Q&A: Strengthening presence in Africa

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Qatar Airways recently celebrated 10 years of f lying to South Africa, and the airline’s Chief Commercial Officer Marwan Koleilat was in Johannesburg to ref lect on the past decade, as well as look ahead to what the Middle Eastern carrier has in its pipeline, including additional routes to South Africa. He sat down with Business Traveller Africa editor Dylan Rogers.

Q: How has the aviation landscape changed in the last 10 years?
A:
A new route takes time to develop. Flying to South Africa for the last 10 years, we’ve been able to develop the route and penetrate the market. We’ve seen the potential and are going to increase our frequencies – double daily to Johannesburg and daily to Cape Town by December. We also have plans to fly to Durban, starting in December.

Q: Are there any characteristics of the South African market that you’ve uncovered?
A:
The South African market is predominantly leisure traffic from different parts of the world. Being a network carrier, we fly to many destinations in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. We’ve found a high demand from these areas for travel to South Africa, beside the business traffic to Johannesburg.

Q: What was the thinking behind launching the Durban route?
A:
The launch of this route is driven the demand from international travellers. When tour operators design an itinerary, they like to include as many cities as possible on any given tour. So while Johannesburg offers a more business focus, Durban is the leisure destination. It allows visitors to get a well-rounded view of the country.  I was recently in Durban, and I was very impressed – the infrastructure, the airport, the weather, the people, are all fantastic.

Q: Are you surprised that so few international airlines fly to Durban?
A:
 I am, and I can’t understand why not. In my one-day visit to Durban, I found that the city had so much to offer, and I don’t see how other carriers can’t recognise the city’s potential. The interest from travellers to visit a destination is piqued when the airlines open the door for them. Giving them the means to reach a destination will surely bring the visitors.

Q: Are you able to put figures on the percentage of business and leisure traffic to South Africa?
A:
It’s about 50/50. As a business destination, Johannesburg has a higher frequency than Cape Town. However, business travellers will tack on a trip to the coast  once their business commitments in Johannesburg are complete.

Q: The Middle Eastern airlines have built a strong offering with their premium class products. Has it always been part of Qatar’s strategy to build an impressive premium class offering?
A:
Airlines depend quite heavily on the sale of first and business class seats, which have much higher yields than economy class seats. Qatar has invested substantially in our premium cabins. You can see this investment on our new Boeing 787s, as well as our new Airbus A350s and A380s.

Q: What was the appeal of the A350?
A:
  The A350 is a unique aircraft, with a number of features that serve the routes on our network. The business class seats have many technical features that our passengers enjoy. The most important consideration, however,  is the fuel consumption. The A350 has 25% better fuel efficiency, which will help the airline be more competitive. The first two of our A350s were put into service to Frankfurt. The third aircraft was sent to Singapore. Our next 350 will be deployed to Munich.

Q: What’s the next ‘big thing’ in the premium class offerings?
A:
Competition has forced the airlines to be innovative, something we have long been known for. Currently we’re offering on-board wi-fi, which will be rolled out across our entire fleet. We also have a celebrity chef who prepares our on-board meals.

Q: How do the proposed changes to South Africa’s visa regulations affect the view of the country as a destination, and what have you communicated to your passengers?
A:
We support what the South African government is trying to do – they have children’s best interests in mind. Qatar Airways hasn’t seen impact, either positive or negative. If traffic numbers drop because of these regulations, it is, of course, a concern, but it’s too early to tell if this will be the case. I do know that the government has received feedback from IATA asking for the regulations to be amended.

Q: Can we expect any new routes from Qatar into Africa in the near future, beyond Durban?
A:
We began flying Zanzibar on 1 July; there’s a lot of demand for this destination from Europe and Asia. Outside of Africa, we’ll be launching flights to Amsterdam from 16 June, and three locations in Pakistan. In 2016, we’ll be launching three destinations in the U.S.A.