The delivery of the first Airbus A350 to Qatar Airways on December 22nd 2014 was definitely a milestone in aviation history. It is the aircraft with the highest percentage of composite materials (53% vs. 50% of the Boeing 787), and the first civil aircraft to feature a wing almost exclusively made out of composites, too. And with no new widebodies being on the drawing boards of either Airbus or Boeing, this will also be the last large plane to be introduced into the aviation world for quite some time. Bearing that in mind, it didn’t take long to get my attention when a friend told me about his plans to be on the first commercial A350 flight. I did some digging myself and found reasonably cheap ways to join him.

 

Preparations

However, Qatar’s CEO, His Excellency Akbar Al Baker has a history for delaying plane deliveries, and this caused some nagging doubts about the undertaking on our parts. Would the new plane really be ready by January 15th, the planned date of the inaugural flight? We decided to wait for the plane’s formal delivery on December 15th before making any bookings. And just as expected, delivery was indeed postponed indefinitely for unnamed reasons. While we were already fearing for the worst, it finally turned out that “indefinitely” just translated into a week, and the first Airbus A350 was handed over to Qatar Airways on December 22nd.

Still a bit unsure whether the first flight date could be kept, we finally booked our flights. As expected, Qatar’s fares for the Doha-Frankfurt inaugural were lower when booked as part of a connecting flight, and Dubai was the logical (and cheapest) choice for a starting point. Out of the many ways of getting to the Arab Emirates I selected Air Serbia, one of Etihad Airways’ new European assets. The Serbian carrier recently introduced double daily flights between Belgrade and Abu Dhabi, and as expected, loads needed to be pushed with very cheap fares. Thankfully, these fantastic fares were also offered for people just transiting at Belgrade, and so I ended up flying Zurich – Belgrade – Abu Dhabi with them. Air Serbia’s flight times looked fantastic: Departing out of Zurich at 8:25PM allowed me to finish lots of business before. And the mere 45 minutes of transfer time at Belgrade meant that almost no time would be lost idling on the ground.

 

Zurich - Belgrade - Abu Dhabi with Air Serbia


 

Of course, things didn’t go just as smooth. The Air Serbia plane had picked up a delay over the course of the day, and approached Zurich 25 minutes behind schedule. No time was made up on the ground, much to the contrary: We left Zurich with a delay of 35 minutes despite the flight being almost empty. At least the cabin made a very good impression, as did the young and cheerful flight attendants. 

I enjoyed the nice service (an okay Turkey sandwich and some very dry pastry), and when we were on final approach I was pretty confident that the 20 minutes I had would suffice to make my transfer.

Just then the thrust levers were pushed fully forward, the nose was raised – a textbook go-around. And only the second one in my whole career as an aviation nut! But while I usually wished for one on every approach, this was definitely the worst time for it to happen. Apparently, the preceding aircraft had hit a bird upon landing, and thus we were instructed to go for another round. 10 minutes later we were back for a second try, and this time touched down successfully on Runway 12 of Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport. Touchdown was at 23:03, we were on blocks at 23:07, and my connecting flight was scheduled for 23:15 – now this promised to get the heart pumping!

However, I made it! After four minutes of running through the deserted terminal – the only shop still open was Victoria’s Secret – I came to a screeching halt in front of Gate C1, whizzed through the security check and made my way on board! Yay! As soon as me and one other person from the Zurich flight had jumped aboard the doors were closed, and we left the gate with only six minutes of delay. Unfortunately, this flight was about 80 percent full – I could only make out locals, and hear dozens of crying babies. This would be a long, long night.


 

Thanks to my noise-cancelling earphones I managed to enjoy the flight in relative peace, and savoured my midnight meal – one of three choices actually, which I find pretty good for a 5-hour flight on a narrowbody. Food quality was another story, but well, I was hungry enough to plow through the unattractive mashed potatoes and the squishy peas to get to my chicken breast.

After less than four hours in cruise, descent was initiated and soon after we approached Abu Dhabi – without a single holding (take that, Dubai!). Flying over the desert at sunrise was a very appealing sight! Can you spot the 'road to nowhere' below?

Crossing the motorway shortly before touching down on the northern runway. 

Thanks for taking me here! Considering the fare of under 300 USD for the trip from Zurich to the UAE, there is nothing to complain about. Of course, a narrow-body Airbus with standard seating will never offer the comfort of a widebody equipped for longhaul flights, but for five hours it was quite okay. In the days of smartphones and tablets the complete lack of Inflight Entertainment didn't weigh as heavily, the size and variety of meals however was positive. If you don't mind the downsides, I can truly recommend Air Serbia as an alternative to the big boys on the route!

The next positive surprise took place at the baggage belt, where my suitcase was merrily travelling around waiting for me. I have no idea how it had made the tight connection in Belgrade (and it surely would have gone missing in Paris), but I’m very thankful to that Serbian Speedy Gonzalez who made it possible!

 

Spotting at Abu Dhabi and Dubai

I then proceeded to hunt down my rental car, and after circling the airport three times looking for the correct exit, settled down at the Premier Inn Hotel right behind the terminal. It wasn’t its rooftop pool that attracted me, but rather the good view of Abu Dhabi’s main runway that can be had from there!

So I spent the next few hours doing the obvious – shooting Etihad planes and any other stuff that would fly my way, while dodging the many spots of heat haze caused by exhaust pipes at the terminal.

At least the air temperature of 17 degrees didn’t worsen the heat haze problem too much – exactly the reason why I wanted to try this spot in winter. Thus, even shots at longer focal ranges remained reasonably sharp.

The main problem I had with spotting at Abu Dhabi: Most traffic operates at night, only one early morning departure wave can be spotted at all, but in bad light. As the day progresses and the light gets better, there is virtually no traffic anymore. Six flights over the course of three hours in the afternoon isn't too appealing for such a major hub! 

When the outbound wave was through and heat haze started to become a real pain around noon, I decided to head out and try some approach spots. I landed in a residential neighbourhood and cautiously snapped some shots of the three approaching planes – before they switched to the other runway for the remaining three and I decided to get an hour's worth of sleep. 

Shortly before sunset I set out to run some errands. My first planned stop was the Carrefour supermarket, but somehow I bumped into this impressive mosque instead :-)

Reaching Deerfield Mall, home of said Carrefour – and it’s HUGE!

The evening was spent downtown, buying yummy dates, eating even yummier Sushi (at the Beach Rotana) and doing some more shopping. When I got home it was almost midnight, and after the sleepless night on the Air Serbia flight I was SO ready for bed!

 

Unfortunately, barely five hours of sleep had remained, and then it was time to head out into the countryside on the hunt for some early-morning approach shots. Easier said than done, since most of the roads were either closed, blocked, or only available to visitors of the Emir’s nearby palace. I finally found a suitable spot though, just as the inbound wave came to an end and as the sun moved into the runway axis. Spotting here is definitely no jolly walk in the park!

Back to the Premier Inn’s pool-deck for the departure wave, and surprisingly, there was a bit less heat haze then the day before. Much appreciated!

I love these sleek A346es! 

But I love the Triple Sevens even more! 

Another major attraction at Abu Dhabi's Airport is the interestingly shaped ATC tower, measuring a whopping 110 meters in height! 

One thing I was hunting for: Some Etihad narrowbodies, which had been missing in my collection almost alltogether

Of course I was also on the hunt for Etihad's special planes, but I was quite down on my luck. Their black A320 hadn’t flown in a month, their A380 teased me by doing well-audible engine runs, and their B787 played hide and seek while doing dozens of touch-and-gos at nearby Al-Ain – which, 140km away from Abu Dhabi, was just *that* bit too far to venture a drive. At least I got their two specially painted A330ies though.

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After the morning outbound wave was over, I checked-out and drove up to Dubai. There, another rooftop pool was awaiting me, and the planes weren’t too far either!

Unfortunately, there was no trace of the two Ilyushin Il-76 departures that had caught my eye when browsing through the timetable, and so I had to content myself with the usual standard traffic: slow-climbing widebodies!

 

Just after sunset, one last special came my way - my first Ethiopian Dreamliner! 

 

A quick hop up to Doha

It was then time to return the car and head to Dubai airport - which is really an adventure on its own in Dubai's rush-hour traffic. But finally I was ready to proceed with my own journey for a next-generation airplane. The evening flight to Doha was scheduled as a Boeing 777-200LR, which was why I booked it, as it would have been a new type for me as well. Unfortunately, it was changed to a boring Airbus A330.


 

But well, the A330 did the job of getting us to Qatar, and actually offered some nice views of Dubai along the way! On the left you can see Burj Dubai reaching for the universe, and on the right, the artifical palm island. 

Inside, all you could see were about 90 percent of empty seats plus this snack box:

Arriving at the very recently opened Hamad International Airport of Doha, a place of spectacular architecture and luxurious splendour – but of course we had to park on the cargo apron…

Just before midnight I reached my downtown hotel, but the day wasn’t over just yet. Despite my increasing lack of sleep I pushed myself out into the cold night to go for a night photography walk around town. Well, at least that decision paid off, because the skyline view from the Corniche was nothing short of overwhelming!

Voilà, the whopping Emiri Diwan, the office of Qatar’s leader. Next to it are the clock tower and the minaret of the Grand Mosque.

Another stunning sight, the Qatar Islamic Cultural Center, also known under the beautiful name of FANAR

To finish off, another look at the magnificent skyline of Doha's West Bay. Out of this world! 

At 2AM I returned to the hotel and finally caught three hours of sleep.

 

The big day: Flying back to Europe on the A350 Inaugural

At 6 AM - way too early - took me back to Hamad Airport. Upon arrival I was immediately impressed by the huge, airy design of the check-in and security halls. Lots of space to breathe! 

The main airside hall, lit up in all hues of pink...

...thanks to these two extremely large ad displays on the walls! At least the shots are very appealing :-)

Finding the gate for the inaugural flight to Frankfurt wasn't hard, as it was all styled up for the special occasion! 

Inside, non-alcoholic drinks and macaroons were served, and I finally caught my first ever glimpse of an Airbus A350! Nice idea with the window frame there, but His Excellency quite obviously failed to check that the windows be cleaned beforehand. Apparently even a perfectionist can’t think of everything – very comforting!

Despite the dirty glass, it was easy to identify the plane outside: A7-ALA, MSN 006 of the A350 programme, and the very first A350 from serial production. It celebrated its first flight on October 15, 2014, was finally delivered on December 22nd (instead of December 15), and was now waiting for me on January 15. What’s it with all the fifteens?

Upon entering, one was immediately greeted by a feeling of ample space, largely thanks to the omitted center overhead baggage bins. The snack bar, splitting up the two sections of business class, is a nice idea too!

At the seat, a certificate was already waiting. I’ll take that anytime! In terms of eye-catchers, the digital “enhanced seatbelt signs” (or whatever they’re called) were quite interesting, too. 


 

Only a few minutes after our scheduled time for departure, the A350 was pushed out of its gate and taxied to Rwy 34L, passing some more locals on the way

The fantastic map system let you follow the progress very closely. Here we are about to line up prior to departure. A couple minutes later, the engines spooled up, and gently started to propel the new Airbus foreward. It was immediately noticeable how quiet they were even at this stage - probably around the level of the Boeing 787.

During climbout, guests on the left were treated to fantastic views of Doha's modern West Bay business district. On the right, we had to content ourselves with the islands of Al Safliya and the Qatar Pearl. 

Further along, we passed Ras Laffan, Qatar's main production site for liquefied natural gas. It is also considered the largest artificial harbour in the world. 

A last glimpse of Qatar before we leave the Emirate behind and make our way northwest along the Gulf, bound for Iran

High time to look at the IFE, or more precisely the maps feature. Called “3DMaps” and provided by Thales and Geofusion, it offered a myriad of different maps and views, which kept me busy for quite some time. Of course it is also installed in other planes, namely BA’s A380, yet it was very entertaining. Here you can see a selection of views, the wing view and the cockpit view. 

 

The map view can be zoomed and panned completely as you like, by using the familiar touch gestures known from smartphones and tablet computers

 

Some more settings can be seen here, but also the flight data which can be displayed all at once, or as running text at the top of the screen.

The system also lists lots of Points of Interest vaguely along the route, but also lets you draw lines by the touch of your finger, so you can find out how far a certain city is away (should you ever need that…)

The IFE also lets you connect your smartphone via USB, but the USB socket can also be used to connect your camera and display your photos on the IFE screen. Even if it took ages for my 7DII’s large photos to load, it was kinda fun to play around with!

Besides just looking at it, Qatar’s A350 offers multiple ways to actually get in touch with the planet below. You can either make phone calls via the normal cellphone network that is provided, or log into Qatar’s Wifi which is started shortly after take-off. Currently, this comes in at 2 USD for 5MB, 5 USD for 12MB, or 10 USD for a 3-hour usage. Unfortunately, I never managed to get past the registration screen as the connection would always be lost, but other passengers successfully sent e-mails and even photos to the ones on the ground.


However, it was paramount to keep peeking outside every now and then, since the Iranian scenery lived up to all expectations!

Approaching the border to Turkey, it even turned into a winter wonderland, with snowy mountains and deep blue lakes spanning out below. What a sight! If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought we’d made a detour via Greenland!

Totally breathtaking, isn't it?

In the middle of all the beautiful scenery, breakfast was served. You could either go for a chicken sausage with hash browns and an omelet, or have pancakes with Nutella instead. It was all quite tasty, but not too filling for me.

However, as my seat neighbor pointed out to the crew, there was no bread to use the jam and butter with – and the flight attendant admitted that they couldn’t find the bread. One hour later, someone had obviously stumbled over them, and they were kind enough to bring both of us a second serving of breakfast, this time with bread!

Outside, the scenery was still stunning, like Lake Van here, in the easternmost part of Turkey

Approaching the Turkish Black Sea coast, the snowy mountainscapes slowly transformed into hues of green and brown again. Time to take one last photo...

...and then turn my attention to the inside of the brand new plane! Here's a look down the economy cabin from all the way in the back.

The back galley turned into the meeting point for the many avgeeks on board, and as long as we didn't interfere with their service, the crew didn't mind. 

In fact, one crew member was even kind enough to open up the crew rests for us. They’re located above the last few economy rows and provide a place to sleep for up to eight people.

Most crew members enjoyed the extra attention they were getting, and happily filled in many a logbook, posed for photos, or even signed the specially designed clothing of this dedicated gentleman.

The remaining couple of hours passed by way too quick, chatting with lots of people all around the cabin and trying not to upset the normal passengers. Then, finally, the seatbelt sign came on again and we were all ordered to return back to our seats. The plane was already descending towards Germany’s largest airport, and shortly before diving into the clouds, I took one last look at this beautiful wing.

Apparently, with an area of 443m2 the A350's wing is the largest of any single-deck widebody plane currently in production. And its lower wing covers, which measure 32 by 6 meters, are currently the single largest item fully made out of carbon fibre in civil aviation. Impressive - and beautiful too!

As the approach progressed and we made an S-turn to establish on Frankfurt’s northern Runway, 25R, the city’s central business district came into sight. A great way to end this flight full of amazing views!

The four high-resolution cameras mounted on the plane allowed everyone to follow the approach from their seatback screens, and witness the pilots battling a considerable crosswind as we made our way down to 25R – flying right past the main terminal complex on finals

Touchdown was very firm but hey, it’s the first commercial landing after all! Welcome to Frankfurt!

We were received by not just one or two, but three follow me cars (no water salute however). When, after a taxi time of twenty minutes (during which hundreds of cameras were pointed at us) we finally pulled into our gate, a busload full of journalists and photographers was already waiting for us!

During de-boarding I took my time, and used the chance to take some photos of the nearly empty cabin. Here’s a view down the front economy section, with some seats at a closer glance. While the seat pitch is the same as on Qatar's B787, the seat width is a tiny bit wider, thanks to the A350’s 12cm bigger fuselage diameter. I can’t really tell whether the difference was noticeable, but I felt quite comfortable in the seat.

Proceeding towards the exit, I passed the business class, which seats 36 people in a 1-2-1 fishbone layout. Notice how large this whole area looks, thanks mainly to the high ceiling

Before exiting, I was granted a brief visit into the cockpit, which is dominated by six large screens. While Airbus speaks highly of them, and praises how these displays are interchangeable and substitute each other in case one of them fails, to me the flight deck is the one thing I find least appealing about the A350. It looks as if someone had run through an electronics store with too much money in his hands when flatscreens were on sale. But yes, probably this is the future, and as pilots transform more and more into system managers, so does their work place.

Finally, I am bidding A7-ALA farewell, and wish her and her 79 sisters all the best for their careers. And maybe our paths will cross again here or there!

Well, they did indeed cross just three hours later. Of course I couldn’t just travel home without watching Frankfurt’s new star perform its first take-off there! And as if knowing the special occasion, the sun quickly popped out just in time for departure, on what was otherwise a pretty dull and grey day. And yes, the A350 definitely looks good thundering down Rwy 18!

Bye bye, ALA! See you again soon, and thanks for the great flight!

Thank you, dear reader, for your interest in this report. I hope you enjoyed me taking you on board this first flight, and learnt a thing or two about Qatar Airways’ and Airbus’ newest star.

 


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