Qatar Airways’ bumpy trip to Atlanta continued Wednesday when its first flight had to settle for a parking place on the tarmac instead of a regular gate.
The Middle Eastern carrier launched its Atlanta-Doha service with a double-decker Airbus A380, the world’s largest airliner.
The inaugural flight landed about 4 p.m., but the problem was that Hartsfield-Jackson International has only two gates modified to handle the A380. Both were being used by Delta Air Lines, which said it couldn’t rearrange things in time to make way.
So the Qatar plane was assigned to a “hardstand,” where passengers get off via mobile stairs and are bused to the terminal. The plane was then to be moved to the South cargo terminal for a welcoming event, then back to the hardstand to pick up passengers for the return to Doha.
Gate space shouldn’t be a problem after Wednesday, as the A380 was only used for the inaugural. Normally Qatar will use a smaller Boeing 777, which can use most standard gates.
Still, the arrival punctuated an already strained entry into the market by Qatar, which is adding several U.S. cities to its map this year. It pitches its Doha operation as an emerging global hub.
Atlanta “has been on our radar for a long time,” said Gunter Saurwein, Qatar Airways’ senior vice president for the Americas. He said the Atlanta-Doha flight enables connections to 40 more destinations, including points in India, the Middle East and Asia.
Delta contends Qatar’s growth is unfairly subsidized by its government — which Qatar disputes — and executives of the two airlines have traded barbs over the issue. Last month, when Qatar threw a gala at the Fox Theatre to promote its new Atlanta flights, Delta executives were so miffed they announced the airline would not renew its Fox sponsorship.
A national group critical of Qatar’s government and a flight attendants union also have sought to throw cold water on the new flights.
A Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman said the airport learned a few weeks ago that Qatar planned to use an A380 for the first flight. Airport managers asked Delta if it could accommodate the plane, the spokesman said. Delta doesn’t fly the A380 but operates at the two gates that can handle it.
Delta, which develops its flight schedules and plans for gate usage months in advance, said it couldn’t find a viable option to move its aircraft in the time allotted, adding that it would have had to move multiple aircraft to make room for the huge A380.
“Despite limited time to solve for the request, Delta offered solutions to allow Qatar to use the gates while ensuring our own schedule remained accommodated during a heavy traffic period at the international terminal,” Delta said in a written statement.
Sauerwein, the Qatar executive, downplayed the matter: “We are used to challenges, and basically, we made it possible.”
He said the first A380 had a full load of 517 passengers coming to Atlanta and another full flight going back, including paying passengers and a small group of media.