With the roll out of the first A350-1000 for the second customer Cathay Pacific I take a quick look back at what was perhaps the glitziest and most jaw dropping events ever seen at the Airbus delivery centre in Toulouse South Western France.
Qatar Airways, the launch customer for many an Airbus aircraft had taken the very first A350XWB back in December of 2014 and I was lucky enough to be invited to this event, an event in some ways of greater significance being the very first A350 of any marque delivered to a customer.
However this time Qatar had two reasons to celebrate, despite the delay caused it seems by integration of cabin fittings,as on board the new 1000 series, were its new and completely luxurious Q-Suites, more of which later.
An element of sadness
The whole series of events started off with a press conference which had all the usual elements but was tinged with a little sadness in that it was to be the very last press conference that the outgoing Airbus Chief, Fabrice Bregier was to take part in Bregiér took the opportunity to say that the launch and development of the A350XWB was his “biggest achievement” during his 11 years at the helm.
Akbar Al Baker who is always a wit at events such as these was not short on praise for Bregiér calling him a “Great friend, supporter and leader” following it up by saying “we will miss you” Al Baker didn’t leave it there however and in his own inimitable style added these words to the incoming chief. “Guillaume, you will not be let off the hook. We will still be very demanding.”
Demanding the airline might be but to be named Skytrax Airline of the year again for 2017, the fourth time in its life then you can understand why.
Hollywood in France
That evening however there was a dramatic step up in tone. We had all been made aware of the gala dinner to be held at the delivery suite and that gentlemen were required to wear ties. Nothing odd there then.
On arrival however you could begin to feel that perhaps this was going to be a little different at least. Up until now all other elements of the visit had been away from the delivery centre as what was now behind a giant curtain was to be kept top secret. Pre dinner drinks and hors d’oeuvres were served with the curtain still place.
Precisely on time the curtain was drawn back to reveal a large number of tables all with what appeared to be two giant projectors above and a complete lack of crockery or cutlery, just a simple white tablecloth and a small floral decoration - intriguing!
Once sat, a series of circles was projected onto the tables and waiting staff very very carefully positioned plates and glasses within these circles.
There were speeches and present giving, including a representation of the Qatar logo fashioned from an engine fan blade. Finished off with more accolades and thanks between Al Baker and Bregiér
Then the fun really started, a magician arrives on a hoverboard levitating a ball of light. After taking some of the light he throws it towards the windows and the curtains disappear in a flash and the aircraft outside is bathed in light.
The night continues with fantastic light shows both inside and out. Qatar’s new aircraft is the backdrop for a fantastic display, scenes from Qatar, in the air and on the ground. Birds of prey and Oryx dance across the fuselage and the Trent engines suddenly become see through.
Inside, each course is preceded by the table becoming alive with a display that even makes the plates melt in front of your eyes, amazing and entertaining each and every person with a display that was truly spectacular.
Talking with hardened Airbus hierarchy after, people used to delivery events. The general consensus was….well unrepeatable. They were all completely blown away, nothing like this has ever been seen before, surpassing everything by miles.
Fortunately it was not a really late night as the wake up call was just a few hours away as our departure is scheduled for 07:45. After checking in and the normal security procedures we board to get another view of the Qsuites, however this time rear facing suite 9E was to be my home for the next 7 hours. With fully lie flat seats a large touch screen TV, plenty of storage and sockets to keep even the hardiest tech happy these suites come complete with a door which completely encloses you in your own private world, something previously only seen in first class. It is hard to disagree with Akbar Al Bakers statement that they are “The ultimate in luxury in business class”
Travelling with your partner - no problem just book one of the sets of adjoining suites which can be made into a double bed. If business is the reason for travel then there are sections where four suites can be made into a mini board room due to a mixture of forward and rear facing seats. Each of these multiple arrangements can just as easily be made private again with the use of privacy dividers.
A nice touch was the provision of special one off amenity kits, just for this flight alongside the superbly luxurious blankets and White Company pyjamas.
Take off was a little unusual, not on a bad way however. I have mentioned that I am in a rear facing seat so the sensation of my body moving forward rather than being pushed back into the seat while at the same time watching the aircraft moving forward on the large screen in front of me utilising one of the three high quality camera views available. A feeling repeated by a number of hardened travellers.
The food on board was also excellent. I had heard quite a few rumblings of delay in the service , however as food is on demand and therefore needs preparing on demand there should be an expectation of it taking some time. You wouldn’t expect your meal to arrive within a couple of minutes at a restaurant so why here?
One thing that was missing however was wifi, we had all been given a code to access what Al Baker claimed is the fastest in the sky. Unfortunately this was not to be and pretty much failed all that tried it. Talking with Mr Al Baker it turns out that it was not a technical issue, it was a paperwork problem. The contract with Inmarsat doesn’t start until the end of March!
Fed, watered and becoming increasingly tired from too many early starts I decide to try out the bed and having set my alarm for about three hours time I quickly fall asleep and stay so as the next second my three hours is up! It must have been comfy. A wonderful sight awaits out of the many free window seats.
A very special arrival
News is beginning to filter through that we are to overfly Doha city as well as making passes over the airport before our eventual landing. This creates a little bit of a rush for all of us without window seats to go back into the almost empty economy cabin to seek out a view through pristine windows. Meeting us over the city is a camera helicopter to film our flybys of well known skylines which are fantastic to see at this height from a commercial airliner.
Having made a couple of passes over the airport we then make an approach to R34, however this is still not the end and having levelled off at a few hundred feet Captain Konstantinos Iliakis selected TOGA about two thirds down and pulled back hard on his side stick to send us soaring back skyward via the Trent XWB-97 engines 97.000lb of thrust.
When we finally landed there was still more to come and I have to confess something that has been on my bucket list for ages. As we approached our allocated stand two airport fire vehicles had created a water arch with their HRET nozzles for the aircraft to pass under.
Also visible in the near distance are what seems to be half the population of Doha and nearly all the airport staff waiting to get a close up look at the new bird
Once on stand we are all taken off via the rear stairs so that we can see and photograph Mr Al Baker exiting from the front closely followed by the flight crew. All of whom then join up with other VIP’s and dignitaries for a variety of photo opportunities around the aircraft.
A thoroughly enjoyable few days it must be said and as the aircraft is made ready for its inaugural service to London in just a few days we are whisked of to enjoy the sights, sound and tastes of Doha.
The aircrafts next destination seems to be Kuwait City as a return rotation is likely to be made in between flights from and too LHR. As more of the eventual 37 airframes arrive the next destinations seem to be slated for the US east coast where its extra 44 seats over the -900 will be most welcome.
Qatar Airways may well be suffering financially from the ongoing blockade but this has not stopped the airlines ambitions, if this flight was anything to go by then I can well believe it.