It’s just gone 7.30am on 27th December and out taxi inches its way around the Heathrow inner ring road towards T3. For many reasons I am very fond of this airport, but it is increasingly becoming a rather unattractive place from which to embark or arrive at. The T3 entrance has been jazzed up with a bit of fluorescent lighting and some bolt on architecture... however this hardly makes it an international gateway. One only hopes T5 will bring long promised relief. We quickly find the Qatar Airways Business Class check in and are swiftly and courteously processed. As we are travelling with our 2 year old son I have pre-allocated seats with Qatar. It is easier to park a two year old next to a window so I have booked A-C allocations on our four flights. There has been an aircraft change on the LHR-DOH run (A332 instead of A333) so we get 11A-C instead of 10A-C which is fine. Unfortunately however we have not got our allocated DOH-KUL seats (2A-C) but instead take 4E, F&J with a request to seek a change in DOH. I am not in the mood to be stroppy this morning so we move on through the Express Security lane; Express we soon find meaning big queue rather than massive queue. It is now 8.30am and our flight call time is 9.10am so we do a bit of shopping and decide to skip the lounge, on the basis that the only decent lounges at LHR are those of BA and Virgin. Then it’s off on a march to gate 23, where we are immediately boarded onto A7-ACA a very smart three class Airbus A330-202. I had read and heard much about Qatar Airways before choosing to book with them and am not disappointed by the immediately courteous and personal service we receive from the crew. In particular our son is well looked after. Drinks are offered and as it’s early I take a juice rather than champagne; my wife however bags the Laurient Perrier champers! After-take-off drinks orders are also taken. I sit next to my son for the take-off….just in-case. He now delightfully refers to all airplanes as either Airbus or Jumbo Jet and, as his sad plane loving dad, I am happy to indulge his every question about engines, wings, trucks and buildings as we make our way to the holding point of 27L. Some 25 minutes after our on time push back our nose is pointing West and we begin our acceleration down 27L. I love flying the big-busses, in particular the A330 and A346. They are remarkably quiet and “purposeful” aircraft and of course this A332 does not fail to disappoint as we lift off into the winter sky after a very respectable sub 40 second take-off run, peeling left to track the OCK and MAY VOR’s before coasting out just south of Manston airfield. On board the service has begun and my campari and orange arrives with a bowl of warm nuts (it must be 6 o’clock somewhere in the world!). Our lunch orders are taken from the excellent menu and I plumb for a prawn and crayfish salad starter and main of monkfish. My wife takes a more Arabic flavoured salad and curry. Unprompted, the crew produce a lovely plate of cut fruit and grapes for my son which makes him very happy. When lunch arrives it does not disappoint. I compare all airline meals with one I was once served in seat 19A of a certain BAC/Aerospatiale Type 102, at FL590 doing twice the speed of sound. Whilst I know in my mind that particular airline meal will never be beaten, the one being served now certainly tops recent Business Class offerings from BA, South African, Lufthansa, Finnair and SIA; yes SIA. The prawn and crayfish are superb and the monkfish is of such quality that it could have emerged from the kitchen of a high quality bistro. I take a superb Hunter Sauvignon as wine accompaniment, which is regularly and generously topped up. I conclude my courses with a very good cheese platter which I share with my son and a coffee. He spots the Godiva chocolate offering and promptly devours one. Some three hours have now passed and my baby sitting shift ends and I swap seats with my wife. The crew have brought our son some toys and one purser emerges every once in while with an origami plane or animal. This is a GOOD airline. For me I soon discover one thing that makes them an even better airline. The IFE system is superb [Note: except for the Live TV which I could not get to work on any of the four Qatar flights I was to take]. A brilliant film selection plus the best music menu I have ever seen. Why could BA not come up with this in their new Club World product? Cost? Anyway any airline that has not one but TWO Johnny Cash albums in its IFE selection has found its way into my heart and I pop back the seat, put on the noise cancelling headphones and indulge myself with American Recordings III and Legend. I am sure at one point I sing out loud “…my name is Sue, how do you Do!...” The skies darken as we accelerate away from the sun. A strong tail wind up at our cruise level of FL410 has had our ground speed up to 640mph at times and as the Arabian Peninsular stretches out ahead of us, we are served excellent English Tea complete with cut sandwiches, scones and cream. I feel the nose dip as we leave TOD and know we will be on the ground in DOH on schedule at 7.30pm local. Below us is that remarkable blackness one only gets flying over desert, punctuated by the old light here and there from small settlements or oil compounds. Off the port wing the lights of Bahrain emerge in the distance. The arabian air is smooth this evening as we enter the southerly downwind left hand for DOH, with the first murmurings from the flap and slat motors audible as we work our way down base leg; the Doha city lights now dominating the blackness of the desert. A greaser of a landing and soon Charlie Alpha is guided onto a remote stand to the West of the runway. Actually all stands at DOH are remote, but I’m not fussed as in my mind steps are the only proper way of boarding and leaving airplanes. The night is cool at 16 degrees and we are escorted to our bus which takes us to the exclusive Qatar Airways First/Business Terminal (FBT), although via a rather protracted route, first dropping off pax at the main terminal. Never mind, it’s a chance to see whats going on at DOH. Unsurprisingly most parked aircraft belong to the home airline, although I also spot airbuses from local rivals Eithad and Emirates as well as a rather smart looking Royal Jordanian EMB 195. Our layover is 4 hours, which minus the coming and going to aircraft will probably be just three. The FBT is very smart. A large lobby entrance with security and duty free sales and then escalators to the first floor. First and Business have separate lounges; one assumes the First has a few more percs as well as probably being less populated. However, throughout our stay here the lounge never gets crowded, even towards the late hours when Qatar flights are heading out East all over Asia. My wife is a genuine foodie and she judges airlines not by their fleets but by their food. The Qatar lounge food gets a thumbs up, particularly with the excellent local flavours on offer. Sods law now I am 3,500 miles from my dentist, I have developed a tooth ache. I ask a Qatar agent if there is a chemist but am promptly escorted to the in-house medical centre where a doctor prescribes strong paracetamol which take effect immediately. One very odd thing about this terminal however is that there is no clock! Time has flown and a Qatar agent walks around the lounge advising of the departure of QR620 to KUL. Unfortunately the Qatar gate agent has not been able to switch our seats, as the pax allocated them will not move. They have however reconfirmed all our allocated seats for the return journey.
We board the bus for the short drive to A7-ACK, another A330-202 but this time in a two class configuration. Our two year old decides he wants to climb every step upto the aircraft, so several minutes later we arrive at the cabin door where the service starts where it left off on the London flight. The four rows of seats in the Business Cabin of ‘CK are of different design to those on ‘CA; slightly less opulent in their trimming but with a much bigger TV screen and a very nifty centre tray. Doors are closed 5 minutes late but we are soon pushed back and headed to the runway. The powerful A330 makes light work of departure and we are soon climbing northwards in smooth air into the black desert night. Our priority is to get our son to sleep which we manage about half an hour after take-off. I decide to decline dinner (although have another paracetamol and a cheeky beer) before lowering the seat to its full 160 recline and getting my head down. I soon discover that actually the best position is a slightly raised cradle. Interestingly I have also found this a better resting position on the BA, SIA and SAA seats. The only airline seats I have ever managed to sleep soundly on were the flat leather giants that used to populate the Business Cabins of SAA’s 747’s…how I now miss those 74's on the LHR-CPT run. As requested, some five hours later the purser taps me on the shoulder and awakens me from my slumber for breakfast. The cabin is still dark and quiet so I use the facilities before settling down to an excellent cooked breakfast of fresh juice, fruit, cereal, yoghurt and a very nice omelette. As I complete my breakfast, light is slowly restored to the cabin and thereafter the nose dips beginning our decent into KUL. The excellent crew let our son sleep on until 10 minutes before landing. Our route has taken us across Southern India and out into the Bay of Bengal and then Andaman Sea before passing just North of Banda Aceh and then down the Strait of Malacca into KUL. ‘CK ploughs its way through the late morning cumulous, some of it now powering upwards into giant CB’s. The familiar Malaysian sights of red earth and plantation fill the windows and we touch down 15 minutes ahead of schedule at KUL on 28th December. Taxi to the gate is swift and we are soon deplaned into KUL’s airy and cool terminal where we board the mono rail for baggage collection and passport control. BAA take note…this is what the international airport experience should be like. Bags arrive about 30 minutes after landing and our holiday in Malaysia can now begin.
It’s 8th Jan and after a near couple of weeks with friends in Kuala Lumpur and Penang we are headed for Langkawi. We leave our hire car at the well signposted drop off point at KUL and walk the short distance to the terminal. We are taking Malaysian Airlines flight MS1438 to Langkawi. Check-in in at the Domestic Zone B is swift with no queue and after a quick coffee we are soon at gate B5 looking out at Boeing 737-400 9M-MQF which will be our charge this morning. When it comes to short haul I’d rather be on a baby bus that the baby Boeing, but one has to say the 737 has served Malaysian very well and points to an airline which chose the right plane for the right job. The 73’s are however beginning to look a little ragged at the edges and their replacement is perhaps a little over due. We board on time and take our seats 25A-C towards the rear of the cabin. The plane is full, but the baggage loads looks light and along with our probable light fuel load, the 73 is soon headed skyward pointing south into the steamy mid-day air. We reach top of climb after about 20 minutes so I guess we are at something like FL28 - 30. Juice and nuts are served before we begin our decent into Langkawi. The sea has changed colour from the murky brown that surrounds the western shores of Malaysia to tropical blue. Last time I flew to this island I spent most of the flight in the cockpit jump seat and enjoyed the landing…how times have changed, a privilege that my son will regrettably not be able to enjoy as he gets older. I feel us intercept the localiser from the right with the accompanying activity of flaps and slats and clunk from gear down. Coasting down the ILS we pass the many small islands to the South of Langkawi before making a 10/10 landing. We are the only aircraft on the ground and within 5 minutes of shut down we are headed down the rear steps on what is a beautiful sunny day on Langkawi.
12th Jan. We have checked in at 2.30pm for our 3.30pm departure to KUL and are given seats 7A-C. Langkawi airport is bustling with an Air Asia A320 on the tarmac and a Firefly Fokker 50 due in from Penang. Our Malaysian B747-400 9M-MQG duly arrives at 3.10pm, inbound from KUL and is quickly deplaned and refuelled. We are soon boarded. The 737 turns off stand under it’s own power and flaps and slats are immediately deployed on the short taxi to the threshold of the Southerly runway. The aircraft is about three quarters full and makes light work of the departure into the beautiful afternoon, leaving behind the wonderful island that is Langkawi. As with the inbound flight the cabin crew manage a round of juice and nuts before the nose dips and we begin our decent into KUL. The weather is surprisingly good with none of the thunderstorms that usually accompany a January Kuala Lumpur afternoon. We pass to the West of KL and parallel highway E1 towards KUL. Although the afternoon weather appears benign enough there may have been a gust or two on very short final as the flight crew manage to slam the 737 into the runway with an accompanying “whole lotta sideways” action going on. A short taxi and we are back at gate B5 for our last couple of days in KL.
6.30am on 14th Jan. We have stayed overnight at the KLIA Pan Pacific so as to lessen the impact of our 7.30am departure on Qatar Airways flight 625 to DOH. Check-in is effortless, as is security and immigration which is a good job because as soon as we step off the mono-rail transfer train our flight is called. Waiting at gate C2 is A7-ACK the same A330-202 which bought us here. We board and take our seats 2A-C and are offered news papers, towels and juice. Our departure will be to the North with a route taking us up the Strait of Malacca and out into the Bay of Bengal, crossing Central India and then the Arabian Sea before passing over the Gulf States and clipping Saudi Arabia before entering Qatar. We are soon lined up facing North and then commence what turns out to be a 50 second take-off roll…we are clearly loaded up to the max. Shortly after reaching our initial cruise altitude of FL280 a full and excellent breakfast is served; selections having been made pre-take off. For the remainder of the flight the cabin is quiet and darkened as most people grab some sleep. Our son crashes out soon after breakfast which affords us a couple of hours to read and surf the IFE. I reconnect with Johnny Cash. Throughout the flight the excellent crew offer refreshments before the cabin emerges from slumber some half an hour before touch down in DOH. The captain reports poor weather with low cloud and a mere 14 degrees. Our landing on RW34 is a greaser and we taxi off to a remote stand on the Eastern side of the airport, on block on time. Although this stand position then involves a lengthy bus transfer to the FBT, it does mean the bus passes the interesting GA and Helicopter stands. ALL the airliners at DOH this morning belong to the home airline and reveal what is a full house of types including A330-200 and 300, A340, A319, A320, A321, A300 (freighter and pax version), A310 and the spanking new 777-300 A7-BAB. The FBT terminal is again a nice place to spend the hour or so before QR001 to LHR is called.
We are bussed to the furthest Southerly stand where A340-600 A7-AGA awaits. We board the very smart aircraft and take our seats, 11A-C in the forward Business Class cabin. Laurient Perrier vintage Champagne is quickly offered and accepted. The departure has been delayed for some 30 minutes so it is at exactly 1.15pm local time that four of Derby’s finest are unleashed to send the giant airbus effortlessly down RW34 and into the now rainy desert skies. Take-off in an A346 is like no other wide body airliner I know. 747’s (off all types), L1011’s, DC-10’s and MD-11’s are all action with much shaking, vibrating and chest beating going on, with the Boeing and Airbus twins being a little more refined. Nothing wrong with that at all you might say; indeed I love ‘em all. To the A346 however take-off is a minor task. Save for the lovely close harmonies of Mr Rolls and Mr Royce’s wonderful Trents, one would hardly know several hundred tons of metal, plastic, fuel and flesh had become airborne. The seat belt sign is soon extinguished, champagne again offered and lunch service begins. I have chosen a prawn salad to start and scallops for mains, again with the Hunter Sauvignon I had on QR006 some 19 days ago. The food is again of a very good standard. A nice cheese platter and glass of port later and I push back the seat and watch 3:10 to Yuma. With a couple of hours to go English aftenoon tea and cakes are served. I have lost count of the number of hot towels this airline has given me on the four flights, but here come another one. ‘GA ploughs its way across Iran, Iraq, Turkey and then into Southern and Central Europe. Barely a flutter of turbulence disturbs the cabin during the 7 hours before the Essex coast appears out the window heralding our arrival back in UK airspace. It is a beautiful clear evening, but regrettably the captain announces arrival delays so we complete one orbit at the Clacton VOR before entering another good half dozen or so orbits at LAM. At one point I spot 12 other sets of airliner navigation lights in the Essex skies. Eventually we swing out of the hold and enter the “BIG S” which takes us first due West then due East and then back due West on long final for 27R. A fine landing and thankfully a short taxi to our gate at T3. We thank the Qatar cabin crew for the last time and deplane to end our fantastic trip to Malaysia. Thankfully Heathrow is quiet so immigration and baggage recovery are both swift.
In summary Qatar are a very, very good airline and their Business Class product is well constructed and well executed by superb cabin crew and product (food, IFE and cabins). If the seats were true flat beds, they might lay claim by some margin to the best Business Class airline in the world. Malaysia Airlines operated on time and KUL remains a super if under used airport. As for the country and people of Malaysia? We can’t wait to go back.