My wife and daughter spent the summer in Thailand as it is my busy season at work and I am nearly never at home – why shouldn’t they be at the beach instead? As a result, I have been traveling back and forth every other week for an extended weekend stay and completing some mileage/status running in the process. But after my first completed roundtrip and one-way of a roundtrip on two oneworld carriers, it’s left me asking myself: Why did I choose American over Qatar?
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What Did I Book?
I covered why I booked away from American and United in favor of a direct flight last week because there is no additional incentive to send them my business. This post is in regards to flights taken over the summer.
Departing from Bangkok to North America (one was into LAX and the other into Mexico City) I was able to snag a sweet deal on Qatar Airways in business class for $1,474 roundtrip (BKK-DOH-LAX). For my second trip I found a refundable ticket for $2,750 on American (BKK-HKG-LAX-MEX-DFW-NRT-BKK). For both trips I had to position from the east coast and those round trips (one paid for in miles and one paid for in cash by choice) were roughly the same price in cash. Because the difference in cost was negligible I have not included that into my calculations as either would not have had a material difference on my choice of carrier.
In so doing, I would earn the following from flying Qatar Airways but crediting my flight to American Airlines:
- $4,638 EQDs (American Airlines Elite Qualifying Dollars)
- 50,994 RDMs (American Airlines Advantage Redeemable Miles)
- 34,768 EQMs (American Airlines Elite Qualifying Miles)
Flying on American Airlines metal and crediting flights to their own program here is what I have earned:
- $2,400 EQDs (American Airlines Elite Qualifying Dollars)
- 26,400 RDMs (American Airlines Advantage Redeemable Miles)
- 36,704 EQMs (American Airlines Elite Qualifying Miles)
- $7,038 EQDs
- 77,394 RDMs
- 71,472 EQMs
- $4,224 in cost
What Did I Get?
Flying on Qatar Airways was a dream. Don’t get me wrong, the product on 3/4 flights was inferior to American Airlines hard product. From Doha to Los Angeles and back as well as one leg on the Doha to Bangkok leg were flown on Qatar’s Boeing 777-200LR which featured six across business class seating, 2-2-2. That’s not market leading by any stretch of the imagination.
The problem with that layout was that window seats involve either stepping over a stranger, or having a stranger step over me while sleeping on a long flight. While the seats were less than ideal as a hard product (the physical seat) I was able to snag a middle column seat on those three legs and therefore still had direct aisle access without having to step over or be stepped over.
The first leg on Qatar was on their Airbus A380 in a reverse herringbone design which gave me the chance to snag a window seat and maintain direct aisle access. This hard product is on par with any other business class product on the market. There was great storage, a large IFE screen, and a massaging seat. After flying Cathay Pacific’s reverse herringbone, widely reputed as one of the best hard products you can find, the Qatar seat was just as good.
The soft product was where the airline really shined. The food was excellent, less because it was chef quality and more because of the effort that was put in to the process. When I see pancakes on an in-flight menu, I don’t expect a flight attendant in the galley with a hot griddle and spatula in hand flipping hotcakes. I know they will be heated back up in an oven. It’s the luxurious and frankly very simple accoutrements to the dish that made it delicious.
Presentation of all food items had a personal touch that could easily be added by crews anywhere, the difference is that Qatar takes the time to add them, and other carriers don’t. When it comes to food on an airplane it’s certainly about taste and menu selection, but more than anything else, it’s about effort. Qatar puts in the effort to make the experience special. Dining on-demand or at scheduled times is a nice option for guests and again, requires effort and maybe some additional staff but makes all the difference.
Qatar’s service outside of the food was excellent. I was offered coffee after I had woken up, encouraged to use the full suite of services they offered, everyone was pleasant, talkative – I even got a great restaurant recommendation for Pattaya from one of the great FAs who asked me about my trip and happened to be from the seaside Thai city. Male, female, younger, older, every single encounter was cheerful, helpful and accommodating. Whether I was asking to switch seats to the middle section where I wouldn’t have a seat mate, for a different colored amenity kit (to take to my wife), for a loaner laptop or at checkin. The difference was effort.
The lounge is important – in fact it’s really important. On one of my four segments I landed in the middle of the night, and departed just before 7AM. I had to do some work and need to stay up through the night. Instead of going into depth on the lounge, I will refer to Matthew’s post regarding the lounge and leave some pictures that tell the story.
Perhaps the best business class seat in the industry is the American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER design licensed from Cathay Pacific. I was able to utilize this seat both on a connection flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong on a Cathay Pacific 777-300ER as well as my connecting flight from Hong Kong to Dallas-Fort Worth. Irregular operations forced me to switch off of my originally planned route from Hong Kong to LAX utilizing the same product. On the return it was the same type seat from Dallas to Tokyo-Narita on a 777-200ER and following that on a Japan Airlines 787-800 with a similar seat design.
Without a doubt the hard product from American, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines beat the Qatar Airways 777-200 where I spent a majority of my time. However, the A380 was superior to all others given the massive screen size, plentiful storage options and massaging chairs (on all Qatar flights).
The greatest difference between American and Qatar has to be in the soft product. It’s not just that the food was bad, it was the complete and utter indifference to preparation and presentation.
Compare that to the worst effort I received from Qatar:
After the rice was both searing hot and at the same time crispy and uncooked with a ramekin flipped over and baked in the same circle it arrived, I sent it back and requested an alternate dish.
It doesn’t get more disgusting than this “gnocchi” and I pushed it around my plate before eating what I could before giving up.
I sent photos of the two dishes in comparison to the American twitter team which was met with the same indifference as the onboard staff. Keeping in mind that I am both an Executive Platinum and was flying on a paid business class ticket, I was offered nothing and no blame was accepted for this shockingly poor dish.
Service was curt. While my FA was polite and did exchange the first dish, the replacement was served by another FA who was both unsurprised and uncaring about my concerns. Suggesting that it’s “airplane food” shows that American FAs have zero experience on other carriers who can somehow perform the miracle of preparing food with care besides flopping a ramekin onto a plate. In fairness to the FAs on American, they can’t prepare food they don’t have – some of it comes down to what’s provided by American and their catering menu. But when Cathay Pacific can offer a wagyu beef burger on demand that rivals that which is delivered on the ground and they cater from the same airports with the same catering companies, blame falls on both the catering department of American corporately and the crew who are unwilling to put lipstick on a pig.
I didn’t have much time to visit the lounges from American, but in Hong Kong I did visit the Wing and again yield to Matthew’s excellent review.
So Why Did I Book American Airlines Over Qatar Airways
There were two reasons really, but unfortunately nostalgia played into effect more than it should have. The first reason was that I simply missed the window to book my second return on Qatar for the amazing price I found the first time. In the end, Qatar prices were only marginally higher than the one I booked with American, however, American’s times were better for my schedule.
Secondly, I felt like if I were to have an issue in my travels, the “aadvantage” of holding Executive Platinum status with American might have gotten me out of a jam and my schedule was tight on the return. In the end my status did come into play, but no more than Qatar would have helped for any other oneworld Emerald traveling on a business class ticket. I guess I booked a little bit for nostalgia in the end and that was a mistake. I won’t be quick to repeat it.
That being said, one thing did go my way. As a result of an extensive mechanical delay by American, I was rebooked on a much more expensive flight and was able to drop a leg of my journey. This altered my EQDs and thus, my redeemable miles working in my favor but cost me nothing extra. This was a happy accident and not something I can count on again. What I can count on is the deplorable food and standard service I received on American compared with my exemplary service and food on the less expensive Qatar Airways.
I have discussed in-depth my departure from American Airlines which only began as a result of the deterioration of their elite program. I was happy to accept and absorb the service failures in favor of a program that I generally found to reward me for my business. One of my managers when I was in the food service industry said, “Never let your customer taste the competition” and this is a prime example as to why. Once I tried Qatar Airways, and later United I won’t be returning to American on a paid long haul premium cabin ticket.
Do you think that American or their peers can continue to compete in the face of a much better product? Will they reverse course or should we all move our business and let them die on the vine?
I am still flying AA, even when I expected to change most paid flying to AS. But having experienced Qatar this year in J, I (and especially my wife) are fully converted, or at least sold that international carriers are far beyond domestic when it comes to long haul business class. We have virtually no experience, but why risk AA to Asia when we can take a bet on Qatar (which was fabulous) or Cathay/JAL (whose economy destroyed AA in a straight comparison)/ANA?
TBH, it probably works in AA’s favor, as we earn miles on AA domestic flights to spend on international partners. Maybe they see no reason to improve international J/F if they can count on nostalgic paid tickets and foist the award trips off onto partners? 😉
They need the revenue from long haul premium cabins. They could fly the back of the plane empty and still make money if the front 1/3 was sold even at discount prices, but they would lose money on every flight selling only the coach tickets and losing out on premium sets. So I am not going to be part of the problem any more, it will be Qatar when I can in the future, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, whoever shows they put the customer first and a product worth buying.
“Maybe they see no reason to improve international J/F if they can count on nostalgic paid tickets and foist the award trips off onto partners? ”
That makes complete sense. As long as they can keep first class foreign competitors out then they don’t have to improve their domestic product since the American public has no choice and then “foist the award trips off onto partners”. That is a brilliant insight.
The US unfortunately has in general become a second class country (when it comes to customer service), so the US carriers understandably are able to get away with it.
This is where we should all vote with our dollars. They can earn the domestic from me all day long – at a certain point I have to get to where I am going – but I spend double my US domestic spend on international flights in premium cabins during the year (one trip as a family and one or two for work) and that’s the part they just won’t get from me any more. It’s unacceptable.
After a decade being based overseas, our family will never fly American or any other US carrier for international flights if we can help it. This is a rule whether we are flying coach or business, whether on our dime, someone else’s, or when redeeming points or miles. Asian and ME carriers are just so much more pleasant, especially with children.
Suzy, I couldn’t agree more. In fairness to some US carriers, United makes an effort on the soft product and their changes have been really good, though not Qatar-level.
I still wonder why you as a seasoned traveller even compared qatar to american. Its not apple to apple, more like apple to rotten tomato. Unbelieveable……
I’m always happy to respond to a dedicated reader like yourself James. For those of us based in the US, there has been some stuck thinking that I should give that business to American when able if I am generally loyal to them, as they are uncompetitive and have no desire to rectify the matter, I agree with you that it is more like apple to rotten tomato – and I won’t be flying them long-haul if there is another option any more.
I’ve been a rewards member with American from the start. They do reward loyalty, permanently bumping me up a status when I hit 20 years with them (about to hit 30 years) Their customer service when travelling on mileage tickets is exemplary. I recently flew to Australia (almost impossible to snag mileage seats for one, never mind more, and in business!). The staff member spent 90 minutes, trying every option, to get me and my son there for free. I swear she had a map of Asia out trying every airport. She succeeded and we got incredible layovers in Hong Kong and Tokyo to boot. Another time, I was flying to Croatia (again with miles) on horrible layovers stopping in Boston for 8 hours (I fly from JFK!). American called the night before and asked if I wanted 2 seats that opened up on a nonstop (they had already set the seats aside for me). Third scenario – I was returning from Dublin on a mileage code share ticket. Are Lingus pulled one of their wildcat strikes. They refused to rebook me and my elderly mother (A.L. has horrific customer service which, having lived in Dublin, I’ve experienced almost every time I’ve used them, but I got stuck with them since this was a last minute flight for a funeral). American, despite not flying out of Dublin, had no problem helping us when I called them. They puddle jumped me on B.A. over to Heathrow and flew me and my mother home from there. Their behind the scenes staff are amazing.
I am glad to hear your encounters have been great, but I would ask if you think their onboard product is as exemplary as the experience you have had as a long-time customer. The stuck thinking I had in my head that I should give them my long-haul premium business has become unstuck.