Qatar Airways sits reporters in vibrating seats, loads them with 39-year-old wine, and never explicitly asks for glowing press coverage.
- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
Judging by Washington’s staid social standards — or really, any standard — the party sounded utterly bizarre.
Qatar Airways, the state-owned carrier of the Persian Gulf petro-garchy, had invited a small number of guests to a four-course meal — designed by celebrity chefs and accompanied by premium wines — all served in the business-class cabin of a Boeing 777 parked on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport.
The plane wasn’t leaving Northern Virginia. But we would be treated to the same luxury service that, at current rates, would set you back $11,721 for a round-trip flight from D.C. to Doha. Perhaps because of where I work, or the elegantly written invitation, I had imagined that this event was to "celebrate" Qatar and promote its tourism industry, and that it would be attended mostly by government officials and business executives. You will appreciate my profound disappointment, followed by the dawning suspicion that I had either been tricked or not read the fine print, when I looked around the dimly lit cool blue cabin and saw … a bunch of journalists.
I should have known. This fete was like so many boozy boondoggles for print reporters, a mutually beneficial if occasionally ethically dicey exchange of good copy for free publicity. I had hoped the crowd would be a mix of Washington heavies and foreign dignitaries. And given that we’d be essentially trapped in close quarters for two hours with nothing to do but eat rich food and drink expensive wine, I imagined an in-flight bacchanalia of elegant flight attendants dropping black cod with miso by Nobu Matsuhisa into the overserved mouths of Qatari Foreign Ministry officials while pouring Krug champagne out of a gold opera slipper. Scoops would fall into my Frette linen napkin.
"Of course that’s gonna happen!" I thought to myself. "I should go."
Instead, my 25 or so companions on this five-star grounding were the top tier of Washington’s food, travel, and society reporters. I’ve run alongside this crowd over the years, always as the guest of a guest at various book parties, restaurant openings, and the occasional gala. My fellow passengers worked for, among others, the Washington Post, Capitol File, Washington Life, Bloomberg, and Washingtonian magazine, where I used to work. I was the plus-1 of a former colleague, who had been invited by the airline’s PR team.
I had to give Qatar credit. These are exactly the people you’d want trapped in a climate-controlled aluminum tube if you owned a small luxury airline trying to woo wealthy Washingtonians into your fully reclining, vibrating leather seats. Which, I realized when I sat down, are awesome. I knew that I was of limited use to the publicity mavens who had engineered this uniquely strange evening. I occasionally write about airplanes, but not like this. Still, when in Doha (or Dulles)…
We settled into our magic-finger massaging pods and pulled out burled wood tray tables. We were served two perfectly chilled glasses of Champagne, Billecart-Salmon brut and Bollinger rosé, because, you know, who can choose?
Our sommelier — who said he once carted bottles of red wine and Champagne to the base camp of Mount Everest to see how they taste at high altitude — informed us that the dry, recirculated air of the cabin dulls one’s palate. So for Qatar Airways, he had selected stronger wines than he might serve in a restaurant that doesn’t fly. Oakier Bordeaux. Sharper sauvignon blancs. I assume that these wines also lose their potency aloft, and that’s why he poured so many of them.
My black cod was almost as good as the fish at Nobu New York. I had a "mint and pea" soup that tasted of neither peas nor mint, but was redolent of turmeric and tamarind and tasty enough to put on the menu of my favorite Indian restaurant in D.C. My beef fillet was, as expected, overcooked and dry. There’s only so much you can do in an airplane galley kitchen. But when it comes paired with a 2006 Château le Bon Pasteur, who cares, baby?
It was at this point in the evening that most of us discovered the adjustable foot rests and my companion wondered whether they’d let us watch a movie on our personal video screens. I eyed the embroidered blanket in the neat plastic pouch. We asked a flight attendant to take pictures of us "sleeping" in the fully kicked-back seats that now became beds. I was seriously contemplating putting on the pajamas that came in my swag bag and thought it would only be prudent to moisturize with that Ferragamo face cream they gave us. It’s very dry in airplane cabins, I reminded myself, as I sipped the Colheita port. Its 1974 vintage made it older than I am.
As I lingered over my roasted chocolate wafer fascination, I thought about a good friend who frequently flies from Washington to Asia for work and only travels business class. The reason to do it, he said, is not to be spoiled. It’s to eat marginally better food, have a decent wine and maybe a cognac, and then drift into a mildly comfortable booze-assisted sleep so you don’t feel like a zombie when you land after a 14-hour flight. It’s not luxurious. It’s a battle against jet lag.
My friend is full of crap. If you had the choice and the means, you would always — always — fly this way. Are you kidding? On the flight from Doha to Washington, passengers in front are served Château d’Yquem. For all non-wine snobs, this would be like Uber picking you up in a Rolls-Royce Phantom. It exceeds the bounds of necessity and propriety.
This is, of course, exactly what Qatar Airways wants me to tell you. That was the point of this entire evening. And you would be very happy indeed to sit in that chair and fly on that plane. Would you be happier than if you flew on Qatar’s competitors, Etihad Airways and Emirates, which are respectively based in Abu Dhabi and Dubai? Maybe. But those are cities that, unlike Doha, people routinely visit for pleasure. "Comparing Dubai to Doha, it’s like New York vs. Huntsville, Alabama," a companion remarked. So maybe it really is about the destination, not the journey.
I’ll say this for the airline. No one made an overt sales pitch. There was no PowerPoint marketing presentation in place of the preflight safety briefing. It was a gracious, very odd little diversion, and at no point did anyone ask me whether I planned to write about it. I also have no plans to travel to the Gulf in the near future.
But later, I was told that some journalists aboard had taken complimentary flights from Qatar in the past — in business class — as had at least one of their bosses. I wasn’t surprised. This kind of trade happens. Not a lot, but it happens. In my experience, it’s more on the business side of publications than the editorial.
For a reporter, there’s never an overt quid pro quo in covering events like this. The journalists who do it best don’t take more from their hosts than dinner and the occasional cheesy gift bag. Often they’ll give away the contents to co-workers the next day or put it in a pile that’s donated to charity.
But if you want to come back, there’s an expectation that whatever you write will be, if not entirely flattering, not remotely vicious. I don’t write travel stories, and I don’t cover the airline industry. I’m pretty sure I won’t be invited back the next time the Qatar Cafe is back in town. (I’d love to be proved wrong.) But the reminder that I wasn’t really a guest on this first-class flight made for a rough landing.