Soft product clever touches help Qatar Airways excel

Qatar Airways is rarely out of the news, but much of the talk revolves around its mercurial chief executive, Akbar al Baker, who is always good for a pot-stirring quote about airframers, airlines, geopolitics or the passenger experience.

Flying as a guest of the airline from Paris to Doha and on to Chiang Mai for the inaugural flight to this northern Thai destination, though, I had an excellent opportunity to examine the airline’s passenger experience over four flights and four different seating products: the newest Qsuite, the former flagship Super Diamond, the dense flatbed Diamond, and the last-generation Minipod, all made by Rockwell Collins (or predecessor B/E Aerospace).

Lots of the hard product impressed me, while I also had a number of questions about some of it. But the soft product — the bits that aren’t the seats, entertainment systems, power sockets, and so on — wowed me more than I was expecting, with five areas standing out above the crowd.

Boarding pass wallet

Qatar Airways presents business class passengers with their travel documents in an embossed silver boarding pass wallet when they check in. Cleverly, this wallet has four holes cut out of it: for boarding time, gate, seat, and flight number. This is, after all, the only information passengers really need to have when they’re departing, and the wallet leaves the barcode exposed so you can just scan it and go at the various points in the process where that is required.

This boarding wallet might feel like a small thing, but it’s a smart small thing. Image: John Walton

It’s also useful to keep all the bits of paper together, which is especially helpful for a connections-focussed airline like Qatar, where most passengers at their first checkin desk will receive at a bare minimum two (and maybe more) boarding passes, as well as a lounge invitation, fast-track card, terminal map and luggage tags.

But more than that, the silver wallet makes for an excellent way for staff to see at a glance whether an individual is a premium traveller, and to guide them towards fast track or priority lines.

Instagram-worthy moments

It’s nearly 2018, and if you’re designing passenger experience without an eye towards how modern-day passengers use Instagram, Snapchat and other apps then you’re missing a trick.

Qatar Airways isn’t missing that trick on its newest products, with the “This is my happy place” pillows in its QSuite that are propped nicely on the side table, light pooling on it, with the amenity, kit, blanket and airline’s signature welcome drinks — alcoholic or non-alcoholic — sitting right in front. Which leads me to…


A truly remarkable range of non-alcoholic drinks

I’m as big a fan of airline Champagne as it comes, but obviously, as the national airline of a state whose official religion is Islam, Qatar Airways needs to offer more options. Interestingly, Champagne was not on offer departing France (quelle horreur!), I suspect because of duty needing to be paid, although it was departing Doha both ways and when leaving Thailand.

Instead, out of Paris I enjoyed the delicious, well-balanced lemon mint welcome drink: a big plus for thirsty, dehydrated and even Vitamin C-deprived travellers.

I was also very taken by the “luxury non-alcoholic bubbly” So Jennie, which makes for a very nice afternoon refresher, although it’s quite off dry, so I preferred adding a few ice cubes, which made it pleasant as either an apéritif or dessert option.

I was very impressed by the thought that went into the non-alcoholic drink selections. Image: John Walton

There’s also a five-drink list of “mocktails” that reminded me of the Singapore Airlines list: pineapple margarita, orangeade, pineapple punch, spiced tomato juice, and an apple cooler, with six types of juice (apple, cranberry, mango, orange, pineapple, tomato), the usual range of fizzy drinks, and — if your thirst is not yet slaked by the time you get to the non-alcoholic list — two kinds of the intensely spiced karak chai immensely popular in the region.

Two kinds of Champagne and an eight-deep wine list

But if you are a drinker, Qatar Airways certainly has you covered, with both the black label brut and rosé label version of Champagne Lanson’s entry-level bubbles.

I’m often of two minds about the Lanson: the lack of malolactic fermentation means that it is a simpler, less complex bottle, but maintains its characteristics in the dry spaces at altitude, whether at the 6000 feet of an A350 or 8000 feet of a 777 or A330. Three whites, three reds, a tokaji and a port round out the list.

I enjoyed a mini wine tasting of the three whites on one of my afternoon-departing flights, and each was a smart choice for the cabin. I particularly liked the Italian blend, which was very generous in the mouth. I had a splash of the Argentinian Cab-Merlot-Syrah with the cheeseboard, which performed impressively at altitude, as well-chosen blends often do.

Build-your-own breakfast

But with three of the four flights departing or arriving during breakfast hours, and needing to be on the move as soon as I hit the ground, I was most impressed by the way the breakfast options were designed.

Actual fresh orange juice, not just the long-life stuff, plus a different smoothie and energiser on each flight, was a real plus for an increasingly tired traveller, particularly one always keen to keep up on fluids.

The multiple breakfast options, too, were super, and I particularly liked that you could either build your own more continental breakfast from the appetisers section, with fruit, cereal, and bircher muesli common to all flights, but a different set of compotes with yoghurt and granola, as well with some Qatari-smoked salmon on the Paris leg, also on offer. A bircher muesli and yoghurt compote really hit the spot on the short Doha-Chiang Mai leg, where I wasn’t hungry but knew I needed to at least have something for a long and busy day.

On my flight departing Paris, a full breakfast and light lunch options were served. Image: John Walton

The main courses, too, were so much better than the weaponised egg dish to which passengers are so often relegated, although I saw one of those going past (the cream cheese omelette with a chicken breakfast patty, lyonnaise potatoes, sautéed chestnut mushrooms and herb roasted tomatoes) and it looked and smelled great.

On my first flight, I enjoyed the Arabic breakfast with foul medames, feta, cucumber, tomatoes and olives, although I was torn between that and the vegetable tikki. On the flight departing Thailand, I was very impressed by the raisin pancake with caramelised peach, butterscotch sauce, fresh strawberries and whipped cream.

All in all, Qatar’s soft product innovations combined to create a truly remarkable passenger experience, and the airline should be proud of that.

John Walton travelled as a guest of Qatar Airways and the Tourism Authority of Thailand, but as ever all opinions in Up Front are his own.

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