LONDON – Earlier this month, Airways got the opportunity to sit down with the Senior Vice President of Qatar Airways’ (QR) Western Region, Eric Odone to talk things COVID as well as other elements within the airline.
QR has particularly been in the spotlight in recent months, having operated flights all of the way through the pandemic.
Odone has over 20 years of experience in the aviation industry, having worked for the likes of Air France (AF), Cathay Pacific (CX) as well as QR.
JF: Obviously, COVID-19 has been something very unexpected for the airline industry. How has the pandemic hindered the future growth plans of the airline and how is QR trying to counteract that? Going forward, how is the airline also going to continue its growth strategy looking ahead?
EO: I think what’s important to remember with us is that, unlike many airlines, we never stopped flying during the pandemic.
We’ve always operated flights throughout our network, so I think that makes us quite different from a lot of airlines who decided basically to close the shop. With my America cap on, which is the one I’m wearing today, we never stopped flying from Montreal, Dallas, Chicago, São Paulo.
What we’ve done is we’ve gradually tested our demand for operations. Airlines can be quite focused on a particular goal sometimes, which makes them heavy. They have one direction. In our case, we decided to be a lot more agile.
When the pandemic was still pretty bad, we decided that we would start reintroducing flights. From June onwards, we started flights from JFK, Washington, Los Angeles, Boston. We saw, actually, there was demand. We saw that people actually wanted to fly, so then we were able to actually rebuild again and make those flights in some cases double daily, and the same applies for the rest of the network.
It’s that agility has been really a key to our strategy. It helps that we have a lot of different aircraft types, so we’re able to actually start a route with a small aircraft to see how successful it is.
If it works well, then we can upgrade it to a larger aircraft. From a network perspective, I think that’s really been essential.
I think we now are getting to 650 weekly flights. That’s what has been essentially sort of trying to rebuild a network as far as possible and make sure that we were able to take people to wherever they please. The goal in itself might have changed more than that destination, but it’s obviously linked to the pandemic.
JF: Obviously, competitors such as Emirates and Etihad are resuming services to certain destinations, of which are similar to the ones QR has launched. How is the airline keeping up in terms of launching the new operations so efficiently?
EO: The planning is continuous, so we know exactly which routes have, which countries have no time, and when that NOTAM is about to expire. Then, we will wait to know what’s happening with the NOTAM. Then, we can actually be very quick.
Again, because we’ve flown during the pandemic, aircraft are kind of ready to go because we’ve been operating them anyway with no downtime.
When you don’t operate them, suddenly, when you have to restart them again, it’s actually very costly and very lengthy. The beauty of having operated without disruption is that it makes us look more agile.
JF: Will such aircraft such as the Airbus A380 return to service with the airline sooner than everyone thinks?
EO: We felt that it was just not commercially viable and environmentally justifiable. Some routes fill up really well, actually, with these high load factors, some of them so much. If you start using any A380, you actually end up with a very low factor on flights.
We use, primarily, the A350-900 and A350-1000. We’ve been very surprised to see the difference between the two aircraft and, therefore, we decided not to continue with the A380 just yet.
JF: The A380 has kind of popped into the spotlight again with airlines withdrawing them from service. Lufthansa and Air France have been a good example of that. Does the A380 have any future in QR’s fleet? And if not, then would that mean the First Class onboard will be phased out with the type?
EO: I think the aircraft are grounded going into next year. In regards to the First Class, that’s just a sort of product that can always evolve in the future. They can get back to or not, but certainly not for the last next year.
There’s no plan to reintroduce the A380, which means that there won’t be any first class. Because of the quality of our business class, it provides a level of infrastructure close to that of First Class. Are you familiar with the QSuite jets?
JF: Yes, I actually went on a delivery flight over two years ago to Doha (DOH) on the first Airbus A350-1000.
EO: Fantastic. The product itself from comfort, from an experience perspective, is super strong. I mean, it’s definitely as strong as a first-class product. From a COVID perspective, in terms of social distancing, it’s definitely the best in the market as well from the business class perspective.
It’s important as well to remember that a lot of our competitors use the A380 as a flagship aircraft and a flagship product. When you remove the A380, you actually come to products in which not everyone retrofits their planes with its flagship product.
For example, the QSuite is what is known as a one to one product, which is what it should be. There are a lot of operators that have 2-3-2 configuration or 2-2-2, which nowadays sounds a lot less suitable for social distancing than the QSuite.
JF: So to clarify then, was that the whole aim of the QSuite in terms of implementing a level of connectivity between First Class and Business?
EO: I think the truth was always to be a hybrid product. Yes, absolutely. The tagline ‘first in business’ was so brutal. The idea was to do something different.
Because we only have the first class on the A380, it was important to provide a business class product, which was the best ultimately, because you saw the configuration itself is not exclusive to Qatar Airways, but the product is.
JF: With the airline’s recent venture with SNCF in France offering customers the chance to travel to different French destinations via rail, is this something that QR will be expanding its footprint with. Maybe along the lines of similar ventures with Amtrak in the United States or in Europe with DB and RENFE?
EO: Definitely not in the US. In the US, the distances are a lot different from France. What has been essential in our partnerships in the US has been with American Airlines (AA) because it has been essential during the pandemic.
People from anywhere in the US can actually reach one of our gateways. The fact that we’ve never stopped flying from Chicago (ORD) and Dallas (DFW) is indicative that these are two of the biggest hubs of AA. That really has been our focus, which has been to really maximize the impact of partnerships with AA’s hubs of that.
We’ve just introduced Philly (PHL). We started on September 15 in Philadelphia, which is another AA hub.
We’ve got Dallas, which is a booming destination, and hope for Chicago was also very strong. Then, LA, which is a hub as well for AA, and JFK.
We’ve got also a strong relationship with JetBlue (B6), so that makes its hub in the JFK and Boston. Partnerships have been essential; they are definitely an opportunity to grow the business in a sustainable way.
In a way that makes sense, I can’t put an aircraft between Minneapolis and Doha. But I can provide excellent connectivity between Minneapolis and Doha using AA. That really should be the focus.
JF: You mentioned about the partnerships with American Airlines and how significant it has been for the airline. You also have arrangements with JetBlue. Bearing that focus in mind, will the JetBlue code-share remain in place, especially with the airline’s recent expansion with its Mint product?
EO: They complement each other, actually. I mean, Boston is not a big hub for American and Boston is massive for JetBlue. Boston is a great city to fly to and from.
There’s also room for both of those operators at JFK. Definitely the relationship there is strong. Actually, the codeshares are very recent in the only beginning of 2020.
JF: We bring things back to the Chicago decision by the airline, of which ORD is a major United Airlines (UA) hub. What was the rationale or decision-making behind choosing Chicago?
EO: Chicago is almost as big a hub for AA as it is for UA. The oneworld Alliance is logical to actually have a bit of a presence there.
Some of our hubs are. JFK is a bigger potential hub for Delta than American, but still, it’s an interesting point. I mean, quite often there is a delicate balance between relying on traffic to and from a gateway like Washington Dulles Airport, for example, and have a sort of a mixture of gateway traffic and through traffic.
Thus, Chicago is a bit of a boost. You have an international vibrant city of Chicago with a big business hub and lots of corporations in there.
Remember as well, a place like Chicago is a very strong cargo hub as well. We are a huge, big cargo airline as well which adds up when operating point to point traffic through Chicago and the cargo, which makes it a good business model.
JF: Focusing on Boeing, with Qatar Airways utilising the Airbus A350 and 787 Dreamliner, what sort of space will the 777X have at the airline?
EO: At that stage, I don’t know. It’s far too premature. We have a big fleet of triple seven -300, which is a great aircraft. I’m a big fan of the Dreamliner from an operational perspective, and it’s sustainable benefits as well.
The A350 is a great aircraft as well. We’ve always been loyal to both manufacturers. Our orders for the 777X are solid and will continue to remain that way.
At that stage, it will fulfill a particular need for routes. I mean, we are mostly a long, ultra-long-haul airline. We fly very long flights, so all those new aircraft bring in technology and better fuel consumption as well.
That is good for the carbon footprint and also good for the balance sheet. I think all airlines need to have that approach of investing in a new fleet. The average fleet age of the airline is currently five years.
At the moment, we’ve got it because we are handpicking the aircraft we use. I’m sure that the operating age is actually even younger than that because we’re literally taking the best aircraft.
Again, we’re going back to the strategy element of making sure you invest in a new fleet of latest generation aircraft to benefit the lowest carbon footprint and the aircraft fuel consumption and the technology attached to it.
JF: Continuing with the theme of the A350 and the 787 in terms of efficiencies. Etihad Airways (EY) recently announced that it will continue to receive its Dreamliners over the course of the next year to two years. Is this something that QR is going to be doing as well? Is the airline going to continue receiving aircraft even throughout this pandemic, or is there going to be delivery deferrals until recovery actually begins?
EO: I’m not totally sure. But I remember reading that there were Airbus orders for the airlines with talks to deferring some aircraft. Then, yes, I would assume so.
JF: COVID-19 has put the industry in such a volatile position today, much to the point that we’ve taken quite a few steps backward, or we will have to sort of initially. What’s your prediction for recovery? Are you very much in agreement with other members of the airline industry, by stating 2024 for airline recovery, or do you believe that something either more ambitious or more long term periods of time is going to be needed for such a recovery?
EO: If someone states 2024, I definitely hope they’re wrong. I’m desperate. As an individual, I’m desperate to get on board a plane and go to nice places.
To me, well, I would say the most important is how it’s going to impact people’s confidence. At the moment, there are flights and some people are travelling and some people are not travelling for business, so they’re travelling because they want to travel.
But we also are the biggest operators between the US and the Middle East, for example. From a leisure perspective, I think people really still want to travel. It’s just that the pool of people shrunk. What’s essential in that is being at the cutting edge of reassuring the customers, which we’ve done that from the start.
As soon as the pandemic started, we were opening the books. This is how we clean our aircraft. These are our standards. I think that has helped us to actually cope better than other airlines because we were able to do it at a week. There’s no week we have no produced and this is what we do. That’s helping to rebuild customer confidence.
We’ve done a lot of work on having on-board PPE outfits for the cabin crew and having sanitized tools everywhere. We provide people with a facial shield, masks etc. It’s as good as it gets, really.
It’s pretty cutting edge in many ways because we’ve never stopped flying. We are definitely the airline with the most experience and bio-safety. That, ultimately, should help people to consider traveling earlier than 2024.
I think after that it’s about being a reliable airline and talking about operating the flight that you’re supposed to operate. It’s about responding quickly to your passengers by providing them with the flexibility they need.
When you have that experience when you have those listening skills on what the customer wants as well as what they expect to actually have beyond that by providing them with a realistic schedule, customer service refunds and flexibility gives me hope that the passenger will come back to traveling way before 2024.
JF: Mr. Odone, thanks very much for your time to speak to us!
In-all, it remains clear that the words of Odone have resonated perfectly on a practical but also on a theoretical level too. By continuing operations all through the pandemic, it has enabled the airline to have a head-start on success as the globe now looks to find a vaccine and get away from this period of uncertainty.
The additional measures taken by the airline also shows the overall view that consumer confidence is the key to getting the industry back on its feet, and to recover from the losses of US$84bn or higher across all airlines.
For now, all we can hope is that the words of Odone resonate with the rest of the industry, and with governments, in order to perhaps take a page out of the airline’s book in responding to significant crises like this.
Featured Image: Picture of Eric Odone, SVP Western Regions at Qatar Airways. Photo Credit: Qatar Airways