Qatar Airways spreads its wings with focus on Asia

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2006, 12:00am

Qatar Airways will fly to at least four new destinations in Asia this year as the Middle Eastern carrier looks to establish itself as one of the region's elite airlines.

The airline took its maiden flight to Hong Kong on Sunday and is committed to opening nine other services this year, including New York and a city in Australia. But the lion's share of the expansion would be in Asia, chief executive Akbar Al-Baker said.

'Fifty per cent of the [10 new flights] will be in Asia,' Mr Al-Baker told the South China Morning Post. 'Commercial reasons prevent me from telling you the other destinations.'

He would not say if a new China service - it flies to Shanghai and Beijing four times a week - was in the cards.

Mr Al-Baker said the world's present geopolitical situation would probably compel more Middle Eastern travellers to visit the Far East for the foreseeable future.

He said the west's growing association of the Middle East with terrorism had led to travellers from the region not being 'as welcome in some parts of the world'.

'More and more people are heading to the Far East for shopping and tourism,' he said. 'So we expect the growth to be the largest to the Far East.'

Hong Kong benefited from that trend last year with arrivals from the Middle East falling just short of 121,000, up 32.7 per cent year on year.

Qatar, which aggressively entered the Hong Kong market with a daily service, will be up against some of the world's most respected airlines in Asia, including Cathay Pacific Airways, Singapore Airlines and Qantas Airways.

But it is well capitalised and has extraordinary expansion plans, signing letters of intent recently for 60 new-generation Airbus A350s and 20 Boeing 777s worth US$15.2 billion at list prices.

The carrier expected to expand its fleet of 44 aircraft to 110 by 2015 without slashing ticket prices to fill seats, Mr Al-Baker said.

'We don't believe in dumping prices just to gain market share,' he said. 'Just like any other carrier that launches a new route, there is an attractive introductory offer. But that won't last forever.'

Qatar, 50 per cent owned by the Qatari government, will also add 10 A340-600s in the next two years and is a launch customer for the massive A380 passenger jet.

Mr Al-Baker said he intended to take the group public, but not until the airline started to make money, perhaps 'in four to five years'.

'It will only happen after we establish ourselves strongly, once we have consolidated our position, and the airline has returned a profit for three consecutive years,' he said. 'It is very difficult because we keep shifting the goalposts to our expansion plans, making more and more aggressive business plans.'