For press, the delivery ceremony completion usually means it is either time to drive back home, or return to the hotel and pack for the flight.
Not this day.
Airbus and Qatar Airways decided that it would be a great way to enhance the press experience if everyone was given a demonstration flight aboard the Airbus A350.
This was a great idea, so there had to be some kind of drawback! For a demonstration flight that would last an hour with pre-selected passengers, all 200 of us present had to go through security screening. A process that felt like it took longer than the flight itself. What a surprise, no one had any contraband or ill intent!
Rant aside, after what felt like an eternity, I finally made it onto the jet bridge to a crowd that was more akin to being in the last row of economy on a domestic narrowbody. I realized then and there that taking any kind of photographic imagery was going to be a challenge.
We boarded via a choice of either L1 or L2, I chose L2 as I wanted to see the lovely dome light and the in-flight bar. The doors themselves do not create any temporary feelings of claustrophobia. In the case of L2, you immediately walk into a spacious and open atrium. The ceiling is higher than one has come to expect on regular passenger aircraft, the walls more vertical.
The overhead bins are recessed, but massive. Airbus has put a lot of effort into improving the passenger experience and with more passengers than ever going carry-on only, these larger bins are going to make everyone have a better flight.
Thankfully, this economy class flight would be less than an hour, as business class was reserved for the VVIPs. To further confound this; my seat, 33F, was not a window or anywhere near them. As luck would have it, it seemed as though the window seats were assigned for those without any sort of photographic equipment. Such the luck.
But at least the windows were huge. It’s not just marketing — they really make the cabin feel more spacious and open. Better yet, there’s no silly electronic window translucency controllers that you would find on the 787. When you want to block light from hitting you, or darken the cabin for passengers to sleep, one relies on this ingenious device called a plastic window shade. The future is now!
Anyway, let’s focus on the good things about Qatar’s A350 economy. It’s 32″ seat pitch. With the way the seats are designed it feels more like 34″. The IFE screen is huge, larger than first class on some airlines at 10.6″. They’ve even gone all out and added a hand-held screen as well that allows further interactivity with the system. For example, you can have a movie going on the mainscreen, and a map going on the hand-held.
The flat floor of the A350, when combined with the vertical sidewalls, allows the A350 to achieve its design of an 18″-wide economy seat at nine-abreast. You can really feel the difference. The design also does give you noticeably more shoulder room. Given the luxuriousness of the product, most airlines would probably try to upsell it as premium economy. It is clear, from even a short interaction, that it offers a lot more value compared to the competitors.
Suddenly, Qatar Airways chief Akbar Al Baker appeared. I’m still not sure why. It’s always awe-inspiring to see him, so I was thrilled.
After the surprise scrum of His Excellency (HE) Al Baker walking past everyone, it was time to once again sit down, and pushback.
Startup was extremely quiet. Yes, there was a signature Rolls Royce growl, but it was muffled. It was terrifying how quiet the aircraft was. Even in the aft economy section, it was quieter than the APU on most current-generation aircraft. I am sure there are some people out there rejoicing in this, but I don’t consider it real flying unless I have a headache afterwards.
I am sure the views on taxi were great, but I couldn’t see anything. Same for take-off. I longed to watch the wings flex gracefully skyward. Instead, I had a nice view of the runway courtesy of the three cameras that can feed the “A350” section of the IFE. The takeoff roll lasted 22 seconds. Nothing even close to a high-thrust setting was used, but in either case the noise was more of a faint rushing of air than a traditional jetliner.
Once we were at cruise, it was time for everyone to try and take the exact same two pictures. Either a shot of HE Al Baker sitting in his business class seat, or the man right next to him, Airbus President & CEO Fabrice Brégier. Clearly, everyone had to do airborne video interviews with them as well.
I’ve never seen a more gridlocked cabin. Remember, we were only given 45 minutes of air time. It’s a testament to the A350 that it could stay so perfectly stable with the entirety of the economy cabin rushing forth to the nose. I just wanted to go up and see business class. Big mistake. What I should have done was use the opportunity to look out the window.
Instead, stuck in the aisle with all the other people who wanted to get the CEO shots, and the poor flight attendants trying to distribute champagne.
It felt like I was waiting to see a celebrity after a concert on land! The longer I waited in line, however, the more I began to think “Hey, maybe taking a shot of the CEOs enjoying the aircraft would be a great idea after all — It would be a great shot to lead the story!”
By the time I had reached all but three rows away from Fabrice, a flight attendant instructed me it was time to return to my seat. Fifteen minutes later, I had actually made it back. Oh well.
We flew over the Pyrenees Mountains to, inadvertently, show off the A350’s advanced gust protection system. In terms of flying at a relatively low level over the mountains, I’ve never felt anything so smooth. The system works.
The thing that I only realized in hindsight was that it barely even felt like we were flying. There was no dryness in the air, only a faint sound of rushing air, and very little sensation of flight. It’s astounding how utterly unobtrusive the aircraft is. I’m torn on whether I actually like that or not.
Landing was, however, unremarkable. I think that’s a good thing. Long after everyone else had left. I managed to work my way up to the flight deck.
After that, I was finally able to check out business class. It looks fantastic!
Overall, the A350 feels like it is a game-changer in terms of passenger comfort. I can’t wait to actually try it on a long-haul flight and put my assumptions to the test.