British Airways is a ‘2 out of 10’ airline, said a senior airline executive in a Sunday Times interview yesterday.
The amusing thing is that the company behind the man behind the comment – Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways – owns 25% of BA’s parent company, IAG. It’s the parenting equivalent of telling your step-children they’re ugly.
I should say, before I go on, that I have met Akbar on a few occasions and like him. He is an interesting character though. Of all the titled people I know, he is the only one that I always feel expects to be called by their title (‘His Excellency’) and would be offended otherwise. I have also visited the Qatar Airways head office in Doha in the past.
The interview covered a range of topics, but I focus on just two areas here. The first is his opinion on British Airways, and the second is his opinion on premium economy seating.
“I’m very direct,” he says. “I don’t care what people think. People need to hear frank opinions.”
Akbar Al Baker on British Airways
“BA management “lost focus”, he says. Instead of making it “an airline Britain and the British people would be proud of”, the leadership reduced it “to a low-cost carrier — a level I never expected BA to be”. He explains: “British Airways is the flag carrier of the UK. You remember the motto? ‘To fly, to serve’. That was not any more the motto of the company. It was only on a billboard.” When Qatar Airways decided to invest, “we wanted BA to get the glitter back. We wanted an airline that doesn’t sell food but serves food.”
How many marks out of ten would he give BA in recent years? “Two.”
Al Baker hasn’t given up hope of still being proud of his step-child. Financially, of course, IAG has always delivered a better return for the Qatari Government than Qatar Airways itself, but you can have money without pride.
We go on ….
He praises Cruz’s replacement, Sean Doyle, one of whose first moves was to bring back free food and drink in short-haul economy. “He’s a very good leader. He has my confidence … British Airways will come back to its old glory.”
Akbar Al Baker on premium economy
We recently covered a speech by Tim Clark, the CEO of Emirates, where he admitted that not introducing premium economy earlier had been an expensive mistake. Emirates was seeing strong demand and a big price premium on the routes that have it.
I already knew from speeches by Al Baker in the past (I was at the unveiling of their new economy seat in 2019 – see photo above of Al Baker, second right, with a footballer I believe) that he feels differently:
But one thing he will not be doing is hiring cabin crew to work in a new premium economy cabin — the class between economy and business that Emirates has introduced, joining BA and Virgin Atlantic. He thinks the 25 per cent extra that airlines charge for premium economy is a rip-off. “It’s the most uncomfortable seat. You can’t rest your feet on the floor. And they give you the same meal, the same bottle of wine, or whatever they give in economy.”
Al Baker believes that if you have the best economy seat on the market, you don’t need premium economy.
On this one, I don’t agree. This is partly because there is ample evidence from other airlines that premium economy can be hugely profitable.
It is also, to my mind, simple logic. You could offer me caviar for lunch and Bollinger on boarding, but it still won’t get me to squeeze my 6’2′ frame into an economy seat. It’s worth noting that Al Baker is a very slim man of average height.
You can read more on The Times website here if you can get around the paywall.
PS. Here is a fascinating fact from the article. As we have covered on Head for Points, the ‘blockade’ against Qatar by Saudia Arabia, the UAE and others has recently ended. This means that Qatar Airways aircraft can fly over Saudi airspace again, avoiding a lengthy detour. Al Baker believes that, in a normal flying year, this will save an astonishing $1.2 billion in costs, primarily fuel.
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