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Qatar Airways' Eric Odone talks:
Over the next few weeks, Qatar Airways will increase service to the United States. The carrier had maintained service to Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago, and on Friday, it will resume flights to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. On July 1, it will resume service to Boston, Los Angeles and Washington Dulles. Eric Odone, Qatar Airways SVP for the Americas, spoke with BTN transportation editor Michael B. Baker about the carrier's demand expectations and new measures in place to combat the spread of Covid-19.
BTN: What makes the timing right to bring back U.S. service now?
Eric Odone: We never stopped flying. We've been collecting data, feedback and information from customers all along the pandemic. We've taken 160,000 passengers to the U.S., and 2,000 of them were on special charters, and we've done charters from the U.S. to abroad. We are always pretty dependent on airspace opening throughout the world, but we've noticed [that when] they did, we've seen a spike in traffic right away. That led us to believe there's a real demand, so we've had a first round of flights that we reintroduced and put into the system and tested the water, and the demand was there, so we thought we'd put in more. We haven't seen a lot of business travel obviously, and we haven't seen a lot of leisure travel either. But the volume is still massive, and it's a different purpose of travel. Some of them have been stuck for weeks and weeks, and we provide them a way to go home. It's provided us with a mission. It wasn't flying for flying. We never reduced our schedule from Canada. We reduced to Brazil a little bit. In the U.S., obviously it was greatly reduced, when we flew two gateways of 10, but despite that, you see with the network of [our partner] American Airlines, we were able to cover all of the U.S. through Dallas and Chicago.
BTN: How big of a role will your partners American Airlines and JetBlue play as you rebuild service?
Odone: The reason we kept Chicago daily and Dallas three times a week is because it was a hub [for American]. Now, we've signed the codeshare on American operating flights. At the moment, we have more than 400 domestic sectors, and that's going to go up to 600 in the summer and 800 in the winter. That's very important. We are going to be flying from the U.S. [in July], and all those points are big American or JetBlue feeders. It's essential for us.
BTN: What are you hearing from your corporate customers about when they will resume business travel?Odone: We've had some people who want to travel, but they have duty of care [policies], so they are limited in what they can do. We don't anticipate business travel to be the first sector to recover. It will take time, but at the moment, we've seen some positive signs in business travel. It might also be more about repatriation than to conduct business, and I can't imagine business returning much until September.
BTN: What sanitization measures have you put in place?
Odone: Within weeks [of the Covid-19 outbreak], we had a film showcasing what we do. We talk about pre-cleaning of the aircraft, double cleaning, washing every single pillow. We talked about the protocols to do with silverware, food and trays. We felt it was what people wanted to hear, and we were the first ones to do that. We were copied a lot, and we created a new wave of that. Other elements were introduced: big bottles of hand sanitizing gel in the aircraft, masks for the cabin crew, and now they wear the full [personal protective equipment]. At the hub, Doha International Airport, we operate it ourselves and are able to control it, and we can make sure the standards are as high on the hub as they are on the plane. We have the cool robots over the airports with ultraviolet light that kills microbes in the air, we have a huge sanitizing program of all the elements people will touch, big stations of hand sanitizing gel everywhere. There's a very thorough process of disinfection of baggage belts as well as baggage transiting. There are the markings on the ground and new boarding procedures to make sure that people [are distanced.]
BTN: Are your lounges open?
Odone: The business-class lounge is operating. We closed the first-class lounge.
BTN: We've seen U.S. airlines this week get tougher on enforcing masks for passengers. Are you doing the same?
Odone: I don't think it's that much of an issue. People are used to it. We provide them to people who don't have any, but feedback from our colleagues in the air is that most people have one anyway. We haven't faced any issues with that.
BTN: How has your business-class offering changed amid the pandemic?
Odone: The good thing about the Qsuite is that we didn't have to change anything other than the food and beverage and the way it's offered and displayed. The product itself is very strong on social distancing. I would like to think it's more important in the future, in choosing products where they feel safe, so hopefully we are able to convince people the product is operating on all flights and still at the same quality that it was.
BTN: What about ticket flexibility?
Odone: You will never be at a loss, because if your flight is canceled, we'll refund you. If you want to change the date, we'll change it for free. If you want to change the destination within 5,000 miles, we will let you change it free of charge. If you don't want to travel, we'll put the value on a travel voucher with an additional value of 10 percent for two years, or if you're a frequent flyer, you can swap it for miles. This, and dealing with the need for safety with the hygiene protocols, has been essential in rebuilding confidence. And right now, it's all about rebuilding confidence.
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