“They’re taking customers to the cleaners”: Al Baker talks protectionism, privatisation and gender equality

Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, is characteristically frank in an interview with FINN’s Alan Peaford at Aviation Africa in Kigali.

Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, welcomed the recent publication of the Doha Declaration, a manifesto which calls for a serious review of the existing aviation regulatory framework.

Speaking at Aviation Africa, he said: “There is a huge protectionist tendency. Governments are lobbied by airlines to stifle competition, keeping fares  inflated and not giving the customer choice.”

He said that capacity restrictions and restrictions in traffic rights mean that not all airlines have the opportunity to grow and to compete, and that this particularly affects medium-sized airlines.

Opening up aviation

Al Baker, who is also Chairman of the Board of Governors of IATA, said: “I want things to open up for all the airlines that want to compete [and] grow their businesses.

“The governments should not allow national carrier airlines to dictate the terms of their economic plan. Airlines play a very vital role in any economy in the world.”

He noted that in Doha, which is one of the wealthiest countries in the world based on per capita income, Qatar Airways contributes 4.9% to the GDP.

“So you can see the potential of aviation,” he commented.

Taking customers to the cleaners

Al Baker also raised the issue that American carriers are continuously trying to challenge and target [other] airlines: “Not because of any other reason but to do a ‘proxy challenge’ to cater for their European joint ventures.”

“But they are also not realising that the way they are approaching this whole issue [is] stifling competition,” he said, adding that they are getting into an arena of “anti-competitive behaviour".

“What they want is to shrink the capacity [but] you will notice that they don't grow,” he commented.

Al Baker said that his colleague paid $1,000 for a one-way ticket with a US airline.

“The same flight on Qatar Airways in business class would have cost just the same and would be a return, not one-way, and they would get a three-course hot meal,” he said.

“By keeping capacity low, they are stifling competition and taking their customers to the cleaners,” Al Baker said. “The fact is that people should realise that aviation in certain sectors, in certain countries by certain regulators [is] being used to line the pockets of the national carrier [and is] detrimental to the interests of the travelling public.”

Privatisation

Al Baker went on to say that: “I, quite frankly, feel that privatising airlines is a good idea. It will relieve the government of the burden of funding those airlines.

"Sometimes, there comes a time when you need to get the monkey off your back by [stopping] pumping so much of the national resources into airlines, which [are] being run by bureaucrats and government appointees.

"[They’re not] being run in a professional way, which then equals the government keeping on funding them."

Equity vs subsidy

This view on privatisation may be surprising given that Qatar Airways is owned by the Qatari government, but Al Baker said: “What is different with us is that there is zero government interference. The airline is given a free hand to recruit professionals, the government has put equity into the company. Of course, people who cannot compete with the quality and the product have claimed that it is a subsidy. These individuals cannot understand the difference between an equity and a subsidy.

“An equity is when an individual that wants a business puts capital into the organisation or into the business. Subsidy means when I give you that amount of money and tell you to go and screw so and so people. That is the difference between subsidy and equity.”

People

Pilot shortages and poaching of staff is another hot topic in the aviation industry at the moment. Some countries and companies, including in Africa, are concerned about an exodus of skilled staff to places such as the Gulf region and China.

Al Baker’s take? “Everybody should have an opportunity to get educated, to look for upward opportunity,” he said. “When you have employees [and] you don't value their contribution, if you do not compensate them adequately, then you cannot stop them from looking at greener pastures, and we provide that in Qatar Airways. Regardless of the colour of your skin, the shape of your eyes, the country you come from, every single individual has equal opportunity and equal career development.”

“We will always tap the expertise [from] anywhere in the world,” he said. “And [if] Africa provides that, it would be my pleasure to provide them with the livelihood and the jobs that are so well deserved.”

Equal opportunity

Al-Baker sparked controversy last year when he was quoted as suggesting that a woman could not carry out his job.

However, he dismissed the incident, saying he was quoted out of context and that 45% of the airline’s employees are women.

“You’d be surprised to know that we have senior engineers that are women, we have senior vice presidents that are women, we were the first airline to appoint women pilots in our region. We have captains.”

150 cabin crew are preparing to start their second officer training, he said, concluding: “We have equal opportunity. Even a donkey [can see] that Qatar Airways [is giving] opportunities to women.”

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