The chief executive of Qatar Airways has cast cold water on hopes for a rapid recovery in aviation and warned of the need for increased cooperation in creating vaccine passports to save the industry.
“I don’t think the aviation recovery will happen for a long enough time. . . I don’t see that the worst is over yet, ”Akbar Al Baker said in an interview.
The Qatari executive has taken a more pessimistic tone than the bosses of many major European and American airlines, who predict a rebound in flight in the coming months.
US airline bosses have said the worst impact of the crisis is over, while in Europe travel is hoped for a resumption once border restrictions are eased.
But Al Baker believes the vaccines are only a “stopgap” solution as it’s still unclear how long they provide protection against Covid-19.
The UK could end up with a fourth, fifth or sixth wave of cases after opening its borders to international travel, he warned.
Qatar Airways is one of several Gulf airlines to have grown rapidly over the past 30 years, reinforced by the deep pockets of their owners to connect points across the globe through their main airports in the Middle East.
But they depend on long-haul travel, which is expected to recover more slowly than domestic and regional short-haul flights. Qatar is currently on the “red list” of countries in the United Kingdom, which means that direct flights are prohibited.
Al Baker urged countries and organizations such as the World Health Organization to work more closely to develop vaccine passports.
“Each country produces its own applications, its own protocols, and that, in the end, will not work,” he said.
Several digital health passes are in development, including the Iata Airlines Group Travel Pass, which Qatar Airways is associated with.
The apps allow passengers to show proof of a vaccination or negative test when traveling, but no agreement has been reached on a global set of standards for the technology.
“These travel passports are as good as the system you will implement in them. If every country has a different protocol, every country has a different system, every country has a different requirement, it confuses passengers and it will confuse airlines, ”he said.
Al Baker’s influence extends far beyond the Middle East. Qatar Airways is the major shareholder of British Airways owner IAG and also sits on the board of directors of Heathrow thanks to the Qatari sovereign wealth fund’s stake in the UK’s largest airport.
He has no plans to increase the stake in IAG, but has called on BA’s new chief executive, Sean Doyle, to focus on customer service.
“As a shareholder, we have made it clear that we want British Airways and the other airlines in the IAG Group to provide high quality products and services to our customers because we want to be the strongest airline in Europe, ”he said.
BA responded, “As we emerge from the pandemic, we strive to deliver excellence to our customers. . . This goes hand in hand with investments in areas our customers value, including more fuel-efficient planes, new cabins and seats, new dining experiences, new lounges, and onboard Wi-Fi. “
The airline got it wrong under former boss Alex Cruz when it gained a reputation for cutting costs, he said. “You shouldn’t bring a nice airline like British Airways. . . it was, you know, the world’s favorite airline, where it ended, ”he said.
State-owned Qatar Airways benefited from a nearly $ 2 billion government support package after losing roughly the same amount of money in the 12 months ending March 2020, before the worst impact of Covid.
Powered by freight, the airline operates about 70% of its regular schedule. On average, the planes are only about 40% full, but the crisis has allowed the airline “to establish our brand very strongly,” he said.