What It Was Like Flying Qatar Airways Qsuites Business Class During The Pandemic

In 2019, I flew over 120,000 miles and took nearly 100 flights. By contrast, and due to the coronavirus pandemic, I traveled on just four flights in 2020 for a total distance of around 15,000 miles, all of which took place before mid-February. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I prepared to fly for the first time in nearly 10 months at the beginning of December.

After nearly a month of consideration and research, the date for my trip to Kenya finally rolled around. I would be taking Qatar Airways from Los Angeles to Doha and on to Nairobi, then coming back two weeks later, with an eight-hour layover in either direction. Carrying a negative Covid PCR test from the day before my flight, a passenger consent form with my testing details, and an arsenal of pandemic travel supplies including boxes of medical masks and latex gloves as well as splash-proof goggles, a stash of hand sanitizer, and two different kinds of alcohol-based disinfectant wipes, I headed to the airport to begin my journey.

The first leg of my trip was aboard an Airbus A350-1000 with the airline’s Qsuites in business class. The second was on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner with the Qatar Airways’ older reverse-herringbone seats. My return was on the same aircraft types and configurations. I spent my overnight layover on the way back at Doha Hamad International’s Oryx Airport Hotel. Here’s what it was like flying Qatar Airways business class during the pandemic.

Check-in Checklist

I arrived at LAX nearly three hours before my departure. Though this particular flight had been relatively empty in the days leading up to mine, I had checked the seat map and seen that my plane was relatively full. I figured I could just spend any extra wait I had at an empty gate, social-distancing from other people. It turned out I did not have too much time to spare, though, since the check-in procedures were much more robust than those usually in force pre-pandemic.

Once inside Tom Bradley International Terminal, I headed to the Qatar Airways counters and the lane reserved for business class passengers. There, an airline representative double-checked all my documents: passport, electronic ticket, Covid test results from within Kenya’s 96-hour time requirement, and a Kenyan visa. Once satisfied that everything was in order, she gestured me toward the short line to the counters.

There were only a few people in front of me, including a family, and the check-in agent was arranging for them to have one of the Qsuite quad seating sections so they could all sit together in a group. When it was my turn to check in, the desk agent verified all my documents another time, then handed me my boarding passes for both flights. Unfortunately, the airport’s Oneworld lounge was closed due to Covid restrictions, but at least I was able to ensure a TSA PreCheck designation on my ticket by providing a trusted traveler number.

Face Shields And Flight Attendants

The security lines at LAX were practically empty, and I sped through in about 90 seconds. After collecting my belongings, I took a stroll through the terminal, which felt abandoned. Normally bustling with international travelers, there were no people in one entire wing of it. Many of the retail outlets were closed altogether, and only a few aircraft idled on the tarmac.

The gate from which my flight was departing was one of the only busy areas. As lines formed for boarding, airline representatives diligently handed out complimentary face shields to every single person, which the airline requires passengers to wear throughout the flight except in business class. Due to this and other procedures, Qatar Airways was recently ranked one of the best in COVID-compliant passenger safety by AirlineRatings.com.

I was among the first to board, and though I thought it would be more off-putting see crew greeting me in full PPE, their sheer warmth and enthusiasm immediately assuaged some of my anxiety. After a final check of my boarding pass, I was shown to my Qsuite, and was able to snap some photos before other passengers took their seats.

The business-class section of Qatar Airways’ A350-1000s includes 46 Qsuites split into a larger main cabin up front, and a smaller aft cabin just in front of economy. Seats are arranged in a 1 – 2 – 1 pattern. There are nine full rows plus a tenth with just two seats in the forward cabin, and two rows of four seats each in the mini-cabin toward the rear. I was told that 40 of them were occupied on my flight, and that the plane was 80% full in all. As the holidays were approaching, flights were starting to reach capacity.

Alternating rows of Qsuites faced front and back. On the sides of the cabin, those that faced the rear had a wide armrest on the aisle and were closer to the window, providing quite a lot of privacy. Seats in the middle section were alternately closer together – ideal for couples or a parent with a small child – and farther apart by row, in case you happen to be placed in one of these as a solo traveler. Certain four-seat sections could also be combined into family or co-working suites.

Seat Selection

I had selected one of the side Qsuites for privacy. While other passenger were boarding, I performed a thorough wipe down of my seating area with my own disinfecting wipes, but I found it to have been cleaned extremely thoroughly before my arrival, with nary a crumb nor smudge in sight, which was reassuring. Qatar Airways uses Honeywell’s Ultraviolet Cabin System, a beverage cart-size device that treats surfaces, seats, and cabins with germ-killing UV light without the need for toxic chemicals. Like most commercial aircraft these days, the A350-1000 also houses industrial-size HEPA air filtration systems, which remove up to 99.97% of viral and bacterial pathogens from the air.

As I was finishing up my cleaning routine, the flight attendant who would be looking after me introduced herself, asked if I would like her to show me any of the seat features, and offered me a pre-departure beverage. I declined the seat instructions, but opted for a glass of Laurent-Perrier Cuvée-Rosé and a glass of water.

When she returned, she was carrying my drinks on a tray, as well as a set of The White Company pajamas. I waited until the cabin was fully boarded until I took a few sips of the champagne, so as to avoid having my mask down while people were actively passing my seat.

In the meantime, I looked around my Qsuite. Like those aboard the airline’s Airbus A350-900s and Boeing 777-300ERs, mine had a door that stretched about halfway to the overhead bin above my seat. While the door was simply for privacy and did not really have anything to do with pandemic safety, the fact that it would prevent unwanted intrusions into my personal space by folks walking up and down the aisle was a big selling point for me.

I could keep the door closed throughout nearly the entire flight with a “do not disturb” indicator for complete solitude, or summon a crewmember for necessities with a call button. Even with the door closed, though, the seat felt roomy. The chair was 21.5 inches wide, though the space itself was much wider, and it reclines to a bed that is 79 inches long. The entertainment screen was also 21.5 inches wide, and the airline provided disinfected and sealed headphones along with a bottle of water inside the wider armrest, which doubled as a storage cubby that could also fit my laptop.

Although the seat did not move in as many configurations as some other models out there, where individual components are more adjustable, it was more than serviceable with intuitive button controls. There were also easy-to-reach USB ports and a universal power plug to keep electronics charged in flight. One interesting perk during my trip: the airline had decided to make Wi-Fi free for all passengers, so I could text, email, and perform some basic web-based work throughout my flight.

The airline provided a small amenity kit stocked with Castello Monte Vibiano Vecchio skincare products, an eye mask, earplugs, and socks. But what I appreciated more was the sealed plastic “Travel with Confidence” pouch with an extra medical mask, a small bottle of hand sanitizer, and latex gloves. I tucked those away in case I needed them later.

Eventually, the captain made his pre-flight announcement, and we taxied for takeoff. As soon as we were at cruising altitude, flight attendants came through the cabin and closed everyone’s doors. I left mine that way through the flight, except infrequent trips to the lavatory. Speaking of which, the crew made sure to tidy up and disinfect them between each passenger. That involved waiting at some moments, but it did make me feel better about bathroom breaks, as did the no-touch sensors on the sinks and toilets.

My return flight from Doha to Los Angeles was much the same, though for that one I selected a backward-facing seat so as to have even more separation from the aisle.

Service Switches

Qatar Airways offers dine-on-demand service in business class, even these days, so you can pretty much just order anything on the menu at any time you wish (with reason). On both my outbound to Doha and my return, I decided to spend the first three hours of the flight working – masked and with my face shield on – while most of my fellow travelers ate and went to sleep. Once the cabin was quiet, I hit the call button to alert the crew I was ready to eat.

Before the pandemic, Qatar Airways coursed out the dishes during meal service, sort of like you would find in a restaurant. While that still happened somewhat, it was much more condensed, with the appetizer and main, or main and dessert served on the same tray, and each component wrapped in plastic to ensure sanitary safety. That was fine by me since it cut down on extraneous interactions with the crew. Attendants also poured beverages in the galley individually, and in a new glass each time, so as to avoid inadvertently passing any germs from one passenger to another by simply refilling glasses from the same bottle on a pass through the cabin.

On my first flight to Doha, I started with smoked duck and roasted peppers over quinoa with honey mustard dressing followed by chicken machhboos with cashews, white raisins and creamy mint raita, and chocolate-orange pudding for dessert. I enjoyed a Chilean Syrah from Leyda with my meal. I kept my mask on and only pulled it down for bites of food or a sip of wine or water. That was a bit of extra effort, but it was a lot less onerous than I had been anticipating.

When I was done, I headed to the lavatory to change into my pajamas while a flight attendant reclined my seat, put a cover on it, and laid out a blanket for me. I awoke about seven hours later and watched a movie, then did a little more work. At that point, I ordered a cappuccino while the crew prepared my next meal. Since I’d be landing in Doha in the evening before an overnight flight to Nairobi, I skipped the Western breakfast options and went for the savory cashew upma with vegetable sambar and ginger-tomato chutney, which was just what I needed to tide me over. Like my other meal, the dishes all had plastic wrapping or coverings to limit their exposure to other people (and their germs!).

On my return flight from Doha to Los Angeles, I started with the airline’s traditional Arabic mezze trio of hummus, eggplant moutabel, and tabbouleh. I was interested to see that even the bread came wrapped in plastic this time. For a main, I had chicken shish taouk and lamb kofta. The latter was actually from the menu for the flight’s second meal, but the cabin crew were only too happy to make it for my breakfast. Then I had a second item from the breakfast menu – hearty saffron upma with palak veda spinach patties and tomato chutney about two hours before landing back in Los Angeles.

Before my trip, I had been anxious to fly, even on short hops, let alone a major international itinerary like this one. But on my flights to and from Los Angeles, as well as the shorter ones between Doha and Nairobi, I thought Qatar Airways’ airport and inflight health protocols were sterling.

What’s more, the crew performed their duties just as flawlessly as ever, which was a feat considering the burdensome PPE in which they were attired, and the extensive new Covid-related protocols they must follow. What was more striking, though, was just how genuinely warm and welcoming they managed to be, even swaddled in medical gowns and behind masks and goggles. Their sunny attitude, to a person, made it feel like it was not only okay to travel, but okay to enjoy it, and I was thoroughly impressed at how seamlessly they pulled that off.

To Lounge Or Not To Lounge?

Due to the timing of my flights, I had eight-hour layovers on both sides of my journey. That was a major consideration, as more time in the airport amongst more people might heighten my risk of contracting Covid, even with testing protocols and intensive cleaning procedures in place. I decided to spend my outbound layover in the airline’s palatial Al Mourjan business class lounge, but booked a room at the Oryx Airport Hotel for my overnight return, where room rates start at $251 in the coming months.

The Al Mourjan business class lounge at Doha Hamad International Airport consistently ranks among the top airport lounges in the world thanks to its expansive size and many features, such as a children’s game room, various dining outlets, and plentiful shower suites. When I arrived, the atmosphere was more subdued than on previous visits, and its vast halls uncrowded. All the better for avoiding other passengers, I thought. I entered around 6:00pm and headed straight for a shower since there was no wait. The cabana was cleaned just before I arrived, though I went over everything with disinfectant wipes, and donned a mask except for when I was actually in the shower itself.

That got me through the first hour, but then I spent a little while walking around to get the lay of the land. All the facilities were open, but the seating was sparser and socially distanced in the various sections. Lounge attendants were constantly on hand and visibly wiping everything down.

Eventually, I headed upstairs to the dining area, which remained busy throughout my stay. However, I was able to camp out in a secondary area with tables and booths where there were far fewer people. So few, in fact, that I was separated from anyone else by a number of tables and at least 30 feet.

In the main dining room, food was laid out along counters buffet-style on small, individual dishes with plastic coverings. Visitors could not serve themselves, though. Instead, servers plated dishes and brought them to the table, as well as filling drink orders.

There were placards throughout the area with QR codes to scan with a smartphone for the beverage menu, and others reminding folks to maintain a healthy distance from their fellow travelers.

Happily ensconced at my private table, I set up a temporary office for myself and ate a few falafel sandwiches and made-to-order sushi rolls over the course of my visit. I also ordered a bottle of water to minimize my contact with the wait staff, though I did notice two servers keeping an eye on me throughout my stay to see if I needed anything.

As my departure time approached, I headed down to my gate.

Overnighting At The Oryx Airport Hotel

On my return, I landed in Doha after 11:00pm, with my next departure closer to 8:00am. Rather than depending on a private rest area in the Al Mourjan lounge being available, I decided to book a room at the Oryx Airport Hotel, which is inside the transit area, and thus does not require passing through customs and immigration. It has just 100 rooms and is very central, so no matter where you land or depart, it’s usually a pretty quick walk to your gate.

Since I had would eat on my flight from Nairobi, and just wanted to shower and sleep while avoiding contact with others, the hotel seemed my best option. It is also currently under strict Covid cleaning protocols, which even include virus-killing UV-C light sweeps on high-contact touch points. I wiped down the room with my own disinfecting routine before a shower and watching the news on the 42-inch flatscreen. In the morning, I used the complimentary Wi-Fi to send a few emails before setting off for my gate. The one downside to the hotel was that there was no access to exterior air sources, so you’re dependent on the climate control system to keep your room well ventilated.

That said, there hadn’t been anyone in my room for a whole day according to the front desk, the accommodations were spotless, and I added my own sanitization routine into the mix just to be triple sure that the room was as safe as possible.

Travel Takeaways

I was both anxious and interested to see how the experience of flying during the pandemic would be. On the one hand, I was excited about traveling. On the other, I was very hesitant to put myself or others at risk of contracting Covid. Flying Qatar Airways seemed like the best possible option for my particular itinerary, not only because of the airline’s heightened pandemic security procedures, but also because of the social distancing allowed for by the airline’s Qsuites business class seats, as well as the extensive sanitation measures put in place at its hub in Doha.

What struck me even more than the rigorous cleaning protocols I saw throughout my itinerary, though, was how heartfelt and welcoming the crew and airline staff managed to be despite difficult circumstances. Even under masks and goggles, their smiles were evident. Feeling how much they appreciated having passengers on board and still seemed to enjoy what they were doing, not to mention the constant attention to sanitation they took, were what made flying the airline feel worthwhile and (almost) normal again.

Disclosure: The author traveled as a guest of Qatar Airways, but all opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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