DOHA, QATAR — When Qatar Airways announced service to Atlanta, Delta Air Lines execs famously said that they could count on two hands the number of people traveling between the two cities every day. Needless to say, they don’t think it will succeed.
Qatar doesn’t agree with its Atlanta-based rival, but even if the statistic is true, it doesn’t seem to matter for the airline’s long-term plans.
Its access to this tiny, hand-shaped peninsula of a country jutting off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia into the oil-rich Persian Gulf is only a small part of its appeal. Its real bread and butter is connecting passengers, those who stay at the airport just long enough to catch another plane to one of more than 150 destinations.
Those seemed to be the majority on the inaugural flight from Atlanta Wednesday.
Steve, a technician, was headed to Djibouti to maintain emergency warning systems installed on a military base in the tiny African nation.
Reza, an Iranian student who just finished his first year at the University of Georgia, and Muhammad, an Ethiopian-born Saudi citizen attending high school in Lawrenceville, Ga., met in the boarding line. Both were going to their respective countries to visit family for the summer.
For Reza, Qatar was already the most convenient way to get to his home city near Tehran, the Iranian capital, and the Atlanta flight cut out a step. He could now bypass a connection in Chicago, making it a one-stop flight instead of two.
Then there was John, a bespectacled world traveler going through special business-class customs line upon arrival in Doha, his connection time long enough to necessitate an overnight stay. The roving attorney follows blogs that help travelers expertly capitalize on loyalty programs to achieve near constant jet-setting. On this trip, he had somehow combined money and miles from American Airlines, a oneworld alliance partner with Qatar, to snag an upgrade to one of only eight coveted first-class seats en route to Cape Town, South Africa.
Delta currently serves none of those destinations, and some argue that Atlanta needs Qatar and other global carriers to gain true global connectivity and lower fares. While Delta’s joint venture partners like Air France and KLM extend its reach, they don’t go everywhere, and connections aren’t always seamless.
“It’s just real hit or miss especially when you’re trying to redeem miles or get a good fare, so there’s definitely a market,” says Rob Rothley, who left tech giant Cisco and started a business selling recreational boats in Peachtree City.
But the real excitement with Qatar is the breadth of possibilities, says Mr. Rothley, an aviation enthusiast and frequent flier with Delta as well. He and his son were headed to Kathmandu, Nepal, where they were planning to hike to the Mount Everest base camp.
“You go online and try to book a flight to Kathmandu on Delta; you can’t do it,” he told Global Atlanta. “I’ve flown everywhere that Delta flies, so now I’m excited because I can go to the Maldives, to all of these destinations [on Qatar]. We couldn’t get there any other way and now we have this great service.”
Qatar Airways does its best to get people out into Doha, offering free city tours and sometimes paying for overnight stays for business-class travelers as it did for Mr. Rothley and his son, whose layover was set to exceed eight hours. The airline is also working with the city government on a presentation about Qatar for travelers whose time is too short to see the sights.
But having had the unique chance to tailor the Hamad International Airport to its passengers’ needs, the airline has taken into account pure connection traffic as a means to put its home city on the map. After all, stopovers without a transfer hub.
Qatar Airways Group CEO, Akbar Al Baker, said as much in describing how it would compete in Atlanta against Turkish Airlines, another new arrival that flies to more countries than any other carrier.
“At the end of the day, will you go and use an efficient hub or an inefficient hub?” he said, noting that Qatar’s minimum connection time at the airport is 35 minutes, second in the world, and a people mover being tested within the terminal now will help cut that down further.
Most, however, opt to stick around in the airport, and it’s easy to see why. Opened in 2014, Hamad International is a gleaming entry point, with an on-site hotel, stores from Harrods to Hermes and a spa and fitness center complete with a pool, a gym and squash courts. The airport also planning a new north terminal that will allow it to handle about 60 million passengers per year, twice its current load. The design will aim for the effect of an outdoor garden while remaining comfortably enclosed in glass, Mr. Baker said at a news conference in Atlanta.
“The new airport is becoming a destination,” said Rossen Dimitrov, senior vice president in charge of customer experience for the airline. Huge lounges for first and business class passengers overlooking the airport’s “town square” contain calming water features, game rooms and private family rooms, multiple dining areas and more. All meals and experiences except spa treatments are included in the ticket price.
Mr. Dimitrov said the demographics on the Atlanta flight, with a heavy presence of Indians, especially, showed its path to viability. The airline serves 13 Indian cities, for instance. Because of its connectivity, the airline doesn’t fear the prospect of a nonstop service to that country from Atlanta, he said.
“No airline is in the business of losing money or flying air,” he said. “Based on what I’ve seen I’m very confident that we will do well. It may take a little bit of time to build the route completely, I think we’ll get there just as we have with other routes.”
Still, frequent flier Mr. Rothley believes the airline will have a hard time wresting coveted business and economy traffic away from Delta in its hometown, where it has a near lock on corporate loyalty. And in an interview, he made another key point: Qatar will be tasked with retaining long-haul passengers only using its service once a year on trips home.
Mr. Dimitrov believes service will make the difference, especially after introducing a more spacious and private business-class product in November. Only a few Qatar Airways flights have the first-class option, and the new business will incorporate more of its features.
“We will do it,” he said of capturing some Delta travelers, adding that he doesn’t even fear a potential opening in Atlanta by United Arab Emirates carriers Emirates and Etihad, who have also been criticized for allegedly using government support to fly financially unviable routes.
A flight back to Atlanta on Saturday, June 4, shows the challenge ahead: One section of the business-class cabin was almost completely empty. Economy was less sparse but not as packed as the first flight over.
“Competition is healthy. It keeps us all on our toes,” Mr. Dimitrov said.
For Mr. Rothley, it’s a matter of being able to going back to the departures board to pick the location for his next excursion with his son.
“We were running out of places to go.”
Editor’s note and disclosure: Global Atlanta was a guest of Qatar Airways on this flight and on a familiarization tour of Doha that stretched until Saturday, June 4.