Qatar launches service to Atlanta amid drama

  A Qatar A380 receives a water cannon salute to commemorate the airline's first Doha-Atlanta flight   (Photo: Qatar Airways)

A Qatar A380 receives a water cannon salute to commemorate the airline's first Doha-Atlanta flight (Photo: Qatar Airways)

Wednesday, Qatar Airways launched its Doha-Atlanta service, accompanied by the usual inaugural flight festivities. However, the event was not without an element of drama. Though the service will be operated by Boeing 777-200LRs, for the first flight Qatar brought its Airbus A380 super-jumbo to town. Given that Atlanta only has one regularly scheduled A380 flight, this is an event for Atlanta aviation enthusiasts such as myself. However, what should have been an exciting day, wound up being marred.

The world's busiest airport can't handle an A380??

Possibly, most embarrassing is that "world's busiest airport couldn't give world's biggest airliner a gate." Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has been a major driver in transforming Atlanta from a second-tier American city to an internationally-known former Olympic host. As an Atlantan, I can admit that my hometown does not have the travel appeal that a New York, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles has. However, even going back to my childhood, there was a joke that, when you died, you would have to change in Atlanta on your way to Heaven.

The growth of Hartsfield, in parallel with the growth of Delta Air Lines, made Atlanta an attractive destination for business. This lead to growth that brought many high profile events to town and culminated in the city hosting the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, vaulting this Southern city onto the international stage. No, this was not solely to the credit of the airport, but without the cascade of effects that were intertwined with having a world-class airport, Atlanta could still be Charlotte or Nashville.

  The new Atlanta international concourse doesn't have any gates that can handle the A380   (Photo: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport)

The new Atlanta international concourse doesn't have any gates that can handle the A380 (Photo: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport)

I offer that slight history lesson on the importance of Hartsfield-Jackson to ask a simple question: why does the world's busiest airport build a brand new international terminal and concourse that cannot accommodate the preeminent international airliner on the market today? It's not as if the Airbus A380 was designed after the development of the new international terminal. Hartsfield does have gates that can handle the A380 - Korean Air has a daily flight from Seoul - but those are located on the old international Concourse E...and those gates are controlled by Delta. And that's where a story that would be embarrassing enough if only for the lack of gates becomes a head-shaking moment as two major international continue to behave like children.

Can Delta and Qatar please grow up?

The feud between Delta Air Lines and Qatar Airways has been well documented. It prompted Delta recently to terminate a sponsorship agreement with a cherished Atlanta institution, the Fox Theatre. I have generally sided with Delta on its position regarding the Middle East big three airlines - Emirates, Etihad and Qatar - and those airlines' compliance with Open Skies agreements. However, what is a legitimate international business disagreement has blossomed in childish sniping between adults. Delta's actions with the Fox are not alone. Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker has, himself, been tossing verbal barbs at Delta. 

Delta operates an immense number of flights daily out of Hartsfield, and ground operations for that massive number of movements has to be very detailed and intricate. I can imagine that the allocation of gates is highly orchestrated, so I find Delta's claim that it was not able to honor Qatar's request for access to the gates in question to be believable on the surface. Per CNN, Delta was not able to move the multiple aircraft that would have needed to be relocated:

‘It is a part of the common use lease agreement that we have,’ said airport spokesman Reese McCranie. ‘We have to be given a certain amount of time when there is an equipment swap.’

Four to six Delta aircraft needed access to the A380 gate at the time the Qatar Airways plane requested access.
”... there wasn’t anywhere Delta could put them,” McCranie added.
— "World's busiest airport couldn't give world's biggest airliner a gate" - CNN.com
  Qatar Airways A380 parked on the tarmac in Atlanta   (Photo: Qatar Airways)

Qatar Airways A380 parked on the tarmac in Atlanta (Photo: Qatar Airways)

Delta's solution was to "hardstand" the A380; in other words, park the aircraft on the tarmac and use air stairs to disembark passengers from the world's largest airliner. Welcome to 1963 writ large. Moving four to six airplanes at such a busy airport is no doubt a huge undertaking. But I have to wonder, given the feud, just how hard did Delta try? That being said, Qatar shares, likely a significant share of the responsibility.

The announcement that the A380 would be used on the inaugural flight came with just over a month's notice. When asked about providing notice, Qatar's vice president for the Americas, Gunter Saurwein, offer a less-than assertive response: "In general yes, we gave some lead time that we would be here." Some? If I were in his shoes, with my A380 sitting on the tarmac surrounded by airstairs, I would have firmly stated that sufficient notice was given if that had truly been the case. Between this non-committal response and the noted complexity of ground operations, Delta's claim that it was not able to accommodate the gate swap seems that much more believable.

Regardless of which airline shoulders the largest share of the blame for this embarrassing incident, Delta Air Lines and Qatar Airways need to start acting like adults. Until something changes in the regulatory environment in which they operate, the companies need to compete vigorously and let that competition push both airlines to higher levels of excellence. Yes, that competition may be unfair if Qatar is effectively being subsidized, but, for now, "it is what it is." Delta has to do business within that reality while it continues to appropriately work with the U.S. government to ensure that all competition from foreign carriers is within the bounds of the Open Skies agreements. Anything less does a disservice to its hometown and passengers who get caught in the middle of the airlines' crossfire. Atlanta and ATL passengers deserve better.