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.

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EY 470 AUH-SIN Y B777-300 seat 54K

Another three-hour layover at a time when I’d really much prefer to be sleeping. I picked up a few bottles at the tax-free, noted to my surprise that Romeo & Julieta No.2’s are appreciably cheaper in EY’s in-flight sales than here (US$11.50 vs US$15 for box of 3), tried and failed to find a local souvenir that didn’t involve dates, and then hacked on my laptop for a few hours.

I’m starting to kind of like AUH though. The two-layered squashed-octopus shape means it’s really compact and easy to get around, and the bizarre blue-green tiles roof-fountain-structure pulls off the rare trick of making a terminal really stand out: there is no way you can possibly mistake AUH for any other terminal anywhere. It’ll be a real shame if the new Etihad terminal here is just another soulless box of glass and steel.

I’d picked my seat on this flight carefully. Conventional wisdom says seats at the back of the bus are bad, because it takes a long time to disembark and because the turbulence is worse, but I knew I’d be in no hurry in Singapore (my Access Card would get me past any immigration queues and I’d have to wait for my suitcase anyway, and turbulence doesn’t particularly bother me — I find it oddly relaxing in a “yay, I’m flying!” way. Etihad’s online seat map showed that the back of the plane has two rows with only two seats on the window sides, so I picked the second to last row: this way, I figured I’d guaranteed full recline, I’d have some useful extra space between my seat, and I’d have a fair shot at nobody sitting next to me.

Once in my seat, I realized that the extra space was virtually nonexistent: on eg LH 747s, it’s enough to stretch out both your legs, but here there wasn’t really appreciably more space than the other rows. And yes, the seat next to me stayed empty, but with a load of no more than 40% there were plenty to go around and a few lucky guys — including the guy in 53K — got a whole three-seat row to stretch out on.

Drink and cracker service rolled around soon after takeoff, but it took close to two hours until they got around to lunch. Here’s the menu:

Asian glass noodle mixed seafood salad

White fish masala, biryani and harissa vegetables
Saffron vegetable lasagna with basil tomato coulis
Singapore hawker’s chicken laksa yong tau foo

Ginger and kiwi fruit mousse
Strawberry coulis

Cheese

Tea and coffee
Hot chocolate

Note to the menu writer: if you’ve got two “coulis” in one meal, one of them atop lasagna at that, you’re trying too hard. Indeed, the crew did the right thing and reduced that down to “fish, vegetable or chicken?”, and I opted for the “chicken” as it just sounded so bizarre. I wasn’t disappointed: the entree turned out to be a collection of tofu, fishballs, shrimp and, yes, chicken on a bed of thick rice noodles with a sauce that was half laksa, half rendang, with coconut shreds, laksa leaf and plenty of spices. I suspect this might be a bit much for people unused to Southeast Asian cuisine, but for me the end result was delicious, and even the noodles had stayed firm instead of degenerating into sogginess. Full points to Etihad for ingenuity!

I watched No Country for Old Men, which isn’t very good in-flight fare because it demands your full attention, but it does certainly deserves its Oscars. I also realized that Etihad’s headphones, which are excellent for economy (solid, padded, cover the whole ear, comfy) also incorporate noise canceling — I’d just gotten a broken set on the DEL-AUH flight, and this time too the wiring was flaky enough that turning my head was enough to flip the canceling on and off.

And then to bed. Even us economy class plebs got socks, eyeshades and earplugs, and even the brown blanket seemed a little fluffier than what you’d usually get in Y. Two seats with a liftable divider ain’t too bad, and while they never turned the cabin lights off, I managed to contort myself into a semi-sleeping position and catch a few Z’s.

The menu had promised us a “refreshment” prior to arrive in Singapore, which I figured would be the same sandwich-and-juice deal as on the RUH flights. But nope: we were treated to cups of frozen-solid Haagen-Dazs instead.

Disembarkation, immigration and baggage claim went fast enough: the only problem was that the handle I used to pull along my diving gear-laden suitcase had been knocked cleanly off. On my previous trip, the same beaten-up old Samsonite had lost a wheel, but off it was to the baggage claim office. Sorting out the claim took a while, and I was told to expect a call sometime within a week — I was thus rather surprised to get a call on Saturday morning for pickup, and even more surprised to get the fixed bag on Monday. They’d even replaced the top handle as well!

SQ 943 DPS-SIN C B777-200 seat 15D

We left for the airport two hours before our flight, figuring we’d get there in half an hour, but due to a Galungan parade one of the main roads was closed and the alternate routes were thus jammed bumper to bumper. It took us one hour just to get near Kuta, usually a 10-15 minute trip, but then the traffic miraculously cleared up and we got to the airport a little under an hour before our flight.

Check-in was unproblematic, although I realized only later that we’d been unceremoniously shifted from my prebooked A/C seats across to D/E. Some last-minute duty-free shopping (bottle of Hatten rose wine, check) and a 5-minute breather in the lounge, which is a little tired, but has a reasonable selection of eats, a ridiculous amount of staff and has a noisy little outdoor patio in the “nice idea, poor execution” category… and then to the gate, past the economy class boarding scrum via the business class line. Rank hath its privileges.

There wasn’t much difference to the flight in, except that this time the plane did have AVOD, and (as all ex-DPS flights) there was no Book the Cook service. I neglected to snag the menu, but I had a rather blah baked snowfish dish, while Z tried out a rather reasonable lamb. The meal service was even more abbreviated than last time, with the ice cream replaced by such a generic dessert that I can’t even recall it afterwards. Z noted that the flight attendents addressed her by name, but not me, which may not be unrelated to the fact that my name is twice as long as hers…

The rest of the flight passed uneventfully and, to my mild disappointment, the flight landed at T2. Back in Singapore — but not for very long.

SQ 946 SIN-DPS C B777-200 seat 15A

As I’d expected, the plane turned out to be one of SQ’s regional models, without even on-demand video. I’d prebooked seats together for us and, as I kicked back and praised the joys of having some space in front of me for once, Z poured rain on my parade by noting that she’s small enough to sit in any seat and has a proven ability to sleep anywhere. Well, the back of the bus is that way, m’dear… but then a stewardess came to distract us with a glass of champagne and a terrible drink of the month involving apples, bitter lemon and 7-Up, and her fear of business class (a rather rare ailment about frequent flyers, I suspect) subsided into a mixture of relief and a wrinkled nose of disapproval when a passenger on the opposite site turned out to be wearing flip-flops and shorts revealing pale, hairy legs. So much for business class being all business.

I had one last surprise up my sleeve: I’d preordered Book the Cook for us and even gotten her selection for it by asking her to pick her favorites off an e-mailed menu without telling her what it was for. Reconstructed from memory, our “Light Lunch” menu was:

Appetizer
Scallops with avocado salsa

Main
Hers: Slipper lobster Thermidor, buttered asparagus, and slow-roasted
vine-ripened tomato, and saffron rice
His: Fish souffle and spicy minced chicken served with pineapple rice and
curried vegetables

Dessert
Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough or Strawberry Something ice cream

The scallops were sublime, big and juicy and a surprisingly good fit for the avocado, definitely one of the best things I’ve eaten on a plane. The lobster — originally my choice, but ever the gentleman, I bowed to her birthday veto — was also cooked to perfection, but my Thai-influenced entree was a bit of a disappointment: all of it (souffle, red curry chicken, green curry veggies) was furiously spicy and tasted like something I’d get in a Bangkok canteen for 30 baht, which isn’t to say it was bad, just not what I’d associate with “gourmet”. The Italian wine she opted for was quite tasty, while the German riesling (the only other white on the menu) was sickeningly sweet and singularly unsuitable for my dish.

It’s a short flight to Denpasar, so the meal service was abbreviated, with no dessert/cheese platter or liqueurs (although port was on the menu). But the ice cream was tasty, even though I had to ask for it twice, and by the time Z finished exploring her seat controls, it was already time to descend.

SQ 375 DXB-SIN Y B777-200 seat 59D

I hate airport transfer desks: they’re always full of people with bizarre problems flying on bizarre itineraries that made my half-paper, half-electronic SQ-SV mutant combo look normal. This time around, a Chinese guy with a dodgy ticket, a very lost-looking Somali housewife and a pair of Pakistani mullahs had to be disposed of before the frazzled Filipino agent got around to processing me, and even my ticket took a couple of phone calls to sort out.

But eventually I had a boarding pass in hand and I set off to check out the Star Alliance Lounge, which based on the amount of LH propaganda lying around probably used to be Lufthansa’s. For an airport the size of Dubai, it was rather ridiculously small, with seating for maybe 40 and most of all of those taken even on this offpeak weekday afternoon. The full bar looked pretty good and they had rather spotty free wifi, but food offerings were limited to a few miniature sandwich-type things, chips and peanuts and the selection of newspapers was heavily Germanic (LH again?).

Back on the bird, which was coming in from Moscow and hence full of Russians knocking back vodka like it was going out of style. Somewhat to my surprise this turned out to be one of SQ’s regional models with no AVOD, and I understood why the people stuck on this thing for 12 hours were intent on getting liquored up. I’d forgetten to online checkin back in Saudi, so I’d ended up with an inner aisle seat way in the back of the bus, but the middle seat was empty and I could stretch out a little.

We took off on schedule and within minutes were back inside that crazy tail wind: I could feel the plane jittering a little as it was pushed forward and the airshow speedometer showed an amazing ground speed of 1138 km/h! Alas, once out of the Gulf the wind slowed down and meal service started. As I honestly can’t remember what I ate, I’m pretty sure it was airplane food, but part of the blame has to lie on Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, an utterly brainless Hindi comedy of the type that makes three hours on a plane fly past. A bit of laptop hacking later a simple breakfast rolled around (choice of muffin or danish with tea or coffee), and before I knew the plane was starting its descent, with a good half hour shaved off the scheduled flight time of 7:15.

SQ494 SIN-DXB Y B777-300 seat 35H

The flight started off ominously: on all seat-back and cabin screens was a freeze frame from the SQ safety video, showing a little girl with an orange oxygen mask on her face and the caption: “Take care of yourself before attending to others.” Kiasu or what?

That aside, it was another day, another SQ 777 — SQ is the world’s biggest operator of the 777 and unsurprisingly it’s also by an overwhelming majority the most common plane I fly. Fortunately life is made marginally more interesting by the fact that SQ has no less than four variants of this. The pedestrian B777-200 is the workhorse of the regional fleet, with neither on-demand entertainment nor decent business seating. B777-300s like this are a step up, with decent entertainment but still no near-flat seats; it’s only the B777-200ER that introduces the Spacebed in biz, and the still rare B777-300ER (aka “77W” in SQ-ese), which I’ve yet to fly, was SQ’s star until the A380 crashed the party.

But today, something a little out of the ordinary happened. We taxied out from the gate and lined up for our turn to take off… and waited, and waited, and waited some more. Eventually the captain came online: an indicator light for a punctured tire was lit. We taxied back to a safer position, waited for the mechanics to show up, and they eventually confirmed that, yes, a tire was indeed punctured. Nearly two hours after pushback, we arrived back the same gate we’d left from. They guessed 45 minutes to replace the tire, so I headed back to the lounge (T2 this time) for a quick bite and laptop recharge.

After barely 10 minutes in the lounge, it was time to try again, and this time we were off for real. I’d finished my first movie (an enjoyable if brainless Egyptian criminals-fall-in-love romp) by the time dinner rolled around. No Arabic catering here either, I’d had the same ayam rendang (chicken in dry curry) umpteen times before, but I’ve had worse.

And the flight continued. The lights went dark, I played with my laptop a bit, tried to sleep a bit, watched the barely entertaining Rush Hour 3, had a fairly bizarre “refreshment” of a croissant stuffed with salsa, tuna and yoghurt, had the lights go off again, and come back on only 30 minutes before landing. Soon we crossed over the northern tip of the UAE, flew past Dubai, executed a U-turn and came down for a landing, the Palm Jumeirah visible in the distance and the insane lit-up spike of Burj Dubai looking like a computer rendering error in the night-time sky.