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If you’re thinking of flying in economy on Qatar Airways, the cabin on the upper deck is the way to go. The Pros: excellent service due to a nearly empty cabin. The Cons: uncomfortable headrests.
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Over the past few days, Qatar has been at the center of a Middle East diplomatic relations crisis, with most Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Saudi Arabia cutting ties with the country completely — and with almost immediate effect.
As a result, Qatar Airways’ operations and route networks have been impacted in a huge way, with its aircraft no longer allowed to fly to the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia — or to even pass through Saudi Arabia’s airspace, leading nearly all of the carrier’s flights to have extended flight times in order to avoid it. Instead, most are flying through Iran, even if the destination is in the opposite direction. For some flights, it only equates to an extra few minutes of flight time, yet for others, like Doha (DOH) to São Paulo (GRU), the aircraft now have to make a refueling stop in Athens, as the airspace ban means the plane no longer has enough range to fly the route nonstop. That’s all in addition to the fact that key Qatar Airways connecting flights between Doha (DOH) and Dubai (DXB), Riyadh (RUH) and Abu Dhabi (AUH) have had to suddenly come to an abrupt stop, leaving many passengers stranded.
I was all set to fly on Qatar Airways this week from London Heathrow (LHR) to Doha (DOH), and was looking forward to seeing exactly how all these political complications could be impacting the airline, passengers and the people of the state of Qatar. For the outbound trip, I selected the morning A380 flight, which was the second London-Doha flight of the day.
Qatar Airways is a member of the Oneworld alliance, meaning British Airways Avios can be redeemed for award seats. Considering the one-way flight would have cost $890 if paying cash, a redemption of 20,000 Avios (which we value at 1.5 cents each), plus a cash co-pay of $245.79 (to cover Britain’s sky-high departure tax) was the obvious choice. We used The Platinum Card from American Express to pay for the cash portion, earning more than 1,200 Membership Rewards points in the process.
I could have also used American Airlines miles, at 20,000 miles for the one-way, but considering Avios are easy to earn (thanks for great transfer partners) and you can book Qatar awards on BA’s site (rather than calling in to AA), a British Airways redemption was the better pick in this case.
I arrived at the check-in desk in Zone A at LHR Terminal 4 around three hours before departure. As I held my camera ready to take a photo of the check-in area, I was immediately told to ‘put it away now’ — the staff member went on to explain that due to tighter security, they were no longer allowing photos to be taken inside the terminal. I’m not quite sure if this was a new, official policy (I doubt it), but as you can imagine, I respected his instructions and put my phone away. I’d never been asked this before at Heathrow, but I suspect it had something to do with the high alert and tightened security taking place around the city in light of recent attacks in London and Manchester.
The check-in agent informed me that the A380 aircraft operating this flight, QR10, was ‘almost empty’ and I basically had my choice of seats in any of the economy sections, including the one situated at the rear of the Upper Deck. I opted for a window seat there and the agent advised me that I’d likely be the only one up there! When I inquired about the reason for such a quiet load of passengers on today’s flight — presuming it may be directly related to the political rift in Qatar — the agent just said ‘It’s Wednesday and mid-morning. It’s often quiet.’ While I agree ‘Wednesday’s being quiet’ could be a reason for 50 fewer passengers than normal, I wouldn’t expect an A380 to routinely fly ‘almost empty’ week in and week out.
I chose Seat 31A, and headed through security so I could relax in the terminal until my flight. While SeatGuru indicates seat 31A could be ‘bothersome’ in terms of noise from the lavatory behind, I was confident this wouldn’t be a problem since the flight would be fairly empty this time. Also, unlike the economy section on the main deck, the upper deck’s is arranged in a much more desirable 2-4-2 configuration, rather than the usual 3-4-3.
Boarding commenced through Gates 5A and 5B, with 5A reserved for passengers traveling in first- and business-class on the upper deck and 5B reserved for all main deck passengers and the smaller economy cabin on the rear deck. This meant that passengers situated in economy on the upper deck have to walk through the entire main deck before using the rear stairs to reach the cabin. Note that during disembarkation, we were told to pass through business class and use the upper-deck exit.
At this point, I was still adhering to the ‘no photos’ policy — since Heathrow was on high alert and I was boarding a Qatar Airways flight in the midst of a political rift, I played it safe and didn’t take any chances snapping some boarding shots.
Zone 1, passengers in economy on the upper deck and those sitting in the rear section of the main deck were told to board first. At the gate, one thing stood out — it was empty. There were barely any passengers, no lines and most people I’d presumed to be on my flight were actually waiting for a Kuwait Airways one at the next gate over.
Cabin and Seat
As I mentioned, the upper deck economy cabin consists of seven rows, which are arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration.
A huge canvas of Westminster in London was on display on the rear cabin wall, a nice touch for an aircraft flying the London Heathrow (LHR) route.
Here’s a peek at my window seat, 31A.
One thing I loved about the upper deck economy seats was the large side-wall storage area — essentially, it’s dead space where a third seat couldn’t be squeezed in, so instead, the seats have these handy storage compartments that perfectly held my laptop bag.
My seat felt quite spacious, with a pitch of 32 inches and a width of 18.5 inches.
Qatar Airways’ ‘Oryx’ logo was featured on the seatbelt, too.
At this point, I had been onboard for around five minutes when the crew announced boarding was complete.
The cabin was empty! The safety video started and we began our taxi to the runway with an expected flight time of six hours and 30 minutes, with no other information regarding the route, altitude or anything else announced from the flight deck.
Qatar’s safety video is demonstrated by FC Barcelona players. Check out the video below for a closer look.
We left London behind, passing through quite a lot of turbulence before things smoothed out at cruising altitude.
Pillows and blankets were not so in demand on this empty flight.
As it’s a daytime flight, no amenity kits were provided. The headrests move up and down but cannot be adjusted and I found them to be a little too big and uncomfortable if the seat wasn’t reclined.
Food and Beverage
As you can imagine, the crew were incredibly attentive considering it was an empty cabin and I pretty much had three flight attendants waiting to serve me. As a result, my food arrived about 15 minutes after we took off. No menus were provided, but a crew member asked me which meal I would like so she could go and prepare it. I had a choice of:
- Chicken and rice
- Beef and rice
- Roasted vegetables and rice
I opted for the chicken and rice. In terms of presentation, it was fine for an economy meal, although I initially couldn’t see any chicken in the dish full of rice — it turns out there was a lot underneath it though. Much to my surprise, the meal was actually very tasty. A coleslaw salad was provided, along with a delicious, sticky toffee pudding for dessert.
During other parts of the flight, all I needed to do was make eye contact with one of the available crew members and they were at my seat in a flash. The FAs were polite, warm and generous given the light load that day.
As far as in-flight entertainment goes, there was a pretty good selection available and I found there to be a great number of new Hollywood movies — like Beauty and Beast, Logan, The Lego Batman Movie, John Wick: Chapter 2 and The Great Wall — as well as thrillers, dramas and a number of TV shows.
Duty free options were also available for purchase via the TV screens.
Each IFE screen came with a touchscreen controller, which was nice.
Qatar Airways offers onboard WiFi via GSM, similar to what you’ll find on Emirates and Etihad flights. The service is known as ‘OnAir’ but for some reason, it did not work on this flight at all. I couldn’t get past the initial payment screen until I spoke to the FA, who said it was ‘playing up’ and apologized profusely.
After I slept (across an empty row of seats) for about three hours, I was offered a snack before our arrival in Doha, a chicken pastry with a chocolate cupcake.
The lavatories were very clean — partly due to the fact there was no one onboard to use them — and in line with the rest of the Qatar Airways fleet.
Mouthwash was offered, as well as a moisturizer.
Safety placards were displayed first in Arabic, then in English.
When I returned to my seat, we were well into our descent into Doha. While Qatar Airways flights from Europe to Doha rarely enter Saudi Arabian airspace, it was evident that our route was mostly over Iran for the entire ‘Middle East’ part of the journey. From Iran, we entered directly into Qatari Airspace, as you can see in the image below.
Upon closer, more accurate inspection via FlightRadar24, I noticed our routing had actually taken us through Turkish airspace and into Iranian airspace before crossing into the Qatari airspace section of the Persian Gulf.
We turned to line up with the runway, with UAE airspace just behind us — a territory now banned to aircraft from ‘Qatari means of transport.’ Normal cabin lights were switched on, which made the aircraft look a little more ‘bland’ than on previous parts of the flight when it had been illuminated by special mood lighting.
This was a fantastic flight in Qatar’s economy section, probably due to the almost-empty aircraft — even with a full load, though, I think the crew’s willingness and proactive attitude in portraying ‘typical Qatari hospitality’ was a real compliment to the carrier.
From an airline economics perspective, it’s scary to see a Qatar Airways aircraft flying a premium route so empty. Could it be directly associated with the political rift happening right now? I think it’s likely. From what I could understand, the main deck had a 25% load factor, with one passenger in first class and around 50% of business class being full.
When it comes to options for flying in coach, the upper deck economy cabin is a real winner. The A380 is a huge, majestic aircraft and economy feels much more spacious in this smaller and more private cabin. While I’m not a fan of the headrests (they seem to be too big for the seat), the seat itself was well-padded, comfortable and smart. In this cabin, it felt much more like I’d been sitting in premium economy. I wouldn’t hesitate to fly this again since it’s such a strong product.
Have you flown in economy on Qatar? Tell us about your experience, below.
All photos by the author.
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