At the ITB travel trade fair this week in Berlin, Qatar Airways unveiled the latest upgrade to its first class product. For those of us wondering how you improve on first class once you've got a flat bed to sleep on and vintage champagne to sip during your waking moments, the new on-board lounge and bar for the new generation Airbus A340-600 may be one answer.
The lounge area means the loss of one row of first class seats so there will only be eight first class passengers, but it does serve to further differentiate Qatar from its high profile competitors in this fast expanding market. As well as having a stand-up bar the lounge has cream leather sofas for comfortable lounging, a teak wooden table for games or snacks and attractive detailing such as a lacquered wood bar, and the burgundy corporate colours of Qatar Airlines in the curtains, carpets and surround of the bar, There is also a brushed metal bar rail, partly for passengers to hold onto, and partly to protect the beautiful finish of the bar from passengers bags, I was told by Stephen Vella, Management Advisor to Qatar Airways.
Qatar's new first class onboard lounge
Qatar, of course, styles itself as a five-star airline, and for first class passengers it certainly is. There's a separate check in, a BMW 7 series to take you directly to the plane, and in the new airport currently being built at Doha, a planned business and first class terminal for passengers, so they need never see economy passengers.
To see just how powerful these Middle East airlines are, consider the fact that immediately after the unveiling in Berlin, HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum and HE Dr. Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saif Al Nahyan, the chairmen of Emirates (Dubai) and Etihad (Abu Dhabi) respectively, came over to break bread with Mr Al Baker. Boeing and Airbus executives would no doubt have loved to be sitting at one of the sofas, just to make a few sales pitches.
Qatar alone plans to more than double its fleet from 44 Airbuses(and 69 destinations from Doha) to 100 aircraft in the next 10 years. On order it has 60 Airbus 350s and 20 Boeing 777s with a list price of US$15.2 billion (£8.75 billion), not bad for a country with a population of 800,000. At the end of this month (March 26) it will start flying to Hong Kong, and for markets such as India, it already has 30 flights a week to Delhi, Mumbai, Trivandrum, Hyderbad and Cochin. Manchester is also moving from four flights weekly to daily on March 26.
Is this expansion possible, with Emirates, Gulf and Etihad all buying planes as quickly as they are, and all hoping to be the hubs of the future? I asked Qatar Airways CEO, Akbar Al Baker just how many Middle Eastern hubs he thought there could be. He smiled and shrugged.
"Ten maybe, maybe less. I don't mind, as long as Doha is one of them. We are all growing, and importantly, not at the expense of our neighbours."
Mr Al Baker is also the head of Qatar's tourism authority, as well as several other aviation-related companies, so has a unique view of where both the airline – and his country is heading. The 10 A340-600s are arriving from this summer for the next two years, and are designed to operate long-haul flights into Europe, United States, the Far East and Australia. To take just one market, the number of extra flights going into Paris with Qatar (double daily from next year), Etihad (daily) and Emirates (12 weekly) must be a worry for incumbent Air France. What's sure is that the world is turning, and the new hubs look like they are going to be in the Middle East.
For more information visit www.qatarairways.com
Report by Tom Otley