HIS EXCELLENCY AKBAR AL BAKER

Qatar 2021 | TRANSPORT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to His Excellency Akbar Al Baker, Group CEO of Qatar Airways and Secretary-General of Qatar National Tourism Council, about preparing for a post-COVID market, partnership strategies, and aims for 2021.

What have the main highlights been for Qatar Airways (QR) between late 2019 and the third quarter of 2020? How have you been preparing for the reactivation of the economy and the resumption of flights during the pandemic?

Since the beginning of the pandemic our main focus has been to take people home safely. Qatar Airways is one of the few global airlines that never stopped flying during the crisis. Our network never fell below 30 destinations and 150 weekly flights, with continuous service on five continents. Right now, we are operating more than 700 weekly flights to just over 100 destinations worldwide. We are proud to have reached this significant milestone in the rebuilding of our network. Our focus is not only on resuming destinations, but also on serving as many connections as possible to enable our passengers to travel where and whenever they want. One of our greatest assets in these challenging times is our highly flexible fleet: a mix of fuel-efficient aircraft and strategic network management has enabled us to resume operations quickly and to expand our service in response to passenger demand. The strategic investment in a variety of fuel-efficient twin-engine aircraft, including the largest fleet of Airbus A350s, has enabled us to operate continuously during the crisis and put us in the optimal position to play a leading role in rebuilding international travel. Entry restrictions around the world are the biggest impediment to many people resuming travel. As entry restrictions around the world begin to ease, we expect passenger demand to increase gradually. We believe that travel will steadily return, limited by entry restrictions rather than customer confidence. People will want to travel again, experience the world, and meet friends and family as well as business travel restarting. Since the onset of COVID-19, Qatar Airways has taken over 2.8 million people home, flown more than 237 million kilometres, operated over 47,000 flights (including over 430 special charter flights), carried over 250,000 tonnes of medical supplies and aid, equal to roughly 2,500 Boeing 777 freighters, set new flight records operating over 180 cargo flights in a single day, provided 100,000 free tickets to medical professionals around the world and 21,000 free tickets to teaching professionals, and worked closely with governments and the maritime industry to operate hundreds of chartered and scheduled flights to help bring home over 150,000 seafarers. The airline has introduced the latest safety and hygiene measures during the same period, making it one of the few international airlines that is fully equipped to resume operations. We introduced PPE coverings for cabin crew that are fitted over their uniforms, along with safety glasses, gloves and a mask. Passengers are also required to wear facemasks in flight and we provide them with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits that include a face shield visor, facemask, disposable gloves and hand sanitiser. We apply the highest standards of cleanliness on board with our aircraft thoroughly disinfected and equipped with industrial-size HEPA filters that remove 99.97% of viral and bacterial contaminants for re-circulated air, and thermal screening of our crew. In September 2020, Qatar Airways became the first global carrier to operate Honeywell's Ultraviolet (UV) Cabin System, further advancing its hygiene measures onboard. In clinical tests, UV light has been shown to be capable of inactivating various viruses and bacteria when properly applied. On ground, Hamad International Airport (HIA) is implementing innovative solutions to maintain the highest levels of hygiene including the use of disinfection robots, advanced thermal temperature screening, and ultraviolet luggage disinfection. Additionally, all passenger touchpoints are sanitised every 10-15 minutes, and all boarding gates and bus gate counters are cleaned after each flight. I have every confidence that the Qatar Airways Group will emerge stronger from this difficult period and continue to innovate and set the standards that our competitors can only hope to emulate. We will continue to be the airline millions of passengers can trust and rely on in good times and bad, and proudly fly the flag of the State of Qatar across the globe.

As your Excellency explained during our last meeting for the Business Year: Qatar 2020, QR and Hamad International Airport (HIA) prioritize customers to be named year after year as the best airline and top-5 airport in the world. What is your strategy to keep leading rankings during the “new normal”? How do you plan to increase security and time-efficiency to the benefit of your customers?

We will gradually reinstate suspended destinations and additional frequencies in line with expected relaxation of entry restrictions around the world with a focus on key global destinations and partner hubs. By the end of the IATA Winter Season, Qatar Airways plans to rebuild its network to 126 destinations including 20 in Africa, 11 in the Americas, 42 in Asia-Pacific, 38 in Europe and 15 in the Middle East. Many cities will be served with a strong schedule with daily or more frequencies. From the experience we have gained throughout the pandemic, we have further established ourselves as one of the world's most trusted airlines. We have gained a lot of favour with our customers and I believe we will come out of this crisis stronger.
Since February 2020, the airline has reported extremely low numbers of COVID-19 cases on board its aircraft after operating more than 4.6 million passenger flown sectors and over 33 billion revenue passenger kilometres on more than 37,000 COVID-19-free flights across the globe. The success of the airline's robust COVID-19 monitoring, detection and hygiene programme has resulted in more than 99.988 per cent of passengers travelling COVID-19-free on board, with significantly less than one per cent of passengers confirmed to have tested positive by local authorities following a Qatar Airways flight. In addition to this, significantly less than one per cent (0.002%) of operating cabin crew have been affected on board to date, with no new cases recorded since the airline introduced its full PPE in-flight uniform in May 2020, as well as the inclusion of passenger face shields on all flights. These latest statistics are a clear indication that, with the adoption of the right measures such as meticulous on-board safety, hygiene and social distancing procedures in place at airports, and compliance with the testing and entry requirements of local authorities, air travel does not need to be a source of concern to passengers. In October 2020, we extended our commitment to offering passengers flexible booking options, for all tickets issued before 31 December 2020. For passengers who would like to change their travel plans, they can: hold their ticket value for two years, benefit from unlimited date changes, and exchange their ticket for a future travel voucher with 10% extra value. And if passengers have had their travel plans impacted by factors outside their control, they can: change their destination – within the same continental region for Qatar Airways Privilege Club members or within the same country or a 500 mile radius for non-members, swap their ticket for Qmiles and refund their ticket with no fees applied. Premium customers can also continue to enjoy the Qsuite's enhanced privacy, including sliding privacy partitions and the option to use a 'Do Not Disturb (DND)' indicator. Qsuite is available on flights to more than 30 destinations including Frankfurt, Kuala Lumpur, London and New York. In December 2020, Hamad International Airport (HIA) became the first airport in the Middle East and Asia to be awarded a 5-Star COVID-19 Airport Safety Rating by Skytrax. The audit evaluated how effectively COVID-19 policies are implemented at Qatar's airport against the Skytrax COVID-19 safety rating standards. The award-winning airport has also recently been ranked the “Third Best Airport in the World”, among 550 airports worldwide, by the SKYTRAX World Airport Awards 2020. Rising from fourth position in 2019 to third in 2020, HIA has been steadily rising in the 'World's Best Airports' rankings since the start of its operations in 2014.

Your Excellency not only heads QR and HIA, but also the Qatar National Tourism Council, which makes a lot of sense since you take care of visitors since the departure of their home country until their return. How do all these institutions cooperate to achieve the National Tourism Strategy and ultimately, the National Vision? What is your partnership strategy with other institutions and companies to enhance your positive impact on visitors?

Qatar's National Tourism Strategy 2030 charts the next ten years of the tourism sector's growth and defines the long-term goals for the country providing a framework in which national strategies and implementation plans can be developed in conjunction with stakeholders. Service Excellence is one of the key pillars of our tourism strategy. These measures outlined in this strategy align along the central goal of ensuring an exceptional guest experience across every touch point of the visitor journey. While working together as a cohesive group; Qatar Airways, Hamad International Airport, and QNTC can facilitate interactions and shared experiences between Qatar's residents and its guests to achieve this end. The overarching strategy unites public and private sector entities in the development of products, services, and experiences for the promotion of the destination on an international scale, showcasing Qatar as a vibrant country offering the best of Middle Eastern hospitality, with new and undiscovered experiences.

How will flying with QR or having a layover at HIA be during the 2022 FIFA World Cup? What is your strategy to make sure that you are part of the event beyond the transport of passengers?

Qatar Airways, Official Partner and the Official Airline of FIFA, recently unveiled a specially-branded Boeing 777 aircraft painted in FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022TM livery. Qatar's readiness to host FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022TM is evident all around us. At Qatar Airways, our network recently expanded to 100 destinations, and we plan to rebuild it to 126 destinations including 20 in Africa, 11 in the Americas, 42 in Asia-Pacific, 38 in Europe and 15 in the Middle East, enabling our passengers to travel when they want across the globe, safely and reliably. At Hamad International Airport, Official Airport Partner for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022TM, preparations for the expected traffic growth are well underway. The airport expansion project will increase capacity to more than 58 million passengers annually by 2022. Moreover, Qatar Airways, in partnership with Qatar Airways Holidays, will soon launch bespoke travel packages to visit Qatar for FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022TM. As the Official Partner and the Official Airline of FIFA, we will also be heavily involved in the event. We will be activating the partnership on-ground across stadiums and fan zones in Qatar, ensuring we provide interactive and family-friendly activities for all fans.

It seems that COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies and other innovations in every sector of the economy. What has the impact of the pandemic been for the aviation industry in this regards? Can you brief us about the new trends that you expect in the next few years?

During these unprecedented times, the health and safety of our crew and passengers continues to be of the utmost importance. Since the start of the pandemic, we have been regularly introducing new and effective safety and hygiene measures onboard our aircraft, based on our unparalleled expertise of flying consistently throughout. In September 2020, we became the first global carrier to operate Honeywell's Ultraviolet (UV) Cabin System, further advancing our hygiene measures onboard. In clinical tests, UV light has been shown to be capable of inactivating various viruses and bacteria when properly applied. Approximately the size of a beverage cart, the Honeywell UV Cabin System, which is operated by Qatar Aviation Services (QAS), has extendable UV arms that treat aircraft seats, surfaces and cabins without using cleaning chemicals. Some new trends that we can expect to see in the aviation industry include the adoption of digital health pass technology, so air travel may safely resume. Government-imposed travel and entry restrictions continue to significantly impact global travel demand. Meanwhile, COVID-19 testing has emerged as an important part of an end-to-end solution to enable the safe restart of international travel by potentially reducing the reliance on blanket quarantines. The recent digital 'health pass' trials, such as Common Pass, are presenting a strong case for using digital technology to deliver harmonised standards in the validation and verification of accredited passenger health data. At Qatar Airways, we support technical solutions that provide a consistent and affordable way to declare passenger health data that is simple to implement as part of the customer journey, with processes initiated pre-travel to reduce passenger inconvenience at airports.

What are your strategic priorities for the remainder of 2020 and 2021?

Our priority for the future is to ensure the recovery of commercial aviation by encouraging passengers to feel confident that they are safe and protected, from departure to arrival, with all airlines. We will continue to improve and introduce the most rigorous and stringent virus monitoring, detection and on-board hygiene programmes.We also aim to establish and cement ourselves as the leading airline in the Middle East and among the best in the world in regards to our loyalty programme. Recently, Privilege Club has cut the number of Qmiles required to book award flights by up to 49 per cent in a major development in its transformation to provide more and better rewards to its loyal members. Privilege Club's Qmiles requirements have been reduced for award flight for all members travelling with Qatar Airways on connecting flights through the Best Airport in the Middle East, Hamad International Airport (HIA), as well as those travelling to or from Doha to Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. Privilege Club members booking flexi award tickets – which require twice the number of Qmiles as award flights – will also benefit from these reductions. Earlier this year, Qatar Airways Privilege Club revised its Qmiles policy to offer more flexibility – when a member earns or spends Qmiles, their balance is now valid for 36 months. Additionally, Privilege Club recently removed booking fees for award flights. The airline has also lately launched a global programme exclusive to students worldwide. Student Club is powered by the airline's loyalty programme, Qatar Airways Privilege Club, and offers a range of benefits curated for students to support them throughout their educational journey. Members of Student Club will enjoy great savings and bespoke benefits such as special fares on flights, extra baggage allowances, the flexibility to change the dates of their flight, complimentary Super Wi-Fi onboard, and more. They will also be automatically enrolled to Qatar Airways Privilege Club – unlocking even greater rewards – and will receive a tier upgrade as a graduation gift as well as the opportunity to earn 5,000 Qmiles if they refer a friend to Student Club.