Year 2020 has proved to be one of the worst year for the global aviation industry. The last time so many flights were grounded at the same time happened to be 9/11 attacks. With international travel reopening in a calibrated manner to avoid transmission of virus, most airline operators are hopeful they will be better off in 2021. Then there are airlines like Qatar Airways who is not only hopeful, but is strengthening its processes and making travel easy for flyers globally. We got in touch with Karthik Viswanathan, Regional Manager, Indian Sub-Continent, Qatar Airways to understand the concept of Travel Pass, 2021 forecast among other things. Here’s our conversation-
Tell us about the recent partnership with IATA for use of Travel Pass?
We are proud to say that Qatar Airways aims to be the first airline in the Middle East to begin trialling the innovative new IATA Travel Pass ‘Digital Passport’ mobile app, in partnership with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), from March 2021. This is our latest initiative in our fight against COVID-19 and a step towards making travel safe. Our vision is to have a more contactless, secure, and seamless travel experience for our passengers.
The digital passport will provide accurate information on passengers’ COVID-19 health status. The first phase of trials of the ‘Digital Passport’ will be rolled out on the airline’s Doha to Istanbul route, enabling passengers to receive COVID-19 test results and verify they are eligible to undertake their journey. It will also allow travellers to safely and securely share their verified ‘OK to Travel’ status with the airline and other stakeholders, even before their arrival at the airport. IATA Travel Pass will also provide up-to-date information on COVID-19 health regulations helping travellers to ensure they meet the latest government entry requirements of their destination country.
As the only 5-Star-rated global airline recently announced in the Skytrax COVID-19 Airline Safety Rating, we are committed to safeguarding the safety, health and wellbeing of our passengers, and ensuring an integrated, seamless customer experience at every point of their journey with us.
The IATA Travel Pass will effectively enable passengers to securely and effortlessly navigate their travel plans, safe in the knowledge that their verified travel credential is based on the latest COVID-19 information, the strictest data privacy regulations and entry rules for the destination they will travel to. IATA Travel Pass incorporates four open-sourced and interoperable modules that can be combined for an end-to-end solution: registry of health requirements, registry of testing/vaccination centres, lab app, and contactless travel pass app.
With innovation and technology, we not only plan to enhance the customer experience but also ensure optimum safety levels.
What measures are you taking for the hygiene and safety of passengers?
Qatar Airways is the first global airline in the world to achieve the prestigious 5-star COVID-19 Airline Safety Rating by Skytrax. This follows Hamad International Airport’s recent success as the first airport in the Middle East and Asia to be awarded a Skytrax 5-Star COVID-19 Airport Safety Rating. These recognitions provide assurance to passengers across the world that airline health and safety standards are subject to the highest possible standards of professional, independent scrutiny and assessment.
We have been taking various hygiene measures such as offering face shields and protective kits to all passengers. We rigorously follow physical distancing norms, along with cabin crew being trained on how to minimise their chances of contracting or spreading the infection. They are thermally screened before the departure of flights and after their arrival, are quarantined and tested if any colleagues or passengers on a flight show any symptoms of infection or test positive for the virus. Large bottles of hand sanitizers are placed in the galleys and made available for both cabin crew and passengers.
The airport has also invested in deploying disinfectant robots, implemented stringent cleaning procedures and applied physical distancing measures throughout its terminals. All passenger touchpoints are sanitized every 15 minutes and boarding gates and bus gate counters are cleaned after each flight. Additionally, Qatar Airways became the first global carrier to operate Honeywell’s Ultraviolet (UV) Cabin System, further advancing its hygiene measures on board.
Qatar Airways is also pleased to soon become the first global airline to offer passengers 100 percent Zero-Touch technology for its award-winning Oryx One in-flight entertainment system across the A350 fleet as part of the airline’s latest COVID-19 safety measures.
The Zero-Touch technology, introduced in partnership with the Thales AVANT IFE system, will enable A350 passengers to pair their personal electronic devices (PEDs) with their seat-back IFE screen by connecting to ‘Oryxcomms’ Wi-Fi and simply scanning a QR code displayed on the screen. They can then use their PEDs to navigate and enjoy more than 4,000 options on offer through the airline’s award-winning Oryx One in-flight entertainment system, limiting the frequency of on board surface contact and providing greater peace of mind throughout the duration of their journey.
Qatar Airways is also set to become the first airline in Europe and the Middle East and North Africa region to offer passengers in Business and Economy the option to pair their personal Bluetooth headphones with the on-board seatback IFE system in all cabins on the Boeing 787-9 fleet.
What is the market expansion plan for the airlines in 2021?
Qatar Airways is an airline that you can rely on. By continuing to fly throughout the pandemic, we have been able to build brand loyalty by offering our passengers the flexibility they need to suit their travel plans. We are grateful for the support we have received from local and national governments and entities, whom we are working in close partnership to overcome this pandemic. We have built many strategic partnerships globally because of the approach we chose.
Our passengers and customers have been our highest priority throughout this crisis. We have even launched eight new destinations during the pandemic to meet demand so that passengers can travel with an airline they can rely on. You could trust us during the pandemic and you can trust us even more as things start to improve.
Qatar Airways currently operates more than 800 weekly flights to over 130 destinations across the globe. Many cities will be served with a strong schedule with daily or more frequencies to enable our passengers to travel.
How important is the Indian market for Qatar?
India is a very important and highly promising market for us with huge opportunities. We are always looking for an opportunity that would help us establish strong and successful relationships in the country’s aviation sector. In 2019, we signed a one-way codeshare agreement with Indigo, which was the first step in strengthening cooperation between the ‘World’s Best Airline’ and the ‘Best Low-Cost Airline in India’.
We believe that travel will steadily return, limited by entry restrictions rather than customer confidence. People will want to travel again, experience the world, and meet friends and family as well as restart business travel. I am very hopeful that commercial travel to and from India will resume soon, and the aviation sector will function the same way as before.
What fleet have you currently deployed globally and in India?
Rather than being forced to fly oversized aircraft due to limited aircraft options, reducing the flexibility for passengers to travel when they want, Qatar Airways has a variety of sustainable aircraft it can choose from to offer more flights with the right capacity in each market.
Qatar Airways is fully utilising its fleet of 53 A350 aircraft (largest fleet in the world) to more than 45 destinations in the airline’s network, including Johannesburg, London, New York, and Singapore plus 30 B787 aircraft on most routes. A modern and environmentally friendly fleet makes Qatar Airways a leader in its class with no large four-engine aircraft currently flying.
The world’s leading air cargo carrier also took delivery of three brand new Boeing 777 freighters at the start of 2021, bringing its total freighter fleet count to 26 freighters, consisting of two Boeing 747 freighters and 24 Boeing 777 Freighters.
Prior to the lockdown in India, Qatar Airways was operating a total of 102 weekly passenger frequencies to India, with the following aircraft: A320, A330, A350, B777, and B787. The India-Qatar Air Bubble Arrangement has been extended till the end of February, enabling Qatar Airways to fly to and from Doha to various Indian cities.
Qatar Airways operates 133 flights every week to destinations in India utilising belly-hold flights, mini freighters, passenger freighters and Boeing 777 freighters. The total weekly tonnage each way is more than 3225 tonnes.
Why replace A380 with A350?
While Qatar Airways remained focused on its fundamental mission of taking people home and transporting essential aid to impacted regions, the airline has not forgotten its environmental responsibilities. The airline grounded its fleet of Airbus A380s as it is not environmentally justifiable to operate such a large, four-engine aircraft in the current market. Until passenger demand recovers to appropriate levels, Qatar Airways will continue to keep its A380 aircraft grounded, ensuring it only operates commercially and environmentally responsible aircraft.
How do you see the aviation industry changing in the coming year?
At Qatar Airways, we never stopped flying throughout the pandemic, fulfilling our mission of taking stranded passengers home on scheduled and charter flights. It goes without saying that people will continue to travel again, meet friends and family, restart specific business travel and experience the world. Additionally, with promising developments around the vaccine rolling out across the world, this gives us greater confidence particularly as we look to the second half of 2021.
Despite the economic impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry, Qatar Airways continued to invest in its products and services to ensure that its customer experience remains unparalleled and the best in the world. These tough times made us realize how precious the ability to travel was and perhaps was taken for granted. We expect the passenger demand to gradually grow as entry restrictions around the world begin to ease, and are hopeful that people will want to travel again and experience the world.
The industry is likely to see some long-term changes, but it is far too early to anticipate what changes will become more permanent as these will be driven by the availability of vaccinations, consumer behaviour, airport and health protocols.
It goes without saying that the pandemic has led the world to fast-forward into the future – reinvention is imperative, and many new trends are on the rise. Airlines have already undergone digital transformation with an aim to make travel more contactless and seamless. That being said, safety and hygiene will continue to be the priority and driving factor in the decision-making process.
The wearing of masks and use of sanitizers may prevail and be ‘must-haves’ for travel going forwards. Secondly, emerging technologies that were once at the background will now play a leading role in drawing more people to travel – such as contactless travel and digital health passports.