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UPDATE (May 2013): My friend recently experienced ATROCIOUS customer service from Qatar Airways during a futile attempt to fly from the U.S. to Kathmandu via Doha. Please see here for the full story; I’m reluctant to recommend the airline in light of this horrible experience that affected our planned vacation irrevocably. 

Over Christmas vacation, the hubs and I flew back to the US from Singapore on Qatar Airways. They’ve certainly established a big online presence, and if your office plays Channel News Asia all day on loop like mine does you probably associate them with hourly weather reports (and that maddening too-ethereal music!).

Since I’m often writing about flight sales and read lots of travel industry publications, I knew that Qatar was named the world’s best airline at the 2011 Skytrax World Airline Awards which, if not 100% transparent, do seem to generally rate airline quality in the same way that I would anyway. Skytrax has also rated Qatar as one of the world’s five 5-Star Airlines (along with Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Asiana and Hainan Airlines. Is it any wonder that flying in Asia is a marvel that has spoiled us for ever wanting to fly in the US again?).

Qatar has one of the youngest airplane fleets of any airline in the world, it gets great reviews for its comfortable seats and state-of-the-art entertainment systems, and yet its fares are among the cheapest of anyone flying to Europe and North America from Singapore. This NYT article, though technically about rival airline Emirates, does a good job explaining the business model. Essentially because the Middle Eastern airlines are owned by rich sheiks and emirs they’re able to be less fixated on profitability without compromising quality. Unlike, ahem, every crappy American airline that flies internationally.

So, while most expats I know here tend to travel according to frequent flier allegiances, I figured it was worth giving my two cents on Qatar in case you’re ever tempted to take advantage of their cheap fares (by the way they do fly direct from Singapore to Bali). Please excuse my low-quality photos; I was too lazy to use my DSLR and just relied on the iPhone. I’ll rate each category on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the best. All comments apply to Economy Class only; from what I’ve heard Qatar’s Business and First Class product are incredible, and the issues that I personally encountered would have mostly been moot.

Counter Service/Baggage Policies: 5

The airline offers convenient online check-in, but we also found counter service to be friendly and helpful throughout. I realized after I booked that I accidentally requested “Hindu Vegetarian” food instead of “Oriental Vegetarian” (I like getting tofu when I have the option), and was able to call up customer service no problem and have them change my request. In terms of baggage allowance, each traveler is generously allowed two bags weighing up to 23kg (50 pounds) eachSuck on that, Jetstar!

Planes/Seats: 5

I can’t attribute this claim to any one source but Qatar is reputed to have one of the youngest airplane fleets of any airline, with I think the average plane averaging only about 4 years old or so (it’s easy enough to believe when you look at how rapidly the airline has grown since its “re-launchin 1997, not to mention they’re always making headlines for purchasing dozens of new planes at all the airplane shows). Contrast this to even Singapore Airlines, which until last week was flying the Singapore-Frankfurt-New York route on old Boeing 747s.

Qatar, meanwhile, flies its long-haul routes to the US on Boeing 777-300ERs, which I’ve personally found to be the most comfortable long-haul plane to travel on (compared to the 747, the A380 or the A330). Plus, this is just me and I’ll admit I’m an extremely nervous flyer, I’m not wild about flying on the A380 (via SQ or Emirates) since they keep discovering problems with it and all the engine explosions seem to have happened in an around Singapore.

But I digress. According to SeatGuru, Qatar’s economy class seats offer the best combined pitch recline (34″) and seat width (18.9″) of any airline in the world. The hubs, who is now entirely spoiled by flying Singapore Airlines Business Class everywhere for work and finds 99% of economy seats to be uncomfortable because he’s tall and has big legs, gave Qatar’s economy seats two thumbs up. They were plush (far more plush than those dreadful hardback shell things I experienced when flying Cathay back in May) and reclined enough that we were both able to sleep for hours at a time, which is a rarity.

The planes feature nice ambient mood lighting (gotta love shades of pink and purple), with plenty of room to stand up and move about the cabin.

Food: 4.25

I mean, I couldn’t really give airline food 5 stars unless someone was cooking it up fresh for me or something, but I thought Qatar offered a nice range of dishes (fruit pancakes, Dal, frittatas and veggie hot pockets as snacks are all things that I recall), and I found myself almost cleaning my plate, which I virtually never do on planes. I’m taking off a quarter point because they didn’t have an extensive help-yourself food pantry with cookies, fruit and other snacks like I’ve seen on Qantas and Cathay Pacific (c’mon Qatar, Tim Tams make everything better!).

In-Flight Service & Amenities: 4

I couldn’t really fault the service, there just seemed to be about half as many flight attendants walking around as on Singapore or Cathay, and they were slightly less cheerful and accommodating (like, rolled their eyes when I went to the galley to ask for a cup of water). I also didn’t like that they handed out pre-packaged wipes, rather than actual cold towels, pre-flight. (Both because towels are nicer and because they never came around to collect the trash generated, which is a major plane pet peeve of mine).

Finally, this is me just being nitpicky, but it really irked me that the dude sitting in front of me on our flight from JFK to Doha was texting right until we were taxi-ing to take off. I kept waiting for a flight attendant to tell him to turn his phone off, but no one ever did. Who knows if all the interference stuff has any truth to it, but once again, I’m a very anxious flyer so I just wish they’d paid a bit closer attention and enforced the rules.

In terms of amenities, we got very nice pillows and plush fleece blankets. Each guest also gets a nifty little zip-up pouch with socks, an eye mask, ear plugs, and a very cool encapsulated toothbrush with mini toothpaste. I liked the toothbrush so much I collected one from each of our four flightsit’s great for travel.

Entertainment: 4.5

Like any self-respecting airline (*cough*United*cough*Delta*, at least on long-haul flights from Australia…), Qatar offers personal entertainment consoles with hundreds of movies, TV shows and games. The new release movie selection on our flight out kind of sucked – when I fly I like mindless comedies and rom coms, but other than Crazy Stupid Love it was all heavy dramas and crappy-looking action films – so I’m thankful that our final flight at least switched over into January with much-improved offerings (including Moneyball, Drive, One Day, and others that I now forget).

The TV selection was pretty good, but at most you’d get six episodes of any one show. One of the best features of SQ is their “Red Eye Collection” which offers full seasons of TV shows, and Cathay has something similar. Cathay also offered more and better shows; on my previous trip I watched nothing but America’s Next Top Model and Downton Abbey for 15 hours, and I could not have been happier.

On the plus side, Qatar’s video screens are 10.6″, which has to be some of the biggest anywhere, and the Oryx touch-screen system worked flawlessly.

Ground Facilities: 2

Once again, living in Singapore has clearly spoiled us. Once you go Changi you never want to go back. Stopping over anywhere (except maybe Hong Kong) feels so dull in comparison, but on the spectrum of places I’ve ever flown out of, Doha was about on par with Tompkins County Airport in Ithaca, NY. To be fair, a new airport is set to open sometime this year (of course, I think it was supposed to open last October so who knows when it’ll happen), but that place is just a dump right now.

  • Shopping: Consists of one duty free store, selling mostly tobacco
  • Dining: There’s one coffee shop (Coffee Beanery) and one row of fast food joints (A&W, sandwiches, and TCBY, which I love but not at 6am)
  • Seating: Not comfortable, and very limited. And forget about sitting close to your gate because…
  • Gates: There aren’t any. The airport (I guess?) isn’t able to accommodate jetways, so passengers are required to take shuttle buses to and from every single flight. So rather than “you may now board”, it’s more like “your plane is open so you can walk down to the bus when you feel like it.” Not only is that a pain in itself, but it makes for chaotic boarding since they’re not loading by row or seat type.

The one saving grace was the Oryx Lounge, which anyone can access for $40 (or free if you have certain credit cards or frequent flyer allegiances).

The lounge offers free Wi-Fi, showers, flat-screen TVs, fairly comfy seating, and a nice selection of food & beverage (points for the locally-flavored hummus, tabouleh and baclava. Mmmm).

Since we had a five hour layover on our way back it was well worth it. Of course, price was a key consideration in booking this ticket, and that tacked another $40 onto each.

Furthermore, because we had heard the airport sucked so much, we booked a hotel room (the Ramada Encore, which was perfectly convenient and comfortable for a 6-hour nap) for our 8-hour layover on the way out. It worked out well – the hotel’s only about 10 minutes from the airport – but obviously added another extra cost, plus cab fare in both directions.

Intangibles: 2

Ideally we wouldn’t have had to deal with such long layovers, especially going in both directions. But there’s only one flight a day between Doha and New York and two flights between Doha and Singapore. Compare that to Cathay, which has 8 daily flights between Singapore and Hong Kong, and four daily flights between New York and Hong Kong.

In our case, we had a choice between leaving Singapore at 9pm or 2am on the way out, and no choice on the way back. In short we departed Singapore at 9pm Thursday night, and didn’t arrive in New York until 2pm Friday afternoon. Compare that to when I flew back on Cathay leaving Singapore at 10am on Thursday, and arriving at 8pm on Thursday night in New York. Meanwhile, SQ’s Frankfurt flight only stops for about 90 minutes.

Long story short, I only have so much vacation time, and I’d rather spend it on the ground at home, rather than in the crappy Doha Airport. What’s more, the crazy flight times and long layovers messed me up but good with regard to jet lag. I’m usually quite good at staying awake through the day upon arrival and avoiding jet lag over the first week back, but after flying back through Doha I couldn’t help but pass out when we got home.

Additionally, our flight from Doha to New York left about 45 minutes late because while we were on the runway they closed the airport due to rehearsals (!!!) for National Day events. I know in Singapore they have lots of National Day rehearsals with F-15 flyovers, but I’ve never heard about Changi getting completely shut down for it. Did no one know about this ahead of time?!

This was such a drag since it basically added another hour of plane time onto what was already a 14-hour flight, compounded by the fact that we landed late in New York but just in time for all but one immigration agent to go on break. It was one of the worst flying clusterfucks I’ve ever experienced, though I blame U.S. Customs for that more than Qatar Airways.

Would I fly Qatar Airways again? To Bali, or Europe (where the connection times are much better), or the Middle East? Absolutely. To New York? Probably not. The actual flights were fantastic – as good as flights could be, really – but the bad ground facilities and the interminable layovers really did a number on us both and we agreed it wasn’t worth saving a couple hundred bucks (I think the Qatar fare we paid was about $300 cheaper than Emirates, $400 cheaper than Cathay and $500 cheaper than SQ) in exchange for bouts of exhaustion and nasty jet lag.