Etihad Airways seats economy class cabin
Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

Are Middle Eastern Carriers Really Superior to Other Commercial Airlines?

“H ave you flown one of these middle eastern carriers? I’d love to know what you think. Should other airlines be worried? Is the competition unfair?”

George Hobica — the founder of Airfarewatchdog — asked those questions in this article in The Huffington Post pertaining to his experience as a passenger in the business class cabin on airplanes operated by Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways.

Why, yes I have, George — and I initially agreed with you on my first flight on Etihad Airways, where I wrote that “this is one of the better economy class cabins I have ever experienced” and that “my first experience suggests that Etihad Airways is a top choice.”

However, things can change rather quickly, as reported by me in this article pertaining to the worst flight operated by Etihad Airways which I had ever taken and why; and also as reported in this article by Kathy Kass of Will Run For Miles — but we were both passengers seated in the economy class cabin. You were seated in the business class cabin; and although you made a cursory reference to the perks of the economy class cabin, you still did not experience it, to my knowledge.

Additionally, customer service seems to be lacking in general by my experience with companies based in the United Arab Emirates such as Etihad Airways. I am not necessarily talking about the service from the flight experience itself; but rather contacting a customer service representative via e-mail message or by telephone. When operations go well, the experience can indeed be exemplary — even in the economy class cabin. When issues arise — such as being credited the amount of frequent flier loyalty program miles earned, for example — customer service can be quite lacking and frustrating…

…and despite paying for a premium experience at At The Top, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, I was on the receiving end of what I consider a deceptive practice, with a dearth of customer service recovery to top off the experience to the point where I advise avoiding paying the extra money for it.

George, you do bring up a very good point about where the Middle Eastern carriers are based — as well as their convenience to other destinations around the world. This is one reason why I believe that the elimination of complimentary stopovers and “open jaws” by airlines such as Delta Air Lines is a mistake which should be reconsidered. I would gladly stop over in two or more intermediary locations over a direct route at no extra charge if I can spend time at them. Ironically, this is one of those times where the marketing departments at airlines such as Delta Air Lines can “spin” the rhetoric — in this case, about the virtues of free stopovers and “open jaws” — about which I would actually agree. It sure would be a good selling point for me while helping to differentiate those airlines when comparing them to the Middle Eastern carriers — but perhaps my way of thinking is merely an anomaly.

Summary — a LONG Summary

In my opinion, George Hobica is correct about how the “little touches” can differentiate between a good flight experience and a great one — some of which do not need to subtract a significant amount of money from the bottom line for an airline such as Delta Air Lines to implement…

…and my experience suggests to me that the customer service component of Delta Air Lines — before, during and after a flight — has typically been consistently exemplary for me and would pit it any day over the customer service of any airline. I am not talking about being doted on and pampered beyond the point of being spoiled as I am served caviar and vintage wine on a platinum platter while laying flat on an oversized mattress fitted with silk sheets and rose petals — rather, I am referring to basic customer service where my requests are fulfilled to my satisfaction as a result.

I believe that my experiences on Gulf Air and Etihad Airways are — in some ways — more luster than substance; and for the aforementioned reasons, I really do not believe in general that a substantial gulf exists with experiences between carriers based in the Middle East and commercial airlines based elsewhere, as each have their strengths and weaknesses. That is not to say that airlines such as Delta Air Lines should not consider improvements to become an even better airline; but I do not think that the experience on carriers not based in the Middle East is horrific in any way.

Sure, I have flights where the experience was less than desirable — such as on this flight operated by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines or this flight operated by Alitalia as two examples…

…but more often than not, my experiences as a passenger in the economy class cabin have ranged from tolerable to actually enjoyable — such as on this flight operated by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines as an example.

For reasons already stated in this article, I also believe that the Open Skies debate is generally ridiculous — as well as the rhetoric being tossed around by the chief executive officers of some of the airlines. Commercial airlines based in the United States are already raking in record profits. As I wrote in this article on Thursday, March 19, 2015:

I have recently flown as a passenger seated in the economy class cabin on both Etihad Airways and Delta Air Lines — both on transatlantic flights. In terms of product and certain aspects of service, I would have to give the nod to Etihad Airways — but it does not exactly blow the product offered by Delta Air Lines “completely out of the water.” In terms of customer service both on and off of the airplane, Delta Air Lines is the clear winner, in my opinion.

What I am attempting to say is that each airline should compete based on its strengths — whether they be service, price, product, frequent flier loyalty program or other factors. Stop involving governments and wasting the time and money of taxpayers to further agendas intended to artificially affect the commercial aviation market and just get down to the business of serving your passengers safely, comfortably and efficiently…

…and this goes for airlines on all sides of the Open Skies debate.

To the airlines based in the United States: how about taking some more of those profits and further reinvesting them back into the airlines for them to be more competitive with the Middle Eastern carriers? I really do not believe that it would be that costly or impossible to implement — but what do I know?

In any case, I do not believe that Delta Air Lines, United Airlines or American Airlines should fear the Middle East carriers as much as has been recently expressed.

Was it worth the extra dollars you paid to experience the business class cabin on your flights, George — that is, if you indeed paid for them? Have you ever flown as a passenger seated in the economy class cabin on any of the carriers based in the Middle East? Do you truly believe that the Middle Eastern carriers are really that much better than their counterparts elsewhere in the world?

If so, George, then I’d love to know what you think.

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

  1. We have flown First on Emirates twice now, and I just spent money to buy a bunch of miles to do it again! I really have never experience this level of service, luxury, and sheer bliss (I honestly sobbed a little as we left the plane after 16 hours). The biz/first bar is just awesome and the fist class shower/spa is unbelievable. I have flown international first recently on BA, Cathay and American, and there is just no comparison.

    1. I have never flown as a passenger aboard an airplane operated by Emirates Airline, Dennis Palmieri; and I have been wanting to try it out — especially seated in the first class cabin. Thank you for imparting your experience.

      I am not particularly fond of public showers; and I like to take long showers and not those which last only a few minutes — but I would like to try it aboard an airplane during a flight just to at least have had the experience.

      One way to do it is to spend at least 90,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles in order to get that experience, which is what I am considering…

  2. I found my first experience in business on QR most disappointing on so many levels: in the air, on the ground and customer service-wise. Plus the DOH business class lounge is vastly over-rated. Food was mediocre, white wines too acidic and reds too tannic. No fast-track transfer security at DOH, both flights required busing from/to the aircraft, odd considering the money spent on this terminal and gates…though suppose most of the money went into the shopping mall, not aircraft docking facilities. Crew was okay, but have had better even on US carriers. Grasp of English was poor from both Asian and East European FAs on my flights. On the ground, was promised a QR rep would meet me off my SAA flight at JNB that was late, resulting in very tight connection. Nobody met me and the QR flight departed without me! Found the IFE system incomprehensible in making film selections beyond the initial sampling on screen and placement of hand controls on the 777 meant every time I moved my shoulder, the movie was interrupted because my arm touched the control panel!

    1. I have never flown as a passenger aboard an airplane operated by Qatar Airways, DavidB; and the only times I have been to the airport in Doha was each way on an airplane operated by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to and from Muscat, where the stop was for one hour and passengers whose final destination was Doha were the only ones allowed to exit the airplane. I do not even count my two total hours as having been to Qatar; but I digress.

      I am sorry to learn of your horrible experience; but I suspect that it might have been more of an anomaly than typical of the service of Qatar Airways.

      Have you contacted any customer service representatives of Qatar Airways and imparted your experience to them? If so, what was the result?

      Please let us know, DavidB. Thank you.

  3. I fly ME carriers regularly. Economy and Business. My experience has always blown US and European carriers out of the water. The seats are bigger and more comfortable. The food is at higher quality. And flight crew friendly and helpful. Which most western airlines lack.

    The complaints regarding customer service. I also disagree. Emirates rescued me from a traumatic experience in the Maldives. I have had emergencies while traveling using Western carriers response we can not help you read the terms and conditions. Sorry!!!

    I find western carriers to be unresponsive and very rigid when dealing with customers. Infindbthier flight crews are lazy uptight and rude at most times.

    I choose ME and Asian carriers over Western Carriers but sometimes carriers can not be avoided

    1. It is great that you have had exemplary experiences with Middle Eastern carriers, Rob; and thank you for sharing them.

      There are times where a member of the flight crew of Western carriers can seem to be lazy or forgetful — certainly factors which can contribute to poor service — but I have also witnessed at least one member of the flight crew of one Middle Eastern carrier who seemed indifferent to the needs and requests of passengers.

      I can be a fussy eater; and yet aboard an airplane, I tend to be less fussy about the food I eat, which admittedly makes absolutely no sense — and people who know me have mocked me on that. With that as a preface and speaking about food served in the economy class cabin, I am not sure that the food served aboard flights operated by Etihad Airways — as delicious as it was to me, as I ordered the seafood meals — is any better than the food served aboard flights operated by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, as one example.

      As for Asian carriers, I flew as a passenger aboard airplanes on flights operated by China Eastern Airlines; and although my experience was good, some people probably would not have that airline in mind when thinking of exemplary service from Asian carriers…

  4. Brian, ,thanks for your thoughtful comments. Enjoyed reading them. As for problem-solving quality with one of these airlines, you might want to read my reply to someone who experienced a horror story on Emirates!

    No airline is perfect when it comes to situations like that, and neither Jetblue nor Emirates handled this person’s situation well until they were shamed into it.

    1. I think you imparted some good answers in that article you linked, George Hobica; and thank you for commenting and linking that article here.

      As one rather extreme example of a broken itinerary, here are two articles and a review by Elena of Muslim Travel Girl and her “nightmare” experience as a passenger on a Middle Eastern carrier — part of it as a passenger seated in the premium class cabin after having redeemed miles on an award ticket:

      I cannot immediately find them at the moment; but I have read about customers who have paid cash for a premium class experience as passengers aboard Middle Eastern carriers and have still been either disappointed or received poor customer service. Again, those are more likely anomalies than typical of the experience.

      The point I was attempting to make is that my experience suggests to me that the differences in the experience of Middle Eastern carriers are not as drastic as some reports claim; and that there are positive and negative aspects to any experience — no matter which carrier is used — due to a plethora of factors.

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