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PHOTOS: Thomson becomes first UK airline to receive Boeing 787

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Interview with Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker

Aviation Business (November 2011 Issue)
I have been re-visiting some of the articles I wrote for Aviation Business magazine during my time as senior group editor, before I started working for Etihad Airways. After kicking-off with a cover story on the former Oman Air CEO Peter Hill, I have selected Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker for the second part of this series. 
It took months of planning to secure this interview, which was the cover story for our November 2011 issue of Aviation Business magazine. This issue was special in many ways – it was bumper sized to coincide with the Dubai Airshow (with huge distribution at the show and the Qatar Airways chalet), and Al Baker actually agreed to work with me as ‘guest editor’ – something he’s never done with any publication before (and something the magazine has never done before either). 

Al Baker is always great for interviews – very outspoken, opinionated, and knowledgeable, which is the perfect formula for attention-grabbing quotes! We also had a nice photo shoot with him at Doha Airport for the cover, the results of which were pretty impressive. The article is below:

Qatar Airways Group CEO Akbar Al Baker Interviewed By Robeel Haq (Archive from November 2011)

Earlier this year, a staggering 18.8 million passengers from 100 different nationalities voted for their favourite airline, the results of which were announced at the prestigious Skytrax World Airline Awards. Speculation had been mounting for several months about the potential winner, with Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Asiana Airlines hot favourites to reclaim the title, having collected the award in 2008, 2009 and 2010, respectively. However, dangerously underestimated in the race, it was actually Qatar Airways that walked home with the accolade, much to the delight of CEO Akbar Al Baker, whose sole mission since heading the Doha-based carrier in November 1996 has been developing the ultimate travel experience for airline passengers on a global scale.
My interview with Al Baker
That objective seemed far-fetched at the time, with Qatar Airways offering an “inconsistent”, “erratic” and “poor” service, as described by Al Baker himself. In fact, the licensed private pilot admits that his peers from neighbouring Emirates Airline and Gulf Air would often sneer at his grand ambitions back then, but 15-years later, and the Skytrax rankings have somehow charted the airline’s victorious transformation into a global, premium heavyweight.

“Just have a look back at the 2003 Skytrax listings; Qatar Airways was not even placed in the top 20, we took the 24th position. However, we jumped to number seven in 2004 – the highest moving entrant of that year – then number six in 2006, number four in 2007 and last year, Qatar Airways took the third place,” the industry veteran explains. “Now, in 2011, we’ve reached the top. This reflects a long-term vision to be number one and remain number one, not only in terms of aircraft fleet and route network, but also service delivery, product offering, hospitality and attention to detail. Ever since I became chief executive, during the airline’s re-launch, that has been my goal, for Qatar Airways to reach the pinnacle of the airline industry.”

Now that Al Baker has achieved the number one ranking for Qatar Airways, how does he plan to surpass the achievement? “Well, being named the world’s best airline is one thing, but maintaining that title is another,” he states, before taking a pause. “The product must continuously be innovated; we cannot sit on our laurels and expect that Qatar Airways will remain number one. Just because we have reached the pinnacle, our focus cannot be lost. I will constantly be on-guard to ensure the product is always second-to-none.”

Friday, November 23, 2012

Interview with Oman Air CEO Peter Hill

Aviation Business Magazine (August 2011 Cover)
I’ve decided to start this blog by re-living some of my past interviews with Middle East airline CEOs as the senior group editor of Aviation Business magazine, before I started working for Etihad Airways. First up, I have selected this interview with Peter Hill, the former CEO of Oman Air. This was meant to be his final interview as CEO before retiring (August 2011 issue) – so quite an exclusive. However, after being published, he was convinced to stay a little longer until his replacement was found. I have a feeling it was still his last interview, but I’m not sure.

He was a friendly and down-to-earth interviewee – and obviously very passionate about aviation. What’s more, he was very informed about behind-the-scenes happenings in the Middle East airline industry, so we had a little gossip too – but of course, all off the record and could not be published! A highlight of the article was our cover shoot at Muscat Airport – took quite some time on the tarmac in the mid-day heat, but thankfully he was patient and accommodating, and the results were great. One of my favourite covers during the 6.5 years I worked at ITP Publishing Group!

 Oman Air CEO Peter Hill Interviewed By Robeel Haq (Archive from August 2011)

Following the announcement that Peter Hill will retire from his position as chief executive officer of Oman Air in September, there has been endless speculation about his replacement. The latest media reports have mooted British Midlands International CEO Wolfgang Prock-Schauer as the favoured candidate, and since an official confirmation is imminent, it’s unsurprising that Hill himself is reluctant to discuss the matter. “My lips are sealed,” he laughs. “I know a few people have been shortlisted and an announcement will soon be made to end the speculation. I’m sure the choice will be good for Oman Air and whoever is eventually selected, hopefully they will lead the airline to breakeven in the near future.”

It’s been three years since Hill took over the reigns at Oman Air, hand-picked to manage the biggest transformation in the national carrier’s history. His appointment was well-received at the time, with over 50 years of experience in the aviation industry, including management roles at British Overseas Airways Corporation (now British Airways), Gulf Air, Emirates Airline and SriLankan Airways. “Originally I planned to stay a couple of years and then retire, although I was convinced to stay on for another 12 months,” he states. “From the start, I knew that Oman Air had a lot of potential and that’s what attracted me to the position. I never actually applied; they came and found me, which was very flattering. At the same time, I knew this would be a challenging job. We were the last of the Gulf airlines to seriously look at changing our business model, with competition from three very successful carriers, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. We could never take them on, they are far too big and established, and so we had to carve our own niche in the market.”

Cover shoot with Oman Air CEO Peter Hill at Muscat Airport
Shortly after his appointment, Hill outlined a five-year strategy that he believed would support Oman Air in achieving breakeven as a “luxury boutique airline”, with a revised business model, complete rebranding and multi-billion dollar investments in fleet developments. “We commenced the strategy in 2008, when Oman Air was half its current size, with two leased aircraft that operated on long-haul flights to Gatwick, as well as several Boeing 737NGs. We had a strong reputation as a regional player that focused on the transportation of labour around various markets in the GCC and India subcontinent,” he reflects. “It was important to keep those markets, as they’re our bread and butter, but we also wanted to expand the network into longer-haul markets outside of the region, which was a balancing act of sorts.” Amongst the routes that have been introduced in the past 18 months are Milan, Kathmandu, Dammam, Kuala Lumpur and Lahore, while Moscow is scheduled for a November start. “Oman’s population is growing, and it’s a young population, so they will be passengers of the future and lead to strong outbound tourism. Plus we have increasing potential in the business market, with the development of new industries, which also bodes well for the airline,” he states. “Because our network has expanded so aggressively, I do not expect a large number of new destinations in the next couple of years. Instead, we will fine tune our existing destinations, schedules and routes more efficiently, in order to improve the yields.”

Over the past three years, Hill has also continued his mission to further develop Oman as a tourism hub and he’s willing to admit that progress has been frustratingly slow. “We’ve been very successful in transporting passengers through Muscat airport, although there is some way to go in getting people to recognise the benefits and opportunities of visiting Oman, which is a very unique country,” he stresses. “It takes a combined effort by all stakeholders in the country’s ambassadorship to effectively promote Oman. If you look at other countries that have recently succeeded in tourism development, such as India, Malaysia and even Sri Lanka, it’s because the message has been consistent from the tourism board, hoteliers, tour operators and of course the national airline. All of these stakeholders have created one voice, but if there are multiple voices, as we have in Oman, then the message is fragmented and lacks the punch.” With recent changes in the country’s ministry of tourism, plus with a new CEO and board of directors at Oman Air, Hill is hopeful about further progress after he leaves the airline. “They can use the platform that we have built and tell the world about Oman. I’m not talking about mass tourism, because Oman needs more sophisticated, well-travelled tourists to appreciate its beauty,” he adds.

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