Qatar Airways: How QR went from nothing to the world's best airline in 20 years

Since June last year, the tiny but vastly wealthy Arab country of Qatar has been blockaded by most of its Gulf neighbours – including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.

Its only land border (with Saudi Arabia) has been closed, and its ships are banned from Emirati ports.

As a passenger flying from the capital Doha to Australia on a Qatar Airways flight you'll notice the effects of the Arab boycott just by following the route on your screen.

Where once the jet would have headed south across the Saudi desert, it is now forced to take a much longer course over the waters of Arabian Gulf because the airline is barred from the airspace of its neighbours.

And yet, the blockade – supposedly imposed because of Qatar's alleged links to terrorism and closeness to Iran, a claim Qatar vigorously denies – seems to have had absolutely no effect on the staggering rise of the national airline.

In the past year alone, Qatar Airways (QR) has:

▪ added 11 new destinations to its international reach (including Canberra, Cardiff and a return to London Gatwick on May 22), surpassing the 150-destination milestone.

▪ placed an order with Boeing for 200 aircraft, worth $US20.2 billion.

▪ confirmed its deal with Airbus for 37 A350-1000s – the largest commitment by any airline for the new plane which will be one of the most fuel-efficient ever built.


▪ won its fourth Skytrax "Airline of the Year" award since 2010.

▪ won Skytrax's "Best Business Class Award", largely because of its Qsuite concept – fully enclosed "rooms in the sky" with seats that combine into double-beds in the middle aisle. (See gallery above)

▪ announced five more destinations: Lisbon, Tallinn, Malaga, Mykonos and Thessaloniki.

Not bad for an airline that (though launched in 1994 as a regional carrier with a handful of routes) really dates its existence from 1997 when the then-Emir (now father of the current Emir) unveiled his vision of turning Qatar Airways into an international carrier of excellence.

Of course, it wasn't exactly a new idea. Both Emirates (Dubai) and Etihad (Abu Dhabi) had pioneered this route before: translating current oil money into a tourism future, challenging the existing aviation hubs of choice.

In the Antipodes we tend to see Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha etc as stopovers on the way to Europe – alternatives to Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

But it's not called the Middle East for nothing. Qatar Airways, for example, now has 10 direct flights to the US (Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC with Las Vegas to be added this year).

So how did it grow so quickly? How has it eclipsed seasoned airlines such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France and all of the US international carriers? In short: oil money, vision and ambition.

Plus, some would say, the man appointed to relaunch Qatar Airways 21 years ago, His Excellency Akbar Al Baker.

Which is why so many British and international aviation journalists turned up in early May for a Q&A session in Cardiff, a day after Qatar's inaugural flight from Doha to the Welsh capital.

In the press conference, "His Excellency" or "The Chief" (as he seems to be known in aviation circles) was flanked by two Welsh dignitaries.

Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, is the equivalent of Malcolm Turnbull in Australia, while Roger Lewis is the chairman of Cardiff Airport. But they could have been been Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood at a Rolling Stones press conference when everyone wants to interview Keith Richard.

Al Baker doesn't hold back: 

▪ The blockade "is illegal", imposed by people "we regarded as brethren".

▪ The hotel in which he's stayed in Cardiff (in the penthouse suite) isn't sufficiently luxurious so he's entered into discussions overnight with his Welsh hosts to build a five-star hotel in the city. (A division of the airline currently owns five hotels overseas, but plans to expand that to 50 in the next few years.).

▪ His vision for QR's future is "growth, growth, growth".

Cardiff, with its catchment area of 6.4 million people in Wales and south-west England (Gloucestershire, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall) who usually travel to London to fly overseas, is the fifth QR destination in Britain. (Though Gatwick will soon be the sixth, following Heathrow, Manchester, Edinburgh, Birmingham, with Glasgow and Belfast on the horizon.)

On average, Qatar Airways takes delivery of a new plane every 10 days (though as Al Baker boasts, "In the past week", the airline has taken delivery of one A380, one A350 and a Boeing 777.)

The average age of the current 220 QR fleet is five years – and Al Baker's aim in ordering all these new planes is to bring the average age even lower.

Perhaps the most interesting question, as far as Australian fliers are concerned, is why QR has concentrated on so many "secondary airports" such as Cardiff.

Al Baker's reply was succinct. "Secondary airports is where the business is. Main airports markets have already been saturated and are over capacity and restrictions in slot timings, so the option is to go to secondary airports which have plans and opportunity for growth."

If that means being able to fly closer to where you want to spend your holiday, that's a good thing. Isn't it?

The writer travelled as a guest of Qatar Airways.

See also: Airline review: Qatar Airways A380 business class

See also: Qatar Airways' captain of the world's longest flight route offers his long-haul travel tips