Qatar Air keen to be new Boeing 777 launch customer

CEO Akbar Al Baker also says the airline is planning to launch three new routes in US by end-2014

Qatar Airways' top executive said the Middle Eastern carrier wants to be a launch customer for Boeing Co's forthcoming 777X mini-jumbo jet, and that the airline plans to open at least three new routes to the United States in the next 12 to 18 months.

"We are very keen on the 777-8 and -9X aircraft and we are receiving presentations from Boeing in this regard," Akbar Al Baker, CEO of the Doha-based airline, said in an interview with Reuters.

"We would definitely want to be the launch customer," he said. "We hope to be one of the launch customers."

Boeing said on May 2 that it had begun offering the new jet, setting up a 'mini-jumbo' war with European rival Airbus.

Baker said he has no concern about folding wings or other novel design features of the proposed 777X. Boeing is considering folding wings to allow more planes to fit into constrained areas without airports undertaking expensive modifications, he said.

Regarding Qatar Airways' interest in ordering additional Airbus A330 planes, he said a possible deal is under discussion, but not close to being signed.

"We have asked for a proposal from Airbus to offer us between 10 and 15 A330s over a period of around 24 months to mitigate the shortage of aircraft we have due to the delays in 787 deliveries and especially now with the grounding of those airplanes recently," he said.

The purchases would be made over 24 months starting when they are signed and would not affect 787 orders.

Boeing's Dreamliner was grounded by regulators on Jan. 16 after lithium-ion batteries overheated on two aircraft within two weeks. The grounding halted deliveries and cost Boeing an estimated $600m. Deliveries resumed on Tuesday.

The grounding disrupted production and "seriously impacted the Qatar Airways' growth plan," Baker said. "To mitigate any future delays in deliveries of our airplanes, we are going to Airbus to give us additional aircraft."

Baker dismissed reports that Qatar had informally talked with International Airlines Group about the possibility of buying Spanish bank Bankia's 12 percent stake in IAG, parent of British Airways and Iberia.

"We have never been thinking about this, nor have we talked to anybody - either Qatar Investment Authority or Qatar Airways," he said.

He said the investment authority would not be interested if Qatar Airways was not interested "and I don't know anything about it. This is definitely something that is just nonsense."

Baker said the grounding of the 787 by regulators had cost Qatar Airways $200m in net income, not revenue as reported earlier. "Actually, $200m in losses," he said, reflecting the costs of stopping routes it wanted to open and downgrading frequencies and type of aircraft operated on some routes.

Qatar Airways, one of eight airlines that operate the 787 Dreamliner, resumed flights May 3, and the last of its five 787s was fitted with a redesigned battery system on Tuesday, he said.

Qatar Airways is not actively looking to buy other aircraft. "We have already finished our shopping list," he said.

Asked what the effect would be of any further incidents with the Dreamliner, he said: "I think both Boeing and the authorities have realized that they should not allow such technical hiccups to impact the aircraft program."

He said the 777 had electrical problems in its early years that were worse than the 787, but there was no social media to highlight the problem, so it wasn't widely known.

"There was nobody to tweet," he said. "The regulators knew but they kept quiet about it.

Turning to the airline's US strategy, he said it planned to open new service to the US cities of Boston, Detroit and Atlanta, and possibly others, over the next 12 to 18 months. 

Qatar Airways already flies to New York, Washington, DC, Houston, and Chicago and plans to add service to Philadelphia next year.

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