The world’s best airline is cooling on the world’s fanciest cabin seat.
Qatar Airways, which routinely pockets the top prize at the Skytrax World Airline Awards, won’t have first-class berths on its next-generation long-haul aircraft, according to Chief Executive Officer Akbar Al Baker. Al Baker said the investment in the most luxurious seats doesn’t justify the returns, given that Qatar’s business-class offering provides much of the same perks.
“Why should you invest in a subclass of an aeroplane that already gives you all the amenities that first class gives you,” said Al Baker, speaking in an exclusive hour-long interview in Istanbul on Saturday. “I don’t see the necessity.”
Phasing out first class on long-haul routes isn’t without strategic risk. The move runs counter both to Qatar’s five-star image and an industry trend that has seen airlines from Deutsche Lufthansa AG to Qantas Airways Ltd to Air France doubling down on their high-end offerings. Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr has said more leisure travelers are looking for a special treat, and that the front of his aircraft have never been fuller.
For Al Baker, however, the future lies in business class, which Qatar has branded its “Q-suite” product. That’s why there will be no first class on its future next-generation Boeing Co. 777X aircraft. These jets will become the biggest that the airline operates once it eventually retires all 10 of its Airbus SE A380s, which still contain 8 first class seats.
Cabin classes have become more elastic over the years, with carriers squeezing in premium economy between business and budget seat rows. First class has remained more of a gimmick that corporate clients limit to top executives, or that attracts ordinary passengers splurging on a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience.
The aviation supply chain remains a great source of concern for Qatar Airways, as shortages of parts and snowballing backlogs in the production line hit plane deliveries.
Al Baker, speaking ahead of the annual International Air Transport Association gathering of some 300 airlines, said his airline is about 15 planes short of the 25 it expected to take over of this year — pointing to issues on the Boeing 787, the Airbus 321neo and the A350 jets.
Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun has sought to temper expectations of a quick fix to supply-strain constraints, warning the aerospace industry could face half a decade worth of disruption to all important aircraft deliveries.
“What is happening is a vicious circle and this is the industry’s biggest challenge,” said Al Baker. “Our growth ambitions will have to be capped with the shortage of capacity.”
Qatar Airways said it doesn’t expect its own delivery delays will be resolved before the end of next year.
In terms of expansion, the Gulf carrier has its eyes on Australia, Al Baker said. Qatar Airways is bidding to expand flights and also plans to back new partner Virgin Australia against arch-rival Qantas. Al Baker responded with a smile when asked about an investment in Virgin Australia. While no discussions had taken place, he said “it depends, we’ll see”.
The carrier is seeking to add an extra daily service each into Sydney, Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane. It currently operates a daily flight into all cities except Melbourne, which is twice a day.
Qatar Airways is confident the expansion will be viewed favorably, said Al Baker, pointing out that he continued to operate international flights to most countries during the pandemic — whereas many national airlines stopped flying outright.
“I don’t think is a very big ask to the authorities,” Al Baker said.