quinta-feira, 23 de junho de 2016

Qatar Airways Airbus A350 Long-Haul Review: Inaugural Service to Boston


By Blaine Nickeson, Airline Reporter

Qatar Airways has been growing rapidly, both in terms of their fleet and their route network. I recently got to experience an example of both when I joined Qatar for their inaugural flight to Boston Logan Airport (BOS), utilizing the new Airbus A350-900 XWB. It was a pretty special trip.

After a rather disappointing first experience on Qatar when flying in from Los Angeles, I was really hoping to see Qatar's best when departing from their home hub of Doha. Sometimes, operating from outstations with once-daily service can be very challenging.

This would be my first time flying the Airbus A350 as well - just a few days before our Editor-in-Chief David Parker Brown. I wanted to make sure to take the chance to remind him of that (thanks Blaine ^David).

Overall, my flight was great. The service was up to snuff and the food tasty. But the star of the show was the A350. Wow, what a ride. Read on!

Qatar Airways has been expanding quite a bit over the last few years into new U.S. markets. The new service to Boston, New England's economic hub, comes on the heels of new service to Los Angeles, and an upcoming new route into Atlanta. New York has also been upgraded to twice-daily flights. Just like the other members of the "ME3" (Emirates and Etihad), Qatar Airways has found geography on its side, making for one-stop connections around the world, particularly to places like India.

All of that growth requires a fleet to support it. Qatar has invested heavily in the Boeing 787 and also the Airbus A350, of which they were the inaugural customer. While I've flown the Dreamliner a number of times, I had yet to try the A350.

We arrived at Doha's beautiful Hamad International Airport. It mirrored the rest of the modern city of Doha that I saw. It was constructed recently just next to the old international airport, and is something that Qatar Airways should be proud to call home. Unfortunately, there were some miscommunications within my travel group, and we were unable to visit the (from what I've heard, excellent) Al Mourjan Business Lounge. That's ok, though, as it gave me more time to drool over the amazing A350 sitting at our gate.

It's important to remember that the A350-900 is much larger than the smallest version of the 787 family. I had to keep reminding myself that this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison. While the 787 roughly competes (in size, not range) with the Boeing 767 and Airbus A330, the A350-900 fights in a different weight class - it is almost exactly the same size as the Boeing 777-200.

Boarding was chaotic. There was no special mention of the inaugural Boston flight or any kind of gate celebration, but they did give away items to commemorate the flight. Each passenger got a special certificate for the occasion, along with a Qatar Airways polo shirt and a Qatar-branded battery power pack (while a nice touch, I'm not sure if adding 300+ cheap lithium ion batteries to a flight is such a solid idea). While business class was trying to board, I saw grandmas with their elbows out and heads down, pushing as hard as they could to the front of the line. Alright, alright, but we're all going the same place, right?

Once in my seat, my excitement really ramped up. Wow, was this plane gorgeous or what? I had a great view out of my window of the massive-looking Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines, as well as the artful curled-up winglet that sported Qatar's Oryx logo. The business class cabin feels extremely airy, as they have foregone the center overhead bins in favor of a wide, flat ceiling. Between the front business cabin and rear section (where I sat) was a wide-open space, with a small bar but no visual obstructions. Combined with artful LED mood lighting and that "new plane smell", this felt like plane heaven.

The plane also had optional in-window electric mini blinds, at least in business class, that offered an opaque shade to allow some natural light, but also a blackout shade for sleeping time. While I loved the look and function of it (but can't imagine the poor mechanic that has to fix it), I actually prefer the Boeing 787's electrochromic dimming system. I prefer that system's ability to let me look out the window without brightening the entire cabin. To each their own, however.

We pushed from our gate right on time with a mostly full flight. A handful of folks, like myself, were on board to celebrate the inaugural - you could spot them as the ones walking around with cameras and big grins on their faces. Other folks were just regular passengers, unaware that they were on any type of special flight. The passenger in front of me was a two-million-mile American Airlines elite, and for him this was just another flight.

I got immense joy from watching the A350's tail camera on my in-flight entertainment display. This is the first plane I've been on with it, and the skies had cleared from the earlier rain, allowing for a great view. Watching the takeoff roll was impressive!

Once we were in flight, the service kicked in to high gear. We were offered our choice of a hot or cold towel, and the crew set up the modest mid-cabin business class bar, which offered champagne and some fresh fruit. While it looked nice, I didn't actually see anyone use it during the flight.

I changed in to my provided pajamas, and then decided to order some food. Given that we didn't visit the lounge as I had expected, I was pretty hungry. Just like on my inbound flight from Los Angeles, the menu is a la carte - you can order whatever food you'd like at any time during the flight. I started with something from the "Lighter Options" menu, a very tasty Thai marinated beef and glass noodle salad, served cold. I moved on to the roasted tomato soup with basil; it was good, but nowhere near as good a the roasted corn soup on my flight to Doha.

Adhering to the "when in Rome" mentality, I then had the Arabic mezze. When I was growing up, an Armenian friend's mom would send tabbouleh with his lunch, which I remember fondly. This definitely wasn't as good as that, but the platter was tasty.

For my main course, I selected the seared red snapper with saffron cream sauce and asparagus. It was a great dish, and the fish was cooked perfectly (it always amazes me when a carrier can manage that on an airplane!) Throughout my meal, I tried a number of wines from the extensive list. It was a great meal.

After stuffing myself, I decided to get some sleep. I wasn't really tired, but knew I had a long day ahead of me; we would arrive to Boston at around 3:00 p.m. local time, and then I had a four-hour layover and a four-hour (economy) flight back to Denver. Sleep was going to be important. I made up my bed with the provided duvet, and managed to get about five hours of sound sleep - the smooth and quiet A350 had a lot to do with that.

The in-flight entertainment (IFE) system had an extensive selection of movies and shows. I watched The Martian for the what has to have been the fifth time, and then enjoyed a few episodes of Mythbusters - I'm really going to miss that show. Unlike Qatar's Boeing 777 fleet, the new A350 features satellite-based WiFi service, so I was able to keep up with work while flying. That can both be a good and bad thing.

Soon, we were getting close to Boston. I guess after my 16-hour flight from Los Angeles, the relatively-short 12-hour flight had flown by (pun intended). It was a beautiful day, so once again the tail camera on the IFE system was put to good use. This was my first inaugural, so I was hoping we'd have a warm welcome waiting for us on the ground.

I wasn't disappointed. As we landed, I could see a few airport fire trucks lined up on the taxiway, waiting to greet us with a water cannon salute. That was a pretty cool experience, and those non-AvGeeks seemed to finally realize there was something special about this flight. As we taxied up to the gate, there were tons of folks standing all around the apron, phones and cameras lifted high in the air. While I'm sure they were excited to welcome new service to Doha on Qatar Airways, I honestly think most of them were there to see the beautiful Airbus A350. It was fun to wave back at the excited crowds from my big windows.

Qatar Airways' expansion to Boston makes a lot of sense. Boston is a hub for Qatar partner JetBlue, which can provide a domestic feed for Qatar. Emirates already serves the city, so Qatar is able to offer some competition on flights to the Middle East. Boston is a world-class, diverse city, and should be able to support both business and leisure traffic. The economical Airbus A350 helps make the business case better as well.

While the A350 is still a rare sight in North America, I hope it becomes more common as production ramps up. Trust me - you're going to like flying it.



Note: I was a guest of Qatar Airways for this flight review. All opinions are my own, however.

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