First-Class Weirdness: Kuwait Airways in First Class From Dubai to New York
Kuwait Airways has ambitions. Once a minor player with a tiny, outdated fleet, it's attempting to jump one level up by deploying 10 brand-new Boeing 777-300ERs on long-haul routes. With a fleet of only a couple dozen airplanes, it’s still a minnow compared to the Middle East’s big airlines. But those 777s are configured in a spacious 334-seat layout — and include enclosed suites in first class. This is the aircraft that flies from New York, connecting JFK with Kuwait City (KWI) daily.
With onward connections from KWI to the Indian subcontinent, Kuwait Airways could vie for a slice of the lucrative traffic from the East Coast to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Its new hard product on the 777-300ER is a far cry from the days when even first class on its New York routes was an international laughingstock, but the airline faces competitors many times larger in Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways — and even Saudia. Tough fight. Kuwait’s prices can be extremely low compared to those rivals’, though: Searching for a flight from Dubai to New York, I bumped into a one-way first-class fare for slightly more than $1,800.
That’s right, $1,800 for an intercontinental flight in a first-class suite.
The itinerary involved an overnight in Kuwait and a stop in Shannon, Ireland, for customs, turning what would normally be a 13-hour nonstop from Dubai on Emirates into a 32-hour odyssey. And there was the need for a Kuwaiti transit visa, issued on arrival. But for $1,847.86, it was the bargain of all time for a first-class suite; Emirates would have charged at least $8,000 for a one-way Dubai to JFK in first, and even its business class would have cost a lot more, so I jumped on it. Even factoring in the cost of a hotel in Kuwait City for the night, I would come out way, way ahead.
Granted, KU is a dry airline, meaning no alcohol is served on board, whereas in first class on any one of the big Gulf carriers I could have had exceptional wine and Champagne. But again: We’re talking less than two grand for a suite here. I would survive.
Flying on Kuwait Airways came with a huge caveat, though. The airline discriminates openly against Israeli citizens, denying boarding to passengers who present an Israeli passport. TPG unequivocally condemns this practice, as well as any other discrimination.
After finding that insane F-class fare on Google Flights, I couldn't book on the Kuwait Airways site, inexplicably. I had to go through a third-party online travel agent, Orbitz, instead. The transaction earned $36.96 in the site’s own Orbucks, which could be used for further purchases on Orbitz.
I used my Citi Prestige card, as I was working to spend $7,500 in the three months since opening the account, which would net me 75,000 Citi ThankYou points. Because Kuwait Airways has no airline or major credit card partners, it's unlikely that a US-based flyer would be able to book using points or miles. The only program allowing flyers to collect and spend miles on KU is the airline’s own Oasis Club.
Dubai to Kuwait: The KWI Airport Disaster
Things started off on the right foot in Dubai, where I boarded flight KU674 to Kuwait City (KWI) on a Friday evening.
Check-in at the dedicated lane for Royal Class, as KU calls its long-haul first, was speedy, and I checked two bags through to JFK. (This would turn out to be a huge mistake.) A really long trek to the Ahlan First Class Lounge was worth it, for the last drink in a while — an OK Negroni served with excellent nuts and wasabi peas — plus a snack of chicken satay and shrimp tempura. A la carte dining and a buffet were both available.
It was the emptiest lounge I had ever been in ...
... and not even a cheesy soundtrack featuring saxophone renditions of current hits could ruin my mood, buoyed by an AvGeek delight: a giant FlightRadar24 screen showing plane traffic at the airport.
When I finally peeled myself away from that hypnotizing screen and boarded my 777, I realized I was the only one in first.
“You are VIP tonight!” the purser told me with a big smile as he handed me a copy of Arab News, a Kuwaiti paper.
“Very, very important person!” a flight attendant said later as I stretched in my suite, the same accommodation in which I would spend far longer the next day on the flight to New York.
My seat was 1K, the first suite on the right side of the plane.
So far, so good: nice seat, a spotless eight-suite cabin to myself and an excellent Arabic coffee served with a date for a pre-flight welcome. As we made our way up the Gulf in near-total silence — the 777-300ER is one long bird, and the engines were almost 100 feet behind me — the two flight attendants, with just one passenger to take care of, looked like they were having fun. They interacted with me warmly and served me both entrees from the in-flight menu, first lamb-filled cannelloni and then an outstanding prawn and samosa dish. The cannelloni came first ...
... and the samosa and prawns later.
But why the industrial cheese served in its supermarket wrapper? The butter in its cheap-hotel plastic tray? The home-printed menu in a stock Windows typeface? This was a quick dinner service on a short flight, but still not first-class level.
Disembarking at a remote stand in KWI was another negative. Why not at the terminal? At least we parked next to an ultra-rare AvGeek find, one of the hardest Boeing 747s to spot in the wild: the emir of Kuwait’s own. (He has another one, too.) Safe to say that the Kuwaiti ruler's airport experience was better than what the passengers of Flight 674 would soon find in the terminal.
Getting the visa on arrival — something that in other countries takes five minutes with a customs officer — was a frustrating shuttle between desks that took one hour, set inside long corridors reminiscent of the inside of a spaceship from a 1970s sci-fi B-movie.
The baggage claim area was a free-for-all. And when I realized that I had absentmindedly checked my overnight bag through to JFK , finding someone who spoke English to point me to the Kuwait Airways baggage-claim desk proved impossible. Eventually, broken Arabic and hand gestures got me to a dingy, filthy area where I explained my situation to an English-speaking employee, and I waited another hour for my bags to appear. This was zero-star-review material.
Kuwait to JFK: Check-in and Lounge
The next morning, the airport experience was almost as unpleasant. Finding the check-in area for Flight KU117 to New York, separated from the rest for security reasons, required meandering through a sweltering building with minimal air conditioning. The check-in agent made no mention that I had access to the Dasman Lounge, which I found only thanks to directions in the LoungeBuddy app. A wall of photos in the lounge's main seating area depicting the history of Kuwait was, not surprisingly, rich in images of oil facilities.
With a middling buffet and furniture that was either utilitarian or outlandish like the blue chairs above, the Dasman was not a lounge I would write home about, but not a horrible place either. It did its job sufficiently well, in an otherwise hot, humid airport where it functioned as a relative oasis.
The boarding process, or utter lack thereof, proved to be the most puzzling part of the entire voyage. After asking around to find the priority lane for premium passengers, I went through another X-ray bag check and was ushered into a noisy, messy gate area. Outside was a gleaming 777, and I mean gleaming. Bearing the Kuwaiti registration 9K-AOI, it had been delivered from the Boeing factory all of two weeks earlier, and looking at it through the gate’s grimy glass panes felt like a perfect summation of Kuwait Airways’ problems: great airplanes, but flown by an airline with a lot to fix.
As if to confirm my misgivings, the cabin crew showed up piecemeal and did not board the aircraft directly but milled about the gate, without an officer in sight. At 9:00am, already well past our scheduled boarding time, a gate agent stood up and yelled at the crowd that we would depart one hour late. Looking out the window, I noticed that Alpha Oscar India, our original 777, had mysteriously disappeared, towed out of sight, and had been replaced by another with the tail code 9K-AOE. No one bothered to explain why. Fifteen minutes later, the captain and his first officer finally appeared, which led to a flurry of pointing at the plane while discussing in Arabic, and more milling about.
Shortly afterwards, boarding finally began — meaning that the gate agent, without a public-address system, simply yelled, “Business class come forward!” No mention of first class.
The first-class section wasn't much more full than the night before, with only four seats occupied, one by a very friendly KU captain in uniform who offered to have my picture taken with him when he saw me photograph the interior.
Compared to the previous flight, there was an additional neck pillow on the seat, plus a quilted comforter stored in the ottoman.
First class was arranged 1-2-1 over two rows. The privacy divider between the two center suites could slide all the way down.
Like in other airlines' first classes, such as Swiss or Cathay Pacific, the ottoman had a seat belt, so that two passengers could dine together facing each other. Inside it, an ample storage compartment was the perfect place for shoes.
I had photographed the suite extensively the night before, when I had first class to myself. Both Kuwaiti 777s I boarded were spotless, with perfectly clean windows and not one visible scuff or stain.
The minibar on the right of the seat, by the large monitor, had been preloaded before both of my flights with still and sparkling water, sodas and nuts. (TPG editor-at-large Zach Honig is not a fan of in-seat minibars, which are not refrigerated; I don't mind warm beverages and find them a nice feature. That space could have been used for additional storage, true, but the KU suite had vast amounts of space to put pretty much anything you could conceivably take on a flight.)
The table extended manually on a smooth, spring-loaded arm. To the left by the sliding suite door was a compartment for jackets. Its handle swiveled out and could be used as an additional hanger.
The life vest was stowed under the left-hand drinks tray.
Behind it, the armrest lifted to reveal a storage compartment with enough room for a 15-inch laptop and a lot of other objects.
The right-hand armrest hid the touch display for the seat controls and the remote for the in-flight entertainment screen, with another miniscreen independent of the main one; you could watch two things at once, say a film on the big screen and the moving map on your remote.
Below the right-hand armrest were a universal power outlet, a USB plug and the hookup for the headphones, plus more storage for small objects and literature. The three-prong plug meant that I couldn't use my own Bose set; the headphones provided by the airline offered good, if not outstanding, sound quality.
The seat and minibar controls were intuitive.
With just eight seats, the first-class cabin felt pleasantly cozy. (The privacy divider between the center suites is down in the image below.)
Behind first were 26 business seats in a pretty standard 2-2-2 layout with B/E Aerospace Diamond lie-flats, a staple of biz class worldwide. However, with some airlines putting enclosed suites even in business these days, like Delta and Qatar Airways, a 2-2-2 biz where window passengers must step over a seatmate is far from industry-leading.
As the rest of the plane boarded and the crew buttoned up the jet for departure, a flight attendant brought around a tray with lemonade and berry and orange juices (dry airline, remember?) followed by the customary, excellent Arabic coffee accompanied by a date. Mixed nuts came in their wrapper instead of a bowl — a pretty big no-no in first. (We do not advocate, however, reacting to such an indignity like the Korean Air CEO's daughter famously did in the nut-rage incident.)
We pushed back at 10:00am with apologies from the cockpit for the one-hour delay, and after the recitation of the Muslim traveler's prayer on the entertainment screen and the PA, we were airborne 18 minutes later. The front-facing camera and big screen provided a takeoff thrill: seeing the runway just as the pilots did.
Below, I caught a glimpse of the emir's 747, still parked where I had seen it the night before — a reminder that, suite or no suite, there's always someone flying in more style than you.
The amenity kit distributed after takeoff contained the usual, minus slippers and pajamas, which would have been expected in first class.
Food and Beverage
Ten minutes after takeoff, a flight attendant, trailing a strong smell of cigarette smoke, offered me the menu, explaining that a light snack would come out soon; I could have the appetizers and entree at any time I chose, with a 30-minute advance request. The menu still looked like a homemade affair featuring the Calibri font found on almost every computer, and the English spelling was far from impeccable.
The flight attendant set my table and brought a light snack with sparkling water, while our pilots made a dogleg over Iran to avoid the airspace over troubled Iraq.
Repeating the presentation fail of the previous flight, crackers came wrapped in cellophane and supermarket cheeses were in their wrappers too.
Full from breakfast in the Dasman Lounge, I opted to have my lunch later, after a nap.
With nobody in the block of suites next to mine, I asked whether I could sleep in an unoccupied seat, 1G, while leaving mine set up for work, and the flight attendants easily consented but did not offer to make my bed. (Not that any bedding was available, beyond a comforter.) With the seat in flat-bed mode, the window blinds down and the suite door closed, I slept well for three hours out of the seven of our flight time to Shannon. The cabin was pretty warm, but each seat had individual A/C vents.
After my nap, as we flew over Western Europe, I asked for lunch with sparkling water and lemonade. A tiny watermelon and cantaloupe skewer was fresh and tasty, and the Arabic mezze, presented as a sort of canapés, were as subtle and satisfying as they were pretty to look at.
When the harira soup came out after the mezze, my Lebanese flight attendant brought a bottle of Tabasco with it — a nod, she said, to the penchant of Gulf people for spicy foods. Even without the kick of Tabasco, the harira was a major surprise, a velvety delight, easily one of the best soups I've had, either in the air or on the ground.
For my entree I had, on her recommendation, the zubaidi fish, a Kuwaiti classic whose English name she, like the menu, ignored. I had to Google it, like the author of the menu should have done, to discover that it was a silver pomfret. While good, it was nowhere near the standard set by the soup.
Wi-Fi wasn't especially cheap. On the Kuwait-to-Shannon leg, it was so slow I couldn't even connect to email on my laptop.
The in-flight entertainment selection was fairly limited, and finding something interesting to watch wasn't easy — fortunately there was "Dr. No," a James Bond classic from the Sean Connery era.
But the real entertainment was outside my three windows, as we flew over the mountains of western Iran and eastern Turkey. The unmistakable shape of Ararat, the dormant volcano where legend has it Noah's Ark rests, appeared, followed by the stunning Süphan, a Turkish mountain covered in snow.
Wi-Fi was a little better on the second leg. Over the Atlantic, I finally managed to send emails at a glacial speed.
The 777-300ER has plenty enough range to get to JFK nonstop from KWI, but the Shannon stop is necessary for security. Passengers disembark, and their luggage is checked far more thoroughly than at the point of origin. The SNN airport has a US preclearance facility, but Kuwait Airways doesn't have access to it, so people have to go through immigration in New York.
Kuwait Airways also can't pick up passengers from SNN to JFK. This is not a so-called fifth-freedom flight, when a carrier from Country A can pick up passengers in Country B on the way to Country C. The crew rests overnight in Shannon before taking over the next day's flight.
After clearing security, staffed by friendly Irish agents, premium passengers had access to the Ború Lounge, a comfortable space that nevertheless offered only snacks, not warm food. It did, however, have alcohol, offering a respite from the Kuwaiti ban on booze.
On the way back to boarding, we got a good glimpse of our 777, named Kathma after an area of Kuwait. While not as brand new as the jet it substituted for, it was still just a few months old.
With two deadheading crew members stepping off in SNN, it was just me and another passenger in first class for the transatlantic leg. Like every other Kuwait Airways crew member I interacted with, except one, the flight attendant who took care of me on this leg did not introduce herself.
With little of interest to watch either on the IFE or out the window, I opted for sleep, again in the empty suite next to mine, and managed to get a few hours of solid shut-eye. Mysteriously, the comforter was not in the ottoman or in the overhead bin; I had to ask for one, which took a while.
Upon waking, with two hours to go, I ordered dinner, starting with an excellent appetizer that didn't feature anything in store wrapping. Skipping the soup course, I went straight to a beef tenderloin with a pepper-walnut crust and stewed vegetables. Nothing extraordinary, but pretty good.
Even with all the weird service glitches, first class on Kuwait Airways' 777-300ER offered exceptional space and a solid hard product on a brand-spanking-new aircraft. But the stop in Ireland (not to mention the inadequate airport in Kuwait City) could be a deal breaker for most people.
This flight makes a lot more sense in the other direction, nonstop from JFK to Kuwait. Incidentally, not a single passenger I saw on the Kuwait to JFK flight was a Westerner; most passengers appeared to be headed to the US from the Indian subcontinent via KWI. Of course, no US or European company would touch Kuwait Airways as a potential partner until the airline abandons its backwards ban on Israelis. Until then, it will be an eager outfit with ambitious plans that clash with its abysmal home airport and discriminatory policies.
All photos by the author, including featured image of a Kuwait Airways Boeing 777-300ER at JFK.