Yes, this trip report, too, contains pictures.
Since my last trip report, with TAP to Madeira back in September 2005, I'd racked up so much overtime (including my 4 months in Switzerland and Austria that don't show up on my normal time-log, I'm probably currently somewhere around 400 hours overtime, give or take 50-100 hours) that, by the end of April/beginning of May, the consensus at work was that I had to take at least a week off - I didn't offer up much resistance to that decision, since I fully agreed with it.
Finding & Booking
Anyhow, I was suddenly faced with knowing that I'd be taking a week off in mid-May - I just had no idea whatsoever what to do... so I looked through the nonrev-offers that I had available and had already settled on flying to Hong Kong on CX, but somehow the it just didn't feel right: I needed something to relax, and Hong Kong just didn't really fit that requirement.
So while browsing through hotel offerings, I found an offer for Laguna Beach Island, South Male Atoll, in the Republic of Maldives.
Since I'd never been to the Maldives before, this immediately caught my interest... and within a couple of hours I had found the right flights for me: Qatar Airways from Frankfurt through Doha to Male.
Getting the flight booked was a bit annoying, because I was not able to do the booking myself - it had to be done by QR's office here in town; it also turned out that my return date was a bit problematic with rather high loads already booked, but the waitlist was cleared by QR's yield management in Doha, so I had my flights - now I just had to pick up and pay for the ticket; so, one day prior to departure, I got on the subway into town and did just that.
While picking up my ticket, I was asked if I wanted seats reserved (I did) and whether I wanted any special menu (this, too, I did - my usual VLML).
Leaving for the Airport
So, after packing my bag the next morning, I was ready to go.
I caught the bus to the subway station and was surprised to see a train that should have left a couple of minutes earlier still standing there - I got on board, sat down, and waited... and waited... and waited... and nothing happened. After a few minutes, the train started moving, so I expected this to turn out to just a short delay - unfortunately, it was more; usually, I need about 8 or 9 minutes to get to Hauptwache, the station where I change into the train to the airport - but after about 20 minutes, the train arrived at Alte Oper (Frankfurt's Opera House, one station before Hauptwache) and an announcement was made that due to technical difficulties, the train would not continue... and it was already a bit less than 2 hours prior to departure.
So, I went upstairs, walked up to the only taxi standing there which left about 5 seconds before I reached it... not a good start to this trip... but the driver rolled down his window and hollered that he'd already called more taxis to the station, so about 5 minutes later, I was finally on my way. I arrived at the airport at about 10:15, paid €35 for the taxi ride that I shouldn't have had to take, and walked into the terminal to find just a single person standing in line at QR's check-in counters; check-in was quick, my pre-reserved seat was still confirmed, my vegetarian meal was not - and so I walked through security, immigration and customs towards the gate.
After some last minute shopping, I walked up to the gate and found a surprisingly small amount of people sitting there - around 100 people for a flight being operated on an A330-300? It turned out to, indeed, be quite a light load for the flight.
Departure: Frankfurt @ 11:45 on 10 May 2006
Arrival: Doha @ 18:50 on 10 May 2006
Aircraft: Airbus A330-300, A7-AEA
Seat: 20K, Window, above the wing
Photo © Philippe Noret - AirTeamimages
Photo © Michael Nikel
After boarding the plane, I quickly found my seat and settled in - as much as that was possible: I know a lot of people seem to be PTV-addicted, but I quickly noticed why I'm not a fan of those things...
I took this picture on the return flight - that huge box which takes away almost half of the space below the seat is located under each window seat (it's under an aisle seat here because I changed my seat on the return flight). I've said it before, I'll say it again: given the choice between a PTV and more space for my feet, I'll take the room to move - as soon as those boxes either completely disappear, or are at least so small that they don't disturb me anymore, that's when PTVs will be interesting to me. Until then, they'll only be an annoyance.
Nonetheless, since the load was light, I was able to arrange myself comfortably. The seats themselves are quite comfortable, though the pitch isn't spectacular; I did get the impression that the pitch on the A330-300 was better than on the A330-200.
Somewhat on time, we were pushed back from the gate, the usual security announcements were made and we were rolling towards the runway, which we entered at 12:08; after another 2 minutes of waiting the engines revved up and we were on our way. Climbing out of Frankfurt there was a bit of mild turbulence, but that was a matter of minutes. Inflight entertainment was started, which - for me - meant that I took out the book I was reading and soon the crew started the bar service, followed within minutes by lunch.
While my vegetarian meal had not been confirmed, the regular menu of QR seems to always include a non-meat-option; unfortunately it did contain fish, so I had to do a bit of "sorting" through my meal, but in the end, it was very tasty.
Our route took us south of Vienna, from there slightly north of Istanbul, followed by a southern circumnavigation of Iraq, during which I got my view of the, when viewed from a plane, usual beautiful sunset.
Soon, our descent into Doha began, after overflying Bahrain we were over the Persian Gulf; several turns later, the flight touched down.
Doha - The Airport
If I had to sum this airport up in one word, the word would be: dump.
This is clearly the worst airport that I've stepped inside; I know that Doha is undergoing a lot of work, including the construction of a new terminal - the construction is quite obvious inside and outside the terminal... but an airline that, in my opinion, righteously so has a 5 star rating on the (not always reliable) Skytrax survey, this airport is clearly an embarrasement.
I don't know whether it was just bad planning, but I think QR really needs to act - and act fast: there's not even close to enough seating capacity, and that's already during off-peak times, but from an organisational standpoint, the airport is a nightmare: too few security checkpoints (on my outbound flight, the metal detector beeped when I walked through, without anyone caring about it - fortunately this performance was not repeated on the return flight: if the detector beeped, people were checked thoroughly), the displays actually showed flights listed as "boarding" or, even better, "last call" without the flight even having had a gate assigned to it...
The restaurants in the terminal's upper level did nothing to thrill me (one fastfood-like restaurant, one shop selling ice-cream), the only good one was the Coffee Beanery, where I sat down for an evening dose of caffeine.
The one truly good point about Doha is: shopping. The duty free section of the airport offers really good prices and a good selection. This, truly, is the one high-point of the airport for transit passengers.
One point of advice: don't use the toilets.
... don't ask...
On my outbound flight, I unfortunately had a very long connection time - 5 hours 45 minutes; unfortunately, I missed the off-peak period for finding a seat (of which there weren't many available even then), but once I was ready to sit down, there were probably 2-3 people per available seat in the terminal. So, I kept walking around - probably did about 15-20 rounds through the complete terminal (upper level, lower level, duty free section, gates, ...) before I spotted a seat, which I then did not leave for the next 3 hours.
Fortunately, just short of midnight, the gate for my flight to Male was opened, so I drifted over and went through the gate; once again, just as when arriving from Frankfurt, the transfer to the plane was by bus (since DOH has no gates at this time).
Departure: Doha @ 00:35 on 11 May 2006
Arrival: Male @ 07:15 on 11 May 2006
Aircraft: Airbus A300-600, A7-ABO
Seat: 29J, Aisle, next to the central F/A seat
Photo © Gerry Stegmeier
Photo © Patrick Wirth
After boarding, I located my seat and was a bit surprised to see that it was a single seat, aisle on the left side, the F/A's seat on the right side; I chatted with the F/A stationed there, who was a Maldivian national, and after she quickly confirmed that my meal request had been confirmed for this flight, she noted my new seat - about 5 or 6 rows further back at the window.
Now, a short while ago I read someone's comment here on a.net that he found the pitch on the A300 bad - I found it quite comfortable... then again, maybe it was just the missing PTV-box. The again, I had two or three centimeters more space between my knees and the seat in front of me than on the A330s, so it really must have been better.
We took off slightly delayed, with, again, a very light load of passengers on board...
Shortly after takeoff, dinner was served - pasta with cheese and vegetables; rather simple, but very tasty - this was accompanied by fruit, some bread and a salad (unfortunately, this consisted of almost 50% onions, so I didn't eat it). After I had finished my dinner, I fell asleep within minutes, waking up to this sight:
At this point, I knew I was close to finally being able to relax...
Once the plane had parked in front of the terminal, the engines were shut off - moments later, the doors were open and we were stepping out into air that had already reached 30°C at 7:00 in the morning... just what I had hoped for.
Immigration was quick, my bag was the 5th one to arrive in the baggage claim area, and I was through customs within moments (bags get x-rayed on arrival here!).
Outside the terminal, I quickly found a representative for the resort, who informed me that the boat transfer would be in a matter of minutes - I sat down in the café and got another dose of caffeine and, just as I had finished the coffee, the boat was ready.
Here, now, are a few shots of the island on which I spent the next 6 days relaxing, reading, sunning and sleeping... no computers, no telephones, no television, no newspapers... heavenly.
I was extremely lucky - the weather was perfect, the last day (the one on which I made some of those pictures of the beach) was the first one without a clear blue sky, and I didn't get even a single drop of rain.
Nonetheless, after 6 days, 5 1/2 books (2378 pages read, the 6th book I'll have to finish here at home), two bottles of tanning lotion used up, several hours spent just under the waterline swimming through corals with tropical fish all around me, it was time to go home.
At 16:30 on 16 May 2006, I was picked up for my transfer to the airport; as on the previous transfer, it took about 30 minutes by speedboat. At the airport, the check-in counters for my flight hadn't opened quite yet, but after a short wait, people were admitted to the check-in hall.
Here, for the first time in days, I was surrounded by hundreds of people, and I suddenly became aware of what I'd liked most about my stay on that island in the Indian Ocean: the almost complete silence, the tranquility.
After a while of waiting in the middle of other tourists, several of them severely sunburnt with the skin peeling off (seriously, folks, do the words "sunburn", "skin cancer", "tanning lotion" or "sun blocker" really mean nothing to so many?), I was checked in for my two flights home; afterwards, I again passed through immigration and entered the waiting hall. There, I did something that, till now, still baffles me: I went to the restaurant and bought something for dinner. Why I did that, I don't know - I wasn't really hungry and I was going to get something to eat within a short time anyhow, onboard the plane.
In any case, the flight was called on time and I boarded the plane through the front steps; one thing about Qatar Airways: I've not flown with another airline yet that so consequently uses front and rear doors for boarding and disembarking - a good idea, sped things up quite a bit.
Departure: Male @ 20:15 on 16 May 2006
Arrival: Doha @ 22:45 on 16 May 2006
Aircraft: Airbus A300-600, A7-AFA
Seat: 11A, Window, in front of the wing
Photo © Joel Vogt
Photo © Gerhard Vysocan
While waiting for the flight to leave, several thunderstorms started closing in on the airport; almost constant lightnings illuminated the sky, which was quite a beautiful sight... it was also the cause for quite a bit of turbulence after our departure.
Takeoff from Male was, with an almost full load of pax, very quick - the A300 really does seem to have quite some thrust reserves. Moments after takeoff, we were in a 180° turn, which took us past the airport...
Once again, dinner was served shortly after takeoff - though for some reason, just 27 hours later, I have no idea what was served; I do remember that it was good, though.
The rest of the flight was, as usual, uneventful - a film was shown on the "main screen" (i.e. LCDs throughout the cabin), but, again, I don't remember anything about it... I put on my earphones, switched on my iPod and listened to Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition".
Somewhat ahead of schedule, we began our descent into Doha...
... where we taxied to our parking position past what I'd say looks like a first glimpse at the terminal facility that will, some day, make up this airport:
Once again, I was inside this dreadful airport, fortunately this time the stay was to be much shorter, just above 2 hours. Still longer than I'd want to be in this airport, but certainly better than another 6 hour wait.
Again, the airport did not disappoint - this time it was my flight to Frankfurt as well as a flight to Milan which, on all displays, were being listed as "Final Call" before a gate was even opened for them... unbelievable.
Departure: Doha @ 01:15 on 17 May 2006
Arrival: Frankfurt @ 06:50 on 17 May 2006
Aircraft: Airbus A330-200, A7-ACF
Seat: 17K, Window, over the wing
Photo © K.H. Ng - HKAEC
Photo © Stewart Andrew
After boarding, I got to my seat and was disappointed to see that, for the first time, I had someone sitting next to me - this, coupled with the space under the seat being stolen by the PTV-box again, made me expect a bad flight; but I was lucky, the middle part of row 17 only had a single person sitting in it, so I relocated there; this way, I was able to strech out again and get a good night's worth of sleep.
Shortly before takeoff, the lights were dimmed - and this was when I got my first glimpse of the lighting system:
When the lights were brightened again, they were increased slowly in intensity, which makes the whole effect much more comfortable for us pieces of "self loading cargo"...
During the night, the lights were left on a low setting - dark enough to allow sleeping, but bright enough to help you when walking down the aisle to the lavatory...
I then took a short trip through QR's AVOD System named Waves, here are some screenshots (some also taken later during the flight):
Before the post-departure snack was served, the crew passed out the amenity kits, containing socks, sleep googles, a toothbrush and earplugs.
About 90 minutes prior to landing in Frankfurt, we were woken up for breakfast.
Afterwards, the crew passed through the cabin with duty free items and finally, the cabin was prepared for landing; after one or two holding patterns, the flight touched down on time.
On the ground, we taxied to an apron parking position, which I didn't mind since I wasn't in a hurry - after everyone had disembarked, we were brought to the terminal by bus. Immigration was quick, as usual, and the walk to the baggage claim took only about 3 or 4 minutes; there, unfortunately, I had to wait almost 30 minutes before my bag finally arrived.
The Ride Home
So now I had my bad, and walked into the train station - the next train into town arrived 5 minutes later, and I was on my way towards Hauptwache; there I changed to the subway station for the train that would bring me home... at least, if it arrived: 10 minutes after entering the station, all monitors went from displaying when the next train arrives to displaying "Bitte Zugschild beachten" (in other words "please check the train's destination displayed in the front window before boarding"); another 10 minutes later, the monitors went completely blank.
No announcements were made, the monitors remained blank, while on the next track, several trains passed through...
It took almost another 20 minutes, before the monitors started displaying something again, and another 10 minutes before the first train arrived; it was hopelessly overcrowded, so I waited for the next one (sometimes I think I'm just too patient for my own good ). 5 minutes later that arrived, I switched to the bus 10 minutes later and, at just before 9:00, almost two hours after landing, I was finally home.
Qatar Airways is amongst the better airlines I've flown on - maybe not the best, but certainly among the top 5. This airline's hub, however, is certainly the worst airport that I've come in contact with over the past 5 or 10 years: this is something that Qatar Airways, or the State of Qatar, should fix with extreme urgency - that airport is not worthy of a "never come back airline", it most certainly isn't anywhere near adequate for Qatar Airways.
Hope you enjoyed reading this - though I know that you won't have enjoyed it anywhere near as much as I enjoyed my time on that island...