Qatar Airways CEO Talks Leadership, SAF and Healthy Competition


Pictured (left to right): Aaron Heslehurst, present of Talking Business at BBC News; and Akbar Al Baker, CEO at Qatar Airways Group

During his keynote speech at APEX/IFSA Global EXPO, Qatar Airways Group CEO Akbar Al Baker, who received this year’s APEX CEO Lifetime Achievement Award, discussed his management style, the carrier’s approach to the pandemic and sustainability.

In terms of his strategy for the carrier over the years, Al Baker explained that he has always “kept [his] cards close to his chest,” but that internally “the delivery of that strategy is monitored day and night.”

Talking about how he runs Qatar Airways, he told his interviewer Aaron Heslehurst, host of Talking Business at BBC News, that he is “tough but fair.” He went on, “Even if a porter at the airport has a problem, he can approach me. I have an open-door approach, and this is why I sometimes have to work a 17-hour day.” 

To this end, he is still very involved in decision-making at the airline. Al Baker confirmed that while he is still making some final changes to “QSuite 2,” it will be unveiled at ITB Berlin next year alongside other cabin products for its narrowbodies and 787s, which are too narrow to accommodate the QSuite. Following that, he mentioned that Qatar Airways will be undertaking another project for the next two years, “because we like to keep on innovating for the benefit of the passengers.”

He appeared less convinced about adopting green innovations in the aviation industry, calling hydrogen fuel and electric aircraft “nonsense.” He argued passionately that “governments shouldn’t be pressuring airlines to uplift more sustainable aviation fuel (SAF),” with taxes, but they should instead “pressure oil companies to produce more SAF” so the industry can benefit from economies of scale and see fuel prices come down. 

The topic came up when Heslehurst asked Al Baker whether he thought airfares were going to rise over the next couple of years, as predicted by IATA, to which Al Baker responded that airlines would have no choice but to pass on the cost of SAF to passengers while it is priced at up to five times more than standard fuel. 

With regards to other challenges facing airlines, Al Baker said he believes “the biggest challenge until at least 2026 is the deliveries of aircraft by suppliers,” because “the pandemic sincerely destroyed [the] industry.” He referred to Qatar Airways as “the winner” throughout COVID-19 because it didn’t stop flying, acknowledging that if they had been “too extreme” in their response to the outbreak “it would have taken a huge time to recover.”

Returning once again to the way he runs the airline, he recounted, “I had to pull my team together, because there was a lot of skepticism from them … When you are a CEO you sometimes have to make very bold decisions to support the passengers, that will always remember you and what you did.”

Towards the end of the session, when asked about the Middle East airline industry, Al Baker wanted to focus on new entrants to the market. He said, “I think there is space for Riyadh Air in the region,” citing Saudi Arabia’s population of 40 million and its huge potential for tourist development. “I’m always happy with competition and I’m very open to doing business with them, because our industry can only thrive when we work with each other.”