Qatar Airways Ltd.’s chief executive officer remained true to his professed mantra that “no air show is complete without some controversy,” lashing out at U.S. rivals — and an ally — he says are obstructing his expansion plans.
At a signing ceremony with Boeing Co. at the Paris Air Show, Akbar Al Baker said a purchase of 777 airliners should remind critics that Qatar Air is creating jobs in the U.S. He went on to threaten an exit from the Oneworld alliance that Qatar joined less than two years ago should a dispute that includes fellow member American Airlines Group Inc. drag on.
“If we find we can not find a settlement to this contentious issue we will exit,” Al Baker told journalists in Paris on Monday, adding that Oneworld risks losing the “spirit” in which Qatar Airways joined the group.
The tussle between U.S. airlines and counterparts in the Gulf has escalated in recent months, with American, Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc. asking the U.S. to reopen aviation-treaty talks with United Arab Emirates and Qatar on grounds that Emirates, Etihad Airways PJSC and Qatar Air get improper government subsidies. That’s an accusation that the three major Gulf carriers reject.
Al Baker, who was flanked by two ministers from Qatar during the signing ceremony with Chicago-based Boeing, has a reputation as a tough-talking executive, ridiculing manufacturers in public over the perceived shortcomings of their products and shooting back at airline rivals who have accused his company of murky accounting.
In a separate television interview, the executive laid out areas in which he said American is hurting his company, saying the same management that had acted as sponsors to welcome him to the alliance has now turned on its former partner.
“They are restricting inventory to us, they are restricting parking space at their terminal for us, they’re going anti-Qatar Airways in the media and in private forums,” Al Baker said. “So what is all this alliance relationship about? If this is how it’s run, then we don’t want to be part of it.”
Qatar currently uses an American gate at New York’s John F. Kennedy International airport for one daily flight and has asked for additional gate space during a peak arrival and departure time for the U.S. carrier.
“The times Qatar has requested to use the gates don’t work with our schedule,” said Casey Norton, an American Airlines spokesman. “We’re more than willing to explore other times and possibilities to accommodate their request.”
American has been unable to meet similar requests from other partner airlines for the same reason, Norton said. “This has nothing to do with our trade dispute,” he said. “We continue to work with Qatar to find them space, but it is a complex situation that requires a lot of negotiation.”
American CEO Doug Parker said last week that Al Baker didn’t raise the issue when the two spoke at the International Air Transport Association annual meeting in Miami.
While American Air has been vocal in highlighting the impact of Gulf hubs on U.S. carriers, British Airways owner IAG SA — another leading member of Oneworld — has stood apart from European peers in defending Mideast operators’ strategies. Qatar owns a 10 percent stake in the London-based company, and Al Baker said IAG’s involvement in Oneworld would be untouched by any decision by Qatar to leave the group.
The Qatar Air accord signed in Paris was for 10 additional 777-8X wide-bodies and four 777 freighters. Al Baker said he wants to be the first customer to receive the Boeing passenger jet, which will help serve ultra long-haul routes.