Senior Vice President of the Americas
What happens when a visionary Chief Executive makes his focus service instead of cost-cutting? According to Tony Hughes, Senior Vice President of the Americas for Qatar Airways, you get a five-star airline. With its recent five-star ranking from Skytrax secure, the airline was rated third best in the world by Skytrax in 2010, as well as “World’s Best Business Class” and “World’s Best Business Class Catering.” Furthermore, the airline’s Premium Terminal was named “Leading Airport Lounge in the Middle East” at the World Travel Awards and last October the carrier captured Best Middle East Airline from TTG Asia for the fourth consecutive year. With a five-page single-spaced press release listing nothing but recent awards for the Gulf-based carrier in hand, Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan met with Hughes during the annual National Business Travel Association conference in Houston, giving the Senior VP a break from wooing top corporate travel managers.
ET: Can you give us a brief history of Qatar Airways?
Tony Hughes: We’re only 12 years old and we started with just four planes. When we open five new gateways later this year we will be the twelfth largest airline measured by international passengers flown. In addition, we have over 80 aircrafts serving over 90 destinations.
ET: What is your mission in terms of service and routes?
Tony Hughes: The airline has been built as a full-service airline, and this is led by our CEO, Akbar Al Baker, who personally oversees every aspect of the cabin product. We are very much a network carrier. We come from a small country, so we focus on making connecting easy. For example, from the Americas we have New York-JFK, Washington-Dulles, Houston, Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires. We now fly to every continent [served by commercial airlines].
ET: What should passengers expect on a Qatar Airways flight?
Tony Hughes: Our shortest route from the Americas is over 12 hours, so we are very much focused on being a premium airline that offers comfort regardless of which class you are flying. On these routes we offer two classes of service, and our Business Class seats have a 78-inch pitch that also converts into a full flat bed, not sloping, but fully flat and horizontal. By virtually any standard that is a first class product. In an economy where many airlines [on 777s] have 3x4x4 configuration, we have 3x3x3 and up to 34-inch pitches [compared to 31-32 inches on many airlines], so for a long flight, we offer more space. These luxuries, combined with fewer seats, are a good place to start in terms of offering a better experience.
ET: What about the rest of the experience?
Tony Hughes: As I mentioned before, our CEO pays particular attention to every detail. Now, you are not going to get it exactly perfect 100 percent of the time, but everyone knows the expectation is to provide a superior experience and our goal is to work with the highest standards. So it can be the small things, like letting you taste the wine before pouring it, or when you get onboard, the choice of a hot or a cold towel.
ET: You mentioned connecting in Doha.
Tony Hughes: For first and business class passengers we have a dedicated premium terminal, so they never set foot in the main terminal. This terminal has lounges, sleep rooms, spa treatments, full à la carte dining and a separate area for children and families. We compete with Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France for connecting traffic, so we like to say that we offer a nicer transfer experience in our nice little premium terminal. This service includes being personally met at the plane, taken to the terminal, and then personally escorted and driven to your connecting flight, as opposed to maybe having to figure your way through much bigger and more crowded airports.
ET: Does Qatar Airways offer first class service?
Tony Hughes: Yes, on certain routes such as London, Tokyo and certain Middle East destinations we do. For the Americas we think the better move is providing a first class-level product at a business class price.
ET: Qatar Airways also offers private jet charter service.
Tony Hughes: We have executive jets for charters based in Doha, including an Airbus A319 in an executive configuration, two Bombardier Challenger 605s and a Challenger 300. They are very popular and a great way to get around the region and maximize your schedule.
ET: Will the rapid expansion continue?
Tony Hughes: Phuket, Hanoi and Nice will all be added this year with Bucharest, Budapest and Brussels in January 2011. We will also open a new airport in Doha towards the end of 2011. We have 80 Airbus A350s on order including options, 60 Boeing 787s on order including options, 13 more Boeing 777s including options, 19 more A320 family types and five A380s. On the private jet side we have two Bombardier Global 5000s, which as you know, are ultra-long-haul executive jets. But it’s not just about how new aircrafts are more efficient to operate; new aircrafts have new cabin technology designed to provide a better flying experience, so this really helps ensure we stay at the top of the league in terms of service to passengers and the experience we provide.
ET: Is it a challenge to get people to try Qatar Airways?
Tony Hughes: We are continuing to establish our brand in the Americas, and feel that once we get someone to try us for the first time, they are completely sold. Our marketing budget requires us to be very targeted, and while we work our way toward becoming more of a household name, we’ve done a good job of getting the word out where it matters, such as at NBTA.