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Hopes soar for Qatar Airways expansion
18/03/2012 10:43:10 PM GMT 

By SIRAJ WAHAB | ARAB NEWS Published: Mar 18, 2012 22:39 Updated: Mar 19, 2012 00:05

DAMMAM: Ever since his appointment as the chief executive officer of Qatar Airways in 1996, Akbar Al-Baker has taken the airline industry by storm. He may seem unassuming but behind the cool persona is a sharp mind that continuously outmaneuvers competitors, leaving them far behind in the race to the top. He enjoys, or rather relishes, competition. “Competition is healthy,” he says. It is Al-Baker who has turned Qatar Airways into an award-winning carrier. The airline has become synonymous with quality service.

It was a small, regional carrier servicing a handful of routes when it began operations in 1994. It was relaunched in 1997 under Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. He outlined a vision for turning Qatar Airways into a leading international airline with the highest standards of service and excellence. The task was given to Al-Baker.

Qatar Airways since has become one of the fastest growing carriers in the world with unprecedented expansion averaging double-digit growth year after year.

On the airline's first flight to Baku last month, Al-Baker was excited — and for no small reason. “The decision to start a daily flight to the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, was taken three years ago,” he told Arab News aboard flight QR976. “We just don't go into a city without thorough market analysis.”

Born in Doha, Al-Baker is a graduate in economics and commerce and worked at various levels in the Civil Aviation Directorate before becoming the Qatar Airways chief executive. He has been a successful businessman in Qatar for more than 25 years and holds a private pilot's license.

He takes personal interest in the way the airline's service is delivered. On the flight to Baku, this correspondent was sitting next to Qatari Ambassador to Turkey, Abdul Razzak Al-Abdul Ghani, and Al-Baker came to him personally and enquired about the quality of service. When he saw the diplomat was unfamiliar with his seat's headrest, Al-Baker adjusted it for him and explained how it worked.

When asked about the three-year delay in the startup of service to Baku, he said it was a matter of logistics. “We couldn't because of the number of airplanes that we have,” said Al-Baker. “The way we are expanding we just can't get enough airplanes to serve all destinations very quickly.”

So Baku became the airline's 111th destination and the first new route of 2012 in what is turning out to be a year of aggressive expansion for Qatar Airways. “In just four year's time, Qatar Airways will be operating to 170 destinations, Insha'Allah,” he says, “which means that we will be adding nearly 15 destinations every year for the next four years.”

Economic recession

Al-Baker is fully aware of the challenges posed by the economic recession in Europe. “There is no single airline that will not be impacted by the economic recession, but what is very unique with Qatar Airways is that we are very smart in how we restructure our capacity in order for us to keep on expanding by keeping a very close watch on the airline's bottom-line,” he says.

He then adds is the same breath: “Please keep in mind that while all other airlines are shrinking, Qatar Airways is still achieving double-digit growth compared to last year.”

Al-Baker admits that his competitors are getting nervous. “Yes, we are very aggressive in the way we are growing, and we are frightening many airlines, especially in Europe,” he says.

Last week, Qatar Airways participated in yet another successful year at ITB Berlin — the world's largest travel show — by showcasing never-been-seen-before new in-flight products.

The airline exhibited its latest amenity kits and its newly unveiled Boeing 787 Dreamliner business and economy class seats, housed in a custom-designed exhibition stand making its debut at ITB.

Dreamliners

The first of 60 Dreamliners ordered by Qatar Airways will join the fleet this summer. It will be the first carrier in the Middle East to put the planes into service.

“With 14 new routes being added to our international network during 2012, there was huge interest among visitors keen to learn more about the airline's global expansion and the New Doha International Airport, set to open at the end of the year,” he said.

Al-Baker announced the launch of flights to Kilimanjaro (Tanzania), Irbil and Baghdad in Iraq, Belgrade in Serbia and the Myanmar capital Yangon. “These new routes will be part of an overall expansion during 2012, which will also see the launch of previously announced services to the Rwandan capital Kigali starting March 21. Croatia's capital city Zagreb starting from May 9; Perth in Australia from July 3; and Mombasa (Kenya) on Aug. 15,” he says.

Additional new routes being launched this year with dates yet to be announced are Zanzibar (Tanzania), Helsinki (Finland) and Qassim in the Kingdom.

Last week, photos were released showing Qatar Airways' first Boeing 787 on the assembly line at the aircraft manufacturer's Everett production plant in Seattle, Washington.

Qatar Airways is preparing to take delivery of five 787s during 2012, with the first to arrive in Qatar this summer.

“Just over four years ago, Qatar Airways placed an order for the 60 Dreamliners, so seeing these striking images of the aircraft on the production line gave us great pride as we are only months away from taking delivery of the first one,” he says.

“This magnificent aircraft promises to enhance the travel experience for our passengers through space, comfort and many new interior features exclusive to Qatar Airways. We are eagerly awaiting the arrival of our first 787 to join our growing fleet of 105 aircraft that includes a mix of Boeing and Airbus passenger and cargo aircraft.”

The airline is 50 percent government-owned and 50 percent private sector-owned.

During the Dubai Air Show in November 2011, Qatar Airways placed orders (firm and options) for 90 aircraft, comprising 80 of Airbus' new A320 Neos, an additional eight A380 super jumbos and two Boeing 777 freighters.

From its hub in Doha, the airline has developed a global network covering Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Asia Pacific, North America and South America with a modern fleet of more than 100 passenger and cargo aircraft.

“From only four aircraft in 1997, the airline grew to a fleet size of 28 aircraft by the end of 2003 and a milestone 50 by October 2006. Today the airline operates more than 100 aircraft. By 2013, the fleet size will rise to more than 120 aircraft,” says Al-Baker.

Most important is the fact that Qatar Airways has one of the industry's youngest fleets with an average aircraft age under four years. It includes several different Airbus and Boeing aircraft types — the long-range Boeing 777 passenger and freighter aircraft, Airbus A340, A330, A300, A300F freighter, A321, A320 and A319. The latter A319 includes a corporate jet version.

Steady expansion

According to Al-Baker, Qatar Airways has more than 250 new aircraft worth more than $50 billion pending delivery over the next few years. This includes an order for Airbus new-generation A350s, A320 Neos and A380s along with the Boeing 787s.

“In line with the company's philosophy to be innovative, the airline operates the world's only dedicated commercial passenger terminal exclusively for its first- and business-class passengers at Doha International Airport.

“The $90 million Premium Terminal, built in just nine months, opened in November 2006. It features facilities such as sit-down check-in for first- and business-class passengers, a spa, jacuzzi, duty-free shopping, a business center and fine dining restaurants,” said Al-Baker.

Al-Baker said the innovative Premium Terminal facilities are designed to provide the airline's most loyal customers with the best levels of comfort and hospitality before boarding their flights. “Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the stand-alone facility is seen as an industry benchmark in premium-class travel experience.”

Awards

Qatar Airways was named Airline of the Year 2011 in the annual Skytrax World Airline Awards. More than 18 million travelers worldwide cast their votes in the survey by the leading global airline industry audit.

To cope with the airline's growth strategy, more than $1 billion is being invested in infrastructure improvements at Doha International Airport, Qatar Airways' operational hub. This includes a new transit terminal, extension of the existing Premium Terminal, new arrivals terminal, a new terminal for foreign airlines and additional aircraft parking bays.

“Qatar Airways will manage the new airport, designed to help shape Doha as a key regional and global aviation hub,” said Al-Baker.

During the 2003/2004 financial year, Qatar Airways carried 3.3million passengers — up 35 percent on the previous 12-month period. During the 2004/2005 financial year, passenger numbers rose sharply to 4.6 million, while the figure topped 6 million in the 12-month 2005/06 financial period. The figure surpassed the 8 million passenger mark for the 2006/07 financial year and hit around 10 million passengers for the 2007/08 financial period.

The load exceeded 12 million passengers for the 2008/09 financial year. In the financial year 2009/10, which ended last March, the load exceeded 14 million passengers. During the 2010/11 financial year, the airline carried over 16 million passengers worldwide.

Reproduced with permission from Arab News Source: Arab News

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