So last weekend we went off for a trip to Buenos Aires. I booked the flights with Avios points from BA, and at the time of booking the only flights available were via Qatar Aiways via São Paulo in Business Class.
Although it might seem like a bit of a waste of Avios (30k each return for a less than 3 hour flight), it was an easy opportunity to check out Qatar’s (older) business class product on their 777, and also a nice way to go on my weekend holiday. Indeed, there weren’t any stand out cheap flights, or direct flight options available that were well timed for me anyway, so going via SP GRU wasn’t adding any inconvenience either.
We arrived at São Paulo’s international airport, GRU, flying a quick TAM flight from Rio Santos Dumont with around 2.5 hours to spare before the flight.
Check in was quick, with a single desk processing Business Class passengers (given the short flight, with SP being just a brief stop over on the flight from Doha to Buenos Aires), I’m guessing they don’t get many Business Class passengers generally. Passengers have a choice of three lounge options at GRU, which I’ll talk about in another post.
We boarded around 45 minutes before departure, and I was greeted by name as the plane door, and escorted to my seat by a crew member, who stood attentively by to take my jacket, assist me putting away my bag, and getting me a welcome drink. My first thought was ‘wow, I wasn’t expecting such attentive service in business class’.
Shortly after sitting, I was served the champagne, a non vintage Jaquart. I didn’t know this at the time, as the menus had not been distributed so I asked what the champagne was to be told ‘it’s a brut sir’. Perfectly correct, but not exactly the question I was asking:)
Around ten minutes later the menus were distributed, and a few minutes after that the crew came round to take the orders. This time there was no being greeted by name, just ‘sir’. However, the service was efficient and friendly. The wine choice was also taken at this time.
Here’s the flight’s menu, and large wine selection:
I selected the butternut squash pasta for my main, and it was ok, but nothing particularly special. I paired this with the chardonnay, the Bouchard Père e Fils.
The same can be said for the desserts, ok but nothing that special! One of the wines wasn’t available, as I tried to order the Gewurztraminer to go with the desserts, but they only had the Riesling available as a slightly sweet wine.
The service however was excellent, quite comparable with some of the previous First Class experiences I have had.
But, it was over fairly quickly, with a flight time of only two and a half hours. We did have time to finish up with a digestif of an XO Cognac, which was very pleasant indeed. I was quite impressed to see an XO available in business class.
After the first flight I thought I definitely want to try Qatar again, and was thinking of going out of my way to be able to fly on their A380 or A350 flights.
But… as the title says, this is a tale of two Qatar Airways. The return flight from EZE to GRU was almost like flying a different airline.
Gone was the personal greeting when boarding, or indeed any greeting at all other than being pointed down the aisle. Gone was anyone to take my jacket, or even to bring a drink – indeed after around 5 minutes, I had to flag down a member of the crew as she was walking by to ask for a drink and to get my jacket hung up.
I didn’t at first notice the menus were actually already in the magazine holder area of the seat, but when the crew came to take orders and showed annoyance at the passengers on the row in front not having looked yet, I managed to at least look before getting told off myself!
When she did arrive to take my order, pleasantries were not the order of the day, and she seemed somewhat taken aback by my answer to ‘what do you want for dinner’ was ‘good evening, how are you this evening’, prompting a slight break of the strict school teacher with a break out of a smile and a ‘very well sir’. I neglected to take any pictures at this point, as my phone had died and it seemed the USB port wasn’t working to charge it. However, I selected another pasta dish, this time in a tomato sauce. I think it was perhaps a little better than the way out. The wine list was exactly the same, and this time I paired with the Errazurriz carmenere.
After the main, the crew arrived and collected my plate, then proceeded to take the cutlery, napkin and fold away my table for me. Now I didn’t actually want dessert as I wanted to try and get an hour’s sleep before we landed, but I wasn’t ever offered. My partner on the other hand did want, and had to ask if dessert was being served before getting his table re-set.
There was no offer of further wine or a digestif.
I haven’t talked about the plane and the hard product yet. The 777 has a 2-2-2 arrangement, and the seats are comfortable and spacious. However, I did find the bed position to be quite a bit off lie flat I thought, with a reasonable angle at the top of the body still. The massage function was interesting, in as much as you know when your seat partner turned it on! I could feel it quite significantly in my seat when my partner’s massage function was turned on – not that much of a problem if you know the person, but I could imagine it being awkward asking a stranger to turn it off, as it could be a little annoying. The seat has a fold down foot rest at the end, which I found to be a little bit on the short side for my 6ft, and when folded up the end of the seat I thought was then a bit uncomfortable due to the bulge from the foot rest being there. So an average hard product overall for me – I’m curious how it will compare to the Iberia 2-2-2 on the A340 which I’ll be flying next month. Both have a fully flat bed. Due to a plane swap, I’ve got the A340 instead of the A330 with it’s newer 1-2-1. Obviously, normally, you wouldn’t ever expect Iberia’s service to be even comparable to Qatar though, would you? I have had one stand out service though once, made by one fantastic crew member.
But back to Qatar… Really, the two experiences couldn’t be more polarised. One I can say the service was the best I have ever experienced in Business, the other is close to the worst I have ever experienced.
Where does that leave me? Would I go out of my way to fly Qatar again? Having read the reviews of their A380 with the onboard bar, and still desperately wanting to try flying on an A350, I think I would definitely give them another go. However, would I go several hours out of my way to fly via Doha, for instance to route from Brazil back to London? Probably not right now. Of the three big Middle Eastern airlines, Qatar being in One World is a big plus for me, being able to earn tier points and Avios for my BAEC account.
There is a flight from Rio to Buenos Aires on Emirates – I’d love to try that to experience Emirate’s service, although again it is operated by a 777 with the old business class, that I believe still doesn’t even have lie flat beds, although it does have First class. This was my first choice for this trip, but the timings didn’t quite work out for me this time, and the price in business was still rather high for the dates. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’ll have the time to do it before I end up leaving Rio!
So the second part of my New York travels was something I was looking forward to trying. AA’s new international first on the 777-300 from JFK to GRU. This would be followed by a quick TAM flight back to GIG.
For a few months before the flight I had secured a window and aisle seat. In the last couple of weeks before I got lucky and managed to secure the two middle seats. Normally I’d always want a window, especially due to the seat here, but when travelling with someone it is rather antisocial!
I arrived at JFK quite early, dropped off the rental car and had a long train journey to the AA terminal.
The first struggle came to find the Flagship First check in! Perhaps I was blind, but couldn’t see it so walked down to business to ask, only to find it was the opposite end of the terminal!
Entering through a set of automatic doors, my first impressions were very good! Leagues ahead of the BA First check in area at Heathrow.
There were a number of desks, with a porter to take the luggage. However only one was manned but with no queue. Check in was quick, our bags whisked away and through the door in to security.
I wasn’t expecting this, but the first check in line went in to the TSA Pre Check. Being British, and having done no registration I didn’t realise I was eligible. My partner was not however…. After waiting while they served the main line, I was sent through but then he was whisked away to another area to queue again. Not very well handled!! I was expecting priority security sure, but to whisk someone away to another queue was a bit odd.
But… After a few minutes he joined me on the other side and we headed to the Flagship First lounge. At the front desk we were escorted to the doors to the right and swiped in to the lounge. At no point were we greeted by name either
Disappointing was my main thought. Certainly not a scratch on the Concorde Lounge at Heathrow or JFK…. It was busy, no comfortable chairs left (only those round a dining table we at first had to share with another couple), no waiter service, and no champagne!
There was a hot buffet, and the food itself was ok but nothing special – similar to the BA Galleries lounge I’d say. The wine again was in a similar position. The showers were good though.
With around 3 hours to kill at this point, and the miserable shopping selection at JFK not helping to pass any time, I was rather disappointed! I love lounges and was really hoping for more. I should have checked the standard Flagship lounge, but didn’t think.
Finally it was time to board!
The priority boarding line was short and orderly, and there was one bridge for both business and first. I think we caught the crew off guard as there was no one to show us to our seats so we made our own way.
First impression of the cabin was good. Not very private, but it looked nice. The seats were comfortable, the screen decent. The novelty feature is the swivel chair.
For take off and landing it points straight forward. For flight it angles in a few degrees which lets you recline and form the bed. But you can also turn inwards, or to face the window!
This is how dinner was had!
The service had a slightly odd start as the cabin manager, Steve, put my partner’s bag in the overhead locker, itself a nice touch but it came with ‘is it too heavy for you sir?’ I got that it was a joke, but still…
Seated either side, in one of the seats I had reserved to start was a Brazilian couple who asked if we could swap. We said no, as I spent weeks of daily checks to secure two middle seats. The wife did not look happy and made Steve’s life difficult insisting on sitting next to her husband. The husband…. He seemed relieved!! Some champagne helped to soothe things over, in plastic glasses…. Come on AA! The wash bag is somewhat… Well it’s a tablet sleeve! And the toiletries inside were only AA branded, nothing ‘special’, especially for first.
We asked for dinner as soon as possible in to the flight as it was a 10pm take off. And turned the seats to face inwards.
There was a lot of table space from the main pull out table and the flip out central table. There is a hot seat, but as the TV position is static, I think it would have been very uncomfortable to use!
Dinner itself was ok, but nothing wow. I had the soup, followed by the beef. The wine, which the menu said was award winning, was perfectly ok but not the level I might expect on first class, and not that extensive with just two reds and two whites. Here’s the menu:
The dessert sundae was great though, even better than the way out on business. In the morning, I had the American Breakfast, which was quite disappointing. I would have hoped for pancakes, bacon and maple syrup, muffins, perhaps eggs benedict… But a flat and flaccid omelette was served as the ‘American Breakfast’. The bread selection was also poor, with something that was certainly pushing the definition of a croissant.
Speaking of business class though, I popped back to look at it. The new AA business looks fantastic! Reverse herring bone, very private, spacious… I actually paid less for my first ticket than business cost on the same flight, but in normal pricing, it could be hard to justify… Especially as first is less private if that is an important consideration!
Now the service from the two crew was great. Steve especially was very friendly and made sure our glasses were refilled. I feel they have a good hard product to work with, but are let down by the menus and wine selections. Otherwise this could have been a truly great first class flight I think.
I think it was one of the best sleeps I’d had on a plane, as after dinner I requested my bed be turned down, went to put on my (not 100% cotton but soft) pyjamas and was out like a light until breakfast!
Deplaning first made GRU’s immigration pretty easy (it can be awful!). Bags were out quickly too, as we had to clear customs and recheck (I believe always in GRU). Then a shop…. With crazy queues. After some tricky navigating, bag recheck for TAM was straight after, and we were issued updating boarding passes showing the gate.
Then the tricky bit… Our boarding pass only had a gate, not a terminal… After asking lots of people, and navigating through the unsigned maze we ended up at T2. Asking where the lounge was, I was told there were two lounges, one before and one after security.
Now the worst bit… There is no lounge after security… T2 is split in to two wings, and the domestic wing has no lounge. Not good!! A two hour wait with no lounge, no shops and uncomfortable chairs… I since discovered There is an Amex Centurion lounge before security open to Platinum holders. Nothing great, but better!
But one final surprise – a change of plane meant we had a long haul 767 instead of the normal A320, and a business class angled flat seat.
It taught me not to consider TAM business to the UK unless it is dirt cheap! Not the comfiest seat, and too short for me. There was an uncomfortable hard part that would dig in to my side when I lay down. But still it was better than the expected shuttle service plane.
45 minutes later, we were back in Rio and the holiday was over:(