Why Qatar Airways should launch SFO early – like, now

Why Qatar Airways should launch SFO early – like, now

Earlier this year Qatar Airways announced service to San Francisco (SFO), along with a host of other new destinations, for 2018. They also pushed back the start date of their previously announced service to Las Vegas (LAS).

But recent events lead me to believe Qatar should move up the launch of San Francisco to later this summer, or early this fall. Let me explain.

Etihad’s bad luck with SFO

In February, Etihad reduced its flights to SFO from daily to 3x weekly, and from a 777-300ER to a 777-200LR (77L). Well, they just announced they’ll be cancelling service to SFO in October.

They’ve had mixed results with SFO in general, including getting some bad press in 2015 due to a 12-hour delay on the ground in Abu Dhabi then a 16-hour flight to SFO.

With Etihad out of the picture, Qatar only has to compete with Emirates (one A380 per day) and Turkish, which – due to events in Turkey over the last year, including at the airport – hasn’t been as strong ex-US.

Underutilized assets

Prior to the Gulf political crisis, Qatar had an aircraft shortage – it leased four LATAM A350-900s (A359) to make up for the gap so it doesn’t fall behind on its expansion plan. Now, it has a ton of A320 Family aircraft and some wide-bodies that aren’t being properly utilized (regional routes are plied by a variety of aircraft, not just single-aisle planes). These A320s have the range to cover a much wider distance – and number of destinations – than the immediate Gulf.

Qatar A321, LATAM A359 and an Egyptair 737 at DOH four days before the crisis began

If its reassesses its aircraft utilization, Qatar may be able to free-up two wide-bodies to deploy to San Francisco this year – in time for the busy holiday season. The flight doesn’t have to be daily yet – in fact, it probably shouldn’t be – and it would be a good way to soften the ground and get the ball rolling, with the goal of going daily some time next year.

Obviously, there are some other challenges, for instance the laptop ban and false perceptions of Qatar in the US. But Bay Area residents are more open-minded, and I believe they will respond well to Qatar.

SFO is not a Oneworld hub, but BA flies an Airbus A380 and a Boeing 747-400 daily, AA has a decent-enough presence and it’s only an hour connection to its hub at LAX. I think the route would do well with a mid-size aircraft like a 359 or a 77L.

Market hard and fast

Qatar Airways Group CEO Akbar Al Baker (known in Doha and among airline staff as “Chief”) is well-known for his outsized presence in the commercial aviation industry. At times, some of Qatar’s decisions seem to be driven less by a solid business case and more by soft power goals. I don’t know how the short-term numbers would look for this route, but it would be a big statement: in the face of adversity, Qatar is pushing forward. Al Baker has said as much lately.

Over a two to three-month period, Qatar could run a marketing campaign in the Bay Area, leveraging their recent Skytrax wins: Airline of the Year and Best Business Class (again, among other awards). It already has a solid marketing package, in fact – a global campaign called “No Borders, Only Horizons.”

As a Doha-based San Francisco native, this would be Christmas come early – quite literally, in fact, as the journey time would be less.


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