After hearing much about Qatar Airways (QR), it’s 5 star Skytraxx ranking, and its best economy class, I decided to fly the airline on a trip, along with my son, from Bangalore to the United States and return.
Outbound (Bangalore-Doha-New York JFK)
I should have realised that this trip was jinxed when I received an e-mail from the airline on the morning of May 10th, just 36 hours before I was scheduled to fly, asking me to contact them regarding a problem. After many a re-dial, I reached the QR Bangalore sales office, only to be told due to a airport closure on the night of May 12th (my original travel date) the revised schedule of the flight would cause me to miss my Doha JFK flight.
Facing few choices, I advanced the trip by a day. Thankfully my bags were packed and there was minimum packing and trip preparation scheduled for the day. Put it down to years of travel which have resulted in a family that has learnt to pack in advance.
I did confirm from my contacts at the Bengaluru International Airport that the closure was planned and informed to all the airlines including QR more than a month earlier, i.e. well before I had even made my booking. No sensible explanation from Qatar Airways as to why they had not modified their original schedule, even though they knew about the closure at the time of accepting my booking.
Leg 1 – Bangalore – DohaArrived at the airport at 02:00 for the 04:30 departure. Check-in was smooth and quick. The counter staff were extreme courteous and hospitable. Boarding too was a snap. The aircraft was A7-AHA one of Qatar’s newest Airbus A320’s featuring the new slim seats which have thinner cushions to give a feeling of greater seat space. Managed to snag emergency exit row seating which gave us 34 inches of legroom. The seat width is the A320 standard of 18 inches. So it was comfortable, even for a big fellow like me.
Considering I had just joined the airline’s frequent flier program “Privilege Club”, I was very impressed that the purser took the time to come my seat and welcome me. It this small human touch, so well perfected by world leader Singapore Airlines, that makes all the difference in the flight experience. The flight was smooth and the breakfast service was quick and efficient. Stomach filled, we drifted off to sleep. We arrived at Doha four hours later in the early morning about 30 minutes late due to the morning rush hour.
The Doha airport surprised me. It is small, old and lacking in most amenities one expects from a modern airport. There are no aero-bridges and all boarding is via bus and stairs. The duty free is extremely small and hence crowded. The airport staff from security to airport are generally not friendly and herd passengers like cattle, the exception being the airline ground staff, but still a far cry from their Bangalore airport counterparts.
Leg 2 – Doha – New York JFKWe were bussed to the waiting Boeing 777-200LR A7-BBB and there was a relative mad scramble up the stairs to grab our seats. The flight departed on-time. There is good overhead bin space and QR’s Boeing 777’s feature 19 inch wide seats, which is about the widest one can find in economy class anywhere in the world. Great for the well endowed folks, like me. The in-flight entertainment system hardware is good with touch screens, but software content needs beefing up. The moving map is the best I have seen aboard any airline, period.
The menu is reflective of the dominance of Indians in the passenger diaspora of Qatar Airways. Almost 98% of the passengers on the flight were of south Asian origin with at least 85% from India. My section (over the wings) was loaded with Gujaratis who as strict vegetarians were horrified when my son and I, both confirmed carnivores, chose the beef option.
Qatar does keep its passengers well fed with an endless buffet sandwiches, chips, crisps and other small eats at the galley, which commences at the end of the first meal service and runs through the 14 hour flight, so hunger will not be a problem.
Cabin crew service was spotty. It lacked cohesion and coordination. The lack of leadership was distinctly noticeable. My son and I were sitting in the E and F seats which was served by the crew in the right aisle. We completed our entire brunch, and even had our trays cleared before the service on the left aisle for the A~D seats began. Many of the crew appear to have been picked up from various small airlines across the world including some from smaller Indian carriers.
Continuing on the food front, thanks to years of travelling I have a pretty strong cast iron stomach, but four hours into this second leg (10 hours in to our journey), I developed a case of what was later diagnosed as severe gastritis. Qatar Airways food? I don’t think so.
The medical breakdown
What began as a severe stomach pain, quickly developed into hurling and all the other nasty stuff you can imagine. In my 20 years and four million miles of travel I have seen many an in-flight medical emergency, even death, but never thought it would happen to me. After two hours of denial, I finally raised the white flag, went to the rear galley, and requested one of the cabin attendants to page for a doctor. Two doctors and one paramedic treated me and gave me some pills.
What followed shook my faith in the airline to the core.
At any airline, once a passenger is treated by a doctor on-board a flight, certain protocols go in to effect and it is standard practice for the in-flight supervisor to get actively involved, if nothing else, to keep abreast of the situation. In many airlines the captain is notified. In my case, the in-flight supervisor did not come to check what was happening, let alone check with me if I was okay.[Read about a recent incident where Capt. J.S. Gill, the commander of an Air India flight made a high speed high rate descent in to Stockholm Arlanda airport to ensure time medical treatment to a passenger]
What happened next is downright scary.
When the doctor started explaining what was wrong with me, the flight attendant brusquely told him “I only need the name of the medication you gave him for my report”. She was unwilling to even note that the doctor was recommending only milk and some dry bread.
If nothing else, this is about as close a cabin crew can get to endangering a passenger’s life.
Through the rest of the eight hours of the flight, the crew never once bothered to check on me, and since they had not bothered to listen to the doctors earlier, kept pushing spice laden food which I was unable to eat. Starving, I was forced to make do with bottles of water which my son kept refilling from the galley, and some biscuits (cookies in the US) I had carried aboard.
I have never experienced such a level of indifference and callousness aboard any flight, ever. At the end of it, I just wanted to get off the aircraft. Was I not travelling on a round-trip economy class ticket, I would have chosen another airline in a flash.
I later found out that QR management has a very aggressive termination policy and this has created a severe morale problem in the cabin crews. Thanks to the crew of Qatar Airways flight QR083 for giving me the worst flight of my flying life.
The CEO of Qatar Airways Mr. Akbar Al-Bakar has repeatedly expressed his anger at airplane manufacturer Boeing for not treating him “correctly”. May be Mr. Al Bakar and his team at Qatar Airways should first remedy their in-flight service attitudes and start treating their customers as they expect to be treated by their vendors.
[Clarification: I waited long to publish this trip report since I offered to QR media department and their Bangalore sales office, in the spirit of fairness, the chance to respond. Both chose not to.]
Disclosure: The trip was paid for by me. The article was sent to Qatar Airways for review and to seek a response. They did not respond nor have they requested any revision. The views remain our own.