t met expectation.

Al Baker insists that had Airbus taken on board Qatar’s views in the early design stages of the A350, that it would have flown ahead of the Boeing 787 rather than remaining at the design stage.

When I asked him about the prospects of China taking a key role on the aircraft manufacturing stage in the years to come, he cites massive recent change in the country’s capability to produce a wide range of quality products. He believes that China (and Russia), will compete effectively in the next 5-10 years. “Qatar Airways will be open to …buy these airplanes once they are properly certificated and tested”.

On a real bête noir-the complaints by some European airlines’ about Gulf carriers (alleged subsidies, unfair advantages), Al Baker is combatitive. “The Europeans are the ones who taught us how to hub”  He sees the plaintiffs using  Gulf carriers as an easy excuse for their problems and in fact being afraid of competition and high service standards. “They have an unsustainable cost structure… and we are taking advantage”. He is not backward either in pointing out the value to European jobs of the massive Gulf carrier aircraft orders.

One European who Al Baker does hold in admiration is IAG’s Willie Walsh. “He turned around British Airways. I like people who (are prepared to) stand up and be counted…he recognises that there is competition; he knows that (it) will not go away… (He sees that) European carriers instead of screaming about Gulf carriers should try and cooperate”

This rapport doesn’t surprise me. Both CEO’s are single-minded and clearly focussed on a vision for their companies. Both are true individuals who are content not to hunt with the pack

He has clear views on the whole range of industry issues. He is very much master of his brief.

On consolidation: “We don’t believe in acquiring sick underperforming airlines. (Qatar wishes to)…get into a partnership with somebody that is already strong in what they are doing… (Not something), which will drain the management skills or the management time of Qatar Airways”

On low cost airlines: Al Baker is not convinced that the Gulf is truly conducive to the model. No huge population, no secondary airports and insufficient liberalisation. High ticket prices on routes with no competition. He believes Qatar can fight back with superior service and using revenue management to offer a limited number of lower fares.

Premium market: He argues cogently that there will always remain a market for premium service. That doesn’t mean cutting corners for the economy customer.

The way to cut costs is to make aircraft lighter, improve flight routings for fuel efficiency. He doesn’t believe in sacrificing the customer by trimming the dessert or putting less chicken in the casserole. Does Qatar make money from this approach?   “We make money from that. Otherwise I will not be flying   aeroplanes!”

On what gets him up in the morning: “I sleep very well, you know when you have a very good conscience you’ll always sleep well” Mind you, he tells me he wakes in the night with ideas and would like to start work on them straight away-not enough hours in the day!

Having met the man, I’d say any competitor who expects to find Al Baker napping had better think again!

See the interview


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