Akbar Al Baker, the often outspoken and controversial boss of Qatar Airways has let rip at the former management of British Airways, calling the airline a low-cost “two out of ten” carrier that had lost its focus and whose motto ‘to fly, to serve‘ was now nothing more than a marketing slogan that meant nothing in reality.
His comments feature in a new interview with The Sunday Times (paywall) in which the 59-year-old airline executive said he hopes British Airways will now “get the glitter back” under new boss Sean Doyle. But he dismissed the suggestion that BA would ever regain the title of ‘world’s favourite airline’ because that accolade now belonged to Qatar Airways.
Al Baker has courted plenty of controversy in the past-famously saying U.S.-based carriers were “crap” and describing flight attendants at the likes of American and United Airlines as “grandmothers”.
He prefers, however, to describe his approach as “very direct”.
The criticism of British Airways is surprising given that Qatar Airways owns a 25 per cent stake in its parent company. In fact, Qatar Airways spent $600 million to increase its stake in the Madrid-based International Airlines Group (IAG) last February – and after ex-BA boss Alex Cruz had introduced a raft of cost-cutting initiatives.
In particular, Al Baker called out BA’s former CEO and his management team for removing free food and drink on short-haul flights. “We wanted an airline that doesn’t sell food but serves food,” he told John Arlidge.
BA’s management team had “lost focus” according to Al Baker. The airline had been reduced “to a low-cost carrier — a level I never expected BA to be,” he continued.
“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 asked to give British Airways a score out of ten, Al Baker snapped back: “Two”.
Cruz quit suddenly as chief executive of the Heathrow-based airline last October after a tumorous three years at the helm of the carrier. The lead up to his departure had seen BA come in for heavy criticism for its handling of the fallout from the pandemic and its treatment of long-serving employees.
In his place, Sean Doyle – a veteran IAG executive who was heading Aer Lingus – was quickly announced as replacement. Al Baker is slightly more optimistic about BA’s future now that Doyle is in charge: “He’s a very good leader. He has my confidence … British Airways will come back to its old glory,” he said of Doyle.
The two leaders might, however, already be on a collision course. Later in the interview, Al Baker criticised airlines that offer Premium Economy cabins – a product that has long been embraced by BA and one that Doyle is keen to expand even further.
“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 says of the Premium Economy offered by many airlines.
He once famously said his Economy Class was on a par with what many rivals offered in Premium Economy.
Elsewhere in the interview, Al Baker said:
- Qatar Airways has received $2 billion in financial support from the government of Qatar to help the airline survive the pandemic
- He will continue to seek compensation from Saudi Arabia and others over a near three-year blockade
- He hopes the airline will soon start rehiring staff