In-flight with Wataniya
by Christopher J Varady
PHOTO: NOUREDDINE TALEB/WATANIYA AIRWAYS - Welcome aboard!
Route: Beirut [Bayrūt], Lebanon (IATA: BEY/ICAO: OLBA)–Kuwait City, Kuwait (KWI/OKBK)
Aircraft: Airbus A320-200
Check-in & boarding
As with all airlines using Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport, the local ground staff handle check-in procedures for Wataniya. When I arrived two hours before departure time, the Wataniya check-in counter did not have any passengers in line.
Because most flights operate late at night, Beirut Airport was quite empty this afternoon. I passed through immigration in less than five minutes and took advantage of the Middle East Airlines Cedar Lounge, to which Wataniya grants access to its first class passengers. True to the Lebanese culture of hospitality and cuisine, the Cedar Lounge offers passengers tasty foods of ample portions, in an extremely quiet ambiance with oversize leather seats and a view of the airport apron.
PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER J VARADY
First Class Seating
Wataniya's incoming aircraft arrived 15 minutes before schedule, its purple livery quite striking as it taxied in. Ground staff announced that we would be leaving slightly before the scheduled departure time. Wataniya rivals Singapore Airlines for the attentiveness of its cabin crew during the boarding process (Airways, May 2008). The six cabin crewmembers (for only 122 seats) walked each passenger to their seat, offering to place their luggage in the overhead compartments. While economy class passengers were still settling in, one of the three crewmembers assigned to first class came around to offer coffee, with dates, from a traditional Arabic silver pitcher.
As we pushed back about ten minutes ahead of the scheduled 1415 departure time, the US-accented captain welcomed passengers and outlined flight details. Flying time to Kuwait City would take 1hr 55min, with a smooth ride anticipated along the route. The flight attendants called attention to the safety demonstration video which began with an Islamic prayer sung as a hymn. With a light load, we were airborne after a quick takeoff roll and headed directly out over the Mediterranean. After a sharp right turn to the north (Arab carriers in the region cannot approach Israeli airspace), the A320 headed straight over Syria, passing the snow-covered caps of Lebanon's two mountain ranges along the way.
The OnAir communications system allows passengers to connect to the Internet and send/receive text messages from their mobile phones. Wataniya passengers connect to an onboard router for text messaging and Internet usage (but not phone calls as yet) at international roaming rates.
PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER J VARADY - Cabin Crew
Immediately after the seatbelt sign was turned off, flight attendants began the lunch service with professionalism yet friendliness and laughter. Most of the crewmembers had previously flown with Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways (Airways, August 2006) and were thus well-trained in passenger service. They were unanimously happy and honored to work for Wataniya for better working conditions and higher team morale.
Lunch was served with stylish linen tablecloths, silverware, and monogrammed flatware. As a Kuwaiti airline, Wataniya does not serve alcohol beverages onboard, instead offering passengers a truly Arabic experience with flavored coffees, lemonade with mint, and other local 'mocktails'. Lunch options included chicken sharawma, prawn, or a vegetarian pasta. I chose the prawn main course, which was accompanied by canapés, salad, and a mousse dessert. The meal presentation was superb, with very fresh ingredients; each course had been prepared according to an Arabic recipe, especially the rice and prawn which used local spices.
PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER J VARADY - First Class Lunch
When lunch was complete, the cabin crewmembers quickly removed the tray and offered dessert as a completely separate course with coffee or tea. I chose coffee, which was served on a silver platter, with a cheese and fruit plate. Wataniya also offers ice cream as an alternative dessert. Throughout each course, one of the three flight attendants working in first class repeatedly stopped by my seat to ask about the meal or inquire if I would like anything else.
The A320's lavatory is equipped with full-length mirrors, fresh flowers, and toiletries you would expect on international business class. In-flight amenities at the passenger seat seem endless for a trip of less than two hours. I noticed nearly every passenger using the OnAir system. Furthermore, the extensive options provided by the IFE (in-flight entertainment) system were almost impossible to exhaust on the short flight. The program guide offered eight types of documentaries or television series, 12 music channels catering to both Arabic and Western genres, and 15 video games.
During the descent, even as the landing gear was being extended a cabin crewmember came around one last time to ask if there was anything else he could offer.
Arrival at the Sheikh Saad General Aviation Terminal in Kuwait City continues the five-star experience of in-flight service. As the Terminal has no airbridges, Mercedes-Benz mini-vans meet all passengers to ferry them to the immigration checkpoint. Three Wataniya ground staff greeted passengers at the arrival hall. As my nationality needed a visa-on-arrival, the Wataniya representative stayed with me at the immigration counter to ensure that the process was completed quickly. Next, the representative arranged for a porter to carry my luggage outside and handled the entire customs clearance process without my having to lift my own bags.
When I asked where I could find a taxi, she chuckled briefly and instructed me to take a seat, informing me that a car had already been called to take me to the hotel. Wataniya offers this service free of charge to its first class passengers. A spacious white Audi appeared on the front drive, and the Wataniya concierge wished me a pleasant stay in Kuwait. After such an experience, it's hard not to feel like a VIP.
PHOTO: NOUREDDINE TALEB/WATANIYA AIRWAYS - A320 cockpit crew
PHOTO: STEVE KOZMAN - Wataniya's inaugural service to Beirut, Lebanon.
Class: Premium Economy
Aircraft: Airbus A320-200
Check-In and boarding
The Sheikh Saad Terminal provides porters and greeting staff for all departing travellers. When passengers arrive at the front drive by motor vehicle, a carefully orchestrated service begins. Possessing an intimate knowledge of flight times, a greeter welcomed me and sought confirmation that I was on the flight to Beirut. She asked for my ticket and passport, then invited me to sit in the waiting area while she handled check-in procedures for me.
PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER J VARADY
First class and VIP departure lounges at the Sheikh Saad Terminal.
Relatively small, Sheikh Saad General Aviation Terminal has three shops including a newsstand and Starbucks coffee outlet. The upstairs lounge, reserved for premium economy passengers, commands a full view of the apron. This morning, we were fortunate enough to see both of Wataniya's A320s parked side-by-side, along with a few biz-jets. Although I was flying premium economy class, Wataniya Airways staff invited me to tour the first class lounge. Adjacent to the private check-in area, it is decorated in modern, tasteful hues. In addition, there are two private lounges for VVIPs, often including members of Kuwait's royal family. A staff of six offers full meal service in the lounge to departing first class passengers.
Returning to the premium economy class area of the terminal, I proceeded through immigration and security screening with no wait at all. Even with flights running full, it was hard to imagine that there would be a wait of more than a few minutes. Wataniya has conveniently put the security screening just before the boarding door, so there is no need to open luggage, remove belts, etc, before enjoying the amenities of the terminal. These small organizational details make a profound impression.
Boarding for premium economy class passengers is via bus, while first class customers are driven to the airplane in Mercedes-Benz mini-vans. My flight, like the inbound one, was almost empty, with only about 15 passengers in premium economy and approximately six in first class. We departed 12 minutes ahead of schedule, on account of both the savings in boarding time and light passenger load. After the travel prayer and safety demonstration, we left the apron for the short taxi to the runway. The runway adjacent to Sheikh Saad General Aviation Terminal does not see much commercial traffic and, as such, we were number one for takeoff. Unfortunately, sandstorms in the area diminished the view on takeoff, but we were quickly above the orange-hued dust and sand in a few minutes.
PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER J VARADY
Premium Economy Class Seating
The pilot-again with a North American accent-explained that our flight path would be along the Saudi/Iraqi border, then over Jordan and Syria, finally landing at Beirut's Rafic Hariri Airport. Strong headwinds meant that we would lose the time advantage of our early departure, but he was still expecting an on-time arrival.
The three cabin crewmembers working in premium economy class brought out the lunch trays within a few minutes of the seatbelt sign being switched off. Today's choices included fish and chicken. I chose the chicken, prepared to a local recipe, accompanied by a Greek salad, roll, and dessert. Indeed, the premium economy class lunch was equivalent to first class on most US carriers. Most importantly, the cabin crew collected trays immediately after passengers had finished their meals. This enabled them to work or relax, unencumbered by the tray—another small but useful lesson that larger and more established airlines could learn.
PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER J VARADY - Premium Economy class lunch
After the lunch service, the flight attendants came through the cabin twice to proffer hot towels and water. Premium economy offers videos and entertainment - on today's flight an Egyptian movie from the Fifties - on overhead monitors. The audio system is just as replete with options as that in first class.
With such a low density in the cabin, all passengers disembarked within a minute or two of reaching the parking stand. A Gulf Air Airbus A330 had landed just before us, so Wataniya passengers scampered a bit to reach the immigration queue ahead of them. We passed through immigration quickly, to find that baggage from our flight was already on the carousel. So near to the city, Beirut Airport's easy location saw me go from aircraft door to my home front door in about 40 minutes.
Forget about five-star airlines. Wataniya Airways is in a class by itself. Every aspect of the airline's service - in both classes - is flawless and well-thought out to the last detail. It seems the airline has a symbiotic relationship with the Sheikh Saad General Aviation Terminal, and in doing so has taken the 'airport' out of traveling. With Kuwait boasting an airline that has set a new standard in airline travel, it's hard to imagine that passengers are not already hoping that Wataniya Airways will spread its wings and exceptional service around the globe.
(A feature article about Wataniya Airways, including an interview with CEO George Cooper, appears in the July 2009 issue of Airways.)
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