It may not come as a surprise, but now it is official. Qatar Airways has been chosen by Skytrax as the Airline of the Year. The long-standing 5 star-rated airline – now serving 100 international destinations from its home-base of Doha – has been the rising star (together with Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways) of the airline industry.
With economy, business, and first class service all rated 5 stars for long-haul flights, Qatar has been atop the World of excellence together with more prestigious and historic airlines like Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. But if the latter two have a more modest growth rate in terms of revenues and destinations, Qatar is launched in a fast-increasing strategy that has seen the company grow bigger and bigger after being established in 1993.
As the Middle East pushes forward to be the World’s preferred hub thanks to its “bridge” location between the Americas and Europe on one side and Asia and Africa on the other, Qatar has outclassed and outperformed both Emirates and Etihad Airways in its quest for the Gulf leadership. Efficiency of scale and a fast-growing demand – partly thanks to an easy access to the booming Indian market – have fueled this staggering growth. Yet, its Qatar Airways’ service that sets the airline apart from the competition. As anyone who has flown Qatar Airways can witness, the attentive service that accompanies every flight is a distinctive mark of the airline. Good food and beverages, well-prepared and genuinely nice flight attendants, comfortable seats (even in economy) and, for premium travelers, probably the best Lounge in the World at the Doha airport make it not-so-difficult to understand Skytrax’s (and customers’) choice.
So, what’s on hold for Qatar Airways? The (often forgotten) cargo division is growing rapidly, leveraging the ever increasing flux of freight from Asia to/from Europe, adding revenue (and profits) to the company’s balance sheet. Then, there is the prospect of joining an alliance for strengthening Qatar Airways reach, a strategy that Etihad Airways is likely to embrace soon. The existing code share agreements say Star Alliance, yet the desire of being the best of the class may push Qatar Airways towards oneworld, where the company could join other fellow 5 star airlines like Kingfisher Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Malaysia Airlines. Whatever Etihad decides (or Qatar Airways, whichever move first) may influence the decision of QA, as it seems more than unlikely that both airlines join the same alliance.
And then, there are the routes. Big orders are in place for Qatar, which has a firm order for 80 A350s and 30 firm order plus 30 options for B787s. With a fleet that is already the youngest out there (with planes averaging only 4.1 years), it seems likely that QA will try to further expand an already far-reaching network. The new Doha airport seems poised to be well-equipped to accommodate such ambitious plans, and the country’s emergence as a business, tourist, and events destination (Asian Games in 2006, World Cup in 2022, Summer Olympics next?) seem to go along well with further network expansion.
One thing is for sure: Qatar Airways is redefining the standards of air travel in terms of comfort and service, remaining highly profitable in an ultra-competitive industry where margins are historically thin. While this trend is set to continue, future challenges loom as the price of oil will be a big question mark and as the airline will grow from a young, vibrant company to a more mature one. In the end, Emirates, the Gulf forerunner, set the bar high: after all these years in business, the Dubai carrier is becoming a legacy airline that’s continuing to be fresh and competitive, mainly thanks to its top management vision. If Qatar will be able to follow Emirates’ example, it could shine even brighter than its Emirati neighbor.