Flight Review: Qatar (A350-900) Business Class From Boston to Doha
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When news of a large carry-on electronics ban broke overnight in March, TPG knew it was going to be a big deal. With the rushed implementation and lack of clear guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security, we figured that the affected Middle Eastern and African airlines were going to struggle and we wanted to be there on the ground to report how things were going.
As a result, TPG sent my wife — TPG contributor Katie Genter — and me on assignment to the Middle East to cover it firsthand. In case you missed it, here's what we wrote about how Qatar was handling the ban, Katie's experience flying Etihad and my experience flying Emirates. It wasn't all hard work though; I also got the chance to experience Qatar's incredible first-class check-in and lounge experience. But in order to do all that reporting, we needed to get to the Middle East — here's how we did it.
We wanted to get to the Middle East as soon as possible and thankfully, Qatar's award availability came through for us. Using the British Airways' website, we found award space from Boston (BOS) to Doha (DOH) in Qatar's A350 business class the day after the ban was announced.
Of course, that overwater flight was just one part of the equation and we needed to get from our home in Austin to Boston to catch that flight first. Using AA.com, we found there was MileSAAver award availability in economy, leaving at 6:15am with almost an eight-hour layover in BOS. Happy to find AAny AAward AAvailability, we called AA (as Qatar's awards don't appear on AA's website) and booked the flights for 70,000 AAdvantage miles each, plus $7.65 each in taxes and fees.
While AAdvantage isn't known for the lowest award rates, a one-way hop from AUS to DOH on Qatar doesn't get any cheaper, as Oneworld awards either charge more for combining partners (AA and Qatar) or just charge more from the US to the Middle East. For just the BOS-DOH nonstop flight on Qatar, you can book with 60,000 Asiana Club miles (SPG transfer partner), 63,000 JAL miles (SPG transfer partner) or 66,000 Malaysia Enrich miles if booked before June 10 (Citi transfer partner). If booking after June 10, it'll cost you 131,000 Enrich miles for the one-way flight. Paid one-way fares for the Boston-Doha leg alone start at $6,700, so this was a heck of a redemption!
Although it wasn't yet policy for AA to allow Executive Platinum elites to upgrade on award tickets, we were able to sweet talk ourselves onto the upgrade list for both AUS-DFW and DFW-BOS — our upgrades cleared for the DFW-BOS leg.
Transfer and Check-In
Upon arrival, we used our Citi Prestige Cards to again access to the Admirals Club in BOS to work, rest, eat and shower for much of our 7.5-hour layover. When the Admirals Club started shutting down for the night (at 7pm), we figured it was time to make the connection from Terminal B — where we had arrived — over to our departure out of Terminal E.
Unfortunately, the signage in Terminal B was severely lacking in terms of telling us how we could make this transfer. We were directed by a couple of TSA agents to exit the secure area and walk about 3/4 of a mile through multiple terminals to get to the international terminal, but found out partially through the walk that transfer buses were also available — according to signs in the connector hallways, the #11, #55, #66 and #88 buses all connect Terminal B and E.
When we arrived at the Qatar check-in desk about three hours prior to departure, there wasn't a passenger in sight. We used the dedicated business class/Qatar elite/Oneworld elite check-in desk. The red carpet ended at a couple of Swissport contract agents who confirmed that our bags had been transferred from American Airlines and checked to make sure that we had onward travel after our one-way to Doha (DOH) before issuing our Qatar boarding passes.
There's no TSA Precheck at security in international Terminal E. and business- and first-class passengers have their own security line. However, once your documents are checked, your priority status ends and you'll have to join the general screening lines, which took 11 minutes to get through. From the point we started leaving Terminal B to our gate airside on Terminal E, our total transfer time was approximately 35 minutes.
Lounge & Boarding
Qatar contracts with Air France to provide lounge service and although the Qatar gate is close to where you clear TSA security, the Air France lounge isn't anywhere nearby. You'll have to walk down to the end of the E terminal, head down an escalator and double-back down a unmarked hall to reach the Air France lounge.
When we arrived at the lounge 2.5 hours before departure, the under-construction lounge was packed with Air France customers. We had to hurry to get some of the last bits of food before it ran out — lounge guests were even being told by employees that no more food would be brought out, so it's a good thing we got there when we did!
That said, if you get to the lounge early enough, it seems that you have a selection of cold sandwiches, rice, beef sausage with vegetables, mini-egg sandwiches, various cheeses, miso soup, sushi, fruits and a salad bar to choose from.
Drink selections varied: self-serve espresso machines gave you the option of espresso or Americano (but no milk-based drinks like lattes), mid-tier liquors and four different types of wine. Although the Air France lounge was on-brand with the Château Roustaing 2015 Bordeaux, funnily enough, it served an Italian Prosecco instead of French Champagne.
As American Airlines Executive Platinum elites on an international itinerary, we knew we had access to the British Airways lounge, also located in Terminal E, so we decided to check it out. Little did we know that the BA lounge had just opened that day. If you're an Oneworld Emerald or Sapphire, we'd recommend going to the BA lounge instead of the Air France lounge.
After hurrying to review the new BA lounge, we left it 10 minutes before our scheduled boarding time, hoping to be one of the first passengers on-board so we could take photos. Upon arriving at the gate, we were surprised to see the area was almost completely clear of passengers, as most business-class passengers were already settled into their seats.
Cabin and Seat
Qatar was the launch customer of the A350-900, taking delivery of its first A350 in December 2014. While all of the airline's A350s are young, our aircraft for this flight (registration A7-ALL) was especially new, having first flown in September 2016.
The Qatar A350 business-class cabin is arranged in a wide-open reverse herringbone 1-2-1 arrangement. There are two sections, split by a "galley" entrance at the main entrance door. Fitting in with the open arrangement, it's arranged as a bar area with storage bins engineered into the cabinets with a decorative dome positioned overhead. This area would serve many purposes during the flight but simply housed a vase of stunning red roses at boarding.
Six rows of seats can be found forward (to the left), with three rows in the back. Large overhead bins are located above the window seats, but there are no overhead bins over the middle seats, further adding to the open design of the cabin.
Since we'd booked our flights the day before, we didn't have a wide choice of seating options to choose from. Thankfully, we were able to pick two window seats that were adjacent to each other: 7K and 8K.
The middle seats are perfect for couples sitting together, but have a removable privacy divider in case you aren't sitting with someone you know.
While some couples might prefer to sit in these middle seats, we were both happy to each have a window seat.
My bulkhead seat, however, was different than Katie's standard seat — for instance, there was no window-side storage bin (pictured above) while the standard seats have one.
Most seats have a sliding storage tray on the bottom of the seat in front of them on the aisle-side. Instead, the bulkhead seats have a couple of storage cabinets. The larger bottom cabinet is marked as "Crew Use Only" and is seemingly stocked with safety gear. The top one is for the bulkhead seat passenger to use.
The armrests were vertically adjustable and featured a built in storage area. At boarding, they were stocked with the in-flight entertainment headphones, with a bottle of Evian water being added to it during the boarding process. During the flight, they functioned as a nice area to store our phones, passports, boarding passes and other small items.
The tray table is stored underneath the in-flight entertainment screen. When released and unfolded, it opens into a massive 19-inch wide — and just as long — table.
The windows were electronically controlled, but, unlike on the Dreamliner, the A350 windows aren't tinted dark. In Qatar's business class, there are two shades: one that doesn't block much light and acts as more of a privacy screen...
...and a second shade that blocks out all light. When each of these shades are shut and the cabin lights are off, the cabin stays very dark — even through bright daylight outside. The flight attendants kept it this way for almost the entire flight, which was a nice feature when we were trying to sleep, but was a major bummer if you wanted to look out the window or try to get good photos.
One downside, due to the open-cabin arrangement, was if anyone were to open their window shade, the entire cabin would be flooded with light, making it hard to be considerate and enjoy the view from 38,000 feet.
When you're ready for bed, the seats lie complete flat at a push of a button.
The flight attendants provided a turn-down service, setting up your seat with a mattress pad and blanket to go along with the pillow you've had since boarding.
Food and Drink
As a pre-departure beverage, we were offered Qatar's signature drink, a mix of mint, lemon and plenty of sugar. The flight attendant also offered to bring over a cold or hot towel.
15 minutes after takeoff, a flight attendant came by to introduce herself and the a la carte dining menu "concept." She asked for any food or drink orders at that time, along with any dishes that we might want to reserve for later in the flight. We didn't need to reserve any dishes, but appreciated that this was an option for travelers who might have more specific tastes.
She returned with a bowl of nuts and a drink. Katie tried the So Jennie "luxury non-alcohol bubbly," described as "A delicious alcohol-free pale pink sparkling beverage solely made of the finest grapes." Katie noted that it was delicious and she ended up enjoying it most of the flight.
Of the 10 incredible-looking wines and Champagnes detailed — each with its own page — in the dedicated wine and beverage menu, I started with the first one listed: a Billecart-Salmon Brut Champagne. As described in the menu, it was a "pure luxury."
Even though we didn't order it, we both were started with a small salmon and potato salad appetizer.
Having had some snacks in the lounge, I started with one of the "light options" for the time being — "Gnocchi in spinach and blue cheese sauce, toasted walnuts and rocket leaf salad" — which was just as rich and creamy as I'd hoped it would be.
Katie ordered "Smoked salmon with pea and potato salad" from the appetizer menu. After having just received the same un-ordered salmon appetizer, she was pleasantly surprised for that to be followed up with a larger and even better version.
Katie finished off dinner with the "Marinated chicken breast with a creamy sage sauce / sauteed new potatoes with sweet corn, leeks and red onion," pictured below.
One of the features of the dine-on-demand concept is that you can arrange your flight however you want. Tired from a long day and a 10:35pm departure? You can head right to sleep and get any food you want when you wake up. We went the more traditional route: eating and sleeping, then eating again.
Because you could order food anytime, there was no need for snacks to be left out "between meals," however, during the flight, a bowl of fruit and a bottle of Champagne were placed in the galley/dome area just in case. After sleeping for a few hours, I started my second meal by ordering the "Cured salmon with caper berries and egg."
I also got the "Bircher muesli / rolled oats mixed with yoghurt, fruits, almonds and cinnamon."
Once awake, Katie started off with "French toast with mixed berry and coulis."
Each of the dishes we had were excellent — looking back on these makes our mouths water still. Our only regret was eating anything at the lounge before boarding, as we wished we could have tried out some of the other items on the carrier's huge menu. But, this time around, we were simply too full to indulge on anything more.
The cabin crew provided extraordinary service throughout the flight, from being courteous during meals to being fast and efficient whenever we asked for anything. It started right from the boarding door, where we were greeted by flight attendants and the gate station manager.
While we were bummed to be one of the last business-class passengers to board — thanks to the early boarding — we were pleased with how Qatar had utilized this early boarding process to get a head start on providing excellent service. When boarding slowed down a bit, the purser came by to introduce himself and officially welcome us on-board. To excuse my excited photo taking, I noted that this was our first time flying on Qatar Airways and that we were really excited to be traveling in business class. The purser inquired if we were on our honeymoon — oddly enough, this was the second time in about an hour we had been asked this after it had come up in the BA lounge). I replied, laughing, that it was sort of like our second honeymoon.
Shortly before descent, we noticed that many of the cabin and flight crew were gathering in the entrance dome. Our primary flight attendant approached me at the same time another FA approached Katie, politely asking us for a few minutes of our time. We were invited over to the bar area to celebrate our first time flying on Qatar and our "second honeymoon." There, the crew had arranged a set of desserts and a card signed by both the flight attendants and the flight crew. They prepared two drinks for us: one alcoholic for me and a similar-looking non-alcoholic drink for Katie, who had enjoyed sipping the non-alcoholic bubbly on this flight. While the grand gesture was great, their attention to detail was even more impressive.
While the service was incredible, it was concerning that the flight attendants were overly deferential to passengers. During taxiing before takeoff, one business-class passenger in one of the middle seats laid his seat completely flat in an attempt to go to sleep. When a flight attendant noticed a few minutes later, I could see her actually struggling about whether or not to even ask him to raise his seat for takeoff (which she ended up doing).
Another time, just minutes after takeoff — while still in a steep ascent — another business-class passenger got up to use the bathroom. Rather than asking him to return to his seat, the nearby FA scrambled to unbuckle her harness and unlock the bathroom door for him.
While service is very important to the experience of a flight, these were concerning examples that a focus on incredible service might actually trump safety.
Each seat featured a large 17.2-inch in-flight entertainment touchscreen.
When the screen was on and you weren't viewing any programs, the IFE system automatically scrolled through about a dozen options, with catalog numbers at the bottom right corner showing how to retrieve that selection.
You can use the main screen or the touchscreen controller to scroll through the entertainment options. These options included: Kids, Audio, Movies, Pick of the Month, TV, Games, Map, A350 [front, downward and tail cameras], Connected, Qatar Airways, Flight Connections and Extravaganza [shopping].
IFE selections begin with 2-3 minutes of advertisements, but you can easily skip these by swiping the progress bar to the end of the ads. Movies had the most-explicit curse words replaced with tamer alternatives.
We both love window seats for the ability to watch the world go by from 40,000 feet. Unfortunately, with the cabin kept pitch-black most of the flight, we didn't want to bother others by opening our window shades. Thankfully, we had another option: the tail, forward and downward cameras.
At boarding, each seat was stocked with a plastic-wrapped set of two-prong headphones, hidden away in the aisle-side armrest storage area. While mostly featuring Qatar and Oryx branding, the Phitek manufacturer name could be found underneath the headset. While not the best at noise-cancelling, the sound quality was admirable.
During descent, a video introducing — and showing off — the Hamad International Airport (DOH) was shown. While somewhat informative about transfers and various free amenities in the airport, it felt more like an advertisement than actually being informative. After it finished, the IFE screen switched to displaying tips about the Wi-Fi, stretching and staying moisturized which would have been more appropriate to display earlier in the flight rather than right before we landed.
At boarding, our seats were simply stocked with a large pillow and blanket, with the IFE headrest hidden away in the armrest. During boarding, the flight attendants came through with Brics-branded amenity kits.
Inside, there were Monte Vibiano lotions, "hydrating facial mist," lip balm, earplugs, socks and an eye mask, along with other Brics, Monte Vibiano and Qatar inserts.
The flight attendants also dropped off pajamas and slippers. Our FA noted that she'd done her best to pick out our sizes, but we could always get a different size if we needed to — Katie's pajamas fit well, but my large pajamas weren't quite large enough.
The bathrooms were stocked with a variety of items. From boarding onward, there was Rituals-branded hand lotion, face lotion and body mint. At cruising altitude, the FAs added individually packaged and simply named kits (i.e. "Brush" "Shave").
Qatar offers 10MB more than 15 minutes of Wi-Fi for free, with an option to buy a larger package. The Wi-Fi connection screen warns users that "surfing the web at 30,000 feet involves complex satellite technology and might not always be what you experience usually."
This turned out to be an understatement — the speeds were excruciatingly slow. On my laptop, I ate up the entire free 10MB just trying to load the homepage of a speed test website, which never did load. So, I switched to connecting with my phone to buy a larger package, figuring that the connection would be better. While I still wasn't able to run a speed test, I was able to sync emails and app notifications over the next few minutes.
Arrival & Lounge
While many flight reviews end at the gate, Qatar takes your arrival experience to a whole other level. Instead of being just another passenger when you get to immigration, you're able to skip the long lines. On the right side of the immigration area, there's a dedicated first- and business-class entrance.
Inside, you'll find a lounge with food and drinks in case you missed the chance to fill up on-board. Most helpfully, there are dedicated immigration desks with no lines.
Once you've retrieved your luggage and cleared customs, there's yet another arrival lounge in the main terminal.
At the desk, the lounge greeter offered to help arrange our transportation — either by calling our hotel to send a driver or to provide advice about taxis. We asked if we could look around inside before we headed to our hotel and were warmly welcomed in. We declined the offer to store our baggage. Inside the lounge, we were the only passengers in the large space.
And, in case you've worked up an appetite since leaving the immigration-area lounge, there's another dining area.
If you need to get work done, there's a large business center stocked with Apple computers, as well as a few conference rooms.
We can each wholeheartedly say that this was our best business-class flight to date — and we have both had some good ones. This was a flight where I longed for it to continue; even after 12 hours, I wasn't ready for it to come to an end. This flight left us with an excellent option for how to spend down our huge stash of AAdvantage miles, though the unfortunate political situation in the Middle East could make it difficult to work Qatar's A350 into a connecting itinerary within the region. Either way, we look forward to redeeming AA miles for many more Qatar business-class flights in the future.
Have you flown in business class aboard Qatar's A350-900? Tell us about your experience, below.