The chief executive of Qatar Airways has poured cold water on hopes for a rapid recovery in aviation and warned of a need for more co-operation in creating vaccine passports to save the industry.
“I think the aviation recovery will not happen for quite a long period of time . . . I don’t see that the worst is over yet,” Akbar Al Baker said in an interview.
The Qatari executive struck a more pessimistic tone than the bosses of many big European and American airlines, who predict a rebound in flying in the coming months.
US airline bosses have said the worst impact of the crisis had passed, while in Europe there are hopes for a revival in travel once border restrictions ease.
But Al Baker believes vaccines are only a “stopgap” solution because it is still not known how long they offer protection against Covid-19.
The UK could end up with fourth, fifth or sixth waves of cases after it opens up its borders to international travel, he warned.
Qatar Airways is one of several Gulf airlines to have grown rapidly over the past 30 years, boosted by their owners’ deep pockets to connect points across the globe through their hub airports in the Middle East.
But they are reliant on long-haul travel, which is expected to recover more slowly than domestic and short-haul regional flights. Qatar is currently on the UK’s “red list” of countries, meaning direct flights are banned.
Al Baker urged countries and bodies such as the World Health Organization to work more closely to develop vaccine passports.
“Every country is producing their own apps, their own protocols, and this will, at the end, not work,” he said.
Several digital health passes are being developed, including airline group Iata’s travel pass, which Qatar Airways is involved with.
The apps allow passengers to show proof of a vaccination or a negative test when they travel, but no agreement has been reached on a global set of standards for the technology.
“These travel passports are only as good as the system you will implement in it. If each country has a different protocol, each country has a different system, each country has a different requirement, it confuses passengers, and it will confuse the airlines,” he said.
Al Baker’s influence extends far beyond the Middle East. Qatar Airways is the largest shareholder in British Airways owner IAG, and he also sits on the board of Heathrow thanks to the Qatari sovereign wealth fund’s stake in the UK’s largest airport.
He does not plan to increase the stake in IAG, but called on BA’s new chief executive Sean Doyle to focus on customer service.
“We as a shareholder have made it very clear that we want British Airways and other airlines in the IAG group to provide a high standard of product 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’re focused on providing excellence for our customers . . . This sits alongside investment in areas we know our customers value, including more fuel-efficient aircraft, new cabins and seating, new dining experiences, new lounges and onboard WiFi.”
The airline mis-stepped under former boss Alex Cruz when it gained a reputation for cutting costs, he said. “You should not bring a fine airline like British Airways . . . that was, you know, the favourite airline of the world, to where it ended,” he said.
State-owned Qatar Airways benefited from a nearly $2bn government support package after losing roughly the same amount of money in the 12 months to March 2020, before the worst impact of Covid.
Boosted by cargo, the airline is flying roughly 70 per cent of its normal schedule. Planes on average are only about 40 per cent full, but the crisis has allowed the airline to “establish our brand very strongly,” he said.