Al Baker in Atlanta. Photo: Qatar Airways

ATLANTA — Qatar Airways held a press conference in advance of their launch of service to its tenth destination in the United States, next June 1st, to Atlanta. The route will be inaugurated by the carrier’s Airbus A380, but it will be replaced by the Boeing 777-200LR afterwards.

The majority of the presentation by Qatar Group CEO, His Excellency Akbar Al Baker, consisted of promoting Qatar as a destination over being just another connection point. The bulk of his speech involved going through a slide show of all of the things that Hamad International Airport offers travelers, along with notable attractions in or near Doha — such as the renowned Souq Waqif market, the waterfront area known as the Corniche, the incredible Museum of islamic Art, which was designed by I.M. Pei, and the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup.

In regard to the Atlanta market, Al Baker said its inaugural flight into Atlanta is oversold by 27 passengers, and that the load factor is over 70 percent for the foreseeable future. This is contrary to former Delta CEO Richard Anderson’s speculation that QR’s flights would only carry six or seven passengers. This preliminary load factor could be due to introductory fare sales, so it will be important to watch as time goes on.

Qatar Airways’ home hub of Hamad International Airport just completed its second year of operation, and Al Baker shared that the airport has already outgrown its original capacity plan. The airport was originally designed to handle 30 million passengers per year, but handled 31 million in just its second year. Later this year, a third phase of building will begin, and will accommodate a brand new 1.5 kilometer long concourse that will double the airport’s capacity 60 million passengers annually. It is due to be completed by 2020 or 2021, in time for the World Cup.

Al Baker’s New Bash: More Problems for Airbus

The ever outspoken Al Baker also spoke about his airlines’ fleet woes, and directly blamed Airbus for slowing Qatar’s growth. Airways asked Al Baker about the A320neo, and he replied, “They’re not there yet. We walked away from its first A320neo delivery, two days ago,” because of continued issues with its engines from Pratt & Whitney. He also said that because the airline walked away from its first delivery, it allowed them to walk away from others as well.

The delivery delays have slowed the airline’s growth plans. He said, “We have five more routes that we would like to announce, but we can’t, because of delivery delays from Airbus.” In spite of that, he seemed proud when mentioning that Qatar is the only airline to operate every Airbus type. Qatar’s total fleet numbers 184 aircraft, including their 29th 787 Dreamliner delivered on Tuesday, and their fiftieth 777 last week. When asked about the possibility of ordering the Bombardier CSeries in the wake of the delays from Airbus, he said, “No. I’ll leave those for other people.”

Airways also asked Al Baker if he could provide any details of the highly-anticipated Business Class product that he has been alluding to for over a year. He would only share that it will be introduced this November to the media in Doha, and that it will enter service on retrofitted Boeing 777s. He said the current Business Class product (while very nice) is merely a stopgap until this product is implemented.

Finally, when questioned about the progress made with the open skies debate, Al Baker said, “I would not like to get into too much detail about this, except that we have submitted all of our filings to the U.S. government, and we are waiting for them to make a decision, but at the end of the day, I am sure that the United States government will do what is in the best interest of the American public, and that we have already proven that allegations made against us are incorrect and unfounded.” In regard to Atlanta being a hub for Delta, one of Qatar’s biggest competitors, Al Baker said, “The airport is a private entity. They need service from our region, and we’re here to provide that.”

Al Baker also told Airways that the airline will apply for lounge space at Atlanta for its premium passengers, in order to to meet the standard of service they provide in Doha. Al Baker said their current Airbus A350s do not have the range to serve Atlanta, but that they will reevaluate it once the longer range A350-1000s enter service.

The CEO even got a bit political when asked about concerns over the potential of Donald Trump becoming President and interfering with middle eastern airline growth in the U.S. saying, “Not at all. [Trump] is my friend, regardless what he says. Politicians always say things they don’t mean. In elections they say everything but deliver none of their promises once in the oval office. My advice would be that he should tone down his insulting speeches to people. You don’t have to be so aggressive with people. Take the moral high ground and address important issues. He could be a good president. Reagan had skeptics, but was one of the greatest leaders of your country. I’m not american so I should not interfere in american politics.

During the meeting, news broke that Qatar’s investment stake in British Airways parent company IAG amounted to 15.01 percent. “We fully support their strategy, which gives us additional exposure on the transatlantic segment.” He noted that this gives Qatar additional strength at BA’s Heathrow hub, and may consider purchasing additional stake in the future, as well as stake in other foreign airline entities.

Throughout Atlanta, an aggressive anti-Qatar marketing campaign has arisen, alleging that the airline does not value or respect the basic human rights of its employees. The group, known as AWARE (Alliance for Workers Against Repression Everywhere) has been putting up signs and billboards around Atlanta accusing the airline of treating employees poorly. Al Baker fired back by saying, “I question this grass roots organization that has cropped up five or six months ago, advertising so expensively. From where are their finances coming? That is the question that you should be asking them. We give them benefits that none of the carriers in this country provide to the crew. We give them very handsome salary, which is tax-free, high class free accommodation, international medical coverage, generous leave. But at the end of the day, we give them free transport, free electricity, free laundry. So what else would a person require? If we were what is being portrayed, we wouldn’t get more than 5,000 applications for cabin crew.”