To say that the aviation industry is hit hard by the coronavirus crisis is an understatement. With borders closing, passengers have dwindled, planes have been grounded, and airports now seem very quiet. The loss in profits has resulted in airlines taking drastic measures to stay afloat, by not just cutting flights but also laying off its employees.
For example, Europe's top airlines said they would have to shed tens of thousands of jobs as they struggle to slash costs due to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, whereas nearly 400,000 UAE workers in aviation at risk of unemployment due to the same crisis.
As the global aviation industry is struggling with the severe impact of the coronavirus crisis, Qatar Airways, the national flag carrier, is not exempt from the impact of the pandemic.
Recently, some articles have surfaced mentioning that Qatar Airways is laying off 30% of its workforce. In an interview with BBC World News, Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive H.E. Mr. Akbar Al Baker explains why the airline is letting go of nearly 20% of its staff. Mr. Al Baker remains hopeful that the aviation industry will rebound and shared how Qatar Airways is making sure that it is safe for passengers to fly in their airplanes.
Scroll down to read the transcript of the interview.
H.E. Mr. Al Baker: Unfortunately, we will have to cut nearly 20 percent of our workforce nearly equal to the number of airplanes we are never going to fly again over the next three years. It's a very hard decision because, you know, we built this very strong team. And now for me to let them go, it’s really painful. But we have no alternative like all the other airlines in the world that are suffering massive reduction, we comparatively are not so bad. We hope that things will rebound. But I don't think anybody can predict. Will it take two years? Will it take four years? Will it take five years? We have to wait and see.
BBC World News: Yeah, indeed. So it was confirmed to the BBC today that your airline is giving/will give a cash bailout to Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific, which you already hold nearly 10 percent as a shareholder in that. I'm just wondering about why you're doing that now when you've just told us you're gonna have to cut 20 percent of your workforce, you're struggling just like all the carriers on this planet. I mean, don't you need the cash just to keep Qatar Airways going?
H.E. Mr. Al Baker: I think I'm misquoted that we'll give them a financial bailout. What I mentioned is that if there is a recall for an injection of equity as a shareholder, we will do it. Otherwise, we will lose our equity share, which I would not allow to happen. The same goes for all our other investments. We have invested strategically for the long term. And of course, the investments that we have for the long term. Airlines will rebound. So it is a Long-Term investment, which we will certainly keep doing.
BBC World News: Okay. And this week, Qatar announced that you're giving away one hundred thousand free tickets to medical and health care workers around the world as a big thank you to them. It's a lovely gesture. But I'm just wondering, do you think passengers will feel confident to get back on board at least this year, given that social distancing is next to impossible once you're on board? It's all about trying to rebuild, I guess the passenger confidence isn't?
H.E. Mr. Al Baker: Let me answer you in two parts first. Yes, the passengers will travel. Don't forget that the massive shock that the aviation industry got after 9/11, and a year later people got the confidence to travel. There will be mitigating factors. But I'm confident that air travel will come back during the period I just stated to you.
The distancing issue. I don't think that this would really work on an airplane. When you see that the safe distance is declared a social distancing of nearly one and a half meters at least. It's impossible to have it on an airplane. The only thing that you can do is, as it has said by all medical professions that the virus doesn't spread by air, it’s spread by droplets. So the only way is to make mandatory use of masks, gloves and make sure that you continuously sanitize yourself and the HEPA (high-energy particulate air) filters that are already installed in airplanes take care of the rest of the problem. But what is important is that the airlines should also invest in how they would treat these surfaces, how they will disinfect the airplanes. And in that, Qatar Airways is at the forefront. We are using advanced chemicals to disinfect, the crew travels with full FFE PPE on. So we are doing everything, including providing sanitizers to passengers, checking temperatures.
But, you know, checking temperatures doesn't mean if you don't have a high temperature that you are not a carrier, you could be asymptomatic. And most of the people that are hanging around, even in lockdown, could be asymptomatic and are spreading the virus without realizing it.
The most important thing is that you don't come face to face with an infected person. I don't think that there is any possibility or at least a reduced possibility for you to catch the virus sitting a few inches away, facing in the same direction of the other person just like that.
BBC World News: The quarantine measures, 14 days of self-isolating for foreign arrivals that are being announced in many other countries. That's the last thing this industry needs.
H.E. Mr. Al Baker: Yes, I agree. And this will really destroy the industry, destroy the airport feasibility and their income. And I don't think it will solve the problem. You can already see what is happening in Korea and in other parts, even in Germany, they are getting a resurgence of infection. The only answer is treatment and the vaccine.
The pandemic has affected not just people's health but economies around the world, with businesses struggling to stay afloat hence resulting in layoffs. What do you think of Qatar Airways' latest operational decisions?
With the world still waiting for a vaccine, when do you think travel will resume to normal?
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