Four more Qatar Airways Airbus A350 jets are active once again and operating commercial flights after undergoing initial repairs to the areas on the fuselage affected by the surface degradation that grounded much of the A350 fleet over the last two years.
It follows last month’s legal settlement reached by Airbus and Qatar Airways “to move forward and work together as partners”. Last month, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury had warm words for the Qatari carrier – emphasising his optimism for a long-standing partnership, adding “I really mean it”.
The return of more A350s is timely – ahead of an expected busy summer 2023 season, and upcoming route network expansion/frequency boost. At a press conference in Berlin, Group CEO HE Akbar al-Baker announced over seven new destinations planned for launch in 2023, including Chittagong, Juba, Kinshasa, Lyon, Medan, Toulouse, and Trabzon. The Qatari flag carrier is also resuming flights to 11 destinations: Beijing, Birmingham, Buenos Aires, Casablanca, Davao, Marrakesh, Nice, Osaka, Phnom Penh, Ras Al-Khaimah, and Tokyo Haneda. Multiple destinations also saw frequency increases scheduled for the year 2023, including London Heathrow, Zurich, Athens, Milan, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Vienna, and Yerevan.
The route network expansion is notable for a variety of reasons, not least because a new route between Doha and Toulouse will directly connect the aviation-industry-heavy French city with the rest of the world via a Middle East hub for the very first time. Toulouse is the home of Airbus, which continues to retain the crown as the world's largest aircraft manufacturer. More than 55,000 employees are based at Airbus Toulouse, and on any given week – hundreds (sometimes thousands) of Airbus employees depart from Toulouse on commercial flights in order to travel abroad on official work travel trips to visit customer airlines, Airbus suppliers, and on sales campaigns. Most Airbus employees are permitted to travel business class on long-haul flights as per the company’s work travel policy — something Qatar Airways will certainly benefit from on its new direct route to Toulouse.
Elsewhere, Britain's aviation regulator told Heathrow Airport on Wednesday it will have to cut the fees it charges airlines over 2024-2026, bowing to pressure from airlines who have long said charges at the hub are too high.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced that Heathrow, Britain's biggest airport, could charge an average maximum price per passenger of £27.49 ($32.51) in nominal prices over the 2022-2026 period. Following two years of higher interim prices over 2022 and 2023, which includes a charge of £31.57 per passenger for this year, Heathrow charges would fall to about £25.43 per passenger in nominal terms over the 2024-2026 period.
The lower fees will be good news for operators at London Heathrow airport, particularly British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, making the airport cheaper for them to be based at.
Shai Weiss, CEO, Virgin Atlantic, said “After nearly two years of consultation and an abundance of evidence that supports a significantly lower price cap, the CAA has finally adjusted course. However, an average cap of £27.49 until 2026, adjusted for inflation, still penalises passengers at the world’s most expensive airport, which by its own admission, grew more than any other airport last year. The CAA has not gone far enough to push back on a monopolistic Heathrow and fulfil its statutory duty to protect consumers.
“Heathrow has abused its power throughout this process, peddling false narratives and flawed passenger forecasts to win an economic argument. This process has proven that the regulatory framework, including the formula used to set charges, is fundamentally broken. We’ll review our position carefully. With Easter just weeks away and the start of a busy summer season, we are ready to fly and serve our customers and we expect Heathrow to deliver a quality experience for passengers.”
Heathrow shared a different view, saying: "This makes no sense and will do nothing for consumers at a time when the CAA should be incentivising investment to rebuild service," Heathrow said, noting that it remained loss-making while airlines were profitable.
Heathrow has argued it needs higher fees to provide a good service, pay its shareholders returns and fund investment such as new security scanners which mean liquids can stay in bags and a modern baggage system for one of its terminals.
IATA, the airlines' global industry body, said Heathrow had secured a "generous settlement", adding that the present model for deciding charges needs a fundamental review.
IAG and Virgin Atlantic said the CAA had not gone far enough in cutting charges. "If the CAA had fully taken into account industry forecasts of passenger volumes post Covid, it should result in lower prices for consumers," said IAG CEO Luis Gallego.
But both Heathrow and British Airways owner, International Airlines Group, said they were still considering their options, as neither side has been left satisfied.
The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir