Flight Review: British Airways Business Class and Economy, Operated by Qatar Airways
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Qatar Airways is currently operating certain British Airways flights, as the UK carrier is in the midst of yet another strike by its mixed fleet crew. As I mentioned in my previous post, the BA flights that are being operated by Qatar Airways are unique for a number of reasons. For starters, Qatar has only ever flown to London to operate flights back to Doha (DOH) and the airline would never operate for another airline, especially not BA, as this would require both an extraordinary circumstance and approval from the country's government. Despite all that, it seems that the incredibly frequent BA cabin crew strikes were enough of an extraordinary circumstance for the UK government to approve BA's use of Qatar Airways.
In order to see just what these Qatar flights for BA were like, I booked one from London (LHR) to Geneva (GVA), so I could be a passenger the first — and possibly last time — a Gulf carrier would operate specific aircraft solely for a European airline, flying business class for the first leg and economy on the return so I could get the full experience in both cabins.
As I mentioned, I selected Club Europe for the outbound and Euro Traveller (economy) for the return. In total, the round-trip flight cost about $450, which wasn't bad considering I booked less than two days before departure. We paid with The Platinum Card from American Express, of course, earn 5x points on airfare — a total of 2,250 Membership Rewards points here.
Note that the British Airways website displays all flights that are being operated by Qatar in the same way it would show partner airlines' flights. The A320s have been flying on Eurofleet routes rather than Mixed Fleet routes, meaning they're frequently operating short-haul routes from London to Geneva (GVA), Oslo (OSL), Kiev (KBP), Luxembourg (LUX) and Hamburg (HAM).
Flight #1: London (LHR) to Geneva (GVA) in Business
I arrived at LHR's Terminal 5, home of British Airways, at 4:25am. At Heathrow, Qatar Airways operates from Terminal 4, but since this flight is entirely BA's, it departed from T5 as usual. The check-in counters had still not opened — they will usually open at 5:00am, despite the fact that some flights depart at 6:00am, which is bound to cause stress for any passengers who might be stuck in line when they should be boarding. Luckily, I didn't need to use the counters anyway, as I was traveling with just a carry-on bag.
I used a self-service kiosk to print my boarding pass and had already selected seat 1F for this business-class flight. Immediately, I noticed that gate C57 was printed on the boarding pass. At Heathrow, this is quite uncommon since the gates are usually just displayed on screen about 45 mins before departure. The gate displayed, C57, is also one of the furthest gates in Terminal 5, located in the second satellite terminal T5C. It's two stops away on the inter-terminal train, and once you get inside the satellite terminal, the gate is located in the furthest possible corner.
The reason? Unlike British Airways jets, Qatar Airways' aircraft are a variant of the Airbus A320 that feature a different cargo setup than that of BA's. In other words, BA and Terminal 5 operate a containerized luggage system and Qatar's A320's just aren't equipped for containers. This means that when the aircraft is parked at Heathrow, it will require a little extra space (and ideally a corner) where the baggage handlers can load in the luggage manually.
I passed through security within a few minutes and headed through the departures hall where the flight information screens showed the impact of BA's strike. As you can see in the photo below, flights being operated by Qatar Airways were identified very clearly, and on this morning these were to Geneva (GVA), Hamburg (GVA), Olso (OSL), Stuttgart (STR), Zagreb (ZAG) and Kiev (KBP). I think it's great that BA has been so transparent about the use of its Qatar Airways aircraft, even spelling this out on the flight information screens so passengers wouldn't be caught by surprise when they arrived at the gate.
In addition to the flights operated by Qatar Airways, the screens displayed the early morning departures that had been cancelled due to the strike — these were to Munich (MUC), Madrid (MAD) and Seattle (SEA), among others.
At this point, it was around 4:35am and I headed to the British Airways Galleries lounge — which is for Business Class passengers — where I figured I would use the seating area outside to wait until it opened at 5:00am. When I arrived, though, the lounge doors opened so I scanned my boarding pass and walked right in. The lounge was deserted.
Soon after I'd settled in, a lounge agent made her way over and tapped me on the shoulder, saying, abruptly, "We're closed! We don't open for another half hour." When I told her that another attendant had just let me in, he looked confused and walked over to the desk, before shouting over to me "Okay, you can stay! But there won't be any staff." Fine with me!
With this in mind, I was now essentially locked in a closed BA lounge (aka. in heaven). Let's just say I made the most of being the only person with access to the buffet.
It felt a little surreal to not encounter any other passengers though.
Finding an available seat wasn't too hard.
I liked the interior of BA's lounge at Terminal 5, but I'm not a fan of the lighting, a mixture of different bulbs which I feel made the whole atmosphere look dull rather than warm.
Around 6:00am, the flight information screens said "Go to Gate" so I started my journey to gate C57 by taking the terminal shuttle from T5 to T5C.
When I got to the gate, an announcement was made saying business class, Executive Club and Oneworld frequent flyer passengers could board at their leisure. Economy passengers were told to remain seated — amazingly, everyone was very obedient and orderly at the gate.
A gate agent then proceeded to tell us that today's flight would be operated by Qatar Airways. He asked for our attention and said, "Today's flight won't be the usual BA service. Unfortunately it's going to operated by Qatar." I found it interesting that he would say "unfortunately," but most passengers just nodded their heads.
Two passengers, however, immediately stood up and approached the window, with one woman shouting to her husband, "There is Arabic writing on the plane we are flying on and I'm not going on that!" She then stormed over to the gate agent and asked the agent, "Why are there 500 BA planes outside this building and we aren't flying on any of them?!"
It was extraordinary how distressed this passenger was becoming — it was all very loud and very rude — but it was also the start of a situation that could escalate, so she was escorted over to another empty gate by the agent, where the two seemed to have a chat about the prospect of boarding the Qatar flight.
Door B, part of the middle airbridge, was being used for this flight, with Club Europe and Euro Traveller members boarding from the same door.
I made my way to the aircraft, a Qatar Airways Airbus A320, A7-ADC.
Cabin and Seat
Even before entering the cabin, I noticed how clean the aircraft appeared. The cabin purser welcomed me onboard with a big smile and proceeded to speak to me in French. I laughed and said, "As-Salaam-Alaikum," to which he responded, "Wa alaykumu as-salam. Oh wow, you speak Arabic, that's amazing!" He then directed me to my seat, 1F.
The business-class cabin featured 12 reclining seats in a 2-2 configuration — they may look a little old since you won't find the carrier's latest cabin on this A320 fleet, but they're super spacious, comfortable and unlike on British Airways, this was a real business-class cabin. Each seat was 21 inches wide and had a pitch of 45 inches.
Qatar Airways' boarding music was playing, the crew sprayed a lovely fragrance in the cabin and everything was very clean. In terms of design, the bulkhead wall featured the same Islamic-inspired geometric pattern I noticed when I flew a Qatar Airways A320 between Doha and Larnaca last month.
At this point, boarding for the majority of passengers had commenced and a member of the cabin crew named Esther took position in the front of the aircraft, while the cabin purser made his way over to me and said, "Mr. Alex Macheras, may I have a minute of your time?" I realized something obvious: this flight was already nothing like your average British Airways flight, when the crew would normally just say hello and the next time I'd see someone would be when they placed a meal on my tray.
The purser knelt down next to me — this is typical of Qatar Airways crew — and introduced himself as Jaime, adding that he was from Spain. He asked about the purpose of my trip and said he had noticed my aviation luggage tags. We spoke about Doha, aviation and how he was enjoying his few weeks being based in London. He was very polite, friendly and said he wanted to ensure that I would receive 5-star service aboard this Qatar Airways flight to Geneva.
He also asked for my order of a pre-flight drink, something that isn't offered on BA flights. He delivered my water with a packet of nuts and told me to let him know if I wanted another drink. Esther, who was also working in the business-class cabin, began to take meal orders right away. Once again, the typical pre-flight procedure of British Airways seemed a world away from this.
Esther explained that on today's flight, there would be a choice of sausage and scrambled eggs or a cheddar cheese omelette. She also asked which drinks I would like with the meal, then offered to top up my pre-flight drink. I opted for the cheddar cheese omelette, which would be served about 15 minutes after takeoff.
The interaction with crew was typical of Qatar Airways, so much so that fellow business-class passengers continued to speak to each other to express their amazement at what an upgrade this was, and how this experience was superior to BA's usual routine. One passenger even told the crew how refreshing it was to not be met with grumpy British Airways crew, who, she said, were always looking to do the bare minimum. The overall mood in business class was positive, with many travelers appreciative of the chance to fly with Qatar on this flight to Geneva.
With boarding complete, Jaime (the purser) proceeded to make an announcement, welcoming everyone onboard on behalf of Qatar Airways and British Airways, explaining that today's flight would include complimentary food and drinks for all passengers — something that's non-existent on today's BA short-haul flights, by the way. With the safety demo complete, we pushed back.
I really liked the cabin details on Qatar's aircraft, including the signature Oryx logo, which is featured on the seatbelt.
At this point, the captain came over the PA and welcomed all passengers onboard introducing himself as Captain Abdul, and saying that today's flight would cruise at 33,000 feet with a flight time of approximately one hour and 15 minutes. He then proceeded to say, "In terms of weather, Europe is a bit cloudy today," which made me laugh, as it's the first time I've heard a pilot reference that there were clouds over an entire continent, but, hey, he was right!
The captain also said, "We're very proud here at Qatar Airways to deliver an award-winning 5-star service," which is clearly something the carrier seems keen to highlight, as all the crew onboard my flight had now mentioned it.
After takeoff, I used the seat controls to recline and get into a more comfortable position.
When the passenger next to me saw me recline, she said, "Oh, I forgot you can do that on these real business-class seats!"
Food and Beverage
About 15 mins after takeoff, Jaime served my breakfast, along with the cranberry juice I had ordered. While everything on this flight is done Qatar-style, sadly, the catering is still coming from British Airways. As a result, I was served a standard British Airways Club Europe breakfast, which was not too bad, but still a little bland. The cheddar cheese omelette was stuffed with mushrooms and accompanied by potatoes and a small salad with tomato and spinach.
Passengers were served food one-by-one and the trolley didn't enter the cabin once. When all the passengers were served, Jaime came through the cabin every two minutes re-filling drinks, engaging in polite conversation and continuously offering passengers more to eat and drink.
Once I had finished eating, Jaime offered to clear my table immediately and said he would bring me another drink. Needless to say, the service was consistent, personal and very thorough. As British Airways passengers, it was the complete opposite of the sometimes slow service some Club Europe crews can provide on these short-haul flights. I also noticed that there didn't appear to be any duty free options on the flight, and no announcement was made to encourage their sale.
I spent the rest of the flight in the reclined position and caught up on some sleep, which I was grateful for because of my early start. One thing I appreciated was that the curtain dividing business class and economy remained closed for the entire flight — except during takeoff and landing — and the crew were not constantly walking between the cabins, something British Airways flight attendants do all the time. BA crew also tend to be incredibly heavy-footed, which can be particularly annoying when you're trying to sleep.
On Qatar, however, the crew seemed to have perfectly mastered how to move efficiently and silently throughout the cabin. It was very much like Virgin Atlantic, which trains its cabin crew to whisper, which is especially important given the amount of transatlantic red-eye flights it operates.
Soon after, the captain came back over the PA and informed us that we were well into our descent toward Geneva (GVA) and we'd be landing about 10 minutes ahead of schedule. He told passengers that it had been "a complete pleasure to have you on Qatar Airways this morning" and that he hoped to see us on either British Airways or Qatar Airways again soon.
During descent, one passenger gave an extensive thank you to the crew, saying he was "sick of British Airways" and it was "wonderful to see how a real airline works," adding that he wished Qatar could fly for BA on European routes all the time. At one point, he said, "Being on this flight has made me realize how flying should be." The passenger also said, "What's worse is BA thinks they are the best, which makes them delusional." It was particularly interesting to hear his views and it's clear many have noticed the deterioration of the UK flag carrier.
The Qatar crew prepared the cabin for landing and we started our approach into Geneva.
Once we had parked at the stand, the purser closed the curtain between economy and business so we could disembark the aircraft first, followed by those seated in economy, a welcome addition to the business-class service that's normal procedure on Qatar Airways. On typical BA flights, economy passengers tend to make their way up the aisle as soon as they've retrieved their luggage.
The crew thanked each business-class passenger personally, adding personal comments related to the conversations they'd had with passengers during the flight. Jaime and Esther said it was "a real pleasure to have you onboard, Mr. Macheras," and asked if I needed any help with my luggage. They thanked me and said goodbye in English, Arabic and Spanish, the languages we discovered we have in common earlier in the flight. The crew waited until I was in the jet bridge before announcing economy passengers were now invited to leave the aircraft.
Flight #2: Geneva (GVA) to London (LHR) in Economy
As I already had a boarding pass for this flight, I made my way straight to the gate at Geneva airport, where staff made various announcements saying the flight would be operated by Qatar Airways and if anyone had any questions, they should approach the desk. When I arrived at the gate, boarding commenced so I immediately made my way to the aircraft.
Qatar Airways has a presence in Geneva already — it flies the Airbus A350 XWB between Geneva (GVA) and Doha (DOH) — however, the smaller aircraft in Qatar's fleet, such as the A320, aren't usually here as much.
Cabin and Seat
It was quite a light load for the flight back to London. The interior on this aircraft is the oldest of Qatar Airways' A320s, as the newer cabins usually fly to and from Doha.
I had the entire row to myself and each seat had 31 inches of legroom and a width of 18 inches.
The seats were comfortable and featured a footrest area and a cup holder.
Once airborne, the Qatar crew made the same announcements as they had on the outbound, and were very friendly and engaging with passengers throughout the flight. One crew member looked at my luggage tag and said, "I like this!"
Food and Beverage
The meal service started around 20 minutes after takeoff and there were no buy-on-board options available. Instead, passengers were given a choice of drinks and a bag of crips, with a packet of biscuits, which was perfectly adequate for a flight time of one hour and 10 minutes.
The service was friendly, upbeat and the crew looked liked they were genuinely pleased to engage with passengers and be as attentive as possible. Flight attendants offered passengers re-fills and asked if anyone wanted some more goodies. During the flight, the purser made his way to economy, stopped by my empty row of seats, saw me working on this post and said, "Oh my, you type fast!"
The flight was very fast and the pilot announced that we had good tailwinds and no holding at Heathrow, meaning we would be initiating our decent just 50 minutes after take off. Once we landed, we parked at T5C, the same satellite terminal we had departed from on the outbound, and the crew profusely thanked passengers, asking if we'd enjoyed the 5-star service provided by Qatar Airways.
These Qatar Airways flights, which are operating on some short-haul BA routes during the strike, are a real upgrade for BA passengers, especially in business class — the service on the flight I had from London to Geneva was almost identical to the level of service passengers can expect on Qatar Airways flights. It was personal, professional and friendly, and served as a great marketing opportunity for Qatar, which has been able to show what flying on Qatar Airways is like to a whole different market of passengers. It was a breath of fresh air to receive full business-class service within Europe. Jaime was one of the best pursers I've ever experienced across all the flights I've taken, which is quite remarkable, considering he's not even delivering a full Qatar level of service and flying on behalf of BA.
It was also fascinating to see almost all passengers show their appreciation to the crew regarding how happy they were to not have to fly on BA, despite it being the airline they'd booked to fly on in the first place! Some passengers said things like, "BA will lose more passengers by making the mistake of showing us just what we're missing," and while I think there are still passengers who like to fly with BA, nearly everyone on both flights said they were thankful to be flying Qatar Airways. One of them said, "My eyes have been opened," while another said he wondered how he would go back to flying BA when the strike was over. I found the genuine awe by passengers to be quite amazing, as the leased Qatar aircraft operating on behalf of BA are not even fitted with the latest cabins that feature in-flight entertainment and lie-flat beds. Needless to say, if you're due to fly on a BA flight that's being operated by Qatar Airways, you're in for a treat.
All photos by the author.