Saturday, January 18, 2014

Flying to India - Qatar Airways Houston to Chennai

I'm a little short on time for a post this week, and I was also in the mood to try a little something new, so I decided to debut a new type of post - the well worn (on other travel websites, anyway) flight review.  My wife and I, along with my mom and brother, had to make a brief run to India right after the first of the year to finish off the last of our duties related to my dad's passing last fall.  My mom and brother booked tickets on Emirates, and since I had a poor experience with them last summer, I decided we would try Qatar Airways on the way over instead (I had never flown Qatar, but figured it couldn't be worse than anyone else, and you can get American Airlines frequent flyer miles).  Read more about our experience, along with my first visit to Doha, after the jump

First, a quick note.  Yes, my wife and I, and my mom, live in Dallas, but my brother lives in Houston, so we decided the easiest thing would be for the three of us to drive to Houston, pick him up, and we'd all fly out from there.  After we returned, I informed my mom that if the four of us go to India again, we won't be repeating this exercise.  Let's just say, driving 3 1/2 hours after being on a plane for 20 seemed like a good idea at the time, but it wasn't.

Qatar Airways (QR) Flight 714
January 1, 2014
Depart Houston (IAH) 18:50,  on-time
Arrive Doha (DOH) 17:20 (1/2/14), 60 minutes early
Trip time:  13 hr 30 min
Economy Class, Seats 21E/21F
Boeing 777-200LR

We decided to fly out on New Year's Day, number one because I had a couple of projects at work that I needed to be around for until after the end of the year, and number two, because we thought nobody else would be flying that day, which would make for shorter lines and an easier experience.  Yet another thing that seemed like a good idea at the time, but didn't really work out.  We walked into the ticketing/check-in area at IAH Terminal D, only to find a line snaking a good quarter of the way down the terminal.  I figured out pretty quickly that was the check-in line for Emirates, and Qatar's was immediately behind, and not that bad.  We were done in about 30 minutes, during which time, my mom and brother moved maybe 2 feet.  Ouch.  They did eventually make it, after standing in line about an hour and 15 minutes.

If you've never been to Terminal D at IAH, it's rather pathetic for a major international hub like Houston.  I'd packed my camera away and the lighting wasn't good enough for the iPhone, but you basically have one restaurant, one duty free shop, one spa, and one newsstand.  That's it.  Houston really needs to get in gear and improve their international terminal.

Once on board, I was pleasantly surprised to see a decent amount of legroom for steerage, and Qatar goes with a much more pleasant 3-3-3 configuration in coach as opposed to the borderline inhumane 3-4-3 setup that you increasingly find, including on Emirates.

Better yet, since our seats were immediately ahead of the bulkhead, we could recline with impunity, since nobody was behind us.  That definitely helped make it a little more comfortable for sleeping. On the downside, these seats are next to the lavatory, which may be bothersome to some.

About an hour and a half into the flight, dinner service began.  Instead of a paper menu, however, the evening's dinner selections were posted to the inflight entertainment screen.

I had the "chicken gumbo" with mashed potatoes, along with a couple of glasses of white wine, and my wife the "paneer tikka".

The "gumbo" wasn't really gumbo; it was more like a chicken curry.  The chicken tasted a bit odd, but for airplane food, the meal wasn't terrible.  I ate most of it.  My wife's "paneer tikka" was similarly mislabeled - it was in fact palak paneer (spinach with paneer), but she also said the overall taste was tolerable.  The cheesecake was good, and I was thankful that Qatar provides free wine even in economy class.  A couple of glasses is my patented technique for falling asleep on long flights.

I watched a documentary about snow leopards on the IFE, then finally nodded off.  I actually slept pretty well, about 5 hours in total before I forced myself awake.  Having unlimited recline helped, though butt support was a problem.  The seat simply doesn't provide enough support to the upper thigh when you start sliding down in your sleep, leading to a nasty case of saddle sore.  Sitting on the pillow helped a little.

Waking up after 5 hours meant we still had a good 5-6 hours to go before reaching Doha, so I passed the time by intermittently flipping channels on the TV and playing Bejeweled and a one-player version of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire", the British version.  About 2-2 1/2 hours before landing, breakfast was served, with the menu again flashed on the IFE.

I chose the apple filled pancakes.
Once again, Qatar's descriptions leave a little to be desired, as what we were served were apple filled crepes, and not really pancakes.  But once again, it was reasonably tasty for airplane food.

I was really impressed with the service provided onboard.  The flight attendants were friendly and efficient, always responding to your requests with a smile.  I rang the call button halfway through my sleep to ask for a bottle of water, which was quickly answered by a smiling attendant who promptly brought me one.  It was only after that that I realized they had left water bottles in the seatback pockets while I was asleep.  Oops.  I bet if I had asked for another bottle on a U.S.-based carrier, I would have gotten some smart aleck remark about the water in the seat not being good enough.

Before we knew it, it was time to land in Doha.  I had read horror stories about the transfer process there, and was bracing for the worst.  However, it turns out there was nothing to worry about.  After a bus ride to the terminal, we went through a painless security check, and made it to our onward gate to Chennai, all in about 35 minutes.  Since we had a couple of hours before our onward flight, I took a few pictures of the terminal.  The airport is reasonably modern, but is overcrowded due to the phenomenal growth of Qatar Airways over the last few years, and so will soon be replaced by a new airport under construction nearby.

I don't know about you, but I'd like to take that Lambo home.

Our flight was called for boarding about an hour before departure.  I would soon realize why.

QR Flight 528
January 2, 2014
Depart Doha (DOH) 20:22, 2 minutes late
Arrive Chennai (MAA) 03:06 (1/3/14), 4 minutes early
Trip time 4 hrs, 14 min
Economy Class, Seats 12A/12B
Airbus A330-300

It become abundantly clear why we boarded so early - our bus ride from the gate to the aircraft took a good 10 minutes, as we probably traveled a good 2-3 miles.  A rare desert rain meant we got just a little wet getting on to the aircraft.

I could tell from the start that this flight wasn't going to be a particularly comfy one; you'll be able to tell right away from the photo below:

That's right, the dreaded IFE control box under my seat, which took up nearly half of my usable legroom. least I'm not a large person, and this was a relative short flight.

Dinner service began pretty quickly, but unlike between IAH and DOH, we were provided with the typical choice on a flight to or from India - yep, the dreaded "veg or non veg".  I took the non veg, which was labeled a Tamilian chicken curry.

This meal left a little to be desired, I must say.  The lentils had a burned taste, the rice was dry (I don't like rice to begin with), and the chicken was pretty tasteless.  My wife said her veg option wasn't much better.  Oh well, we'd be enjoying some home cooking at my uncle's house soon enough.

Service was once again excellent - friendly and efficient.  I was presently surprised, since the usual M.O. on international flights is to assign the surliest, least competent crews to flights to and from India.  I don't know why that is, but it sure seems to be a universal constant.  I also discovered the geeky (but also totally awesome) interactive moving map, which you to customize the display in about a thousand different ways.  If you are geeky enough to enjoy moving maps, you'll love this one.  I did manage about an hour and a half of sleep, though this was made difficult by the IFE box, which makes you have to contort your legs to stretch out.  And once again, no butt/thigh support meant saddle sore after about half an hour.  Bizarrely, the FAs made a landing announcement and took away our blankets a good 45 minutes before landing.  Not sure why that was necessary, but not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things.

The only real negative of the trip was baggage delivery at MAA.  It took almost a full hour from the time we landed until our bags finally reached the belt.  I swear, they must have someone carrying the bags one at a time across the tarmac and loading them on the belt.  Not QR's fault, but still, mucho annoying at 4 A.M.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with Qatar Airways economy class.  Room was better than average for coach, the flights were on-time if not early, and most importantly, service was excellent from the in-flight and ground staff.  They are a solid alternative to the European airlines and Emirates, though the connection in Qatar is a bit poor.  That should improve once the new airport opens later this year.


  1. Ugh. I could have even told you that the drive from Houston to Dallas after a flight is the WORST. We did it once when I was young (I grew up in Dallas) flying Cayman Airways from IAH to GCM...and that was a mere 2.5 hour flight! Upon the return, we were not in a great mood to make that drive back. I cannot even imagine doing it after a trip back from India in YCL!

    Thanks for the TR

    1. Rohan - well, it isn't quite as bad as it sounds in this case. I haven't written the back-end of this trip report yet, but we flew back on BA, and received an unexpected surprise while transiting through LHR in the form of an upgrade to Club World. I was at least well-rested and well-fed for the drive home, but still, I'm not doing that again!