Akbar Al Baker, the outspoken and often controversial CEO of Qatar Airways Group, will step down from the post next month after 27 years, steering the airline’s transformation from a regional carrier to a key cog in global aviation.
Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways’ subsidiaries, including charter business jet provider Qatar Executive, Qatar Duty-Free, and Hamad International Airport (DOH), will step down from all his roles with the group on November 5. Mohammed Al-Meer, the current chief operating officer of Hamad Airport, will replace him. No reason was given for Al Baker’s departure.
Al Baker was appointed CEO of the airline in 1997, just three years after its founding as a regional concern and just as it was being relaunched under the order of then-Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to become a global airline.
Upon his resignation, Al Baker recalled the carrier’s modest beginning in a note to employees. “In 1996, with a fleet of just five aircraft, unwavering dedication, and a loyal and passionate team, together we embarked on a remarkable journey to aviation excellence,” he wrote.
That journey would make Qatar Airways a globe-straddling airline, setting the pace for business class travel and bringing millions of connecting travelers and tourists to Doha. Along the way, Al Baker tangled with rival airlines and Airbus heads and drew headlines for loose-tongued comments about backpackers, cabin crew, women, and his critics.
While Qatar is just 4,500 square miles and has little market for domestic aviation, it’s ideally situated to funnel traffic between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Layovers in Doha have become a frequent part of travel itineraries. Each year, 20 million passengers pass through the lavish Hamad International Airport, which opened in 2014 under Al Baker’s watch.
Under Al Baker, Qatar Airways developed a massive network of destinations and a sterling reputation for customer service, with award-winning food and entertainment.
In 2017, the carrier launched Qsuites, a pioneering business class product with privacy doors and service on par with first class cabins on other airlines. Competitors are still scrambling to catch up, with many, including Delta Air Lines and JetBlue, launching similar pod-like business class seats.
But the uncompromising, meticulous standards that have made Qatar Airways a favorite of frequent flyers also led it into a dispute with Airbus over the peeling of external paint on A350 jets. Airbus insisted the flaw wasn’t a safety issue, Qatar Airways responded with a legal suit, and Airbus, in turn, canceled the airline’s order for A321neo jets. The companies settled the dispute earlier this year, and Al Baker insisted the airline and manufacturer are “back on very good terms.”
Al Baker was also, at times, scathing about the offerings of competitors. In 2017, Qatar Airways was involved in a spat with U.S. airlines, which alleged that Gulf carriers were illegally using state subsidies to compete unfairly. American Airlines abruptly terminated a codesharing agreement with Qatar Airways and lobbied the U.S. government to restrict flights from the carrier into the country.
Al Baker lashed back, slamming his U.S. rivals’ “crap” service and comparing their flight attendants to “grandmothers.” He boasted that the average age of Qatar’s cabin crew was just 26. He later apologized for the remarks, saying they didn’t reflect his “true sentiments about cabin crew.”
Qatar agreed with the U.S. Department of State to increase transparency about Qatar Airways’ finances the following year. American Airlines and Qatar Airways restored their links in 2020.
Al Baker drew further accusations of sexism in 2018 when he said a woman couldn’t succeed as an airline CEO “because it is a very challenging position.”
Earlier in the decade, Qatar Airways faced global scrutiny over its policy of firing cabin crew who married or became pregnant. The carrier backtracked on the policy in 2015.
Al Baker also presided over Qatar Airways during its inflammatory handling of a 2020 incident in which an infant was discovered in the toilets of Hamad International Airport. Qatari authorities pulled 13 women off a Qatar Airways flight bound for Australia and subjected them to invasive gynecological exams.
The airline is still facing the fallout. Australian officials cited the incident when they denied Qatar Airways’ request to fly an additional 21 flights into the country last month.
Al Baker said he was “very surprised” by the decision and said the airline had been “very supportive of Australia” during the coronavirus crisis, referring to his airline’s continued operation of flights during the peak of the pandemic, repatriating Australian citizens and bringing supplies.
Al Baker’s refusal to shut down routes during the pandemic, even when his planes were flying with just a handful of passengers, helped to boost the airline’s global reputation further.
Today, that reputation is a significant source of soft power for Qatar Airways, a driver of the country’s tourism boom and a means of diversifying its economy. It’s hard to imagine Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup without such a prominent and long-reaching airline. Qatar Airways has become the global face of the country for tens of millions, although, as Al Baker’s career has shown, it is not without controversy.