World's biggest airline during coronavirus (COVID-19): Qatar Airways flies most passenger kilometres in April

The outbreak of COVID-19 and resulting travel restrictions has thrown up its fair share of anomalies in the world of aviation. Some unusual airlines flew into Australia for the first time, while a small airport in Alaska suddenly found itself becoming the world's busiest.

The latest anomaly, based on data from the International Air Transport Association, has put a new carrier at the top of the world's biggest airlines list.

Qatar Airways is now the world's largest airline based on revenue passenger kilometres (RPK) flown. RPK is an industry metric based on the distance travelled by paying passengers.

Not only did Qatar become the world's largest airline based on this measure in April, it accounted for an extraordinary 17.6 per cent of all passenger kilometres worldwide for the month. Previously it wasn't even in the top 10.

The airline has now flown 50 million kilometres and 1.8 million passengers on more than 15,000 flights during the crisis.

Qatar Airways also became the only international carrier from the region to continue regular flights into Australia as other airlines grounded their fleets due to travel restrictions. Key rival Emirates suspended its Australian routes on March 25, resuming flights to some cities on May 21.

In April, Qatar flew almost 45 per cent of all international passengers to and from Australia. This equated to 30,907 passengers for the month, almost 10 times the number of Air New Zealand, United Airlines and ANA, which also operated flights during April.

So why did Qatar keep flying to routes around the world when other airlines grounded their fleets?

According to Thierry Antinori, the airline's chief strategy and transformation officer, Qatar's previous experience in dealing with a crisis came into play.

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"We didn't panic," he says.

The diplomatic row between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that kicked off in 2017 saw Qatar Airways banned from the airspace of multiple Saudi-aligned countries, forcing the airline to change routes and abandon some destinations.

Lessons learnt from that crisis came into play as COVID-19 spread, led by the airline's CEO Akbar Al Baker.

"He said that as long as some countries are open we need to fulfil our mission and our mission is to fly," says Mr Antinori.

"We identified some repatriation opportunities around us very fast: Europeans in Asia, people working in Australia wanting to return to Europe, people in the US wanting to return to Kuwait."

The airline aimed to keep as many routes flying as possible, provided they could remain cash-positive for the airline and did not cause knock on effects. Mr Antinori cites the example of crew flying to China, who then would have been banned from flying into Australia or the US. It also quickly moved to start flying passenger planes as cargo-only aircraft.

Mr Antinori says the decision to keep flying was better for the airline's bottom line than grounding the fleet would have been.

The airline initially added additional flights to Australia in order to repatriate French citizens, as part of an agreement with the French government. Soon after, finding significant demand, the airline asked the Australian government for the rights to increase flights to major cities, including adding a Doha-Brisbane route for the first time.

While Mr Antinori says the airline became "a lifeline" for many people stuck in different countries around the world, he says the opportunity also helped Qatar Airways' profile and reputation for reliability.

That reliability will be a key selling point for the airline in the future - Mr Antinori believes that factor, plus safety (including new COVID-19 measures) and flexibility, will be the way to encourage travellers back into the sky, rather than offering heavy discounts like those flagged by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.

"Safety and flexibility are two things we are focusing on to stay ahead of the pack," he says. "That's more important than to discount - everybody can do that. We will offer value for money as we always have, but we will also offer reliability for money."

Qatar Airways is currently flying to Australia 21 times per week, with flights to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Australians remain banned from travelling overseas, unless they obtain an exemption from the Department of Home Affairs.

The world's 10 largest airlines by passengers kilometres flown prior to COVID-19

  1. American Airlines
  2. Delta
  3. United
  4. Emirates
  5. Southwest
  6. China Southern
  7. Ryanair
  8. China Eastern
  9. Air China
  10. Lufthansa

See also: Record breakers: The unusual airlines flying into Australia due to COVID-19

See also: World's best airline for 2019 named as Qantas soars into top 10

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