What is Qatar up to?

Ideally, one should not mix writing about travel with politics but, as anyone who has considered travelling beyond Europe this year will be only too aware, travelling without at least half any eye on the political situation, is unwise.

It seems almost every week that Qatar makes another trophy investment in the West. This week, they bought the Intercontinental Grand in Paris (which will remain managed by Intercontinental) which follows on from another purchase of a block of 5 Star hotels in Germany and Central Europe a few weeks earlier. Harrods, a share in Heathrow, major office blocks and shopping malls, they have a voracious appetite for investment. 

Then there is the small matter of the football World Cup and the transformation of Doha into a world class tourist destination. Not to forget, the airline, Qatar Airways, that likes to think of itself as the world’s best.

Qatar certainly likes the West and clearly wants to establish itself as a major World Citizen.

Or at least part of Qatar does. The other part of Qatar seems to be going in exactly the opposite direction. In every conflict in or near the Middle East, Qatar has been in the shadows with a giant wooden spoon, handing help and (presumably) money to one side. This policy is not at all popular with Qatar’s neighbours. They have already fallen out with Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia and relations with parts of Libya and the Lebanon are seriously strained. The current tiffs have caused some restrictions for Qatar Airways on local flights. On a political level, Qatar looks rather friendless – and that was before the current hostilities in Gaza.

It is hard to see what the aim of their political meddling is but if it continues, there might come a time when the West starts to regard Qatar in a less friendly light. If sanctions and the threat of freezing sovereign funds causes problems for Russia, can you imagine what even minor sanctions could do for Qatar?

Maybe they have some very clever longterm plan and their investment strategy, growth plans for the country and geo-political aims are all linked. If not, it is easy to see how it could all go horribly wrong.

Five cheers for Etihad

Etihad have just made a rather terse announcement saying that they want nothing more to do with Skytrax adding that they came to a decision after a review of the criteria and measurements of the Skytrax system.

We are certainly no fans of Skytrax or many of the other organisations who bestow Stars or “World’s Best” accolades on airlines and hotels. The Advertising Standards Authority gave a fairly strong verdict on Skytrax when it upheld a number of complaints against the company one of which was its inability to justify the number of reviews they claimed were made in the awarding process.

It is unlikely that Etihad are the only airline to have stopped doing business with the consultancy that runs the Skytrax system but none of the others have made public announcements about the fact so why did Etihad feel the need to make a statement?

Global travel awards seem to have particular appeal for airlines and hotels operating in the Gulf and other rapidly developing countries. They crave all the worldwide attention they can get and, it has to be said that some of the companies that dish out the rewards have done very nicely from the business of advising their publicity-hungry clients.

Maybe Etihad feel that they are now more mature as a company and do not need to pay consultancy fees and play games but there could be another reason.

Etihad are not the first company to have some questions about Skytrax but by making their doubts public they might be making a sly dig at local competitors who make such a play about being a Skytrax 5 Star airline or airline of the year. 

Which airline is constantly boasting of its Skytrax 5 Star status? Which country has fallen out quite spectacularly with its local Arab neighbours? Which country is facing allegations of bribery over the World Cup (more of which came out on the same weekend that Etihad made its announcement)?

Etihad are making a point – with which we have great sympathy – about Skytrax but they also seem to be delivering an expert camel-kick at Qatar Airways and Qatar in general.

We must say that Etihad have suddenly gone up in our estimation so – without any voting or consutancy fees  - we would like to say that Etihad are now Inside Traveller’s 5 Star Airline of the month.

Qatar and IATA

A timeline:

June 2011 – Akbar Al-Baker, the CEO of Qatar Airways makes a speech in which he is highly critical of IATA and says that it is “run for the few, by the few”. He appeared particularly incensed at the fact that the CEO of arch-rival Etihad was voted on to the board of the organisation.

June 2012 – Akbar Al-Baker is appointed to the Board of IATA

June 2014 – The AGM of IATA is held in Qatar and delegates are stunned by the lavish hospitality which culminates in a surprise performance at the gala dinner by Kylie Minogue who is joined on stage by Mr Al-Baker.

Ms Minogue’s fee for a one-off performance is likely to be around $1m.

As one delegate put it, “they know how to do things in Qatar.”

Maybe they do, but as FIFA is discovering with the problems with the World Cup, subtlety is not their strong point.

Why Qatar Airways’ all-Business London flight won’t last

Much excitement this week from some publications about the announcement that Qatar are to start an all-Business Class flight from Heathrow in the Spring. Maybe it will be a huge success but we have a couple of serious doubts.

Firstly, whilst the idea of an all-Business Class flight sounds rather glamorous, the reality is that it is unlikely to be as comfortable as Business Class in a wide-bodied jet. The seats will probably have to be an adapted and slightly smaller version of the ones used on the wide-bodies. There is also less room to move around whilst catering and entertainment might not be as lavish as on the big jets. All-Business flights on narrow-bodied aircraft work reasonably well on a handful of routes where demand is very limited or the airports can’t handle the bigger jets (BA’s service from London City to New York is an obvious example) but have limited appeal elsewhere.

Secondly, Qatar appear to be charging a premium for this flight – about £550 return on the dates we looked at. The evening flight departs just twenty-five minutes after the normal wide-bodied service. Is it really worth paying more for a service that might not be as comfortable?

The third reason is probably the killer though. Qatar were on the verge of paying Cyprus Airways $20 million for a pair of slots at Heathrow a few weeks ago. The deal fell through because someone made Qatar a better offer. So, let’s say they have bought the slots for this new flight for $17 million. It is going to take a very long time to pay for that operating aircraft with just 39 seats. 

At a guess, the launch of this service is a bit of an experiment and a slot-filler. Maybe the flight will be a massive success and it will be retained but, more likely, Qatar will use the next few months to try and arrange a swap with another airline so they can get slots that work better with their existing flights and then the all-Business flight will be quietly dropped.

For an airline that is about to take delivery of some A380′s, it really does not make sense to pay just under $20 million for a slot to fly 39 passengers a day from one of the world’s busiest airports.

Emirates and FIFA

It is amusing to see Emirates joining with other football sponsors to express “concern” over allegations of bribery at FIFA. Of course, sponsors need to protect their investment and do not want to be associated with a brand that has any whiff of scandal surrounding it.

Some of the more serious allegations relate to Qatar’s surprise win as hosts of the 2022 World Cup. Emirates is no friend of Qatar Airways whom it regards as annoying competition. More generally, there is  not too much love lost between the bling merchants of Dubai and their very much richer neighbours in Qatar.

No doubt Emirates are anxious to insure that FIFA is a deserved recipient of their sponsorship cash. However, if any enquiry were to cause embarrassment in Qatar, that would not go amiss.

"Emirates and Etihad are top airlines in customer survey"

Or so the headline says in a press release which seems to have found its way into a number of travel trade publications. The results of the survey by Ethos Consultancy were:

Emirates 92.3%

Etihad 91.5%

Swiss Air 86.6%

British Airways 84.3%

Virgin 79.8%

Air France 72.3%

Qatar 71.5%

Those publications that have printed the story have done so without comment but, if the survey is to have any credibility at all, it might be worth pointing out the following:

1/ The report refers to an airline called “Swiss Air”. If they do not even know the proper name of one of the airlines they are supposed to be measuring, one wonders just how comprehensive the survey has been or, indeed, how much the consultants know about the airline business.

2/ The survey is based on just “fourteen flight experiences”. We don’t claim to be experts in measuring customer satisfaction but this looks an incredibly small number.

3/ There is no information about who commissioned and paid for this report.

4/ It is interesting to note that Ethos Consultancy is based in Dubai. No doubt it is just a coincidence that their top-rated airline is based in Dubai and the second-best (by a waver-thin margin) is based in Dubai’s friendly neighbour, Abu Dhabi.

5/ Many other surveys show Qatar as one of the best-performing airlines in the world, frequently edging out Emirates and Etihad. Qatar is clearly a major threat to both airlines. In this survey it comes bottom.