Qatar, Emirates or Etihad? That is the Question!

Once upon a time, flying was genuinely exciting, one way or another, you were joining the jetsetters – that exclusive club of millionaires and movie stars, then came 9/11 and the world of travel changed, seemingly instantly. I remember the day vividly, I’d been in Queensland for the launch of Jaguar’s X-Type at Coolum Resort – in hindsight, the omens weren’t good – the X-Type failed, as did Coolum Resort, even Ansett, the airline I flew from Perth to Queensland with failed, that same day! My son had rung and woken me in the wee small hours, urging me to turn on the television. I did, sitting, watching, listening in stunned disbelief to the murderous horror that would forever be known as 9/11, to quote Leonard Cohen, “The day they murdered New York.” I flew home on Qantas, reeling as we took off from Sydney to Perth. It was surreal – Ansett aircraft were grounded on the tarmac and as we flew up over the Sydney skyline, macabre thoughts of our Qantas flight being hi-jacked ran through my mind. I landed home in Perth to a very different reality to that of some 24 hours previously; flying would conceivably never again be the relaxed luxury, so often a highlight of travelling.

Though of course, I continued to fly, both for business and pleasure, the next decade was turbulent for the airline industry – some very big names such as Pan Am disappeared forever, Concorde died in flames and Qantas did the unthinkable, grounding their fleet in dispute with their pilots. The tedious, demeaning rudeness of security checks ruined any conception of enjoyable luxury and as the industry struggled with fuel price rises and other rising costs, plus the GFC, economy seats became narrower and leg room was dramatically reduced, if you travelled in Australia, it was almost a better experience to drive, rather than fly.

But the phoenix did indeed rise out of the ashes of 9/11 and on-going crippling world financial crises, established airlines such as Qantas and Air New Zealand remodelled themselves, other airlines, such as KLM and Air France merged into strong partnerships and we began to see a revolution in budget airlines, with many established brands, such as Lufthansa, British Airways and Qantas establishing lower cost brands. In Australia, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines, assumed Ansett’s role as Australia’s second airline – it’s interesting to see now, some twelve years later, that Virgin are looking to become Australia’s business airline of choice, the role once proudly played by Ansett.

At the same time, we witnessed the rise and rise of Arab-owned airlines,  but not the established players such as Egypt Air and Turkish Airlines, the newcomers were far more exotic (to western travellers) – Emirates, Etihad and Qatar. Emirates was out of the gates first, with what became an increasingly obvious game plan to become the world’s best airline. All three airlines offered travellers state of the art new aircraft, incredible levels of business and first class travel and economy class travel far in excess of what older airlines were offering – individual entertainment screens, chargers for phones, even power points for laptops, all at a time when airlines such as Qantas offered ‘take it or leave it’ three or four drop down screens in economy class sections. These were game-changing decisions, the travelling public was rightly enamoured and the three airlines had one more major factor on their side, for anyone contemplating flying from Australia to Europe – their individual home bases, in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar, were more or less on direct flight paths from Australia to the European continent and could offer substantially less travel time  on long haul flights. For Perth people, the old days of flying to Singapore and then catching another flight to Europe, often with hours of waiting time, this was a God-send, potentially shaving 10 – 12 hours off travel time and when you added the now standard waiting and queuing time for security and customs checks of three hours check-in before even boarding the flight, any extra time that can be saved is a genuine bonus.

It’s been interesting to see how our perceptions and patience with the mandatory security checks has altered, especially over the last 18 months, where once passenger rage at interminable delays and rude security staff was almost standard, the increasing descent of our world into terrorism madness, has seen a seismic shift in public acceptance. Travellers actually want these checks made and people no longer appear to be upset, shoes and belts are already off, laptops and phones on display, before anyone can even tell passengers what they need to do. As a consequence, things have become a little more pleasant, although some airports, such as Heathrow, remain a shocking experience – I for one avoid flying into Heathrow at all costs and the American experience of being fingerprinted and treated as a criminal on arrival, is unsavoury at best. Surprisingly, Europe and the airports at Abdu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar are quite reasonable, with staff efficient, but inevitably polite.

I travel to Europe often, usually at least twice a year – my wife is German, (she travels more frequently than I do), plus we have a lot of friends (and my wife’s family) throughout Europe. For many years, my airline of choice was Qantas – the Flying Roo has fantastic cabin staff, older, wiser, relaxed, very capable and friendly, however Qantas some years ago, stopped flying any international flights out of Perth, forcing travellers such as myself to either fly to the east coast of Australia and then carry on overseas, or to fly with other airlines. Qantas introduced me to Premium Economy, on a flight to the USA in 2009, I was immediate convert. With the exit of Qantas from Perth (as an international carrier – I know they’re now offering flights ex Perth to Singapore, but in my case, the horse has bolted), I began to fly economy to Singapore and once or twice to Bangkok, then travelling Premium Economy with airlines such as Air France, the only bugbear being the often long waiting periods between connecting flights. The one time I tried the Bangkok connection, it didn’t work for me – although I’d booked with Lufthansa, the flight was on a code share flight with Thai Airlines, all good until we landed unexpectedly at Phuket and had to leave the aircraft, then re-board, back in our seats, only to be told we were now on a domestic flight and therefore drinks couldn’t be served! The leg from Bangkok to Frankfurt was also flown by Thai Airlines and as much as I love 747s, the Thai Airlines 747s are as tired and feature lacking as those of British Airways, two airlines, I sadly wouldn’t bother flying with in any capacity these days.

Inevitably, on my wife’s urging, based on her experience, I started to fly with the new Arab airlines. Although none of them offered Premium Economy, my wife assured me that legroom was excellent on both Emirates and Etihad, she was sure I’d be comfortable. She was right. She was also right about the excellent food and of course the feature packed wonderfully quiet new fleets these airlines offered. And of course, they all flew far more direct routes to Europe.

On a flight last year, I flew code-share with Etihad and KLM, Etihad to Dubai and KLM to Amsterdam and found myself conflicted. Whilst Etihad offered beautiful aircraft with every conceivable extra, compared to KLM with, yes, another tired 747, the KLM cabin crew were far nicer and friendlier – for me, it was just like being with my old friend Qantas. It confirmed the suspicion I’d had for some time about Emirates and Etihad – yes, the aircraft were stunning and yes, the cabin crews were very professional, but those same cabin crews were cold, they were not interested in you as a person, any semblance of service came to a stop as soon as the obligatory meals were distributed. To get a glass of wine, you had to go back to a gallery, where the request would always be met with cold agreement, bordering on disdain. It always worked with me, I’d only ask once, then wouldn’t go back for another drink. The KLM difference was remarkable, I felt at home. And in case you’re thinking it’s a cultural thing, (in terms of religion), I don’t think so, the cabin (and flight crews of these airlines are truly multicultural, you’ve just as likely to be served by a French person, a Swedish person or an American, as you are by an Arab person. I’ve reached the conclusion the coldness is a taught corporate culture. After my last European flight (January 2016), I’d more or less decided to go back to my Perth – Singapore – Air France to Europe routine. Then I needed to make a quick trip to Europe in July, I searched the internet and thought I’d try Qatar Airways, mainly due to the impressive turnaround time of just one and a half hours at Doha, both ways and the economy airfare was very competitive as well.

So how was Qatar?

Well, I’m still in Europe, as I write this blog and will be until mid-August, so I’ve still to return home to Perth, however I am an unexpected convert.

The 777s on both legs were, as expected practically new and the overhead luggage lockers were deep and accommodating, capable of dealing with the occasional lady who always seems to have more on-board luggage than the rest of us have downstairs in the luggage hold. I particularly liked the individual air vents – I’m one of those who like air on my face. Speaking of legs, the legroom was excellent – sure, if the person in front is one of those sociopath buffoons with no sense of politeness, who leans his or her seat right back, egress will be awkward, but the economy class legroom remains very acceptable, as is the bum room – too much information, but I’m a big bloke! … which segues into shoulder room, that was a revelation. I have very wide shoulders, (old rugby union forward!), one of the reasons I always choose an aisle seat and inevitably, I have to move my shoulders to let the cabin crew past with trolleys etc, I didn’t have to on either flight. I have no idea whether the Qatar aisles are wider than those of other airlines, but the fact remains that I didn’t have to squirm around when people passed.

Unfortunately the movie libraries were very small compared to Emirates or Etihad, I struggled to find something I wanted to watch, so I’d give a C mark for movie selection and I did find the touch screen system difficult, it didn’t seem as user friendly as other airlines. The food was fine, nothing exceptional but tasty and very acceptable in terms of Economy class. Being niggly, it would be nice to have wine and whiskey in glass rather than plastic, the other airlines all serve wine in glass … as it’s always the little touches. The coffee also was excellent, but if you want a coffee during a non-meal serve period, it will be just out of a jar – yep Nescafe or worse. But, the service! Ah, the service!

The service is magnificent, whoever is training the cabin crews deserves a medal, the girls were fantastic, genuinely friendly, yes, efficient, but fun and relaxed. To go back to my previous point of culture, on the leg from Doha to Amsterdam, one of the cabin crew was an Egyptian girl Karenan, so professional, yet relaxed and fun, even to the extent of taking an interest in Erehwon the Luck Dragon – who travels everywhere with us, (a bit of mad fun). On both legs, the food, the water and the wine was both freely available and offered, indeed I overheard cabin crew politely asking people to drink more water to prevent dehydration The culture within Qatar Airways suits me! I felt welcome, I felt my business was appreciated.

The airport at Doha is not in the same league as the monuments to utter wonderful mad excess as those at Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but it’s very efficient, very easy to navigate – obviously designed to move people as quickly and easily as possible. It looked to me that most aircraft leave and arrive on the tarmac, with passengers transported to the terminal by bus, rather than direct terminal bridges, but that’s not a fault, there’s inevitably a short bus or train trip at virtually every airport these days. I also really like fact that passengers weren’t forced to walk a long false, winding, annoying trail past myriad duty free shops, as drives me mad in places such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Security staff were polite and friendly – Perth airport staff could take a lesson.

It was salutary to land at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, it was a shambles last year and although it was better, the walk to the baggage roundabout and the incorrect signage is still a disgrace. When you get through the shambolic dysfunction, out into the main arrival area of the terminal, Schiphol is fantastic, with easy, obvious access to trains and buses etc, but they sure could do with a fact finding mission to Doha to see how things should be done.

The whole trip from Perth to Amsterdam, including the one and a half hour stopover in Doha, took just 20hrs and 20 minutes, not including being processed through customs and security at either end, pretty impressive and that leads to what for me, is the crux of the matter. Although we now accept and readily agree with close security screening, it’s still not a great experience and as you land, you know full well, you’re re-entering the world of queues, security and questioning, so if you’ve been blessed with 17 or 18 hours of relaxed, happy and professional service, well fed and watered, you’re in a far better frame of mind to deal with customs and security requirements, you’re relaxed.

Hat’s off to Qatar Airways, a couple of tweaks with your entertainment system and proper glass for wine and you, for me, are the best. I’d advise anybody to fly Qatar. A friend who has flown Business Class with Qatar tells me they offer the best Business Class he’s experienced. I’m actually looking forward to my flights home, usually I think, “Oh God, somehow I’ll get through this.”

Greg Ross

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