ATLANTA — Qatar Airways kicked off its service to Atlanta, the world’s most traveled airport, with a special one off-flight with the Airbus A380 and a media tour.

At a ceremony welcoming the inaugural flight, Qatar Airways Vice President – The Americas Gunter Saurwein joined Interim Airport General Manager Roosevelt Council and Rossen Dimitrov, Qatar Airways Senior Vice President, Customer Experience, in welcoming the airport’s 9th international carrier.

At the event held on Atlanta’s south cargo ramp, airport officials and media personnel toured the flagship aircraft. Airport Interim General Manager Roosevelt Council, who was appointed to his position two weeks ago, took in the sights and sounds of the A380 during his brief tour of the aircraft.

Roosevelt Council, Atlanta's Interim Airport General Manager. (Credits: Author)
Roosevelt Council, Atlanta’s Interim Airport General Manager. (Credits: Author)

“Expanding opportunities for our customers and growing our international reach are two of our top goals. Qatar allows us to accomplish just that.” Council said in a written statement.

Aboard the aircraft, visitors toured the airlines signature first and business class products on the upper deck. The aircraft seats 517 passengers in a three-class configuration with eight first class, 48 business class, and 461 economy class seats. For flights in the foreseeable future, Qatar will fly its 259-seat 777-200LRs.

While capable of handling the massive Airbus A380 at its concourse E, the Atlanta Airport was unable to secure Qatar Airways a gate for the one off flight, due to a bylaw that gives Delta Air Lines historical precedent over the common use gates. With the Qatar flight landing at a peak time for international flights, Delta said it was was unable to accommodate Qatar Airways, citing short notice. The acrimonious relationship between Delta Air Lines and Qatar Airways is well known.

Gunter Saurwein, Qatar Airways Vice President – The Americas. (Credits: Author)
Gunter Saurwein, Qatar Airways Vice President – The Americas. (Credits: Author)

The aircraft was parked at a deicing pad, where passengers were bused to the nearby concourse F. Qatar successfully deplaned the A380 in roughly 45 minutes upon arrival, but faced a near two-hour delay for the departure flight. With no access to the gate, Qatar resorted to moving the aircraft to a remote cargo ramp to refuel and cater the aircraft.

Despite these logistical challenges, Qatar Airways said it was prepared for the flight. “We knew that we had to deboard all 500 passengers with buses or people movers. We had enough lead time to prepare ourselves.” said Gunter Saurwein. “We had our best team on board; we brought some people in from other stations in the U.S. We obviously secured the turnaround” he added.

“All of us have worked together collaboratively, all airlines in the airport including Qatar, to accommodate their inaugural flight and to ensure that everything is being done to ensure that they have a smooth arrival and departure.” said airport spokesperson Reese McCranie.

Qatar Airways is the airport’s second new international carrier in recent weeks. On May 16th, Turkish Airlines began service to Istanbul, flying the 777-300ER. The addition of Qatar, Turkish and Virgin Atlantic in 2014 is a symbol of a push by the airport to diversify its international image.

In 2014, the city of Atlanta created the Air Service Incentive Program (ASIP) to draw international carriers to Atlanta. The program has been largely successful, with airlines including Virgin Atlantic and Emirates SkyCargo adding service to the airport. Speaking to Airways at an event in May, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker said the airline is still negotiating with the city over the ASIP program.

While Qatar Airways may have been welcomed with open arms by airport officials, many in the Atlanta hub are challenging the arrival of the airline to the airport, citing a dismal human rights record. Noticeably absent from the first flight event was Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Usually a regular at airport events, Reed has faced backlash over his attendance to a gala hosted by Qatar Airways at Atlanta’s Fox Theater.

At the Atlanta launch gala, a handful of protestors picketed outside while Qatar Airways executives and invited guests were treated with a private performance from Jennifer Lopez. Calling themselves “Alliance for Workers”, the protest group has littered the Atlanta metro with billboards and radio ads warning the public of the Doha-based carrier.

Atlanta is the 10th destination in the United States for Qatar Airways and the latest in a wave of expansion for the growing Arabian Gulf carrier. In addition to Atlanta, the airline began service to Boston and Los Angeles in 2016.