Qatar Airways plans to open a further 10 new routes this year as it continues to expand its network in defiance of a blockade of its home base by Gulf neighbours.
Qatar chief executive Akbar Al Baker revealed the plans Monday after the launch of airline’s latest new route to the Australian capital of Canberra and said the airline would begin revealing names from next month.
The new destinations are in addition to a slew of routes already announced for 2018 and which include Pattaya, Thailand; Penang, Malaysia; Thessaloniki and Mykonos, Greece ; and Cardiff, Wales.
Al Baker vowed last year to continue to expand Qatar’s network after Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic ties and reduced access in what he labelled an illegal and unprecedented blockade.
The 2018 expansion comes after the airline opened 11 new routes in 2017, most of them after the blockade of Qatar. It also began expanding frequencies to some of those destinations.
The blockade has not significantly affected the airline’s routes to Europe and Australia, where Al Baker estimates it adds 10 to 15 minutes flying time.
But it has taken its toll on the Qatar’s bottom line and he told reporters in Canberra it was poised to announce a loss.
This comes after Qatar produced its best annual results in its history in 2017 with a $US5414m profit, up 21.7 percent on the previous year.
“Qatar Airways will announce a loss because I lost mature destinations,’’ Al Baker said, noting the mature routes were being replaced with growth destinations such as Canberra that would not immediately make money.
“This is a long-term investment and a commitment,’’ he added.
However, the Qatar chief said his nation’s adversaries had failed to achieve what they wanted from the blockade – regime change – and reiterated his vow that “Qatar Airways will keep on growing, we’ll keep on expanding”.
“And the Qatari people will always stand one inch higher with pride, dignity and, of course, safeguarding our sovereignty,” he said
Qatar was launched in 1997 with five old planes with an average fleet age of more than 22 years. Under Al Baker, it has grown to be one of the world’s top airlines serving more than 150 destinations across six continents.
It now has 200 aircraft and an average fleet age of less than five years and more than 350 aircraft on order with Airbus and Boeing with a total catalogue price of $US92 billion. It will be the global launch customer of the A350-1000 when it gets the first of 37 aircraft on February 20.
New innovations include “superfast” inflight internet and Al Baker said it was developing other products “which will again be a first in the industry”.
The Qatar chief also revealed the airline was working on a variation of its impressive Qsuite to install in its Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners and Airbus A380 superjumbos.
The airline showcased the business class suite on its Canberra inaugural and expects to have it on the route regularly by June.
It currently has the Qsuite on 14 of its 56 Boeing 777s and it will be featured on four new aircraft to be delivered this year.
There is a retrofit program to add it to existing B777s that Al Baker said would take 18 months to complete.
But he said it would not be installed on the airlines A380s because of the curvature of the fuselage on the superjumbo’s upper deck or on its B787-9s because this would require the seat to be narrowed.
Instead, it is developing a new suite for the 787s which would have full privacy and would “not be very far away from the Qsuite” but would not allow four seats to be joined to create a “quad” family area.
“And then they will be retrofitted into the A380,’’ Al Baker said “So the A380 product will again by upgraded to full privacy.”
Al Baker believes other airlines will find it difficult to build a business class seat that is better than Qatar’s Qsuite, which rivals some airlines’ first class product.
Asked if business class seating had reached ts zenith, he said: “I really think that there will be no room anymore for improvement.
“The only improvement will be in technology, in how much you can digitise a product and how lightweight you can make it.
‘You know these seats are not very light and we always endeavour to have a product that is lighter on an aeroplane.
‘For example, the modified Qsuite that we are now looking at for our 777-X program will be at least 22 percent lighter than the current Qsuite.
“So in that way we are going to keep on improving but within the same envelope.”
He expected that other airlines would try to catch up in terms of seating but argued they would be unable to match Qatar’s culture of attention to detail and commitment by its staff.
On the airline’s plans for Canberra, Al Baker said Qatar would look at the possibility of building a five-star hotel in the city if it could get land cheaply enough.
“We see the potential for more five-star room nights and Qatar Airways would like to bring one of the top brands to Canberra if we have been given appropriate real estate,’’ he said. “But, of course, I’m not going to write a big check for that real estate.’’
Al Baker said the airline was unable to fly direct from Canberra because the runway was not long enough to allow a fully-laden Boeing 777-300ER carrying enough fuel for the long flight to Doha to take off.
The airline had calculated the runway length would need to be minimum 4300m, he said.
Asked whether he would like to see non-stop Canberra-Doha flights, he said: “Why not? We will look at every opportunity we have to fly direct because Qatar Airways’ strategy is always to fly point-to-point directly without going through busy or congested hubs anywhere in the network.’’
This is only Canberra Airport’s second international service and the first coming from as far away as the Middle East.
Airport boss Stephen Byron said the question of lengthening the runway could be addressed as part of the airport’s long-term master planning.
Steve Creedy travelled to Canberra as a guest of Qatar Airways.