Following the news of Qatar’s regional diplomatic crisis which broke in June, I must have had the same doubts of booking with Qatar Airways as many thousands of other travelers. With the airspace of several neighboring countries closed, and a suspension of imports from Saudi Arabia (from which most food products are sent into the tiny country), I wondered if in fact Qatar Airways was operating as usual. But, as I was two flights away from reaching Gold status in the airline’s Privilege Club program, I decided to take the chance.
The first clue of operational adjustments was a message from my booking company, Expedia, two days before departure, that my flight to Nairobi had been extended from 5 ½ hours to six hours and that the equipment on the flight had been upgraded from an A320 to a B787 Dreamliner. I assume that the A320 couldn’t make the extra time in the air due to the new circuitous routes Qatar Airways was forced to take.
Sofia had been in a heatwave the weekend prior to my flight, reaching 103F, 39C. But the morning of my flight, a heavy thunderstorm arrived, plunging temperatures down to 65F, 18C. I was anticipating a very bumpy flight given the ferociousness of the storm, a fact which only added to my overall apprehension for this trip.
Sofia’s Vrazhdebna airport is a short drive from the city center on wide highway. In fact, it’s a quick tour of the city’s architectural history—from traditional, Austro-Hungarian, socialist, and post-modern buildings all on the same road, with Vitosha mountain in the background. My Bulgarian friend, Anna, told me that the name Vrazhdebna means “hostile” in the Bulgarian language. The current airport must have been built on the land of a village which had a hostile climate and thus received the unfortunate name. But in fact, the airport is quite welcoming and easy to navigate. With few regional flights, lines are minimal and waits are almost non-existent.
When I arrived in the check-in area, the Qatar Airways business class counter had only one person at the desk in front of me. When it was my turn, the check-in agent provided me with my boarding passes, luggage claim ticket, and an invitation to the lounge in under two minutes. After passing security and immigration control, I entered the Pliska Lounge which is shared by a number of carriers including Qatar Airways, Aeroflot, and TAROM. While the lounge is small and utilitarian, it nevertheless offers a comfortable chair, a wide range of snacks, and a place to quietly use wi-fi before one’s flight. Since no one really transfers in Sofia and the waits are so short, an elaborate lounge isn’t required for this airport.
Strangely, Qatar Airways called boarding about one hour before the scheduled departure time, which I thought was quite a bit of time for boarding an A320. Once I arrived at the boarding gate A1, I saw that I was the last passenger and the boarding waiting area was already emptied out. The past two times I had taken this flight, the A320 was 100% full—mostly with Bulgarian travelers headed to Asia. On this flight, both business class and economy class were only about half full. While not unusual, I wondered if this was a sign of depressed bookings due to the situation in Qatar.
Without any other aircraft movements, we taxied out to Sofia’s only runway. As Lufthansa Technik has a sizeable maintenance base at the airport, I could see a number of A320s under repair—including an Afriqiyah Airways A320 which was being canabalized for parts and several Fastjet A320s (Bulgaria Air had leased some of its A320s to Fastjet, and they were being returned to their owner). We took off due North, and despite the clouds, smoothly ascended into the skies without any turbulence. After a few moments, we turned East towards Istanbul and began our journey to Doha.
Once in the air, the famed Qatar Airways crew jumped into action, with two flight attendants assigned to the six passengers in business class on this flight. With a Thai and Nepalese flight attendant serving us, I thought of the multi-cultural crews of Qatar Airways. They immediately offered me a Bordeaux red wine, from the Chateau Monbousquet vineyard. While not combining with fish and poultry normally, I nevertheless prefer a red wine. For the appetizer, I ordered the cured salmon with horseradish and chive potato salad. The combination of salmon and potato salad was superb. Then, as the main course, I chose the Arabic spiced chicken breast with cinnamon sauce, with rice with minced lambs and herbs. Although the chicken was a bit dry, the Arabic flavoring was remarkable. It’s always a pleasure to taste local flavors presented by the airline’s home country.
Most passengers settled in for the flight, closing window blinds and either sleeping or watching movies on the iPads provided by the crew. Our two flight attendants came by almost every 10 minutes, checking if any passengers needed a refill on their drinks or offering additional snacks. It’s actually surprising to me that an A320 galley can hold all the variety of appetizers, mains, snacks, and drinks offered by Qatar Airways.
Following the Western border of Iran, we began our descent over the Gulf waters and few on a straight path into Doha. We landed just about 10 minutes before 6 pm at Hamad International Airport. For those who have never been in this airport, it is well-deserving of all the awards and accolades it has received. Arrivals and transfer for business class passengers is a real pleasure. Upon arriving, I went to the transfer desk where Qatar Airways now offers hotel rooms to transit passengers. The clerk told me that I would be staying at QR’s preferred hotel, the Oryx Rotana, near the city center of Doha.
Premium passengers have access to an immigration lounge. I was the only passenger there but there were couches and refreshments for premium passengers to wait for an immigration officer for times when there are more. I was processed and my passport stamped within just a minute, and then I exited to wait for ground transportation. The hotel ground staff at the airport had been alerted to my arrival and a driver appeared within about 10 minutes.
During transit, a small effect of the current crisis emerged. I was told that my free hotel room also included 175QAR ($47.50USD) worth of food at the buffet on the hotel’s first floor. I went to eat—nibble really—on sushi, salad, and soup. Upon leaving, I told that the dinner buffet was 315QAR—about $85USD!!!! Not having been told the price and having been led to believe that the voucher was adequate for the buffet, I made a fuss with the restaurant manager. I understand Qatar is a wealthy country, but that price was completely outrageous.
After a comfortable rest, I took the hotel’s shuttle bus back to the airport at 630am. Already having my boarding pass, I went straight through immigration which took just another moment and security at the Premium Check In Area. Here, I was the only passenger and I breezed through both in just a matter of minutes.
Upon entering the main plaza of the airport, I took some photos of the yellow teddy bear sculpture. When I first saw the sculpture by Swiss artist Urs Fischer, I found it childish and inappropriate as a symbol for such a spectacular airport but in fact now I see the point: a whimsical, happy sculpture to help passengers relax in what is often a stressful experience of flying. I also bought one of the Qatar Airways Duty Free lottery tickets. Similar to the one in Dubai, they sell only 5000 tickets at $250 each. An extravagance, but you can’t win if you don’t play!
Having had my fun, I proceeded upstairs to the business class lounge which is a sprawling place with many places to sit. There is also a full service restaurant upstairs as well in case passengers are hungry. My gate was boarding at E23, which requires a short ride in the airport train. The train is sleek and spectacular. Upon reaching E23, there was a mass of people and an announcement was made for business class passengers to wait until being called. This allowed economy class passengers to board first and then business class were taken in a separate van with luxury seats to the aircraft which was parked at a remote parking stand.
QR’s B787 has the same business class seats as its A350, which are in a herringbone configuration and almost like pods. Fortunately, they are not so angled so as to be uncomfortable. Qatar Airways has a fantastic safety video, using FC Barcelona and a football game as the motif. The safety equipment is demonstrated on the football field by famous players, making it light and fun while also informative. Given the 46 degree heat that day, our takeoff was long until the aircraft could catch enough lift. Once in the air, we took a circuitous route heading North-East until entering Iranian airspace and then doubling back towards the south over Oman. This essentially routed us out of UAE airspace, which is currently closed to QR.
As this was a morning departure at 9 am, flight attendants presented the breakfast options. I choose the cucumber, apple, and mint healthy energizer drink. Followed by the Qatari-Smoked Salmon with cream cheese crostini, gherkins, and cherry tomato. I’m not sure what makes salmon Qatari, but there you have it. Then, the Sweet Pepper and Cheese Frittata with chicken sausage, with saffron potatoes, wilted spinach, and mushrooms. Satisfied with the great meal, I settled in for a nap and slept the entire way to Nairobi. Just before landing a struck up a conversation with one of the flight attendants about the current crisis, but it seemed that he had rehearsed the response a bit and told me that it’s “some political problem” and that he didn’t know much about it. But he assured me that everything in Qatar, and indeed with the airline, was as normal.
Landing at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International airport, business class passengers were directed to their own van to carry them to the arrivals hall. Following a fire in 2013 caused by an electrical fault, arriving passengers have to deplane at the main building but take a bus to a make-shift arrivals hall a short drive away. On arrival, Ministry of Health staff verify passengers’ yellow fever cards and then direct them towards immigration officials. The luggage from the flight arrived quickly and I had passed through all the formalities within about 20 minutes.
With access to deep government pockets, Qatar Airways really is operating as usual with its high-quality service. The only change I had noticed was a drop in passengers compared to previous trips with them, both in Doha’s airport as well as on both of the flights. At least for the time being, Qatar Airways remains indeed one of the best ways to fly.