The Rise Of Qatar Airways: From Two A310s To Global Mega Airline

Like several other Middle Eastern airlines, Qatar Airways has had grown rapidly since its founding in 1993. In 2019 it was the 11th largest airline globally by passenger carried. And it has grown from a passenger fleet of just two to 233 aircraft today. This article explores this growth and where it is heading next.

Qatar Airways
Qatar Airways has seen one of the fastest growth of any airline. Photo: Getty Images

Two A310s flying from 1994

Qatar Airways was established in 1993, founded by the royal family of Qatar. The airline was relaunched in 1997 and led by Chief Executive Mr Akbar Al Baker. He remains in the role in 2021.

It started flying in January 1994, using just one leased Airbus A310 aircraft. This has previously been in service with Kuwait Airways and was seized by Iraq in 1990.

Qatar Airways A310
Qatar Airways first A310 (registration A7-ABA), seen here leaving London Gatwick in 1994. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

Its first destinations were regional, including Amman, Cairo, Dubai, Muscat, and Khartoum and further afield to Bangkok, Tokyo, and Osaka. A second leased A310 joined in June that year, which had also previously flown with Kuwait Airways. These two aircraft only stayed with Qatar Airways until mid-1995. As its routes grew, so did its aircraft.

Qatar Airways
Qatar Airways logo and tailfin design is an oryx, the national animal of the State of Qatar. Photo: Airbus

Introducing the 747

The airline’s first fleet expansion came with the 747. During its first year of operation in 1995, it purchased two 747-100 aircraft. These previously flew with Japanese Airline ANA and were 747SR variants, with reduced fuel volume and range but increased passenger capacity.

A further 747 was acquired from Air Mauritius in 1996. This was a 747SP model, with shortened fuselage and increased range over the 747-100. With the A310s retiring during 1995, these 747 were the main long-haul aircraft for a while. It also operated the Boeing 727 for some regional services.

Qatar Airways’ first two 747SRs were from ANA. Photo: contri via Flickr

Switching to an all-Airbus fleet

The 747s were replaced in 1997 with A300-600 aircraft. The first two were leased in March 1997 (they previously flew with Garuda Indonesia, then with Ansett Worldwide). Between 2000 and 2003, six more passenger A300s joined the fleet (five of them leased). Fleet expansion by this point was well underway.

Qatar Airways stuck with Airbus for a new narrowbody fleet as well. It ordered the A320 in 1998. Its own aircraft entered service from 2009 but were preceded by many leased aircraft from 1999.

Qatar Airways A320
Qatar Airways A320 in early livery. Photo: Dmitriy Pichugin via Wikimedia

Fleet and route expansion with Airbus and Boeing

The last two decades have seen a continual expansion in Qatar Airways’ fleet, and destinations served, as it has grown to become a major hub-based carrier for East-West routes. Emirates and Etihad have, of course, followed a similar trajectory.

The early part of this expansion saw Qatar sticking entirely with Airbus, but it has since moved to a joint Airbus and Boeing fleet. It ordered its first two A380 aircraft in 2001. And in 2003, it placed an impressive $5.1 billion order with Airbus for 32 aircraft – including the A330-200, A330-300, and A340, as well as more A320s.

According to reporting by FlightGlobal, the airline had been considering both the Boeing 777 and the A340-600 but decided on the A340 after it passed the airline’s evaluations.

Qatar Airways A340-600
Qatar Airways selected the A340 over the 777. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

Its all-Airbus fleet was only broken in 2007, with large orders demonstrating its confidence in future growth. It placed a $13.5 billion order with Boeing for 30 787-8 aircraft and 27 777 (both passenger and freighter models). It also confirmed an order with Airbus in the same year for 80 A350 aircraft and its first A380s.

These orders were expanded with more Airbus orders at the Dubai Airshow in 2011 (50 A320neo aircraft and five more A380s). In 2016, it ordered more 787 and 777-300ER aircraft with Boeing. And it has 60 777X aircraft on order right now.

Qatar 777
Qatar Airways switched to a mixed Airbus and Boeing fleet with the 777, then the 787. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Qatar Airways reached a milestone of 100 destinations in April 2011. It has continued growing this, reaching over 130 today. It ranked fifth globally for the number of countries served by 2019, with a presence in 78 countries. However, Turkish Airlines leads by far with 121 countries served.

It also operated the longest flight in the world from Doha to Auckland, until beaten by Singapore Airlines’ flights to New York with the A350ULR.

Qatar Airways A350-900 and A350-1000
Qatar Airways operates both the A350-900 and A350-1000. Photo: Airbus

Joining oneworld in 2013

Qatar Airways joined the oneworld alliance in 2013. This was a particularly noteworthy move as it was (and remains) the only one of the major Middle Eastern airlines to join an alliance. Emirates and Etihad have followed a model of direct partnership instead of formal alliances.

Qatar Airways oneworld
Since joining oneworld in 2013, the carrier has made the most of its connections. Photo: Getty Images

It has been committed to oneworld, but it has not all been straightforward. It came close to leaving in 2019 following disagreements with American Airlines and Qantas. Qatar believed that American Airlines was making claims against it to the US Government and that Qantas was trying to block Qatar’s expansion into Australia. The situation has calmed since then.

Alaska Airlines’ membership of the alliance in 2021 is great news for Qatar Airways. It has already announced a new service to Seattle and has expressed optimism about the possibilities.

Acquisition of other airlines

As well as growing the airlines fleet and destinations served, Qatar Airways has also been active in investing in other carriers. This gives the company a surprising diversification outside its base of Qatar.

Current investments include the following. There have also been rumors of another major acquisition, possibly in North America, but this has not been confirmed.

  • IAG (British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia) – 25.1%
  • LATAM Airlines – 10%
  • Cathay Pacific – 9.6%
  • Air Italy – 49%
  • China Southern Airlines – 5%
  • RwandAir – 49%
IAG stock market opening
Qatar Airways owns 25.1% of IAG. Photo: Getty Images

Qatar also tried its hand at launching another regional airline in 2014. Al Maha Airways was a planned, fully owned airline operating in Saudi Arabia. It acquired (and painted) four A320 aircraft, but plans were dropped in 2017 amidst the Qatar diplomatic crisis. This period also saw Qatar Airways’ aircraft banned from several countries’ airspace until resolved in 2021.

Al Maha Airways
Al Maha Airways was owned by Qatar Airways but never started service. Photo: Gyrostat via Wikimedia

Flying throughout the pandemic

Qatar Airways has remained one of the most active airlines through the slowdown in 2020 and beyond. Simple Flying looked at this in July 2020, noting that it was using its full fleet of 30 787s and 49 A350s at the time. Repatriation was a large part of this, but the airline stayed agile with routes and fleet to keep flying – Simple Flying looked at this in discussion with Qatar Airways Senior Vice President – Western Region, Eric Odone.

Only the A380 and A330 were completely grounded. And it has since gone on to confirm that five of its 10 A380s will not return to service. This is not just due to the slowdown; the airline has also been unhappy with the emissions of the superjumbo compared to the A350.

This, of course, is not unexpected. Emirates may be planning to return its full fleet to service in 2021, but many other airlines are struggling to see the need for the A380 when they have other aircraft available.

Like many other airlines, Qatar Airways will retire some of its A380s early Photo: Getty Images

CEO Al Baker explained how its diverse and young fleet had helped through this time, He said:

“Thanks to our strategic and diversified investment in our fleet, the viability of our operations has not been dependent on any specific aircraft type. This has enabled us to be one of the few global airlines to never stop operating during this crisis, carrying over two million passengers and in the process becoming the largest international airline in the world. Our fleet mix has enabled us to continue operating routes throughout this crisis ensuring we do not leave passengers stranded.”

Growth continues

New aircraft still on order, just slowed

As of March 2021, Qatar Airways had 223 aircraft in its fleet. This is made up of (according to data)

  • A320 family: 33 aircraft
  • A330: 6 A330-200 and 10 A330-200 aircraft (all parked currently)
  • A350-900: 34 aircraft
  • A350-1000: 19 aircraft
  • A380: 10 aircraft (all parked and five confirmed to retire)
  • 777: 8 777-200 and 47 777-300ER aircraft
  • 787-8: 30 aircraft
  • 787-9: 7 aircraft

And there are plenty more aircraft on the way. Before the pandemic, we looked at how the airline was due to take delivery of a record 40 new aircraft in 2020 (up from 35/36 in the years before). It has since tried to slow this, but the order book remains strong.

Its narrowbody fleet is getting a renewal, with 50 A321neo aircraft (switched for the original order for A320neo aircraft). 10 of these will be A321LR aircraft, opening up some interesting longer routes for narrowbodies. These should start to enter service from 2022.

There are also 23 A350-1000 and 23 787-9 aircraft still to enter service, And of course, its 777X are still to arrive. With delays to the 777X program, the aircraft is not expected to enter service now until 2024. With 60 aircraft on order, though, Qatar is set to operate the second largest fleet (behind Emirates with 115 on order).

Boeing 777X, Delivery Delays, 2023
Qatar Airways will be the second-largest operator of the 777X. Photo: Getty Images

New routes

And despite the huge growth in routes, there is space for more. Simple Flying looked at how this expansion was continuing in 2020. New routes launched just in 2019 included  Gaborone, Botswana; Mogadishu, Somalia; Rabat, Morocco; Valletta, Malta; Lisbon, Portugal; Davao, Philippines; Langkawi, Malaysia, and Izmir, Turkey.

And routes being looked at for 2021 include Almaty, Kazakhstan; Dubrovnik, Croatia; Lyon, France; Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan; Osaka, Japan; Santorini, Greece; Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Trabzon, Turkey.

The new QSuite on some A350, 777, and 787 aircraft is amongst the best business class products on offer. Photo: Airbus

There is also plenty of scope for more services to the Americas. In South America, it only operates passenger services to Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. With LATAM’s departure from oneworld, there are possibilities to expand here. And in the US, there are several major hubs it does not serve, and a new codesharing agreement with American Airlines may move things about.

Qatar Airways A350 Landing at LAX
Qatar Airways’ A350s are common on many Americas routes. Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

There are plenty more opportunities in Asia, too, with many large cities in Japan and China not yet served. And although Africa has already been a big focus for Qatar Airways, when you consider the incredible rise of airlines such as Ethiopian Airlines, there are certainly more possibilities there.

Qatar Airways had seen incredible growth in both aircraft and routes served in the past 20 to 30 years. Feel free to discuss your thoughts on how it has done this in the comments. And, of course, any thoughts of where it could head in the coming years.