It has been a whirlwind week, and I have been out of action on the blog most of the week. Reason? I was in Toulouse to attend the delivery of the first Airbus A350-1000 to Qatar Airways. The delivery was a mind-blowing experience with a press conference at the Airbus Leadership University followed by a preview on-board A7-ANA, the first of Qatar Airways A350-1000 from the 37 they had ordered.
The afternoon press conference was followed by an evening gala, where Airbus pulled a rabbit out the hat with a fantastic projection show on the A350-1000 with H.E. Akbar Al Baker, CEO Qatar Airways and Fabrice Brégier, President of Airbus in attendance. Here is a video, which captures the evening. Watch from 25:13 for the show.
However, the next morning was icing on the cake. I was invited to be a part of the contingent who flew on the delivery flight of the very first Airbus A350-1000 to launch customer Qatar Airways, an invitation I could not refuse. Delivery flights are usually an #avgeek affair, with the airline wanting to showcase the hard product on hand rather than the full experience. However, this was not to be the case, as I will share later.
We started the day at about 4:30 AM, checking out of the airport hotel we were housed in for the past two nights and headed over to the Airbus Delivery Center in a bus. Hats off to the Airbus and Qatar Airways teams, who were not appearing exhausted even though this was a lot more detailing from their side rather than the attendees.
At the delivery center, everything had changed overnight, with all the setup for the Gala gone, and business as usual.
On arrival, I joined the queue to check-in and collected my boarding pass for the flight.
If you did not have a bag to check-in, you a VIP!
Airbus handles the ground handling for this flight, and you get an Airbus branded boarding card. Nevermind that I realized mine got printed the other way around, much much later.
I was able to check-in a bag because I did not want to lug around my suitcase which had only gotten heavier since I arrived.
We then moved to the lounge area, where breakfast was set up for everyone traveling this morning. On offer were Coffee and Macarons, along with Pita pockets and lots of other stuff. This spread could beat any lounge at regular airport hands down.
Shortly, the aircraft was ready for boarding. Everyone went through a quick security check and walked to the immigration booths. Airbus had two immigration officers on premises who quickly processed passport control and had us on our way. The boarding pass, which I thought was mine to keep, had the stub taken away.
Toulouse (TLS) – Doha (DOH)
Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Departure: 07:30 AM
Arrival: 04:45 PM
Flight Duration: 06 hr 45 min
Distance Flown: 3080 miles
Aircraft Type: Airbus A350-1000
Seat: 10D (QSuite Business Class)
Meal Service: Breakfast/On Demand
Everyone boarded through gate 1L, where there was a very classy insignia to announce you were on board Qatar Airways.
Soon enough, I managed to reach Seat 10D, my QSuite onboard Qatar Airways Inaugural flight to Doha from Toulouse. Qatar Airways revealed the QSuites product last year and is aiming to put it on their entire Boeing 77W fleet this year. They already have 14 Boeing 77W planes which are equipped with the new product and besides that the new A350-1000 and all subsequent A350-900 deliveries.
Like you can see, the QSuite is a lovely product. It is a private cabin installed in Qatar Airways Forward section and classified as Business Class. It was not my first flight on-board the QSuites, but the first onboard an Airbus aircraft for sure. I was immediately impressed with the space on this cabin with the high ceiling on the A350-1000, which was much higher than the B77W QSuites I had flown on Monday. The vertical sidewalls also helped to create more space in the cabins.
When I got to my seat, I realized this was not going to be just another ferry flight, but going to be operated as a full-service Qatar Airways flight. Reason? The usual ferry flights have catering from Airbus in disposable trays. However, around here, it was 6 flight attendants in an almost full 46-seat QSuites cabin, strutting up and down the cabin in a pre-departure service, just as they would do on any other commercial flight.
Aboard the economy section were the employees of Qatar Airways, who were returning home on this flight, apart from technicians from all the vendors such as Thales (IFE).
On my seat, I had a blanket and a couple of pillows waiting for me when I arrived. There was a large pillow for sleeping and a throw pillow with an aviation catchphrase on top. There was also a Nappa Dori amenity kit with the A350-1000. I was told this was a limited edition amenity kit, produced for this flight. The throw pillow is yours to keep, and is a marvelous branding exercise by the airline, given mine sits on the couch at home now, and reminds me of the QR flight.
In a moment, Chris, who was the cabin attendant on my aisle came to introduce himself. He then went on to explain the features of the seat, before asking me for my choice of pre-departure beverage. Over the past days I realized, QR does not give you options on a pre-departure drink but asks you what you want. If they have it in the galley, it is yours!
A co-passenger recommended a drink which was specially prepared for the inaugural flight. I could not catch the name, but I decided to go with that since it was prepared with flower nectar. Along with that, I was asked about my choice of a hot or cold towel.
In a few moments, Chris reappeared with the pre-departure beverage and a cold towel. I have to admit I like this detail on QR because usually, airlines give you either a Hot or a Cold towel depending on the service and their judgment, but you get the option here, and you get to decide. Like I am not one for hot towels mostly except after a meal or on early morning services.
Subsequently, the Cabin Service Director came around and introduced herself. Chris came back in a few moments with the menu for the flight. There was a special menu offered for this inaugural flight, which was ours to take home. Alongside, he handed me the beverage list and a snack platter menu, which I was informed, is only offered in the QSuites cabin.
Here was the menu on board this flight.
A little later, another cabin crew came by to present me with the sleeper suits from The White Company. While I was wary of the size offered, the team requested me to try this out; else they would replace it. It turns out I never used them through the flight. She also took down my breakfast order, making it a point to inform me that this was a Dine on Demand flight so that I could eat at a time of my choice.
What was very interesting about this flight were two things. First, the company of His Excellency Akbar Al Baker on board, who was on board the flight as well, traveling with the media and VIP party. The second was his friendly nature. Pre-flight, he walked through the cabin, going to all the guests and explaining the seat and features to the traveling party.
Very soon, doors closed and we were ready to take off. The scheduled time of departure was 7:30 AM, and we started the long taxi from the Airbus Delivery Center to the runway of the Toulouse Airport. Notice the 6-wheel bogey on the A350-1000 below in action. Airbus added the extra wheels due to the higher design weight of the A35K as compared to the A359. Not just that, Airbus added three high-definition cameras on the front and rear of the plane, including a tail cam, which gave us these gorgeous views up in the air.
The whole cabin erupted into clapping moments after takeoff, commemorating the first takeoff of an Airbus A350-1000 delivered to a customer. It was 6 hours to arrival in Doha. The thrust on this flight, powered by the brand new Rolls Royce Trent XWB 97 engine, was one of the quietest take-off rolls I have experienced in my 100s of flights.
The QSuites have a different configuration for different seats. This is very different from the usual staggered configuration you would see on standard business class cabins. The beauty of the QSuites has been that it fits into the same footprint as the previous Business class cabins, with a much more comfortable yet private layout, without losing the number of seats. This means there is no revenue loss for the airline while installing better cabin products.
On the window side (Seats A and B), seats A are reverse facing but right next to the window (you would look at the engine). Seats B is away from the window but forward facing. Similarly, K seats are rear-facing and next to the windows while J seats are away from the window. Below is a picture of the B seat.
Here is a picture of the D/E/F/G seats, where the D and G seats are forward facing and outward, while E/F seats are reverse facing but joined together. You can drop the divider between the two seats and have people talk to each other on the D/G and E/F combinations. If you are a group of 3 or 4 traveling together, you can also drop the dividers between D/E or F/G to have people face each other. Drop all the four dividers, and you have four people who can look at each other and work together or chat up as a family during the flight. The picture below has G/D in the forward and F/E behind.
Here is another shot of the QSuites in action from the day before when it was on display at Toulouse.
Here is a shot of the cabin when the daylight was on. I loved the feeling of space in this cabin.
The QSuite is a very well thought out concept, and I have to hand it out to Qatar Airways to think and implement this. If you do not know, QR designed the seat and patented it before taking it to a seat manufacturer to manufacture it for them. So, no chance you see it on another airline without Qatar Airways having an interest in it.
Let’s give you a look at the features which I explored on board. The whole of the seat is operable via a set of aesthetically designed control panel placed on the seat. The buttons help you move the seat in pre-set conditions such as dining, take-off and landing, bed mode and lounge mode. Besides, there is a massage function built in as well. The DND button does what it promises, it flashes a red sign on your door, and that just means the cabin crew should not disturb you while you are perhaps sleeping.
Above the control panel, there is space to keep your stuff such as magazines or your passport. That gives you two places to stow your things including the table above. The other controls fitted up here include a plug for your electronics and a high wattage USB charging point, with the other one fitted up on the TV screen.
Like you can see above, all the seats on the plane are also fitted with a near-field communications readers, a feature that is fitted out on most phones these days. While still not activated, the NFC is intended to personalize the paxex of the Qatar Airways passengers. You can download the IFE app beforehand, select what you would like to view and then sync up your phone with the IFE system so that you do not have to browse through everything once on board.
Besides the 20 inch or so touch-TV screen in QSuite, there is also a handheld Android-controlled remote for you to be able to control your IFE experience. I usually set it up to put the moving map on while I watched other stuff on the main screen.
Another feature I loved was the use of space. There was a small ottoman next to the seat, which moves up and down and can be used as an armrest.
It doubles up as storage space for a bottle of water and the headsets, apart from your laptop and other stuff such as a scarf and so on.
I returned to my seat shortly after exploring the cabin, given I wanted to finish up breakfast before anything else. I had requested the service to start with a Rose Champagne, not having flipped through the menu beforehand to realize there was Taittinger on offer today for the classic Champagne.
The Champagne was brought immediately after takeoff and served with warm nuts.
A while later, the OnAir internet connectivity came online. The Airbus A35K is the first aircraft to systematically offer internet connectivity, providing passengers with a global broadband connection on board. We had been all supplied with complimentary Internet codes on this flight. However, internet connectivity was patchy and not very useful for most of the flight. Perhaps too many people updating social media in one go, we don’t know.
I was circulating with the rest of the crowd, and there were some gorgeous views while flying over the Alps.
Breakfast on board took time to arrive, and while waiting for breakfast, I put on the noise canceling headsets and decided to watch a movie. A silent cabin plus noise cancellation meant there was almost no disturbance. I tuned into Thor Ragnarok.
The crew this morning was working on their limits, given it took a while to bring over breakfast. Between the drinks and meal, it was roughly about 45 minutes before the table was laid down. A similar experience was there with the co-passengers as well. I did not think much of it given I was busy with other stuff in the meanwhile.
Chris came back to lay down the table and placed the faux dinner table candle along with a bread basket consisting of bread, Arabic bread, and Pain au chocolat. The marmalade I asked for was missing, and I thought it would come along on the next trip of Chris from the galley, but it never happened.
The appetizer course was brought about soon after, which was a plate of Charcuterie. It was delicious!
Meal service was slow, and as you can see, the main course, where I had opted for the Arabic breakfast, only turned up mid-flight. Like you can see on the moving map, I was served the main almost at Turkey. All this while there was frantic activity in the galley. So clearly, the crew was doing their best.
The Arabic breakfast consisted of Cheese, Cucumber, Tomatoes, Olives and Foul Madames. All of that was good, except the bread which was sitting on my table for a while now had gone cold and hard.
I requested for some coffee after the meal was finished, and in the meanwhile decided to visit the lav. The new lav from Airbus tries to be as contactless as possible so that you do not have to be in touch with the surfaces touched before by many people. A feature I had seen in development on an earlier visit to Airbus, but in action for the first time.
The lav was smaller than that on the Boeing 77W which also features the QSuite but had the same Ritual products for the passengers to use.
By the time I was back, my Cappucino was waiting for me. It was as good as being on the ground.
I needed some downtime now, so I just pulled my Suite door closed and turned on the IFE again.
At 1.35 meters height, the QSuite is very private if you want it to be. For example, here is a picture from the side-table where you notice that unless someone is trying to peep into the high door, he or she cannot see much.
Another comment about the QSuite is on the footwell. I did not sleep on this flight, but I did lie down sideways for a bit. Moreover, when I did, the footwell was large enough to let me rest sideways with comfort. There was no bother at all with enough space.
Amongst a long meal service, I missed out on the part where some of the people were allowed on board the flight deck mid-flight. I was stuck in my seat trying to get breakfast. Happy for those who made it on board.
I went about to the back of the plane, and while the Qatar Airways crew occupied one section (the midsection), the end of the aircraft was empty. On board their A350-1000, Qatar Airways will have Airbus standard 18″ seat width and a 3-3-3 abreast cabin, which is not going to cramp you down when seated for a long-haul flight.
We were about 90 minutes out from Doha, and I wanted to try out the snack platter of Qatar Airways as well as some other stuff from the menu. So I requested for half a snack platter to be brought out along with some sliders. These were brought to me in about 20 minutes.
I had some sweet potato falafel, breaded langoustines and a mini chocolate brownie served from the Snack Platter first, and a beef and chicken slider each brought about shortly after. For food that would have traveled a long way to be on this plate, it was pretty good and very moist.
After this, it was time to prepare the cabin for arrival. It was a proud moment for Qatar Airways, and they wanted to share it with their fellow countrymen, so this inaugural flight was going to do a flypast at Doha Corniche before landing. That gave us some beautiful views of the airport as well as the city before final touchdown. Given I was not in a window seat, I retreated to the back of the Economy cabin to take some pictures.
We touched down shortly before 5 p.m. and received a water cannon salute.
We were parked in a bay, rather than on an aerobridge. The local media and the Qatari Royal Family members were waiting to meet the flight.
Very soon, we were able to walk to the terminal. Since I had checked a bag, I was going to have to get into Qatar To be able to retrieve my bag, a process which was short and painless given I was able to use the fast-track entry gates in the arrival lounge. It is a good thing that Indians get access to Qatar visa-free now.
First and foremost, hats off to Qatar Airways for dreaming big. The reason I am in awe is that unlike other carriers, their product is excellent, not very blingy and over the top. So, it is the product that speaks for itself. Also, unlike other Middle-East carriers, their commitment to this product is complete. Apart from the Boeing 787 airplanes in their fleet, all the Qatar Airways widebodies current or in future will receive the QSuites eventually.
In fact, they have already completed retrofits of the QSuites on 15 Boeing 77Ws and taking delivery of Airbus A359s fitted with the QSuite as well. This is unlike another carrier which will add a new First Class product to the new planes they buy but not the old ones and left their Business Class passengers out from a new product. I was also floored by the attention to detail on the 4 Qatar Airways segments I flew over three days. Down to the fact that on the long-haul flights, you would get your napkin opened and placed rather than just handed to you.
For Airbus, I hope they get more customers on this aircraft as the program matures. The plane is excellent and lighter as compared to their friends in Seattle, so that would mean savings for the airlines who are planning to bring these planes on board. And with excellent cabin pressure maintained and the silence of the engines, there is a lot going for this plane.
Ultimately, this was a ferry flight like no other, given Qatar Airways turned the boring stuff into an opportunity to showcase their flagship QSuite product. Being the launch customer of this plane, they will get another 5 of these this year, and while the aircraft is doing flights to London daily, more destinations will come online shortly.
What do you think of the new Qatar Airways A350-1000?