The coronavirus pandemic has devastated air traffic, and airlines have taken various steps to address the situation, salvaging what they can amid the crisis. In most cases that has meant cancelling most if not all flights, doing some marketing around new service and cleanliness standards, and offering expanded flexibility on future tickets booked during the crisis.
Qatar Airways has taken a more aggressive approach than most – one that has only intensified over the past few weeks. The airline’s goal: to find ways to increase market share even as demand for air travel has all but disappeared. That has included steps such as adding flights as others were still cutting them, offering free destination changes, giving away 100,000 tickets to medical workers, and building new commercial partnerships. Thierry Antinori is Qatar Airways Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer, and in a recent conversation he elaborated on what has been a strategic effort to make the best of a crisis.
“As we began to see the world going south, we had a lot of thoughts about our response to that. Our response was first to focus, instead of panicking,” Antinori explained. “We began to focus on what market opportunities do we have, and what are our strengths? And using our experience to figure out how we can take a higher share of a smaller pie.”
The results of that approach will be interesting to watch as things evolve in coming months. Near-term it also opens up some intriguing opportunities for people looking to get back to flying, and willing to live with some uncertainty around their plans.
Finding opportunities and continuing to fly
Early on, after the initial raft of cancellations due to border closures across the globe, Qatar Airways made a point of adding flights for repatriation traffic even as other nearby hubs were shutting down completely. That accomplished a number of things. It brought in additional revenue as cashflow was drying up; it helped develop new commercial partnerships; and it established Qatar Airways in the public eye as the airline that was getting people home amid the crisis. The carrier even requested additional traffic rights to Australia, and began serving Brisbane for the first time during the crisis.
“We wanted to be sure to fulfill our basic mission, that we are an airline and we cannot leave people stranded,” Antinori said. “We became the airline that was there for people. We developed the image of being the airline you can rely on. And that customers and trade partners can trust for the future. So it’s an investment for the future.”
Offering headline-grabbing flexibility
When Qatar Airways announced it would offer anyone booking tickets some of the most flexible conditions of any airline should they need to cancel or rebook, it got quite a bit of attention. The big surprise: offering customers the option to change the destination on their ticket, to any city the airline serves within 5,000 miles flying distance of the original. The origin city can also be changed, as long as it’s within the same country. And if the new travel date is by the end of this year, no fare difference will be applied. (There is also the option to take a voucher with 10% additional value added, or to convert the ticket cost to miles in Qatar Airways program. Full details are here.)
That has opened up some incredible bargains. Eager travelers have been booking cheap business class tickets from the US to Europe and then changing their destination city to Asia, for example. A very useful policy for anyone thinking about buying a ticket and worrying about future travel restrictions, but also an opportunity for those willing to book now to potentially save thousands of dollars on future travel. Rather than an overly generous mistake, it was an intentional move.
“It was to reach several targets at the same time,” said Antinori, explaining that while initially they were mainly concerned with making sure people could feel confident booking and traveling with them, the idea soon evolved. “We decided to go a step further, and be a leader in terms of flexibility, an airline the customer can rely on to change his mind, and even to change his destination.”
“It’s also to lock in some business for us,” he continued. “And if we are now a little richer with our offer, maybe we’ll have more people wanting that over a refund, and it can also support our cashflow. Of course it’s a bit of revenue dilution. It’s an investment, but it’s a good investment.”
Looking to the future
No one knows for sure what the recovery will look like in coming years, and Qatar Airways acknowledges it will emerge from this a smaller airline. But Antinori says they’ve taken the necessary steps to rebound better than competitors.
“We’re of course hammered by the crisis like everybody,” he said. “We do not know how long the recovery will take. And we’re not lying to ourselves. We’ll have less passengers in 2021 than in 2019. But we will be there. And what we do know is we will take a higher share of the market than before COVID-19.”
Qatar Airways is flying to 32 destinations as of today, but has plans to raise that figure to 78 by the end of June, travel restrictions permitting. Many people aren’t rushing into getting back on a plane anytime soon, for obvious reasons. But for those who are eager to get back in the air, they may soon have many more opportunities to do so.