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King of the skies: A tribute to Akbar Al Baker

The Qatar Airways boss has led with obsessive attention to detail and high expectations

Akbar Al Baker Balkis Press/Abaca Press
Akbar Al Baker with former England footballer David Beckham at the Geneva International Motor Show in Doha

The sudden announcement that Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, will step down with two weeks’ notice has caught the industry out and allowed him to beat Emirates’ boss Sir Tim Clark to retirement.

Much will be written about the success of Qatar Airways. The growth of the airline over the past 27 years has been phenomenal and its trajectory is probably only matched by that of Emirates.

So it seems opportune to compare the main operating metrics of the two companies under their respective leaders.

In 1997, Qatar Airways was a small airline operating 730,000 seats per annum across a network that stretched from its only European destination of London through to Manila, which was operated as a tag service over Bangkok.

The airline’s fleet consisted of a mix of A300s and B727s. A steady and consistent average annual growth rate of just over 20 percent reflects the production line of new aircraft deliveries and destinations added by Qatar Airways over the last two decades.

In 1997 when the battle of the CEOs started, Emirates was already at 5.9 million seats per annum operating a network that covered all the major European markets and stretched as far as Melbourne.

Services to the Americas were in the early planning stages and the airline was still operating some services from Abu Dhabi as part of its remit across the Emirates, including a twice weekly service to London Gatwick.

With seven times the capacity of Qatar Airways, Emirates was seen as the new challenger in the market while its Doha rival was virtually unknown outside of the region. How times have changed.

Mixed-fleet strategy

Under their respective leaderships, Team Al Baker and Team Clark pursued slightly different network and fleet strategies that have shaped the respective airlines but also forced the arrival of a new carrier into the Middle East market with the 2009 launch of FlyDubai.

Qatar Airways’ network has always been built around a combination of regional and long-haul markets. It required both wide and narrow-bodied jets that allowed it to connect smaller regional markets – where wide-bodied services either meant plenty of empty seats or chasing low yield traffic.

The mixed fleet strategy was a masterstroke. Emirates was clearly impressed by how Qatar Airways was shaping up, as it followed a similar path.

FlyDubai was initially positioned as an emergent low-cost airline but quickly began to open new markets that were too small for Emirates.

It initially encouraged self-connecting traffic via Dubai. Then over time it offered codeshare flights with Emirates before finally moving some flights to the main airport and offering business class on selected routes. 

Following slightly different strategies, the three airlines now have mixed-fleet state-of-the-art aircraft operating both some of the shortest flights in the world (Bahrain to Doha is 79 miles) and some of the longest (Doha to LA is 7,204 nautical miles). 

All this has made Doha and Dubai two of the largest global hubs in the world in a relatively short period of time.

Emirates president Sir Tim Clark: both he and Akbar Al Baker have been aviation innovators
Network growth

Building two of the most successful airlines in the world requires constant network growth; even one new destination can have an exponential impact on traffic growth and connecting flows.

This year Qatar Airways has launched services to Trabzon, Neom Bay and Lyon as part of a continual expansion strategy that feeds the hub in Doha and provides valuable revenues to other parts of the network. 

Today Qatar Airways offers a larger network than Emirates, with Team Al Baker’s network overtaking that of Team Clark in 2016.

However, if FlyDubai is counted as part of Team Clark then the numbers change significantly. Surely at some point Emirates and FlyDubai will become one brand and operation, perhaps at the point of a leadership retirement?

High expectations

While networks are the foundation of any airline for both Team Al Baker and Team Clark, innovation in services, quality of product delivery and customer service are probably even more important. Any ranking of airline service levels places both airlines in the top five global carriers.

Obsessive attention to detail and high expectations have always been a feature of the Al Baker leadership in Qatar Airways. 

For both Akbar Al Baker and Sir Tim Clark there will be a queue of non-executive roles and interesting jobs offered as airlines, suppliers and governments clamour for their advisory services and expertise.

While Al Baker may have “won” the race to retirement between the two, the truth is that they have both delivered outstanding results by any criteria.

They created economic change and wealth in their respective markets that few others could have achieved.

John Grant is partner at UK consultancy Midas Aviation

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