“Aviation should never get intertwined into politics”
Until 1997 Qatar Airways served as a small regional airline with four aircrafts in operation. At some point, the Qatari Government made a decision to turn its national airline into a global carrier. The country with a population of less than 3 million wanted its airline to generate a vast amount of transit traffic. Akbar Al Baker, then a director of the Qatar Civil Aviation Department was chosen to manage the airline. Within 20 years the fleet of Qatar Airways has grown 25 times and its overall annual traffic is now 32 million passengers.
Since 2011 Qatar Airways is in the top 3 list of the world’s best airlines, according to the Skytrax rating. The most recent Skytrax rated Qatar Airways as the world’s best airline. Although it is not the first time when Qatar leads the rating, this year it has more meaning. Shortly before the Skytrax rating was announced, Qatar Airways has been hit seriously by its six neighbour states — Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya — blamed Qatar for financing Iranian terrorism, resulting in them breaking diplomatic relations and neighbors imposing a transport blockade against Qatar.
All existing airlinks between Qatar and neighboring countries were closed. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were among the major markets for Qatar Airways. The total loss resulted in 12% of the route network and there will be no growth, for the first time in 20 years, according to Vedomosti.
Being awarded at the Skytrax ceremony in Paris, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker used the opportunity to make an impromptu emotional speech: “At these difficult times of illegal bans on flights out of my country by big bullies, this is an award not for me, not to my airline, but to my country”.
But the blockade has pushed forward the opening of some new destinations. The daily Doha — St.Petersburg service was introduced on December 19th. BEAM was able to ask Mr. Akbar Al Baker about some hot issues during his inaugural visit.
— My first question is about the politic’s influence on aviation industry. I ask this in relation to the Qatar blockade.
— Aviation should never get intertwined into politics, because politics is an issue between governments and they should not mix it with business. Aviation should always be independent from any influences, of animosities or regional conflicts, or territorial disputes. And this blockade has no relation to any of those, this blockade has relation to the sovereignty of my country, to take away our independence, to control our media, to control our foreign policy, to control our friends, with whom we will be friends. And this is unacceptable to any county.
This kind of thing is not civilized and just trying countries to intimidate a small country like Qatar, because we are very outspoken, we have a different foreign policy, and we have a media that is speaking fact and giving all sides of the conflict equal voice to speak. And the principal purpose of this blockade is a regime change. A regime change is only in the vocabulary of superpowers, it is not in the vocabulary of regional countries. So you can see that the purpose of all this is an excuse to take away our independence and [make] Qatar a province of those countries. And this is not going to happen and these first six months have already proved that these people have a vision which will never be achieved.
— Please share your feelings on the blockade problem. How serious is the situation?
— I have already demonstrated in many statements that I am affirmant, outspoken representative of my country on the blockade issue. This blockade is illegal. I will not be honest if I say it didn’t affect us. It put a lot of pressure on my country. No country has suffered under a blockade more than your country, and especially the city that was blockaded during the WWII. What the blockade has done is not only put a lot of pressure on the citizens but it has also raised the cost of Qatar Airways operations. Why it is illegal? It is because the airspace above certain flight level and airspace over international waters don’t belong to any country, it belongs to an international community, and there is a UN body, there is ICAO, that should have acted in a very aggressive manner to break this blockade. They [tried] to ease the blockade, but is not sufficient for me as an airline CEO. They should have completely squashed the blockade.
— Apart of the blockade issue, speaking about the political situation in general, there’re many other problems like terrorists’ attacks or visa limitations.
— Terrorism is actually not impeding the expansion of aviation. What is impeding the expansion of aviation is people becoming protectionists, people trying to look at their own interests, and not interests of the wider community. They are trying to control how airlines grow, they are trying to control how the governments support the airline, because an airline is a very important economic tool of a country. Imagine yourself you didn’t have Aeroflot. How [would] the people move around? Suppose, you didn’t have S7. How [would] the people move around? Airline should never be mixed with politics. Airline is a very important economic requirement of a country and there should not be any influence to impede the growth of an airline in any country, regardless [whether] it is governmental or private-owned.
— I would like to ask you about the conflict the “Three Big Gulf airlines” having with their North American competitors. What we see is a serious discussion going on.
— To be honest, there are not going to be any winners and losers in this. We are all going to lose. Who is going to lose is the customer. Because we are providing a product to the customer. We are providing them choice, we are providing them flexibility, we are also providing them very high standards of service. For a good price. Which the others are not doing. They don’t like us. They want to keep the cake and eat it themselves. When you look at a profitability of an airline, these three American carriers that are claiming hard from us, they are making record profits. Profits that an airline industry never achieved. In billions every year. And they are complaining. Why are they complaining? Because they cannot compete with the standard of service we provide.
Harm when there is no harm? They are not operating into our markets. They don’t come to our region, they don’t want us to survive, they don’t want us to expand, they don’t want us to give the passengers by choice, because they consolidated, they reduce capacity in order for them to charge very high prices to the American travelling public. And because of our competition they are having difficulty doing it.
— What’s your vision of the future of aviation? What do you think about supersonic transports, for example?
— Aviation industry is going to grow very expeditiously over the next decade because there are more and more people will be travelling. For example, in India twenty million people travel every day on trains. Imagine that ten percent of this want to travel on airplanes. You will have no way to be able to get them unless you have more airlines and more capacity deployed onto those routes. I’m only talking about one country, I’m not talking about China which population is bigger than India’s. And the aviation is growing very rapidly in those countries. I’m not talking about the USSR, the Soviet Union, you also have a lot of demand…
— It’s Russia!
— … For me it’s still the same. The Soviet Union is not properly served by airlines. Iran – the population of nearly hundred million is hugely underserved by airlines. All these markets are available. But we have to break these protectionist barriers to be able to adequately operate.
Coming to supersonic, I think, in the next decade there will be supersonic travel, both Airbus and Boeing are looking at technologies. There is already a company that is doing a research and the first supersonic airplane will probably take off next year. I was very keenly looking at this. And we will be interested to be able to take production slots in this airplane if it gets successful. I am sure this project will take off very soon.