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Last Night, TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig flew on the first Airbus A350 flight from the US, a Qatar charter with just 36 passengers. As you’ll see, things didn’t quite go as planned. (If you’re just here to see the video, you’ll find it halfway down the page.)
I’ve wanted to fly the Airbus A350 ever since I had an opportunity to tour Qatar’s latest airliner last summer at the Paris Air Show — for me, this could have been the best week of 2015.
On Tuesday, we learned that Qatar would be flying an A350 on a surprise visit to the US. It was a charter flight with only employees and a few handpicked guests, but technically the last-minute flight to NYC gave the airline an opportunity to claim the first commercial A350 flight to the United States — a significant milestone in what’s quickly becoming one of Qatar’s fastest-growing markets.
It also gave Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker a chance to one-up Delta CEO Richard Anderson, his key Open Skies opponent. Delta, which plans to take delivery of its own A350s beginning in 2017, won’t be the first airline to operate on the plane on its own turf — not that that was ever on the table.
Politics aside, Tuesday was a very important day for JFK, Qatar and the A350 — as was last night; the plane’s first-ever departure from a US airport. I was thrilled to be invited on board for the 12-hour trip to Doha.
The day wasn’t off to the best start. Around 3:30pm, I learned that the 10pm departure was actually going to take place at 8pm, and that I had three hours to get to JFK. I was still in the office, of course, so I raced home, packed and made my way to one of the airport’s general aviation facilities, where I underwent a surprisingly lax security check and boarded a bus to the A350.
The plane was every bit as brilliant as I remembered from Paris, with a slick “lobby” and a very open feel in the business-class cabin thanks to the lack of center overhead bins. Everything was shiny and fresh.
I took my seat (6F), switched into my brand-new Qatar PJs, and settled in for what is undoubtedly now the most memorable flight of my life.
In July, I flew Etihad’s A380 Apartment, so how could this 1-2-1 business-class haul be more memorable than that? Well, I blame our terrifying takeoff roll.
As you can see in the video above, about 18 seconds after we began rolling down JFK’s runway 22R, the aircraft self-aborted, bringing us from more than 100 mph to a loud, screeching halt in roughly 15 seconds. (Note that while Qatar representatives communicated that the plane aborted the takeoff on its own, it’s possible that the pilots may have reduced engine power manually, at which point the A350 automatically applied the brakes.)
For a plane of this size and weight, stopping that quickly required a lot of force. To give you another idea of how abruptly we stopped, as you can see in the picture below, nearly all of the 200+ pillows and blankets landed on the floor, having previously been neatly arranged on each seat in economy.
Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but some passengers (including myself) were quite shaken. The journalist across the aisle from me said that he wanted to get off the plane, and after a call from my now terrified mom (who was understandably very upset after seeing my tweet), I wanted to get off, too. We both let the PR rep sitting near us know that we wanted to disembark, and he made a few phone calls and it seemed like that was definitely going to happen.
Except it didn’t. Instead, Qatar’s Chief Commercial Officer, the highest ranking executive on the flight, came over to reassure us, explaining that an “indicator” was responsible for the abrupt abort. As I understand it, for some reason the A350 decided that our 11,000-foot runway was too short to support the takeoff, and the plane applied the brakes at full force — all on its own.
I was told that we would be taxiing to a different (less glitchy) runway, and would attempt another takeoff there. If that failed, we would be allowed to disembark. In other words, we were going to be taking off again whether we wanted to or not. (I imagine much of the nearly 2 hours between takeoffs was spent deciding what to do next — even though a few passengers wanted to get off the plane, Qatar opted to ignore that request, instead opting to save face after a rather embarrassing start to its first flight from the US.)
Completely powerless (unless I wanted to do something crazy, like activate an emergency slide), I called my mom back to reassure her, and 1 hour and 40 minutes after our first attempted takeoff, the pilots tried again.
Fortunately (or unfortunately for passengers now eager to get off the plane), that takeoff was successful, and we began our otherwise uneventful trip to Doha.
The other passengers in my row and I started the flight with a well-deserved scotch, and all went well en-route to DOH. Now, here I am at Qatar’s fancy new hub, hanging out in my pre-immigration hotel room before I take off for Munich a bit after 2am — on what I imagine will be my last A350 flight for a while.
As Qatar Airways doesn’t yet offer scheduled A350 service from the US, it wasn’t possible to pay cash or redeem miles for a ticket on this charter flight. However, as TPG policy is to not accept free travel, we will be “purchasing” the flight in the form of a reader giveaway. Later this month, we will give away 67,500 AAdvantage miles, which matches the award redemption rate for JFK to Doha. The winner will be able to use these miles to book a business-class Qatar flight of their own, or for any other redemption they wish.
Stay tuned for more coverage from the A350’s inaugural flight from the US.
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