Akbar Al Baker was on great form when I met with him at the recent Arabian Travel Market in Dubai. Our discussion was wide ranging and appropriately for a part of the world which is a home to falconry, his eagle eyed attention to detail is impressive.
On aircraft, Airbus is in the firing line. Al Baker has been vocal in his frustrations about teething problems with the A320 NEO. He’s refusing to accept any deliveries. There’s criticism too for the A350, already in Qatar’s fleet, Airbus “is losing steam on solving problems”. He also highlights the challenge presented by the number of common sub suppliers for Boeing and Airbus. When there are supply chain problems, the knock on impact can be significant for both manufacturers.
One year on since the launch of the US carrier complaints alleging Gulf carrier subsidies, we had to air the subject. Qatar has issued a weighty rebuttal and Al Baker is assertive in his defence of Qatar’s U.S. Expansion. He points out that mayors from 12 US cities, hungry for Qatar services, have visited him.
Whilst current Qatar US services show respectable load factors, Delta has pooh poohed the chances of success for the airline’s new Atlanta service. Al Baker however, is vehemently clear that his airline’s strategy is to build traffic for long term network contribution. He fires back that if Delta’s CEO believes Qatar will “chicken out” in the event of weak load factors in the first year or so of operations, he must be “smelling glue”.
With regard to potential investments & acquisitions, Al Baker is looking for “rising stars”. Although thwarted for now from investing in India’s profitable LCC Indigo, he would still welcome an opportunity. In Europe he sees Meridiana as offering huge potential to develop into a successful stand alone airline, not merely as a feeder carrier. The big caveat to investment is to achieve acceptance of initial job cuts from the workforce. Without that it’s no go. In Africa he sees the latent potential of Royal Air Maroc’s Casablanca hub with its wide African network and links to US cities and Brazil. He believes there’s been a lack of investment and focus, that the hub is underutilised and has lacked proper marketing up to now.
Qatar’s jewel is its stake in IAG which Al Baker describes as the “most successful” airline group today. It is very happy with its investment, not least for the dividend payment it has received and Al Baker told me in our discussion that it has raised its shareholding from 9 to around 12%. *(this was at the end of April 2016, since further increased to 15%).
I asked about the appointment of IATA’s new Director General Alexander de Juniac, a man who as President and CEO of Air France KLM, is not known for his Gulf carrier sympathies. As one of IATA’s Board of Governors, Al Baker grilled him in the interview process on precisely this topic. After tough questioning, he accepted Juniac’s word that his anti Gulf carrier mantra was a corporate and not a personal view. He believes that IATA has selected “the right man for job” but, that as boss of IATA, the DG has to represent the entire airline community. Al Baker says he will be watching him “like a hawk” and when Akbar says that, it’s precisely what he means.