Well, it appears His Excellency, Akbar Al Baker, the CEO of Qatar Airways isn’t too pleased with his airline’s investment in British Airways or IAG. Unless you consider 2 out of 10 to be a good score, of course. The CEO told The Times that ‘to fly, to serve’ is now nothing more than a billboard.
Before we dive in, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a competitor bashing a competitor. It’s a large owner bashing something their organization has a very large stake in, which doesn’t happen often in business these days. Accordingly, it’s worth deconstructing the statements.
Qatar Airways CEO Slams British Airways
I don’t think this is intended as a slight to British Airways employees, but rather the airline’s general strategy to reduce service levels in recent years, and a trajectory which effectively saw the differentiators between BA, Ryanair and other low cost competition disappear in short haul economy.
At one point, it even seemed destined for long haul travel as well, and British Airways considered purchasing Norwegian Airlines.
So what did Akbar Al Baker tell The Times (London), specifically? The jabs were multi faceted, but focused on lack of vision, short sighted cost cutting and the fact that BA will never be the world’s favorite airline again, because he claims Qatar Airways will be, forever. No favoritism there, naturally.
Here’s a collection of the accusations and statements leveled by Akbar Al Baker, with GSTP commentary on context. This is some popcorn worthy stuff…
“British Airways is the flag carrier of the UK. You remember the motto? ‘To fly, to serve’. That was not any more the motto of the company. It was only on a billboard.”
British Airways came under intense scrutiny and anger during the pandemic for its treatment of staff in relation to labor disputes, but also to customers in response to refund issues.
British Airways at one point re-coded it’s website to hide the refund button which had existed for years, simply to trick people into accepting future travel vouchers.
Many of those grievances have since been settled, and in reality many airlines were bad actors with good faith transactions, but for an airline which long enjoyed the halo and prestige of a premium brand, internal and external moves hardly felt premium in the last year.
“He’s a very good leader. He has my confidence … British Airways will come back to its old glory,”Akbar Al Baker to John Arlidge of the Times.
So is this what we can expect, and what Akbar Al Baker expects to remain arguably true? No. The Qatar Airways CEO stated he has full confidence in Sean Doyle, the CEO of British Airways and expects a return to former glory. If that becomes true, loyal BA flyers are in for a good few years as once removed perks return.
“We wanted an airline that doesn’t sell food but serves food,”
Akbar Al Baker told venerable Times transport reporter John Arlidge, that Qatar Airways increased investment into IAG, the parent company of British Airways, was about gaining a top airline which serves food, not one that sells it.
In other words, they weren’t happy sitting on the sidelines watching all the things which make a legacy airline separate from a low cost airline, disappear.
Over the last 3-4 years, British Airways reduced short haul food to effectively buy on board only, even removing water briefly before safety regulators demanded its return. The desperation of the pandemic saw a return of basics, but food is still a paid for item in short haul economy, albeit a decent option now with a much improved offering.
“British Airways is a 2 out of 10 low cost carrier”
Asked by Arlidge what he’d rate the current state of British Airways, Akbar Al Baker replied with a simple two. Yes, a 2/10 for an airline of which he’s a majority owner.
Al Baker says a focus on cost cutting caused British Airways to “lose focus” and that too much time and effort spent on Premium Economy isn’t what’s best for customers. Al Baker continued to state a good economy is all that’s needed, but the tape measures tend to disagree.
In fact, many would disagree, GSTP included. Premium economy provides a welcome gap both in price and comfort from the tight squeezes in the back, to the new levels of luxury up front. On that score, British Airways Club Suite is hardly low cost carrier material, even if it’s just a spiced up version of a long serving business class seat.
BA & QR: Frenemies, Friends, Or Foes?
British Airways is regarded by the British Public as a British Airline, but it is in fact largely owned by Spanish and Qatari companies. Qatar Airways holds the single largest share in IAG, the parent company of British Airways, which gives the airline some room at the table.
Qatar Airways Chairman & CEO, Akbar Al Baker, is flexing that room.
It’ll be fascinating to watch how British Airways, and new CEO Sean Doyle respond to the criticism, or directional shifts over the years to come.
Will Qatar Airways, as a large shareholder, attempt to exert more influence over British Airways operational moves, or will Akbar Al Baker just occasionally fire shots across the bow, to remind people that his airline wins higher scores and delivers better products in each cabin? Only time will tell, but the popcorn is at the ready.