The South Asian, Middle Eastern and African diaspora communities in metro Atlanta have always been key customers since Qatar Airways launched a nonstop flight from Atlanta to Doha in 2016.
But even as the airline re-evaluates its near-term and post-COVID route maps, these communities remain an important traffic source that will help the Atlanta route return four times weekly starting in June.
“We go in with a lot of current data as opposed to past data, and when we go in and make the investment, we’re going to make sure this works,” said Mark Drusch, senior vice president of revenue management, alliances and strategy. “Whatever it was pre-COVID, we don’t use that for much of our analytics right now.”
Qatar Airways plays up the fact that it continued flying straight through the pandemic, but certain markets like Atlanta were curtailed quickly starting in March 2020. Still, its consistent global operations have provided a window into demand trends, Mr. Drusch said.
In addition to required business travel — as in the case of sailors who need to fly back and forth to move ocean cargo — Qatar has seen many long-haul vacationers seeking more exotic (and less crowded) locales like the Maldives and Seychelles, or safari destinations like Tanzania. Family visits have proven a resilient source of travel demand — at least between markets not sealed off by restrictions, Mr. Drusch said.
Diaspora communities have helped drive the rationale for not only returning to its seven gateways in the U.S., but also adding two more to San Francisco and Seattle. Qatar has researched the Iranian and East African communities carefully in those cities, respectively, and Ethiopians in metro Atlanta have become a key customer base.
Qatar’s argument has always been that it provides convenient one-stop connections to parts of the world that were underserved by legacy carriers in Atlanta.
Mr. Drusch declined to provide specific numbers on average load factor — the airline term for proportion of seats filled on the Atlanta flight — but told Global Atlanta it has primarily served travelers from the metro area headed to South Asian locales like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as to the Middle East — including places like Iran and Iraq. The Indian community in Georgia has often lobbied for better air service to a country that is projected to have the world’s largest population within a few years.
As for traditional business-travel demand, Mr. Drusch said it’s still a moving target; while air travel is showing some recovery, many have pointed to the adoption of remote-work patterns and virtual events as changes that will outlast the pandemic. Mr. Drusch speculated that Qatar, which operates mostly long-haul international routes, might be less vulnerable than those that rely on domestic business travelers taking shorter jaunts.
“Anybody who is giving you an idea, they’re really guessing right now,” said Mr. Drusch, pointing out a new U.K. regulation that punishes overseas travel by an up to $7,000 fine. “At the end of the day, all we can do is plan with what we know now.”
Qatar has tried to react to border closures quickly but also to gear up to enter key markets within two or three weeks of a government opening the doors. Flexbility for the travelers is also paramount — the company’s “Travel with confidence” policy allows passengers to rebook without penalty, rebook on a partner carrier, get a refund or — in some cases —receive a voucher with value greater than the original ticket price.
“All during COVID, despite us being a Middle Eastern carrier which historically wouldn’t have been expected to be as agile, we’ve actually operated like a private-equity-backed startup firm,” Mr. Drusch said.
Qatar is one of a few airlines testing the IATA Digital Travel Pass, which has the goal of standardizing the process for clearing healthy travelers to reduce time in quarantines. Some have speculated that so-called “vaccine passports” could enable the immunized population to take to the skies more quickly, though others have raised equity and civil rights concerns.
Atlanta was the last of Qatar’s U.S. routes to come back online, he said, aided by the deployment of the new Airbus A350s, which have the right blend of fuel efficiency, cargo capacity and range.
Qatar Airways will continue to operate a dedicated cargo freighter service to Atlanta, he added.