As Qatar Airways rebuilds its flying schedule to over 120 destinations, Business Traveller interviewed Qatar Airways’ VP of Sales for Europe, Thierry de Bailleul to find out how the airline has negotiated the pandemic and aviation crisis.
It’s been a torrid time for the aviation industry, which this year will burn through between $75-$95 billion after 2020 when demand dropped by nearly 66 per cent worldwide.
The crisis saw the failure of some carriers, while many others have been reliant on government help to survive, and industry body IATA predicts it will be 2024 before traffic recovers.
Qatar Airways has continued flying during the pandemic, though at the worst point its worldwide list of destinations fell to about 30. It is now on the rebound, and is flying to over 120.
For many of us who are forbidden from travelling, it may seem surprising there are enough passengers to make it worthwhile.
Qatar Airways Thierry de Bailleul told me that while cargo is making a bigger contribution to the airline’s revenue than normal, there are still passengers flying.
Some are visiting friends and family overseas and are prepared, where necessary, to undergo the tests and quarantine necessary, and then there is essential business travel, where he gave me the examples of ships crew and people who work on oil platforms. Still, is it profitable?
“We cover at least our operational costs. It may not pay the whole costs, the structural costs and so on, but between the passenger revenue and the cargo we make sure that every flight is economically justified.”
In the UK, the airline is currently flying three-times daily from Heathrow to its hub in Doha, and also has 11 weekly flights out of Manchester and three out of Edinburgh.
De Bailleul says that throughout the pandemic the airline has seen it as an opportunity to show customers and potential customers how reliable the airline is compared to it competitors.
“We schedule the flights and do everything possible to keep that schedule stable. We don’t like to cancel, especially at the last minute. Our customers don’t like it, our trade partners, the travel management companies, don’t like it, because it gives them extra work for no payment and so we do everything it takes, even if it’s costly, because we think it’s all about trust and reliability.”
Where there is not enough demand to justify the flight, then Qatar Airways cancels the flight well in advance so it doesn’t affect many passengers and also reroutes them.
De Bailleul believes the route to recovery also provides opportunities, provided airlines can convince people that flying in the era of Covid is safe. So is it safe?
“Absolutely, yes, it is. We have the right to speak about this because we have flown so much in the last 12 months. We have gone the extra mile. Some people were saying ‘Do you think it is too much?’, but then the new variants came along and they changed their mind.
“So in economy the face masks is not enough, so we offer to all economy passengers the face screens. And all crew cover their uniform with overalls, the menus that normally are re-used from one flight to one another are now disposable and we present new ones on every flight. Our catering has not changed but it is sealed, and many other things [have been introduced] such as the ultraviolet robots which clean the cabins to exterminate the germs.”
“I’m not saying there are zero cases but there are very few. We are one of the few who have published the numbers, for crew and passengers. The rate of infection for pax is 0.002 per cent which is far less than in the street of London or Paris or Madrid.
“For crew it’s even less, because those crews who are not yet vaccinated soon will be, and they are wearing those outfits over their uniform and of course taking lots of precautions before and after the flight and are tested before and after every flight. It’s safer to fly with a safe airline like us than being in the normal living circumstances wherever we are.”
In the end, de Bailleul believes that customer behaviour has changed as a result of the pandemic.
“I strongly believe that the behaviour of our customers is changing in quite a spectacular way. Before it was all about price price price. That’s still important, [but] now it’s service, the reliability that we have spoken about, and the criteria of safety measures of each airline, and not all airlines are equal on safety measures, quality of service and reliability.”