Qatar vows to expand network despite Middle East bans

June 13, 2017
Qatar China SOuthern stake
Photo: Qatar

QATAR Airways says it will continue to expand its network beyond the four countries that have severed diplomatic ties as the airline’s chief executive lashed out at what he termed an illegal and unprecedented blockade.

Qatar chief executive Akbar Al Baker called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to intervene in the move by Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to impose an economic blockade on Qatar that included closing airspace.

The move caused the suspension of Qatar’s flights to the four countries but it was able to maintain its wider network using a restricted corridor to the north of the Gulf state.

“Qatar Airways continues to operate to the rest of its network as per its published schedules with day-to-day adjustments for operational and commercial efficiencies, which is standard airline practice,’’ the airline said yesterday as it announced a record net profit of $US538 million for the year to March 31. That was up 21.7 per cent on the previous year as revenues rose 10.4 per cent and passenger numbers rose by more than 20 per cent to 32 million.

It came as Qatar, along with other Gulf airlines, was hit by a ban on large electronic items hit in March by a ban on large electronic items in the cabins of aircraft operating direct US-Bound flights.

The two events are set to hit Qatar’s bottom line in the current financial year and Al Baker told CNN in a broadcast interview the loss of some 18 destinations from its network had hurt business.

He said the blockade was “unprecedented in the history of aviation” and would create a big impact for Qatar Airways.

However, the airline would not need to seek cash from the Qatar government because of its cash reserves.

He said the airline had legal channels through which to object via the Chicago Convention and the Air Services Transit Agreement covering overflights.

“ICAO, which is the international regulator and part of the United Nations, should heavily get involved and put their weight behind this to declare this an illegal act,’’ he said, noting he had options he was not prepared to talk about on-camera.

Asked about the closure of airline offices in three countries, he said: “It is actually a travesty of civilised behaviour to close airline offices.

“Airline offices are not (a) political arm, they are commercial offices which sell tickets. We were sealed as if it was a criminal organisation, we were not allowed to give refunds to our passengers and we were not even given time to address those issues other than these 18 destinations that we have been blocked from.’’

The Qatar boss said the airline intended to continue with an expansion which saw it add 10 new destinations in fiscal 2017 to countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Thailand and the US.

It plans to add a record 24 new destinations in the next year, including cities such as the Irish capital of Dublin,  San Francisco in the US,  Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro and Santiago, Chile.

“We are going to continue with our expansion because the state of Qatar never gets intimidated by acts that are illegal and against international law,’’ he said.

Al Baker also expressed disappointment in the reaction to the blockade by US President Donald Trump, who endorsed the ban and called on Qatar to stop funding terrorism.

He said the US, which uses Qatar as a base for military operations in the Middle East, should be leader trying the break the blockade “and not sitting and watching what’s going on and actually putting fuel on fire.’’

Qatar’s annual results showed the airline boosted capacity by 21.9 per cent in 2016-17 to more than 185 million available seat kilometres and finished the year with a fleet of 196 aircraft.

It announced during the year plans to purchase up to 100 Boeing aircraft comprising 30 firm 787-9s and 10 firm 777-300ERs with a letter of intent to purchase up to a further 60 B737 MAX 8 aircraft.

The carrier also increased its stake in International Airline Group from 15.24 per cent to 20.01 per cent and acquired 10 per cent of LATAM Group.