James Cridland

Trip report: BNE to DOH and beyond, on Qatar

Not the best start to a journey — a traffic snarl-up in the city meant my taxi was thirty minutes later than I hoped it would be. Among other things, a fire has closed the Airport Link tunnel, I’m told, which worries me somewhat.

To stop me from fretting, I take the opportunity to put my Flight Radar 24 antenna back outside — stepping gingerly on the freshly-painted deck from where I’d retrieved it yesterday before it was washed and repainted. I bought the kit (a Raspberry Pi Zero W 2, an antenna, and a USB tuner that’s bigger than the Pi it connects to) with the idea that it would allow me to have the data of flights overhead within my home network so I could build a Thing. I haven’t built the Thing. But I do now have a business account with Flight Radar 24, because I feed them flight data.

My newly repositioned antenna will see my plane overhead later this evening, as I take a trip to Doha in surprising opulence: a Qatar business suite, no less. And from there, a shorter flight (apparently in first). I haven’t paid for the flight — and the client’s travel agent needed a bit of persuasion that these flights existed. I’m not flying all that way, in business, without crediting the status credits to my account, after all. This would be the flight that requalifies me for another year, were it not for Qantas’s status extensions.

The driver from Didi, $50, who got my business (rather than the driver from Uber, $99) was worried I wouldn’t make my flight. But I always aim to arrive early. Once, I turned up to Heathrow for a flight and realised I’d forgotten my passport — but still had time to go back and get it. The Didi driver and I drive through the open and suspiciously-free-from-fire Airport Link tunnel, and make good time.

We can’t check in online for this flight (the Qatar app tells us we can, but tantalisingly gives a blank screen when you try), so there’s a monster queue for economy, and a queue (four people deep) for business as well.

I’m travelling on my UK passport today — the country I’m going to might want to stamp my passport, and I don’t really want my main Australian passport to have this stamp in it, so my UK passport will instead. After checking in, I stride confidently to the automated passport check, where my Australian passport (which I must legally use to enter and exit the country) is rejected. I have to join the Queue of Shame. “Are you travelling under a different passport?”, I’m asked, when I get to the front. Why yes, yes I am. I’ve always wondered how that works. And it works like that.

On checking in, I’m told that Qatar uses the Air New Zealand lounge (good), and that the lounge opens at 7.40pm. After I get through security it’s about 7.15pm, so like any WP would do, I go and pay my friends in Qantas a visit. There’s a flight to LAX in a few hours, and it already has quite a few people in.

Then, after I’ve done a little work, I move over to the Air New Zealand lounge. I think it’s awfully clever that they have NZ wine, NZ beer, and are playing the Finn brothers on the music system (though the Kiwi feel is quickly shattered by the slightly strange appearance of ABBA.)

And then, onto the plane.

BNE — DOH, QR899

Qatar offers suites for business on this flight, a B777–300ER. I’ve not been in a “suite” before. It’s much like a normal large business seat in long haul, but with a claustrophobic door next to you: so you feel cut off from everyone else. It’s comfortable, and I’m surrounded by leather and fabric — not the faux wood-and-gold bling of Emirates.

There is a large and fancy amenity pack (in a cardboard box that is wrapped in a pink bow), and I’m then offered some pyjamas (“loungewear”) which comes in a bag stamped with the FIFA World Cup. They are football styled as well — looking like a football shirt with “Qatar 22” in the back — and feel well made and good quality. There’s a football pillow here for some reason. The safety video is in the style of a football team talk. It’s supposed to be funny.

The tannoy tells us we have to wear a mask for the entirety of the flight. But the FAs tell us we do not need to wear a mask in our Q Suites, which makes sense — there’s nobody here to breathe on (except for, you know, the staff).

I’m offered a drink, and go for something that is lemony and minty, and make my choice for dinner.

Dinner comes quite quickly (though it’s very late Brisbane time); I have some really fresh prawns and a chicken curry which is tasty and presented well. The cheese plate afterwards is good, too. It comes with a little flickery light for some reason.

Occasionally, I open the door of my suite (it makes quite a difference to ventilation, and I’m also not entirely comfortable with being so cooped-up). The unwritten rule appears to be that you should close the door; and an FA helpfully closes it after delivering me a drink of water. To be honest, the suite makes me feel a little lonely.

A fitful night’s rest. There’s a crying baby as well as two six year-olds who shout at the top of their voice while offering a running commentary. “I’m watching television now Mummy!” “I am eating aeroplane food now, Mummy!”

It is a strange experience. The FAs were nice, but oddly nervous. They offer you very little at all, and the expectation is that you bark orders for things instead: breakfast comes when you want it, not when they decide to serve it. My reserved British way of doing things is just to keep quiet, and take things when given and not be a bother to anyone. It’s a clash of cultures, really — and while I heard other passengers giving specific instructions about exactly when they wanted their meals and what they wanted first, I really haven’t ever wanted to give orders (and feel uncomfortable not quite knowing what is expected of me).

I wake up at my normal 7am time, which isn’t great for this flight. I leave it until about 9am Brisbane time (2am Doha time) to ask for breakfast (“when you’re ready”). I’d ordered before we took off, so didn’t realise they brought me the wrong breakfast (some cold cuts of meat and fish, which were good) — the FA scurried out to apologise and then bring me a second breakfast, the scrambled eggs and avo on toast which I’d ordered. Everything that was good about dinner was missing for the breakfast — the scrambled eggs were overcooked, with a wallpaper-paste like consistency, and held the shape of the cooking pot, turned upside down and put onto the toast; the “avo on toast” was a scoop of guacamole which had been out for a bit, since it was a bit black on the outside. I’m sounding a little entitled now — this is a much better breakfast than I would have got in economy, of course (but is a worse breakfast than business on Qantas — at least, pre-pandemic).

DOH and beyond

Then, out and through Doha security, and straight to the Al Safwa first class lounge (since my connecting flight was in first class — again, I’m not paying).

Goodness, the Al Safwa lounge is a thing to behold. Very spacious, beautifully quiet, high ceilings, water features everywhere. I really only want a coffee, but order an Eggs Benedict anyway. The waiter asks me if I want any sides — sausage, mushroom, not-bacon, hash brown, beans, asparagus. I say: “no, thanks, just as it comes.” Apparently, it comes with all the sides.

I have a shower. This seems to take them by surprise at 7 in the morning. I get given access to some communal showers with eight lockers and three showers. The Al Safwa spa appears to have no private showers at all — I was given this entire complex to have a private ten minute shower in.

From the Al Safwa lounge, you are taken directly into a first-class bus, and then to the aircraft — no trudging through the terminal for the likes of us (though the plane we catch is not, actually, at a gate). The bus is astonishing — 14 large armchairs arranged in a circle, each with a table.

My connecting flight is only an hour long; and I am told on check-in that they have switched the plane to a larger one. Not the A320 as expected, but it’s an A350–900, and — surprise — it’s got Q Suites again. They say that this plane only does short haul. It feels a little newer, but everything is identical to the B777 I was on earlier (with the exception of the seat belt, which has a shoulder sash.)

They’re determined to feed me again. I have declined that kind offer, lest I explode. But the flight team seem much more relaxed, happy to see me, and give me a nice coffee. I also use the wifi, which is free for the first hour if you register for their FF program. And before I know it, we’ve landed.

A surprise to learn that I’ve earnt almost nothing from this flight in terms of Frequent Flyer points. 14 hours in business in QR gives you just 7,000 points — about half the points than you get doing the much shorter hop to Singapore in QF economy. The status credits, though, are as expected: and, I hope, gets me a little closer to my distant goal of lifetime gold.

Back to DOH

On the way back, the bit I’m not looking forward to — checking in with a passport that I know won’t let me into Australia. I walk nervously to the front of the line, expecting a long conversation in broken English and a parade of confused and suspicious Arabic officials.

I give my British passport. The lady at the check-in desk finds my flight, presses one button, looks up and says “do you have an Australian passport as well?” I hand it over. “So you are leaving here on your British passport, and you will enter Australia on your Australian passport?” Yes, I am. And that’s it. All done. Phew.

Qatar doesn’t have a lounge in this airport — instead, a contract lounge with brightly-coloured seats, vaguely child-like, keeps me busy for the next hour.

The hour’s flight to DOH (in first class) is on an A320 with fully reclinable seats, but I have the indignity of having to share the drinks shelf next to my seat with Someone Else. I endure the funny flight video. We’re being fed, if we want — a “match-time platter” — but I don’t want it. I have a lemony-minty thing, and watch the FA rushing around with table cloths, trying to get her full service done in the 15 minutes or so that she has. And she does.

I get the WP Welcome about four times during this hour’s trip. She’s very pleased that I’m flying with Qatar, and very anxious that I’ve had a pleasant flight. I did.

Landing in DOH, I’ve quite some time to kill: and even though I was in First on the way here, I don’t get access to the first lounge. Not that the business lounge isn’t spectacular too. It’s normally off-limits to the likes of me, since Qatar shunts all non-QR frequent flyers into a less impressive lounge. I have some food, and a beer (they have the slightly less stellar choice of Budweiser or, um, Stella). I download all the videos for the flight home, then decide that it might be fun to go for a walk for a bar of chocolate, seeing on Google Maps that a WH Smith’s is at the other end of the terminal. It’s such a long walk away that there’s a train for people to catch, but I walk, past a few electronics shops.

Google Maps lied to me. There isn’t a WH Smith up here — indeed, actually, there’s very little that’s open. Instead, there are a lot of busy people in yellow jackets, and the smell of fevered building work, as they finish this end of the terminal prior to the world cup. Half the food court is open, but the duty free area is closed off (but looks almost ready). But on the plus side, I’ve avoided spending $45 for a tiny square of chocolate, such are the WH Smith markup prices.

I take the train back. It’s very new and very impressive. I wander back into the lounge for a bit, and then it’s time for me to get onto the plane.

DOH to BNE, QR898

I notice (as I did on the way out) that the boarding music on Qatar is on quite a short loop. It sounds very much like the theme tune for Grand Designs off the telly. It gets a bit annoying. There’s a piano repeating the same melody, an Arabic stringed instrument accompanying it, and a woodwind instrument that sounds like a clarinet but probably isn’t. I keep expecting Kevin McCloud to pop up and question whether we’ll really get this work done by next Christmas and if we’ve correctly done our budget.

I time the boarding music. It takes five minutes to loop. I got on this flight at about 6.45pm; it’s now 7.25pm, and so I’ve heard it eight times in its entirety. It reminds me of working in commercial radio and playing the same songs in my 9am hour that I did three hours previously, and being required to “sell” the music just as fervently as I had at 6am. That don’t impress me much, I’d back-announce. That’s a song from Shania Twain, rather than a comment on the music policy.

I endure the funny flight video again. I assume the two stars of the film (who are British) are famous? I guess they might be. It isn’t designed for watching four times in three days.

The FAs on this 14 hour flight are totally different in attitude from the ones I had on the 14 hour flight here. Perhaps it’s a time of day thing, but they’re super keen to help and to offer drinks, food and everything else. Instead of asking open-ended questions about when you want dinner and breakfast, they make suggestions. “Shall I give you breakfast about one and a half hours from when we land?” is much less anxiety-inducing than “When do you want breakfast?”

Surprisingly, the Qatari catering doesn’t seem to be quite as good as the Brisbane catering. I have the vegetarian dumplings, which aren’t too good. But I sleep well, aided by the absence of excited six year-olds, and have an omelette for breakfast. It’s slightly odd in temperature — it’s hot, except for both ends which are cold.

An hour’s worth of free wifi is fun to talk to my family before I land, and to follow my flight’s progress on Flight Radar 24. Seems that my little scanner is still doing its job, as we take a slight detour to land over the sea, rather than the land.

That wifi, by the way, could have cost (US)$10 for the fourteen hour flight. I know that Qantas is waiting for a new, better, satellite system to become operational before it implements it; but it’s beginning to be a gaping hole in Qantas’s service.

All-in, a pleasant trip: but curiously lonely in a Suite by yourself, and an odd culture clash from an international crew. It’s good to be home.