Akbar Al Baker may be average height with a slight frame, but the airline chief still commands respect and fear in equal measure. Employees often cower whenever Al Baker enters the same lift at Qatar Airways' Doha-based headquarters. Meanwhile, others seem content to avoid the CEO's icy stare and sharp tongue as he passes through the corridors.
It's a tough managerial style, but Al Baker insists his dogged approach is the catalyst for increased productivity. "I put a lot of stress on my staff because I am a hands-on chief executive," he says. "I always want to know what's happening; there are lots of checks and balances and people have to deliver. People realise there is no longer any room for complacency."
Al Baker's no nonsense attitude has served him well since he joined the airline 11 years ago. In 1996, Qatar Airways was a cheap, unreliable carrier with few planes and modest passenger numbers. "The service wasn't consistent and the standards were really poor," Al Baker says.
The Qatari government believed a complete overhaul was required to turn the stuttering airline around. To that end, ministers agreed to appoint a strong leader who would manage Qatar Airways' development. Al Baker was considered the right man for the job, joining from Qatar's civil aviation department in November 1996.
Once on board, Al Baker's first objective was to cut routes and introduce more experienced personnel to the ranks. He then turned his attention to changing the carrier's culture and rebranding. Before Al Baker's arrival, Qatar Airways was considered a second rate, labour workers' airline that struggled to compete in the Middle East. "The service was erratic and would only go to a certain destination once a week, in some instances, while other routes would operate may be twice a week," he says. "For some routes, the aircraft might have stopped at two or three places before getting to the final destination.
To change the airline's flagging reputation, Al Baker restructured the company, drafted additional employees and created a new image. The Oryx, a breed of antelope that lives in Qatar, was chosen for the airline's logo, which now appears on all aircraft and marketing material. After rebranding, the next step was to establish a more organised, reliable flights schedule. Existing routes were re-organised, while frequencies either increased or dropped, depending on passenger demand. Al Baker then focused on bringing in new aircraft to service the airline's routes.
"We had to bring the right people in and reduce the network, so the four aeroplanes we had would serve a consistent product with consistent frequencies to the destinations it operated to," he says.
Qatar Airways' fleet was bolstered with Airbus A320s and A300s after management disbanded the Boeing 727s. All interiors were decked out with more modern, passenger-friendly interiors, while the directors ensured the latest in-flight entertainment was fitted on each plane. During the past 11 years, Qatar Airways' management has also introduced A321s, A319s and A340s to the fleet.
Since implementing the turnaround strategy, Al Baker has helped transform Qatar Airways into one of the Middle East's leading airlines. It operates some 58 aircraft that fly to more than 80 destinations. Indeed, the carrier's route network was extended this year with launches to 10 cities. Most recently, flights to Stockholm were introduced, while the airline now also provides services to Bali, Geneva, New York and Washington DC.
"We always choose lucrative destinations that are not served by many airlines, and that's why we introduced Stockholm," Al Baker says. "We see huge potential because there is no airline from this region that goes to Scandinavia, even though we [Middle East] have business relationships with them. It's an untapped market.
Aside from route launches, Qatar Airways' directors have been busy increasing the airline's fleet. Last June, the carrier ordered 80 Airbus A350s and three additional A380 super-jumbos for $16 billion. The announcement during the Paris Airshow was followed by further deals two months ago in Dubai. Despite always operating an all-Airbus fleet, the carrier revealed at Dubai Airshow that it was linking up with US aircraft manufacturer Boeing for the Dreamliner 787.
It will pay $6.1 billion for the aircraft, considered Boeing's answer to the A380, with 30 firm orders and 30 options agreed. "We don't buy aeroplanes because they are manufactured by Airbus or Boeing; we buy them if they fit with our network requirements," Al Baker says. "Until recently, all Airbus aeroplanes were most suited to our network structure, so we bought them. Now we need larger capacity and a more modern fleet, so we went with the 787.
Meanwhile, the airline also said it was buying five Boeing 777 freighters. The A350s are expected to arrive in mid-to-late 2013 with the A380 scheduled for 2012 - two years after the original delivery date. Nevertheless, Al Baker insists the delay will have little effect on Qatar Airways' operation.
"We had not programmed these aeroplanes into service until 2010, so we had no issue to delay it further. It will affect Singapore Airlines and Emirates more because they were expecting to use these aeroplanes by a certain date and then suddenly have to wait two years.
Elsewhere, the carrier's directors expect delivery of A330s, two leased A321s and Boeing 777s, ordered before Dubai Airshow, in the coming years. Disbanding all A300s following an influx of newer aircraft models is also on the agenda. If all goes to plan, the airline will soon operate a larger fleet from a new hub. Indeed, New Doha International Airport is expected to open in 2009 and become fully operational six years later. The $5.5 billion airport will be capable of handling more than 50 million travellers each year, with a 26-gate passenger terminal and two runways currently under development.
It will also have a maintenance hangar, cargo centre and shopping facilities. By 2015, the airport should have 80 gates to accommodate rising passenger numbers.
Qatar Airways may be investing heavily in new routes, fleet expansion and relocation, but the airline operates over budget. According to Al Baker, all capital goes into the carrier to ensure further growth. It's a long-term strategy that is expected to pay off by 2011 - the final phase of a 10 year plan culminating in healthy returns from the airline's spending. Al Baker is confident the objective will be achieved.
"We are not profitable at the moment as an airline. The reason is we are in investment mode; we are expanding our network and buying more aeroplanes. The airline has huge expenses and the revenue stream doesn't cover that. But we are on course with our business plan; our performance is nearly 22% better than what we expected at this stage.
While continued expansion and generating profits are the immediate aims, Al Baker is also determined to consolidate the business in 2008. Increased frequencies to existing routes will be introduced, although Qatar Airways' management is cutting back on new launches, with only two planned. The first is to Houston, coinciding with recent flights to Washington and New York.
But Al Baker is tight-lipped about the second. Press speculation suggests he is eyeing Brazil - a rumour he neither denies nor confirms. Al Baker is only willing to admit that several destinations across most continents have been considered, before quickly changing the subject.
The coming months will reveal all. In the meantime, Al Baker will continue working long hours to further develop the airline. The carrier's employees are expected to maintain high standards and the CEO is no different. Al Baker often works 16-17 hour days, ensuring he has complete authority over the entire operation. It's a demanding role, but Al Baker insists he never shirks a challenge.
"I'm not afraid of responsibility. I am focused about what I want for the benefit of my country. It was a challenge to make this a world-class airline; to make it one of the largest carriers in the Middle East and ensure it was an important tool for the economic expansion of my country. It was a big challenge for me and when I look back over 11 years I have met the challenges that were put in my way.
The Doha-born chief executive is an economics and commerce graduate who held several roles in the Civil Aviation Directorate before joining Qatar Airways in 1996. During the past 11 years, Al Baker has spearheaded the airline's growth, transforming it into a global operation that flies to more 80 destinations. He is also responsible for overseeing development of New Doha International Airport, which opens in phases from 2009.
Al Baker has been a successful businessman in Doha for more than 25 years. He is CEO of several divisions within Qatar's national airline, including Qatar Airways Holidays, Qatar Aviation Services and Qatar Duty Free Company. The airline chief, who holds a private pilot licence, also heads up Doha International Airport, Qatar Distribution Company and Qatar Aircraft Catering Company.