As part of his job, African Business editor Anver Versi has a heavy travel schedule and sometimes seems to spend more time in the air than on the ground. He was invited by Qatar Airways to the launch of Airbus’s new A350 in Doha and had the chance to sample the quality of the airline’s service. Here is his report.
It seems only a few short years ago when Gulf-based airlines made their tentative entry into a global aviation space dominated then by European, Asian and US airlines. Today, the first option most intercontinental or even international passengers look for is likely to be one of the Gulf giants: Emirates, Qatar Airways or Etihad.
They have arguably become the most competitive in a very competitive global market and they are very difficult to beat in terms of destinations covered and, increasingly, in value for money for passengers.
In Africa, these airlines have established a solid reputation for excellence of service, reliability and perhaps most important of all, in their treatment of passengers.
For people like myself for whom long-distance travel is part of day-to-day work, quality service, both landside and airside, makes a huge difference.
No matter how many flights you have taken, travelling by air is always stressful from the initial packing to getting to the airport in time, the often protracted checking-in process, the security checks with all the related rituals, the hanging about before once again queuing up to board the plane. Then there is the scramble to store away your bags, squeeze yourself into your tiny allocated space and await your turn to be given whatever drinks or victuals the airline decides you should have.
Eight, nine, 10 or even more hours later during which you are expected to defy all your natural instincts and stay put in one small space and either nod off in total boredom or struggle with the entertainment provided, you are finally released at your destination where another set of hurdles, immigration, customs and so on await you.
If you are travelling on business, your company expects you to shake off the effects of the cramped positions you have had to occupy, the jet lag, the disorientation caused by different time zones and finding yourself in a strange place with strange systems and quite often, languages you don’t understand – and get straight to hopefully productive work.
A few days later, you go through the same process on your return journey. And while you are still in your zombie-like state, your next long-distance trip is beckoning!
Those who do not travel very often talk about the ‘glamorous jet-set lifestyle’; those who do, pray for a few items of comfort – a little extra legroom, a kind word or two, a meal that tastes of food, the chance to sleep for while without having to adopt weird yogic positions and, perhaps above all, to be treated as an individual human being rather than a cipher making up the ‘passengers carried’ tally for the airline.
And, oh, if your bosses have a kind heart and finances to match, a business-class seat! What a world of difference that makes.
Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to travel business class on several occasions and for the extra amount you pay, often more than double the price of an economy seat, the airlines promise to reduce the stress of travel and basically provide a little oasis of comfort and even luxury so that you arrive recharged and refreshed.
But it soon becomes clear that there are vast differences in the business class provided by various airlines. You become aware of cost-cutting measures, for example, meagre, uninteresting meals in the airport lounges, tighter seats and awkward configurations, fewer personal in attendance and so on.
On the other hand, other airlines, mainly from the Middle East and Asia, do really roll out the red carpet. They make you feel special, anticipate your needs even before you are aware of them yourself and generally leave you beaming from ear to ear. You do arrive recharged and eager to get on with your business.
I had been intrigued by Qatar Airways’ claim to provide a five-star service in the sky on a fare basis not much more than what they politely inferred was two- or three-star service by other airlines. So when the invitation came to visit Doha, the capital of Qatar, for the global launch of the brand-new addition to the Airbus stable, the A350, I eagerly accepted.
A promise kept
Would the airline deliver on its five-star promise or was it yet another clever advertising gimmick?
I had had to wake up at a ungodly hour to be on time for my early morning flight from London Heathrow’s Terminal 4 so I arrived at the check-in feeling decidedly groggy. The two young men at the counter took me in hand, checked me in with very good humour and even volunteered to walk me to the departure gate – an offer I politely refused as unbecoming of a journalist – even of my fairly advanced years!
Two lovely young ladies introduced themselves to me on board the A330 and fussed about making sure I was comfortable and had everything I wanted.
Breakfast was fruit, cereal and a selection of delicious Arab dishes. It was beautifully and artistically presented and had the just-cooked freshness that seems to have completely disappeared from the skies.
I could find absolutely nothing to be grouchy about and must admit that for once, I wished the flight to Doha had been longer than the six hours it had taken and which had flown past rapidly.
In Doha, I was met at the aircraft door by a young man from the airline who whizzed me through the newly opened Hamad International Airport. I did not have much more time than to get an impression of vast space bristling with very modern-looking features. I was to get a much closer look at the airport on the way back.
As a business-class passenger, I was ushered to an area that resembled a suite in a lounge where I went through the immigration formalities. It took exactly 65 seconds between me handing over my passport to the young lady behind her desk and her handing it back to me with a big smile; “Welcome to Qatar”, she said and I did indeed feel welcomed and therefore well disposed towards the country.
There were two more surprises waiting for me. A dedicated porter took my luggage tag and returned, what seemed seconds later, with my suitcase. I was then taken to a well-appointed lounge where I was free to have beverages and snacks and use the tablets available while I waited for my transport to the city.
I was among a clutch of international journalists invited for the launch of the A350. Among these I was pleased to meet Professor Wolfgang H Thome, a German national who has made Uganda his home and who runs a sparkling blog on airlines and tourism especially for the East African region.
There was a great deal of excitement over the A350 among the journalists, some of whom were technical airline specialists. I was soon to discover why.
On the big day itself, the launch was held at the old airport and it began with a press conference involving Qatar Airways’ Group Chief Executive, Akbar Al Baker, the Airbus Executive Vice President, Didier Evrard and the Rolls-Royce President – Civil Large Engines, Eric Schultz.
With Qatar Airways taking possession of the first of 80 such aircraft it has ordered from Airbus, there was a clear sense of history being made and of the industry moving up an evolutionary stage.
As we began to learn more about the aircraft, it became clear why the journalists had been so excited about this development. The A350 XWB (extra wide body) is being described as the fastest and most efficient aircraft of its kind in the world.
All sorts of considerations, including advanced passenger ease and comfort, air safety, fuel efficiency and emission levels went into the construction of the craft.
An official from Rolls-Royce, who made the twin Trent XWB engines, told me that some of the most advanced technological ideas had gone into the design and that, perhaps for the first time, the accuracy of computer simulation had been perfectly matched by reality during testing. “This is it,” he said. “This is the state of the art. There is nothing as advanced, or more advanced, than this aircraft.
It is also the lightest aircraft of its size and function. More than 70% of the structure is made of composite materials such as plastic reinforced by carbon fibres and lightweight metals such as titanium and aluminium.
While this makes the craft light, it also provides incredible strength. With the tapered wing which marks an evolution in aerodynamic design and the advanced Rolls-Royce engines, each delivering 84,000 pounds of thrust, the A350 is faster, more efficient and more environmentally friendly, with 25% lower carbon emissions than anything else commercial flying today.
We were taken to view the new aircraft. Inside, you could immediately sense the wider body and higher ceilings. It has panoramic windows with electromechanical shades that go from transparent to opaque in business class. It was explained to us that to help minimise jet lag and aid relaxation, there is dynamic LED mood lighting that changes tones and colours to suit the time of day and destination.
A state-of-the-art, high-precision air management system ensures that passengers breath pure air that is filtered every few minutes. All this, I was told, combined with lower cabin pressure and optimal humidity, means “you’ll arrive refreshed at your destination”. Amen to that, I say.
The A350 has two classes – business and economy – and does away with first. The business class has 36 seats configured in a 1 x 2 x 1 ‘fishbone’ setting – exactly the same as on the massive double-decker A380, the largest airliner in the world. The seats recline to form a completely flat bed.
It has 247 seats in economy with 18-inch-wide seats – the widest on offer in any airline, and, thank the Lord, plenty of storage space. I tried out the economy seats and even with my unusually long legs, felt quite comfortable. The catering and inflight entertainment are some of the best available. Qatar Airways can expect to win yet more awards with its fleet of A350s.
The A350’s lightweight design allows it to burn significantly less fuel than other jets of similar size. Airbus says this will help open up nonstop routes like Shanghai to Boston, Massachusetts or Paris to Santiago, Chile and so on, and also connect smaller airfields with international hubs.
It also means that operating costs, at least as far as fuel is concerned, will reduce considerably, allowing the airline to offer cheaper flights more frequently.
At present, Qatar Airways’ routes in Africa include Addis Ababa, Entebbe, Kigali, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Kilimanjaro International Airport and Asmara.
Responding to a question from my friend Prof Thome, the airline’s CEO Akbar Al Baker said the airline was still interested in flying to Mombasa but blamed the precious government of Mwai Kibaki for scuppering a deal at the very last moment. But he said that President Uhuru Kenyatta could see the wider picture and that he was confident a second destination in Kenya was on the cards. He added that Africa ‘has enormous, enormous potential’ but was being underserved at the moment.
Airbus has 778 orders for the A350 from 41 different airlines and jet-leasing companies including British Airways, China Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. It seems that the A350 is, to use a Ghanaian proverb, a ‘baby born with teeth’.
As a postscript, I must mention the lounge at the Hamad International Airport. Prof Thome and I were given a tour of the facilities early on the morning of our departure and while it was still relatively empty.
Suffice it to say that the lounge area alone is bigger than some of the European airports and that it has numerous restaurants (à la carte or buffet, take your choice), innumerable quiet spots, children’s and adults’ play area, a room for toddlers and babies, a mosque and private dining and conference rooms which can be booked free of charge; there is also a hotel within the airside so that you don’t have to go through security again when you are ready to depart.
The new airport, ‘designed by an airline for airline passengers’ rather than retailers, is also run by Qatar Airlines.
It seems that Qatar Airlines, and it must be said some of the other Middle East carriers, have discovered the secret of success in their line of business: ‘If your customer comes first, you will come first’. Other airlines seem to have forgotten this old saw in their headlong rush for profits and cost cutting.