Qatar Airways is one of a select group of airlines that have been awarded 5 stars by Skytrax in their annual airline quality rating. While these ratings do not take into account the treatment of passengers with disabilities, the world's top carriers achieve 5-Star status by paying greater attention to detail across the board.
As a wheelchair user, I have only traveled with three 5-Star airlines: Garuda Indonesia, Etihad and, most recently, Qatar Airways. The key to rating an airline's level of accessibility is having a large sample size. This is why I have been able to speak with such authority about the state of affairs at Delta Air Lines and American Airlines. It would be reckless to make blanket statements about an airline after only one or two flights, and I have been exceedingly careful not to generalize in my reviews of carriers like Kenya Airways and Spirit Airlines. With that in mind, I decided to hold-off on my review of Qatar Airways until I had a reasonable number of flights under my belt.
To date, I have taken 10 flights with Qatar, totaling 37,121 flown miles across three continents and six different airports: Atlanta, Georgia; Boston, Massachusetts; Cairo, Egypt; Doha, Qatar; Manila, Philippines; and Miami, Florida. For perspective, the distance around the Earth at its equator is 24,874 miles.
In this article, I will draw on my experience from these flights to prepare you for what to expect as a wheelchair user traveling with Qatar Airways. From booking to baggage claim, I've found consistencies in the Qatar experience (good and bad) that you should be aware of.
Tickets & Booking
My travels with Qatar Airways began after I found a deal that I could not pass up - half-price tickets on itineraries originating in Cairo, Egypt, after the country had devalued its currency. There was a very small window for taking advantage of this opportunity, and I jumped on it immediately - booking tens of thousands of miles of travel with the airline.
My tickets were all booked through the Qatar Airways website, www.qatarairways.com. After booking, I was able to request wheelchair assistance via the website's Manage Booking tool.
For those with a mobility impairment, three options for assistance are available for select from a drop-down menu:
- Wheelchair assistance to boarding gate
- Wheelchair assistance till aircraft
- Wheelchair assistance to your seat
- Need own wheelchair onboard
I selected the third option, as I require the use of an aisle chair for boarding the aircraft. If you are a manual wheelchair user and wish to store your personal wheelchair onboard, the fourth option makes sense, but I recommend selecting the third if you will need an aisle chair.
Wheelchair Assistance at the Airport
Qatar Airways runs a generally great operation at its hub, Hamad International Airport, in Doha, Qatar. That said, the quality of wheelchair assistance depends on which airports you are flying to/from, and the type of service you have requested.
In my experience, with a total of 10 departures, I have found that the opportunity to preboard the aircraft will be offered 50% of the time. Gate agents are often overwhelmed, and do not make sure that the assistance teams are in place prior to the start of boarding. On flights to or from the United States, the denial of preboarding constitutes a violation of the Air Carrier Access Act.
Staff have been in place and on time to assist me off of the aircraft at the conclusion of each flight. If you are traveling in Business or First Class, passengers "behind the curtain" in Economy Class will be held until you have been given the opportunity to deplane. This is a nice touch, and perhaps indicative of the airline's five star rating.
Gate-checking Mobility Equipment
As someone who travels with a power wheelchair, the ability to gate-check it at the aircraft door is important to me. Equally important is the prompt return of the wheelchair at the arrival gate. On the first point, Qatar has always allowed me to check it at the gate, regardless of the airport I have flown from.
The experience surrounding the chair's return, however, has frustrated me on the majority of my flights. On my flights arriving to Cairo, Doha and Manila, the airline has returned the chair away from the gate on all but one occasion. While I have generally been able to collect it within 30 to 45 minutes after deplaning, I was made to wait in excess of 90 minutes on two occasions in Doha, and for nearly two hours in Cairo.
If you intend to gate-check a power wheelchair on Qatar Airways, I strongly encourage you to make an advance request for the return of the wheelchair at your connecting and arrival airports. This can be done by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to include your confirmation code/PNR in the correspondence. On the day of travel, it is important to remind airline representatives at your departure point as well.
Damage to Mobility Equipment
I have generally found the airline and its ground personnel to treat my wheelchair with extreme care. On my first nine flights with Qatar Airways, there was no damage (beyond a cosmetic ding or two that is to be expected on any flight), and the ground crews followed my instructions for handling, lifting and stowing the wheelchair.
Unfortunately, on my last flight - from Doha to Miami - my wheelchair sustained some rather substantial damage. In Doha, I witnessed baggage handlers roll the chair down several flights of stairs. The chair's frame, suspension and electronic leg rest were damaged.
On arrival to Atlanta, I filed a claim with the airline. Unlike the U.S. carriers, Qatar Airways does not contract an agency to handle wheelchair repairs. The airline has requested a quote, which I am working to get from my local shop. I have been told that the cost of repairs will be fully reimbursed, and will report back once the matter has been resolved.
Qatar Airways First & Business Class Experience
The world's best business class, according to the 2016 World Airline Awards, belongs to Qatar Airways. QR won the overall award, plus recognition for having the best business class lounges. They took second place for their business class seats, onboard catering and lounge dining.
On a handful of select routes (Doha to Bangkok, Guangzhou, London, Paris, Melbourne and Sydney), a true first class is offered on the double-decker Airbus A380, but I have not flown any of these routes. Some routes featuring the business class product are sold as first class, offering access to the Al Safwa First Class lounge in Doha. I have flown one such route, between Doha and Cairo. There are no first class flights to the United States.
My business class experiences have taken place aboard the Airbus A350 and Boeing 777 aircraft types. The photos above depict the lay flat seating configurations in the respective cabins. The A350 business class offers a 1-2-1 seating arrangement, while the Boeing 777 is set in a 2-2-2 configuration. When I have flown the Boeing 777 on long flights across the Atlantic Ocean, I have been able to sit by the window, with an unoccupied seat next to me.
The meal service offered in the Qatar Airways premium cabins is among the best in the world:
The menu is rather diverse on each flight, and passengers can choose to dine at any time. That means if you've dined in the lounge prior to your flight, you can go to sleep right after take-off and eat when you wake up. This is a feature that is consistently offered by the world's best airlines, and one I value considerably.
Qatar Airways First & Business Class Lounges
Speaking of lounges, the Al Safwa First Class and Al Mourjan Business Class lounges at the Doha airport are also among the world's most impressive.
My favorite feature of the Al Safwa lounge are the private rest rooms available to passengers free of charge. The rooms are wheelchair accessible and can be used for up to six hours.
The wheelchair accessible rest room I was assigned had two single beds, a roll-in shower, television and access to power. This was a great place to relax during my layover in Doha of almost half a day.
Business class passengers in the expansive Al Mourjan lounge also have access to rest pods with lounge chairs. It is possible to get some decent sleep on these, though they are not as luxurious an accommodation as what is offered in Al Safwa.
Once you've been properly rested, you can enjoy top of the line dining inside the lounge. The Al Safwa lounge offers a luxury dining experience that rivals that offered by other five star carriers like Cathay Pacific, Emirates and Singapore Airlines. The quality of the ingredients, preparation and presentation are all sure to delight.
Al Mourjan also offers a decent selection of food, but it is served via a buffet. Staff in the lounge dining area were more than happy to hold my plate and serve my selections from the buffet.
Whether you are in the business or first class lounge, you'll find a comfortable place to relax and await your flight. The lounges add a touch of flair to the Qatar Airways travel experience, and are an important reason why the airline has received a top rating.
Qatar Airways Economy Class Experience
Economy class on Qatar Airways is comfortable and affordable for passengers traveling on a budget. The seats offer 31-33 inches of pitch across the fleet, making them more spacious than those on many competing carriers.
With the exception of the bulkhead rows, the seats have movable aisle armrests, making transfers to and from the aisle chair easier. Plush seat cushions, adjustable headrests and generous recline improve passenger comfort on long-haul flights. Every seat comes with a pillow, blanket and an amenity kit with eyeshades to make you feel at home.
Power outlets and a USB charging port are available at every seat, keeping your mobile devices, tablets and laptops charged. A wide selection of entertainment is available through the touch screen monitors at every seat. As of writing, recently released films like Arrival, Fences, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are available on-demand and free of charge.
While the economy class meal service doesn't compare to what is offered in the premium cabin, they were some of the best meals I've had on any flight in coach. Well-portioned and inclusive of all the nutrients you'll need, plus a tasty dessert, I was left impressed. You'll also dine with real silverware - none of those plastic forks that are typically used in economy.
Having taken my share of trips in economy class, you could certainly do a great deal worse than Qatar Airways. The meal service was tasty, filling and agreeable for this picky eater. And, when flying on a round trip intercontinental economy class fare of less than $400 USD, it was much more than I expected.
Cabin Crew & Inflight Accessibility
The Qatar Airways hard product is among the best in the world, no doubt. But the airline's strongest asset is its employees - in particular, the flight and cabin crews.
Regardless of what class of service you are flying, the Qatar Airways flight attendants pay special attention to the needs of passengers with disabilities. On each of my flights, the crews have been attentive, cheerful and happy to assist in any way possible. When I asked to go to the bathroom for the fourth time on my recent flight from Doha to Miami, there was no hesitation and no rolling of the eyes. On some airlines, you'd be hard pressed to ask for this type of assistance once without encountering an attitude.
Qatar Airways is an airline where passengers with disabilities need not fear pressing the call button. Whether you need a cup of water, a refill of your champagne glass, an extra blanket or assistance to the lavatory, you'll be greeted with kindness and respect. When air travel can be so stressful, it is nice for an airline and its crew to make you feel welcome and at home.
Recommendations for Improvement
Every airline has room for improvement, usually in many areas. Qatar has demonstrated its ability to serve travelers in an exceptional manner, as evidenced by the wide acclaim it receives in the media and its pile of industry awards. But, like every other carrier, its services to travelers with disabilities are lacking. Leadership would do well to read my article, 3 Most Violated Accessibility Rules in Air Travel.
Protecting the right of wheelchair users to preboard and returning mobility equipment in a timely manner are two areas where Qatar Airways must improve. As an airline lauded for its superior attention to detail, it would seem that a higher level of service could be delivered without much trouble.
If Qatar Airways would work to serve travelers with disabilities better, it could easily become the carrier of choice for Americans with disabilities traveling abroad. At a time when U.S. airlines are attempting to stand in the way of the Gulf carriers, Qatar has an opportunity to send a strong message that it will compete for every passenger, both the able-bodied and disabled. With that in mind, I encourage Qatar Airways to "Keep Climbing" in its pursuit of U.S. market share by "Going for Great" and ensuring that "Flying the Friendly Skies" is possible for all passengers with disabilities.
Although I have been disappointed by some of the accessibility challenges I outlined above, I have become a somewhat regular customer of Qatar Airways. I'll look forward to future flights with the airline, and will continue to encourage an improvement in the fulfillment of wheelchair assistance requests.
Qatar Airways offers incredible value to its passengers in all classes of service, and is at the front of the pack in its hard and soft product. With just a bit more investment and attention to the needs of travelers with disabilities, it could easily claim a 5 star rating that applies to everyone - including wheelchair travelers like you and me.