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Interview: Qatar Airways UK Country Manager, Gary Kershaw, chats about life under corona

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I had a catch-up a few days ago with Gary Kershaw, who runs Qatar Airways for the UK and Ireland.  We had a lot of ground to cover and we decided in advance that it was worth sharing with a wider audience.

Our chat looks at:

  • how Qatar Airways became the world’s biggest passenger and cargo airline
  • plans for its UK route network
  • how they are currently crewing and catering their flights
  • how they see demand coming back for long haul travel from the UK
  • their current fleet plans, including Qsuite 2.0
  • the new lounge in Heathrow Terminal 4
  • the new British Airways joint venture for flights to Australia

There is a lot to get through, so let’s jump straight in ……

Introductions

Rob: Hi Gary. The last time we spoke was at the Head for Points Travel & Loyalty Awards dinner on 13th January.

[Qatar Airways won ‘Best Business Class Seat & Service’.  The photo below shows Gary, left, with his colleague Michael Clarke collecting the award].

I just pulled up the newspaper front pages from that day and there is no mention of coronavirus at all. It all seems a long time ago now.

Before we talk about that, can we start by running through your background?

Gary: I joined Qatar Airways about 18 months ago. I was previously General Manager for South African Airways in the UK, and before that I ran the UK and Continental Europe sales teams for Air New Zealand. As Country Manager, I am commercially responsible for all of the Qatar Airways sales and marketing activity in the UK.

Qatar 2 HFP Awards 2019

Where is Qatar Airways flying at the moment?

R: You recently announced that Qatar Airways is currently the world’s biggest airline, both in terms of passengers and cargo.

[IATA data shows that Qatar Airways accounted for 17.8% of global passenger kilometres in April 2020, more than the next four airlines combined. It also had the largest cargo market share, with 7.2% of kilometres flown.]

Was this a strategic decision to keep flying and grow market share and brand awareness or did you just suddenly find that your competitors had fallen away and you were the only ones left?

G: The short answer to that is yes.  Our Group Chief Executive, His Excellency Mr. Akbar Al Baker, made made the decision very early on that we would be ‘the airline that took people home’. We wanted to ensure that customers could trust us, that we would operate when we said we were going to operate and that we would do it in the safest way possible.

We reached out very quickly to get the best medical advice we could on how to operates, and we reached out to embassies to offer our help. In the UK, 80% of our passengers have been on one-way tickets, either inbound or outbound. At the end of May we were flying to 30 destinations, and hopefully up to 80 by the end of June.

R: There are some interesting routes flying that people might not expect such as Vienna and Barcelona. Venice is back in July. It’s not just the key gateway cities. How are you choosing?

G:  It is a balance of the cargo opportunity and the passenger opportunity.  What has been good for us throughout this period has been the flexibility of our fleet to offer various combinations of seating and cargo capacity to allow us to put the right aircraft in the right place.

Qatar Airways in the UK

R: In terms of the UK network, what is operating at the moment?

G: We have Heathrow and Manchester at the moment. The June schedule is two per day from Heathrow and one from Manchester. Edinburgh will be open by the time this is published, operating four times per week. Dublin is also open, flying four times per week. There is nothing out of Cardiff, Gatwick or Birmingham at the moment.

R: Do you see a future for the Gatwick operation? There is clearly an opportunity now to pick up additional slots at Heathrow, either outright or borrowed from British Airways, given that you have a 25% shareholding in IAG.

G: Gatwick was an incredible success for us.  We launched the flights at very short notice and it went very quickly to triple daily.  We have also done equipment upgrades to increase capacity.  We don’t know what the future looks like, but based on past performance I would hope to be back at Gatwick.  It is very attractive to us and suits our premium leisure customers.

R: Given the lack of competition now at Gatwick, with Virgin Atlantic, Norwegian and British Airways pulling out – perhaps permanently for Virgin – there is probably an increased opportunity there.

G: Yes, I agree.

Catering with coronavirus

R: British Airways is currently running a very stripped down catering service in Club World – literally a sandwich, water and a Kit Kat in a plastic bag. You get a slice of reheated pizza if your flight is over 10 hours. I’ve seen photographs of this pizza and it’s not good! [This interview was done before the announcement of BA’s improved catering which launched last week.] Qatar – and, to be fair, Emirates and Etihad – all seem to be doing their best to offer a proper premium service at the moment in Business Class.

G: It’s a tray service with a cutlery wrap, not a table set up, so you are getting your entire meal served at once to minimise crew contact.  You are getting the same quality and quantity that you would expect from Qatar Airways.  In Economy, all meals are cutlery are being served sealed as usual.  Hand sanitiser is available in cabins for both crew and passenger use if they wish.

R: You have decided to have cabin crew wear full PPE during flights. Other airlines are asking crew to wear masks but nothing more. The photographs you have circulated to the press show crew who look like they are about to enter an operating theatre! Has it gone down well with crew and passengers? I would imagine it could easily make people feel less comfortable.

G: It all goes back to two things. The first is that we aren’t taking any chances, and the second is that it offers a level of reassurance to the customer. This is part of what we’ve been trying to say all along, which is that if you fly with us you can fly with confidence. It hopefully doesn’t detract from how the crew can interact. I had some feedback from a bioengineer who had flown with us and was very impressed with what we had done. I accept that you could find it off-putting, but what we’re finding at the moment is that the people who are travelling are people who have to travel and are reassured by what they are seeing on board.

Future demand

R: How are you seeing forward bookings at the moment? Do you see a quick ramp up of long haul travel from the UK once the current quarantine rules are lifted? As I talk to you I am sitting in a virtually empty office building in Central London, with no sign of any return to normality.

G:  I think there are a multitude of things in that question.  One is that clearly no-one is going to go anywhere in the current climate if they need to self-isolate when they come back.  I think there will definitely be a ‘wait and see’ attitude towards July and August.  Certainly talking to some of the business travel management companies and leisure agents, they have spent 2-3 months working very hard on refunds and rebooking. They are not seeing much traction in terms of new bookings but enquiries are up.

Some are more bullish than others. Some are talking about October but the majority of agents are talking about January and onwards next year.

What has been encouraging is the number of corporates that now want to talk to us for the first time. The Qsuite offers a level of physical distancing that other business class seats do not. It is also because we have been flying throughout and we haven’t been cancelling services. We operate when we say we are going to operate. There is increased interest in flying what would otherwise be direct services but with us via Doha, to places like Singapore and Hong Kong.

R: I don’t believe the talk of businesses trading down from Business Class to save money. If you are a blue chip employer, it’s very risky, legally and morally, to expect your staff to fly in long-haul Economy. It seems, from a liability point of view, sensible to let people fly in Business Class even if they wouldn’t normally be allowed to do so, to demonstrate that you had done all you could to keep them safe.

G: I think that one of the things that will come out of this is that people will have a better appreciation of value for money. You’re right in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility, and I think companies will be a lot choosier about where they put their employees, both in terms of what sort of product and what sort of price.

R: For anyone looking to book a long haul flight for later this year, what is the situation in terms of stopping over in Doha? This has been a key part of your strategy in the past.

G: It won’t be possible for a while. We are expecting resident permit holders to be able to return very soon, which is especially important for us as we have a number of employees displaced around the world. After that it will move step by step, and when it is safe, but I hope stopovers will be available as soon as possible as they are increasingly popular.

The recent healthcare competition

R: You ran a competition recently to offer 100,000 free seats across your network to healthcare workers, and you followed this up with a strong discount deal for those who didn’t win. The articles we wrote on it were very popular and I know a few HFP readers were winners. How did that come about?

G: There was a desire to show appreciation.  Qatar is obviously a very culturally diverse country in as much as there are only 268,000 Qatari nationals with the rest being expats, and it is also a very philanthropic country. It was incredibly well received, which unfortunately meant that not everyone could get tickets who applied.  We thought very hard about following up with the 50% discount deal to those who didn’t win, but we were committed to saying thank you.

Fleet plans and Qsuite 2.0

R: Let’s turn to the fleet. Like everyone else, your A380 fleet is currently parked up. Your CEO has said to the media that they will not fly again for at least a year. Does that chime with what you are hearing internally? Clearly filling an A380 at the moment is virtually impossible.

G: The A380 is not a great cargo aircraft, unfortunately. A lot of our flying at the moment is cargo related – we have brought over 1 million tonnes of PPE into the UK, for example. We are lucky that we have the flexibility in the fleet. We have restarted some routes on a Boeing 787 and then upgraded to an A350 and then a Boeing 777 as demand comes back.

The other thing is that the A380 does not have Qsuite and will never get Qsuite, mainly because of the weight of it. We have been trying to fly Qsuite as much as we possibly can.

R: The new Boeing 787-9 fleet, which I believe you have started to receive but are not flying yet, has the new Qsuite 2.0. This was meant to be unveiled at the cancelled ITB travel show in February and I still haven’t seen any pictures. The rumours are of a slightly lower door and the removal of the ‘quad’ option, although the double bed option remains. Is this something we can expect to see at Heathrow or Gatwick in the near future?

G: To be honest, I’ve not seen the design for Qsuite 2.0 either! In terms of London, you will never see it at Heathrow. We have already gone beyond the threshold of what the 787 fleet can offer in terms of capacity. It will be A350 or Boeing 777s in the short term. Gatwick is moving in a similar direction and it is likely to end up as all A350 or all 777.

R: The 787-9 has your new economy seat as well which was unveiled at ITB back in 2019.

G: Yes. This is also due to appear on the [single aisle] Airbus A321LR fleet when that comes in.

R: Ah, I didn’t know you had some of those on the way. I haven’t flown on one yet. Can they fly from the UK to Doha?

G: Yes

R: That’s interesting. For a hub and spoke operator like you I think these are a good option. I can see the possibility of running those from smaller UK cities into Doha and then connecting onwards on larger aircraft. Belfast was one destination that your CEO has mentioned in the past. To be honest, I was surprised that you launched Cardiff with a widebody.

G: It certainly puts other points in the UK on the map, yes. Cardiff has actually performed very well – up to March, obviously – and we had been hoping for a strong Summer.

[NOTE: Since we spoke, Qatar Airways has announced that it will be deferring delivery of the A321LR fleet until 2022.]

The new Heathrow lounge

R: What’s happening with the expansion of the Premium Lounge at Heathrow Terminal 4? Obviously you are flying out of Terminal 2 at the moment with Terminal 4 closed.

G: The work had started when the terminal closed. I’m not sure if contractors are being allowed in at the moment or if it is completely mothballed. The work had been on target and obviously moving to Heathrow Terminal 2 was not ideal, although I am a big fan of it as a space.

The British Airways / Qatar Airways Australian joint venture

R: Last question. The Australia joint venture between Qatar Airways and British Airways has just got approval from the Australian competition authorities. This seems to be a ‘win win’ whether you are a British Airways or a Qatar Airways flyer, opening up Australian cities outside Sydney via more convenient connections and metal-neutral ticketing. I doubt BA is ever going to fly anywhere except Sydney.

G: I think it’s a logical extension of the existing London to Doha joint venture agreement we have with BA. Australia has the hardest competition authority in the world, to be honest, so we were delighted to receive the approval. I think it opens up a world of possibilities for Qatar and BA customers.

Comments (76)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Alun says:

    Wasn’t aware of healthcare discount. I didn’t manage to get free flights but would love to know how to get 50% off flights

    • Rhys says:

      It was emailed out to applicants, although the 50% off only applies to the base fare so not quite as generous as you think.

      • Baji Nahid says:

        I think its targeted as I applied and never got the tickets but i didnt get this email either. I tried every night too!

  • Jay says:

    Anyone know if the 5000 mile flexibility Qatar introduced to bookings is also applied to points redemptions?

  • Andrew says:

    It isn’t in normal times but in a post-covid world an employer could be on shaky ground if they didn’t do all they could to keep their employees safe. Arguably putting employees in a position where you know they won’t be able to socially distance (an economy seat) could see you liable should they become ill.

    • Anon says:

      @rob 9.29 – A positive contact trace wouldn’t be the standard of proof required. You’d have to show that the employee would not have got COVID if they had been in business. I suggest that’s a very challenging thing to do. This is even if you can establish the prior aspect, distinct from the issue of causation, which is whether the employer has breached their duty of care. If government advice does not require/advise travelling in business class then you might not even be able to say they’ve breached their duty of care. I still think that causation is the bigger problem.

  • Rob says:

    You have an overriding duty of care to your staff. If you fly them in Economy and they catch CV, which could be traced back to the aircraft, and you had the option of socially distancing the same person in Business Class but chose not to purely for financial reasons, that’s not going to end well if it goes to court.

  • Brian says:

    Why is it a moral risk, too???

    • Rob says:

      Hard to believe Brian, but some companies do still have the welfare of their staff at heart, irrespective of legal liability.

      The general HFP rule is that the staff do not fly in any cabin / airline / hotel where I would not be happy to fly myself.

  • Anon says:

    I suppose Rob might have been suggesting the employee could sue the employer for negligence if they became ill as a result of being too close to other passengers in economy. I must say that for a variety of reasons I don’t think an action like that would succeed.

    • AndyW says:

      ‘The chances of getting coronavirus on a plane are close to zero though aren’t they?’

      Why do you say this? Not disagreeing just not heard anything along these lines so interested in the source.

    • Anon says:

      I agree with you that one of the major difficulties would be proving that it was passed on during the flight and, moreover, that it would not have been passed on if the passenger had travelled in business rather than economy. That’s the main reason I don’t think somebody suing the employer would win.

      • Rob says:

        ‘Proving’ it will be fairly easy because of contact tracing, going forward. Airlines will send you an email saying that you were sat close to someone who has tested positive.

      • Callum says:

        I’d be interested to see what authorities would accept that as definitive proof if there’s ever a future case about it.

        My non-legal mind would outright reject it. You couldn’t possibly prove it came from that person, so you’d be relying on it being more likely than not. Given the wide spread throughout the UK and the lack of contact tracing, I wouldn’t personally accept it.

        That being said, I wouldn’t be supportive of any company making anyone fly full stop. You can still catch it in business class.

      • Chris Heyes says:

        [email protected] 500 people catching corona virus might be proof lol

      • The Savage Squirrel says:

        It’s worth noting that quite a few replies above have misunderstood the legal threshold for proof required.

        In civil cases you just have to prove something on the balance of probabilities, NOT so that you are sure. If it was 50.01% likely that you caught it on the plane …. you win.

    • memesweeper says:

      ‘The chances of getting coronavirus on a plane are close to zero though aren’t they?’

      No. SARS was communicated with lethal effect for several passengers from one infected person on one flight — google ‘Air China Flight 112’ — coronavirus is likely the same.

      • Lady London says:

        This is why I find the ‘our aircraft have HEPA filters that are the same as hospitals and air is cleaned and xhanged completely every 2 or 3 minutes’ statements made by airlines unconvincing.

        Many, many times I find my body fighting off a cold or cough starting from soon after a flight for 1-3 days if there’s been someone even 8 or so rows ahead, iccasuonally more, on that flight with a bad cough or cold. The longer the flight, the more likely. Older aircraft seem worse.

        It’s never happened to me on the A350 ans nkt on the A38. Not flown enough on the 787 to know.

      • Lady London says:

        *not on the *A380*

    • Chris Heyes says:

      Lockdown [email protected] of course there are some areas that are completely safe
      Planes, Airports, Schools, other country’s soon pubs/clubs lol

  • a9504477 says:

    Nice interview although it would have been even nicer with some questions about their FFP.

    • memesweeper says:

      +1

      your fees and charges on redemptions, why? do you event *want* UK/oneworld frequent flyers to join your scheme or redeem on your airline?

      • Rob says:

        This is not in Gary’s remit. And, frankly, whilst it’s not that they ‘don’t’ want UK members, they aren’t going to waste their time tailoring a global scheme purely to make it attractive against BAEC.

        Even if it WAS better than BAEC in terms of miles and taxes needed, it would still be worse factoring in the lack of a UK credit card and the impact of the BA Amex 2-4-1 on BA redemption pricing.

        They presumably concentrate their firepower on other countries where there isn’t an incumbent oneworld airline.

        And Qatar Airways owns 25% of IAG anyway, so what’s the point of trying to hurt a company you part-own?

  • Brian says:

    ‘Qatar…is a very philanthropic country.’ Try telling that to the immigrant workers building the stadia for the World Cup!
    (Cambridge Dictionary: philanthropy: the activity of helping the poor, especially by giving them money)

    • Callum says:

      Like the other dictatorships in the region (and world) it’s a pretty reprehensible country, and this guy is obviously sucking up to his employer, but they are pretty philanthropic. They are one of the most generous donators of foreign aid in the world.

    • marcw says:

      + how they treat their employees.

      • Lady London says:

        + how they look after their citizens.
        I am very sad at the opportunistic way other Middle East countries have tried to block Qatar Airways and harm QR’s business, saying it’s for ideological reasons when they’re really protecting their own airlines.

        • Lady London says:

          just to clear, I think @marcw and I have opposite views. Qatar as a country looks after its citizens very well.

          On the subject of the conditions under which crew live QR is open about those and staff know when they take the contract. Being a more purely secular country than Qatar, British Airways on the other hand has privatised employee restrictions and hardship by using the UK regulatory environment and market conditions to move pay and conditions to a low level whose result also limits the employee’s personal freedom.

          • The Savage Squirrel says:

            It’s worth noting that when you say Qatar looks after its citizens … this amounts to roughly 12% of the country’s residents.. So 88% of the country’s population … not so much.

    • TGLoyalty says:

      Ever seen how migrant workers are treated here bu gangmasters etc?

      • Lady London says:

        The story of, say, Pakistani labour in the Middle East generally is not good. China similar.

        What is that labour’s alternative? without a strong regulatory environment protecting employees the market takes over. Where you have an oversupply of labour (too many people in the world for available jobs) this is what happens. A less naked (and fair enough) version is being talked about over on the British Airways threads on here for some time now.

        • Rob says:

          How many people who complain about the conditions of migrant workers in the Middle East are willing to support fully open immigration, to anyone, unskilled or skilled, to the UK?

          If not, you’re being hypocritical.

          The best way to improve the conditions of migrant workers in the Middle East would be to allow them to come to the UK to work. This would force employers in the Middle East to improve what they offer, otherwise people would flock to Britain instead.

          However, we don’t allow that. If you’re an unskilled worked from the Indian subscontinent you don’t have many options. It’s also worth noting that such workers earn more than they would earn at home.

          • AJA says:

            The best way to improve the conditions of migrant workers in the Middle East or indeed anywhere is for their own countries to improve conditions and offer jobs that pay better than they can get by being a migrant worker. There would not be migrant workers if that was the case. Migrant workers only work elsewhere because they can get a job that pays better than in their homeland or they see it as a step to moving permanently elsewhere and eventually bringing their families to join them. In the meantime they send any spare cash back to support their families back home. It must be awful not to see your own family for months, even years at a time.

          • Ketan says:

            Have to agree and from my side they should definitely be allowed to work in the UK

          • Lady London says:

            @Lockdown Larry in some countries that’s really how it is.

          • Callum says:

            This has to rank as one of the most utterly ridiculous arguments I have ever seen in my entire life. On any topic.

            The only solution to resolving slave labour in the Middle East is categorically not to invite the whole planet to live in the UK…

            I can only hope you’re trying to assuage a feeling of guilt you have for regularly shoveling thousands of pounds into this system!

          • Rob says:

            You can’t criticise a system unless you are willing to willing to do something about fixing it. The only way you can do that would be to let those same people settle and work here for better conditions. You’re just a hypocrite otherwise, being a NIMBY on a larger scale.

            You’re sounding like the sort of person who puts a Black Lives Matter status on their Facebook page but refuses to confront their own employers about why the entire management team is white.

          • Rob says:

            He can campaign for it, or at least show support for the idea.

            Fundamentally it is hypocritical to complain about anything in the world unless you are willing to take practical steps to change it, or at least be willing to accept the change that is required to make a difference.

          • Rob says:

            But you can. You can write to your MP to suggest more support for unemployed minority groups who might otherwise find themselves easily swayed, you can join groups which offer multi-faith outreach, you can encourage your own employer to recruit from minority groups. There is plenty you can do to improve inclusivity in the UK. The odds are you work for a company with an all-white management team which is doing nothing to improve the life chances of people who might otherwise be swayed or help those who do not feel part of this country.

          • Mr. AC says:

            PREACH!
            Rob is, of course, entirely correct. The horrible conditions in the ME for migrant workers are substantially better than starving in your home country.
            I often hear similar arguments about cruise ships – low pay, bad working conditions. Yet the line in recruiting centers in my home country is out the door! Many years ago, I applied and was rejected – they wouldn’t take anyone without at least an undergraduate degree & 2 foreign languages (I only knew English & my native tongue). This was for a waiter position, and the STARTING salary was 4x the median in my not-so-poor-by-local-standards city. You can work for 2-3 years and buy a house, basically.

    • Binks says:

      Plus 1

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