MIAMI – While tourism ground to a halt last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Qatar Airways (QR) never stopped flying. It’s spent the last year transporting more cargo than ever before and reuniting people around the world with their homes.
The airline also expanded its global footprint, launching new destinations in the United States and partnering with Oneworld’s newest member, Alaska Airlines (AS).
“The growth in North America and the U.S., in particular, is based on the fact that we decided to continue flying and not leave our customers behind,” Mark Drusch, Qatar Airways’ SVP of Revenue Management, Alliances and Strategy, told Airways. “We also realized that by doing that, we would have a keener sense of where the market was going, where opportunities were, and where they weren’t. And based on that, we’ve continued to add services when they were warranted.”
As consumer habits have shifted to ordering online, Drusch said QR has become the largest cargo carrier in the world between its freighters and passenger aircraft. It can rotate its aircraft, which includes three sizes of wide-bodies, in and out based on passenger and cargo demand. For example, Chicago O’Hare (ORD) is both an inbound and outbound cargo destination and thus frequently flies the A-350-1000.
Another key part of what Qatar’s been doing over the past several months is taking people home, a vital service as other airlines cut back. The airline has repatriated over 150,000 mariners during the pandemic, working with various governments and the maritime industry to transport sailors on chartered and scheduled flights.
Hamad International Airport
The airline built such close relationships with cruise and cargo lines that they established the Mariner Lounge at Hamad International Airport (DOH). The dedicated lounge allows seafarers—who may be coming off or going to a ship for a months-long assignment—to relax as they wait for their flight. They can watch TV, read, take a hot shower, use high-speed wifi, or choose from a variety of global food and beverage options.
“We not only realized there was a market out there because the companies that needed to move people around realized we were flying, but we also realized there was an opportunity to really create a product that the person who was traveling really appreciated, [so they could say] ‘You know, Qatar really does take care of us,’” he said.
Other forthcoming changes to DOH (HIA) include a new area in the existing terminal that will include high-end shops and cafes and an extension with a large indoor green space with landscaping and water features.
“We want to ensure that if you have to make a connection, you’re choosing Qatar Airways because of the onboard product and HIA because of the connecting product,” Drusch said.
All of this would be pointless, of course, without attention to biosafety, which Drusch said is an ongoing evolution at HIA and onboard QR flights. For the carrier’s efforts, Skytrax awarded Qatar Airways with a 5-star COVID-19 airline safety rating in January. Skytrax also gave HIA a 5-star COVID-19 airport safety rating in December of 2020.
Safety starts when you buy your ticket. All passengers receive instructions upon booking that inform them of safety protocols and testing requirements. They’ll receive another email 24 hours before boarding to remind them of key information.
In HIA’s seating areas, every other seat is blocked off to ensure passengers maintain social distancing. Once on board, passengers receive a PPE kit that includes a mask and hand sanitizers, and passengers may also request face shields.
Drusch said that although Qatar has made no changes to the in-flight meals, they have changed delivery methods to reduce the amount of contact between passengers and crew, and eliminated high-touch items. Those cool salt and pepper shakers in the Q Suite? You won’t see them again until after the pandemic—you might have to buy them off eBay instead of putting them in your carry-on!
Between flights, QR uses Honeywell’s Ultraviolet Cabin System. The machine is about the same size as a beverage cart and uses extendable UVC arms to treat seats and surfaces.
“We’ve done everything possible so that the customer doesn’t have to worry about what they need to do, plus we’re giving you the extra equipment you may need,” Drusch said.
We live in an experiential economy where people are desperate to have an experience, but how people fly to those experiences will be important as consumers become increasingly aware of how much carbon each passenger produces. Additionally, the “flight shaming” movement, comprised of anti-air activists who hope to highlight and decrease air travel’s impact on the environment, may prompt some travelers to seek more sustainable options.
In November of 2020, QR partnered with the International Air Transport Association’s Carbon Offset Programme to launch its own program. Passengers can opt-in when they purchase tickets on Qatar Airways’ website. Their voluntary contributions will benefit the Fatanpur Wind Farm project in India.
Additionally, the A350 from QR often uses is more fuel-efficient and produces lower carbon emissions than other similar aircraft. But is this all a marketing advantage?
Though Drusch said the company’s reliance on the A350 isn’t necessarily to combat “flight shaming,” it does align with Qatar’s “overall corporate goal” is to be an “energy-efficient and sustainable airline.”
“And that’s across the board. Everything from catering—looking for more recyclable, less-waste [options]—all the way through operating the 350s and using the most efficient aircraft out there as opposed to burning lots of fuel on four-engine airplanes that the market no longer needs,” he said.
Drusch says the consumer will decide if it’s a marketing advantage, but Qatar Airways will continue to focus on sustainability regardless because it’s “the right thing to do.”
Qatar’s recent business has focused on three components: travelers headed to leisure destinations like Maldives or Zanzabar, repatriation, and a small amount of returning business travel.
However, in the future, travelers will be able to take advantage of new partnerships, increased frequencies, and greater connectivity.
Qatar Airways plans to increase frequencies in several U.S. cities and recently flew its first flight from Seattle to Doha. The new route flies four times per week on the carrier’s Boeing 777-300ER aircraft and is the first-ever nonstop flight between SEA and Doha. QR is also the first new carrier to begin service at SEA since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, the airline joined into a partnership with AS, who will become Oneworld Global Alliance’s fourteenth member on March 31. According to Nat Pieper, SVP Fleet, Finance, and Alliances at AS, passengers will be able to enjoy seamless travel to over 1,000 global destinations and earn and redeem miles across all partners.
For Qatar customers, Drusch said Alaska’s overall service and footprint on the West Coast will enable travelers to easily get to Burbank, San Jose, Santa Barabara, Tucson, Anchorage, Portland, and other key markets along the West Coast. And as QR’s expansions continue and the markets change post-pandemic, the airline intends to rely on the same versatility it demonstrated during the pandemic.
“We’ve proven to be a very agile company that knows how to pivot when opportunities are presented or when we see the opening to create a new market,” Drusch said. “Combine that with a unique fleet that has three different sizes of widebodies—the 787 family, the A350 family, and the 777—and that gives us the flexibility to be agile and creative. So wherever the market goes, I’m convinced that we will be able to address it.”
Qatar Airways is positioned to thrive post-COVID-19 in a way that Etihad Airways (EY) and Emirates Airlines (EK) will not. QR is, as we have seen, a very dynamic carrier that is in a geopolitical precarious position but is focused on its customer experience and safety amid the pandemic, its sustainability efforts with its fleet strategy, and its expansion in the western hemisphere.
Featured image: Qatar Airways A7-BEG Boeing 777-3DZ(ER). Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways