The World’s Best Airline – What Makes Flying Better?

In global sports news, it was a big deal last month when the United States Men’s National Team qualified for soccer’s 2022 FIFA World Cup after failing to do so in the previous 2014 edition. The quadrennial international championship is the biggest title in the world’s most popular sport, dwarfing even the Olympics in importance.

The good news for U.S. soccer is that after eight long years, the team is returning to the World Cup. The good news for soccer fans of every nation traveling from all over the world is that the World Cup is in Qatar, home to both the best airline and arguably the best airport on earth. But you don’t have to love soccer, or even be headed to Doha, to enjoy the frills of traveling with Qatar Airways, which serves more than 140 global destinations, including a dozen U.S. cities.

The “Best” airline status is most importantly conferred by London-based research group Skytrax, long the gold standard of ratings for all things aviation. Its annual World Airlines Awards is the most important ranking of its kind. But when it comes to recognizing the quality of Qatar Airways, other travel and aviation industry heavyweight tend to pile on.

In the most recent 2021 World Airlines Awards, Qatar Airways once again took home the single most coveted prize in aviation, World’s Best Airline, an overall assessment. This was Qatar’s sixth grand award, something no other carrier has ever equaled. In addition, it won the top spot in many other categories, including Best Airline in Middle East (against stiff competition), World’s Best Business Class (see more below on why), World’s Best Business Class Seat (running away with it), World’s Best Business Class Lounge and Best Business Class Food Airline of the Year.

All these wins for its premium cabin might suggest Qatar is an airline primarily for the business traveler or well-heeled leisure flyer, but it also came in Number Two in the world for Economy Class (behind only Japan Airlines), while Business Traveller Magazine rated it the world’s third best economy class. Yet despite all these accolades, every time in the past few years I have priced long haul flights to places like Africa or spots in Europe and Asia where changing in the Middle East would make sense, Qatar has been among the least expensive of all carriers for both business and coach tickets, despite having a better product. These ratings do not have a World’s Best Value category, but if they did, Qatar would likely take that too – for travelers of all budgets.

What else? Hamad International Airport (HIA), Qatar’s hub in Doha, was the Skytrax World’s Best Airport. Business Traveller Magazine also does annual awards and Qatar took home four Number Ones: Best Long-Haul Carrier, Best Business Class, Best Middle Eastern Airline and Best Inflight Food and Beverage. During the pandemic, Skytrax introduced a new COVID-19 Airline Excellence Award, and Qatar was one of the winners. Also due to the pandemic, the other big player in aviation ratings, the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), created a new top tier of ratings above its existing 5-Star level, called APEX World Class, recognizing an even higher level of excellence. According to APEX, World Class “recognizes airlines for their achievements on the key metrics that matter ‎to travelers today…APEX World Class recognizes ‎excellence in superior service, brand integrity, space and comfort, presence, customer ‎recognition, and relevance of cuisine.”

There is no order of ranking within World Class, but only seven airlines in the world attained it, including Qatar (along with Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways, Japan Airlines, KLM, Singapore Airlines, Saudia and Emirates). Other notable awards for 2021 included Airline of the Year from and World’s Best Airline from online travel agency eDreams.

But while all these World’s Best rating are impressive on paper, what was more impressive was that I finally got to try Qatar Airways myself in real life. For more than two decades I have been a very frequent global flyer and have reported here at Forbes on the highs and low flying different carriers. I typically cover over 100,000 miles annually on many different airlines, foreign and domestic, and have flown the highest profile carriers from Australia, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Chile, Switzerland, Germany, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia, Fiji, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and others, plus all the major domestic carriers and countless smaller airlines around the world. I’ve flown in business on many of the most awarded airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Turkish, EVA, United Polaris, Virgin (all of these excellent) and many others, including most major European carriers (not as impressive). I’ve flown premium economy on many, and I’ve been to flagship lounges at top airports worldwide. I’ve had elite status on more than half a dozen different airlines, U.S. and foreign, and as a member of Priority Pass and having had both Star Alliance Gold and OneWorld Sapphire, I’ve gotten to use many different lounges, airline and non-airline around the world. So, I have a pretty good frame of reference when I say that based on my experience Qatar lives up to all the lavish praise.

It is possible that there is another carrier with as good or better food, though I haven’t seen it, (but I haven’t flown every single airline or top tier competitors Singapore or Japan in a long time). It’s possible that other carriers have as good in-flight service from friendly attendants (as I have experienced on EVA, Turkish and Cathay-Pacific). But there is clearly no better business class seat, period, and when combined with the excellence of the in-flight service, food, lounges and all-around customer service and economy class product, it’s hard to imagine a better overall airline, which explains all the awards. For me, Qatar definitely has the best business class I’ve seen, ties with only Turkish for best lounge, has a fantastic hub airport, and excellent customer service – something I never saw myself saying about any airline.

I’ll start with the last point because it is one that many travelers ignore until something goes wrong, and then it comes back to bite them. Airline customer service across the board has gotten so bad that none of the awards bother to rank this category because for the most part, it is conceptually non-existent. I recently had such a bad experience with American Airlines (two hour wait to be openly lied to repeatedly on the “elite” line followed by an inadequate response to my customer service complaint) that I decided to let my elite status on AA lapse after many years of being a preferred member. My most recent experience with JetBlue, which intentionally makes it nearly impossible to even contact customer service and then ignored me when I did, led me to forsake that airline as well. So, in an industry where mediocre customer service is better than you can reasonably hope for, anything resembling good service is exceptional (in all fairness, I have been repeatedly very satisfied with United’s customer service, it is my airline of choice, and I contact them regularly, but I also have fairly high MileagePlus status so my treatment is hard to judge).

On the other hand, when I first contacted Qatar, I was a first-time customer with no status who had purchased inexpensive economy class tickets. This was last year (2021) when travel was changing rapidly due to COVID-19, and I eventually had to cancel the flights. I was a bit nervous because as I have written about here at Forbes, complaints about refunds and trip cancellations skyrocketed to record highs during the pandemic, and the Department of Transportation reported that from January 2020 through mid-2021, 84% of all consumer complaints regarding air travel were about refunds – more than a tenfold increase from pre-pandemic, when these were only about 8%. In late 2021, USA Today reported that hundreds of thousands of consumers were still trying to collect refunds from flights cancelled in 2020 – a year earlier – refunds which totaled $10 billion.

So, while I knew Qatar had a great reputation, I had never dealt with them before and despite its unconditional, no strings attached refund policy for any cancellation for any reason, I was dubious. But when I phoned, not only was the call answer promptly – and by an actual person with no long hold or series of recorded menus – but that agent was extremely friendly, immediately agreed to cancel and refund, without any effort to dissuade, upsell or rebook me, and politely thanked me for my time. My credit card was reimbursed the next day. So, when I was ready to book again in late 2021, to South Africa, I chose Qatar’s business class. That is when the good time began.

The single biggest differentiator between Qatar and every other airline on earth is its unique Q Suite, the reason why it wins all the Best Business Class and Best Business Class Seat awards. Every seat is completely surrounded by walls, turning it into a “suite” of cocooned privacy. The walls do not go all the way to the ceiling, it is not a hotel room, but it is plenty high. Think of the curved wall that partially wrap the back of most business class lay flat seats and the dividers some have that can be raised and lowered between seats, and then go all the way around with these, including a sliding door for service. Even better, they are set up in various modular configurations to accommodate both couples, with wo seats forming an enclosed double bed suite, and colleagues or families, with four seats that can form work pods. The privacy and flexibility for traveling companions is simply unrivalled by any other business class, but the exceptional design continues within the walls.

While most major airlines today have upgraded their business cabin product to lay flat seats, seats that turn into actual beds, these vary greatly in space, comfort, size and design. Bigger is better, as are extras not every airline offers, such as quality pillows, mattress topper pads and comforters. The Q Suites are very spacious, and Qatar goes above and beyond for amenities (quilted mattress pad, duvet, pajamas from the White Company) with large beds (varies by plane model but 21 or more inches wide and a generous 80 inches – over six and half feet – long). There is even in-flight turndown service where attendants make the beds up for you.

It’s the privacy and seat comfort that distinguish the Q Suite from all other business class products, but Qatar also executes the other bells and whistles well. The suite design is outstanding, with high quality 21.5-inch screens, an excellent on-demand entertainment system (4000 choices including a nice array of mediation and wellness offerings in addition to movies and TV), with well-located international power ports, USB, HDMI and NFC. I loved that you could choose from multiple exterior plane camera views through the entertainment system to watch the landing and takeoff straight on, which you can never see from the plane unless you are in the cockpit, or look “down” even from a middle seat. Each suite has tons of storage in multiple compartments, large user-friendly tray tables, and the lights, headphones, seat controls and ergonomics are all well thought out. Many planes allow you to also stream the entertainment to your personal device. There’s a permanent corner table by the TV so you have a good amount of “counter space” even when your tray table is down. The amenity kits were excellent, in addition to the sperate COVID-19 kits with spray and masks (since I flew the airline announced a new amenity kit with luxury French perfumer Diptyque).

There are a very few other airlines offering fancy First-Class suites in the sky (such as Emirates and Singapore) with fully sealed floor to ceiling walls. This is even more luxurious, but these are very limited, usually no more than six, and only on certain planes. They are also extremely expensive. No one except Qatar has suites in business class, where every single passenger gets one (on the A350-1000 there are 46 Q Suites, 777s have 42 and the A350-900 has 36) – and they often cost less than inferior regular business class seats on competitors. I just opened a flight search engine I use (Momondo) and punched in dates for a randomly chosen two week trip this summer from Philadelphia to Johannesburg, business class 1-stop only, and got Lufthansa ($6,192); Qatar ($6,535); United ($9,800); Iberia (with a British Airways codeshare $14,400) and British Airways ($15,679). In this case Qatar – the only one with suites – was the second least expensive, less than half the price of more than one competitor, and the overall round trip was five hours shorter than the only cheaper option.

I also checked Philadelphia to Bali, since Indonesia sits in the part of Asia that takes about the same time to get whether you fly through the Middle East or to Southeast Asia and back west. Qatar was more expensive than the competition – but the only airline that came up offering a one-stop at all. The Maldives have become one of the world’s premier luxury vacation destinations, and as tourism returns, would be visitors would be wise to check Qatar. I just did and the one-stop business class round trip form JFK was under $5000 – more than two thousand dollars less than any other carrier (these were two-week typical vacation periods I chose on whim and obviously will not be the same every day).

Besides the seat, inflight service was exceptional, with each passenger covered by a two-person team who introduced themselves and didn’t disappear for the night as they do on many airlines. It’s a fine line between being intrusive and inattentive, and they walked this perfectly. The personal service goes beyond introductions and on each segment, they knew our connecting flights and/or final destinations and made conversation, offering personal tips and advice on the locations. My wife and I flew four long haul legs, and it was the same on each with different crews, so no flukes.

The award-winning food is also an inflight standout, though no airline meal is ever going to equal a good restaurant. The breadth of menu options and variety was impressive, from Middle Eastern standards such as meze platters to global cuisine with plenty of Western and Pacific Rim selections, and multiple choices for main courses and a list of smaller plates, plus anytime “pantry” snacking. All of the food can be enjoyed whenever you want, and on one of the four long legs I flew I had a second round because one of the small plate options was Nasi Goreng, an Indonesian fried rice specialty I love that is hard to find. I had it just because it was there, and it was very good.

The wine and cocktail lists are thorough, with multiple champagne options, a mix of classic French and New World wine offerings in every still category, and a specialty cocktail list. One unique highlight is a broad selection of non-alcoholic specialty fruit drinks and smoothies, including the airline’s signature welcome offering, a very refreshing mint lemonade (you can also opt for champagne, or both, and it was one of only a handful of times in premium cabins I can recall when beyond the token welcome glass flight attendants actually came back and topped off bubbly before departure). Menus can also be previewed before your flight and pre-ordered in advance.

The economy class seats are as comfortable as any I’ve seen, with superior headrests, pillows, blankets, larger than typical seatback monitors and the same world class entertainment system. But Qatar has just developed an all-new enhanced regular economy product, more like the Premium economy seats on competitors but for everyone (they don’t have premium economy), that will be rolling out starting this year (to be done fleetwide by 2027). These include more comfortable seats with greater knee and shin clearance even when the person in front of you reclines, a cool two-level tray system so you can work on a laptop or eat, but if you are not, just store your drink, tablet or snack higher and with minimal intrusion. The seats feature as large a screen as you can fit into the seatback, with ports for power and fast charging just below it so you don’t have to crawl around for outlets by the floor (I have not seen these seats in person since they have not been deployed yet).

Economy meals are more elaborate than most competitors with a menu of appetizers and main courses (usually three at least three including impressive vegan options) served on actual plates, and menus you can preview from home before your flight. Snacks and adult beverages are also included, and one of the Qatar signatures is an absence of the extra-fee nickel and diming the aviation industry has embraced. Economy class passengers from the U.S., even in the lowest tier, all get two free checked bags, a significant value that has disappeared across just about many major airlines, some of which don’t let lower fare passengers even take one.

The telling title of a flight review by Business Insider is “I flew on Qatar Airways and saw why it’s one of the best airlines in the world even in economy.” After boarding the plane (one of the smallest models in Qatar’s long-haul fleet) for a 7-hour leg, the first thing the reviewer noted was “I sat down and felt completely at home given the excess of legroom and seat pitch. There was plenty of room to stretch out and it was a great change compared to the American flight I had just taken.” You can read the rest here. But the one thing that just about every review of Qatar economy class agrees on in addition to the quality is the fact that it is often cheaper than the major U.S. and European carriers, and having flown all of those, I am confident Qatar is the better option.

Those same New York to Maldives one-stop flights I checked in business class? In economy Qatar was $1,205, and the only one-stop carrier close in price was Emirates at $1,441. The next cheapest roundtrip on a single carrier was $1,735.

Finally, there is the Doha Business lounge, another award-winner and I can understand why. It is very large (well over 100,000 square feet or 2.5 acres), and beautifully designed with a relaxing aesthetic and wide variety of seating areas and styles, including recliners and a garden area. Almost all seats have power and USB ports, many have loaner tablets and there is a luggage storage area in case you want to leave and go duty free shopping. It features multiple restaurants, including a mix of self-serve, counter service and full waiter dining. Choices range from made to order hot sandwiches to varied entrees to a la carte sushi. There are stations for patisserie, Middle Eastern specialties, decadent desserts, tons of different breads, and strictly from a variety and quality of food perspective, it beats any lounge I have been in.

It does not have the Peloton bikes Virgin offers – not yet at least – or over-the-top entertainment options I saw in the flagship Istanbul Turkish Airlines Lounge (slot car racing for kids, full golf simulator, virtual reality flying machine, etc.) which is the only other lounge I’ve seen that rivals this one (especially since British Airway permanently closed its wonderful lounge spas). But it does have a game room with F1 simulator, private workstations, a children’s nursery, separate quiet wing with lounging pods suitable for napping (with individual wake up calls) and shower suites. An expansion is planned in conjunction with the World Cup which is rumored to be adding a gym and spa facilities, after which it would be hard to find a comparable facility.

Just as my experience was at the airport and in flight, staff was abundant, overly friendly and helpful. On the way from the U.S. to Southern Africa we had a few hours layover, and to fill that time with a shower, change of clothes and sit-down, full-service sushi and wine dinner is about as pleasant a way to travel as you could wish for. A lot of travel agents and aviation experts I know rate Qatar as the world’s best airline, as do most awards, and having experienced it myself, four times recently, I can concur, it was the best I have experienced.

That’s the main Al Mourjan business class lounge, for ticketed OneWorld business class passengers, but Qatar has a total of six lounges in Doha. There is an even fancier first class Al Safwa lounge mainly for Qatar’s most frequent fliers and OneWorld first class ticketed passengers, which includes a spa and fine art collection (I did not see this lounge). However, one unusual wrinkle in Qatar’s Doha hub that will disappoint some U.S. frequent fliers is that unlike most competitors, the amazing Al Mourjan lounge is not available to OneWorld Sapphire members. For them, there is a separate Silver Lounge that is less opulent but still has lots of food and drink options and showers. There is also similarly upscale Oryx Lounge in the transit area, and for those headed to Doha and not beyond, an arrivals lounge.

Qatar has its own lounge in Heathrow (temporarily closed), but at most other airports they tend to use OneWorld lounges, but often best in class. For example, business passengers use the higher tier American Airline Flagship Lounge at JFK and excellent OneWorld Lounge in Los Angeles. But they are not wedded to OneWorld and in Dulles partnered with the superior Turkish Airways (Star Alliance) lounge. Whatever airport you end up, Qatar is likely to have one of the best available options.

The airline has been expanding fast, but its current list of U.S. gateways includes Atlanta, Houston, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Washington, DC, Miami and Philadelphia, as well as Canada’s Montreal. It is a member of the OneWorld Alliance, and very recently (March 2022) made a fundamental shift in its frequent flier program from QMiles to Avios P points, the “currency” of British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus, (these three have shared ownership). Avios is not a program I am expert in, but the consensus among the frequent flying gurus seems to be that this can be very good for frequent travelers, and if you have a lot of British Airways points you can now use them for Q Suites. The topic was recently covered in depth by popular “all things points related” site (read here).

One last big piece of travel news to consider if flying Qatar. Last fall, in partnership with tourism board Discover Qatar, the airline launched its slate of “World’s Best Value Stopover” packages. Unless you are going to the World Cup, there is a very good chance that if you fly the airline from the U.S., you may be traveling beyond Doha, but there is no doubt you will be traveling through Doha. In this case, check out the program.

Anyone who is flying through to another destination can add a stay of up to 4-nights in packages that have various themes designed to cater to different interests, such as a desert safari; luxurious resorts, spas and restaurants; exploring museums, galleries; shopping, and so on. All include a choice of lodging in a selection of luxurious 4-star and 5-star hotels, with three tiers, Standard, Premium and Luxury and amazingly, the respective starting rates are $14, $21 and $54 U.S. per person per night. It seems like a great way to break up a long trip, add on a completely different region, culture and experience and do so easily and cheaply. If I find myself flying through Doha again, I plan to take advantage of it.

Travel safe!

By Harriet