Call it a case of exaggerated conflict, at least in Delta Air Lines’ eyes.
Atlanta’s hometown carrier says it had nothing to do with the unconventional maneuvering that saw Qatar Airways passengers bused from their gate to the Airbus A380 that would whisk them away on the first flight from Atlanta to Doha.
A few passengers grumbled about Delta’s supposed interference even before boarding the Middle Eastern carrier’s packed flight, chalking it up to another salvo an ongoing feud that has intensified in the runup to the Qatar launch.
Bloggers pounced on the issue, with some commenters even using Qatar Airways’ GSM-enabled Wi-Fi to complain mid-flight about delays in baggage loading, inadequate ground staff, sweaty buses and the “logjam” they faced while loading from both sides of the plane, regardless of assigned seat numbers. One blogger pinned the blame on Delta, saying the airline was “at it again,” stooping to a new low by “forcing” the Qatar flight to take off over two hours late.
Delta, for its part, schedules common-use gates, those not locked in through lease agreements, months in advance. The airline, which has occupied some 70 percent of gate space at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in some years past, says it tried to help with the Qatar flight even during a busy time for international arrivals.
“Despited limited time to solve for the request, Delta offered solutions to allow Qatar to use the gates while ensuring our own schedule remained accommodated during a heavy traffic period at the international terminal,” the airline said in a statement that didn’t lay out what remedies were offered.
Hartsfield-Jackson has but one gate in Concourse E that can accommodate the double-decker “superjumbo” jet, but the massive size and wingspan of the aircraft means that it also affects two other gates when parked.
Part of the airport’s ability to become the “most traveled” in the world is its efficient use of space — a plane leaves or arrives every 36 seconds or so from ATL, according to airport statistics, which puts gates at a premium. Airport officials intend to create another A380-ready gate, but that’s a ways off. Right now, Korean Air, a SkyTeam partner with Delta, is the only airline that flies it on regularly scheduled service into Atlanta.
Qatar’s 500-plus-seat A380 was only being used on the inaugural flight. Airline officials said it was historic given that it’s the first time the Middle Eastern carrier has ever brought the jet to the United States. Regular service on the Atlanta-Doha route will be carried out with a Boeing 777, a plane with two versions seating no more than 335 passengers. Both can be accommodated at standard gates, putting to rest the chance of the same snafu happening again.
After crowding around F14, Qatar Airways passengers boarded high-lift buses normally only used in urgent situations when passengers need to board or disembark on the tarmac. The ground crew member on board was gamely, telling passengers that they were fortunate to have such a unique ride. She also joked that they should avoid talking too much so as to not fill the stuffy cabin up with even more hot air.
Most travelers didn’t seem to mind; many snapped photos of the A380 from various angles as the vehicle approached. Children and adults alike marveled at the plane’s imposing tail and the dual engines affixed to each wing.
Whatever the problems, the choice of the A380 succeeded in drawing attention to the route. After arriving to a water-cannon salute, it taxied to the south cargo area for a media tour that brought in traditional news outlets along with self-proclaimed “aviation geeks” and travel bloggers who analyze the newest models and the finest details of airplane design.
Rossen Dimitrov, the senior vice president in charge of customer experience for Qatar Airways, told Global Atlanta mid-flight that he had no regrets about the airline’s choice to use the A380, despite the hiccups.
“Of course it was worth it,” he said.
He also praised the Atlanta airport staff and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection for accommodating the inaugural flight, which despite social media posts and reports to the contrary was entirely full, save for a few of the eight seats in first class, he said.
Still, he said the airline’s stellar service would make up for the pre-flight turbulence, which sometimes happens at busy airports like Atlanta.
“If we inconvenience people in any way, obviously with our great product we are able to compensate people on board the aircraft,” Mr. Dimitrov said.
He spoke with a Global Atlanta reporter on board when the world’s largest passenger aircraft sailed into the sky. The interview was conducted in the lounge that separates economy from the 50 seats in business class, which were equipped with personal entertainment systems, lie-flat seats and menus with specially designed stationery to mark the occasion.
While some passengers fretted about making connections to places like Djibouti or Saudi Arabia, others refused to let the minor problems of the launch dent their ongoing excitement about the convenience the flight will offer, especially in accessing points beyond Doha.
Thomas Marangoly, a Montgomery, Ala., resident traveling in business class with his wife and daughter, said he now has a way to get from Atlanta to the southern Indian city of Kochi with just one stop.
It has been a long time coming for a long-time advocate of bringing Middle Eastern carriers to Atlanta.
“I have been writing emails since 2009,” he told Global Atlanta.
Editor’s note and disclosure: Global Atlanta was a guest of Qatar Airways on this flight and on a familiarization tour of Doha that will stretch until Saturday. Stay tuned for more stories on the ground.