Interview

The biggest challenge the industry faces is the environmental challenge

The biggest challenge the industry faces is the environmental challenge

"Airlines need governments to provide clear and timely directions to help aviation industries deal with the pandemic – but in the long term, reducing environmental emissions is the industry’s biggest challenge."

Akbar Al Baker, Group CEO of Qatar Airways

What are your key challenges in managing a recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic?

We are the world’s largest long-haul airline – and in dealing with the challenge of a global pandemic the major issue we face is that no government has put in place a proper protocol for managing the aviation impact. There is no proper direction. Decisions are made and then sometimes changed overnight, so the airline industry doesn’t know exactly what to expect from day to day. Pandemics happen, epidemics happen, natural disasters happen and there are security and terrorism incidents and normally there is a clear direction to follow immediately after. But with this pandemic I don’t think any airline CEO in the world knows exactly what to expect tomorrow. We have no ability to plan.

Perhaps it is surprising there hasn’t been more collaboration around dealing with the fall-out to airlines as for many governments aviation is a strategic industry.

Yes it is. We need one entity – and I’ve always said that this has to be IATA – to lead the way for airlines to comply with different regulations that are being generated by different governments. It is important that ICAO and IATA work together so we can all follow the same direction and protocols agreed by the world regulators.

What has been the impact of the pandemic on your operation?

Every airline in the world has been severely affected by the pandemic but we have not been as badly hurt as most of the others because we took the risk of continuing to operate; pockets of business have remained available while many airlines tried to conserve cash. People have been stranded all over the world by the pandemic.

The whole industry was switched off within days and that meant there were hundreds of millions of people in the air or in transit or stranded at tourist destinations. So we decided at Qatar Airways to take this opportunity to do two things: to get people back to home to their loved ones while showing them that Qatar Airways would be there with them in good times and bad. It is now clear that the decision to keep our airport and airline open was a wise one.

"I don’t think any airline will emerge from this in a strong position. We all will be severely affected."

What changes will the pandemic bring to the aviation sector?

This pandemic has decimated the industry. Every airline has asked for state aid, for subsidies, for contributions from government and I don’t think any airline will emerge from this in a strong position. We all will be severely affected; we all will be injured – only the strongest will survive. There will be a lot of bankruptcies, a lot of collapses.

The tourism industry has been decimated along with the airline sector because there is no tourism without aviation. There is no global trade without aviation and no international supply chain without aviation - this is a whole vicious circle and I think it will be a long time before we recover.

How important is it that despite the current problems we continue to pursue sustainability and decarbonisation strategies?

Even before the pandemic Qatar Airways was at the forefront of sustainability. We take our duty towards the environment very seriously. We have taken part in carbon offset programmes and are following the emissions requirements that we agreed at IATA. Qatar Airways has the most modern fleet of any airline and we have continuously placed aircraft orders to keep our fleet young, investing in the most fuelefficient aeroplanes like the Airbus A350, the Boeing 787 and most recently the Airbus Neo and the Boeing 777X.

We are also allowing our passengers to offset their emissions by contributing to tree planting programmes in India and elsewhere while taking part in the carbon offset programme of IATA. We have done everything we can to make sure that our growth is not impacting the environment to the extent that other airlines are.

In Europe there is a huge movement against airlines that have old and inefficient aircraft. We were the first airline to fly with gas-to-liquid (GTL) fuel and all the fuel in our aircraft is GTL derived. This emits lower sulphur dioxide, which is one of the very dangerous greenhouse gases.

It is very easy to blame aviation and accuse it of being the biggest polluter - but very few people have identified the marine industry, cruise and cargo ships that burn heavy diesel, as being major polluters.

We were the first airline to fly with gas-to-liquid (GTL) fuel and all the fuel in our aircraft is GTL derived.

But it is not only airlines that should take the brunt of criticism: this should also be directed at aircraft and engine manufacturers and fuel suppliers. They need to invest in new technology that will deliver systems that will help us meet the very stringent environmental targets that as an industry we have accepted to deliver by the 2050-2060 timeframe.

The biggest challenge the industry will face in the next few decades is the environmental challenge. Our industry is vital for the development of the entire world in every way so it is vital for us all to invest in new technologies even if it is at the expense of the bottom line. Because when aviation collapses entire businesses collapse; for the future of our children and grandchildren we must build a world free of pollution and climate change.

How have you managed practically to deal with all the restrictions?

There were painful decisions to be made. One of the most painful of these was to shed employees, to make people redundant. People who have helped us to grow this airline to what it is today. But we have given an undertaking to employees who have been made redundant that once the airline industry rebounds they will be the first we will approach. I’m proud and glad to say that we have already started doing this—re-recruiting pilots and cabin crew that we let go last year.

Are you optimistic that you can get back to where you were?

Yes, but it will take three to four years to get back to where we were in 2019. What is good about Qatar Airways is that we will be able to do that faster than other airlines because we don’t have to jumpstart. We continued to fly. We’ve already reestablished ourselves and people will remember that.

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How would you characterise your relationship with EUROCONTROL?

My relationship with EUROCONTROL is very good, especially with the boss of EUROCONTROL whom we all in the industry greatly respect. But of course EUROCONTROL needs to modernise, needs to provide a better navigation system and, most importantly, needs to sharpen its pencil when it comes to navigation charges which in Europe are some of the highest that airlines pay. It is very important that in this time of pandemic when all airlines are struggling that EUROCONTROL plays its part in reducing airline navigation charges.

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