Airlines

Qatar Airways CEO says Covid vaccines likely to be required for travel: 'This will be the trend'

Key Points
  • When asked whether coronavirus vaccinations will be necessary in order to fly, CEO Akbar Al Baker said: "I think this will be the trend initially."
  • Al Baker refuted the idea that his airline relies on the oil revenue that sustains Gulf economies.
  • The conversation with the CEO took place in conjunction with the launch of Qatar Airways' first fully Covid-19 vaccinated flight that took off and landed from Doha.
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Qatar Airways CEO says Covid vaccines likely to be required for travel: 'This will be the trend'

The CEO of a flagship Middle Eastern airline has said the requirement for Covid-19 vaccinations will likely be a trend in air travel, as the industry attempts to rebound from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

"In the short term, yes, I think that the vaccine passport will be helpful to give confidence both to governments and to the passengers in our industry to start travelling again," Qatar Airways Group CEO Akbar Al Baker told CNBC's Hadley Gamble on Tuesday.

When asked whether vaccinations will become a "necessity" in order to fly, Al Baker said: "I think this will be the trend initially, because the world needs to open people need to have confidence in the air travel."

"I think this will be a trend that will happen until such a time that people are certain that there is a proper cure, or proper treatment for this very serious pandemic we are facing today," he added.

The idea of vaccination passports has been floated by many governments and industries, with proponents saying it would make travel safer. Critics, however, argue it could worsen inequality and access for people from countries that are further behind in their inoculation campaigns.

Asked who should run the vaccination passport process, the CEO said, "In my view, it should be led by IATA (the International Air Transport Association) ... I have full confidence that IATA will get into grips with the issues in front of the industry."

The conversation with Al Baker took place in conjunction with the launch of Qatar Airways' first fully Covid-19 vaccinated flight, on an A350-1000.

The "flight to nowhere" will remain within Qatari airspace and feature the company's new hygiene and safety features, including "zero-touch" in-flight entertainment technology. It will carry only passengers and crew that have been vaccinated against the virus that turned the world economy on its head and bankrupted so many airlines in the past year.

The airline does not yet have plans to mandate that all passengers be vaccinated.

Oil prices recovering

After the Gulf states were slammed by the plunge in oil prices in spring of 2020, crude has steadily climbed due to a mix of demand and supply dynamics as well as prolonged OPEC production cuts.

But Al Baker refuted the idea that his airline relies on the oil revenue that sustains Gulf economies.

"We are a commercial entity, we run on profitability from our passengers, our cargo that we carry, we don't rely on the prices of oil," he said. "The only thing that we rely upon (is) to have oil prices that are at a reasonable level, so that it can contribute to our lowering of the operating costs."

International benchmark Brent crude was trading at around $63 a barrel as of Tuesday morning London time, up 22% year-to-date, a level the Qatar Airways CEO says is sustainable for the company.

"Oil price hovering at around $60-65 dollars per barrel, I think is reasonable for us to get back to a sustained profitability," he said.

Air travel rebound?

Qatar Airways, like so many others, was hit hard when air travel came to a near standstill in the first several months of the pandemic.

Last year it received a $2 billion bailout from its owner, the gas-rich Qatari state. The tiny Gulf monarchy's flagship carrier posted a record loss of $1.9 billion for the 2019-2020 financial year, due to both the virus crisis and the then-blockade by a group of Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, which ended in January.

Al Baker said he is confident that his airline will rebound; it is currently rebuilding its network to operate over 1,200 weekly flights to more than 140 destinations by summer. Still, IATA does not forecast air travel returning to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.