A 36-hour Odyssey with Qatar Airways
MIAMI — Recently, Airways contributor Luis Linares was one of a handful of guests invited by Qatar Airways to experience a “vacation without a destination,” via a 36-hour luxury roundtrip from the U.S. to Doha’s new Hamad International Airport (HIA). The trip included seven hours on the ground to take in the Al-Mourjan Business Class Lounge, the HIA Hotel, and other highlights at this state-of-the-art facility.
This unique VIP layover did not require customs and immigration formalities or exiting security. Qatar Airways uses “The World’s Five-Star Airline” as its corporate slogan, and accolades, such as Skytrax’s “World’s Best Business Class” and “Best Business Class Lounge” for the last two years, suggest the airline is worthy of its five-star self-description. Find out if the five-star hype lives up to its name.
New York to Doha
I arrived at New York’s JFK International Airport on an American Airlines evening flight from Miami. American dominates Terminal 8 in JFK, and this building also serves some of American’s oneworld alliance partners, including Qatar Airways. A Qatar staff member met me at my arrival gate to escort me to the departure gate, where she issued my boarding pass and quickly walked me to window seat 1K in business class on a Boeing 777-300ER. The seat is 78 inches long and 22 inches wide and converts to a flat bed. The 42 business class seats are arranged in a 2-2-2 layout. We reviewed Qatar’s business class service on a couple of occasions in February and June, so I will spend more time on the experience at HIA.
We pushed back at our scheduled departure time of 11:00 p.m. Doha is seven hours ahead of New York, which meant our 11 hour and 35 minute flight would have us there before 6:00 p.m. local time. As soon as I sat down, a very friendly flight attendant, Elizabeth, introduced herself and offered me an amenity kit, as well as a set of pajamas. She also explained the on-demand dining menu, which included multi-course and lighter options, and mentioned it would take up to 20 minutes for a main course to be served.
I opted to stay on U.S. time for the entire itinerary by choosing to sleep first, and Elizabeth offered turndown service as soon as the seat belt sign was off. She covered the seat with a fitted sheet and arranged the pillow and blanket accordingly.
I slept the first eight hours of the trip. The aircraft has a variety of mood light settings to enhance passenger comfort ranging from bright pink to dark blue, which was used when most of the passengers were sleeping. When I woke up, I ordered a traditional Arabic breakfast plate. During breakfast I explored the IFE, called Oryx Entertainment by Qatar. It offered noise-cancelling headsets, a USB port for personal devices, 554 TV programs, 274 movies, and a wide variety of audio options, including music, talk, and audiobooks. Other screen options include a moving map, airport information, and duty free shopping. The remote control is very easy to figure out and navigate.
The Al-Mourjan Business Class Lounge
Upon arrival at HIA, a Qatar ground staff member escorted our small group through transit passenger security, then directly to the Al-Mourjan Business Class Lounge, which is solely dedicated to Qatar’s business and elite customers. HIA has a business lounge for other oneworld customers, as well as those traveling on the rest of the airlines that fly there. As Qatar shifts first-class service to its new Airbus A380 fleet, a new lounge will open solely for those clients. The first thing that struck me about the lounge was its sheer size! The two-floor facility totals more than 100,000 square feet in space or the size of 10 Olympic-size swimming pools.
We first toured Al-Mourjan’s business center, which features a conference area, Internet computer stations, printers, scanners, 24/7 secretarial services, a media room, and a game room that boasts a Formula One simulator as one of its main attractions. Throughout the lounge, there is complimentary WiFi, seating that offers a personal flight information display screen, a reading light, and USB or power outlets for personal devices.
Since Qatar is a predominately Muslim country, the lounge offers a prayer room, which is segregated into an area for men and another for women. Quiet rooms are another service offered at the lounge, and these spaces consist of individual and double occupancy rest areas. Staff can provide amenities like pajamas and toothbrushes, as well as services like wake-up calls. There are also various small rooms to relax and watch television. Male and female shower rooms are also available for customers.
The lounge is also very family friendly. It has a dedicated family area that provides a nursery, playrooms with toys and videogames, and a food and beverage station. In addition, it provides more private areas for nursing mothers, and staff members are readily available to provide assistance. Upon completion of the structured tour of the lounge, we were allowed to explore and enjoy this elegant area on our own.
Dining options are available 24/7, and they range from light snacks to full hot meals in self-serve and catered buffet stations. There is also a bar that keeps wine, champagne, and other beverages constantly flowing. We left the dining area, but not before enjoying a few glasses of champagne, as well as some appetizers. The entire lounge can handle up to 1,000 customers at a time. The lounge was very quiet when we arrived at 6:00 p.m., but we were told that the numbers pick up as flights arrive from Europe and the U.S. Even during that peak period, the complex felt very comfortable and spacious. All the amenities mentioned are an option to passengers at no extra charge.
The HIA Hotel
At 7:00, one hour into our luxury layover, another member of Qatar’s airport staff took us to the 200-room HIA Hotel. I was expecting to exit security and to have to go through immigration formalities in order to get to the hotel, but it is actually located inside the security checkpoints. HIA Hotel transcends a typical hotel by offering stays that start at three hours, considering many customers are on longer layovers, but do not necessarily have to leave the airport or stay an entire day.
Room offerings include standard rooms and executive suites, 32-inch LCD TVs, room service, and complimentary WiFi, tea, coffee and bottled water. The soundproof rooms offer views of the main terminal’s vast dining and retail spaces. Hotel clients also have the option on enjoy a swim in an 82-foot long swimming pool or work out at the fitness center, which includes personal instructors, weights, and different exercise machines. There are two squash courts available too. For passengers looking to relax and rejuvenate, the hotel offers a sauna, steam room and various spa treatments.
After providing walkthroughs of the above facilities, our hosts offered each one of us a room to enjoy for the remaining five hours of our layover. Prior to the trip they also offered a complimentary spa option. I relaxed in my room for about an hour, where I was able to complete some notes on my experience so far, plus enjoy a nice shower. With a couple of hours still left on the ground, I checked out of my room and proceeded to the terminal building to examine the amenities offered to all customers transiting HIA.
Other Features at HIA
HIA started passenger operations in May of this year. The airport is currently capable of handling 30 million passengers per year with concourses A, B, and C. Once concourses D and E are finished, this number will soar to 50 million. The terminal complex is almost two million square feet in size, with 41 gates. After the final construction phase, HIA will have 60 gates. I explored the almost 270,000 square feet of retail and food and beverage spaces. This area includes 104 retail stores selling goods from famous fashion and electronics labels. Familiar names include Rolex, Chanel, Gucci, Tag Heuer, Coach and Virgin. Twenty cafes and restaurants offer various types of local and international cuisine.
Scattered throughout the concourses are various art exhibits and sculptures, one that serves as a playground for children. A hard to miss sculpture is the 23-foot Lamp-Bear, designed by Swiss sculptor Urs Fischer, located in the center of the terminal. In the retail area there is a noisy animatronic dinosaur that seemed to keep the little ones very entertained. There are also seating spaces to watch TV, computer stations to surf the internet, and spaces to recharge electronic devices. WiFi is free throughout the entire airport. Qatar Airways not only uses HIA as its hub, it was also involved in the development of the airport and currently manages the facility. Qatar claims that it holds HIA’s facilities to its “five-star” standards.
Doha to Philadelphia
At midnight, I returned to the Al-Mourjan to rendezvous with the other guests. We enjoyed a round of champagne and toasted to our wonderful experience on the ground. Our flight back to the U.S. was set for 1:05 a.m., to Philadelphia International Airport. Given the strong headwinds, flight time clocked at 13 hours and 25 minutes, almost two hours longer than the first segment. On both legs, the crew followed restrictions by avoiding Iraqi and eastern Ukrainian airspace, which probably added more to the length of the trip. Our aircraft was a Boeing 777-200LR. I sat in the last row of business class in seat 7A right next to the engine. Both the 777-200LR and -300ER have significantly quieter engines than the first generation of 777s, hence it did not really feel like I was sitting by the engine. When we pushed back, it was past 6:00 p.m. in the U.S. east coast, and I saved my appetite for a multi-course dinner.
Qatar’s “World Culinary Menu” boasts the work of four celebrity chefs – Nobu Matsuhisa, Tom Aikens, Vineet Bhatia, and Ramzi Choueiri. The flight attendant offered chicken tikka as a “palate pleaser,” and then I ordered a salmon appetizer, lamb loin for the main course, and a very tasty dessert consisting of a biscuit with coconut, white chocolate mousse, and fruit concoction by famous French bakery Ladurée. Since I was able to stay in my time zone the entire trip, I also opted to watch a movie before going to bed. I decided to go “old school” and watch the classic western “A fistful of Dollars”.
I slept eight hours and woke up two and a half hours before landing. I went with a delicious breakfast consisting of yogurt and fresh fruit, plus a smoked salmon with chive scrambled egg plate, and I had time for one more movie. During descent, the flight attendant walked up to personally ask about my onboard experience, as well as to thank me for my patronage. A Qatar staff member greeted us on the ground to escort us to immigration, where we parted ways and proceeded to our domestic connections.
A Five-Star Experience?
Qatar Airways and its main regional competitors, Emirates and Etihad Airways, are commonly referred to as the “Big Three” and have earned reputations for providing top-of-the-line products and services to their customers. Competitors in the U.S. and Europe are noticing and reactions range from introducing new upgrades and features in their fleets to complaining about how the “Big Three” unfairly benefit from government subsidies while aggressively expanding their networks into their territory. The “Big Three” are also wooing customers in the U.S. and Europe to connect through one of their lavish hubs.
While I have not flown on Emirates or Etihad, my frequent travel with the oneworld alliance has allowed me to experience first or business class service on American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, LAN Airlines, Qantas Airways, and Royal Jordanian Airlines, and I can confidently conclude that the whole Qatar Airways business class experience is in a league of its own and deserving of its five-star moniker. The very comfortable seat itself is comparable to most international business class seats offered by the major world carriers. However, Qatar’s level of crew friendliness, attentiveness, and hospitality; the quality of the cuisine; and the experience on the ground eclipse the competition
I expected to fell exhausted after this 36-hour whirlwind, but the 25 total hours aboard Qatar’s business class had to be at the top of the most comfortable and relaxing flights I have ever taken. I did my part by keeping myself hydrated, but what made the experience so special was having crews fully committed to ensuring I got the maximum, satisfaction from my onboard experience. Very friendly flight attendants, excellent food, a wide variety of IFE options, and a comfortable sleeper seat give a pretty good sensation of being at a five-star resort.
Moreover, the sampling of services I experienced at HIA as a business customer was heavenly. Any business passengers fatigued by a long flight will no doubt get a boost from everything the Al-Mourjan Business Class Lounge has to offer. Furthermore, all customers willing to pay can take their level of comfort, relaxation, and privacy a step further by booking a stay at the HIA Hotel. A lengthy layover at HIA, regardless of which of the two facilities a passenger chooses, will feel more like a well-deserved rest, rather than an inconvenience.
The lounge and the airport have an aesthetically-pleasing modern architecture that provides a great sense of space and comfort. The only processes I did not get to judge were the check-in and security lines at HIA, but if they live up to the standards Qatar Airways expects from HIA, I have no doubt they would get high marks. I also look forward to taking in the visual beauty of HIA during daylight hours in the future.
I predict there will be a game of one-upmanship between the “Big Three”, as they continue to attract business customers to their hubs and premium services. Qatar Airways continues to demonstrate a commitment to improvement by introducing a 1-2-1 business class seating configuration that offers more privacy and direct aisle access aboard its Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 fleets. In addition, the airline plans to unveil what CEO Ali Al-Baker called a “Super Business Class” berth seating within the next two years. I would also be curious to see how legacy carriers in the U.S. and Europe try to compete against the overall business product offered by Qatar Airways. My lavish jaunt with Qatar Airways began on a Wednesday evening and ended on a Friday morning. I went to work at my Miami office shortly after landing at noon that Friday and did not feel tired. If anything, I want to partake in a similar experience again!
DISCLAIMER: Qatar Airways paid for our trip, but opinions are our own