(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker tells Khaleej Times Night Editor Suresh Pattali that he is too busy expanding the airline to think about investments in India
Akbar Al Baker is no stranger to controversies. The Qatar Airways CEO, who once accused the world's No 1 aircraft manufacturer of "still learning how to make airplanes", took on Boeing for its "creepy deliveries" and blasted the UK government for catastrophic capacity constraints at Heathrow, minces no words when it comes to testing his patience.
Rubbing shoulders with the outspoken airline executive during the Boeing 787 delivery in Seattle and travelling with him on the Dreamliner leave one with the impression that this man means business. His passion for planes - and perfection - was on display when he summoned Boeing executives to show them something amiss about a 787 toilet door on our flight back to Doha. Talking to Khaleej Times on the sidelines of the Seattle event and at a Press briefing, Al Baker speaks his mind about the horizon ahead for Qatar Airways, the Middle East's second biggest airline.
There had been talk about Qatar Airways launching an IPO (initial public offering)?
Sorry, no IPO.
Any reason for shelving the plan?
Suppose you start a shop and there are no customers to buy your wares, what is the point? The same applies to an IPO.
I thought you had put the plan on the back burner, waiting for the economic situation to improve.
In my view, the global economic situation will not improve in the near future.
Now that India has opened up its aviation industry, will you consider investing there?
For the time being I'm not thinking about any ventures or investments outside. We are very busy with the expansion of Qatar Airways, as you can see. As for investments in India, we also have to look at the fine print.
Will you consider launching a budget airline?
This is a very old question that's been asked before. No, we don't plan to launch a budget airline at the moment. But we will always keep our options open.
Fast forward to another 10 years, where do you place Qatar Airways in the industry?
We will definitely be one of the major global players. Already, today, we are the second largest carrier in the Middle East. Within the next three years, Qatar Airways fleet will expand to 170 aircraft, and we will be flying to nearly 170 destinations.
The Dreamliner is now a reality. How do you feel about it?
Feeling great. I just got a new toy, so I am very happy. This is a moment to cherish.
Will the Dreamliner and its expensive engines impact the airline?
New planes and engines will only benefit revenue generation because airlines work with very low margins. So a little shift in the price of oil severely affects the bottom line. Every dollar of oil price increase at the moment hits 30 million of the bottom line of Qatar Airways. As we grow, this will double. If any aircraft offers savings in fuel consumption, we will be looking at it. Not only that, we can also reduce carbon emission.
When do you expect the last Dreamliner to join your fleet?
As you know, we have 30 firm orders for the 787 and an option for another 30. Apart from today's delivery, we are going to receive another four, so it will be five this year. The delivery of Dreamliners for us is going to go right into 2017.
Do you expect further delays from Boeing?
Boeing has now given us a programme of delivery and they are sticking with that. And I think there is room for improvement when they ramp up production. I am confident we will get the airplanes faster than what's been committed by Boeing.
You know this is a new-technology aircraft and any new programme will have teething problems. Boeing had a huge backlog of orders. This is what caused the earlier delay. But today we don't want to talk about it. We are happy with the aircraft. Any new programme will have challenges. New programmes from other airlines will also have challenges. We should put them behind and see what is going to happen in the future.
In the face of the recent economic challenges the airline industry went through, is purchasing a bulk of new aircraft the right step?
Qatar Airways is an airline that doesn't buy airplanes just because we want to increase our fleet size. We buy them to use them commercially and thereby generating revenue. Whenever there's a recession or downturn, there are also huge opportunities one could tap into. People who have courage or the vision will always be able to benefit from these opportunities that downturns provide. This is exactly what Qatar Airways has been doing and this is why we have been so successful.
Why the Dreamliner?Are the mega deals for the very best aircraft only because Qatar can afford to buy them?
First of all, I would like to tell you, yes, of course, my country is the richest in the world, like Qatar Airways being the best in the world. However, we don't buy aeroplanes just because we are rich. We buy aeroplanes in order to grow our airline to serve the economic interest of the country. And like everything in Qatar we only go for the best, we have chosen the Dreamliner. It's not about money; it's about quality, performance and achieving the economic aspirations of my country.
What is the launch date for the 787 service?
On the first of December. The aircraft will be flying within the Gulf to allow our cabin crew and pilots to get acquainted with the aeroplane. We will be doing the first long-haul flight to London Heathrow. Keeping in mind that we are getting four more deliveries in six weeks, those aircraft will extend services to other European and Australasian destinations.
Qatar is building for mega events like the 2022 World Cup. Will Qatar Airways go for more deals in preparation for them?
You know we are building a new home for Qatar Airways - the new international airport. It should be ready next year. We are already planning an expansion of the airport to handle 60 million passengers. As at today, we have 260 aircraft on order, so I don't think we need to do more.
Have you sorted out your problems with Airbus on the A380 wing?
Qatar Airways will have a new wing. This is why we have pushed back the delivery from September to January of next year. The manufacturing of Qatar Airways' wing will start in January, and it will be a modified, certified wing. We will also have a new variant of the GE engine free of problems, similar to the one on the 787 now.
Your thoughts on the EU move to suspend the carbon emissions trading scheme for non-EU airlines?
I don't think you have to worry too much about the EU tax when it comes to the Dreamliner because it has much lower emissions.
I know that maybe the EU is trying to backtrack. They realised they have goofed on this matter, and I think it was a face-saving way to say they are going to delay. I think the delay will be very prolonged and it was a bold decision and a very wise decision, as it was going to really be a huge problem in their hands to resolve with major countries who have rejected complying with this requirement.