I write on India's well-established entrepreneurs and corporate houses, covering a range of sectors. In a nutshell, I'm the Jack of all business news beats. In addition, I am the go-to reporter for aviation news at Forbes India.
Qatar Airways has been in the news for two reasons: Postponing the launch of its Doha-Auckland flight—the longest commercial flight in the world at over 18 hours—by two months because of a delay in the delivery of its Airbus aircraft, and introducing the A380 aircraft on its Doha-Guangzhou route, the fourth destination of the bespoke super-jumbo aircraft after London, Paris and Bangkok.
Both these developments are representative of an airline that has soaring ambitions. It is also representative of the economic growth of the oil-and-gas rich country of Qatar over the last two decades: Qatar’s GDP has grown from $11.7 billion in 1997 to more than $210 billion in 2014, with its per capita GDP of $145,000 being among the highest in the world.
Qatar’s growth is symptomatic of the rise of the Gulf region as a strategic aviation hub that provides much-needed connectivity between the western and eastern hemispheres. Other regional powerhouses like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates, operate well-financed, government-owned airlines, Emirates and Etihad Airways, respectively.
The two decades that have seen the phenomenal rise of the country and, in tandem, the growth of Qatar Airways is also the period when one man, Akbar Al Baker, has been at the helm of piloting the government-owned airline on this uncharted trajectory.
The son of a merchant with significant business dealings in India, trading in rice, spices, teas and incense, Al Baker studied at St Peter’s Boys School in Panchgani—the hill-station hub of residential schools in Maharashtra—and graduated from Mumbai’s Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in the late 1970s. Al Baker’s parents bought him an apartment close to his college, in South Mumbai’s tony Cuffe Parade locality, which he still keeps. “I always feel good going to India,” he says. “I have a lot of friends who are industrialists, and your prime minister, whom I admire very much.”
After having worked at various levels in the Civil Aviation Directorate in Qatar, Al Baker became Qatar Airways’ group chief executive officer in 1997, when it had just four aircraft. Today, Qatar Airways operates 184 aircraft to more than 150 destinations across six continents, and has been named Airline of the Year by global industry audit Skytrax in 2015, 2012, 2011, and was the runner up in 2014, and 2013. (In comparison, Emirates, which started operations in 1985, has a fleet of over 230 aircraft operating to over 150 destinations.)
“It was a small regional carrier with four vintage aircraft [the average age of the fleet was over 22 years],” Al Baker says. “Currently, in our 19th year of operations, we have more than 40,000 employees and 13 subsidiaries that form the Qatar Airways Group of companies.” Al Baker claims that Qatar Airways now operates the world’s youngest fleet, with an average age of less than five years, a metric he intends to maintain. Qatar Airways’ current aircraft orders are worth $70 billion, and includes an order for 100 B777 9x and 8x aircraft from Boeing, which are expected to be replacement aircraft.
“Al Baker has transformed Qatar Airways from an unknown brand to a global mega carrier,” says Kapil Kaul, CEO, CAPA South Asia, an independent aviation consulting, research and knowledge practice firm. More importantly, says Kaul, Al Baker has been “consistently” driving very high-quality service and has created a global product, which has become the cornerstone of growth for the airline.
“His leadership is one of the reasons why Qatar Airways has become a world class brand in just two decades,” says Amber Dubey, partner and India head of aerospace and defence at global consultancy KPMG.
In addition to transforming Qatar Airways into a global powerhouse, Al Baker has also built a personal reputation of being a tough negotiator and straight-talker. This was evident in his spat with US airlines over their efforts to resist Middle Eastern carriers’ access to US markets, or his dismissal of calls by the International Labour Organisation to scrap the airline’s allegedly discriminatory employment policies.
“He doesn’t care much about his popularity ratings and doesn’t indulge in superficial congeniality. With him you get what’s in his mind. There are no pretensions,” says Dubey. “He drives himself and his people hard. But those who can handle the stress swear by him.”
In addition to his current role at Qatar Airways, Al Baker serves as chairman of the executive committee of the Arab Air Carriers’ Organisation (AACO), a body responsible for the development of the airline industry in the Arab world, and is also a member of the Board of Governors of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a global regulatory body for airlines.