Qatar Airways CEO slams Delta in gate tussle, airport points to scheduling snag

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June 1, 2016 Atlanta: Qatar Airways flight attendants prepare to board an A380 for the inaugural flight from Atlanta to Doha on Wednesday evening June 1, 2016 at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker has called out Delta Air Lines after a clash that left Qatar’s super-jumbo jet without a gate to pull up to for its inaugural flight at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported Wednesday, Qatar Airways’ first flight from Doha into Atlanta had to park on the tarmac with passengers disembarking and boarding the A380 super jumbo jet using mobile staircases and shuttle buses.

The A380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft, is so large that only a couple of gates can accommodate it at the world’s busiest airport — and those gates on Concourse E were being used by Atlanta-based Delta. Qatar Airways’ A380 seats 517 passengers.

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June 1, 2016 Atlanta: Qatar Airways flight attendants prepare to board an A380 for the inaugural flight from Atlanta to Doha on Wednesday evening June 1, 2016 at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

Delta and Qatar Airways’ Al Baker have been in a war of words for a year and a half over what Delta says are unfair subsidies to Qatar Airways from its government that tilt the balance in the competitive landscape.

This week, Al Baker called Delta “wicked” for ruining Qatar Airways’ inaugural flight to Atlanta, according to a Bloomberg report from an International Air Transport Association meeting in Dublin.

“This is an absolute violation of the air-services agreement,” Al Baker said, according to Bloomberg. “Old and frail people had to walk up very large steps to get into the terminal. We had check-in issues, we had obstruction in loading handicapped passengers.”

A report from Aviation Daily said Al Baker accused Delta of “obstruction” and said “suppliers have been intimidated by Delta.”

Delta responded with a statement saying: “Delta in no way acted to obstruct Qatar’s ability to park its aircraft at an Atlanta gate.”

“International gate use in Atlanta is applied for months in advance to accommodate international schedules,” Delta said in its statement. “Despite Qatar’s request being submitted long after the gates had been assigned through the normal application processes, Delta offered solutions to allow Qatar to use the gates while ensuring our own schedule remained accommodated during a heavy traffic period at the international terminal.”

Aviation Daily reported that Al Baker said he believes the incident will “backfire” on Delta. “I have never seen in the whole history of Qatar Airways that an airline would go to [such] low levels in undermining competition and underline it with a load of lies,” according to Aviation Daily.

And Al Baker said the actions of the Atlanta airport and Delta will be taken up “very seriously” by the Qatar government, according to Bloomberg.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport responded with its own written statement, saying Qatar decided in late April to use the A380 for its inaugural flight “and did not provide adequate notice for the Airport and other airlines to make the operational changes needed for this much larger aircraft.”

“Hartsfield-Jackson has only one gate area that can accommodate an A380 presently,” and the aircraft’s wingspan takes up two gates, airport spokesman Reese McCranie explained.

McCranie added that “aircraft operations would have been significantly disrupted and would have displaced four or five other aircraft. This was communicated multiple times to Qatar.” He also said the airport had Plane Mate mobile lounges to transport disabled and elderly passengers, with expectations for more than 100 passengers requiring wheelchairs or special handling, according to the airport.

Roosevelt Council, appointed interim general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson two weeks ago to replace ousted airport leader Miguel Southwell, was quickly thrown into the sticky world of airline politics with the Qatar route launch.

Council wrote a letter dated May 31, the day before Qatar Airways’ inaugural flight, to Al Baker in response to “concerns raised” about the inaugural flight.

According to Council’s letter, the airport’s common use regulations require 60 days notice for scheduled A380 service.

The letter said Qatar approached Hartsfield-Jackson April 25 with the request to operate the A380 June 1. “Despite this, to be flexible,” the airport said it would evaluate the request and work with airlines to determine if it was possible to accommodate the request, according to Council’s letter.

“Unfortunately, soon after, and without approval from us, or regard to whether we could accommodate the A380 on the scheduled time, we learned that your airline had issued a press release on April 27 announcing an A380 would be making its inaugural flight into Atlanta,” Council wrote in his letter.

As alternatives, the airport offered options of different arrival times — arriving before 10 a.m. or after 8 p.m., instead of the scheduled 3:55 p.m. arrival.

The Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Atlanta proceeded on close to its original schedule, arriving at Hartsfield-Jackson at around 4 p.m. It was originally expected to depart at 7:25 p.m., but the schedule for departure was shifted to after 9 p.m. due to the longer boarding and disembarking process and another issue that required the aircraft to move to the South cargo area for refueling.

The Middle East carrier brought the A380 to make a big splash for its inaugural flight, but regular operations of its new daily Atlanta-Doha route will be on Boeing 777s with a dedicated gate.

Separately, Hartsfield-Jackson has plans to build another gate that can accommodate the A380.

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