MIAMI — Qatar Airways markets itself as “The World’s Five Star Airline.” It may come as no surprise that the airline took home three top awards at the recent World Airline Awards by Skytrax, Best Airline Staff in the Middle East, World’s Best Business Class Lounge, and the much-coveted World’s Best Business Class.
Qatar’s Group Chief Executive, Mr. Akbar Al Baker whose demanding style and unrelenting attention to detail are legendary in the industry was well-pleased. “It is a very proud moment for Qatar Airways,” said Mr. Al Baker, “not only for myself, but for every individual at Qatar Airways who creates the passenger’s experience. The airline’s renowned service, modern aircraft, and luxurious cabins (…) continue to set Qatar Airways apart from the competition.” And what a competition this is shaping up to be!
Qatar, along with its Gulf neighbors, Emirates and Etihad, seem to have been playing a game of one-upmanship for some time now, especially in their premium cabins where flat beds, fine wines, gourmet cuisine and opulent lounges have become baseline expectations among the well-heeled. (Etihad won World’s Best First Class and Emirates took home Airline of the Year at this year’s Skytrax Awards, nudging Qatar into second place and solidifying the so-called “Middle east Three” (ME3) among the top of the premium carriers.)
In reality, how valid are these rankings? Can one really differentiate between the premium products of the world’s top airlines, and are there valid reasons to choose one carrier over another?
I think anyone who travels frequently would agree that service can be hit-and-miss on any airline on any given day. A premium experience can be sullied by a delayed flight, a misplaced bag, or a grumpy flight attendant. I had a decidedly underwhelming experience last year on one of the Top Ten Airlines of 2015 (according to Skytrax) and a spectacular experience on American Airlines in their 777-300ER Business Class Cabin from LHR to DFW this past February.
Consistency is indeed an important commodity to the business traveler.
I find myself in a pretty good position to evaluate Qatar’s Business Class having flown 12 long-haul segments in the front of the plane so far this year. In the spirit of transparency, I paid for all flights, either as full-fare business or as a fare difference between coach and business, and Qatar was not made aware that I was an Airways correspondent on any of these flights.
My routings were Dallas-Doha-Dallas (2 legs), Frankfurt-Doha-Frankfurt (2 legs); Barcelona-Doha-Barcelona (2 legs); Doha-Cape Town-Doha (4 legs) and two one-ways from Doha to Johannesburg and from Cape Town to Doha, on the following equipment: Boeing 777-200LR, 777-300ER, 787-8 Dreamliner and Airbus A330-300.
Given that I paid for these flights from my own wallet, I was especially focused on the issue of consistency and whether the Qatar product delivers both quality and value-for-money. While this article is not intended to be a comparison between the ME3 business class products, I have flown both Emirates (see Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) and Etihad in the past year, and so will offer up some thoughts on which of the three I’d choose next time my travel plans call for a routing through the Middle East.
Finally, and just for a bit of fun, I’ll introduce you to LIE-FLAT, my spreadsheet approach to putting some hard and fast numbers on the business class experience.
Business Class on “The World’s Five Star Airline”
For most business travelers, space, comfort, and privacy are paramount. Thus, one’s overall business class experience very much depends on the hard product – that is, the seat and its physical surroundings. At the end of the day, Dom Perignon and smoked salmon won’t make up for a poor night’s sleep on an angled, sloping-slab!
Qatar’s flagship Business Class seat is B/E Aerospace’s so-called Super Diamond™ seat. It’s installed on their 787s, A350s, and A380s in a reverse herringbone 1-2-1 configuration. The single seats face toward the windows, ideal for the solo traveler, while the two center seats face slightly inward toward each other, making conversation with a companion quite easy.
These seats get top marks! They are 22 inches wide and very comfortable with intuitive controls that have four logical preset configurations, including a work/eat position, a relaxing “I think I’ll watch some TV” position and, of course, the 180-degree, fully lie-flat bed configuration. The leg rest on the seat joins up with the footrest/ottoman to form a superb 80-inch (203 cm) bed. Qatar’s color scheme works brilliantly with this seat, and the sleek cabin with its mood lighting oozes sophistication.
Under the right adjustable arm rest is a compartment that contains a bottle of water and comfortable, noise-cancelling headphones. There is storage for shoes under the footrest and a second storage compartment at leg height under the seat controls. There is also plenty of surface storage at shoulder height with USB and power outlets easily within reach. The Inflight Entertainment (IFE) controlled from a very easy to use handset. The wood-trimmed tray table is locked horizontally under the 18″ TV and folds out into an extremely sturdy 22″ x 20″ work surface. It is by far the best tray table I’ve encountered at 35,000 ft.
There are, however, two niggle points with this seat. First, when the tray table is in the locked position it does stick out from under the TV by almost four inches, not significant for those with shorter legs but certainly an intrusion into this 6′ 5″ correspondent’s shins! And second, I am a side sleeper, and the fairly narrow foot well under the TV limits your options in terms of knee placement when facing the window. This is less of a problem when facing the aisle as the entry space into the seat is wide open.
The spaciousness of the seat entry has one potential downside to some as it does not afford much privacy around your head and shoulders. I actually like feeling a part of the cabin as opposed to closed off. So this was not any big deal to me.
Each seat comes with a quality blanket, a pillow, and a sleek him or hers amenity kit. Here you’ll find socks, eyeshades, earplugs and a comb as well as Georgio Armani products: Acqua di Gio after shave lotion and cologne for him; Si perfumed body lotion and eau de toilette for her. Pajamas are offered on night flights.
Overall, Qatar’s Super Diamond™ seat is one of the best I’ve experienced and the one to look for when booking a ticket on Mr. Al Baker’s airline. That said, I did fly the 777 on several legs which are configured with older-style lie-flats in a 2-2-2 configuration, and here, the footrest is part of the seat. Passengers along the windows have to step over their seat mate when the seat is in lie-flat mode, and there is not nearly as much surface storage except along the center console which separates the seats themselves. I actually like these seats as they pose no impediment to my wandering knees and make you really feel like you are part of the cabin.
On the A330 Barcelona-Doha-Barcelona legs, my seats were supposed to be the old angled lie-flats, which I wasn’t too concerned about as they were relatively short daylight flights. However, much to my surprise, this A330 had just been refitted with B/E Aerospace’s lie-flat Parallel Diamond™ Business Class Seats. These also are in a 2-2-2 configuration but are much more consistent with the 787 seat in terms of feel, functionality, and comfort. They are a little narrower with less overall space, especially surface areas for gadget storage, but I loved them.
So, overall, Qatar gets really top marks in terms of onboard comfort. They have created a serene space for working, relaxing, or sleeping. Aside from those two aforementioned niggles, they have one of the best hard products in the industry, but what about the soft product, particularly the food and wine and beverage service? Is it worthy of the title “World’s Best Business Class”?
In short, I would say absolutely yes but acknowledge that several carriers now have superb offerings up front if you are in the mood to be pampered. The food on Qatar is exceptional. It’s as simple as that. Prior to takeoff, you are offered a hot or cold towel along with your choice of champagne, water, or soft drink.
Champagne is currently either a Billecart-Salmon Brut or Drappier Brut Rose and is served throughout the flight. No cheap stuff is brought out prior to takeoff. (Yes US carriers, I am looking at you!) Once airborne, a second hot/cold towel is offered along with warm nuts and your drink of choice.
I was asked whether I would like to eat right away or be woken up at a certain time. (Food on Qatar can be served anytime you wish, and I noticed several people opting to sleep first and eat later.)
There is remarkable consistency to Qatar’s service: the tablecloth and napkin are laid out followed immediately by a side plate, the salt and pepper cellars, a dish of cold butter, and a selection of artisan breads. Across twelve flights, everything was consistently in place to the point where I was tempted to get out the ruler app on my iPhone to actually measure the cutlery placement! The menu is 5-courses and a la carte: a soup, an appetizer (a choice here between classic Arabic mezze or traditional Western), a main (typically a choice of three), a cheese plate, and desserts (again, a selection of three).
There is always a half dozen or so light options available throughout the flight, and fresh lattes and cappuccinos are made onboard, adding a really a nice touch. In addition to the two champagnes on offer, the wine list includes three whites, three reds, a dessert wine, and a port, and the list of cocktails and mocktails is impressive too. I do like that Qatar presents the wine menu in full color, rather than just as a list with descriptions which, again, I thought added a sophisticated touch. Wine is always presented for tasting prior to serving.
I never had a bad meal on Qatar, bar one slightly chewy fillet of beef out of Cape Town. The food is artfully presented and inventive. I can honestly say that I actually looked forward to my meals on this airline, and it is not often one can say that about the airline industry.
Like the food, the crew on all my flights were consistently good. The cabin service manager personally introduced him/herself on every flight, addressing me by name, and made it clear to me that nothing would be too much of a bother. Like Etihad and Emirates, Qatar’s crew are cosmopolitan, well-groomed, and uber-professional.
I’ve heard people say that they sometimes find Qatar’s staff aloof and a little “stayed”, perhaps out of fear of being fired by His Excellency! I found nothing of the sort, at least on my 12 flights. They are friendly and engaging without being intrusive and always thanked me for flying with Qatar upon landing.
All told, it was a job very well done. This was especially evident on one of the DOH-CPT legs when, upon landing, a young boy had vomited rather violently all over the entryway of the Dreamliner. The crew sprang into action, helping him and his father into the bathroom whilst two others quickly cleaned the floor without any sense of panic, and speaking of bathrooms, they were kept spotless throughout my flights.
In summary, over the 12 legs, 54,517 miles, and 27 cappuccinos, there was hardly a fault to be found.
Qatar, Emirates, or Etihad: Oh What A Choice!
I noted at the outset that this article was not intended to be a comparison piece across the ME3 carriers but, rather, a more detailed analysis of Qatar’s product in and of itself given their widespread use of the tagline “World’s Best Business Class.” However, having flown both Etihad and Emirates, I can’t help but offer up some insights as to which I’ll probably choose next time my travel plans call for travel through the Middle East.
(Note: I make the assumption that I will be choosing between Qatar’s 787/A350/A380 hard products reviewed in this article, Etihad’s Business Studio, installed on their A380s and 787s, or Emirates’ A380 flat beds. Frankly, Etihad’s A340 Pearl Business seats were sub-standard, and I have not yet flown on the Emirates 777 with their often-criticized angled lie-flat seats.)
So, if we really are comparing apples to apples, which of the ME3 will I choose next time around? Well, if the flight was a day flight and I just wanted to have FUN – that is, spend my time socializing with superb bubbly and enjoying the company of friends, the Emirates A380 is hard to beat, simply because of that stand-up bar at the rear of the plane.
It’s simply terrific and really harks back to the golden age of travel. Their walnut veneer and gold-trim cabin, while not to everyone’s taste, gives the whole experience a glitzy, over-the-top feel, and the complimentary chauffeur service is a really nice perk. (On Etihad your ticket has to be full-fare business to qualify, and mine wasn’t, which was annoying, and Qatar does not currently offer a limo service.)
While I loved the elegant Business Studio on Etihad, with top-notch food and onboard service to match, I’d still give the edge to Emirates between the two UAE carriers. They seem to have that little extra spark, especially as it relates to their crew, along with noticeable advantages over Etihad like exceptional amenity kits, incredible lounges, a mind-blowing IFE, and a consistency in service door-to-door. If given a choice between all three, I’d still probably choose Qatar over both Emirates and Etihad, at least for now.
Qatar Airways service is almost flawless. Their food and beverage selection is second to none. They offer pajamas on overnight flights, even if it’s a medium-haul segment, and they offer a free night in a hotel if your connection through Doha is more than 8 hours. (which trumps a limo for the fatigued traveler.) Even coach passengers get this perk, and their pricing has almost always been more competitive than either Emirates or Etihad.
I realize that, in many ways, I am splitting hairs here between the ME3, but perhaps my subjective (and I hope slightly fun) LIE-FLAT table below will help you decide should your travel plans call for a trip on any one of these excellent carriers anytime soon. You really cannot go wrong on any one.