Qatar Airways recently released their game-changing Q Suites innovation. Here’s what a long haul flight looked like in a Q Suite from London to Durban over the holidays and during the pandemic.
For South Africans living in London the scramble to find flights back home for Christmas is a rite of passage. Typically there's a nearly overwhelming choice of options, direct, via Europe, via the Middle East and via East Africa.
However 2020 was hardly your typical year—South Africa only reopened its borders in October, but flight schedules remained frustratingly dynamic. British Airways (BA) saw the biggest reduction in capacity—at the peak of last summer flying up to seven daily flights, serving Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban from Heathrow and Gatwick—compared to this year with single 777 services to Cape Town and Johannesburg. The Durban route was initially suspended until summer 2021, but sadly in late December BA announced, along with 13 other long haul destinations (including the Seychelles, Kuala Lumpur and Abu Dhabi) the route was permanently cancelled.
Eager to avoid the chaos of a Johannesburg connection (made much worse this year by all the COVID-19 paperwork that needed checking, with reports of delays of up to four hours) I booked to fly to Durban via Doha on Qatar Airways.
I’d previously flown Qatar to South Africa in economy in 2009, and in Business in 2016-both times the experience was excellent, but since then game-changing innovation in the form of the Qatar “Q Suites” had been introduced, and to my delight I was confirmed in Q Suites on both the London legs of my trip.
Outbound: QR4 LHR to DOH – December 16, 2020 (depart 14:47, arrive 00:10)
Qatar has relocated to Terminal 5 at Heathrow, along with the rest of the oneworld alliance, giving T5 a fairly busy feel (until you realize that BA used to fill the entire terminal). Qatar has a large dedicated check-in area in the north of the terminal, and the area was busy with a large number of passengers trying to check-in.
Though the Business Class line only had a handful of passengers, it took ten to twenty minutes for each passenger to be checked in, due to the endless permutations of paperwork required for the many onward connections from Qatar. The check-in staff did their best, but tensions ran high and many passengers were turned away for having the wrong type of COVID test, or no test at all-and many seemed confused and followed the rules for entry into the State of Qatar instead of their final destination, so it was a relief to have my paperwork approved (including a $430 CAD PCR test) in seconds, with two silver edged Business Class boarding passes and bags tagged all the way to Durban.
Fast track was closed at Terminal 5, but wait times were short in any case and I was through security in about five minutes. Terminal 5 Airside (A Gates) was reasonably busy and festive, and there was a certain novelty to even being at an airport after a nine month hiatus.
A welcome surprise was that the only open lounge was the Galleries First Lounge, representing a small upgrade for those without Emerald status flying Business. The actual BA First Class Lounge (The Concorde Room) was closed, and instead the balcony of the Galleries First Class Lounge (which was always the best place to head to for tarmac views) had temporarily been turned into a makeshift “Concorde Terrace” for those travelling in BA First, but from what I could make out the catering was identical.
Reflecting the low premium traffic the lounge was busy but much less crowded than usual, and it was relatively easy to physically distance. The buffet and self-service bar had been removed—instead you scanned a QR code nearest to your seat and ordered off an app.
The app worked surprisingly well, and a glass of English bubbly to accompany my prawn, kale and quinoa salad arrived within five minutes and with a very friendly smile.
That said, the BA Lounge offering at LHR is at best mediocre and parts of it, such as the bathrooms, are desperately in need of a makeover.
The Cathay and Qantas lounges in T3 being much more inviting places to spend time, though neither were open under the circumstances.
Given the extended check-in, I only had about 25 minutes in the lounge before having to catch the shuttle to the B Gates, which was ghostly quiet in comparison to the main terminal. Business Class were allowed to board pretty much immediately, but first temperatures were checked again and we were issued Qatar visors and masks ahead of the long airbridge walk to our 777-200LR.
It’s time! Let’s fly Q Suites!
Q Suite First Impressions
There’s no shortage of the wow factor when stepping into the cabin and being shown to my suite by a very welcoming cabin attendant dressed in full PPE (gown, goggles, mask)—in fact I heard many other first time passengers say “wow” when they were shown to their suite, some thinking they had been upgraded to First class!
I had chosen seat 3K, a rear facing seat closer to the window for extra privacy. The suite felt spacious even with the shoulder-height door closed, and there was an abundance of storage locations. It’s hard to miss the enormous 22 inch screen, and huge tray that cleverly slides under it to form a stable desk or table. At the seat was a sealed duvet and generously sized pillow, shortly after take off I was presented with my coveted Qatar pajamas, by the White Company, and slippers along with a toiletry bag. Pajamas were provided on each leg of the flight which was impressive given two of the sectors were daylight.
Given all the features of the suite it’s definitely worth being given the tour by your appointed Q Suite attendant. It was explained to me for example that the suite doors are locked in the open position for take-off and landing, and are manually unlocked by the crew (with a comically big key) at cruise.
The door to the suite slides open and closed easily and once closed there’s truly a sense of calm, spacious privacy-the ultimate luxury especially when travelling in the COVID era.
As mentioned the suite door and walls are roughly at shoulder height so the cabin crew can still check seta belts without needing to slide the door open. There’s an abundance of storage space, and controls for the seat, lighting and privacy are all intuitive and easy to use.
Restrooms on all my flights were consistently immaculate, clean throughout the flight, and stocked with high-end toiletries and upscale finishes. A nice touch on my later flight to Durban was the window in the A350; a loo with a view!
Despite the absence of traffic at Heathrow we departed a little late, likely due to the slow check-in, but I was barely aware of the delay. I was like a child in a toy-store exploring the features of the Q Suite and sipping on the very generous glass of Pommery Brut Royal that I was presented with.
We blasted into the gloomy winter skies about 40 minutes late. Facing backwards I was rewarded with a glimpse of the famed Raynes Park Hyatt in SW20 before we climbed above the clouds towards the continent.
Qatar offers an a la carte dine on demand in Business Class which is great in concept, but a lot of work for the cabin crew on these shorter long haul flights in reality given it’s provided via individual tray service.
In the case of QR4, since everyone was in the same time zone most of the cabin guests elected for “dinner” (more of a really late lunch) after take-off. Though the crew made a point of highlighting that the service had been modified to reduce contact, in reality the food on this flight, along with all the others, was consistently excellent. Qatar has found a very pragmatic way to still offer a premium service but with ways to make you feel like your meal is safe to eat, with dishes typically served with their lids still on, and items like warm bread served in heat-proof wrapping.
Your order is typically taken while still on the ground, along with your preference for when you’d like to eat, though a selection of nuts (in a sealed container) was served with another glass of the Pommery Brut before the meal itself.
As part of the modified service, a large tray is served with bread, starter and dessert all plated, and the starter is removed and replaced by the main course when you’re ready. The linen, cutlery, crockery and stemware was beautiful and similar to what you’d expect in a fine-dining restaurant.
Catering out of Heathrow was excellent. I started with the prawns served with pine nut pesto, heirloom tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella. This was a slightly unusual pairing, feeling a little like a Caprese salad with some juicy prawns on top, but was delicious nonetheless.
Since it was Christmas I went for the lamb belly served with zereshk rice & grilled vegetables. The tart barberries worked really well cutting through the rich lamb which was braised to perfection—an exceptional main course.
Dessert didn’t quite match the description; the promised dark chocolate mousse was more of a mousse-trifle, but still delicious. I planned to stick to the Pommery Brut Royal with the prawns and then swap to the Erasmus Shiraz with the lamb, but the glass I ordered never arrived. To accompany dessert I had a small glass of the 2009 Vin Santo Chianti, a decadent way to end the meal.
The wine list was the same on this flight as all others and included:
- two types of champagne, the Pommery Brut Royal and a Taittinger Rose,
- three types of white, a Chablis, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and an Austrian Gruner Veltliner,
- three types of red, the South African Syrah, a St Emilion and an Italian barbera,
- a dessert wine,
- and a 20 year old tawny port.
Premium cocktails, spirits, tea and freshly made coffee (including espresso and cappuccino) were also available.
Given the relatively short flight I was too full to try any of the light-bites, settling for a cup of rooibos tea served with Godiva chocolates. Service was friendly, attentive and well-meaning, and other than the forgotten glass of wine, very slick.
Closing the door of the suite created a sense of sanctuary, and it would have been easy to sleep off the meal for a couple of hours given how comfortable the seat was. Instead I settled on a short nap, and then passed the rest of the time exploring the Oryx Entertainment system, rendered in crisp HD on giant 20 inch screens.
Oryx has over 4,000 options available, but somehow I found the selection not quite as compelling as ICE on Emirates, or Singapore’s KrisWorld. Having said that, there was still plenty to watch both in terms of movies and TV box sets. Noise cancelling headsets were provided and worked well—they also weren’t snatched away from us an hour before landing (I’m looking at you American Airlines!) which allowed for “gate to gate” entertainment.
Connecting in DOH (Hamad International Airport)
We headed into Doha right on time, after a surprisingly intricate holding pattern out in the gulf, allowing great views of the city which looks spectacular lit up at night.
For anyone with memories of the old Doha airport, the new Hamad International Airport is in another league. It’s by far my favourite airport in the region to transit through (perhaps other than the quirky new airport at Muscat, but it’s hardly a global hub) and offers a significantly better passenger experience than either Dubai DBX or Abu Dhabi.
Though still vast, the airport is more of a starfish design versus the endlessly long terminals at DXB, making it easy to get around. The overall aesthetic manages to look impressive and modern yet somehow much more welcoming and interesting versus DXB in particular. Naturally, there’s a huge selection of very high-end shops and restaurants; this is the state of Qatar after all!
DOH Al Mourjan Lounge
The airline prides itself on quite tight connections, so I didn’t have long to explore the lounge facilities.
In normal times there are a large and arguably confusing number of lounge options. Qatar discriminates against oneworld frequent fliers who aren’t flying Business or First, relegating them to a somewhat underwhelming Business Class lounge. They reserve the much more impressive Al Mourjan and Al Safwa lounges for those flying on Qatar Business and First Class respectively.
A Luxury Wanderer top tip is that Qatar is also aggressively unbundling business class fares, so if you’re tempted by a bargain fare you may also have to pay for lounge access. Take that into consideration if you’re planning on spending time in the lounge.
Much has been written about the Al Mourjan lounge and it’s certainly very impressive. Vast, double volume spaces, water features, indoor gardens, multiple bars, quiet rooms, showers and a dining room await. Be sure to study the map on arrival as there are many hidden nooks and corners.
Having said that, the catering options have been much reduced due to the pandemic compared to when I passed through in 2016 when I opted for a made to order simple smoked salmon open sandwich in the restaurant, paired with some Arabian mezze to start in the restaurant.
The quality was excellent and it was the perfect light bite given it was the middle of the night. I believe the First Class lounge is currently closed, so it looks like the cantilevered upper floor has been reserved for First Class and Qatar Platinum frequent flyers.
Curiously, the inbound London flight bypassed transfer security. At the gate for Durban, the Business Class passengers were waved through gate security without being checked which felt like a mistake, as on the return flight we were all subject to transfer security clearance.
QR 1361 – DOH to DUR (December 17, 2020) depart 02:20, arrive 09:50
QR1361 is an unusual triangle route, flying from Doha direct to Durban, rotating crew during a technical stop of 60 minutes before making the short 45 minute hop to Maputo, before returning to Doha. As such, there was a certain novelty to boarding a flight announced as “Maputo, via Durban”!
Qatar Business Class -non Q Suites
Qatar typically operates a mix of 787-8 and A359 equipment on this route, neither offering Q Suites but equipped instead with Qatar’s take on the more B/E Aerospace reverse herringbone Business Class offering, first introduced a few years ago and found on North American airlines like Air Canada and American.
As it was the run-up to Christmas, the flight was full, including Business, and after the incredible privacy and spaciousness of the Q-Suites the A359 felt a little crowded, and a lot less private as the seat walls were relatively low.
It shows how quickly business class hard products are evolving—this was a class-leading design four years ago, and now has easily been upstaged with the introduction of Q Suites.
However, make no mistake, this is still a very comfortable seat, and a very pleasant way to fly, with each seat offering step-free access to the aisle and a generous high-definition 17 inch screen. I was seated in seat 3K once more, which offered great views through the three A350 windows alongside the seat, enhanced by the crisp tail and nose cameras on the 17inch screen. It’s worth noting that both the A350 and 787 in this configuration don’t have central overhead bins—making the cabin more spacious, but storage can get a little tight. Fortunately, the seat offers plenty of space for storage.
Boarding was quick & efficient, and we were airborne on time. Given the late departure most of the cabin went straight to sleep. No turndown service was on offer on this flight but pajamas were handed out, and the same bedding as in Q Suites was on offer (large pillow and duvet).
Subjectively I would rate this seat in flat-bed mode as one of the most comfortable I’ve ever experienced. The padding is generous and connects seamlessly between seat joints, which arguably does away for the need for a mattress pad or similar. It’s certainly much more comfortable than most other Business Class options to South Africa, specifically far superior to the BA Club World seat, and the lie-flat seats offered by Emirates in their 777 services.
Breakfast over the East Coast
I slept well for about six hours, before the aroma of breakfast and activity in the cabin woke me up, plus the welcome subtropical sunshine flooding into the cabin as we headed down the east coast of Africa.
I had asked not to be disturbed for breakfast, but the team noticed as soon as I was up and took my order promptly. Never a fan of cooked breakfasts on the plane I stuck to the continental offering: fresh fruit, yogurt parfait, crispy warm croissant, and a bowl of corn flakes which was fresh and nicely presented.
The last 90 minutes presented unbeatable views of the east coast of Mozambique and Natal. Watching the final approach from the front of the plane made for an exciting way to arrive a little early in Durban on a beautiful, sunny and warm day.
We were scanned off the plane by Qatar ground staff using our boarding passes. I wasn’t clear if this was COVID related or because of the triangle route. The less paperwork checks that greet a traveller on arrival in South Africa the better. Priority luggage was delivered quickly and within moments I was heading out into the bright sunshine to the start of the summer break.
A different kind of holiday
Sadly it was far from an uneventful holiday, with new strains of the virus discovered in both the UK and South Africa, and with infection numbers soaring.
Before Christmas, all direct flights between South Africa and the UK were suspended, and most of the other major carriers (e.g. Lufthansa and Swiss) also suspended their South African routes.
To heighten the tension, on Sunday December 27, the South African President summoned the National Coronavirus Council, and conjecture was rife that South Africa would be going back into a national lockdown, which could curtail both interprovincial and international travel. There was precedent to this, given that South Africa previously closed its borders for nearly seven months.
Luckily Qatar was offering unlimited changes to flights booked, and when I checked in the morning on December 28, there was a seat available on the same day. So, I changed my ticket and after rushing to pack and to say my goodbyes, I found myself back at Durban King Shaka International airport far sooner than I had planned.
Curious what the return flight looked like? Look no further!