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Nancy Badertscher
By Nancy Badertscher May 19, 2015

Qatar Airways leader off the mark

Some harsh words have been hurled by the CEOs at the forefront of what some say is a struggle for dominance of international aviation.

They include recent remarks from Akbar Al Baker, chief of Qatar Airways, suggesting that his airline flies airplanes that are superior to those flown by Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines by virtue of their age.

"I am delighted that (CEO) Richard Anderson of Delta is not here," Al Baker said in an interview March 16. "First of all, we don’t fly crap airplanes that are 35 years old. The Qatar Airways average fleet (age) is only four years and one month."

PolitiFact Georgia decided to fact-check Al Baker’s claim.

But first a little background.

Al Baker first made the unflattering claim about Delta’s fleet when he met with a reporter to address a complaint being spearheaded by Anderson.

The complaint accuses three major Middle East airlines -- Etihad, Emirates and Qatar -- of receiving $42 billion in "unfair" subsidies. Delta, United and American Airlines say the subsidies give the Gulf carriers an unfair advantage and are allowing them to expand around the world.

Qatar Airways currently flies into Washington D.C., Chicago, New York, Houston, Miami and Dallas and is scheduled next year to launch service to Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta.

Al Baker denies receiving any "subsidies."

"The state of Qatar is the owner of Qatar Airways and whatever funds are put into the airline is as equity, which is quite legitimate," he has said.

Al Baker and Anderson sparred earlier this year after the Gulf carriers complained that some U.S. airlines received their own subsidies in the form of Chapter 11 bankruptcy and federal loan guarantees and aid after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

U.S. airlines countered that bankruptcy is not a subsidy, and the restructuring process is transparent.

Anderson in February told CNN: "It's a great irony to have the United Arab Emirates from the Arabian peninsula talk about [bailouts for U.S. airlines] given the fact that our industry was really shocked by the terrorism of 9/ 11 which came from terrorists from the Arabian peninsula that caused us to go through a massive restructuring."

Al Baker shot back: "I think he should be ashamed to bring the issue of terrorism to try to cover his inefficiency in running an airline."

The numbers

Featured Fact-check

Now, to the specifics of Al Baker’s claim.

Qatar Airways, the national carrier for the State of Qatar, was launched in 1997 and bills itself as "one of the fastest-growing airlines operating with one of the youngest fleets in the world."

We contacted the airline for documentation that it had a fleet of airplanes, averaging 4.1 years in age. We received data that showed the fleet was actually newer -- averaging 3.1 years.

The airline, based in Doha, has 152 passenger and cargo airplanes, including some Airbus A330s with "designer sleeper suites’ for first-class passengers.

Data on the age of U.S.-registered aircraft is available at the FAA website, which helped with our research.

At Delta, spokesman Trebor Banstetter told us the the airline has about 1,250 airplanes, averaging 14 years in age and 15 years on its trans-oceanic fleet.

"Of our 1,200 plus aircraft, there are a total of four that are older than 30 years," Banstetter said. "They are all about 30.5 years old, and all scheduled for retirement this year."

The average age of the fleet is shown as slightly higher -- 17 years --- on Delta’s quarterly filing to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. That’s largely a reflection of change -- new Boeing 737s being purchased; planes being moved into retirement; and others salvaged for parts, Banstetter said.

We were unable to contact Al Baker to ask where he got the information to suggest Delta was flying 35 year old airplanes.

Aviation expert Richard Aboulafia said airlines are defined by their products, not the age of their jets.

"Business class passengers, who are the only ones who really drive these considerations, look at the state of interiors, seats, food, and other amenities," Aboulafia said.  "Jet age is largely irrelevant. And Delta's average fleet age certainly is nowhere near 30."

Our conclusion

Al Baker was conservative in saying that Qatar Airways had a fleet of airplanes that was 4.1 years on average. The age of Qatar’s 152 passenger and cargo airplanes is actually on average 3.1 years.

But Al Baker veered off course when his comments morphed into an attack on Delta.

Delta has more than 1,200 aircraft. Four are due to retire this year. Each of those is about 30.5 years old, Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter said. The majority of Delta’s fleet is much newer.

Al Baker’s comments contain an element truth but they ignore critical facts that would give the average reader a different impression

We rate Al Baker’s comments Mostly False.

Our Sources

"Qatar Airways boss accuses Delta of flying 'crap' planes," Yahoo news, March 16, 2015

'Qatar Airways CEO says Delta boss is ‘bully and liar’ in subsidies row,' Al Arabiya News, Ben Flanagan, May 6, 2015

Email with Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group and an aviation industry authority.

Qatar Airways fact sheet

Emails and phone calls with Trebor Banstetter, Delta Air Lines, Corporate Communications

Report on Delta aircraft fleet

Delta's age reports to SEC

Age of US-registered planes of Qatar Airways


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