When I flew Qatar Airways in business class from Philadelphia to Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) in January, 2016, I didn’t imagine that I’d be repeating the exact itinerary 13 months later. Doing so in February, 2017 gave me an opportunity to compare the end-to-end experience year over year. The two journeys were remarkably consistent in some ways—a credit to Qatar—marred only by hiccups connecting through Hamad International Airport in Doha (Qatar), the enormous, gleaming, modern hub airport for Qatar Airways.
Whereas everyone seems to know that rival airline Emirates Airways flies through Dubai, Qatar the airline and Qatar the country are not as famous. Here’s how one Internet source describes the small nation:
“Qatar is a peninsular Arab country whose terrain comprises arid desert and a long Persian (Arab) Gulf shoreline of beaches and dunes. Also on the coast is the capital, Doha, known for its futuristic skyscrapers and other ultramodern architecture inspired by ancient Islamic design, such as the limestone Museum of Islamic Art. The museum sits on the city’s Corniche waterfront promenade.”
I wrote about Qatar Airways last year in this post when comparing its business class to business class on Cathay. However, I described only the long-haul flights between PHL and Doha, about 13 hours going east and 14 hours returning. Reflecting now on the 2016 flights compared to the Qatar flights in 2017, lavish praise both years is well-deserved.
My trip actually began in Raleigh (RDU) on an American Airlines ERJ-190. The small first class compartment was comfortable and the overhead compartments adequate for my two large but soft-sided bags.
I never check my luggage, not even when embarking for two weeks of camping in the Serengeti as I was on this adventure. I settled sleepily into my seat and happily sipped a Bloody Mary. After all, I was on vacation. The flight was uneventful, and I dozed all the way to PHL.
Carrying one’s own bags, especially soft cases with no wheels, has its challenges. Philly is a huge airport, and it was a long walk from my inbound gate to Terminal A-West where the international flights are parked. My shoulders were sagging when I finally saw the Qatar lounge sign.
Qatar patrons enjoy the use of the modest but satisfactory British Airways Lounge at Philadelphia. I remember thinking last year that the BA club was too small and the services inadequate, but this year I came away with a better impression. Perhaps it was because I had a longer layover and spent more time poking around the lounge. The breakfast items were fresh and tasty, and I could have enjoyed Champagne had I wanted. It was quiet and clean, just the sort of oasis I needed between flights.
Qatar boarded a good 40 minutes ahead of departure, a short walk from the BA Lounge, and I made my way to seat 2K (right side window) to settle in.
The A350, brand new a year ago on my initial trip, showed no signs of age. Everything was shiny, shipshape, functional, and comfortable.
The large business class cabin crew began its hovering to take care of my every need. I was shocked when perusing the wine list to find that they were serving a 2006 Taittinger Blanc de Blancs, a top Champagne. When they offered a glass, I eagerly accepted and sipped it through the boarding process: a delicious way to start a 13 hour flight.
Just as last year, the flight pushed back on time, but was followed by a long taxi before becoming airborne. Nonetheless, the captain said we would arrive 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I settled in to read and watch a movie, eschewing the first food offering, as I’d enjoyed a bagel in the BA Lounge.
Qatar Airways allows business class customers to order any food on the menu at any time during the flight. I dozed off for a few hours, making up for my short night’s sleep, and enjoyed several appetizer portions of smoked salmon without an entrée when I awoke.
I always travel internationally with my own Bose over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones, but I had forgotten that Qatar provides its own noise-canceling headphones, also over-the-ear. The Qatar phones have a nonstandard three-prong plug unique to their planes, so I was forced to use them. Turns out they were very good and quite comfortable. I need not have taken my own Bose phones.
Even when lucky enough to ride up front in business, I long ago developed a routine for surviving very long legs by air (see here), and I was up standing in the mid-cabin area stretching many times during the flight. Several movies and a several naps later, we were descending into Doha. The on-board service was near-perfect for me, almost a carbon copy of the same flight experience a year previous.
However, things started going awry once we hit the tarmac at beautiful Hamad International Airport in Doha. First, there were no free gates for the big A350 after a 13-hour flight. Last year we pulled directly into a gate. This year we parked remotely from the terminal and waited for buses to cart us to the terminal.
The buses did not come for 20 minutes, a long wait. Good thing we were 15 minutes early, I thought, but I desperately wanted to get to the humongous business class lounge that I enjoyed last year and take a shower. I had a two hour connection window, closing fast as we waited.
Finally the ramp buses arrived, and Qatar allowed business class off ahead of coach. Turned out the buses were tricked out with luxurious big fat first class seats, obviously shuttles used exclusively for Qatar’s premium customers. Once full, the buses trundled off across the heavily-congested tarmac, dodging other airplanes, jockeying with other shuttle buses and baggage trolleys and sundry service vehicles. For twelve minutes we were taken on a tour of the terminal ground areas, going this way and that and back again, finally reaching a door and deposited.
There we joined the hordes trying to traverse the airport, just another peon among the masses. Doha requires all inbound passengers to endure a full TSA-style rescreening process, and even though I eventually located the premium customer line, it was a long wait to reach the machines. Everything had to be removed: belts, shoes, watches, etc., just like the TSA non-PRE lines.
Once I was put back together and certain I had everything, I shouldered my luggage and took the long escalator down to the main floor. After being jostled by the SRO crowds, I was able to locate a Qatar Airways rep who pointed me to the business lounge. As I made my way to the lounge through the human congestion, it occurred to me that the airport seemed much more packed than the previous year.
The same was true at the business lounge. As I reported last year, the Qatar Airways business lounge is enormous, bigger than some airports, yet it felt over-crowded this year compared to last year. I had lost a lot of time between the plane and bus and security and walking, and now I had only an hour before my connecting flight. I quickly found one set of showers (there are two sets of showers in the lounge) and was told there was a 45-60 minute wait. Unacceptable, I said. My complaint was met with an indifferent shrug.
I hurried instead to the second, more distant, set of showers at the far end of the business lounge and was told the wait there was at least half an hour. Long story short, I discreetly bribed the attendant with $5 and was taking a shower within a few minutes, but I didn’t like having to cut the queue.
I barely had time to grab a Diet Coke as I departed, presaging a longish walk to my departure gate—a real gate, at least. My connecting flight was a modest A320 that would wing its way for five more hours to the Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO) in Tanzania, the gateway to Arusha, which is the city Serengeti safaris begin from. Boarding began almost as soon as I entered the gate area, and I was soon in my tired-looking business class seat on the narrow body aircraft bound for JRO.
The on-board service en route to Kilimanjaro was excellent, just as good as on the very long widebody flight from Philly. Same good selection of food and drink, and this time I ate heartily, as my marathon through the Doha airport had left no time for relaxation or dining. I even napped a little more, glad to have left the frenetic connection behind. What, I wondered, had changed in a year at the Doha airport? Last year the connection was easy; this year it was like making a 35-minute connection in Atlanta between the T and F concourses: I had to hustle. Stress is not what one expects from an expensive international business class experience.
As I was thus musing while watching Doha disappear behind us in the clouds, one of the flight attendants offered me a local English-language newspaper, The Peninsula, which carried an article relevant to my question. The headline read: “Record 37.3 million passengers pass through Hamad International Airport (Doha) last year.” The article’s key point was a 20.5% increase in passengers over the previous year. No wonder there were no gates, a shortage of buses, no room for the buses to maneuver on the tarmac, long lines at inbound security screens, hordes of humanity milling about in the main terminal, densely-packed business class lounge, and one hour waits for a shower. The big increase in passengers had not been accompanied by any additional airport capacity.
The flight into Kilimanjaro was easy and relaxing. I struck up a conversation with my seatmate, a Riyadh-based Saudi going from a two week private tiger-watching safari in India to another two week private safari on the Serengeti in Tanzania. He asked me about our new president, saying the Saudis were concerned about Trump’s stability. I was no help assuaging his concern.
I played with the weird seat controls, trying to get the leg-rest into a position that didn’t conflict with the back of the seat in front of me (and finally succeeded). I accepted an iPad and noise-canceling headphones from the cabin crew to watch movies, and we arrived early.
Heading back home two weeks later, I checked in at Kilimanjaro Airport and found it a major construction zone. Dodging ladders and wires dangling from the ceiling, I was given a pass into the small all-airline business lounge. The less said about that impoverished facility, the better: No air-conditioning in ninety degree heat, outside security doors open to the terrace above the runway, a clueless staff absent much of the time, beverage coolers unplugged and not working, and a few dreary cold cuts, potato chips, and peanuts set out for nibbles.
The Qatar A320 was on time leaving JRO and made a stop at Zanzibar before heading back to Doha. There we picked up a planeload of Swedes and Danes who had spent a week escaping the Northern European winter, collecting rays on the white sand beaches of Zanzibar. Once they discovered that I was an American, they asked about our new president and how we could have elected him, giving me an opportunity to practice my diplomatic skills. I failed to mitigate their worries.
The flight was dead on time into Doha. However, as before, gates were scarce, and our plane had to park on the ramp again. Then a 17-minute wait for buses. They allowed us in business class to get off first again, apparently standard practice. We again boarded special luxury buses solely for premium passengers, but then took another slow 14-minute tour of the ramp before finally being let off. That foreshadowed another long queue at inbound security even though it was a dedicated premium cabin security line.
This was all a good long walk from the business class lounge, where I again had to slip the Filipino shower attendant a fiver not to have to wait 30 minutes for a shower. Good thing I did, because I barely had time to choke down another Diet Coke before making a mad dash to C4 (a real gate!) for my Philly flight. There another full-blown TSA take-everything-off security screen and bag searches, followed by a real hard scrutiny of each individual and passports. It took 4 minutes to clear the man ahead of me traveling on a Mideast passport. The boarding area was SRO, even in the area designated for business class flyers. Qatar didn’t board until 26 minutes prior to flight time. On a less important note the boarding Champagne was not chilled, merely a little bit cool. Okay, this is a small nit, but luxury cuvee Champagne should be served respectfully and properly, that is, fully chilled.
Flying Doha to Philly was a mirror image of the outbound flight, which is to say, near-perfect. Great cabin crew, great service, spotless airplane, good food and drink, quiet environment, and the plane was 15 minutes early at PHL.
I was not the first off the plane, but I nonetheless blazed through customs and immigration using my Global Entry credentials and was able to make a much earlier connection home to RDU. Here are my notes for this amazing speed from international arrival to domestic departure:
“Landed 730am (15 mins early), off plane at 740am, through Customs & Immigration at 744am thx to Global Entry kiosks, by 750am had a boarding pass for an illegal connection at 845am to RDU and had passed thru TSA security, ran from international gate to C31 at Philly, a long distance, by 812am, and we boarded for RDU at 815am. Arrived home 2.5 hrs earlier than scheduled. To stand by for the flight, I was downgraded to coach and seated in the last row at 26D. But even boarding with group #4 there was plenty of overhead space for my 2 bulging bags full of gifts brought back from Tanzania. Soon after, though, when the hordes arrived, the overhead space disappeared quickly.”
The business class service overall on Qatar Airways this year was world-class except for the frenzied connections in both directions at Doha. That stress was absent from last year’s flights. Coming home, it was the same great in-flight service on both legs, just like 2016. For the long 14-hour leg to the USA, I enjoyed the Qatar angled-in business seats at the windows both years. They feel private and real comfortable, and the position is conducive to sleeping. I hope I have another opportunity to use Qatar in business, but if I do, I will be careful to schedule longer layovers between flights in Doha to account for the over-crowding there.