I had this image of Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker in my mind as a feisty yet unapproachable man who would not “lower” himself to interact with passengers, instead choosing to sit alone in his suite the entire flight as his entourage of personal FAs and staff fawned over him. The FAs still fawned over him, but he turned out to be a very approachable guy. A group of seven of us had a 40-minute conversation with him on the airline industry, Qatar Airways, the new Hamad International Airport in Doha, and the competition during the A350 Inaugural flight from DOH to FRA on 15 January 2015.
Out of respect for his specific request, I will keep most of what he said in confidence, but he spoke freely on many topics and I appreciated his candor and his self-confidence. Self-confidence can be a liability and yet it is necessary to run an airline – strong-willed Akbar has no deficit of dogged determination.
Two stories. As Akbar walked up the aisle toward us at the start of the conversation, one passenger bowed his head and said, “Good morning Your Excellency”, which of course is part of his full title. His response was, “Please don’t call me Your Excellency. I am Akbar.”
At another point in our conversation the flight got bumpy and the captain turned on the seatbelt sign. A FA dutifully instructed us to return to our seats, but Akbar would have none of that – waving off the FA, he stated, “I am crew and you can remain standing. We will be seated in a moment!” We all laughed and a grin of surprised amusement spread across the face of the FA, but she immediately backed off.
He let everyone take selfies with him as well – I thought that was a very kind gesture!
But he is a character!
And a bit delusional at times too…he maintained that according to the customers he has spoken to, Qatar Airways A380 First Class is a far superior customer experience to Etihad Residence (everyone’s jaw drop). Gino, the first customer to fly in The Residence, pushed back a bit but Akbar had one of those “uh-huh, that’s what I thought, gotcha now, nothing but net!” smirks on his face when Gino admitted that he would likely not pay for The Residence again.
He also argued with a straight face that state-owned Qatar Airways is not subsidized. That’s actually not a bald face lie, but a bit ironic when considering the institutional investor of the airline is the national government.
As I look back upon the flight, I must admit I respect the man – he is a visionary and while it is unclear to me whether Qatar, Etihad, and Emirates can all survive and thrive on a long-term basis, he has built a world-class facility in Doha and is wisely looking forward to 5, 10, and 20 years down the line.
Photo courtesy of Sam Chui