Gulf Carrier Wins Skytrax Award for 2017. But Here’s Why I’m Not That Impressed.
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS BY THE AUTHOR
June 22, 2017
AT THE PARIS AIR SHOW on Tuesday, Qatar Airways was named “World’s Best Airline” in the annual Skytrax awards ceremony. Skytrax is the popular consumer-aviation ranking site, and its yearly awards are considered the “Oscars” of the airline world. Qatar has taken the top spot four times now in the past ten years. (Singapore Airlines was this year’s runner-up, with All Nippon Airways taking third. Last year’s top finisher, Emirates, dropped to fourth place.)
Here’s an airline that didn’t exist 25 years ago, yet has grown to become one of the industry’s heaviest hitters, serving 150 cities on five continents. Theirs is a story almost identical to that of its Persian Gulf neighbor, Emirates: a tiny but incredibly wealthy country saw a remarkable opportunity — a chance to become the crossroads of the world — and took it. Somebody looked at a map and said, “Hey, look at us, sitting here, equidistant between the planet’s most populous regions. Let’s start an airline! And they made it happen.
Now, I’d be remiss not to add that while this growth has been impressive to say the least, it’s been happening much to the chagrin of airlines in Europe and North America, who, not unreasonably, find the whole thing terribly unfair. U.S. airlines are increasingly nervous as government-backed carriers like Qatar expand into more American markets. In Europe the worry is even greater. Air France, Lufthansa, British Airways and the other legacies are getting squeezed from both sides: they’ve got the low-cost operators like easyJet and Ryanair to contend with on the short-haul front, while Emirates and Qatar siphon off their long-haul customers. Adjust and survive, you might say. A nice idea, but easier said than done when a rich nation-state is giving blank checks to your competitors. The Gulf airlines also have been dogged by accusations of unfair and exploitative treatment of their employees, most of whom are expats from other nations.
But, okay, for now, congratulations to Qatar Airways. They need a little cheering up, I think, in light of the economic blockade the neighboring states have imposed on their little peninsula.
The thing is, though, I’ve flown on Qatar Airways. Twice, actually. Two trips and four separate legs, on 777, A380, and A350 aircraft. All in the carrier’s highly touted business class — also deemed by Skytrax, in a separate award, as “Best in the World.” So that was the best cabin in the world, on the best airline in the world. Supposedly.
And that’s where Skytrax and I part ways. I think maybe Qatar is one of those carriers who’ve built an identity around presumably being the best, rather than actually being it. While they offer a good product, my own experiences show it to be overrated. It’s a case, maybe, of a reputation preceding you — something we see a lot in the airline business.
It’s tricky, grading airlines. Experiences can vary tremendously flight to flight, depending on the temperament of the crew, aircraft type and cabin configuration, and so on. An accurate appraisal requires a healthy sampling of various routes and planes. My own sample size is admittedly very small. But I’ll share my observations nonetheless…
My first experience was a two-leg trip, from Bangkok to Philadelphia, via Doha, with both legs on 777s.
Things started off great. I remember stepping onto the plane at Suvarnabhumi airport and thinking how beautiful the cabin was. It was spotless, for one, and Qatar’s interior decor — the airline’s signature colors are a deep magenta and gray — accented by the 777’s adjustable moonlighting, is possibly the most striking and attractive in the industry. A polished copy of its logo, the Arabian oryx, was mounted handsomely on the bulkhead. The cloth upholstery was a pleasant change from the usual sticky leather. Just a gorgeous cabin.
After the predeparture drinks were served, the purser politely asked my permission — “may I take your glass please?” — before picking up my obviously empty champagne flute. Then he comes around with pajamas, tops and bottoms in a gray drawstring bag, and asks my size. Hey, I’m thinking, this is going to be fantastic.
Qatar’s flight attendant uniforms use that same signature purple-maroon, and are maybe the best-looking uniforms in the sky. There as distinctive as those worn at Emirates, but less fussy.
The business cabin on the 777 is laid out six-abreast, 2-2-2, with a wide console between each seat. The plane felt very roomy (for some reason it seemed much roomier than the Korean Air 777 I’d been on earlier, despite the same layout), but the retractable privacy barrier was small and not particularly useful. Also, I much prefer the angled, herringbone-style configuration in which every seat has direct-aisle access. It stinks (sometimes literally) having to climb over the feet of the person next to you on the way to the lavatory.
Neither do I like the type of seatback-mounted video screens, common as they are, that allow everybody in the cabin to see what you’re watching. Not a big deal, though, and Qatar’s inflight entertainment (IFE) system has loads of films and television shows to choose from. I started with the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” That’s when I was introduced to what has to be the most cumbersome and user-unfriendly IFE interface I’ve yet seen. You scroll through the options using a cursor, and the cursor… moves… very… very… slowly. And each time you highlight a movie or program to learn more about it, the system resets to the beginning. Unless you actually watch that selection, you have to re-scroll all the way through again. And when you do finally pick something, it takes three separate clicks to get the program running, each on a different part of the screen, requiring you to reposition that slow-motion cursor each time. Navigating this system is the height of tedium. (Emirates IFE is by far the most comprehensive, but, if you ask me, Delta’s is overall the best and most user-friendly.)
There was a mattress pad for use in the full recline position, which helped fill in the cushion gaps and made for a comfortable bed. The pillows, though, were skimpy. In a slot at each seat was a big leather binder, like the ones you find in a luxury hotel room, containing the menu and wine list. Qatar’s wine glasses taper inward at the top — a clever idea that helps reduce spills.
What I didn’t realize, however, is that, there are no formal meal services. Everything is on request. You can order whichever dish you want, when you want it. If you’re hungry or thirsty, you ring your call button and ask. This is appealing for obvious reasons, but it’s a little too open-ended, and at no time was this process explained. After takeoff on the first flight, I sat there for two hours, ravenously hungry and waiting for the service to begin, before finally figuring out there was no service.
But, all right, that one was on me. Maybe if I were a more regular high-end flyer (not that I should need to be), I would’ve known this off the bat. What wasn’t in any way fault, however, was the attitude of the flight attendants. Each time I asked for something, it felt like I was putting them out. They quickly organized my meals, but they never smiled, and each time I was left with the sensation that they were doing me a favor.
The crew also acted very confused about the menu choices. When I asked for breakfast — one of the items was clearly labeled “breakfast” — the flight attendant didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. Finally she took out a menu, studied it for several seconds, then said, “Oh, yes, that one. But you had it already, didn’t you?”
I had not.
Overall, with the exception of a very tasty mezze appetizer, the food itself was mediocre and the portions tiny. One of the meals, on the second flight — “Arabic spiced chicken breast with machboos sauce” — was lukewarm and undercooked, and I nearly sent it back.
Worst of all, aside from when my meals were served, not once during the entire trip did a flight attendant ask if I needed anything. Not once, on either leg, totally about twenty hours in the air. Not even water was offered. Walk-throughs were nonexistent, and I sat with an empty wine glass and plastic trash on my console for four hours before finally carrying it to the galley myself. Under no circumstances is this acceptable in a long-haul, business class cabin.
But the strangest and most startling moment comes near the end of the second flight — the fourteen-hour leg from Doha to Philadelphia:
It’s about 45 minutes before landing. We haven’t started descending. I’m in 3A, watching a movie. It’s bright daylight outside, but the shades are drawn so the cabin is dark and cozy. All of a sudden, one of the flight attendants comes over. Without a word, she reaches across my body and WHAM!, WHAM!, WHAM!, she slams up the shades to all three of my windows! I’m blind as everything goes screamingly white with sunlight.
What the fuck! I almost blurt out. What I actually say, rather curtly, is “Excuse me, I’m watching a movie!” No response. Without a word, she stalks to the next poor passenger’s seat and WHAM!, WHAM!, WHAM!, slams up his shades as well. I understand that the shades need to be open for takeoff and landing (see chapter five of my book). But this is almost an hour before arrival. And the rudeness of it is appalling.
After she moves along, I slide two of the shades back down. A few minutes later she comes back. Again, saying nothing, she reaches across me, nearly hitting me in the nose with her elbow, and WHAM!, WHAM!, yanks the shades up again. This time I don’t argue.
It wasn’t much different on my second experience, about a year later. This was another two-leg trip, this time on an Airbus A380 and a brand-new A350.
Once again, the business class cabins were handsome and stylish. These aircraft have the 1-2-1 angled herringbone layout that I missed on the 777. It’s a super-comfortable seat and plenty of shelves and cubbyholes for storage. The side console is on the inboard side, however, and the shell doesn’t reach quite far enough around, which leaves you somewhat exposed to the aisle. If the shell were a bit deeper, there’d be a stronger feeling of privacy. The headset — and it’s an excellent one — has its own storage compartment.
And, once again, the onboard staff were somewhere between apathetic and cantankerous. No walk-throughs, no water, no sense that they gave a damn. Look, I’m low maintenance when I fly, and I don’t need the kind of phony, kabuki-style doting that you might see in one of Qatar’s advertisements, where some flawlessly pretty flight attendant is smiling like a movie star as she tucks you in. But business class isn’t cheap, and what I do expect is a certain level of attentiveness.
Dining was another on-demand, a la carte service. The food, this time, was decidedly better than on the first trip, with a wide choice of both light-bite options (grilled prawn, Inaniwa noodles, green pea soup), or fuller, fancier entrees (Achari paneer tikka, seared cod), along with various appetizers and snacks. The dessert course on leg two — “glazed chocolate ganache cake” — was maybe the tastiest and most decadent thing I’ve ever eaten on a plane. All in all, even if the food itself is less than spectacular, Qatar’s long-haul biz class menu blows Emirates’ away.
On the A380, I took a mid-flight walk to the lounge. Qatar’s A380s, like those of Emirates, have a upper-deck lounge for first and business passengers. There’s a bar and a couple of couches. On Emirates this set-up is in the very back of the cabin; on Qatar it’s in the center.
The first thing I noticed is that all of the liquor was stashed away. The juice and soda bottles were out, but otherwise the bar was bare except for some fruit, snack plates, and a tray of roses.
The bartender saw my surprise. “It’s Ramadan,” she said. “During Ramadan they don’t like us to have the bottles in view, so we keep them in the carts.” (Her accent was Eastern European. Russian? Ukrainian?) She motioned to a point below the counter, where presumably everything was stashed.
“Oh. So, you’re not serving?”
“Well, uh, yeah, you can order something.” She said this in a strange, noncommittal sort of way that was somewhere between a “Sure, you can order something” and “Please leave me alone so I can continue chatting with my colleague over here.” I couldn’t tell if it was a yes or a no. Was the bar open or closed?
“Okay…” I said. “Could I get a vodka tonic?”
She gave no verbal reply. Then, without looking at me, she slowly, deliberately, began making me a drink. Clank, bang, slam. Judging from her movements and the look of disappointment on her face, you’d think that I’d just asked her if she’d shine my shoes, or if she’d mind giving me a massage. I wanted to ask her, “Why are you standing behind the damn bar in the first place when you obviously resent having to make someone a drink?” Clank, bang, slam. All the while now she’s chatting with a second flight attendant standing about ten fee away. And still no eye contact as she hands me the glass.
I was planning to enjoy my cocktail on one of the s-shaped couches, but because I was the only passenger there at the time, doing so would only intensify the weirdness of what already was one of the weirder interactions I’ve had on a plane. So I took it back to my seat.
I had a five-hour layover at Doha’s new Hamad International Airport (DOH), which opened in 2014. I headed straight to the Al Mourjan business class lounge. The lounge is split into two levels, connected by a circular staircase. The mezzanine level offers several eating spots, while the centerpiece of the lower level is a huge reflecting pool. It’s without a doubt one of the more attractive and luxurious airport lounges in the world.
The boarding gates, though, are another story. I’ve been spoiled, maybe, having flown Emirates via Dubai (DXB) a few times, where, at least in terminals A or B, premium class customers have direct access from the lounge, via dedicated jetways, straight onto the plane. DXB is an awful airport otherwise — a hurricane of bright lights, noise, and intensely crowded corridors — but there’s nothing like the Emirates lounge, and the opportunity to walk onto a plane at your leisure, with a whole jetway effectively to yourself. In DOH the gates are the usual scrum of screaming kids and crowds of unruly people who completely ignore the boarding protocols, crushing into the doorway the instant the first announcement is made. First and business passengers are called first, of course, but they have to push and squeeze their way to the front, around the wheelchairs, the baby strollers, and the dozens of passengers who insist on turning the boarding process into a punk rock mosh pit circa 1982.
Final report card:
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