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It has been one of the few airlines to continue regular, scheduled flights during the global lockdowns to contain the novel coronavirus, maintaining services to about 30 destinations.

The Doha-based airline made the announcement via Twitter late on Tuesday. It said earlier this month that it would start resuming flights to destinations it had suspended due to the virus outbreak and that it aimed to fly to up to 80 destinations by June.

But like many other airlines forced to shed staff even as lockdowns in some parts of the world ease, the mid to long-term outlook for the long-haul Qatari carrier remains lacklustre. 

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In early May, it announced plans to shed a “substantial” number of employees, including cabin crew.

Qatar Airways’ Chief Executive Akbar al-Baker said this month that global travel demand will take years to recover from the coronavirus pandemic and many business travellers may never return to the skies, having become accustomed to working remotely, while job losses and business closures would also have an impact.

The CEO, who heads one of the Middle East’s largest carriers, added he would be “very surprised” if travel demand recovered before 2023-2024.

With our Summer schedule, we aim to operate to more than 80 destinations spanning from East to West. #QatarAirways

View image on Twitter

Rival Emirates has said a recovery could be 18 months to three years away.

To manage a slow recovery, Qatar Airways will reduce its fleet by a quarter, with some aircraft expected to remain grounded and others returned to lessors, and reduce flights.

“I am sure there will be demand,” al-Baker told Reuters, forecasting the airline would be able to fill between 50 percent and 60 percent of seats.

“There are still a lot of people stranded around the world (and) people who want to visit their loved ones.”

But restoring confidence in how to safely operate services and give passengers confidence to fly ahead of restrictions easing is another matter.

Some airlines have discussed leaving middle seats empty on flights to enable physical distancing, while some are requiring passengers to wear masks on board.

Qatar Airways will encourage passengers to keep a safe distance from each other where possible while on board, al-Baker said.

Qatar Airways cabin crew will begin wearing protective suits and passengers will have to wear face masks on board, the company said last week.

Cabin crew had been wearing face masks and gloves while on board. But from this week, they will also wear suits over their uniforms, while face masks have been made mandatory for passengers.

Cabin crew and passenger interactions are also being reduced.

“We have introduced these additional safety measures onboard our flights to ensure the continued health and wellbeing of our passengers and cabin crew, and to limit the spread of coronavirus,” al-Baker said.

Those not wearing a face mask inside the State of Qatar risk a fine of 200,000 riyals ($55,000) and a maximum prison sentence of three years.

The International Air Transport Association, the body representing global airlines, earlier this month came out in favour of passengers wearing masks onboard, as debate intensifies over how to get airlines flying while respecting physical-distancing rules following the coronavirus crisis.

On short and medium-haul flights, one set of Qatar Airways’ cabin crew will operate the outbound flight and a second group the inbound.

The airline had a fleet of 203 Airbus and Boeing wide and narrow-body jets as of March 31, 2019, when it last published its financial results.

Qatar Airways also said it would give 100,000 return economy class tickets to frontline healthcare workers around the world as a thank you for their efforts in fighting the virus.