Qatar Airways’ class act

I’m sitting on the upper deck of the Qatar Airways stand at ITB – the world’s largest travel industry fair in Berlin. The stand is wobbling, and Akbar Al Baker is not happy.

The chief executive of Qatar Airways is not a man used to anything less than perfection from his suppliers. He has just unveiled – in a swirl of dry ice and to the booming accompaniment of the 2001: a Space Odyssey theme – a mock-up of the airline’s first class lounge cabin, a separate six-seat bar area that will slot between first class proper and business class on its four new A340-600s, and eventually on all its long haul fleet.

It’s an innovation that Al Baker believes will give Qatar an additional edge in the battle for high-spending passengers on its Middle Eastern routes. He thinks it will take rivals such as Emirates, Etihad and the big European carriers two years to come up with something similar, by which time, he says, Qatar will have moved onto the next big idea.

With every detail worked out meticulously, the feel is more like a corporate jet than first class cabin. With carriers such as Qatar delicately balancing the cultural requirements of both high net worth traditional Arab customers and the new breed of Western business exectutives flying in and out of Doha, Dubai and the region’s other booming cities, getting the first class cabin environment right is vital. Do you emphasise privacy over social areas? Middle Eastern design cues over a more American boardroom feel? Glitz and gizmos or modernist understatement?

Which brings us back to the wobbly stand. Minor earth tremors are not a common occurance in the Germany and Al Baker demands to see the German stand contractor. “The chief” wants answers. You get the feeling that “Wobble, what wobble?” or “It’s just a function of the stand design” just aren’t going to wash as excuses.

I wasn’t around to find out what happened, but I suspect there may be a discrepancy between what the contractor expected to be paid and the amount on the cheque signed by Al Baker.

Meanwhile, the Middle Eastern section of the show – where Qatar, Emirates and others were situated – put me in mind of a wonky map of a surreal parallel universe Middle East…where Palestine nestles happily next to Israel, which in turn happily near-neighbours Syria, Lebanon and Iran. It’s a Middle East of smiling children in traditional dress, ancient temples and forts, luxury resorts and big friendly welcomes, where the main rivalry is over who has the best beaches. There wasn’t an Iraq stand, but, if there had been, I would have no doubt been urged to sample the delights of “bustling Baghdad”.

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