Qatar’s Covid-19 lifeline for international travellers

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Foreign visitors have been prohibited from entering Qatar since March 17, but the Gulf state remains an important aviation transit destination. 

The rapid worldwide spread of Covid-19 has made some affluent states in the Gulf, among them Qatar, particularly vulnerable to imported cases, due to their mobile populations and high proportions of foreign workers. 

Qatar confirmed its first case of Covid-19 on February 29, involving a Qatari national who had been evacuated from Iran. As of April 6, 1832 cases and four deaths have been confirmed, out of a global count of 1.34m cases and 74,600 fatalities.

With the global toll mounting, most flag-carrying international airlines have completely suspended operations. However, Qatar Airways has continued to maintain a relatively high volume of commercial flights, providing a vital lifeline for long-distance travellers who feared being trapped far from home as borders closed and other travel options diminished.  

Although foreign travellers cannot enter Doha until further notice, Qatar Airways’ international passengers can still use Hamad International Airport (HIA) for transit to over 70 global cities. 

Meanwhile, Qatari citizens and foreign residents returning to the country must undergo mandatory quarantine for 14 days.

The government has also imposed strict social-distancing measures that include the closure of all schools, transport systems, restaurants and bars, and a ban on all public and social gatherings.

Flying through the storm

Qatar Airways’ decision to maintain commercial flights was partly motivated by requests from foreign governments concerned about their citizens being stranded overseas.

At a time when many of its competitors were grounded, the airline said it was adding 10,000 seats to its network from March 24, with extra capacity on flights to Paris, Perth, Dublin, Frankfurt and London Heathrow. This was followed on March 29 by an announcement that the airline would operate an additional 28 flights per week to Australia until the end of April. 

The flag carrier expects to fly around 1800 flights in the two weeks from March 29. If the flights average 45% capacity, they will transport a total of around 250,000 passengers; some flights have recently been operating at less than 50% capacity, although the airline reported that the load factor on flights from Doha to Germany, UK and France in late March was over 80%.    

A lower-than-average passenger load overall means that Qatar Airways’ continued operations during this period will not immediately translate into significant financial gains. However, the airline will expect to receive a reputational boost among international passengers grateful for a reliable repatriation option, which could lead to lucrative repeat business over the long term.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Qatar Airways operated a modern fleet of 234 passenger aircraft to over 170 destinations worldwide, but revenue was under pressure due to restrictions on flights to some neighbouring countries, put in place when they imposed a blockade in 2017.    

As a state-owned asset, the airline’s commitment to repatriating global passengers also supports government efforts to expand Qatar’s soft power and develop its reputation as a reliable international partner.

Transmission mitigation

Although passenger volumes are lower than usual, the continued influx of international transit travellers into HIA has raised some concerns that airport workers could be exposed to Covid-19, and subsequently spread it among local communities in Doha.

In an effort to limit this risk, HIA says that stringent cleaning and social-distancing procedures have been implemented in all areas of the airport, from transfer desks to food outlets. Transit passengers also undergo thermal screening, and any who have a fever are transferred to a specialist clinic.  

Within the country, testing has been stepped up as part of efforts to provide timely treatment and advice, and limit community transmission. On April 1 the Ministry of Public Health introduced a drive-through testing service for at-risk individuals who had been undergoing home quarantine after returning from abroad.  

Targeted stimulus

While it gets to grips with health care challenges related to Covid-19, the country has also taken measures to ease the economic impact of the pandemic.

As the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, Qatar has been hit by a slump in demand for hydrocarbons and the general slowdown in global economic activity. In response, in mid-March the government unveiled a QR75bn ($20.6bn) stimulus package in an effort to support the private sector.

A significant proportion of the package will be invested in the stock exchange – which rebounded somewhat after the stimulus announcement – while the central bank has been tasked with ensuring banks can tap additional liquidity.

Meanwhile, hard-hit sectors like tourism, hospitality and retail, as well as small and medium-sized businesses, will be exempted from water and electricity bills for six months.

Qatar is also reportedly mulling a $5bn bond issuance to shore up state finances until Covid-19 disruption subsides.

With the fourth-highest investment grade issued by global credit ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, as well as one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, a bond issuance from Qatar could be expected to generate significant interest among global investors.

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