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Qatar Airways CEO Al Baker defiant in face of blockade, laptop ban

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Earlier this month, on the first morning of the IATA AGM in Cancun, word quickly spread that Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker—who had been seen amiably socializing with fellow airline CEOs at the event’s opening reception the previous evening—had left on a private business jet bound for Qatar. The news of the diplomatic rift between Qatar and four Gulf neighbors—the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt—had broken overnight. Those countries abruptly cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar, including closing their airspace to any Qatar-registered aircraft. This meant that not only would Qatar Airways’ network in the Gulf be curtailed, but it would have to fly longer routes on many of its flights to avoid those countries’ airspace.

On top of the laptop ban already in place, it appeared to be a devastating blow to Al Baker and Qatar Airways. Those attending the AGM speculated on whether Al Baker, usually a very public presence at the AGM and a notable absence this year, would show up at the Paris Air Show, where Qatar Airways always has a strong presence. Would Qatar Airways batten down the hatches and play it conservatively while the airspace blockade remained in place?

Just over two weeks later, we have our answer. Al Baker indeed was at Le Bourget, where Qatar Airways showcased its new QSuite business-class offering, and has been very public and vocal over the past week or so about his displeasure with the airspace blockade he calls a “gross violation of international law.” US President Donald Trump and ICAO have both been subjects of Al Baker’s criticisms on the issue. And today news came that Qatar Airways wants to invest more than $800 million to buy up to a 10% stake in the world’s largest airline.

The unsolicited bid for a large stake in American Airlines very publicly demonstrates that state-owned Qatar Airways has access to high levels of capital despite the business difficulties with which it is currently contending. Al Baker is adamant that Qatar Airways will not be canceling any aircraft orders or any route launches, even if the airspace blockade forces it to fly much longer distances—as is the case with planned Doha-Rio de Janeiro flights slated to start in January 2018 that will be two hours longer if the blockade is still in place. In fact, route launches will be brought forward and new routes added to account for the capacity that had been deployed in the Gulf region, Al Baker has said.

Make no mistake, the laptop ban and airspace blockade are adding huge operational costs for Qatar Airways, something Al Baker doesn’t deny. But the airline is willing to endure those costs and seek new sources of revenue to help make up the difference, and Al Baker is insisting it is largely “business as usual.” With the American bid, the airline is making clear that it will continue to invest in major foreign airlines—the proposed American stake would add to Qatar Airways’ investments that include stakes in International Airlines Group and LATAM Airlines Group.

Qatar Airways and its feisty CEO have no plans to depart center stage of the global air transport scene anytime soon.

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