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NEW DELHI : Qatar Airways has dispatched a flight of aircraft carrying 300 tonnes of coronavirus aid, free of charge, from around the world to India and will be flying in more such aid shipments into the country. The Doha-headquartered airline sees India as a strategic market and has rekindled its interest to pick up a stake in India's largest domestic airline, IndiGo, the carrier's group chief executive officer Akbar Al Baker told Mint. Qatar airways had in 2019 after entering a code share agreement with IndiGo, said that it is interested to pick up a stake in the airline. “We are very keen to take a stake in IndiGo but I don’t think this is the right time," Akbar Al Baker had said at that time. Edited excerpts from the interview:

How long is the aviation sector expected to be under stress due to the ongoing pandemic?

The stress in the aviation sector is expected to continue till the foreseeable future—at least for the next two to three years. Domestic traffic will rebound faster than international traffic, though. However, we also need to be prepared for future waves of infections, which will, from time to time, lead to restrictions in air travel that will negate whatever small rebound will happen. Any indicator of travel returning to normal will thus depend on how vaccines are deployed.

What are the measures taken by Qatar Airways to mitigate covid challenges?

Qatar Airways has invested a lot into contactless processes, hygiene protocols, and PPEs for crew. We are using the world's latest ultraviolet technology to disinfect aeroplanes and airports. We have taken every single precaution to make air travel as safe as possible. Qatar Airways was the only airline to operate a fully vaccinated flight about two weeks ago. Also, I am very proud to say that all Qatar Airways staff are already vaccinated.

Qatar Airways overtook Emirates to be the largest long haul carrier during the pandemic. How did you manage to do that?

We managed to do this because we are very agile and resilient and we could implement measures before others had the time to think about them. We know how to deploy our capacity and aeroplanes, and fortunately with our modern fleet, we have been able to move capacity from one market to another, according to their size. Also, other carriers have aircraft /capacity that is not conducive (for operations) during pandemic. I, however, can't tell you more as we have competitors who are closely following us.

Are you still interested in picking up stakes in IndiGo? If so, how does this investment make sense for you?

We are still keen to pick up a stake in IndiGo. Profitability, and efficiency are main criteria of our investment. IndiGo is the largest and most efficient Indian airline, which is why we are interested in them. And India remains strategically an important market for Qatar Airways.

Are you currently in talks with IndiGo's promoters?

When we approach an investment opportunity, we don't talk about it.

What are your plans for India? Many experts say that covid will lead to Indian travellers opting for direct flights to Europe and the US, thus avoiding Middle Eastern hubs.

Qatar Airways would like to grow in India and serve more destinations. I don't agree that Indians don't want to travel through hubs in the Middle East anymore. We will sooner or later overcome covid. There is so much demand for air travel in India that people will have to travel through hubs.

Were you interested to bid for Air India?

We couldn't bid for Air India by ourselves since rules didn't allow this. We were, however, very interested to partner with the Tata Group, but I believe that they already have a partner.

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