Trip report: BNE-SIN-KUL-DOH-JNB-SYD in economy (mostly)

QF51 BNE-SIN (A330-200)

Brett gives me a playful shoulder nudge. “Good to see you, mate. We kept this one free for you,” he adds, pointing at the empty seat next to me, adding “well, I think we have, the doors are nearly closed.”

In spite of the playful nudge and the “mate”, I’ve never met Brett before. This is his welcome to me as a Platinum flyer. He introduces me to an FA who’ll be “looking after you today. She’s one of our best. I mean, apart from those few complaints. But still, she does full massages and backrubs whenever you want one. What currencies do you take these days?” She laughs nervously at Brett. I tell him he’s a dreadful human being. They both laugh, a little more naturally.

It’s the first day of the school holidays, and the airport, and the lounge, was packed. This flight has many, many children on it, adults looking forward to some time off, many of whom don’t look as if they fly much. I’m unusual being a single bloke wearing a shirt and jacket. True to Brett’s word, the seat next to me in economy is free, which is an excellent thing and is by far the best secret sometimes-offered Platinum benefit.

After we reach cruising altitude, Carlo then appears, welcoming me to the flight and checking that Brett has said hello. I think Carlo is flying the plane. He told me we’d be twenty minutes early, and that he was keen to leave the airport on time because they were going to shut it down quite soon after we left.

I haven’t seen the last of Brett, not by a long shot. Brett comes back a little later with a set of Qantas pyjamas (“they’re the softest things you’ll ever wear” he truthfully promises me) and a business amenities kit. (He does the same for another WP over the aisle). Then, after the meal, Brett appears with an ice-cream he’d “nicked from business”. Then some chocolate. Then a Rocky Road bar. Then asks me every so often if I’m okay and would I like anything. At one point he tells me he’s going for his break, in case I miss him. Brett is excellent. I can only imagine what Brett would be like if I ever reach Platinum One - I’m imagining he would be sitting at my feet, gazing adoringly at my face and wagging furiously if I even absent-mindedly gazed over in his direction.

I hadn’t seen the last of Carlo, either. He comes back twenty minutes before we descend, looks theatrically at his watch, and says we’re about to descend soon. And we did, twenty minutes ahead of schedule, just like he promised.

(I filled in the Qantas “compliment us” form upon landing about Brett, after carefully changing it from the default setting of “complaint”).

This trip is a voyage of discovery - two new airlines that I’ve never flown on before. One that I’m looking forward to, and one that I’m not really. I walk quickly from one side of Changi airport to the other for my next flight.

MH616 SIN-KUL (A330-300)

It’s this one that I’m not looking forward to, for obvious and unfortunate reasons. I did swear to myself that I wouldn’t fly Malaysian. But this is just a 45 minute flight. And it’s about 40% full (which means the seat next to me is empty too).

I fiddle with the IFE, to discover a “reading” app which has magazines in it for you to read and thoughtfully - for historians, at least - contained a year’s worth of in flight magazines from 2010-2011, and nothing newer. It also contains movies; but we’ve not been given any headphones - not that you’d watch much in 45 minutes anyway. The plane is roomy, clean, and Barney The Dinosaur purple.

We’re given a snack: a pot of water, confusingly and ultimately disappointingly called “Spritzer”, some salted peanuts and a Mysterious Bright Green Cake. The Mysterious Bright Green Cake was nice, and tasted of sugar. And, no sooner had they given all this out, they rushed back down the aisle taking in the trash, and the plane started to descend.

I’m not sure I got the full Malaysian experience here - but it hasn’t scared me off from trying them again.

KUL

Qatar uses the Plaza Premium First lounge for WPs, which is a proper first class lounge experience : a menu with meals cooked for you, delivered by a set of eager wait staff (chicken satay was good), and a fancy automated Asahi beer machine that tilts the glass for you to avoid a big head of foam, then rights the glass and deliberately adds a big foamy head. I don’t understand. But it is quite decent: new decor, with a good spread of snacks and quite fast wifi which I rather need, since I have work to do and podcasts to record. There is also a Cathay Pacific lounge, I noticed, which I guess I could have gone into.

QR849 KUL-DOH (B777-200LR)

“Please remain seated while praying on board”, say the signs as I board this flight. My neighbours are an immaculate woman entirely dressed in black with a full face veil, and her scruffy partner, a man wearing trainers, shorts and a t-shirt, with wayward elbows and a lot of things in his left-hand pocket, which press against my thigh when he moves in a place just too high to be entirely comfortable. The in flight entertainment system offers four main options: a flight map, Entertainment, Kids, and The Holy Qur’an. I’ve not flown Qatar before, and these things remind me of the different cultures in the world.

A WP welcome, once we were in the air, was interesting - asking what food I wanted so that she could reserve my choice for me. She offers me a drink, so I ask for a gin and tonic. Then, when coming round with our meals, she asks everyone else what drink they’d like, but asks me very deliberately “A juice maybe, or some water?” - I wish people wouldn’t do this, it makes the airline seem ungenerous and mean, and removes any pretence of generosity.

The meal? I go for the pasta, which is surprisingly good - and laid out very well indeed, with little asparagus spears and olives. Metal cutlery, too.

Sadly, the scruffy chap next to me spends most of his time on the flight constantly rearranging himself, jumping up and down, and taking as much of my personal space as he could, so it is hard to sleep. I’m relatively careful not to annoy the passenger I’m sitting next to, but this one can’t give a shit, at one point lying diagonally taking up most of my feet space.

The flight has wifi, which is surprisingly good. The first hour is free, sponsored by a telco company, and for the entire flight is US$10. Of course I did. It stops working over India, but is otherwise solid.

The back half of the business cabin looks wholly unused when we were getting off, with blankets still tightly rolled in plastic coverings, which is odd to see.

On descent they make great pains to point out that the toilets will be locked, for some reason, and we use stairs to get out of the aircraft, since we’ve parked remote from the gate. Very remote, it turns out, as we slowly trundle about, being given a guided tour of the entire airport and possibly the entire state of Qatar.

I’m hoping for a bit of a better experience on my next flight. I sure hope scruffy man isn’t on it.

DOH

Not been to this airport before. It’s big and blingy, and has an exceedingly crap statue of a teddy bear in the middle of it as some kind of centrepiece.

I stumble into the Al Mourjan Business Lounge. Nobody looks at my boarding pass, and I stroll right in (they check BPs at the bottom of the escalator, but not seemingly if you arrive by the elevator instead). It’s beautiful, large, spacious, and I’m quite impressed at it - but this is just the business lounge, and I believe that there’s a first class lounge here, and if the Al Mourjan is this good, the first class lounge must be amazing. So I go looking for it. There are two first class lounges in the airport - Al Safwa, which is for Qatar Airways first class passengers only, and The Qatar Airways First Class Lounge. This isn’t signed anywhere in the airport at all, but after a lot of checking and research, I discover it finally, and realise why it’s not signed very well - this is a lounge that Qatar Airways would rather you didn’t know about, because it’s not very good.

A small, dark, oddly-shaped lounge, it consists of slightly too many chairs to be comfortable, and a collection of warm soft drinks in tiny, ungenerous cans. Coffee? Oh, yes. There’s actually a jar of Nescafé Gold Blend instant coffee here. Seriously.

Beer? No, you have to ask for that, that’s special. There’s food - a few cheap business-class buckets of slop. A first class lounge this isn’t, in spite of the name on the door. Rather a disappointment.

I’d walk back to the Al Mourjan, but I can’t be bothered to be honest. My flight already says “Go To Gate”, and appears to be departing ten minutes early. Between 1.30am and 2.00am there are 27 flights departing this airport - possibly over 9,000 people all departing this airport in the same half hour. I’m one of them.

QR1363 DOH-JNB (A350-900)

The flight is late because of congestion. Surprising, I wonder why - nothing to do with a flight taking off every minute, then? The Airbus is a little larger and feels more modern, but because it is an Airbus it offers very metered wifi - $20 for 200MB of data, I think - so I don’t bother. It’s a shame that the Airbus wifi is so much worse than the Boeing.

I don’t get a WP welcome, but I was asleep for most of the time. Scruffy man didn’t sit next to me, but I did have a tall guy with very active elbows.

For this 9 hour flight, they start with a little snack (a spicy chicken pastry roll), and at the end of the flight we have a “brunch” - scrambled egg, sausage, potato wedges. It is cooked so hard to be quite rock solid, much like concrete would be if it was made of egg.

The IFE was miles better, though the power socket didn’t like my MacBook charger, and therefore I leave the airport with a quite depleted phone. This was a mistake, given my transport in Johannesburg is laid on by my client via Uber.

All in all, quite disappointed with Qatar, who I was really looking forward to. Their lounge was an insult, and their product in Y was simply not that good. A far cry from the marketing I’ve seen in the past few years.

AN ASIDE

I’m in a bar in Johannesburg, waiting for a friend to join me. And, as I do regularly, I look for the beer I’ve not heard of, to give it a try.

“What’s that bottle, next to the Heineken?” I ask the barman. He takes a bottle, and laughs. “It’s Kwantu”, he says. I take a look at the bottle, which he’s still holding, trying to guess what it is. I decide to try one.

Upon getting it… it’s full name is Kwantu-Chillie. It has a picture of a chilli on it. It is a wheat beer, similar to a Hoegaarden, except it has chilli in it. The chilli sears the back of your throat and warms your stomach. I wouldn’t recommend it.

Note to self - if the barman laughs, this is a bad sign. (And for the record - Loxton lager is good, though is oddly sweet; Buxom Barmaid has a name designed to offend, but is a deeply bland inoffensive dull beer.)

JNB airport

I checked in on the app, which seems a pointless exercise because I still need to check in at the airport anyway (maybe it’s because I’m foreign, and they need to check I’m able to live in Australia). The flight is 50 minutes delayed, a fact that was texted and alerted to me about eight hours earlier. The Qantas check-in man tells me “I must inform you” that the BA lounge is currently closed for renovation, though I can choose from two others, “I must inform you” that the flight is delayed, checks my bag in, “I must inform you” to pick up my bag in Sydney, and then gives me someone else’s boarding pass. I must inform him that this isn’t how it works. He doesn’t seem very concerned, but gives me my proper boarding passes instead, which is nice of him.

I can choose from two similar contract lounges, but go for the lounge closest to the gate, something called the Shongolo Premium Lounge. It is okay, if short of power points, though I find one. Food is mainly sandwiches packaged in plastic. I work for a bit, successfully hunting down a bug that’s been irritating me for a month or so. Go me!

QF64 JNB-SYD (B747-400)

My backpack is disinterestedly checked by JNB’s top security team, who open one zipper, peer in at the assorted cables, and ignore the many other pockets.

I tried for a points upgrade for this flight, and get one (which I was told about 57 hour before the flight), and so have scored myself a much-deserved business seat. Window seat, on a bulkhead, upstairs, seat 11K. Not been upstairs on these planes before. Upstairs is a business-only enclave, and a window seat up here means storage bins just below the windows, which is rather nice. The seat is already sporting the mattress cover, which annoys many people but not me.

Mark comes through after we got to cruising altitude with a landing card and the same welcome everyone gets in business. Mark tells me he’s now living in Tasmania. “Never mind,” I console him. He tells me lots of stories about his new house, which covers four acres; particularly that there’s a Tasmanian Devil that was setting his automatic lights off the other night. He asks me where I live. Brisbane, I tell him. “Never mind,” he says.

An FA appears, asking me to close my window blind, telling me “If you open that and wake up the child behind you, I’ll kill you.” I’m not entirely sure she’s joking, to be honest. There is a child behind, a coughy five year-old who occasionally screams, but he’s not too bad.

A meal (some oily linguine which wasnt Qantas’s best), some cheese for afters with a glass of port, and then sleep - lots of it, followed by being woken for breakfast, which is a better meal and entirely different from Qatar’s rock hard egg concrete.

I get my “softest things you’ll ever wear” pyjamas, an amenity pack, and all the trappings of business class, in a matter-of-fact way. No special treatment - because I *am* nothing special up here in business. Just another regular business passenger, in a decent lie-flat seat, getting a decent sleep, a decent meal and a decent amount of personal space.

This flight is an excellent one to round off my week’s worth of flying. But I’d quite like Brett back, to be honest.