Flying With His Excellency Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways’ CEO

On Thursday I had the opportunity to fly on Qatar Airways’ inaugural commercial A350 flight from Doha to Frankfurt.

Qatar-Airways-A350-Business-Class-03

The plane itself was gorgeous, the business class hard product was great, and the plane was so quiet.

Qatar-Airways-A350-Business-Class-06

But I left out what may have been the most interesting detail of the flight — Qatar Airways’ CEO, Akbar Al Baker, was aboard.

Who cares about Akbar Al Baker?

The airline industry is my life. I’m passionate about it beyond words. It’s one of the most interesting and challenging industries out there given the number of moving parts that have to come together for everything to work well.

Akbar Al Baker aka “His Excellency” aka “The Chief” is unarguably the most prolific guy in the airline industry.

I think the two phrases which best describe Akbar would be “detail oriented” and “passionate.” How detail oriented is he? Rumor has it that he inspects every single plane that the airline takes delivery of personally. You’d think that’s something he could delegate, but he’s so passionate about the details…

You can really see his attention to detail in this CNN interview from a couple of years back about the new Hamad International Airport:

While the guy isn’t very accountable himself, he holds everyone else to the highest possible standards. On the plus side, there’s never any question as to how Akbar feels, and he isn’t afraid to call things as he sees them (even if he’s completely off base).

I once spoke to someone that works fairly high up at Qatar Airways and said “it must be difficult to work for The Chief.” He responded “it’s actually quite easy. He tells you exactly how he wants things, so there’s never any confusion as to what he wants. When I delegate things and people ask me why it should be a certain way, I simply say ‘because The Chief says so.'”

For example, here he is chiming in on the A380 delays that Qatar Airways experienced:

What other airline CEO throws shade like that?

On the darker side of things, while Emirates and Etihad treat their employees reasonably well, the same can’t be said for Qatar Airways, where the crews have curfews even when at home. Akbar will proudly boast that the airline “gets more out of their employees” than any other.

I saw Akbar at the Airbus delivery ceremony in Toulouse several weeks back, where I said he was “quite possibly the most arrogant, opinionated, and unapproachable guy I’ve ever seen in my life.” And I stand by my perception at the time. But I also realized that’s only one side of him…

Flying with Akbar Al Baker

After flying with Akbar, I saw him in a completely different light. Don’t get me wrong, he still came across as arrogant, opinionated, and quasi-unapproachable.

But more than than that I actually found him to be quirky, proud, and enthusiastic beyond words. What I realized about him is that Qatar Airways really is his baby. He really, really loves the airline, and it’s his life. And while I don’t entirely agree with the way he runs his airline, no one can deny his zealousness.

A while back I heard Rudy Giuliani speak about the traits of a good leader. Regardless of how you feel about him, I do agree with this:

“There are many qualities that make a great leader. But having strong beliefs, being able to stick with them through popular and unpopular times, is the most important characteristic of a great leader.”

I don’t think there’s anyone in the airline industry with more strongly held beliefs than Akbar.

How His Excellency acted

I think part of Akbar’s problem is the people he surrounds himself with. At all times he has an entourage of about 20 people, and they only say “yes sir.” So I don’t think he actually gets much honest feedback about his airline, or else he might realize Qatar Airways isn’t in a completely different league than any other airline.

He boarded last and took seat 1A, and had a bunch of handlers. About a dozen people in business class were Qatar Airways employees, so he was well taken care of.

Hilariously he changed into pajamas the second he boarded, and pranced around the cabin in them, including to economy. The funniest thing had to be that when he ate he hung the massive cloth napkin from his buttonhole, and then started walking around with it still attached.

Akbar

He was actually rather approachable. He came around to several passengers after takeoff to welcome them and ask what they thought of the A350.

Later he even stood in the galley and talked to a group of us. Someone addressed him as “Your Excellency,” and he said “I am not Your Excellency, I am Akbar.” That really impressed me and caught me off guard.

I was also impressed by how he interacted with the crew. He was friendly and seemed rather approachable to them. Based on what I’ve heard, crews working his flights are usually terrified, since he has a tendency to fire people on the spot if he notices something he doesn’t like. But he was friendly on this sector, and none of the crew seemed too uncomfortable.

That being said, he really didn’t get an accurate representation of the service. He was completely done with his meal before most of us even had our starters cleared (or in my case, before I even had my starter).

The funniest thing had to be that while we were standing in a circle talking to him, the seatbelt sign was turned on. It was clearly a very precautionary flick of the switch, since it was just some very light chop. I was slightly outside the circle since I was talking to someone else, so the flight attendant came up to me and said “sir, the seatbelt sign is on, could you please be seated.”

Akbar looked over in his pajamas and said “it is okay, I am crew and it is safe, you can stay. We will be seated in a minute.” The look on the flight attendant’s face was priceless.

What His Excellency said

What Akbar says really gives you an amazing glimpse into how he thinks. He’s a really bright guy, clearly. He understands the industry. But he also has blinders and is incredibly confident in the product that Qatar Airways offers.

Most interesting had to be his comments on Etihad’s The Residence. He said that he was “hearing from people” that Qatar Airways’ A380 first class was better than Etihad’s A380 The Residence.

And he said it with a straight face…

Qatar-Airways-A380-First-Class-008
Qatar Airways A380 first class

Etihad-A380-First-Apartment-24
Etihad A380 The Residence living room

Etihad-A380-First-Apartment-25
Etihad A380 The Residence bedroom

He went on to say that Qatar’s new business class product will be even better than The Residence at business class prices.

Quite possibly the most ironic topic he brought up is how all other airlines are getting subsidized and therefore doing poorly. “Qatar Airways, we don’t get any subsidies like these other airlines.”

Which, I mean, Qatar Airways is 100% government owned and will proudly admit they make a loss in the name of building the country’s infrastructure/accessibility. So pointing fingers at other airlines for getting subsidies just seemed… odd…

Bottom line

Flying with The Chief made me see him in a different light. No, fundamentally how I feel about him hasn’t changed.

But what I really got some perspective on is just how passionate he is about “his” airline. And as someone that’s also passionate about the airline industry, I respect that. Seemingly his main mission in life is making Qatar Airways as good as it can be. Does he always go about it correctly? No. But I think he sincerely has the airline’s best interests in mind with everything he does, not because he has to, but because he wants to.

And I appreciate that about him…

Comments

  1. Nice post as usual Ben, but don’t you think someone who is so passionate about the industry, his airline, should also be equally passionate about his people?

  2. That must have been a fascinating flight! And truly worth going for the inaugural just to meet His Excellency.

    I don’t think anyone would dispute his PASSION for his attention to detail. But it’s attention to detail has led to charges against Korean Air’s Heather Cho…

    The issues are his erratic nature and truth problem:
    http://viewfromthewing.boardingarea.com/2014/07/14/qatar-airways-ceos-truth-problem/

    And, as you allude to, how the airline treats its employees:
    http://viewfromthewing.boardingarea.com/2014/03/12/qatar-airways-defends-mistreatment-employees/

    Let’s leave aside the treatment of employees issue for a moment. It strikes me that’s pretty par for the course in Qatar. So I’m not sure any judgment there would be unique to Al Akbar.

    Perhaps the question is, having met the man, do you think the erratic statements and actions, and his truth problem, are simply facets of his being a mad genius of aviation? Or is a schmuck, albeit a passionate one?

  3. Thanks for the perspective. Some of this sounds a little Stockholm-syndrome-esque though, and it might be ignorant to think Al Baker doesn’t realize that cameras were on him during his crew interactions.

    Your review writing and commentary are beyond reproach, but in my opinion the most dangerous thing a guy with your profile can do is stop speaking truth to power. Chaninging your opinion of an airline because you were charmed by interacting with a CEO when he was ‘on’ seems like a disservice to your readers.

  4. That was rather anti-climactic. I thought you may have spoken to him directly and had some sort of funny/awkward conversation for us to all laugh about!

  5. The fact remains that Qatar is the most dominant supporter of funding for anti-US terror groups (Salafi Jihad, Al-Qaida, Hamas and others). Any $US spent on their airline indirectly supports their vile regime.
    Personally, I’d rather swim in a shark infested ocean than to fly with them (no disrespect to you, Ben).

  6. @ nazgul — I did speak with him directly, but I thought nothing he said directly/privately to me was as ridiculous as what he said in the anecdotes I shared (regarding being subsidized and The Residence vs. Qatar Airways first class).

  7. @ Sunrise089 — To clarify, the last time that he came across as a total ass was at an international press event with 200+ media from around the world. The guy always has cameras on him. So it’s unfair for me to compare the two times that I saw him with “cameras” on him?

    And I’m in no way changing my fundamental opinion of him. I’m simply adding that I realized just how passionate he is about the airline, how much he loves the company. That doesn’t justify any of his other actions, but his passion is a nice contrast to what you see from the leaders of some other airlines. Again, none of that negates the bad things he does, but it’s worth noting, at least.

  8. @ Gary Leff — Somewhere inbetween. On one hand I think he understands the airline industry more deeply than just about anyone else. On the other hand, it’s through a very narrow microscope, given that he just surrounds himself with people that say “yes sir.” So I think he’d be a total genius if he had a bit more perspective on the industry, but I also don’t think he’s just a passionate schmuck. He’s too smart for that, at least on the surface.

  9. For those who think that itis ridiculous for the CEO of a company to be disingenuous have not met many CEOs.

    Almost all CEOs (except some founder CEOs) rise to that level because of their ability to sell and not because of their intelligence, leadership or some other great ability or attribute.

    The people to whom they are primarily selling are their bosses (in Al Baker’s case, the Emir).

    When the CEO “spins” to the media, he is ultimately selling that “spin” to his boss. That is likely yo be amplified by the fact that in the case of the Middle East airlines, the measure of success is not profit but how the airline is viewed by the media and how man awards it wins etc.etc.

  10. Isn’t a good leader’s role to build a lasting and flexible framework and to develop a team that can continue to grow the company within that framework?

  11. “he hung the massive cloth napkin from his buttonhole”

    I had to read that a couple of times to make sure 🙂

  12. Getting his meal service at a special accelerated pace is shameful. What about his paying customers? It’s a long shot from the stories you sometimes hear of the CEO at other airlines (especially extra-customer-friendly airlines like Southwest and JetBlue, but also occasionally at legacy airlines like United or Delta) taking a seat in the last row of coach to make room for families traveling together, a premium passenger with a broken IFE system, etc.

  13. “A while back I heard Rudy Giuliani speak about the traits of a good leader. Regardless of how you feel about him, I do agree with this:

    “There are many qualities that make a great leader. But having strong beliefs, being able to stick with them through popular and unpopular times, is the most important characteristic of a great leader.”

    I could not disagree more. While a great leader certainly should have certain ethical principles and integrity which are unbending, a great leader also seeks to understand and respect the beliefs of others, admit when they are wrong or mistaken and work with a group to achieve consensus rather than imposing his or her beliefs on others.

  14. Ben
    If you are going to post pictures of people without their agreement, you are going to be in trouble the next time you are in QR or on QR.

  15. @ Lucky — that was very interesting! But didn’t he also say something about your almost-private A350 flight?

  16. “But he was friendly on this sector, and none of the crew seemed too uncomfortable.”

    Well, maybe unlike crazy Korean nut lady, he now understands that in the age of social media it’s best to strap his bitch on in private?

    Yes, it’s great that he is passionate about his company, and the industry, blah blah blah fishcakes. At best, though, he comes off as a bit bipolar.

    Also, if the government is propping up your airline from petrodollars, does it matter if it’s called a subsidy or not?

  17. @Lucky – I’m a little hesitant about how to reply. You say above: “And I’m in no way changing my fundamental opinion of him.” Yet writing about him TWO DAYS AGO you said: “My opinion of him actually changed drastically based on this flight.” Did you change your opinion just enough to be “drastic” but not “fundamental?”

    As for the “cameras on” remark, at the earlier press event did he have any reason to pay attention to you in particular? During the inaugural flight it sounds like you were just a few feet away, not one journalist out of hundreds. It seems pretty natural that he’d try to “work you” a little more in that kind of environment.

    Ultimately I think you’re the best airline reviewer I’ve ever encountered, and that’s driven by your frequency of flying premium cabins, your passion for aviation, and your basic good and decent character. But those same qualities can occasionally make you a bit biased, for example fairly consistently erring on the side of being too understanding when a potential excuse exists for poor service. Now take Al Baker, passionate for aviation and a fellow premium cabin traveler, and throw in just a dose of stars in your eyes, and I think you end up a little too quick to marginalize his failings and talk up his strengths.

    PS – The Giuliani quote is ex-post nonsense. It’s only true if we take it as given that the ideas held are GOOD. With bad ideas that same quality is outright dangerous. Bush II stuck with the Iraq invasion in the face of huge international opposition and Obama stuck with Obamacare in the face of enormous contention at home. Same leadership quality…yet almost everyone views said quality as beneficial in at most one of the two leaders.

  18. Lucky,

    I’m curious where the idea that “Emirates and Etihad treat their employees reasonably well” comes from. After reading both your linked post and re-reading the article that it links to, as well as all the comments available for both, it seems that the conclusion is that EK and EY FAs are not subjected to quite the inhumane conditions that QR FAs are, but it doesn’t sound like they’re treated particularly well, either. That, combined with the what Amnesty International has to say about the UAE’s working conditions in general, makes me want to know.

    In short, I’m not claiming to know more about the situation than you do (I’ve never been to the Middle East and won’t be visiting the UAE as long as the penalty for homosexuality there is death. General personal policy.), but I am asking what you know that makes you believe that the EK/EY working conditions are acceptable.

    Also, and this is slightly more confrontational. Do you have misgivings about giving money (whether in the form of points or not) to an organization that you know treats its people so poorly? Surely you can cover the goings on in the industry without contributing to the problem.

    Curious to know your positions and thoughts on these topics.

  19. I would argue that passion, not guided by moral and ethical principles, equals selfish arrogance. A lover can be most passionate in bed, but not fulfill the needs of the other person.

    As any parent can tell you, discipline without a direct contact relationship with the receiver of such correction equals abuse.

  20. a little off topic but personally I’ll never ever fly airlines from any of the gulf states Israel etc all those countries are terrorist countries (imo), blanket boycott for the region. I do not do any business with ppl from that region, or corporations/businesses etc. just like I boycott Uber drivers with lower than 4.5 rating. I also boycott the whole of the African continent. Makes life pleasant. That is all.

  21. – “He said that he was “hearing from people” that Qatar Airways’ A380 first class was better than Etihad’s A380 The Residence.”-

    It appears His Excellency is starting to sound much like a used car salesman/Donald Trump.

  22. @ TheRealBabushka — Of course. What does that have to do with giving your employees curfews, thought?

  23. @ wwk5d — Agree with you on all counts, but you think as CEO of Qatar Airways for 15+ years, this is the first flight where he heard of social media? Cause that didn’t stop him on other flights. 😉

  24. @ Sam @ SFO — Simple answer there. I have friends that work for both Emirates and Etihad, and they’re happy there. Do they work hard? Yes, but they are also treated well, aren’t given curfews, have good layovers, etc. There’s simply nothing comparable with either carrier to what Qatar does.

    Do I have concerns about giving money to a company that treats people so poorly? I sure do, and I shared that moral dilemma in my previous post about Qatar Airways. That being said, have we thought about where most of the material goods we buy in the US come from, and the working conditions associated with them? Probably even worse…

  25. @ sunrise089 — I literally spoke to the guy for a minute on the flight, less than most other people did. So I don’t think he really “worked me.”

    Again, I think the same things about him I thought before, but I also just realized he’s more passionate than I had thought. Is that passion a good thing? Not necessarily, when it’s used to treat employees unfairly. But I’m simply observing that he’s extremely passionate about the airline industry, and I appreciate *that* specific aspect of his passion, though not the other aspect of it.

  26. @Lucky — I think you’re just a bit too much of a fan to give an objective opinion on “His Excellency.” He’s certainly not as intelligent as you say he is, or he would be able to know that the product right under his nose (his own airline!) isn’t that good. His airline isn’t 5 Star, his airport was years delayed (and still not finished), his statements are contradictory — nothing about this guy says that he is brilliant. He’s certainly a flamboyant character and fun to watch, but that’s about all.

  27. @ Lucky

    True, but I have a feeling he probably does edit his behavior on “First Flights” like this, when the plane is crawling with aviation geeks who can identify him on site, as opposed to the random flights where most people just assume he’s just some spoiled Qatari asshole.

    “as long as the penalty for homosexuality there is death”

    Technically, the penalty is for homosexual acts, not for homosexuality. I mean, it’s not like custom/immigration officers are waiting at the airport with gaydar equipment and shoot you on the spot if you set off the gaydar alarm. Also, most Westerners (ie white folk) will most likely get deported if they’re caught having sex with someone from the same gender. Even then, there hasn’t been a case of anyone being executed in the UAE or Qatar for being gay.

  28. @ wwk5d — For what it’s worth, had a friend that was on another recent inaugural with him where he was apparently a complete arse.

  29. There was also a really funny moment after Richard Quest had done his CNN report onboard. Akbar said “No good Richard… You only said the A350… It should have been Qatar A350, This is not fair Richard I gave you a free ride and…’” – “Hold on” said Richard, “let me make this absolutely clear, we are paying…”

    Check out my video of that which I filmed onboard!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pw-2b_xeyk4&spfreload=10

    Great to meet you Ben & thanks again for the blog post in early December which I saw about the cheap Business Class fare starting from Cairo. I don’t get to travel in a premium class very often so it really was a fantastic extra treat to be up front in addition to it being a treat in itself to be on-board the inaugural A350 flight!

  30. I have had the misfortune to work in a fairly high position in finance of this airline for a short time. And I still ask God why He created such a monster on earth and this monster has absolutely no right to live. I should restrict the word “passionate” for better use and not waste it on a terrifying monster like this.

  31. my comment is about the measly baggage allowance for business/first class from usa to india. all airlines let you carry a golf bag at no extra charge in addition to the normal baggage allowance. they are the only exception. you will have to pay $250 for it; not good at all. very annoyed! 🙁

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *