Qatar spreads its wings

The award-winning airline is increasing its presence in Australia as part of a gradual expansion, writes Clive Dorman.

Most Australian travellers would have to be plane-spotting boffins to catch sight of the airline millions of consumers have voted the best in the world for the past two years in the prestigious Skytrax World Airline Awards.

Until earlier this month, Qatar Airways' sole flight to Australia touched down at Melbourne airport at 9.25pm daily and was gone again by 10.55pm. "We don't like to leave our aircraft lingering at airports," says the chief executive of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, hinting at the strict set of internal rules he's following in establishing "the Middle East's only five-star airline".

Service industry... Qatar Airlines was voted best in the world at the Skytrax awards.
Service industry... Qatar Airlines was voted best in the world at the Skytrax awards. 

In Australia, Qatar Airways is a minnow compared with the United Arab Emirates giant Emirates and the smaller, more recently minted, UAE national carrier Etihad, which together have rights to operate 21 daily services to Australia.

After Emirates and Etihad had plundered the lion's share of the traffic between Australia and Europe at the expense of Qantas, Qatar Airways had to fight for a much more restrictive allocation of seating capacity under Australia's air rights regime, administered by the International Air Services Commission in Canberra.

According to Al Baker, Qatar began operating to Melbourne in 2009 to establish an Australian "footprint" under its capacity entitlement of just two services a day. Earlier this month, its second footprint went down in Perth, with three flights a week between the West Australian capital and Qatar Airways' hub in Doha, 400 kilometres west of the twin UAE mega-hubs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Perth will have daily Qatar flights from December 2.

But the airline has a different strategy from Emirates, which has been piling new services into Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, with services to Adelaide to begin in November. While Emirates is the world's biggest customer for Airbus A380 superjumbos, Qatar deploys smaller Boeings and Airbuses to destinations it considers are under-served. In Africa, for example, it will soon fly into Mombasa, Kenya's seaport and second city, and the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. It sees much of its expansion in Africa and in North and South America. "We like to grow gradually," Al Baker says. "We don't like to just come with huge aeroplanes and dump capacity into anybody's market."

Surprisingly, he also says he doesn't regard Emirates primarily as a competitor.

"Yes, we are competitors but we are also partners," Al Baker says. "We work in the region as one airline. We have got a lot of things in common; we have got a lot of exchanges between us ... we don't see ourselves as competitors."

Al Baker says Qatar is working on a code-share deal with Qantas to fly from Sydney Airport.

Clive Dorman flew to Perth with Qantas, courtesy of Qatar Airways.

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