What does it take to be airline of the year?

Qatar Airways, which becomes 100 aircraft strong this week, is bucking the industry trend of slow growth and cut services. SmartPlanet tours its newest product, the Boeing 777-300ER.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive

Dulles International Airport -- In 2007, shortly after it launched operations in the U.S., I flew Qatar Airways from Washington Dulles International Airport to Doha International Airport. Somewhere along the route, in the middle of the night, I was snuggled in my seat watching a movie, and--like a mirage--warm cookies and milk appeared at my side. But they were real. I was so delighted—at that moment and throughout the flight—that when the plane landed in Doha, I considered for a moment remaining on the aircraft.

This summer, Qatar Airways was named “Airline of the Year” by Skytrax in its annual World Airline Awards (based on votes from more than 18 million passengers worldwide), and I can’t say I’m surprised. Just 17 years old, the carrier will take delivery of its 100th aircraft this Friday in Everett, Wash.—a Boeing 777-200LR. By 2013, the fleet will top 120, flying to an equal number of destinations.

The carrier, the national airline of the State of Qatar (50 percent is owned by the state), operates one of the youngest fleets in the world with an average aircraft age of about 4 years. It is also one of the fast growing airlines: The carrier has orders placed for more than 200 additional aircraft worth more than $40 billion pending delivery over the next several years, including 50 Boeing 787s and 80 Airbus A350s. The airline, which operates Doha International Airport, opened the world’s first terminal fully dedicated to first and business class travelers in 2006, featuring a spa, Jacuzzi and a 24-hour medical center. Expansion has become so swift that a new Doha airport will open next year and will eventually include 65 gates, six of which will accommodate the A380s. It will eventually handle 50 million passengers a year.

Qatar Airways begin operations in 1994 as a small regional carrier and was re-launched in 1997 under the country’s emir, who wanted to turn the airline into a top international competitor. In 1996, Qatar flew only five aircraft. In 2007, the airline launched in the U.S. market and now has daily non-stop flights from Houston, New York and Washington to Doha on its Boeing 777s. It hit 100 destinations earlier this year, adding Budapest, Brussels, Stuttgart, Venice and Montreal, among others.

Last week, I was invited to tour one of Qatar’s Boeing 777-300ERs. First I walked under the belly of the plane and saw up close its massive GE90 turbofan engines and six wheels on each main landing gear. Then I walked on board and turned left toward the cockpit. There are two business class sections with seats that lower to 180 degrees. Each position has a 17-inch screen with an entertainment system that offers more than 1,000 audio and video choices. The economy section has the same entertainment options on 10-inch screens, and the seat configuration (3-3-3) has one less seat than most other carriers squeeze into a 777.

But Qatar is impressive far beyond its warm cookies, in-cabin mood lighting and shiny new aircraft. Two years ago, the carrier completed the world’s first commercial passenger flight powered by gas-to-liquid (GTL) aviation jet fuel, flying an Airbus A340-600 from London to Doha. Shell developed and produced the 50-50 blend of synthetic GTL kerosene and conventional oil-based kerosene fuel. The alternative fuel burns with lower remissions than conventional jet fuel and will contribute to improved air quality. It also is valuable as an alternative to traditional oil-based kerosene. The GTL kerosene will be produced by the Pearl GTL project, developed by Qatar Petroleum and Shell. The State of Qatar plans to put GTL kerosene into commercial production in 2012, and the airline has announced a joint study into the development of sustainable jet fuel.

And finally, I learned that Qatar offers a seat-back pocket guide for passengers on how to stay healthy and balanced during their flights. The airline partnered with Deepak Chopra to offer exercises that reduce the possibility of deep vein thrombosis (the blood clots caused when you’re sitting for a long time) and increase peace of mind. Chopra offers tips such as avoid alcohol and caffeine, eat lightly (hard to do with food as good as it is on Qatar’s flights) and meditate. I thought about this zen approach to flying as I toured the 777 and once again, was struck by how different the Qatar experience is from many other airlines—certainly the domestic ones. And once again, as I played with the seat incline controls, I found myself sitting in a Qatar plane and yearning to prolong my stay.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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