Disclaimer: Airways reviewed this product on the ground, as part of an invitation by Qatar Airways.
Written by: Roger Hyde
MIAMI — Chances are, you’ve never heard of Akbar Al Baker, but just think of him as the Richard Branson of the Persian Gulf.
Having the confidence, (backing) and determination to take on rival players Emirates and Etihad who have spent countless millions of dollars raising the bar on the highest standards in global air travel, he decided to elevate Qatar Airlines thereby rewriting the definition of best in class.
READ MORE: Qatar Airways Unveils its New Business Class
But let’s face it, a decade ago, Doha wasn’t exactly on Conde Nast’s “best-kept secrets of the Persian Gulf” list, and (until recently) its unremarkable airport wasn’t a “must-experience transit hub” for travelers to India, Asia or beyond.
But the former engineer and pilot would not back down from a vision that included launching the ultra-mod Hamad International Airport, as well as a fixation with taking the passenger experience to a new altitude.
In 2017, as their 10th anniversary of flying to the USA approached, and after landing Skytrax’s coveted World’s best Business-class, the airline proceeded to rid their fleet of First-class cabins (except in their A380’s) by redefining luxury with First in Business®, featuring the QSuite – the new gold standard in international flying comfort for the traveler who can afford it.
And even though a most inconveniently timed Qatari blockade stole some thrust from the QSuite launch, they have rebounded with a sizable increase in passenger capacity, and have simply refused to stop growing. Their young fleet of 206 aircraft has almost as many orders on the books from both manufacturers.
READ MORE: How Is Qatar Coping With the Blockade?
They currently serve 150 destinations worldwide and promise to add a new route virtually every month. One of which holds the current record for the longest nonstop: Doha to Auckland – which clocks in at an overwhelming 18+ hours.
But with a wave of his hand, Gunter Saurwein, head of the airline’s American operations promptly downplays it. “Time flies when you’re on Qatar,” he chuckles in a chocolatey Viennese accent. And after discovering how much there is to do, experience and enjoy after I boarded a nonstop flight to nowhere on one of their gray 777-300ER’s at a recent press event off the gate on the JFK apron – I quickly realized that he’s probably right.
I’ve always found it daft how so many airlines seem to hide their identity once you’re on board. It’s almost as if they ran out of livery paint, or perhaps they just want to challenge me to a dreary game of Guess where you are!
It irritates me when I can’t tell if I’m in a leased, discontinued, alliance-agnostic, or incomplete-maintenance cabin with my boarding card as the only branding clue. But make no mistake, Qatar’s carefully crafted environment bears no resemblance to any other cabin interior.
Aside from the annoyingly fickle, slo-mo overhead disco LED’s which cast a green, then an orange, then a blue hue over everything, nothing feels chintzy or gimmicky. Everything is solid, substantial, considered, curated and thoughtful.
Unlike so many modern business-class seat division surfaces which always remind me of a giant empty egg carton, the Qatar palette of hues constantly reinforces the airline’s livery.
Everything is lavishly set in fresh grey with a deep burgundy for contrast and brushed gold accents here and there. Bowls of fresh roses in each of the two QSuite cabins are just another of Al Baker’s fastidious touches.
The window-side suites are for travelers who prefer a larger measure of seclusion, while the center suites can be combined into side-by-side doubles, or forward and rear-facing quads – great for families who want to (quite literally) keep an eye on their kids, or for double-dating travel buddies who (hopefully) won’t get too sick of staring at each other for 18 straight hours. And speaking of intimacy, the two rear-facing doubles convert into the first commercial double-bed in the sky.
Only when you sit down do you realize the extent of the privacy the QSuite offers. You literally cannot see another passenger. And so, after settling comfortably into my ultra-luxurious and adorably bespoke isolation chamber, I had a gnawing concern that I might become just a teeny, weeny bit lonely.
But then I discovered the thickest, deliriously soft, velvety quilted blanket you could ever run your fingers through (and easily the largest I’ve ever come across in the sky), with two petite pillows – one in a dark quilted burgundy cover, which felt more like a sham than something you’d ever lean against, and an even smaller spongy thing.
I might have traded them both in for one of those nice large, goose down or memory foam snuggables in a multi-thread, white Egyptian cotton case. But hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
I found myself surrounded by adjustable surfaces: the privacy door that glides along a track to shut out the world, the odd-shaped foldable table that slid towards me from under the imposingly-large, impossible-to-miss In-flight Entertainment screen, and a large triangular desktop that butted up against two removable neighbor separation panels.
Both armrests are adjustable, but the larger of the two (more like an extension of the seat) opens up to reveal the in-flight magazine, water bottle and audio headset storage.
Command-central wraps around the main console, with the deluxe remote control, electricity and USB outlet array below. The electronics are set in an all-metallic panel with single-push seat adjustments for all the usual contortions, angles and positions you’d expect out of a premium crib in the sky — only this one happens to be patented by the airline.
READ MORE: PAS 2017: Touring Qatar Airways New Q-Suite
Their slight surfboard shape seems to have more substantial side support so that you never feel the inner mechanics of the hip bone when fully extended in the lie-flat position. My feet also appreciated a deeper and less crowded footwell, and the Do Not Disturb light is subtle, yet effective.
The IFE functions…well…like all IFE’s are supposed to. Large colorful key-art carousels of shows, audio programs, and movies scroll north and south offering trailers and info on the nearly 3,000 entertainment options.
But aside from a meager half-dozen New Releases (which are a little less new than they might be), the movie content is curated under some rather unusual options like Christopher Nolan (directed) movies or a Spider-Man festival, which I found to be a nice touch.
Speaking of which, the touch-screen is ultra-responsive with no server latencies or digital lag, snapping you back home or jumping straight into content without an unendurable barrage of commercials. And while the picture quality is flawlessly High-Def, the only letdown are the no-name-brand headsets, when Bose or Beats might have been more at home in this “only the very best will do” environment.
One of the first things to catch my eye was a hard shell (Louis-Vuitton-clutch-looking) amenity kit. Bursting out of the sedate environment in boisterous beige, it turned out to be surprisingly light of contents, with just a face mister, lip balm, hand lotion, ear plugs, eye mask, and socks.
But after a visit to the bathroom, I discovered all the remaining amenities in abundance. Both forward and aft bathrooms are of the ultra-spacious variety, (the kind my Grandmother would have described as having plenty of room to swing a cat!) Finishes and surfaces also seem more custom than your standard Boeing faux-faux-faux marble du jour.
The incredibly attentive, informative and charming crew are all manicured, tailored and perfectly put together in soft-shouldered jackets, pencil skirts, scarves, pumps and pillbox caps. Most striking is their multi-cultural diversity, hailing from 125 nations (with Japan, China, Korea, India, France and the US well represented on this flight), which felt a lot like an elaborate campaign for the Gap, or a sub-stratosphere staging of the Miss Universe pageant.
The comprehensive a la carte dinner, breakfast and snack menu offers multiple choices of popular European, American and pan-Persian fare with an impressive selection of non-alcoholic Mocktails, including their signature and highly addictive Lime & Mint delight.
Upon boarding, the crew invites you to Dine on-demand. Depending on your mood, hunger level, mealtime preference, jet-lag diet rigor, or if you’ve just done a little too much damage to the buffet in the lounge, you can request any of the dozen or so dishes from any page in the menu at any point during the flight.
Cathay Pacific does something similar in their First Class product, and I used to think this would be hard for the crew who never get done prepping, heating, plating, serving and clearing meals, but when you consider that the entire cabin doesn’t have to be served and cleared in an orchestrated chorus, it alleviates a ton of congestion and agnst in the galleys, and according to the airline’s Senior Development Chef, Syed Tajudeen, “It allows for better service rotation, so that the crew can take care of other passengers’ needs, while others eat.”
Some of the dishes include the popular and always yummy Mixed Mezze with Baba-ganoush, Hummus and a tart Tabbouleh salad accompanied by several discs of Arab bread.
The Snack Platters are also pretty impressive, with succulent sliders, fresh coils of smoked salmon, vegetarian Kibbeh, and crudités with a triptych of dipping sauces.
Main courses include a staggeringly delectable Chicken Biryani with fragrant basmati rice, tomato coulis, golden raisins, cashews and shoestring fried onions, served with a fresh cucumber raita.
The wine list is short but really impressive with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’s, California Chardonnays and at least one 3rd growth Bordeaux. But their signature Colheita Porto 1992 is, without doubt, one of the only places in the world you can sample this rare and decadent after-dinner treat.
As one would expect, First in Business® offers a formal turn-down service, with a padded mattress, that goose down pillow I was hoping for earlier, spa slippers and a simple, nondescript but adequately comfy grey sleep suit – the kind you are more likely to use and discard on board, rather than pilfer for around-the-house lounging.
I think it’s tremendously thrilling that one airline’s blazing trail to blur the lines of luxury will not only diminish the need and expense for First-class but also substantially elevate the value and quality of business to be ten light years ahead of it.
Bravo Qatar! May all the others follow in your burgundy footsteps.