New flight routes connecting Qatar and France announced earlier this year, largely seen as a “payback” for the tiny nation buying Dassault Rafale fighters, appears to have backfired with the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging demand for air travel.
Qatar Airways in mid-January announced the launch of flights connecting Doha with Lyon (France). There are jets flying to Paris and Nice cities from Qatar as well.
Doha has ordered 36 Rafale jets: 24 for $7 Billion in 2015 and 12 more for $2.5 Billion in 2018. The air traffic rights were secured soon after the jets purchase amidst rising speculation that it was a fighter jets-for-flying-rights deal. Its rivals, Emirates and Etihad (both of the UAE) were denied rights to fly to France from Qatar.
In March 2019, Qatar entered into an Open Skies deal with the European Union (EU) which enables carriers from both sides to fly to one another’s airports. Emirates and Etihad spurned the Open Skies offer and gave Qatar a huge advantage in ferrying passengers from Asia, Africa and the Middle East to Europe and North America.
The Gulf nation’s attempts to strengthen its fighter fleet while taking airlines’ revenue to the next level may have boomeranged- Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, said the revenue of the airlines nosedived by 80% since March this year.
The International Air Transport Association which represents around 290 airlines worldwide said Mideast airlines lost more than $7 billion in revenue since January from when nearly 16,000 flights have been cancelled.
The Doha-Lyon flight was supposed to operate five times a week starting this June. With the deadly virus still lurking around, this appears bleak. Qatar Airways was to operate flights between Doha and Dubrovnik (Croatia) from April 20. It has been put off until 2021.
Still, Qatar Airways is better off than several of its Gulf rivals. The state-owned carrier was operating around one-third of its usual schedule in April 2020, while competitors, including Emirates and Etihad, had completely terminated passenger flights.
On April 21, the carrier announced it will defer 50% of the salary for mid-level and higher employees. The airline called it a “temporary measure” that will be reviewed over the coming months based on the global economic situation, according to a release.
Qatar has made no bones of the fact that it is seeking airline slots for Qatar Airways in exchange for handing out lucrative public procurement contracts. Its chief executive, Akbar al-Baker, said in a 2015 media comment while announcing a new six-times-a-week route linking Doha to Amsterdam. "If you do not allow us to benefit in a small way by bringing flights, you should not expect commercial contracts from the (Qatari) government,” he had said.
So far Qatar has not announced any policy to defer payments or delay production of its Eurofighters or Rafale jets. However, with the aerospace supply chain getting affected, delay of several months to a couple of years is not ruled out which may give Qatar more time to adjust its fighter jet procurement.