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Qatar CEO lashes out at Airbus, flicks at Boeing too
Posted by Dominic Gates
At the last Paris Air Show in 2009, Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al-Baker was upset with Boeing.
This year, after Airbus announced a two-year delay at the weekend for its large A350-1000 jet, he has "big issues with Airbus."
"Unfortunately, it seems they are still learning how to build airplanes," Al-Baker said in an interview Wednesday at the Air Show (my photo, right).
He also characterized an explanation of the Airbus move put forward by the European plane-maker's sales chief John Leahy as "garbage."
But despite his expression of intense dissatisfaction, Al-Baker is hardly abandoning Airbus.
He will announce some more Airbus jet orders within the next two days.
And he said he will buy more A380 superjumbo jets, of which he already has five on order.
He said the Airbus slip is very good news for Boeing's rival 777 jet, of which he now may order more.
But in the interview, he didn't let Boeing entirely off the hook.
Qatar is the launch customer for the A350-1000, the largest of three versions of a new carbon-fiber composite airplane family, the one that will compete with Boeing's large twin-jet 777-300ER.
On Saturday, Airbus pushed out first delivery to 2017 so it can enhance the design with higher thrust engines and changes to the wing.
"I am disappointed in the delay, I am disappointed they will not have commonality among the three variants," Al-Baker said. "I want compensation. And the less information they give us, the bigger compensation they will have to give us."
In addition, Al-Baker is not convinced that Airbus has got the planned revamp of the A350-1000 right and that it will outperform the Boeing jet.
"It doesn't satisfy me, not at all," he said. "We need the plane to be better than the 777-300ER."
Several airlines that have the plane on order, including another Gulf carrier Emirates, had been pushing Airbus to make the plane even larger and fly much further.
In an interview Tuesday at the Air Show, Airbus sales chief John Leahy said that he chose not to give the revamped A350-1000 enough extra power to be ultra-long-range.
"Whether I like it or not, I have to admit the 777-300ER has found a sweet spot in the market," Leahy said. "I want to sit right on top of that."
Leahy's strategy then is to roughly match the 777-300ER's range and capacity, but to do that with 25 percent better fuel efficiency due to the new engines and composite airframe.
But Al-Baker vehemently rejected Leahy's rationale and his performance promises.
"That's garbage. That's just salesmanship," he said. "They said that about their other airplanes and it doesn't meet (expectations)."
Boeing gains as Airbus slips
One thing is clear about the Airbus delay, he said: it's a boost for Boeing.
"It is good news for the 777," said Al-Baker, who on Tuesday at the Air Show revealed an order valued at just shy of $1 billion after standard discounts for another six 777-300ERs to add to the 15 already in his fleet and the 15 more pending delivery.
"People who have ordered or want to order the A350-1000 will have to look at a different avenue," he added. "We were hoping the A350 family would be replacements for the 777. But ... I don't think that will happen in the near future. It is possible we would order more 777s to fill the gap."
"In the long-range twin market," Al-Baker said, "Boeing has the edge over Airbus."
Al-Baker is a famously outspoken airline chief executive, prone to send strong public messages via the press.
At the last Paris Air Show in 2009, he was unhappy with Boeing over negotiations to get compensation for the delays in the 787 program. He complained publicly that Boeing was "run by bean-counters and lawyers."
Last month in Singapore, he caused an unprecedented public row at the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
He questioned IATA's financial transparency and complained of the selection process that led to an IATA board appointment for rival Gulf carrier CEO James Hogan of Etihad Airways.
As Boeing knows from its experience with the 787 Dreamliner -- and specifically with Al-Baker -- airline chiefs do sometimes go public with complaints of delays, demand compensation, and threaten to switch to the other manufacturer.
In the end, after Al-Baker threatened to cancel his order for 30 Dreamliners in 2009, whether through compensation or otherwise, Boeing kept him on board.
"Boeing resolved the issues," he said on Tuesday. "The matter is solved."
And Al-Baker said that not only will he have another order announcement for Airbus at the Air Show, but he intends to buy more of the Airbus giant flagship A380.
He said he needs the superjumbo because it's the only available jet big enough for dense routes into airports where he has limited landing slots.
Boeing doesn't get a pass
And having let off steam against Airbus, Al-Baker didn't leave Boeing unchallenged at this Air Show.
The big debate in Paris this year is over the future narrowbody jet strategy, with Airbus choosing to put new engines on its A320s and Boeing still wavering between re-engining and building an all-new small airplane.
Al-Akbar was scathing about Boeing's lack of clarity.
"Boeing has done a very big mistake by not coming up with a strong statement of what they are going to do with the narrowbodies," he said.
If he were chief executive of Boeing, he said, he would go for the all-new jet immediately.
"These things need leadership, decision making that is very bold," Al-Baker said. "They are pussy-footing about it."
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Jul 12 - 5:47 PM Boeing, Airbus see sunny side of modest Air Show order tally
Jul 12 - 11:59 AM Big United order allows Boeing to claim a successful Air Show week
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