MIAMI – Qatar Airways is going through the sort of traumatic experience that most airlines will never have to face, short of having their home country involved in an all-out war.
A rumbling spat between Qatar and four of its regional neighbors – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and slightly more distant Egypt – over multiple issues including Qatar’s alleged support for Islamist groups and its abrasive Al Jazeera TV station, erupted into a full-blown diplomatic rupture in June. (It is only fair to say that Qatar denies all the charges.)
The crisis between the tiny, oil- and gas-rich state on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula led to the three adjacent countries – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – to close their airspace to Qatar Airways. Similarly, all airlines from the four other states ceased services to the Qatari capital, Doha.
A glance at the map shows the obvious operational headache facing Qatar Airways. Saudi Arabia lies to the west, the UAE to the southeast and Bahrain to the northwest. To add to the problems, high-altitude air traffic control for the region is handled from Bahrain.
Qatar Airways aircraft are now no longer flying through Saudi Arabian airspace. pic.twitter.com/r3UtxNQK5D
— AirwaysLive (@airwayslive) June 5, 2017
This means that Qatar Airways’ long-haul flights bound for Europe or the U.S. have to head east across the Gulf until they are over Iran, before turning northwest up the Gulf. Services heading further east to India and Asia are largely unaffected.
These problems are not insuperable but are adding to some flight times and the airline’s fuel costs.
Qatar Airways’ CEO, Akbar Al Baker, told Al Jazeera in an interview that the closure of airspace was “illegal and…a travesty of civilized behavior.”
Qatar Airways also has a sizeable regional network served by around 50 Airbus A320-family aircraft. Particularly over the past couple of years, it has been building up frequencies to Saudi airports as that nation liberalized its air service regime.
There are also some heavily-trafficked routes elsewhere in the Gulf. For example, Qatar Airways operated no fewer than 18 daily scheduled flights between Doha’s Hamad International Airport and Dubai International Airport.
So, how badly is Qatar Airways suffering?
Sources to which Airways talked to said they had heard of problems facing the Doha carrier, but admitted that the reports were largely anecdotal.
One senior airline executive in the region, who asked to remain anonymous, said that July’s cancellation by Qatar Airways of four A350-900s on the grounds of delivery delays was being portrayed by Qatar Airways as ‘Airbus has let us down’, but the general feeling among rival carriers was that the Qataris were more likely actually to be taking the attitude that ‘Airbus has done us a favor’, by being able to use the excuse of late delivery to dispose of currently-unwanted additional capacity.
Even when the diplomatic rift is filled – as it will be at some point – Qatar Airways faces some problems in restoring services regionally: the four nations that barred it ordered all its offices shuttered within 48 hours. In many cases, this left staff without jobs and it is known that some have been taken on by other carriers.
Reconstituting those offices will take time
Al Baker told Al Jazeera he was “very bitter” about the actions of the neighboring nations, “not because only what they did, but also the way they did it.”
“To seal Qatar Airways offices with large stickers, as if we are a money-laundering business or a drug agency. Kicking people out of our offices, detaining our manager, not allowing us to give refunds to our passengers, not allowing even our staff to take personal effects,” remarked Al Baker.
A welcome, if unexpected, break for the Qataris have come in the form of British Airways wet-leasing nine of the Gulf carrier’s A320s to help plug holes in its schedules due to a long-running strike by some London Heathrow cabin crew. At least two more wet-leased Qatari aircraft have also been operating recently for Royal Air Maroc.
The executive noted that the Doha-Dubai shuttle would have required three to four aircraft daily and that Qatar Airways served no fewer than 11 airports in Saudi Arabia. Those services alone used a considerable number of aircraft, so “That British Airways strike must be a godsend for them.”
UK-based airline analyst Saj Ahmed, who has good contacts in the Middle East, said his information was that Qatar Airways was experiencing mixed effects from the airspace blockade.
Flights outbound from Doha were only around 10 minutes from Iranian airspace, within which they could maneuver freely, he said. The carrier was “doing reasonably well” in long-haul, he added, although the status of its narrowbody fleet remained hazy.
He had heard that the airline had parked up aircraft – perhaps as many as 10 or11 at any given time. However, those could include aircraft going back and forth to Europe to assist British Airways and that the number on the ground at any given time ”varied widely.”
He added that he was hearing reports that Qatar Airways also planned to defer initial deliveries of the A350-1000, for which it is the launch customer. These are due to start arriving later this year.
His understanding was that any deferrals had been planned before the current crisis and were related to the maturity of the aircraft. Even so, and as with the canceled A350-900s, deferring capacity at present would be welcome.
For its part, Qatar Airways insists that the boycott has had “very limited impact, aside from the four countries we no longer operate to.”
In written answers to questions from Airways, a spokesman said that the closure of most of the surrounding airspace had meant no changes to operations or routings “in the vast majority of cases. Just three destinations (São Paulo, Khartoum, Lagos) have seen an increase in flight time.”
Normal routings for those three destinations take Qatar Airways’ aircraft west across Saudi Arabia. Airways understands that the services now loop around Oman, in the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula, before heading west. The flight time for the São Paulo service has increased by around one hour as a result.
Despite the closure of several regional routes within the Gulf, the spokesman said it did not have aircraft – notably the Airbus A320-family used for such routes – standing idle.
He added that, as a result of capacity becoming available as a result of the airspace closures, it had expedited planned route launches to Prague, Kiev, and Sohar, in Oman. Other new destinations also included Canberra, as well as increased frequencies on several Far East routes and to Moscow.
He also denied that if the airspace closures persisted the airline would defer any planned aircraft deliveries due later this year.
Meanwhile, attempts at further expansion around the globe continue – with mixed success. The airline has steadily built up its stake in IAG, parent to BA, Aer Lingus, Iberia and Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling to 20%, making it the IAG’s largest single shareholder. That brings it substantial dividend payments from the profitable group.
But plans to buy 10% of American Airlines received a frosty reception from AA’s board and on August 2, Qatar Airways announced it was scrapping the plans, saying that on further review, investment in AA “no longer meets our objectives.” However, it added it was looking for other investment opportunities in the U.S.
Booming Indian Market
It has also run into opposition in its attempts to buy into the booming Indian market.
Initial plans to take a stake in Indian LCC IndiGo foundered on the latter’s lack of interest. Qatar Airways has attempted to double down on Indian expansion, with CEO Akbar Al Baker saying in March he would now prefer to establish his own airline in India.
This has sparked a storm of opposition from Indian airlines, who say a new carrier would compete with them and whose prime aim would inevitably be to funnel revenue out of the country to its parent.
One bright spot in Qatar’s landscape is the ending of the ban on large personal electronic devices (PEDs) being carried in the carrier’s cabins on U.S.-bound flights. After being barred from carrying them in March, the ban was lifted on July 6 after the US authorities approved new security measures at Doha’s Hamad International Airport.
The slowly rising price of oil also – ironically – forms better news for the airline. Although low oil prices reduce operating costs, the plunging oil prices of a couple of years ago affected business travel, especially in companies in the oil and gas industry. Higher prices encourage more companies to allow their executives to fly once more.
Those executives will increasingly be able to sample the airline’s new business class ‘Q Suite’, unveiled on a Boeing 777 at June’s Paris Air Show. While each seat in the 1-2-1 configured cabin can be used singly, the central pair of seats can be moved together to create a double bed for couples traveling together.
Uniquely, the combination of fore-and-aft facing central seat pairs can also be configured in a ‘club four’ layout if all the privacy partitions are lowered. Groups of four can also take advantage of a new platter meal service that is being introduced to allow grazing with a selection of dishes.
The new cabin has already been rolled out on the London and Paris sectors and will be expanded across the network as more aircraft are fitted, or retrofitted with the new seating arrangement.