CHECK-IN I had checked in online for my Doha to London Heathrow flight (QR011) some 30 hours earlier (online check-in is available up to 36 hours before departure) and selected my seat online. I asked for my boarding card to be sent to my mobile phone to try out this new service. At present, it is being trialled in Europe by Lufthansa and Air France, but Qatar Airways offers it for the majority of its flights.
I arrived at the Premium terminal at Doha International airport at 0635 for the 0735 departure. The Premium terminal is for all business and first class passengers, and is in a separate building to the side of the main terminal. Note that gold and silver members of Qatar Airways Privilege Club can only use the terminal if they are flying in business or first. If they are flying economy, they have access the Gold lounge in the main terminal next door.
On arrival, a porter took my bags, and I walked to the first class check-in where my baggage was received. There were no queues either here or at immigration and I was airside within 90 seconds.
THE LOUNGE To get to the first class lounge you need to turn right at the top of the escalators on the first floor. The décor inside is restrained, with pale wood, beige leather seats and natural light coming in through windows that run the length of the large room. The place is very well thought out. As with most lounges, travellers take off their coats and jackets and then drape them over seats to stop them from being creased. But here, staff walk around with clotheshorses and place jackets neatly on them, which not only makes the place look a lot neater, but also frees up a huge amount of seating during busy times. It’s a clever idea.
There is a spa, and although on this occasion I did not have chance to use it, I have in the past. It is available for first passengers who have two or more hours prior to their flight, so unless you check-in well in advance, it’s mainly for the use of transferring passengers, and there are two treatment rooms, five daybreak rooms, a relaxation area with automated massage chairs, and a separate spa bath and sauna for both women and men open 24 hours a day.
The treatments are not free. An Elemis Express Skin IQ Facial Skin Intelligence for Men, for instance, costs 475 riyals (£90) for 30 minutes, while an Elemis Visible Brilliance Facial is 750 riyals (£143) for 75 minutes. Prior to a previous flight, I chose a 60-minute Deep Tissue Muscle Massage for 700 riyals (£133), which was a pleasant way to kill time. It’s a good idea to tell your therapist what time you need to leave, because boarding gates – even here in the Premium terminal – close 25 minutes before departure, and it would be very difficult to explain that the cause of you missing your flight was a massage.
BOARDING Fog was creating major delays at Doha, and the staff told me they were trying to get me on flight QR007, also to Heathrow, which departed at 0810 rather than on the delayed QR011 0735 departure. The aircraft I was waiting for, an A340-600, was delayed inbound from Paris, and many flights were being diverted to Kuwait and Bahrain. But at around 0855, I was told that a first class passenger had missed his connection to the QR007 departure, so I got his place on board the A330-200.
Doha airport is very busy, and this aircraft was out on the eastern apron where there are over 15 parking bays for aircraft (passengers are ferried by busses, or, in the case of first class passengers, a BMW Seven Series car). This is a five-minute drive around the end of the runway. Once on board, my jacket was taken and I was offered water, orange juice, champagne or a delicious, mint-based, non-alcoholic drink. The flight eventually departed at 1000.
THE SEAT Qatar has a number of different configurations on its fleet of A330-200 aircraft (click here for the seatplan). On three-class A330-200s (economy, business and first) there are three different layouts with the total number of seats being 228, 238 or 259 passengers. From the first class point of view, the number of seats remains constant in all of these three variations – there are 12 seats in rows one to three in a 1-2-1 configuration (A-E, F-K). The seats recline 180 degrees to form a fully-flat bed.
When reclined, the seat is reasonably wide and feels comfortable. The first class product is slightly different on the A330-200 to that on the A340-600. For instance, there is no ottoman in front, and the seat seems slightly narrower on the A330-200. (See photos below.)
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? Although seats E and F are best for people travelling together, windows seats A and K are preferred because of the extra storage space. Not only do you get a large bin on one side, but overhead lockers too (there are no overhead lockers in the centre of the aircraft, which makes the cabin feel spacious). If you have a choice (as I did, since there were only two of us in first class for this flight) choose the middle row, as it is furthest away from the galleys, and one of the window seats (A or K).
THE FLIGHT Having experienced first class overnight in the past on the A340-600, I know it is fine for getting a good night’s sleep, and even though this was a day flight, I managed couple of hours because of the early start.
The rest of the time I worked on my laptop with the aid of in-seat power – you need an adapter for UK plugs, either US or Euro zone. The in-flight entertainment system is Audio and Video on Demand (AVOD) although not as sophisticated as Qatar’s latest Oryx Entertainment product on its new B777 aircraft. The IFE screen is also a small one for first class, and is quite a long way away. The headphones are an upgraded version of what’s available in business, with a separate volume control on the wire that seems to add volume and quality to the sound (also on the B777-300ER and B777-200LR business class aircraft). We had been given an amenity bag with Bulgari products in, as well as socks and an eye mask. If this had been a night flight, we would also have been offered a full sleep suit.
The main meal was breakfast, although since I had eaten in the lounge and because of the delay, I didn’t eat it. The choice, however, was toasted muesli, fresh fruit and fruit compote with yoghurt, or a salad plate of gravlax and branade of salted cod followed by a choice of ricotta hotcakes, raspberries with crème fraiche and maple syrup; Japanese crab omelette with ponzu sauce, field mushrooms and asparagus; or Gruyere-baked egg soufflé with sautéed English spinach. There was also a full selection of coffees and teas. Instead, I went for the “Indulgence” menu – choices including a warm pesto chicken, tomato and herb salsa sandwich as well as fresh fruit, or mango and vanilla ice cream with forest berries.
There was a good wine list with a couple of the wines also common to Qatar’s business class offering. The champagne is Laurent-Perrier, Cuvee Grand Siècle, 1996, while the white wines are Michel Coutoux, Chassagne-Montrachet, 2004, La Maltroie Premier Cru, and a sauvignon blanc from Marlborough and a riesling Kabinett – both available in Qatar’s business class (click here for the review)
The reds included a 1998 Château Brane-Cantenac, a 2005 pinot noir from Morton Estate, Marlborough, New Zealand, and a 2001 shiraz, Knappstein, Clare Valley, Australia (the winner in the category of Best First Class Red in the 2007 Business Traveller Cellars in the Sky Awards).
ARRIVAL We had departed almost two hours late and arrived at London Heathrow at 1350.
VERDICT A good product with excellent service and comfort. The Premium terminal is world class, and the BMW transfer unlikely to be forgotten. On board, the product has been slightly superseded not only by competitors but also by Qatar’s own new flat-bed business class (for instance, the IFE screen is larger on the new B777 in business class than in first class on the A330). That said, for a seven-hour flight, it is extremely comfortable, and the efforts the airline made to find room for passengers on other flights after the delays at Doha were impressive.