Qatar Airways enjoys a surge of support

 - December 6, 2006, 12:35 PM

Seasoned Paris Air Show delegates puzzled to see an airline among the aerospace manufacturers’ hospitality chalets at the June 2005 event should not have been surprised at the presence of Qatar Airways, since members of its burgeoning all-Airbus fleet have now graced the static park at several international shows. Adopting an increasingly high profile in bidding for a larger share of the Gulf airline market, the carrier celebrated its status as an A380 customer by taking a chalet alongside Airbus and basking in the glory of the new very large airliner, which made its full international public debut.

Not coincidentally, Qatar Airways is chasing Dubai’s Emirates Airline for regional dominance and may soon find itself looking over its shoulder at the equally ambitious Abu Dhabi start-up: Etihad Airways. Gulf Air, the region’s former star, representing Bahrain and Oman, has also placed a bid to regain its place in the sun.

By next month Qatar Airways expects to have become the first international airline to offer live onboard satellite television, which will appear on its Airbus A330 fleet. Other recent initiatives introduced by energetic chief executive Akbar Al Baker include new first-class seats and wireless Internet access in some Doha airport lounges.

Qatar doesn’t limit state investment in aviation to passenger services and new aircraft. Airline operations systems are undergoing upgrades and massive $5.5 billion development of Doha Airport began earlier this year. Indeed, obvious parallels exist between Qatar and the aviation establishment here in Dubai; in both cases one person oversees the airline, airport and local tourism authority.

Larger Fleet, More Routes

The fleet and airport upgrades come as Qatar Airways continues expanding rapidly through the building of its fleet and route network. New flights just introduced to Berlin, Madrid and Nairobi bring to 69 the number of points served. Already this year the airline has added Athens, Alexandria, Algiers, Mashad (Iran) and Tunis, and it is increasing capacity or frequency to Germany and Switzerland. The airline expects to carry six million passengers this year.

As new routes come on line, the airline is upgrading existing services. For example, just two years after their introduction, flights to Singapore use A330-200s rather than A300s, and daily flights now go nonstop (rather than via Kuala Lumpur). The city-state represents one of 11 destinations in the Asia/Pacific region, which now accounts for 18 percent of the airline’s network.

Al Baker has underscored his commitment to the region through support for the Asian Games athletics tournament, which Doha will host in 12 months. Seven new A330-300s scheduled for delivery to Qatar Airways will sport either of two special Asian Games liveries. The first features images of an athlete and a cyclist, with the tail and rear section painted in bright yellow and orange. The second sports a blue design with Asian Games mascot “Orry” emblazoned on both sides of the tail.

Aero-shopping Spree

Continued arrival of new aircraft continues a massive accumulation of capacity since Al Baker relaunched the carrier in 1997 (three years after its initial establishment by a member of Qatar’s Al Thani ruling family). Seven years ago, the carrier operated just four aircraft. Now, according to Airbus data, Qatar Airways and the local Amiri Flight together fly 47 of the European manufacturer’s products: 11 A300-600s, 17 A320-series narrowbodies (including two A321s and three A319s) and a mixed bag of 19 A330s and A340s (some of which are leased).

Outstanding orders or purchase agreements cover nine A330-200/ 300s, ten A340-600s (for which it claims status as launch customer, with first delivery next year) and two A380-800s (with options held on two more). At the Paris show, Al Baker revealed plans to add as many as 80 more aircraft, including up to 60 A350s and 20 Boeing 777s–its first aircraft from the U.S. manufacturer.

A five-year plan unveiled in 2003 predicted that the airline would become profitable by 2008, 11 years after its reintroduction. Al Baker reportedly said that heavy investment in equipment, aircraft and personnel makes it nearly impossible to turn healthy profits sooner than in 10 to 12 years. Although Qatar expects the first A380 to arrive in 2009–12 years after the relaunch–plans for a fleet of 110 to 120 aircraft by 2012-2013 and development of the new airport by 2015 suggest that spending will continue. Nevertheless, like among many other airlines, ancillary activities add to Qatar Airways’ bottom line. Qatar regularly reports healthy income from aviation services, holiday excursion flights, airline catering, duty-free sales, Doha Airport operations and other businesses.

Passengers immediately notice much of the state’s investment in Qatar Airways. Premium-class lounges at Doha Airport offer free wireless Internet-access service, also available for economy passengers via a wireless modem card sold through Al Maha “Meet and Assist” services.

The new first-class, flat-bed seats introduced on long-haul A330s flying to Asia, Europe and South Africa line up in a one-plus-two-plus-one configuration with a 79-inch pitch. Qatar Airways claims the seats’ individual 15-inch television screens on which passengers watch on-demand video are the biggest offered by any Middle East airline. The seats also feature programmed electronic recline controls, back massage, power points and reading lights.

Qatar Airways has also awarded a contract to Lufthansa Systems to upgrade its information technology systems. The airline has selected Lufthansa Systems’ “future airline core environment” reservation and passenger-handling system. Initially, Lufthansa Systems will equip Doha and its 66 stations with its departure-control and baggage-reconciliation systems, and in the future the airline could subscribe to software for management of all flight operations, Al Baker said.

Lufthansa Systems also will introduce electronic ticketing and interlining, self-service check-in terminal software and global network communication services. Qatar Airways has implemented Lufthansa’s integrated flight-planning and flight-scheduling route management system. In addition, Lufthansa Technik will provide 10 years’ maintenance and overhaul for the IAE V2500 engines powering the airline’s fleet of Airbus A320s.