JetBlue and other carriers in North America could be on Qatar Airways' target list for investment after being spurned by American Airlines. It remains to be seen, though, whether JetBlue would welcome the outspoken Akbar Al Baker.
“We have other opportunities, both in America and North America, which we will consider,” Akbar Al Baker, the Persian Gulf carrier’s chief executive officer, said Wednesday in Doha, the Qatari capital. “I have some things in mind. The U.S. is an important market for us.”
Qatar Airways ended its interest in American on Aug. 2 after the U.S. company’s chief, Doug Parker, said he wasn’t keen on having the Gulf carrier as a shareholder. While the airlines are partners in the Oneworld alliance, the approach came as a surprise since American had publicly opposed the growth of Mideast airlines in the U.S., claiming they’ve benefited from $50 billion in illegal aid.
While Qatar initially suggested that it walked away because of the “latest public disclosure” by American, appearing to allude to a July 28 financial statement, Al Baker said his chief concern was the pushback from Parker. The fact that Qatar Airways would have been limited to buying a 4.75 percent holding in the open market without the backing of the U.S. giant was also a deal breaker.
“We would have wanted to take up to 10 percent, for which we would need board approval, and we realized we are not going to get it,” he said. “When we are not welcomed by the CEO of the company, who is of course also a shareholder, why should we then invest?”
Al Baker said his interest in building a stake was motivated by “confidence in the U.S. aviation industry,” rather than being aimed at “influencing” American in the debate over Gulf funding. American has joined with Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc. to demand that the federal government limit market access for Middle Eastern airlines.
JetBlue Airways Corp. is the most likely candidate for Al Baker, partly because it has supported Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways PJSC in their fight against the biggest U.S. carriers, said Mark Drusch, a vice president and aviation consultant at ICF in Dallas.
The New York-based discounter has “taken the polar opposite position on the Gulf carriers that Delta, United and American have taken,” he said. JetBlue benefits from U.S. growth of the Gulf airlines through agreements that allow them to share passengers.
Other possible targets for a Qatar Airways investment include Alaska Air Group Inc., Mexican carrier Interjet and Canada’s WestJet Airlines Ltd. Interjet needs additional cash, and WestJet would like more capital to grow, Drusch said.
“I would put my money on JetBlue before Alaska,” Drusch said. “JetBlue has had outside investment before. They had an investment by Lufthansa years ago.”
A renewed investment push might also be less than welcome politically, given President Donald Trump’s drive to protect U.S. jobs and efforts to limit travelers from predominantly Muslim countries. Foreign stakes in U.S. carriers are capped at 25 percent.
Qatar Airways will push on with plans to secure further partners and anchor stakes, Al Baker said, and is on course to establish a new airline in India, the fastest-growing major aviation market, where it has been working toward the required legal filing. “You will hear soon,” he added.
Al Baker has already led the purchase of a 20 percent stake in British Airways owner IAG SA, a close ally of American, and 10 percent of Latam Airlines Group SA, the biggest South American carrier, and is planning to buy 49 percent of Italian operator Meridiana SpA. The partnerships and deals have helped broaden Qatar Airways’ footprint as it competes with Dubai-based Emirates, the biggest long-haul airline, in the lucrative inter-continental travel market.
“We can independently grow but we feel that it is always in the interest of any business to make alliances and to make investments,” he said, adding that should Qatar Airways ever sell shares and American want to take a stake, “we would support it.”
–With assistance from Michael Sasso
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Photo credit: Qatar Airways may consider investing in another U.S. airline in the near future. SeongJoon Cho / Bloomberg