Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker on Sustainability, the Passenger Experience, and More

Qatar Airways Group CEO Akbar Al Baker speaks at the Thought Leadership Conference at the APEX Expo. (Photos: Jessica Reed)

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Qatar Airways Group CEO Akbar Al Baker spoke during the Thought Leadership Conference at the APEX Expo this week about the airline’s response to the pandemic, its approach to sustainability, and upcoming announcements.

Al Baker believes the biggest challenges facing airlines for the next few years are related to the supply chain and the delivery of airplanes from suppliers. “The pandemic sincerely destroyed our industry,” he said. “This is exactly where Qatar Airlines was the winner. We [made] a bold decision to keep our airport and our airline flying. I think we are the airline that laid off the least people and had the least reduction in salary for our people.”

He reasoned that it would take much longer for the airline to recover if their response to the pandemic was more extreme.

“As the CEO of an airline, you need to make bold decisions to support the passengers,” he said.

“In the first seven weeks of the pandemic, we refunded over $3 billion USD to passengers.”

Aaron Heslehurst, Talking Business Host of BBC News, asked Al Baker what we can expect from Qatar going forward. “We have a new Qsuite being developed—we’re still [making] some changes to it. It will be unveiled next year,” he responded. “We are investing in new technology and airplanes.”

He noted that they are not able to install a Qsuite in a 787 because it’s not wide enough. 

Two years after the new Qsuite is revealed, another project will be unveiled, he said.

In response to a question about rising airfares, Al Baker explained that significant demand and lack of capacity mean that prices are not coming down anytime soon. He also mentioned increasing pressure on airlines to use more sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which can be four to five times more expensive than conventional aviation fuel.

“The government should not pressure airlines to use SAF,” he said. “They should pressure companies to produce SAF in volumes that will benefit the economics of scale and bring down the price.”

“Aviation is not the culprit—the culprit is the oil companies that are not investing enough in SAF. They have big investments in the hydrocarbons they are getting out of the ground, and they want their return on investment,” he added.

He expressed skepticism about some of the industry’s goals, such as reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. He was also critical of developments like electric- and hydrogen-powered aircraft.

“Everybody is talking about achieving those targets… It will not be possible,” Al Baker said. 

Heslehurst mentioned that Qatar Airways’ profit last year was around $1.2 billion. Al Baker stated that their fuel costs were higher than budgeted, and plans for expansion were restricted. He claims that the airline would have otherwise made at least $4 billion in profit.

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