Here we go again – the chief executive of Qatar Airways, the often outspoken and controversial figure Akbar Al Baker has used a news conference at the ITB Berlin aviation expo to reignite a rumour the airline will pull out of the Oneworld alliance. Qatar Airways only joined the alliance in 2013 but suggestions the Doha-based airline could leave have been around since at least 2015 – just two years after joining.
The actual possibility of Qatar Airways leaving the alliance really heated up last October when Baker told journalists his commitment to the alliance had “diminished” because his company was being “constantly attacked by (a) Oneworld partner”. Baker said he had issued an ultimatum to the alliance and its members and that Qatar Airways could leave “soon” if its concerns weren’t addressed.
Then, in February, Baker appeared at a news conference in London with the chief executives of every other Oneworld member airline as the alliance announced a major rebranding and plans to enhance the passenger experience. Perhaps Qatar Airways had settled its differences with the other members?
Or perhaps not – at today’s event, Baker said an announcement whether to leave Oneworld or not would be made in around 1-2 months. The airline is still weighing up its options but Baker seems to be leaning towards withdrawing Qatar Airways from the alliance. He certainly didn’t mince his words, making the dispute rather personal:
“You see when you invite somebody, you invite me, to your house, and then you tell me that I can not drink the water from the glass I have to drink from the tap, and then you tell me that we will not give you any food, we will only give you bread and water. This is not why you invited me to your house. You invited me to your house as your guest, and as somebody that you respect,” Baker told the assembled journalists.
“Qatar Airways is not a Mickey Mouse airline. We are the largest ASK contributor to the Oneworld if you add all our investments. And if you remove those investments, we are the second largest ASK contributor to the Oneworld. And if we leave Oneworld we will create a big hole for them in their entire connectivity.
We are not going to be bullied by some individual who thinks that the world belongs to them. The world belongs to the world community. And we as an airline, we will demand respect, and we will not submit to anybody that is trying to bully us.
We in the matter of a month or two will give you the news if we are going to stay or we are going to withdraw. And I think it is the latter that will happen. Since the people that invited us are now constantly targeting us and our growth.”
The issue here is Baker’s annoyance with the behaviour of two Oneworld member airlines – American Airlines and Qantas. The first has not only spurned an investment bid from Qatar Airways but has led a campaign against the expansion of Middle East airline’s, including Qatar Airways, into the United States.
American claims Qatar Airways has received billions of dollars in government subsidies that have distorted the competitive market and put U.S. jobs at risk. Doug Parker, the CEO of American has admitted that his airline is “aggressively” fighting Qatar Airways and has described the investment bid as “misguided and ill-conceived”.
Meanwhile, Qantas is said to have lobbied the Australian government to limit the number of cities that Qatar Airways can fly to in Australia. Rather than helping out its Oneworld partner, Qantas has favoured its joint venue with Qatar’s rival Emirates which enjoys unlimited access to Australia.
It’s clear from Baker’s latest comments that he expected membership of Oneworld to buy friendship and favours from rival airlines. Not only has that not happened but several members have been downright hostile towards his airline.
Yet Qatar Airways has invested in several Oneworld airlines – British Airways and Iberia, Cathay Pacific and LATAM. Those airlines aren’t likely to ever leave the alliance so Qatar Airways has more to gain from staying in rather than leaving. At this point, however, it seems like Baker is in the mood to cut off his nose to spite his face. If he expects his public statements to get a reaction from rivals then it might not be the reaction he is hoping for.
Of course, one could argue that airline alliances are becoming increasingly less important. Qatar Airways could easily pursue joint ventures and codeshare agreements outside of oneworld and its departure would hurt Oneworld as much as it hurts Qatar Airways.