Throughout 2020, Qatar Airways has won fans by staying in the air. While other airlines have quit markets and grounded their fleets entirely, Qatar Airways has kept on flying. But Qatar Airways’ CEO said yesterday it wasn’t easy doing so and it’s not getting any easier. Chief among the barriers were constantly shifting border restrictions and strict rules imposed by countries like Australia.
We’re all going to have to adapt, says Qatar Airways CEO
Mr Akbar Al Baker spoke at yesterday’s CAPA Asia Pacific Aviation Summit. In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Al Bakar talked about the difficulties of operating a long-haul airline in 2020. He said inconsistency regarding border restrictions was the most significant ongoing challenge for Qatar Airways. The CEO took particular aim at Australia’s border restrictions when discussing the difficulties of maintaining services there.
“COVID-19 is going to stay with us, and is going to stay with us for the rest of our lives, similar to the flu virus. We will now have to adapt, living with this virus for the rest of our lives,” Mr Al Baker said yesterday.
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Qatar Airways wants to be a “reliable global connector”
That’s what Qatar Airways is trying to do. Rather than park planes, Qatar Airways decided to operate flights across 2020, albeit with limited frequencies and limited destinations, capitalizing on the demand for repatriations and cargo. Presently, the airline is running over 700 flights a week to 95 destinations.
“We wanted to be a reliable global connector,” said Mr Al Baker.
“We wanted to take maximum advantage of the opportunities that exist during these very dark times in aviation history.”
But the Qatar Airways CEO said border closures were the biggest challenge his airline and other airlines were facing, citing a lack of uniformity.
“Each country is forming its own rules and regulations,” he said.
In the second quarter of 2020, Qatar Airways flew 180,000 Australians home, operating 40% of all flights in and out of the country. The airline is currently flying to five Australian cities. Only Singapore Airlines matches that. The homegrown international airline, Qantas, is not operating any international flights.
Massive difficulties getting Australians home
But stringent border restrictions prohibit Australians from leaving the country and put a quota on the number of passengers airlines can bring into Australia. Airlines can fly in as few as 30 passengers per flight.
“We have a massive amount of Australians that want to go back to Australia. Because of the quota, we are having difficulty.
“However, we make sure we continue the operation even though it puts a strain on the costs incurred to go on such a long flight.”
The Australian Government estimates just 20,000 Australians are trying to get home. But the airline industry thinks this is a gross under-estimation. The Board of Airline Representative of Australia (BARA) is a lobby group for international airlines that fly in Australia. They say around 100,000 Australians are trying to get home. With the current quotas, it will take about six months to clear the backlog.
In order to clear that backlog, Qatar Airways along with other airlines, is no longer accepting new bookings for travel to Australia.
Mr Al Baker also said sudden changes in border rules required the airline to contact passengers a day or two before flying to tell them their flights were canceled. While not exclusive to Australia, he says these changes not only cause Qatar Airways a problem; they inconvenience the country’s own citizens.
But Qatar Airways wants to expand its presence in Australia
Despite the barriers to flying to Australia, Qatar Airways wants to stick with the market. With Qantas not flying internationally, Mr Al Bakar sees a gap in the market. Qatar Airways wants to increase the number of flights it can run into Australia and has requested to be able to do so.
“We don’t want to come five times a day into Sydney or fly Melbourne to Auckland … we are reasonable. But we want to serve the people of Australia. We are a global connector for the people of Australia.
“We should be considered to be given a reasonable amount of additional frequencies so we will be able to keep connecting the Australian people to the outside world.”
If that sounds like a sales pitch, Mr Al Bakar wrapped it up with a bow and said;
“And of course, don’t forget, they’ll have the opportunity to fly on the world’s best airline.”