Entertaining airline CEO speaks his mind

Akbar Al Baker with work from Canberra Glassworks and Stephen Byron

IN a week dominated by high drama in Parliament House, the best theatre was going on elsewhere, as Qatar Airways Group chief executive, Akbar Al Baker hit town to mark the launch of the airline’s inaugural flight from Doha to Canberra.

Not only was there a grand flyover the nation’s capital and a cooling water canon salute as the plane hit the Canberra tarmac on Monday, but Mr Al Baker proved to be a star turn when it came to engaging the media.

“I am very outspoken and speak my mind to the press and Qatar airways has been making waves,” he announced to assembled press at the Hyatt, with ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Canberra Airport managing director, Stephen Byron standing by.

It was true, and it was all that the MC, Matt Doran, could do to keep him down as he fielded questions on everything from Middle Eastern politics (“The blockade achieved nothing, it gave us more independence and we got to know who our friends are”) to the glamorous new ‘Q Suite’ in some new aircraft, copyrighted to present prevent Qatar’s competitors getting hold of the same idea.

At one point, when Mr Byron was quizzed by press about the recent cancellation of direct flights to Wellington, Mr Barr tried to deflect the conversation from negative matters, but Mr Al Baker was having none of that, leaping into the discussion with gusto and asserting that Singapore Airlines needed to lift its game or Qatar would run planes on that very route.

He also spent much of the press conference hinting to Mr Barr that the provision of a space to build a new 5-star hotel in Canberra at very reasonable cost or, better, free, would be welcomed. He noted that Canberra was sorely in need of such a facility, quickly backing down and complimented the Hyatt for its fine  hospitality.

In a whirlwind rundown on the Cinderella-like transformation of Qatar into one of the world’s leading airlines since he took over in 1997, when it was a small backyard airline with five planes.”

“When I became CEO my peers discounted me,” he said, explain that because his ruler wanted a top airline, (“a very big burden on my shoulders”) he played its ambitions down to other Middle Eastern airlines in a ‘smokescreen ‘operation.

Mr Al Baker dazzled media with facts and figures about the fast-growing airline, highlighting the Skytrax award-winning airline’s expansion plans, as well as its commitment to bringing more travellers to Australia, and to connecting Canberrans to its extensive global network.

“It will be a seamless experience for Canberrans,” he said, outlining the short transfer times, Wi-Fi, gourmet food and luxuries at Doha’s Hamad International Airport that would eliminate the discomfort of long-distance travel. The need to change at Sydney Aircraft was attributable to the fact that a minimum 4300 metre airway was required to bring the biggest planes direct to Canberra. Mr Byron assured him that was in the master plan.

‘Water canon’ greeting, photo by Kurt Ams

Flights from Canberra, he said, to would reach Doha at about midnight and then allowing quick connections to European, Middle Eastern and African destinations. Although, he said “this will not happen,” he said, passengers experiencing longer delays would be immediately accommodated at the terminal.

Mr Byron told those present how excited he was at the first daily commitment to Canberra International airport and at having seen, the day before, two wide-bodied aircraft (Qatar and SIA) side-by-side at the terminal.

He revealed that when his family purchased Canberra airport in 1998 it was “reasonably dilapidated too” and in need of a new infrastructure. They’d had dropped the ‘international name’ then built capacity, runways, extra gates and a new terminal. He said he looked forward to visiting Doha for the first time to see how Qatar did it.

For his part, Mr Barr viewed the daily flights as being good not just for Canberra, but for the region. “Canberra is a young city,” he said. The trend to high visitation he believed, would continue apace and, “There will be land available for investment in 5-star hotels.”

As the most entertaining press conference in a long time drew to a close, the VIPs exchanged gifts – Swarovski crystal horses from Qatar and work from the Canberra Glassworks from the ACT.

The Doha to Canberra daily flight schedule is as follows:

Doha (DOH) to Sydney (SYD) QR906 departs: 07:55 arrives: 06:15+1

Sydney (SYD) to Canberra (CBR) QR906 departs: 07:25 arrives: 08:35

Canberra (CBR) to Sydney (SYD) QR907 departs: 13:45 arrives: 14:45

Sydney (SYD) to Doha (DOH) QR907 departs: 15:55 arrives: 23:30








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