What do you do when you’re a wealthy but relatively small international carrier, trying to enhance your image in the DC/Maryland/Virginia market, and you happen to have a Boeing 777 that will be parked for a few hours between flights at Dulles International Airport? You plan a seated dinner party in the jet’s luxurious first-class section and invite a small group of travel, food, and other writers. Qatar Airways invited 25 of us, somehow knowing the invitation would stand out in fall’s pile of more routine galas, benefits, book launches, restaurant openings, and fundraisers. And it did—I arrived humming, “Come Fly With Me.”
Back at the office on Thursday morning, having survived the seduction and indulgence, and with my skepticism and standard boundaries still in tact, I can say it was a fun diversion on several levels. There was the kick of being checked through TSA without dragging a carry-on bag, the thrill of being seated in the very front of first class (though they call it “business” in the US), and for me personally—a fearful flier—the benefit of boarding a plane without having to take a pill to do so. My paranoia still had its moment, however. While riding out to Dulles I imagined a macabre Stephen King scenario, with a gullible group of unwitting writers, gleefully handing over their personal security info, boarding a jet with the lights low and the shades drawn, willingly taking their seats, and accepting welcoming pours of not one but two fine French Champagnes—Billecart-Salmon brut and Bollinger rosé—as the plane took off for some sinister destination.
What was amusing, among so many amusements, was that our seats, which had controls comparable to a Lamborghini, included a “massage” feature that when switched on replicated the feel of mild turbulence. Just in case, every now and again I asked my seatmate to pull up the window shade to make sure we hadn’t taxied and taken off for the mystery island of some wanna-be Bond villain. We didn’t. We always stayed parked, plugged into land power, with the air conditioning gently cooling us, music soothing us, and two hours of nonstop food and wine service. Writers did what writers do—snapped selfies, tweeted, and posted to Instagram.
Before dinner was served, airline officials made brief remarks. Qatar’s sommelier, James Cluer, welcomed us by acknowledging that this dinner on a parked plane was as unusual for him as it was for us. He talked about the challenges of creating a wine list while dealing with space allowances, cabin temperature and climate, altitude, and budget. “There is a budget, or else we’d be pouring Petrus in economy,” he said. To figure out what goes well at high altitudes—even in a pressurized cabin—he trekked to a Mount Everest base camp, with a Sherpa, to taste wines. When he’s not climbing mountains, buying wines, and shuttling around on jets, he lives among the vineyards in Napa Valley, California, where he also owns a wine business, Fine Vineyard. So we asked, “Do you think you have one of the world’s great jobs?” He blushed. “I can’t really complain.”
Before dinner, the female flight attendants wore bright burgundy suits with hats to serve Champagne and mixed nuts. For dinner service, they changed into navy blue suits. In the spirit of childhood wonder, the media guests played with the controls on their seats—reclining a little or a lot, in some cases flattening out into a bed, or moving up or down, leg rest out, leg rest in; they pulled out their polished burlwood trays, fiddled with the 17-inch touch-screen TVs, adjusted their pillows and blankets. We were offered glossy menus, written in Arabic and English, while the airline’s executive chef, Colin Binmore, discussed how the menu is created by a quartet of well-known chefs: Tom Aikens of London, Ramzi Choueiri, who specializes in Middle Eastern cooking, Nobu Matsuhisa, an acclaimed master of Japanese cuisine, and Vineet Bhatia, the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star.
The flight attendants set each seat table with a white linen tablecloth, a large napkin, silver flatware, and crystal stemware. I chose the black cod with lemon; vegetarian harira soup; and poached chicken breast with lemongrass sauce, lemon confit and lemon potato purée. I skipped the ample cheese plate and opted instead for one dessert, the Braeburn apple jelly with apple purée and vanilla crème. Others had seafood salad of snow crab, shrimp, and scallops; filet of beef with green beans and rice; and roasted dark chocolate cake with saffron ice cream. There were bread baskets, still or sparkling water, cappucino, espresso, lattes, macchiatos, and an assortment of teas.
At that point I tweeted: “working.”
There was no pitch about the splendors of Qatar. In the end, it was just a very splendid two-hour dinner. Airline food is always a challenge, and though I never forgot that this was airline food, the cod was moist, the soup was interesting, spicy and soothing, the chicken breast was not overcooked, and the apple jelly dessert was a subtle, sweet lullaby to prepare the senses for an after-dinner snooze and the long flight ahead. (It’s approximately 14 hours to fly nonstop from DC to Doha.)
We weren’t hustled off the plane, even though it was due to take on passengers and embark on its regular 10:55 flight to Doha. But we could feel baggage being loaded beneath us. Slowly, amiably, we disengaged from the cocoon of our seats, walked off the plane, and reentered the bright lights and reality of the terminal. Somehow—maybe because of the change from dry airplane air to airport air—I felt like I’d actually been on a flight.
Bottom line: There’s a lot to be said for breaking the mold on how to get the media’s attention. On that basis, it was a lovely dinner. But I can’t say whether it will make anyone book a flight on Qatar. If you do and you want to sit in seat 1J, as I did, and eat and drink as we did, the round-trip ticket will cost you $11,076.19. Economy, on the other hand, is $1,790.