Interview: Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways CEO

Interview: Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways CEO
Published: 2 June 2013 - 8:36 a.m.
By: Shane McGinley

Qatar Airways boss Akbar Al Baker has a lot on his plate at the moment: the three-month grounding of the much heralded Dreamliner 787 has cost him $200m this year; he has been forced to push back a third of the new routes he wanted to launch in 2013; and the carrier’s new multi-billion-dollar airport in Doha continues to be delayed.

Add to this speculation about possible football sponsorship deals, his displeasure with the engine performance in some of the aircraft, or his irritation at Indian brokers trying to use the carrier to inflate their share prices and a traditional Al Baker-style rant is pretty much a guarantee when we meet him in Dubai as he heralds the return of the Dreamliner 787 back into service.

While he is taking all these irritations in his stride, there is one topic which pricks the CEO’s temper and brings him out all guns ablaze: the subject of Qatar Airways and trade unions.

Last month, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which represents around 4.5 million transport workers in 150 countries, hit out at Qatar’s offer to move the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) from Montreal to Doha.

The headquarters of the ICAO has been resident in the Canadian city since 1946 and authorities in Doha have offered to build the organisation a new headquarters when its 20-year lease comes up for renewal in 2016.

“The UN cannot bend to the power of the Riyal at a time when ordinary Qataris’ fights for rights are met with massive repression. It’s doubly outrageous when thousands of staff at Qatar Airways are denied the fundamental right to union membership enshrined by the UN,” ITF president Paddy Crumlin said in a statement.

When these comments are brought to Al Baker’s attention he is clearly in no mood to mince his words. “This is all excuses. There are many countries in the world where unions are not allowed and they have UN bodies in those countries. Workers have absolute rights in our country,” he says, testily.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has also been a regular critic of Qatar’s labour policies and also recently weighed in on the issue: “No foreign employee, whether a cleaner or a football star, is allowed to quit Qatar unless their employer allows them to,” ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow said on the proposal to move the ICAO from Montreal to Doha.

Again, Al Baker rejects these statements outright and sees them as an attempt to stifle the country’s progress: “This is all rubbish… This is just for people who try to block the progress of Arab countries. They try to block Arab countries getting involved in international institutions. I think with us, no right to strike does not mean that workers do not have rights.”

Al Baker reveals that he is a fan of recently deceased former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher — who infamously had her own bitter battles with British trade unions — and adds that an unnamed British Labour leader also agrees with his stance. “I was talking to a politician, a very prominent politician from the Labour party and he mentioned to me that he wished that the unions were not allowed… What more do you want?

“If you go and ask the politicians in most of the countries in the Western world they would love to have the system we have: where the workers have rights through the law but they do not have rights through striking and undermining successful institutions that provide jobs.

“If you did not have unions you wouldn’t have this jobless problem in the Western world… It is caused by unions making companies and institutions uncompetitive and bringing them to a position of not being efficient.”

Qatar Airways may not have unions to restrict it, but its fast-paced growth was curtailed this year when international aviation regulators grounded the entire Dreamliner 787 global fleet earlier this year, a move Al Baker thinks was unnecessary.

“The aircraft shouldn’t have been grounded. I think there was a reaction by the regulators because of the unnecessary emergency evacuation of the Japanese aircraft and unfortunately people today are more sensitive to what the social media say than to what should really be the facts of something like that.”

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