A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Kuwait International Airport

Kuwait, the airport, is just weird. Entry into the terminal is through a bizarre scrum of four gates leading to different check-in areas for different airlines, with cars honking at each other outside and a constant flow of passengers, trolleys and porters trying to squeeze through both in and out. If going to Zones 2 or 3, you first have to trudge through an honest-to-Allah multilevel shopping mall, complete with Debenhams department store and Harley-Davidson outlet; on the other side, finally, lies Check-In Zone 3 for local LCC Jazeera (crammed full of pax) and Qatar (almost queueless). After a brief scare of demanding proof of my Singapore residency, successfully bluffed by flashing my Access Card (which is no such thing, but has enough state seals, embedded photos and IC contacts to make it look terribly convincing), I was checked in and could start wondering how I’d spend the next two hours.

The inside of the airport is old-fashioned but well-maintained. The gates go from number 1 to number 26, which might make you think KWI is pretty big, but unfortunately everything between 7 and 20 appears to be missing. There’s a boozeless but nonetheless amazingly popular dutyfree (why, I know not; an iPod Shuffle 1GB costs nearly twice what it does in Singapore), a McD’s/Pizza Hut, a Costa Coffee, and that was it. Except for a Ghiraoui chocolate boutique, which I inspected in detail, playing a fun game of “spot the chocolate” by comparing the unlabeled pralines with an illustrated brochure, and eventually handing over my last five dinars to the equally bored (but rather cute) Filipina salesgirl in exchange for rather more than 5 KD worth of chocolate.

On the way in it was the ammo boxes, on the way out it was the soldiers: none in full uniform, mind you, but those GI Joe haircuts, desert camo everything and combat boots are a bit of a giveaway. Even some of the Filipina ladies were toting about “US Army Reserve”-branded bags.

And that was that. Boarding was ordered, we were marched into the airline by tube (no buses here), and the Kuwait Towers loomed on the horizon as we did a few turns and then set off to Doha and home.

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A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Kuwait City

Kuwait was rather more fun than I expected. My arrival wasn’t particularly propitious: it took me over an hour to get my on-arrival visa, I was stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the hotel, the city was wreathed in a persistent slow-motion sandstorm for the first three days, filling the air and even the swimming pool with dust, and at work half the hardware on site was missing and the customer’s idea of reasonable timelines was rather different from ours. But the Courtyard Kuwait City is a mind-bogglingly amazing hotel for a Courtyard, our partner’s technical people were actually competent (such a refreshing change from the usual), and Kuwait had one immense advantage over my previous work site: it’s not Saudi Arabia.

It only slowly sunk into me how different these two “conservative Islamic” countries are. Yes, both ban alcohol and pork and like to execute drug smugglers… but that’s about it, as in almost all other things, Kuwait is infinitely more laissez-faire than the Saudis. Women can, and do, wear pretty much what they want, with a remarkable array of head-turners at the (ultra-expensive) Arraya Centre mall next to the hotel and some even lounging about in bikinis at the hotel pool. Music in public is allowed, which — even subconsciously — just makes a huge difference to how lively a restaurant or shop feels. And while prayer calls were piped into shopping malls and echoed along the streets, nobody cared if you trotted off into the mosque or not. Saudi papers, and streets, and TV shows, are full of effusive paeans to the Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques HH King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and the vast tentacular branches of the al-Sauds; Kuwaiti papers, on the other hand, are full of Parliament debates, squabbles between voting blocks, elections, demonstrations and all the noisy trappings of a democracy; while Kuwait certainly isn’t a real one, it certainly feels like one, and even the occasional paeans to the wisdom and sagacity of HH the Amir were usually tucked away on page C17.

Above all, though, the best thing about Kuwait is just that you could feel at ease: in Saudi, you’re always a little on edge, not even because of the ethereal threat of terrorism but just always being a little unsure if you’re staying within the tightly prescribed boundaries of Allowed behavior…

The downside to visiting Kuwait in late June, though, is the heat. After the dust storm and its momentary (comparative) coolness wore off, the mercury crept closer and closer to 50 degrees, making the daytime feel literally — not figuratively, literally — like a sauna. Metaphoric saunas are usually associated with humidity, but no, the real thing is actually quite dry, and that’s how it’s in Kuwait too: you can walk outside for a few minutes, thinking “gee, now that’s hot”, before you start to sweat. But the evenings were quite tolerable, and even the daytime furnace heat was almost enjoyable if spent at the Courtyard’s breezy rooftop pool, which by afternoon had heated to the point that the jacuzzi next to it was usually cooler.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Doha to Kuwait

QR132 KWI-DOH Y A321 seat 14F
QR137 DOH-KWI Y A320 seat 18ANear-identical planes, identical service. On the tarmac in DOH before boarding, we stood in the bus and watched box after identical box of what was most probably ammunition for the war in Iraq, all marked with orange “EXPLOSIVE” diamonds, being loaded into the belly of the plane. Eek?The A321 had the same seats as the A330, minus the AVOD (and hence no more metal box stealing half your foot space, yay!), while the A320’s styling was more old-fashioned — I thought I was on a B737 at first — but no different in seat pitch or any other amenities.

The hop from Doha to Kuwait or v.v. is only just over an hour, so inflight entertainment consisted of exactly the same Tom & Jerry cartoons both ways. We were served a “refreshment” consisting of a small sandwich, cookies, a miniature Bounty chocolate bar and tea/coffee/juice/water.

Probably the most memorable thing about the second flight was my seatmate Handy Assmat(*), who showed up wearing a pink polo shirt, shorts, flip-flops and carry-on consisting in toto of a tiny Swarowski gift bag and a mobile phone. Fashion faux pas aside, this alone wasn’t enough to qualify for being an Assmat — in fact, I was initially mildly jealous of such fearsome packing-fu and Zen-like disregard for material things — but he soon started chomping away at those dingleberries: first a loud phone conversation informing not only his girlfriend but everybody in the vicinity that he was only in eco because first class was full (which it wasn’t, I might add), and then he proceeded to delete messages from his phone, one by one, throughout the entire flight, taxi, takeoff, and landing. Clickety clickety clickety. And none of the cabin crew, who passed by half a dozen times and clearly saw it, said a thing. (Was it in flight mode? I’m not sure, but how would the flight crew know?) I was even more surprised to see him board the same connecting flight to Singapore… but once on board I never saw him again. Good riddance.

(*) A guy by this name is actually the manager of a Chili’s in Kuwait, and his first name is correctly spelled Hamdy, but it seemed rather more appropriate this way.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Doha Airport

Qatar is the world’s only country whose name starts with the letter Q, and they don’t let you forget it: in the five-minute ride from plane to terminal, you pass signs for QAS, QAAC, QNB, QJet and QTel. But DOH is also the closest I’ve seen to an airline monoculture anywhere in the world: both planes on the tarmac and flights on the information boards were 95% Qatar Airways. The DOH-based frequent flyer isn’t going to have much choice.

The airport is amazingly small and unpretentious for what may be the world’s richest country’s main gateway: one runway, one small rectangular main terminal with no jetaways, only buses. On the inside, DOH feels like a recently-built airport in a small city in a rich European country: slick, modern, supremely efficient, yet without the slightest bit of the usual Arabic penchant for ostentation with gold paint, chandeliers, palm trees and whatnot. Even duty free feels downright restrained. Enjoy it while it lasts, they’re already busily building a new DOH which will be umpteen times larger…

I had tight connections both ways — 1:20 on the way in, a scary-sounding 0:50 on the way out — but Doha’s minimum connecting time is 45 minutes and, indeed, everything worked like clockwork. I would even have had time to duty-free shop on the way back, but at midnight the queues at the registers were long and I was scared out of line by snippy “passengers on the flight to Singapore report to gate for IMMEDIATE boarding!” announcements coupled with a boarding pass admonition to show up 20 minutes before departure… which (inevitably) just left me with time to drum my fingers in the bus departure lounge. Gah.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Singapore to Doha

Changi Terminal 3 at 3 AM in the morning is positively comatose. Qatar had four desks open and a supervisor watching over it all, but I was the only passenger. My iPod having done a disappearing act earlier in the week, I’d been planning to pick up a new one at Changi, but hadn’t expected all electronics shops in all three terminals to be closed. Lacking a lounge, I picked up a few snacks at the convenience store and attempted to sink into one of the plush-looking seats at the closed Il Lido cafe, only to find that they were actually rock-hard. Next time, I’m not showing up two hours before my flight…

QR639 SIN-DOH Y A330 seat 17K
QR638 DOH-SIN Y A330 seat 18A

I had high expectations for these flights, and due to that very fact was ever so slightly let down. Based on the scuttlebutt on FlyerTalk, the A330 is considered the bee’s knees of the QR fleet, but apparently this applies mostly to the pointy end of the plane: in the back of the bus, the seat pitch is less than generous (32″, says SeatGuru) and window seats on both sides of the plane turned out to have half their foot space eaten up by the AVOD box. The configuration is a rather odd 4-2-4, and while on the way in I had a free seat next to me and could catch a few Z’s, on the way back the plane was packed to the max. Based on quietness of Changi, I’d assumed the plane would be half empty, but no; this flight continues onward to/from Jakarta, and the rear half of the plane — on both flights — was packed with Indonesian aunties in hijabs on their way to work in the Gulf, with virtually no men to be seen. Obviously a more profitable strategy than Etihad’s AUH-SIN-BNE flights.

But what the seat lacked in pitch, it almost made up in AVOD. QR’s “Waves” is one of the best I’ve tried, with 120 movies on demand, another stack of TV shows, an eclectic set of music (mmm, ghazals) and a zoomable in-flight map. The screen is large and the controls very responsive.

Both flights were red-eyes, so the service followed the same pattern: “refreshment” (read: sandwich) after departure, then hot breakfast before arrival. QR doesn’t do hot towels, instead passing out those dinky little disinfectant wipes (boo), but they do give a nice amenity pack with shades, earplugs and even a tiny toothbrush, and even the bathroom amenities are by Aigner. The thing I missed the most compared to SQ, though, was the total lack of water runs: you had to page the crew to top up on your H20, which isn’t really excusable on an 8-hour flight, and unlike Etihad they don’t hand out water bottles either.

Last but not least, QR gets some brownie points for crew: especially on the return flight, the cabin crew were absurdly attractive, with Japanese and south Indian ladies who should be strutting on a catwalk in Paris instead of dishing out omelettes on a plane.

All in all, I would probably have been delighted with QR if only I’d had a little more space for my legs. On any future flights, I’m definitely steering clear of the windows, or better yet, angling for a way to get myself into C.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Singapore to Kuwait on Qatar Airways

The Firm recently found itself with a customer in Iraq, but visiting Baghdad being presently contraindicated for unbelieving khawagas like myself, I was asked to visit the next best thing — Kuwait. Always ready to check another Gulf state off my list, I accepted the offer and set off figuring out how to get there on Singapore. There are no direct flights, and I first looked at Thai via BKK, but they only fly three times a week and the schedule didn’t fit. Going through DXB on SQ and/or Emirates would have required two long layovers on the return leg, although detouring via Sri Lanka did sound kind of interesting… but in the end, I decided to try out Qatar for the first time: the schedule was excellent, the price was right and it was time to see if they lived up to their “five-star airline” hype, especially in Y — there are plenty of trip reports about QR C/F on FT, but I couldn’t find any for economy.

http://openflights.org/trip/1

As I flew the same flights on (almost) the same planes in both directions, I’m going to condense the flights together: one report each for SIN-DOH-SIN and DOH-KWI-DOH. No pictures, alas, as my CF card did a disappearing trick on my very last day and took every last picture of Kuwait along with it.