I have now flown with each of the big 4 Middle-East airlines at least twice. Clearly there are other airlines in the Middle-East, such as the likes of Royal Jordanian, Saudia, and the ever-improving Oman Air, but I wish to solely focus on the 4 key players in this region’s aviation industry.
My first trip with Emirates was on a return journey back to the UK from Seoul. I flew via Dubai on the Emirates A380 on both legs. It was for the most part a sumptuous experience, even in economy class. I can remember the ICN-DXB leg to be no more than 50% full, yet the DXB-LHR leg was jam-packed on what is Emirates’ flagship [and busiest] route. My positive initial experience has since led me to fly Emirates on many further occasions, most of which were also in economy class, and although EK’s business class has thus far evaded me, I have nonetheless flown twice in their First Class Suites aboard the grand A380. You can catch a write-up of my experience HERE.
Regretfully, I have flown with Etihad on just one occasion. This was an economy class flight from Istanbul to Abu Dhabi on an A330. It was a great experience for me, as initially I had always perceived Etihad as being the least impressive of the big Middle-East 4. How wrong I was! Etihad, unlike their Arabic cousins at Emirates, do virtually everything perfectly without any need for a fanfare or doing anything over-the-top. I liked their refined elegance, and one day I want to fly long haul with Etihad aboard their B777, preferably transatlantic to the US. Who knows what the future may bring? In fact, Etihad have recently announced First Class Residences onboard their new A380s, which as a new standard-bearer for luxury in the air, will no doubt annoy their rivals Emirates!
I must admit I have a huge soft spot for Qatar Airways. I also have a huge soft spot for Qatar itself. It is a lovely country, simply untouched by the mass artificial tourism of Dubai (and to a lesser extent Abu Dhabi), thus retaining its Arabic character, whilst at the same time reaching out to the tourism industry with open arms. Qatar Airways, as the flag carrier of Qatar, in most respects reflects the attitude of its citizens. Much like Etihad, it has a refined elegance, and doesn’t need to boast all the while. I have flown in economy, business, and first classes with Qatar, including on the B787 Dreamliner from Doha to Delhi, which was a great experience. My economy class experiences with Qatar, however, have been disappointing. From London to Doha, Abu Dhabi to Doha, and even Singapore to Bali, each time was spoiled by disinterested cabin crew and broken IFE. 3 times out of 3 is a poor record, although I am still willing to give them another chance. Conversely, by return flight from Bali to Singapore in Business Class, was a fantastic experience, with some of the best food I have ever had on a short flight. So my overall experience with Qatar Airways is that they are very inconsistent.
The only time I have ever flown premium economy with any airline was with Turkish Airlines in their brilliant Comfort Class scheme. I am told that they may be abandoning Comfort Class in the near future, and this would be a shame. I have also flown from London to Istanbul and Istanbul to Kathmandu in economy class, the former on a B777 and the latter on an A330. Both were nice experiences. Turkish Airlines are one of the fastest growing airlines in the world, even giving Emirates a run for its money in the expansion stakes, and I hope to fly with them again some time soon. I have my sights on a flight from Sao Paolo to Buenos Aires with Turkish Airlines (hopefully in Comfort Class again) some time in 2014. Interestingly enough, Turkish Airlines was in July, 2014, awarded the Best Airline in Europe for the fifth year running by SKYTRAX, so this proves their consistent high standards over a long period. My full opinion on what Turkish Airlines do best.
As you can see from the above graph posted on centreforaviation.com, Emirates are way ahead of their Middle-East rivals in terms of seat numbers to virtually every part of the world, although interestingly Qatar Airways has more seats available to Latin America. Other interesting trends seem that Etihad is lagging behind drastically in Europe, whereas Emirates has clearly seen the Asia-Pacific region as a place for rapid growth. Turkish Airlines can almost match Emirates for flights to North America, yet has no foothold whatsoever on the African continent compared to the others. These stats are correct up to summer 2013.
For a more detailed look at these figures, and more, check this informative page: http://centreforaviation.com/analysis/turkish-airlines-narrowing-the-strategic-gulf-part-2-112353
Based in London, I can get virtually anywhere in Asia with a stopover in the Middle-East, although clearly Emirates have more destinations than the other carriers. For example, they are the only airline of the 4 to fly to Cape Town directly, a place where I focus much of my business. Qatar and Turkish do so via Johannesburg, whereas Etihad do not serve Cape Town at all. Statistics like this prove that Emirates really does connect [much of] the world, although for flights across the Atlantic it is another story altogether. EK fly only to Sao Paolo and Rio direct, with Buenos Aires additionally via Rio, with the likes of Santiago, Lima, Caracas, and Bogota still conspicuously missing from their route map. This also applies to the other members of the big 4, and yet again, it was Etihad to launched their services to this part of the world much later than the others, with Sao Paolo being served only from June 2013.
At any airport, you can always be lucky enough to see the cabin crew of an airline making their way to the gate ready for the flight ahead. Sometimes, you can also see the Captain and co-pilots walking along with them. But for most people, the service of the cabin crew – the Human Element – is of paramount importance when choosing which airline to fly. I have found Emirates staff to be very professional. Many of them in my experience have been very young, straight out of aviation school. This can cause problems, although fortunately in my flights these problems have rectified themselves before landing. In particular Emirates ground staff dealing with check-in and boarding have been mightily impressive. The cabin crew do their job professionally, although they lack a personal touch which can be expected when flying with some of the Asian heavyweights such as Garuda Indonesia, Singapore Airlines, or Malaysia Airlines. Smiles on Emirates often feel forced, and for some of the younger crew members it is clear they see this merely as a job, and not something they particularly want to do forever.
In contrast to Emirates, Etihad cabin crew appear far friendlier, and more willing to put the passengers at ease. I have flown with them only once, but it was a joy. I also received a pre-takeoff drink in economy class, which is very rare; in fact only Garuda Indonesia seem to offer this perk currently. In contrast, I have found Emirates staff to be infuriatingly slow to perform the initial drinks run after take off, often only doing so AFTER the meal has been served, which in my opinion is not good service at all. The Etihad cabin crew uniform is also the most prestigious of all the Big 4. The grey and white are a perfect compliment to one another, and while Emirates staff look almost as nice in their famous cream and red apparel, Etihad do still have an upper hand in this department, and certainly far ahead of the mishmash of Turkish Airlines uniforms. What makes Etihad so special?
For economy class flights, I have always found Qatar Airways cabin crew to be hurried and uninterested in their passengers. I don’t expect to be treated like royalty, but on more than one occasion I have been simply forgotten about after requesting a new pair of headphones, and glass of water. It seems perhaps that their crew are placed under a lot of pressure to get things right; there is a level of stress always present in my flights with Qatar Airways, and I do wonder why this seems to be. That said, I do like QR’s uniform; the dark maroon is very nice, and while not quite as nice as that of EY, it is still nice to look at. Unlike at Emirates, I do not see many multi-lingual cabin crew members on board Qatar Airways flights. This is something that perhaps the management can improve on in the future. I must remark about a situation I suffered at Singapore Changi once, where I had stayed in the transit hotel overnight and my luggage had just come off a Delta flight from Tokyo. The luggage went to lost property, and later that evening when I checked in for my QR flight to Bali, the very kind gentleman behind the desk did everything in his power to retrieve the luggage for me, so that I did not have to bother myself. I thought this was commendable customer service – first class service to an economy class passenger – it’s just a shame I didn’t remember his name.
Aside from their hideous uniforms, I also have great memories of flight attendants at Turkish Airlines. Boarding at London Heathrow for a flight to Istanbul, I was greeted by name by the attendant at the door, and shown to my seat in Comfort Class. To my surprise, I was even offered some chocolates by TK’s chef before take off, which I was pretty sure was usually meant only for first class passengers, but nonetheless it was a nice touch! And yes, I did take one! Turkish Airlines utilise a MASSIVE fleet of narrow bodies, and whilst I have never flown in one personally, it must mean there are less cabin crew members on those particular flights. This could mean either a certain inconsistency, or a higher level of personal service. I am inclined, with my experience of TK thus far, to suggest the latter.
Please find below some incredible flight reports of the Big 4 Middle-Eastern airlines which I have hand-picked from some of my favourite YouTube members. With these amazingly detailed, POV experiences, from a variety of aircraft types, you can see for yourselves what it is like to fly in economy class with such airlines.
Emirates A380 from Dubai to New York-JFK, from seatgurus:
Etihad A330 from Abu Dhabi to Shanghai-Pudong, from FlightTravels:
Qatar Airways A320 from Moscow-DME to Doha, from andrew06666:
Turkish Airlines B777 (Comfort Class) from Istanbul to Hong Kong, from HachikoDog:
It is always an honour to watch great trip reports like most of the ones featured in the videos embedded above. I have myself filmed many flight reports over the years but none have been as comprehensive as those aforementioned.
My experiences of using Dubai International Airport have been mediocre at best. Long queues to check in, long queues for security, and quite frankly a poorly designed terminal (T3). Emirates deserve better. However, conversely, landing at DXB has often been a pleasure, with seamless immigration and baggage claim, and a huge arrivals hall to welcome visitors. It really is a special feeling to land in Dubai – you need to experience it yourself to know what I mean – and no better airline to fly you there than Emirates! Soon, Emirates may have the whole of DXB to themselves, as other airlines (currently operating out of T1) move to the new airport currently under construction on the other side of Dubai.
I much prefer Abu Dhabi International to DXB. It is cleaner, better-designed, and is far less crowded. Whereas DXB is so busy that it is at breaking point (much like London Heathrow), AUH continues to impress with its professional and understated excellence. I have only visited Abu Dhabi once in my lifetime, having spent only 2 nights in the emirate, but I know that if I were ever to return any time soon, my experience will be heightened by knowing that the home of Etihad will provide me with a wonderful start and end to my business trip.
Put frankly, New Hamad Airport in Doha is still a mess. It’s not quite as bad as it once was, but as they continue to enhance the newly-completed the airport, inconvenience is still apparent. I do not like using buses to take me from the terminal/lounge to the aircraft, and at DOH that’s what happens more often than not, until they have finished building. Compared to AUH or DXB, DOH is less endearing, although you cannot fail to be impressed with its ‘new paint smell’. The lounges here in this new airport are incredible, and the Qatar Airways Business and First Class lounge is probably the finest I have encountered anywhere in the world – it simply looks and feels like a luxury hotel!
Istanbul-Ataturk is the bridge between Europe and Asia, and Turkish Airlines use this to great effect. The facilities in the airport are distinctly European, compared to say Dubai International, and I do not rank it among the best in the world, although it is certainly up there with Madrid-Barajas and Amsterdam Schipol as the best airport in Europe. It has a useful design, and is also a 24hr airport (unlike many on the continent), which is another added bonus. In the future, it is highly conceivable that Turkish Airlines will outgrow Istanbul-Ataturk and await the construction of a new airport, but for the time being, it is gladly their home.
Overall, it is very difficult to choose between the Big 4 Middle Eastern carriers. For a long time, Emirates have had it all their own way, but Turkish and Qatar are catching up fast, while Etihad cannot be counted out at all when you consider their superior product. The future is certainly going to be interesting, and for my regular jaunts off to Singapore from London, it is now a nice thing that I get to spend some time in the Middle-East with a stopover, as it means I can continue to fly and analyse the aviation giants of the region.
Thank you for reading, and please comment below to share your opinions. I would love to hear from you! For more airline comparisons, check out my other articles here: Air India vs Srilankan vs PIA vs Biman Bangladesh, Garuda vs Thai vs Singapore Airlines vs Malaysia Airlines, plus EVA vs Korean Air vs All Nippon vs Cathay Pacific!