Qatar Airways Group CEO, His Excellency Akbar Al Baker, says the future is still uncertain, and resilience and agility are vital. Interview by Graham Newton.
Are you looking forward to hosting your second IATA AGM?
Nobody can surpass Qatari hospitality. People know that we will deliver a great AGM. We are expecting a big attendance and I am sure everybody is looking forward to sitting together, talking with colleagues about our joint challenges, and, of course, enjoying our hospitality. We can’t wait to welcome the world to Qatar.
Find details of the 78th IATA AGM here
What lessons have airlines learned from the pandemic?
There is no doubt that the pandemic is the biggest challenge in our lifetime. It shut down the entire industry and brought the world to a grinding halt.
Our industry is fragile. We learned that, at short notice, so many things can happen that directly affect aviation. We have seen this before—with MERS, SARS, bird flu, and political upheavals. Aviation must be even more resilient and agile in the face of such calamities. And leaders in the industry must adapt to unrolling circumstances to survive.
Do you expect business-as-usual next year or has the industry fundamentally changed?
Traffic is only at about 60% of 2019 levels. And the truth is we don’t know what will happen in the future. There could be another variant or a country with extremely high infection rates that will shut it down, as we have seen in China. Until people have confidence that the virus will not have the impact it did two years ago, the industry will not fully rebound.
We are not out of the woods. That means keeping a close watch on the virus and monitoring changing protocols. In Qatar, we managed the pandemic in an organized way, which means we have one of the lowest infection rates. People are returning to their normal lives. That needs to happen across the world.
In terms of the type of travel, discretionary leisure travel has already begun. I think business travel will return too; business people are itching to sit together and have face-to-face meetings. They aren’t comfortable doing deals in virtual meetings.
Can industry partners do more to support the recovery?
We also operate the airport at Doha. During the pandemic, there were discounts in handling, catering, and charges. Concessions at the airport were exempted from rent for a period. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. On the contrary, we see many airports and air navigation service providers trying to cover their losses by increasing charges.
Airlines need help to mitigate the stress of the pandemic. It is important to support the partner that is driving business for the entire aviation value chain.
How important has cargo been and what can the industry do to improve cargo processes?
Air cargo has been essential to sustaining trade around the globe. Shipping is under stress. Remember, ports were under lockdown too and shipping lines had similar problems to aviation. Even now, if you look at a shipping app, you can see vessels waiting outside ports in China. Plus, there is a shortage of shipping containers because of problems in their networks.
It all brings us back to air cargo. It has been vital for the industry, for global trade, and for emergency requirements.
One challenge we have is a shortage of capacity. But the bigger problem is shippers not declaring their consignments correctly. Specifically, we must address the lithium battery threat. I am afraid that the industry will only wake up to this if there is a disaster.
The last incident at Qatar Airways was just a short time ago. Fortunately, our pilot took decisive action and made an emergency landing. We unloaded a container that had two bags burning.
Qatar Airways is constantly flagging up this problem and we are the launch customer for new fire-retardant containers. Over the next two years, we will replace all our containers with the fire-retardant variety. They can contain a fire for up to four hours.
But not every airline can afford to do this. We must work harder to have robust regulations in place as soon as possible. We cannot allow a few agents that simply don’t care to put dangerous goods on an aircraft without declaring them.
What is your strategy for the FIFA World Cup later this year?
We are not a super-sized airline, so we won’t be able to cater for the huge influx of people alone. We have agreements with partners for shuttle flights and other airlines in which we have a stake will operate charter flights. These are all point to point and will fly to the old Doha Airport, which has been completely refurbished. All the navigational aids have been upgraded to cope with the extra runway, which will complement the two we use at Hamad International Airport.
In fact, all the infrastructure for the World Cup is ready ahead of time, including our new metro system. I am sure we will successfully mitigate the stress on our interconnected transport system and provide an excellent experience.
But remember, this will be a different World Cup. It is the first time in the history of FIFA that a country hosting the World Cup has all eight stadiums within 100km2. Spectators will be able to watch more than one match in a day, which has never happened before. That will bring in a lot of people, create a lot of stress on the transport system but also be hugely exciting. Fans from around the world will be coming to Qatar to enjoy the tournament.
Why is diversity important?
We are a big supporter of IATA’s 25by2025 initiative to get more diversity in the industry and we are proud to sponsor the IATA Diversity & Inclusion Awards. At Qatar Airways, more than 45% of employees are female, including senior managers and engineers. In fact, in every sector of operations I am proud to say we have a high number of females.
Three years before the deadline, we are already well ahead of target.
Can we achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and what do governments need to do to support the industry’s efforts?
At Qatar Airways, we are fully committed to achieving the 2050 target. But airlines can’t do it alone. And I don’t see the wider effort yet.
For example, oil companies are not producing enough sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). This is because they are still making huge investments in hydrocarbons and developing oil fields. There should be similar investment in SAF but that is not happening. The result is that SAF are expensive. We need volume for SAF to be available at a reasonable price. I would have no problem with paying 10% more for SAF but I can’t pay two, three or even four times the price of normal jet fuel.
Unless we get it right, air travel will become exorbitantly expensive because the high cost of SAF will have to be passed on to travelers.
I also think the industry hasn’t been sending out the correct message. Aviation is just over 2% of global emissions yet is the largest target for environmentalists. Other industries are responsible for far more emissions—shipping, for example. The oceans are full of vessels and diesel is still used extensively. We need to point this out.
Will new technologies help sustainability efforts?
Electric and hydrogen propulsion systems are still some way away. With all the pressures in the industry right now, I don’t think there are enough financial resources. It would take massive grants from governments for rapid research.
Hydrogen has a number of challenges, including volume, volatility, and leakages. Electric aircraft look positive and will certainly be suitable for small air taxis. Maybe we will see electric aircraft taking 20 or 30 passengers for an hour or so. But there won’t be electric commercial aircraft with hundreds of passengers flying for a few hours—at least not in the foreseeable future.
What other new technologies could transform the industry?
Artificial intelligence will do a lot to deliver seamless, personalized travel. But the biggest issue we have with new technologies is data storage. We are getting more and more data that must be kept private and secure.
But the more data we handle, the more chance there is of it being hacked or sold. We need to know a lot more about data security.
Is there anything about aviation that keeps you awake at night?
I am used to challenges after 25 years as the CEO at Qatar Airways. I have developed a thick skin and sleep very well.
People worry about the environmental challenge, but we have a plan. It will take a joint effort from the industry and other partners, including fuel suppliers, engine manufacturers and airframe manufacturers. Once you have a plan, it is about action and not worrying. And the industry has a plan for all its challenges.