On Monday, the 31st IATA Ground Handling Conference (IGHC) officially began at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Doha, Qatar. The conference started with the playing of the Qatari national anthem. Among those in attendance was Qatar Airways Group’s own CEO, His Excellency, Mr. Akbar Al-Baker, and other executives from the Qatar Airways Group and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Qatar Airways: Then and Now
In the opening presentation, Qatar Airways, the official sponsor and host airline for the event, and its progress over the years was highlighted. The airline is celebrating its 20th anniversary since its restructuring with Al-Baker being given control with the mandate to make the airline “the greatest in the world.” Since then, the airline has undergone massive renovations and expansion in order to achieve its goal.
The airline’s most recent achievements were highlighted in a video presentation. Notable achievements for the airline include being the Middle East launch customer for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, being the launch customer for the Airbus A350 XWB, having the best airport in the Middle East with Hamad International Airport in Doha, winning Skytrax’s “Airline of the Year” award four times since its restructuring under Al-Baker, launching one of the world’s longest flight from Auckland to Doha, debuting the Q-Suites, opening 11 destinations in 2017 and 16 expected in the next two year period.
Al-Baker also had reason to celebrate, having been named “Airline Executive of the Year” for 2017 by the CAPA Centre for Aviation. Additionally, under his discretion, the company has been profitable and has seen exponential growth in its 20-year lifespan. This year, however, will be the first year Qatar will report a loss, due to the blockade affecting the Gulf nation and, by association, Qatar Airways.
The presentation was a statement to the world that Qatar Airways has arrived and is here to stay as a big player in the premium aviation market. Additionally, the expansion of Qatar Airways has coincided with and has helped spur the development and growth of the nation and the city of Doha. Just 20 years ago, Doha wasn’t the city it was today, and its growth can partially be attributed to Qatar Airways.
Following the video presentation of Qatar Airways’ 20-year history and the rapid expansion that the airline and country saw, IATA’s Head of Ground Operations Joseph Suidan took the stage to welcome the attendees and delegates to the conference. His first order of business was to thank Qatar Airways and Qatar Aviation Services, the two main sponsors of the event, for hosting the event in Doha.
This is the first time that the IGHC was being held in Qatar or the Middle East. Last year, the event was held in Bangkok and the venue for next year will be determined at this year’s conference. However, Suidan went on to explain the goals of the conference and what he hopes will be achieved.
The theme for the conference is: Enhancing, Developing and Innovating: Grounds for Success. As IATA is a trade association for the airline industry, its goal, first and foremost, is to ensure and find ways for the industry to keep moving forward. Ground handling is an important aspect of the business, as it plays an important role in the operation of a flight, despite it being a largely behind-the-scenes operation.
The goal of the conference is to facilitate the exchange of information among the different companies to move the industry forward, together. “Let’s build the future together,” Suidan stated. Lastly, Suidan thanked the “charismatic, dynamic and successful” H.E. Mr. Al-Baker for his, his airline’s and his country’s warm hospitality.
His Excellency, Akbar Al-Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways Group
Following Mr. Suidan, H.E. Mr. Al-Baker took the stage to address the audience. “Welcome to my country,” Al-Baker stated. The outspoken CEO then began to speak about the importance of the conference and the success of his airline and its ground handling division, Qatar Aviation Services (QAS), in the context of the conference.
Mr. Al-Baker, when speaking on the conference, touted its importance as a way to bring together industry professionals in order to advance the industry, a temporary reprieve from the divisiveness of competition in order to achieve a common goal of success for the benefit of the company, but also for the benefit of the people that are travelers on the thousands of flights that operate each day.
“Aviation connects people together,” said Al-Baker. “All parties must go together, not to limit another growth.”
As his airline is the host airline and one of the main sponsors of the conference, Al-Baker took the opportunity to promote his airline’s recent achievements and future goals. First, Al-Baker touted its new home, Hamad International Airport, a replacement to Doha International Airport, which opened in 2014.
The Qatari executive expressed his gratitude at the airport being named a “model international airport,” best Middle Eastern airport by Skytrax and the 5th best airport in the world. Al-Baker also touted HIA’s status as the most technologically advanced airport in the world. The airline was given control of the airport and is the largest carrier operating there.
Second, with regards to his own Qatar Airways, Al-Baker applauded the airline’s massive expansion from nothing in the past 20 years. From a fleet of five aircraft in 1997, the airline now has over 200 aircraft in its fleet. The airline was voted as the “Airline of the Year” four times by Skytrax, an award it promotes on its website and when opening the Qatar Airways mobile app.
Al-Baker stated that the airline is part of Qatar’s desire for excellence in everything they do. However, Al-Baker noted that the awards aren’t a pinnacle, but a milestone for the airline. Now, the goal for the airline is to stay at the top, lest fall prey to the many willing competitors looking to take its spot.
The airline’s strategic plan for the future is focusing on the emerging markets in Africa and the Asia Pacific region, as those are the most favorable for future growth and demand for air service. Recent route additions such as Doha to Auckland, formerly the world’s longest flight, have helped facilitate this growth.
Al-Baker additionally stressed the need for continued need for innovation and expansion. As the country of Qatar is constantly updating with new hotels, roads, stadiums and other infrastructure, Al-Baker says that Qatar Airways must do the same, or face irrelevancy. The airline will be on display in 2022 when Qatar hosts the FIFA World Cup and thousands of visitors travel to Doha, many on Qatar Airways, for the games.
Lastly, Al-Baker touted the airline for helping bring more people to the city of Doha. Thanks to Qatar’s lenient visa-free accessibility, Doha has become a popular stopover destination for travelers connecting through the Middle East. The airline with its tourist division Discover Qatar provides free tours to stopover passengers in an effort to promote the new, modern Doha. As a result, the average stopover time has jumped from 24 hours to 72 hours.
Qatar Aviation Services
Qatar Aviation Services was a highly discussed topic by Al-Baker, as that division of Qatar Airways Group is directly related to the conference. QAS is the dominant ground handling company at Doha’s Hamad International Airport (HIA), having an absolute monopoly at the airport, and was described by Ak-Baker as the “premier ground handling agent in the world.”
The company handles every aspect of ground handling at the airport, whether it be passenger aircraft for the 28 airlines that serve HIA, Qatar Airways Cargo flights or V.I.P. flights for heads of state. Al-Baker stated that the monopoly is good for QAS as it allows for the entire airport to operate at the high standards that QAS is held up to, which is reflected in the company’s 99.5 percent on-time departure rate.
Al-Baker also touted QAS’ adherence, compliance, willingness and transparency when implementing IATA’s recommendations and guidelines for ground handling, naming the recent IATA certifications and audits that HIA and QAS underwent. With Qatar Aviation Group, Al-Baker said, IATA can see and experience industry standards being practiced at Hamad International Airport.
In the last year alone, QAS has handled 47 million bags, with a mishandling rate of .63 per 1,000 passengers. While there is a positive industry trend with decreasing the mishandling rate of luggage, Al-Baker credits QAS’ success to its advanced software, continued innovation and use of technology and Hamad International Airport being the most technologically advanced airport in the world.
Regarding Qatar Airways’ involvement with IATA, Al-Baker stated that the airline is an “enthusiastic member” of IATA, having hosted previous IATA conferences in Doha, QAS having participated in IATA working groups and QAS driving the implementation of the IATA ground ops manual. For IATA, QAS is a great working partner as it sets the standards for other companies to follow.
Al-Baker cited the company’s ability and willingness to innovate and invest in new technologies as part of the reason for its success. As the demand for and the number of flights grow, QAS’ capacity will also have to. By innovating and investing to save money, time and resources, QAS can stay above performance capacity to allow for the growth of Qatar Airways’ and HIA.
Blockade of Qatar by Arab Nations
The 2017 blockade of Qatar by various Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s neighbor to the west, was an important topic in the opening of the event as well. The airline and Al-Baker took the opportunity to discuss the blockade and its perceived failure by the airline.
In a video presentation, the airline described the blockade of the country and restriction of airspace to Qatar aircraft as illegal. In an attack to its neighboring countries that are inflicting the blockade, the video showed the thousands of passengers stranded and disconnected from their families in the blockading countries.
Qatar Airways sales offices and website were closed and restricted in the blockading countries, with Qatar finding itself unable to communicate anything to stranded passengers. However, the video stated that Al-Baker took control of the situation by directing a massive campaign to return Qatari’s to the country, rebook passengers affected by the canceled flights or offer refunds and determine new supply lines to the country.
The blockade didn’t just affect the country, it heavily affected Qatar Airways’ operations. 18 routes and destinations were now canceled indefinitely with passengers and employees left not knowing what to do. As the video described, Qatar Airways was left with the difficult task of accommodating its passengers, as well as tasked with supplying the nation with goods.
This lead to Qatar completely overhauling its Middle East strategy and its cargo operation. According to Al-Baker, Qatar immediately drew up and implemented a plan b to ensure that losses would be minimized. The 18 destinations in the Middle East that were lost due to the blockade allowed the airline to have the capacity to open 11 new destinations to make up for the loss in revenue.
Additionally, Qatar Airways Cargo order and received two Boeing 747-8 Freighter aircraft in order to facilitate the increased importation of goods to the blockaded nation. The airline was very much a symbol of defiance to its enemies, as it flew the Qatari flag and name across the world, visualization Qatar’s battle theme of “A Nation Defiant.”
Qatar Airways also promoted an anti-blockade message by adopting a “No Borders, Only Horizons” message to say that the skies have no borders. The messaging was displayed in the video and in advertisements for the airline on its aircraft. An important symbol of the anti-blockade movement, a depiction of the Emir of Qatar standing up for Qatar, was also added to the nose of its Boeing 747 Freighter aircraft.
An important aspect of hosting the conference in Doha was to show the world that Qatar was thriving despite the blockade, which is still ongoing to this day and is almost a year old. As Al-Baker stated during ITB Berlin, Qatar will be posting a loss for this year, following making $541 million in profit the year prior.
However, it hopes its restructuring and further expansion next year to 16 new destinations by the end of next year will make up for the lost revenue this year. It’s unsure when the blockade will end, as progress seems slow and international pressure mounts for both sides to end the dispute. Until that happens, though, Al-Baker has said Qatar Airways has a “robust plan b.”
IGHC and Qatar Airways Press Conference
Following the opening of the IGHC in the main ballroom of the Sheraton Grand Doha, the press was invited to a press conference regarding Qatar Aviation Services. Joining Al-Bakar on the dais for the press conference was Nick Careen, Vice-President Airport, Passenger, Cargo and Security, IATA; Eng. Badr Mohammed A Al Meer, Chief Operating Officer, Hamad International Airport; and Murat Nursel, Senior Vice President, Qatar Aviation Services.
Al-Baker started the press conference echoing his remarks in the opening of the conference, stating his excitement at hosting the IGHC and welcoming the near 700 international participants. He then quickly moved into the theme of the conference, Qatar Aviation Services.
QAS started in 2000, just 3 years after the reinvention of Qatar Airways under Al-Baker’s stewardship. As previously mentioned, it is the sole ground handler at Hamad International Airport, handling 28 international airlines and all the cargo, freight, VIP, private and executive aircraft arriving and departing from the airport.
The reason it may seem like a monopoly is that it actually is one. Al-Baker stated that the monopoly of QAS at HIA is important because of the consistency of the service. Without the monopoly, according to Al-Baker, there would be no consistency regarding standards.
Currently, QAS is a strong enforcer and adopter of IATA’s ground handling rules and recommendations. The virtues of competition aside, with the monopoly in place, every aircraft using HIA is given the same high standards that are set for Qatar Airways aircraft with no difference and service, according to Al-Baker. Additionally, Qatar Airways owns the airport, allowing them to work side by side with QAS to provide a seamless experience.
Al-Baker then highlighted the strengths of QAS’ diversity. The company has over 8,000 employees from 54 countries, handles 2 million tons of on-time cargo with a 25 percent growth rate per year and uses a proprietary software called a ramp clearance module to optimize turn around times, according to an info-graphic displayed during the press conference.
However, the big news for QAS, announced by Al-Baker, was that 2018 will be the year of the company’s international expansion. According to Al-Baker, some airports in Qatar’s network do not meet the performance standards that the airline expects. With QAS expanding to those airports, it can bring its high standards to those airports and ensure Qatar flights are treated the same as they are in HIA.
The company doesn’t seek to compete with other ground handling firms, they just want to work with Qatar flights across the Qatar network, as outsourced firms aren’t doing the job. London Heathrow was named as an outstation that underperforms for the airline and will be looked into as one of the airports to receive a QAS contingent. The top priority are airports that are either underperforming, have a high frequency of Qatar flights or both.
Additionally, in response to AirlineGeeks’ question to Al-Bakar regarding the challenges with implementing QAS at network airports due to differences in infrastructure and technology, the CEO said that it is a possibility that QAS may be deployed to Milan-Malpensa Airport for the re-launch of Air Italy, as Qatar as a 49 percent stake and codeshare agreement with the airline. The airline has a blank slate with Air Italy and while no definites were given, a possible QAS expansion to Milan seems likely.
When asked about making future investments, Al-Baker stated that he didn’t want to show his cards and reveal how much money the airline has to spend and invest, as he believes it would reduce his leverage in negotiations. The airline hasn’t been stingy with investments, however, with investments in the newly reorganized Air Italy and the American semi-private jet company JetSuite.
Additionally, when a journalist inquired about an article regarding the potential abuse regarding workers at Hamad International Airport, Al-Baker immediately dismissed them as false and inaccurate. The CEO claimed that in a large work environment such as the airport, its impossible to know what all employees are up to and the airport does not control what workers do in their free time, regarding the allegations of workers sleeping behind closed doors during breaks.
Furthermore, Al-Baker went as far as to claim that the allegations may have been planted by one of Qatar’s adversaries, of which there are many following the dispute between Gulf carriers and major American airlines that criticize the use of government subsidies to make competition uneven between the airlines. Al-Baker took a swipe at American carriers saying that they have the luxury of Chapter 11 while Qatar Airways doesn’t, although he didn’t mention the airline does have the backing of the Qatari Government.
Lastly, when asked about his upcoming role as IATA chairman, Al-Baker refused to give insight about his plans for the trade association. However, he did ensure that he will be completely divested from Qatar Airways, saying that while he is chairman of IATA, he will solely by chairman of IATA. He’s expected to take the mantle in the fall.