Andrew Stone takes the world's longest scheduled flight — to Doha from Auckland and back, with Qatar Airways — and tries both economy and business.
Boeing 777 200LR. Qatar Airways uses its long-haul, twin-engined jets for the almighty flight from Auckland to Doha, and after refuelling, the return journey. It really is a stretch — until flights from Singapore to New York start later this year — the long-range journey with Qatar to the Middle East will remain the world's longest flight.
I was travelling to Iran for a tour with NZ Travel and Tour — for more on them, check out travelandtour.co.nz.
The experience: My seat on QR 921 is 35D. It is as far back in the aircraft as it it possible to go. Behind me is a bulkhead, and behind that the galley and loos. The economy section has a three-three-three configuration but in my row it is two-three-two to allow access to and from the rear of the aircraft. It means there is a little bit more room to stretch, even if the foot traffic might be busier. Even better, the seat beside me is empty on a chokka flight. We take off close to schedule at 2.25 on a Saturday afternoon.
At 4pm, the first meal is served. My choice — red cabbage and apple coleslaw, braised beef with carrots and potato gratin — is perfectly adequate. I like the little touch of a Whittaker's dairy milk segment for afters. From the wine list I go for a French red, which
completes the circle. The cabin staff are friendly and accommodating as requests from those around me come thick and fast.
Qatar is proud of its inflight entertainment system, but I opt for episodes of Occupied, the Netflix drama about a Russian takeover of Norway. I have all of season two on my tablet, so I settle in, glancing occasionally at the onscreen flight tracker as the miles tick by — Coober Pedy, Uluru, Alice Springs.
Snacks arrive in the form of tasty Greek olives. I had a beer and watched Moscow move on Oslo. Somewhere beyond Broome, and 10km above the Indian Ocean, I doze off. The seat is forgiving, and my mask shuts out shafts of light.
At some point time seems to twist about. I have brunch — or was it breakfast — of yoghurt and fruit, sausages, omelette and coffee. It does the trick. We fly on, and on. It seems dark for an age. We are flying backwards in time.
Just after 10pm the captain comes on to say the end is in sight. The big plane banks and descends to Doha's Hamad International Airport.
We have been in the air for 17 and a quarter hours but local time is just before 11 on Saturday night. It seems unfair to come all that way and be left with a nagging feeling that you've lost half a day along the way. The body clock feels wobbly as we stagger into the terminal.
The verdict: There is no other way to get halfway around the world. If you are up for a 17-hour flight, then Qatar does its best to help you cope.
Another 777 200. I'm getting to know this aircraft.
This time things have changed. Thanks to the redoubtable Grant Bradley, the Herald's aviation authority, I have snagged an upgrade to business. It helps put my mind at rest as I contemplate that 17-hour arc across the globe to get home.
My seat is 1A, just behind the business galley, and a few metres back from a rest space for the pilots. It is wide, comfortable and equipped with armrest buttons which allow the setup to fold flat and fire up machinery in the middle of the back support to give you a massage. The adjacent seat is empty, like much of the cabin. I won't be tripping over anyone in the night.
I start on the back foot. QR920 leaves Doha for Auckland at 2.35am. I have just flown from Tehran but time differences between Iran and Qatar mean my watch says it is 4.30am. So I am bleary-eyed but still alert.
The plane initially heads slightly north before tracking south. A diplomatic row prevents the airline from using the most direct route, so the aircraft avoids UAE airspace by flying closer to Iran. From my windows the lights of ships moored in the Persian Gulf flicker beneath us, and the fronds of Dubai's megastructure, Palm Jumeirah, glitter.
Settle down Mr Stone, encourage the staff, so I do, with a glass of French bubbles. The menu says the Billecart-Salmon brut champagne is the "perfect way to start your journey in style". Wetting the whistle pre-dawn is not the way I'd usually kick off the day but I fall back on the justification that after 18 dry days in Iran it is time to unwind. A little bowl of fresh nuts comes with the drink, and a menu for the rest of the journey.
On this flight you can start at dinner and work backwards to breakfast, or if you remember to order something before you get on. I skip dinner — or was it breakfast — and try to watch a movie. Eventually I surrender to exhaustion.
One of the extremely attentive staff explains the procedure. Pressing the armrest she transforms the seat and slips a mattress cover over the bed. She advises that my pyjamas are in the Whites of London bag — pyjamas! — so I pop into the loo to change. The soft grey jimjams are loose fitting and comfy. Inside a goody bag given to each passenger is a handy sleep mask. I crawl under a soft blanket and shut down.
By the time I surface, Australia lies beneath the plane. It is still the dead of night but the flight tracker shows we were just a few hours from Auckland.
I get dressed, watch a movie and order the meal which the staff have set aside earlier. I have a craving for fish, which I haven't tasted for an age.
My table, drawn out of the partition between the seats, is set with a crisp white cover. The seared fillets arrive on a bed of spring vegetables. It is faultless.
Feeling a little nostalgic for the Middle East, after my visit to Iran, I finish with a saffron karak chai. This is tea with a twist, and a hit in Qatar. It is sweet, spicy and addictive. A buried treasure in the menu.
Due to the antisocial hours of my trip I don't really do all the menu options justice. But I'm not bothered. It was enough to know that the selections I made ticked all the boxes.
Perhaps another time.
The final verdict: A pleasurable way to fly when you're up in the air for an eternity.