Back in June, Qatar suddenly found itself cut off from a number of Gulf states in a sudden escalation of a major diplomatic rift. The Saudi-led bloc, including the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt accused Qatar of funding and promoting Islamist extremists – they imposed sanctions which saw Qatari nationals expelled and borders closed.
Importantly, the border closures meant that Qatar Airways could no longer fly to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Qatari aircraft were banned from flying over airspace belonging to its neighbours. The airline was even stripped of its licence and stopped from operating any of its business functions in Saudi Arabi and the UAE.
Make no mistake – these four countries were important markets for Qatar Airways. The airline had built up an extensive regional network connecting Doha with the other big economies in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, in particular, had been a major focus for Qatar with new routes launched just weeks before the blockade was imposed.
In fact, at one stage, Qatar Airways had even planned a separate subsidiary airline to serve the domestic Saudi Arabian market. Named Al Maha Airlines – meaning Oryx in Arabic, the national animal of Qatar, the carrier had already taken delivery of 10 Airbus A320 aircraft.
Plans to launch Al Maha Airlines were dropped in February
Unfortunately, plans to launch Al Maha Airlines were abandoned in February after years of delays. Despite detailed plans being made for the airline, Qatar had failed to secure an air operators licence from the Saudi authorities. At the time, Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways chief executive said he was “disappointed” with the decision.
The situation meant Qatar Airways was already working out ways to fully deploy its fleet of 39 A320 aircraft. The souring of diplomatic relations in June was a major development that only exacerbated Qatar’s fleet deployment woes.
After all – an aircraft not flying is an aircraft not making any money. In the wake of the border closures and Qatar’s expulsion from Saudi Arabia and others, it’s estimated that over 10 aircraft were indefinitely grounded.
Economic sanctions starting to bite
Admittedly, Qatar is the richest country per capita on Earth and many analysts have said the country has plenty of reserves to weather even the longest of storms but the economy is starting to take a hit.
Qatar’s economy expanded just 0.6% between April to June, compared to the year before. The government has recently announced a number of measures to help the private sector cope with the effects of the ongoing sanctions.
On the face of it, however, there is no crisis at Qatar Airways. The airline continues to invest in its onboard product and expand its luxury fleet of state of the art aircraft. Yet things are a little different behind the scenes. The grounded A320’s have got to pay for themselves somehow.
Qatar Airways has successfully wet-leased spare aircraft on two occasions
Luckily, it wasn’t long after the diplomatic spat erupted that another airline’s misfortune became Qatar’s good luck. With a cabin crew strike at British Airways set to seriously impact the carrier’s operations, Qatar Airways was called in to help operate flights. Nine of the grounded A320’s, along with crew were dispatched to London on a wet-lease arrangement.
Of course, the arrangement was only temporary but Qatar Airways clearly made a good impression on the British government. When the UK-based charter airline, Monarch collapsed at the start of October, the Civil Aviation Authority called into action the Qatari jets once more. On this occasion, 10 A320’s and their crew were chartered for the massive repatriation effort of British tourists from their overseas holidays.
In the meantime, Qatar is looking for a more longterm solution – it comes in the form of a slew of new routes that the carrier has rolled out over the last few months. And just a few days ago, yet another new route – on this occasion, Qatar announced it would launch flights to St Petersburg, Russia for the first time. Operations will commence in mid-December using one of the A320’s.
“This new route demonstrates our determination to continue expanding with scores of exciting new destinations to attract passengers from all over the world,” explained Al Baker.
A320’s will be used to increase capacity on existing routes
St Petersburg follows other route launches in the region to Skopje and Sarajevo. All of which will be served by Qatar’s fleet of Airbus A320 aircraft. The airline even plans to increase capacity on routes currently served by widebody aircraft by adding additional flights using the A320’s. Helsinki, Warsaw and Prague will see an extra flight added in mid-December.
On top of that, an additional flight using an A320 was added to Soha in Oman at the start of October. The route was only launched in September. Oman remains one of the few countries in the region with open diplomatic relations with Qatar.
Qatar Airways says the reason for the move is simple – it’s all down to a “surge in passenger demand.” The fact the airline has aircraft going spare probably helps matters as well.
Whether these new routes will prove as profitable as the airline hopes remain to be seen. At the very least, Qatar Airways has found a way to make good use of aircraft which would otherwise be grounded.