"We're starting operations to Miami in June and Dallas in July - and more to come," said Al Baker, flanked by Mayor Nutter and Philadelphia airport CEO Mark Gale.
The inbound nonstop flight from Doha, a 259-seat Boeing 777-200LR, was nearly 90 percent full with a mix of passengers who live in the Philadelphia area, were visiting family here, or were traveling to other cities served by US Airways and American Airlines. The newly merged airlines are Qatar's partner in the Oneworld global airline alliance.
Al Baker predicted that 40 percent of arriving travelers would stay in the Philadelphia region, and 60 percent would connect to other cities.
Why did Qatar choose Philadelphia? "First, it is very strategically located, and, second, it is the hub of our partner," said Al Baker, referencing US Airways and American, now the largest airline in the world.
The nonstop route to the Persian Gulf city, with connections to the Middle East, Africa, India, and Asia and the Pacific, is expected to bring 27,000 new visitors a year to the region and $95 million in annual economic impact, including airport and tourism spending, Nutter said.
Qatar is the first new foreign-flag carrier to begin service here since Swissair in 1990, said Gale.
"Coupled with the merger of American and US Airways, we think that this will be a spark to attract new attention by other airlines that have not looked at us before," Gale said.
Al Baker said that in 1997 Qatar Airways was a little-known local carrier with four "vintage" airplanes. Today, he said, he plans to grow to 170 routes "with a fleet to match" in less than three years.
Philadelphia is Qatar's 137th destination.
"We have 280 aircraft on order valued at nearly $60 billion," he said. "Qatar Airways has a vision to be a major hub in the Middle East, a connecting point between the East and the West."
The carrier has a code-share financial arrangement and reciprocal frequent-flier program agreement with American and US Airways, allowing customers to earn and redeem miles when traveling on each others' global networks.