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Qatar Air could leave Oneworld alliance; says it won't be bullied

CEO speaks of unfair treatment by airline grouping; names American Airlines boss as chief culprit

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Cabin crew from Oneworld, including Qatar Airways, marking the latter’s joining of the alliance in 2013. CEO Akbar Al Baker says if the airline does leave, it will leave a ‘big hole’ because it’s a major contributor to the group.

Berlin

QATAR Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker said he'll decide in the next month or two whether to remain in or abandon the Oneworld aviation alliance, suggesting the latter option is more likely.

The Persian Gulf airline has given the alliance "some breathing space to get their act together," Mr Al Baker said at the ITB tourism fair in Berlin on Wednesday. Should Qatar indeed decide to depart, it will leave a "big hole" because it's a major contributor to the group, he said.

He lamented what he said was unfair treatment by other carriers and bullying behaviour by some individuals in the group.

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"We were invited as a guest, but then we were not allowed to drink water from a glass and had to drink from the tap instead," he said. "We are not a Mickey Mouse airline."

The comments mark a departure from a conciliatory tone the CEO struck just weeks ago, when he said he was hopeful talks with fellow Oneworld leaders would resolve the spat.

He has faulted the group for not acting in a spirit of partnership, and said in Berlin he wouldn't be "bullied by an individual", who he later identified as American Airlines Group CEO Doug Parker.

Qatar Air has had a long-running feud with American, which joined with peers to argue that the Doha-based airline was among Mid-East operators benefiting from illegal state aid.

In the wake of that spat, Qatar sought to buy about 10 per cent of American, but dropped the plan in August 2017 after US unions voiced their opposition and Mr Parker called the move "puzzling at best and concerning at worst".

A month earlier, Mr Al Baker had raised the ire of both American and Delta Air Lines when he called US flight attendants "grandmothers", while boasting that his own airline's cabin crew had an average age of 26.

More recent tensions within Oneworld have focused on Qantas Airways' pushback against Qatar Air's expansion on Australian routes.

Mr Al Baker said restrictions imposed by neighbouring countries in recent years have made operating more difficult, driving up costs that will lead to another loss this year.

Despite this, the airline is unlikely to seek an injection from its government owner, he said, calling the carrier's balance sheet "strong".

The company has managed to cut expenses by introducing more fuel-efficient aircraft and cutting frequencies on some routes that required major detours, he said.

Qatar is among operators of the Airbus A380, the superjumbo that the European planemaker last month decided to terminate in 2021 amid a lack of fresh orders.

Mr Al Baker said he would take the aircraft out of service once they are 10 years old, starting in 2024. He also advised Airbus against further stretching its A350-1000, while urging Boeing to take weight out of its 787 Dreamliner, of which Qatar has also ordered several dozen units.

As Brexit approaches in a few weeks, Mr Al Baker said he remains relaxed about his stake in British Airways-parent IAG, of which Qatar owns about 21 per cent. While he would like to further raise the holdings, foreign ownership caps prevent him from doing so.

"We are in for a long time, it's a very successful investment," he said. "We get good dividends, IAG has a very solid management, which is why we don't sit on the board, because we don't need to waste our time looking over their shoulders."

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