What is Qatar’s CEO, Akbar Al-Baker, up to?

The unpredictable Al-Baker, who has achieved the nickname U-Turn Al for his ability to pivot 180 degrees at a moment’s notice, seems to like the limelight in the press with his bombastic behavior.

In his latest interview, he takes on Boeing and Bombardier.

His frustration with Boeing is understandable. With a major order for the 787, Qatar is adversely affected by the repeated delays in the program and the continuing uncertainty over the delivery schedule.

His public criticism of Bombardier and Pratt & Whitney is mysterious–and may fall into the category of public posturing.

But first, how did Al-Baker earn the nickname U-Turn Al?

There are a number of reasons, but the two most notable–or notorious, depending on your point of view–involve the Farnborough Show in 2008 and the roll-out of the 787 in 2007.

787 roll-out

As readers and aviation enthusiasts everywhere will remember, Boeing put on a grand extravaganza to roll-out the 787 on July 7, 2007 (7/8/07). Forget about everything that was learned later about the airplane on that day and the subsequent delays; Boeing did a fabulous job and deserves an A+ for showmanship.

Among the events was that CEOs or C-level representatives from every customer were given front-row seats before the stage. Logos of every customer were painted on the side of the 787. Qatar’s logo was one the airplane and a reserved seat, with Qatar’s logo, was on a chair.

Qatar’s order hadn’t been announced at that time–and Al-Baker was a no-show at the extravaganza. His absence with the logo-adorned reserved seat was noticed at the time.

777 order at Farnborough–just kidding

Although the 787 absence was low-key but noticed, the next event was far more noticeable and notably embarrassing for Boeing.

The airframer issued a press release at the 2008 Farnborough Show announcing a Qatar order for 777s. A short time later, Boeing issued another press release retracting the first one.

We know Boeing goes through a detailed, methodical process that is almost agonizing in preparing press releases and to prepare to issue press releases. Customer and internal approval is required, the date and time is mutually set and from then on it is on auto-pilot.

Somewhere along the line, Al-Baker didn’t want the press release issued–but it was too late.

The name U-Turn Al was born.

Bombardier, PW and the CSeries

So what of Qatar and the Bombardier CSeries with the Pratt & Whitney P1000G Geared Turbo Fan? Many expected Qatar to place an order at the 2010 Farnborough Show (though not this column, and we said so a full week before the air show). At the air show, and since then, Al-Baker has been saying he has “commercial issues” with (alternatively) Pratt & Whitney and Bombardier.

It sounds more to us like he’s negotiating in the press. Given the great pressure and expectations on Bombardier to get some more for the CSeries, what greater way to increase the pressure by taking complaints to the press?

While Al-Baker has alternatively placed the blame (if you want to call it that) on PW for a delay in placing the order or Bombardier, he has simultaneously said Qatar could be the launch customer for the A320 New Engine Option–which, of course, will use the PW GTF as one of its two power sources. We believe the GTF will be available at least a year before the competing CFM LEAP-X engine, and in any event, the GTF could have as much as three years in-service experience with the versions offered on the CSeries and the Mitsubishi MRJ, which are promised to enter service in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The LEAP-X is promised to enter service in 2016 on the COMAC C919.

Given the state of the industry’s inability to get any new airplane into service on time these days, we can’t help but be skeptical of any new airplane program, but we are especially skeptical of the EIS date.

The /GTF is talked about with an EIS of 2015, which would be at least a year before the A320 NEO/CFM.

Although Al-Baker hasn’t specified which NEO engine he would select, we believe the GTF could have the upper hand from an in-service experience and promised EIS standpoint. We also think the GTF has some technological advantages over the LEAP-X in terms of sand ingestion in the challenging Middle Eastern environment due to its lower RPM and other reasons.

If we are correct (and, of course, there is no way of knowing that we are unless or until Al-Baker makes his move), why, then, would Al-Baker continue to shuffle Bombardier and PW around? We think it’s public posturing to get the best deal he can on these “commercial issues.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. Tim Clark from Emirates Airlines, Steve Udvar-Hazy, formerly ILFC and now Lease, and others are notorious in the industry for negotiating in the press and using the press to put pressure on the manufacturers. But we think some pundits and aerospace analysts are misreading the situation, and the mainstream press–not knowing any better–doesn’t realize its being skillfully used.


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