Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Qatar Chronicles: From the Boeing Factory to the Desert

For the next week I'll be on a trip of a lifetime. With a group of writers from around the world, I am traveling to Seattle to tour the Boeing factory and pick up a new 777-200LR that will join Qatar Airways' 5-Star fleet. The airline begins nonstop, daily service between Houston and Doha on March 30, 2009. Normally Qatar Airways doesn't fly from Seattle. This is a delivery trip so besides our group, the certification team from Boeing and the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority, and the airline staff, we'll barely number 20 passengers on a plane that can seat 217 in coach and 42 in business.

The opportunity to go behind the scenes on the introduction of a new airplane into service is so unique, I'm going to post about the experience. Along the way I'm also going write about my visit to Seattle, a city I know and love but haven't seen for many years, and Doha, a city that is new to me and one I look forward to exploring.

Before we picked up the Triple-7 as the 777 is affectionately called, we had one day in Seattle. Luckily the hotel was close to Pike's Place Market, so a quick trip before the day began was easy to do. Mornings are a good time to walk through the Market before the crowds arrive, because it's easy to stop and take your time looking at what's for sale, which is a lot of the freshest most beautiful fish, shellfish, and salmon you're likely to see anywhere.

I love shellfish. When I lived in Seattle for the Twin Peaks and Citizen Baines' shoots, I was very happy. I'd fill up on fresh Kumomoto oysters, Dungeness crabs, and Penn Cove mussels. The oysters are delicious raw or in stews. The crabs are sold cooked or live. The mussels are easily steamed and eaten with a butter-garlic broth. While the vegetables in the Market come from many sources including California, the fish is local, coming no farther away than Alaska.

There are also fresh and dried flower stalls, bakeries, cheese shops, and a wonderful selection of small restaurants and coffee shops. A favorite place to stop is The Crumpet Shop (1503 1st Avenue between Pike & Pine, 206/682-1598) where the crumpets are freshly made and available with sweet (butter, honey, or preserves) or savory (tomatoes, pesto, cheese...) toppings. Come before 8:30am and the lattes are $1.50.

I walked over to the Market twice yesterday. Once by myself just as the stalls were opening. For breakfast I had a freshly steamed pork bao from Mee Sum Pastry (1526 Pike Place, 206/682-6780). The second time I brought part of our press junket group. Since Holly and Updesh are Brits and Parmesh and Deepti are Indian, I wanted their expert opinion about the Crumpet Shop. I know I like them because of their top crust and chewy sweetness, but are they authentic? After several rounds of crumpets with butter, honey and butter, preserves, and cheddar cheese with sliced tomatoes, they agreed that they were authentic and delicious.

We had lunch at the Space Needle Restaurant, which is always fun. Although the view is picturesque, for anyone with motion-issues, slowly rotating as the city passes below can be challenging. We had a very nice lunch as our group got to know one another. With people coming from around the world (Alberquerque, New York, Mombai, Dubai, Doha, Los Angeles, and Seattle) we had a lot to talk about.

After lunch we visited Boeing's Museum of Flight (9404 East Marginal Way South, Seattle, WA 98108, 206/764-5700). Since we were about to tour the Boeing factory in Everett, it was great to get a brush up on aviation history. I still find it amazing that there is just 50 years between the Wright Brother's tentative efforts to achieve flight and the development of the Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird.

One of our group, Betsy, used to live in Seattle and she suggested dinner at the Black Bottle (2600 1st Avenue at Vine, 206/441-1500) where we had wine and cocktails and shared a dozen gastro-pub dishes, including crispy butterflied seven spice shrimp, deep fried and battered Spanish fried olive, fried tofu with a sate sauce, sweet and tender cumin pork tenderloin with a frisee salad, fried sardines with spicy Indian slaw, braised and grilled artichoke hearts, coconut gelato with plantain fries, and a luridly rich, hot dark chocolate cake with a scoop of vanilla gelato hidden inside.

Given 24 hours in Seattle, this was a pretty great day.

Today we tour the Boeing plant and pick up Qatar Airways' second Boeing 777-200LR. Our plane will join its sister already in service. When Qatar begins its daily, nonstop service between Doha and Houston on March 3oth, the 777-200LRs will make the trip in under 17 hours. Today's trip will be a bit shorter because we will fly a more northerly route.

For me this flight has several firsts: I've never flown longer than 8 hours, never been to the Middle East, and certainly have never ridden on a plane's maiden flight.

More to tell in the following posts. Tomorrow from Doha, Qatar.

Seattle to Doha on the Delivery Flight of a Boeing 777-200LR

I love the new car smell. Does an airplane have the same cool, sexy, absolutely fabulous fragrance as a car or is it something more, well, plane-like? Yesterday I had the unique pleasure of answering that question.

Qatar Airways invited half a dozen of us to come along on the delivery flight of their second Boeing 777-200LR, flying from Boeing Field outside Seattle to Doha International Airport, Qatar.

With Doha as its hub and routes already well established in Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and, of course, the Middle East, the Boeing 777-200LR gives Qatar Airways a reach of 8,000 nautical miles, putting them in striking distance of just about any destination in the world.

Several years ago Qatar Airways pushed into the American market with non-stop service to New York and Washington, D.C. Starting March 30, 2009, the airline will begin flights between Houston and Doha. With service to Houston, they will strengthen their relationship with American energy businesses.

For the next year, Boeing will be delivering one airplane a month to Doha as the airline upgrades its fleet. While other airlines are cutting back, Qatar Airways sees an opportunity to expand routes and strengthen its business class service. The 777-200LR helps pay for its quarter million dollar price tag with improved fuel efficiencies. To maximize profits, Qatar Airways eliminated first class on the Houston-Doha route, so they could increase the number of business class seats.

Personally, I still think flying is magical. Which doesn't mean I don't feel hassled whenever I fly. I do. I hate fighting traffic to get to the airport, having to stand in long lines at security, forced to remove my shoes, take my lap top, cell phone, and iPod out of my bag, and then wait around in an uncomfortable airport hoping that my flight will be on time. If the flight's full and it's cramped and claustrophobic, I question whether I really needed to take the trip after all.

I fasten my seat belt and settle in as the pilot takes his place in the queue of planes waiting to take off. I'm bored and wish we'd hurry up so the flight would be over. The whine of the engines says the pilot has gotten the go-ahead. The plane speeds down the runway, and there is that moment that is like something out of a dream when the wheels hang noiselessly in the air as the plane's lift levitates it above the runway.

My rational brain still questions how it is that an object weighing many tons can slice through the air and float high above the ground. But emotionally I don't care. At that moment I glory in the magic of flight.

Which is why I was so happy that as part of the trip we would be given a tour of the Boeing Plant in Everett, Washington.

Maybe this is a guy-thing, but I got a major kick out of the Boeing plant with its row after row of 747s, 777s, and even the yet-to-debut 787s (the revolutionary Dreamliner). I can't tell you how cool it was to see all these planes being assembled. The scale of the engineering was impressive as was the precision of the manufacturing process.

Luckily Boeing allowed us to take some photographs (usually a big no-no) which I'm happy to have included in this post.

During the tour, the Boeing representatives, Kent Craver and Brian Walker, explained that Boeing's each plane's design had to balance production realities, fuel-use efficiencies, and passenger satisfaction.

Walking through mock-ups of their new 787 and the redesigned 747-8, they talked us through a design process that focused on controlling details to make flying more pleasurable: full spectrum LED cabin lighting instead of white lights that are either on or off, a higher ceiling on the entry way of the 787, and even something simple like the overhead bin latches which are being redesigned to work by pulling or pushing, the choice is the passenger.

If Boeing does its job right, they told us, once passengers enter the cabin, they will leave behind the difficulties of the day and re-experience the magic of flying.

Boeing's philosophy dovetails with Qatar Airways' focus on making their passengers as comfortable as possible.

The coach compartment on Qatar Airways' 200LR feels roomy. The 50" height of the seat back allows most passengers to look above the seat in front of them, adding to their sense of space. A 3-3-3 seat configuration, instead of the more typical 3-4-3, adds extra room. The airline ordered their coach seats with a 34" pitch (the industry average is 32"), with the result that there is both the feeling and the reality of more space, making the seats that much more comfortable.

In business class, Qatar Airways asked Boeing to outfit their 777-200LRs with upgraded features: seats with a 78" pitch in the upright position; in the fully reclined position, each seat goes completely flat to create a full-sized bed; 17" flat-screen televisions for each passenger with interactive controls that include an innovative USB mouse; bathrooms that are twice the normal width with motion activated sinks.

When you push the "make this seat into a bed"-button on the 200LR, the back slowly reclines, a foot rest extends, you stretch out, curl up with your very plush Qatar Airways blanket, and enjoy just enough engine noise to help you sleep. Oh, and I forgot, you're wearing your Qatar Airways pajamas and socks.

While I am on this trip I intend to talk about what I see and experience. Tomorrow we are going to the Museum of Islamic Art and the Al Jazeera studios. We are also scheduled to visit the restored Souk Waqif and take a desert safari. The questionnaire for the safari company wanted to know just how "rough" we liked our dune bugging.

Oh boy. More tomorrow.