Does the “world’s five star airline” live up to the hype?
Qatar Airways is expanding rapidly along with many of its Gulf region counterparts. They just joined the OneWorld alliance in 2013, and have orders placed that will more than double the size of its current fleet of 124 passenger aircraft. Air carriers all over the world are struggling to keep up, not just in fleet size, expansion, and modernization, but as these two travelers discovered… world class service.
Beginning our journey, Aeroporto Marco Polo di Venezia, Friday 14 February 2014
If you’ve never flown into or out of Venice Airport (VCE), it is a clean, modern, practically brand new (2002) airport facility, albeit already at capacity with just over 8 million passengers last year alone. Super user-friendly, parking within walking distance of the terminal for €5 a day, most airlines have ample check-in counters making the process relatively painless. Qatar Airways’ five star experience begins here, even for those of us unfortunate enough to be booked in Economy Class.
Since we were beginning our journey with Qatar, and were not transferring from another airline, we were greeted with a dedicated check-in lane for online-check-in customers. Not that it would have been an issue not having checked in online, the regular economy class line was moving faster than the premium/business-class line to our right. The agent checking in online-check-in was also servicing the premium customers, but we were the only ones in line and waited less than five minutes.
Check-in was smooth, bags checked all the way through, however we were only given boarding passes for the first two legs of our flight. Malaysia Airlines may be a OneWorld member, but we were required to check-in for the last leg of our flight to Penang in Kuala Lumpur. Our boarding passes were presented to us in a “boarding pass wallet” color coded to indicate what type of passenger we were to ground staff upon arrival in Doha. In our case, it was yellow for “transfer terminal”.
Security at 2pm at VCE is a breeze, and we proceeded to passport control after a quick snack and obligatory glass of wine at one of the numerous airside cafés. We won’t rate lounge access with OneWorld until US Airways becomes a full member of later this month (another blog about that in April…). Boarding was on-time, although we were kept waiting on the jet bridge for 15 minutes prior to being allowed on board.
Life on Board: VCE – DOH, Airbus A320-200, Seats 14D/E
SeatGuru.com must not be trusted. I’d put their accuracy on non US based carriers at around 50%. In our case for this flight it meant thinking we were getting an exit row and then being disappointed.
Pet peeve… people who immediately fully recline their seats. In this case the dude sitting directly in front of me. Qatar Airways seat pitch on this aircraft is 31 inches. Modern slim-line seats make this feel even roomier. Rude dude in front of me who had his seat all the way back was in an exit row, which makes me wonder why he felt it was necessary to recline when a) he had tons of room anyway and b) the person in front of him didn’t recline their seat. A few strategic kicks and a short word solved the problem without incident.
Even on this narrowbody A320 each seat was equipped with Oryx in-flight entertainment. Think 9 inch on demand multimedia system offering first run movies and TV from around the world. A seat-back entertainment system makes all the difference on a long haul flight. A certain 7 hours from hell on an ancient Ethiopian 767 ADD-FCO comes to mind…
In-flight service was excellent. I think Qatar airways maxes out their cabin-crew to passenger ratio in order to accomplish this. Full meal service on this six hour flight with not one, but THREE choices of entree (chicken/fish/pasta). Helpful hint, never choose mass produced fish if given another option. Drinks throughout including complimentary alcoholic beverages. They must have come through three or four times not including meal service to hand out juice and water. Overall outstanding service and good meal quality for airplane food. Moist towelettes included.
Our flight path took us out over the Adriatic Sea, the Balkans, Bulgaria, Turkey, and then an abrupt right turn skirting Syria, down over Iraq, Kuwait, the Persian Gulf… and finally Bahrain out the right side of the aircraft as we began our descent toward Doha.
Doha International Airport (DOH)
On-time Arrival to Doha, where just prior to landing we were given the cute cartoon arrival briefing of happy passengers being seamlessly whisked between terminals by busses (economy class) and limousines (business class). By this point our boarding pass wallet color had been drilled into our memories so there was no way we would get off at the wrong terminal. As most passengers on our flight were transfer, it didn’t matter too much, and this is the first stop our bus made, despite erroneous automated announcements that indicated otherwise. Bottom line, you have to pay attention.
Doha Airport has no arrival gates. Every plane is met by busses which take you to your respective terminal. One positive note, Doha does not cram you into busses like sardines. For our flight of roughly 150 passengers, four over-airconditioned busses that easily hold 100 people each transported us to the terminal at less than 50% capacity. This made the LONG ride to the terminal much more pleasant.
After a security screening, and a duty free shopping maze, your wait begins. You either a) proceed to your elite status lounge, or b) wait in a vast sea of standard issue airport chairs among limited food and beverage options sharing one bathroom with thousands of other people stuck in the same unfortunate situation as you.
In Doha’s defense, they are currently in the process of building a brand new airport which will alleviate this awkward airport experience. Scheduled to open in “early 2014” this (delayed) facility will offer economy class passengers a much more pleasant layover experience as Qatar Airways makes good on its intention to become an airline serving the entire planet. An airline where even now the majority of its passengers are “transit”. First and Business class passengers will continue to enjoy the use of a dedicated “premium” transfer terminal, albeit it a new one.
Doha to Kuala Lumpur – Airbus A330 – Seats 15A/B
The experience on the second leg of our journey, mirrored the first… with the exception of my number two airplane pet peeve, unique to aircraft equipped with touch screen seat-back entertainment systems: People who think the only way to get a touch screen to work is by pounding it with their with fat sausage fingers without understanding someone’s head may be resting on the other side! Fortunately I survived until an hour before landing and after getting three hours solid sleep (rare for me on planes) before I had to yell at the guy.
Overall impression – Qatar Airways
Recent experiences other than Qatar Airways include TAP Portugal, Alitalia, Lufthansa, US Airways, Ethiopian, all in the last three months. Verdict: Qatar Airways stands above ALL others in their total product. SkyTrax, the international board assigning star ratings to air carriers worldwide, rightly rates Qatar as a 5 star airline. US carriers have long been lagging behind when it comes to service and passenger comfort, and none rate above 3 stars. Lufthansa rates 4 stars and offered an itinerary for over $2000. Interesting to note that this round trip ticket on Qatar was just over $1000… and yet delivered five star service.
An overall pleasant experience for being crammed in an airborne tube for a combined flying time of 14 hours. An expanding Qatar Airways (now flying to Miami, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, DC, New York, Chicago) offers a low-price, five-star, global OneWorld alliance affiliated (American, Iberia, BritishAirways, CathayPacific, etc…) service experience that is rapidly bringing new travel opportunities to value-conscious travelers worldwide.
Legacy US carriers be warned! The Gulf airlines are a force to be reckoned with.