Despite an ongoing blockade of the small Gulf state, Qatar Airways shows no sign of slowing down in its goal of continuing to raise the bar for passenger air travel. TIM ROBINSON reports from Toulouse, France, as the airline takes delivery of its first Airbus A350-1000.
There was no expense spared in a glittering gala dinner ceremony in Toulouse on 20 February as launch customer Qatar Airways took delivery of its first Airbus A350-1000 widebody. With the finest caterers in France, 3D light show on the aircraft and on the dinner tables, even veteran Airbus PR staff, no strangers to Hollywood-style glitz at delivery ceremonies to airlines, were heard to gasp: ’this is best handover event we’ve ever had’.
The occasion, the handover of the A350-1000, Airbus' newest and most efficient widebody airliner, had been delayed due to cabin integration issues – with the original delivery having been set for the end of December. That said, no one attending this event could argue that this luxury handover was not worth the wait.
Taking delivery of the airliner on Tuesday 20 February, Qatar wasted no time with the aircraft entering service on the QR15 Doha-London route on Saturday 24 February in a 327-seat configuration. Beyond the UK, another early destination for the -1000 will be the East Coast of the US.
Enter the A350-1000
Flightdeck of the first A350-1000 for Qatar Airways. Touchscreens will be integrated in three months.
The first of an eventual 37 A350-1000s to be acquired (with six more to be delivered this year), Qatar Airways first ordered the larger version of the A350 XWB in 2007. It already is Airbus's largest A350 operator, having also been the launch customer for the -900.
The larger -1000 adds 44 more seats than the 283-seat -900 and adds 40% more space in business class. Equipped with uprated Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 engines delivering 97,000lbf (the highest thrust ever on an Airbus) the A350-1000 also features a six-wheel bogie main landing gear and modified wing trailing edges.
Indeed, while the A350 has been notably hit by minor cabin supplier issues, in terms of the overall development, production and flight test it has been a remarkably smooth ride for a clean sheet widebody design. One only has to look at the A380 (wiring) and 787 (batteries) to find examples where manufacturers have encountered major engineering and design challenges along the way. Indeed, dotted around the airfield at Toulouse are a number of parked A320neos without P&W engines – a reminder that even supposedly 'low-risk' solutions sometimes backfire. However, the -1000 has sailed through flight testing, delivering better than predicted performance figures – particularly in airport operations.
With its lightweight composite fuselage and other efficiencies, the A350-1000 is some 25% more efficient in fuel burn, lower CO2 and operating costs than ‘current generation’ aircraft asy Airbus – most notably Boeing's 777-300ER.
Airbus, of course, is not standing still even though the aircraft has just been handed over. Marisa Lucas-Ugena, head of A350 marketing, Airbus, revealed to journalists at the event that the airframer had instigated a A350 'Cabin Get Well' programme with suppliers in an effort to iron out remaining kinks – but did not elaborate further.
Meanwhile, she explained a 'first wave' of cabin enablers, which include tweaks to lavatories, new gallery configurations (which frees up nine more seats), are set to be rolled out this year to A350s, with second and third waves already lined up to follow.
On the -1000, the already impressive Thales glass flightdeck is set to be upgraded in just three months with the introduction of new touch screens.
Q(suite) for Quality
Rear and forward facing twin seats mean a 'club' seating arrangement can be configured.
Inside the aircraft was the reason why the delivery had been delayed – Qatar’s new Qsuite which, says group CEO Akbar Al Baker: “Is the ultimate in luxury in business class”. Supplied by B/E Aerospace (now part of Rockwell Collins) Qsuite introduces double lie-flat beds in business class for the first time – as well as an innovative club-style table set up, where a divider between forward and backward facing seats can be lowered to create almost a boardroom style table space for four people. The 46 Qsuite seats on the A350-1000 also provide a level of privacy with side doors. Much effort has been spent in getting in details right, from rippled effect panels, to the purple mood lighting and overhead lighting cutouts to provide a luxury first class feel in business class.
Economy, meanwhile, features 281 18in wide seats in a nine-abreast configuration.
As might be expected, this aircraft features the latest in IFE and connectivity, with IFE provided by Thales and inflight WiFi from Inmarsat’s GX Aviation. This, claimed Al Baker, would be also rolled out across the entire Qatar fleet, saying that: “By end of next year every Qatar aircraft will give you the highest speed of Internet you can have.”
Could this, one day be in Qatar Airways' grey and purple livery?
With the Qsuite's double beds, high-speed broadband, lower cabin altitude (6,000ft) and quietness of the A350 – it might conceivably be asked, how much more luxury and comfort can be added? Would perhaps some of Qatar’s premium passengers be prepared to exchange comfort for speed? Al Baker seems to think so, telling AEROSPACE: “We are very interested in supersonic flight.” While not naming Boom Aerospace directly, he said that: “we wouldn't hesitate to be launch customer” for its 50-55-seat supersonic airliner. However, he was still awaiting more information on the engine that Boom would use, adding: “The only reason we are not committing to this is that they still have not identified who will be the engine manufacturer.” Once one was selected, and a ‘proper’ commitment from an engine maker, Qatar would be very interested in a ‘small number’ of supersonic airliners, he said.
While Boom Aerospace may have gotten a boost from one of the world’s most influential airline CEOs, Bombardier (even with its new tie-up with Airbus) received short shrift, with Al Baker saying: “We don’t have any interest in CSeries at the moment” – a reversal given news of previous flirting with the Canadian manufacturer.
Blockade has ‘failed’ says Al Baker
The blockade had failed said Qatar boss Akbar Al Baker. (Airbus)
While the event was, on the whole, an upbeat event celebrating the delivery of Qatar’s latest widebody, its famously direct chief Al Baker did not hold back when pressed by AEROSPACE about the effect of the ongoing air and sea blockade, saying that the question was: “not what was the effect of the blockade has on Qatar Airways, but what was achieved by our adversaries? Zero. They failed in intimidating my country, putting us against the wall, trying to take-over our sovereignty, trying to dictate who our friends should be.”
He added: “They made Qatar more independent, more resilient, more robust – and made Qatar stand ‘six inches higher’.”
While he admitted that there ‘will be pressures on operational costs, and our bottom line’ for the airline, he said that “Qatar Airways will keep marching ahead. We are a very robust airline, we will continue marching ahead and we will continue buying aeroplanes.”
While this issue might just be seen as regional politics, some observers note that the Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain air, land and sea blockade raises a dangerous precedent in this new multipolar geopolitical world – one where others (Russia in Baltics/Kalingrad/Syria or China in South China Sea) might also be tempted to emulate in the future to shut off airspace, to the detriment of other airlines.
It is also worth remembering that while Qatar and the UAE have been at loggerheads over this diplomatic and political crisis, both Qatar Airways and Emirates (and Etihad) have had a common cause in resisting US carriers pressure to scrap Open Skies agreements on the basis of unfair competition.
A suitable send-off for Brégier
Outgoing Airbus chief Fabrice Brégier shakes hands with Qatar Airways boss Akbar Al Baker. (Qatar Airways)
The handover ceremony also functioned somewhat as a leaving party for outgoing Airbus chief Fabrice Brégier, who stepped down after 11 years at the helm of the airframer this week and is replaced by Guillaume Faury, Airbus Helicopters CEO.
Brégier, who named the ‘launch and development of the A350 XWB’ as his biggest achievement while at Airbus, was paid tribute by Al Baker who called him a " A great supporter, a great friend and a great leader” adding “we will miss you,” in a touching speech. However, despite these warm words, Al Baker promised that he would not be relaxing his eagle eye on quality and customer support – joking to Brégier’s successor at the gala dinner: “Guillaume, you will not be let off the hook. We will still be very demanding.”
As well as singling out the A350 XWB as a career highlight, Brégier also noted the ‘industrial ramp up was another achievement’ – despite continuing supplier issues – particularly on P&W engines for the A320neo. (Indeed, such is the sheer scale of production that Airbus is now looking at moving to rate 70 for its single-aisle lines – a production rate that only a few years previously would have seemed impossibly insane.)
Handing over the A350-1000 on his final day at work was “The icing on the cake” said Fabrice.
How to win friends and influence people…
The RAF is set to form a Typhoon joint operational squadron with the Qatari Emirati Air Force (QEAF). (RAF)
As the biggest customer for the Airbus A350, the launch customer for the -900 and now -1000 (as well as orders for A320s, A380s, 777s and 787s), it is no exaggeration to note that Qatar Airways now commands a deep level of influence at the airframer (and rival Boeing) due to its immense buying power and repeat business. Like its other Gulf rivals (Emirates and Etihad) a case can be made for it supporting the aerospace industry in Europe and the US – particularly when these airlines placing orders through good and bad times. Now 20 years old, the average age of its total fleet is under five years – a sign of its investment in the latest, most modern aircraft.
As the flagship airline of Qatar, its A350-1000 (with UK wings and engines) also perhaps can be as a flying symbol of the country’s strong links with the UK – a relationship that is set to strengthen in the future in military aviation.
Indeed, this transcends civil aerospace and Airbus (and Boeing) with Qatar also a key strategic ally for the West in the region – despite current strains. The state is the host of the massive Al-Udeid airbase that is used by the US and its coalition partners as a tanker, ISR and strike hub for operations, with 10,000 US, UK and other personnel based there. This includes the vital CAOC (Combined Air Operations Centre) for US Central Command – the nerve centre which co-ordinates and controls all coalition military air operations across the Middle East.
Despite these already impressive links, Qatar is set to strengthen its partnerships even further with recent orders to vastly expand its air force from a handful of Mirage 2000-5s to a force comprising 35 Boeing F-15QAs, 36 Dassualt Rafales and (seemingly negotiated in the blink of an eye last year) an agreement to purchase 36 Eurofighter Typhoons, along with Brimstone and Meteor missiles. For the Typhoon deal, this, uniquely, will see a joint RAF/Qatar AF Typhoon squadron formed to act as the nucleus of this expanded fighter force.
Some observers then have noted that this incredible expansion in Qatar’s military air power – (with orders spread among three key suppliers from the US, UK and France) is as about as much as increasing and widening political leverage and influence, as increasing its defence capability.
Finally, on the civil side again, Qatar Airways chief Akbar Al Baker is to strengthen his status as a prominent global airline CEO, having being elected as the Chairman of the Board of Governors (BoG) at IATA. He takes over in June 2018 for a year.
There is no doubt, that while some aerospace suppliers may tremble at the thought of the supreme levels of perfection demanded by Qatar Airways and its famously exacting boss, the airline is in fact flying higher than ever before – even while coping with an air blockade that would have crippled lesser carriers or at least caused them to rethink their expansion plans.
Thanks to its geostrategic location, and the purchasing power (both in civil and military aerospace), the airlines’ home nation, Qatar, remains a key ally, partner and customer for the West, assuming a global importance far beyond the size of this tiny Gulf state. Its global influence is only set to increase further, with its chief at IATA and deeper and wider military partnerships.
With its new Qsuite and A350-1000, along with joint ventures in Europe (Air Italy), a plan for a 100-aircraft Indian airline and even an interest in supersonic flight, the airline is determined to be at the very front of the pack in its relentless quest for perfection for its passengers. Says Al Baker: “We are the people that raised the bar in air travel.”