Standard advice says it’s best to get to the airport two hours ahead of departure time. Anyone flying via Qatar’s Hamad International Airport (IATA: DOH, ICAO: OTHH) (Arabic: مطار حمد الدولي, Maṭār Ḥamad al-Duwalī) might want to double or even triple that. Located south of its capital, Doha, it replaced the nearby Doha International Airport as Qatar’s principal airport.
Not because passing through security at this gleaming, cutting-edge facility is any more difficult. In fact, before the pandemic added extra layers to all aspects of global travel, if you’d signed up to its E-passport scheme, you’d be through in minutes.
No, it’s because you’ll want to spend the extra time in transit lazing around in what is presumably the world’s most opulent airport.
It’s possibly the coolest, too.
And as of 2021, Skytrax, the company whose yearly “airport Oscars” have named Singapore’s Changi as the world’s greatest airport for the past ten years, has declared it to be the best.
Opened in 2014 with the ambition of turning the Arabian Gulf city of Doha into a global aviation hub serviced by Qatar Airways, HIA now handles more than 30 million travelers a year.
However, travelers passing through its stunning lounges and hallways outside of peak hours may be excused for thinking they were the first people ever to enter the space.
Silent and spotless
Every gleaming surface of its lavish departure and arrival areas is spotless even before Covid fears were on the scene. Recent passengers say cleaning staff can be seen everywhere.
The destination is completely quiet, too. Beyond Islamic calls to prayer which are made five times a day, HIA is a silent airport.
There are no jarring announcements to disturb the calm, and at certain times it’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Not that you’d find so much as a dropped pin in this hyper-clean place.
The full HIA experience begins on the approach currently only possible by road, but a rail link should open in time for Qatar’s 2022 hosting of soccer’s World Cup finals.
It’s a majestic structure.
Built on land reclaimed from the sea, the architecture reflects its coastal location with a rooftop that ripples away from the concourse in swooping peaks and troughs. An adjacent mosque resembles a giant blue droplet of water.
Inside, departing passengers walk into a lofty check-in hall, illuminated in daytime by bright sunlight shafting down from scores of lozenge-shaped skylights.
It’s here they’re likely to have one of their first encounters with the things that make HIA so unexpectedly cool the artworks.
OK, airport art isn’t exactly a revolutionary idea, but when was the last time anyone actually recalled encountering any?
At HIA, no one’s going to forget it in a hurry.
Some of it is subtle, like the playful fake birds that sit atop the information displays at the front of the airport.
Other pieces stop everyone in their tracks.
Like “Lamp Bear” by subversive Swiss artist Urs Fischer a giant, surreal, yellow teddy bear sitting under a black lamp. It’s such an arresting sight in the main departure hall that, pre-pandemic at least, attracted a near-constant knot of people, grabbing selfie shots.
Deeper in, by the far departure gates is another eye-catching piece of radical modern art. “SMALL LIE” by celebrated New York pop artist KAWS is a new addition, installed in March 2018 in an operation that involved removing an entire wall of the airport.
These are pieces of work that some fanatics might actually travel here to see.
An airport on the edge of Arabia seems a surprising place to find groundbreaking pieces of modern art. HIA hopes this element of surprise will help set it apart from rival air hubs.
“What makes HIA special is our innovative exhibition space,” Badr Mohammed Al Meer, the airport’s chief operating officer, told CNN Travel in 2018. “We like to say that our airport is the gateway to arts and culture.”
There are around 20 permanent art installations at the airport. Anyone with a few hours to kill could do a lot worse than hunt them all down.
Surrealistic sculpture not your scene?
That’s OK, HIA has plenty of alternatives up its sleeves.
For standard passengers passing through, there are plenty of the usual airport restaurant and retail options, but also numerous upscale boutiques. Gucci, Burberry, Coach, Rolex, Swarovski are all here and still open, unlike other airports that have gone into hibernation.
Want to just flop in a chair? Even the communal area seating is fancy all Italian-style chrome and leather.
Can’t be bothered to stand on the moving walkways to reach your gate? There’s a futuristic indoor train to speed you there even faster.
There’s even a free door-to-door service to reduce stress for transit passengers. A uniformed crew member meets individual arrivals on the jetbridge, escorts them through security, and drops them off at their connecting gate (or at a lounge if they’re on a layover).
There’s a fantastic airport gym too open to any passengers who want to book themselves in for a session. It has an inviting 25-meter swimming pool, a full range of workout equipment, two squash courts (although these may get turned into a golfing area), plus hydrotherapy and spa treatments.
The sports facility is attached to HIA’s Oryx Hotel, a 100-room transit accommodation that matches the rest of the airport for quality and cleanliness. Guests can check in, for eight hours or longer, to standard rooms or larger family suites with five or six beds.
Passengers lucky enough to be flying business or first class with Qatar Airways are in for the real treats.
The biz class Al Mourjan lounge is the kind of place some weary travelers will probably have to be dragged out of in order to make their flight.
This place is as big as it is luxurious. It measures 10,000 square meters, including Instagrammable water features, and has capacity to handle up to 1,000 passengers at a time.
It’s still quiet though, with the atmosphere of an exclusive club. Guests can sit at individual tables equipped with tablets that offer departure info to ensure they don’t miss their flight.
There’s a full, formal restaurant (with a private room for celebs and minor royalty that don’t get to use the Qatari emir’s private airport), a bar stocked with top-class booze (alcohol is available at the airport and on Qatar Airways flights), and other more casual dining options.
There are showers, sleeping booths, private rooms for families, a games area normally equipped with games consoles and a fussball table, facilities for business meetings, Mecca-facing prayer rooms and a nursing area for new moms, complete with milk-warming facilities.
Inbound business class travelers can also make use of a separate arrivals lounge, with it’s own private immigration desk.
Not posh enough? First class Qatar Airways ticket holders can hustle over to the other side of the main lounge and ride the escalator to airport nirvana the Al Safwa lounge.
Designed to closely resemble Doha’s prestigious Museum of Islamic Art (the work of renowned architect I. M. Pei), this departure lounge feels like hallowed ground. With capacity for 530 people way more than it usually handles there’s enough room to escape.
Guests killing a few hours can make themselves comfortable in cubicles equipped with oversized swivel chairs that would suit the most fiendish Bond villains.
They can dine in style with a four-course menu accompanied by fine wines drawn from a wine cellar worthy of a French chateau.
If they want to catch a movie, there’s a private cinema. If they want to sleep, there are private bedrooms that can be booked for four-hour slots.
Best of all, there’s a beautiful spa straight out of a seven-star resort. Those taking advantage of its tranquility may struggle to remember they’re in an airport.
None of these luxurious offerings have escaped the notice of aviation industry reviewers Skytrax, which bumped the airport into third place in its global ranking in 2018, and up to the top spot this year.
Reacting to the news, Al-Meer, the airport’s chief operating officer said the recognition was as much “an endorsement from our travelers for our commitment to service excellence” as it was of its ability to handle times of crisis.
And with the world’s biggest soccer event descending on Qatar at the end of next year, he said the airport is preparing for its role as the gateway Covid-permitting for tens of thousands of soccer fans.
“As the Official Airport Partner for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, HIA is ready to create memorable experiences for football fans across the globe and ensure seamless connectivity through the airport,” he added.