This is an online travel journal about the journeys I have taken. I hope you may find in it useful information about airports, airlines and hotels and their products and services. Perhaps you will also find here some inspiration for future places to visit and journeys to take.
Today I’m on my way from Vienna to Basel. My flight departs at 17h40 and the hotel refuses to grant me a late check-out. So I exit the SO/ Vienna just after 12h00 and make my way to Wien Mitte railway station to dump my suitcase and bag in a locker. It’s only ten minutes on foot from the hotel to the station. You could take public transport instead, but I suspect that would probably take longer.
Once that’s settled, I decide to pay a visit to Schloss Belvedere, which houses an extensive collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt.
On my way back to Wien Mitte I make a brief stop at the Konditorei Oberlaa for a last helping of Kaiserschmarn, a kind of fluffy shredded pancake served with jam that has comfort food written all over it.
Getting to Vienna Schwechat airport
From Wien Mitte there are frequent trains to Vienna airport. The journey will take about 25 minutes and costs EUR4.80 for a single trip for one person. However, if you’re travelling with somebody else, you already qualify as a group, in which case the fare is only EUR5.20 for both.
“Europe without Greece is like partying without drugs”. Indeed, it’s very patriotic and I think the Greece ministry of tourism should adopt this as its new slogan…
Austrian Airlines check in at Terminal 3. I’ve already received my boarding pass online, but I still need to check in my suitcase. Austrian Airlines’ self-check in process for Economy Class passengers is easy to use and has clearly been planned carefully. As you come off the escalators that lead up to departures, there is a large area with very easy to use scanning machines.
You scan your boarding pass and the machine will ask you to confirm your name. Once that’d done, the baggage label is printed. The queue for the fast bag drop is long, but at least it moves quickly.
At the counter where a check-in agent once used to sit there is now another scanner. You place the suitcase on the conveyor belt, scan the bar code on the label, and that’s it. I like!
The airport is fairly busy this time of day. The other terminals in Schwechat have been shut down due to the pandemic, so Terminal 3 is now handling all the traffic – and it’s rather a tight fit. Eventually, I find a place to sit at the very last gate on the Schengen pier. As it happens, this is where the Ryanair flight to Thessaloniki is about to board. And I really must say, it’s rather entertaining. The gate agent is, with all due respect, a complete and utter bitch and the way she treats the passengers boarding the flight is nothing short of outrageous. I mean, seriously? You have to be really hard up financially to be willing to put up with this level of verbal abuse. I think given the choice I would prefer not to travel at all than have to endure this kind of treatment.
This is something I have never been able to understand about the business model of many of the low cost carriers. Yes, their prices are amazingly low sometimes. But irrespective of how high or low the price for the ticket is, people are still paying their good money to avail themselves of a service. The amount they paid should not determine the level of service they receive. And it certainly should not determine how rudely they are treated by the staff. Of course the saying goes that you get what you pay for, and if the likes of Ryanair are not willing to pay for polite and properly trained staff or handling agents, then that’s just too bad. But I disagree. The simple truth of the matter is that an airline such as Ryanair simply doesn’t care.
Boarding for the flight starts with a slight delay and takes seemingly for ever to complete. This is largely due to the fact that in Austria it is mandatory for passengers to wear FFP2 masks. Every passenger wearing a standard issue surgical mask is stopped by the L1 door and given an FFP2 mask to wear instead, which they must put on in front of the cabin crew before they are allowed beyond the galley into the cabin.
The crew & service
The crew are quite friendly and warm, which is rather unusual for Austrian Airlines. The purser is clearly trying to respect all the rules in place, and while I personally think she should be commended for that and for putting the passengers’ health first, I think we also need to acknowledge that in Europe the lack of harmonization between countries is a huge pain in the ass and makes it near impossible to travel between countries without breaking at least one rule or other.
Eventually we land in Basel after a flight time of one hours and ten minutes. The cabin crew announce that deboarding will be by seat numbers. Passengers should remains seated until their row is called. In theory, it may make a lot of sense to deboard the plane in such a way. But in practice the sad truth is that it is completely useless: Basel airport is on French soil and has a French and a Swiss sector. There is one long corridor that connects the arrival gates to the head of the terminal building and immigration. Even though Austria and France are both part of the Schengen treaty, France has suspended the free movement of persons, which means that they have reintroduced border controls. This does not apply to Switzerland. But the exit to Switzerland is only at the very end of the corridor, meaning there is no way for passengers entering into Switzerland to bypass the queues for immigration for France. Regrettably, we land right after two full easyJet Airbus A 320s, and the queue for immigration is endless. It takes me forty minutes to reach the head of the queue. At least by the time I arrive at the luggage belt, my suitcase is already there.
So, I’ve now done six flights with Austrian Airlines in short succession. On a positive note, I’m very much impressed by the quality of their food. It should not be taken for granted these days to be given a hot meal in Business Class on a short sector of only one hour. Other than that though, I found their service a bit lacking and seriously inconsistent. First, I really think it wouldn’t hurt Austrian Airlines to provide at least a bottle of water to passengers in Business Class as a kind of welcome drink. Second, I find it rather interesting that on all six flights I took, an announcement was made that deboarding would be done by seat rows, from front to back. But in fact this was only enforced by the crew on the last flight. My point is not whether or not the procedure makes sense. I just find it rather unprofessional to make such an announcement and then very obviously not give a rats bum. Austrian Airlines are okay, and their network to southeastern Europe is extensive. Other than that though, they’re hardly worth bothering with.
Originally, when I booked this flight, it should have been operated by an Airbus A 321, with a departure from Tirana at 17h00. But then, a few weeks later I receive a schedule change from Austrian Airlines, informing me that the flight would now be operated by an Airbus A 320 and that the departure has moved forward to 15h00.
As the course I was giving was at the airport itself, I’m pretty much up to date with all the movements. It seems that Austrian has replaced the A 321 with two flights. One is an Airbus A 320 that leaves at 15h00, and the other is an Embraer 195 which departs five minutes later.
Getting to the airport
There’s a lot of excitement in Tirana this morning, because German Chancellor Angela Merkel is visiting on her farewell tour of the Balkans. As a result, the authorities have shut down all the access roads to the airport for road traffic. Nobody gets in, and nobody gets out. But luckily for me, it’s only a short distance from the facilities of the Albanian ANSP to the terminal, and it’s a lovely day for a walk anyway.
The airport is a lot busier today than it was the last time I was here a week ago at three o’clock in the morning. In fact, I’d say the terminal facility is way too small for the amount of passengers it handles.
The girl at check-in has some serious Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde issues going on. When I reach the counter, the guy checking in at the counter next to me has scattered a ton of suitcases all over the place. He’s basically blocking three check-in counters but using only one. My check-in agent gives me the sweetest smile and welcomes me to Austrian Airlines. Then she turns to face the guy with the many suitacases and basically just rips him a new one in Albanian. I have no idea what on earth she says to him, but by the time she’s done, I’m really starting to feel sorry for the guy. Still, it brings the suitcase issue under control again…
Tirana Airport Business Class lounge
The queue at security is long, but it moves quickly and the staff are very efficient. Once I’m through, I head one floor up to the Business Class lounge. It’s already gone 13h30 and I haven’t had lunch yet.
The lounge offers a nice selection of snacks, soft drinks and warm drinks. I’m not sure if alcohol is available too. Lavatories are available on the premises and are very clean. Complimentary wifi is available in the lounge, with the password marked all over the place.
I ask the lady behind the buffet if she can just give me a bit of a taste of the Albanian dishes, which apparently means everything in copious amounts. I end up with three plates. On the picture below you see pickled peppers filled with soft cheese, some shredded bell pepper, a healthy dollop of fresh cheese and another dollop of ajvars. Her English is about as good as my Albanian, but she makes it clear that the idea is that you mix the cheese with the ajvars and smear it on bread. Not in the picture are the plate full of bread and another plate with a cheese borek and a spinach borek that have been warmed. That should tie me over for the next week…
Boarding already starts at 14h15. Even though it says 14h30 on the boarding pass. I get the feeling the ground staff are planning ahead in case there are any delays caused by all the diplomatic traffic. There’s a military Learjet from Macedonia and a Serb Embraer, in addition to Mutti’s Airbus of the Deutsche Bundeswehr.
The first bus departs just as I exit the terminal, but at least we’re allowed to wait outside in a closed off area for the next bus to arrive.
Most passengers are either making a mad dash to board the aircraft, or trying to capture a picture of the German Bundeswehr jet. My attention is immediately drawn to the completely white, non-standard engine cowling. What’s up with this bird?
In the cabin there’s also something slightly different about this bird. First, the fittings on the seats are in silver colour, and not the usual Austrian Airlines red. And secondly, the Austrian Airlines logo is missing from the right bulkhead. There’s a passenger missing and the crew are busy preparing the cabin for our departure, so I don’t want to pester them by asking about the aircraft. There are three rows of Business Class on this aircraft, and there is one other gentlemen in the forward cabin with me.
The crew on this flight are usual mixed bag, which seems to be normal on Austrian. Again, it’s just a small thing, but I really think it would be kind of nice to ask passengers if they’d like something to eat first, and not just dump the tray in front of them, whether they like it or not.
In any case, departure is to the north, flying directly towards Albania’s beautiful coastline. It’s a brilliant day for flying and visibility is excellent. About ten minutes into the climb, the captain comes on the mic to inquire if a certain passenger is on board. He explains that the second aircraft is delayed on the ground because of a missing passenger, and the handling agent figured he may have boarded the wrong aircraft ‘by accident’. Well that’s comforting…
After all the food in the lounge, I can’t honestly say that I’m still hungry. But goodness, the chocolate mousse cake for dessert sure looks tasty. And I mean, I didn’t have anything sweet in the lounge. It would be just such a shame to waste it. Oh, f*%@ it…
Now this dessert is really something. It’s very, very rich and sweet. The first spoon has my heart racing! But it really is just so good.
And just in case I haven’t had enough chocolate yet, the crew pass through the cabin with farewell chococolates as we start the descent.
Our arrival route into Vienna takes us past the airport on the downwind, to make an approach from the north. The light and shadows of the clouds dancing on the ground make the landscape look as though it has been painted on an enormous canvas.
We park on a remote stand. But at least this time the bus brings us to the head of the concourse, so we won’t have to walk that far.
Getting into Vienna
Next week the autumn semester starts and my life basically comes to a grinding halt until the end of the semester just before Christmas. So I figure I might as well break the journey and spend a few days in Vienna on a kind of mini-vacation.
To get into town, the train is probably the fastest and cheapest option. There are regular trains that run to either Wien Hauptbahnhof or Wien Mitte. The journey takes about 25 minutes to complete. There is a dedicated airport train called the CAT. However, apart from the fact that it’s currently not operating, it’s also outrageously expensive and really not worth the extra price.
My flight from Basel lands just after 21h00 and I now have one hour to make the connection to Tirana. As my blog is getting a bit heavy on the Austrian Airlines posts, and it’s dark outside with not much to see anyway, I figured I’d just post an abridged post here with only the most important information.
Austrian Airlines Business Class lounge
Austrian Airlines has a Business Class lounge in both the Schengen and non-Schengen areas. Luckily for me, I decide to head for the Schengen lounge to grab something to eat before I do anything else, and then go through passport control after. And what an excellent choice that turns out to be! The Business Class lounge in the non-Schengen area is only open in the mornings from 07h45 to 13h30.
This evening’s flight to Tirana is operated by an A 320. There are three rows of Business Class and only four passengers. I’m seated on 1A, but to be honest, I’m not a fan. The pitch on row 1 is not as good as on row : it’s impossible to stretch my legs because of the bulkhead. But I can’t strecht them sideways either, because the tray on row 1 is stowed in the arm rest, which therefore cannot be raised. So overall, I’m feeling a bit like an unhappy Pretzel.
The crew on this flight are not exactly gushing, but they are polite. However, they make quite a few announcements about Covid, the correct use of the masks and how to disembark once we reach Tirana – and then go on to immediately violate their own recommendations and not follow through with what they advised passengers to do.
As it turns out, the crew of this flight operates the Tirana rotation as a kind of split shift. Meaning that the same crew that arrives with this flight at 00h15 will also be returning to Vienna on the same aircraft that departs at 04h25. And I know this, because they’re in the same hotel as me and I hear them requesting a wake up call at 03h10. To be honest, I think if that were me, I really would not be all that motivated either.
Without even asking any of the passengers if they’d like to eat, the crew rather unceremoniously plonk a tray of food in front of each passenger. I’m not complaining, because while I think that Austrian’s cabin crew training is seriously lacking, catering is obviously something they do really, really well. I mean, what other airline will serve you a hot meal on a flight with a block time of only 75 minutes?
Tonight’s offering is Paprika chicken with Spätzle.
And a passion fruit panna cotta for dessert. The crew also pass through the cabin twice with the bread basket. Both the main and the dessert are excellent. The chicken sauce is rich and creamy and the Spätzle have retained their chewy fluffiness. Perhaps they could do some work on presentation though, because the dessert looks a bit forelorn on the large plate.
We land in Tirana at 00h15. We’re on time, and for a change there is no queue at immigration. Withing minutes I’m at the luggage belt waiting to pick up my suitcase, which duly arrives after only a very short wait.
It’s Sunday evening and I’m on my way back to the airport to give a second course in Tirana. After last week’s experience on Wizzair with Satan’s army of burping and crapping infants, I figured I would go for something a little more civilized this time and travel with Austrian again. It’s not the most exotic flight connection, but hey, my options were rather limited.
I’ve checked in online, but I still need to make a stop at the counter to drop my suitcase. I’m carrying a ton of paper, and I’ve already got a back ache just from carting my stuff to the airport. The Star Alliance carriers have their own dedicated counters. There is one Business Class and one Economy Class counter open. Both of them are deserted when I arrive.
Security is such a delight at Basel airport these days. The fact that you can just walk up without any queues and without having to witness the stupidest specimens of humanity as they make their way through the beeping security gates is something I will one day be telling my grandbabies about. This is the stuff legends are made of.
I find myself a seat next to where the Easyjet flight to Hamburg is boarding and entertain myself watching human nature unfold. It’s quite entertaining, really. And then I come across this guy. I know it’s rude to surreptitiously take pictures of random strangers, but… get a load of this: Easyjet-proof trousers. Take a closer look. The man has an iPad stashed in the upper pocket of his cargo pants, and a 5dl bottle of water in the lower one. Not in the photo are the complete works of William Shakespeare and Moby Dick in his right pocket. And no ladies, he’s honestly not that glad to see you, he just figured he’d also try taking his grand piano aboard as well by shoving it down his front… seriously?
Well that was fun. With the grand piano safely on its way to Hamburg, I make my way to gate 46, from where the flight to Vienna will be boarding.
As you can see in the photo above, the passengers on the arriving flight disembark via stairs. They are taken to a waiting bus that brings them to arrivals. Strangely, once that is done, the stairs are removed and the airbridge is attached for us to board through. I’m not quite sure what this is all about, but I assume this still has to do with the French government’s decision to suspend the Schengen treaty not quite so temporarily.
Oh yeah, and the lights in the airbridge aren‘t working, which gives me the opportunity to take the photo below. I kind of dig the haunted ‘I could see a light at the end of the tunnel and a feeling of calm came over me’ effect.
The seats on Austrian’s Embraers are very comfortable. I am sitting on row 4 and the seat pitch is excellent. Even with my rucksack stowed under the seat, I still have plenty of space for my legs and to wiggle my tootsies.
My only interaction with the crew on this flight consists of the disinfecting towel I am handed as I board the plane. That’s it. Everything on Austrian is buy on board, except for the farewell chocolate at the end of the flight.
I’m starting to think that the crews on Austrian Airlines tend to be rather unpredictable. Which is really just a euphemism to avoid having to admit that this lot are not exactly a credit to Austria’s reputation for outstanding hospitality.
Once we’re airborne, the inflight service, such as it were, begins. Which means the curtain separating the Business Class cabin is drawn by the crew. Is it me, or does the picture below remind others too of some old biddy’s bloomers hung out to dry? I mean, why bother if this is the best they can do?
The flight time to Vienna is one hour and ten minutes, and we land on time just after 21h. I now have one hour to make my connection to Tirana, which should give me enough time to discover a few more things about the airport that I don’t like. I know, I’m really turning into a right grumpy bastard in my old age…
Nothing about Vienna airport really makes any sense. And sadly, the impression you get is that the airside facility was built with everything but the passenger and the usability of the terminal in mind. My aircraft from Tirana parks at a remote stand, which means we are taken to the terminal by bus. But instead of dropping the passengers off near the beginning of the pier, which is where the security checkpoint and passport control are located, the bus driver only drives a few meters and then has us disembark at the very end of the concourse. From there, it’s a long schlepp to immigration and the Covid certificate check, before eventually, you arrive at the very beginning of the pier and the queue for security.
The Austrian Airlines Business Class lounge
The Austrian Airlines lounge is behind security, but in the completely opposite direction to the Schengen gates on the F pier.
The lounge is already quite full when I get there. The food options are rather nice, though. Other than that, the interior design is quite cheap. The seats in the dining area are covered in plastic fake leather and aren’t really all that comfortable either.
Eventually, I leave the lounge to walk around a bit and stop me from falling asleep.
I am seated on 2F. There are five rows of business class for a total of twenty seats. On this flight, only eight seats are occupied. And funnily enough, I’m the only passenger seated on the right side. I’m guessing the other passengers all chose to sit on the left to get a better view of the alps en route.
The crew on this flight are all female and very friendly. They’re all smiles and are engaging with the passengers. Unlike SWISS, Austrian does not offer any pre-departure drinks or refreshing towels.
As soon as the seatbelt sign is turned off after take-off, the maître de springs in to action in the galley. The curtain is closed, but I can hear her pottering around in the galley as she loads the hot meals into the trolley. But then suddenly, there’s this terrific crash as the whole trolley tumbles backwards. The flight attendant opens the curtain with a horrified expression on her face and simply mutters: “Na, jetzt is mir der Trolley umgfallen…”. It seems like an odd thing to say because the crash was so loud that I’m pretty sure they heard it all the way back in Vienna.
Eventually, the crew manage to get the trolley upright, but most of the food has spilled. I really feel for the cabin crew, because she’s obviously distraught and so embarrassed. She keeps passing through the cabin apologizing and explaining that she can’t possibly serve the meal, as “so was gibt’s nicht amol bei der Rynair”… Clearly, to her Ryanair is rock bottom and if not even they would serve such a messy looking meal, then she certainly won’t either in Austrian Business Class. She’s really quite funny in her state of upset.
Eventually, we agree for her to just give me the hot meal and a coffee. It just wouldn’t be very gentlemanly really, to lick the yoghurt of the tray… The hot meal is an omelet with cheese served with spinach.
To conclude the meal, the crew pass through the cabin offering small chocolates. They’re not as good as the Swiss ones, but they rarely are.
We approach Zürich from the East, which brings us in right over lake Constance. It’s a gorgeous day for flying.
The maître de welcomes us to Zürich amid more profuse apologies at having ruined breakfast. She insists that in all her career, this is really the first time this has ever happened to her. I feel quite sorry for her, because she’s clearly very upset.
Zürich airport is very empty and quiet when we land. Even after all these years, I still think it’s impressive to think that we touched down on runway 16 at 09h00, and by 09h13 I was already sitting on the train home!
Catering is, and has always been, one of the airline’s strongest points. And today’s two flights from Tirana to Vienna and then on to Zürich were no different – despite the mishap with the trolley. To serve a hot meal on a flight of barely one hour is certainly not bad at all and definitely a lot more substantial than anything I was expecting. On the other hand, I think it’s a shame they won’t even place a bottle of water at every seat as a pre-departure beverage.
The crew were very nice, which is a pleasant surprise. In the past, I’ve had crews on Austrian that were really just plain rude. For Tirana, I really think Austrian has the best and most frequent connections. Which is why I chose them. However, if it weren’t for their extensive eastern European network, I don’t think I would go out of my way to actively seek them out for my next trip. I find the whole experience a bit bland, and the unpredictability of the crew doesn’t help. I wouldn’t intentionally avoid them though, either.
I’m not really sure what made me think a departure from Tirana at 04h25 in the morning would be a good idea. But here I am at 03h00 in the morning, walking the short distance from the Hotel Airport Tirana to the terminal building. Still, at least this way I’ll be back home by 11h00.
The terminal building is small and compact, with departures and check-in on the left side, and arrivals on the right side.
Check-in for the flight to Vienna is already open. And much to my surprise, there’s even a manned Business Class desk that isn’t being laid siege to by a hoard of unruly Albanians who, I’m am finding out, really have a very, very strong aversion to queueing of any sort.
The Tirana Airport lounge
Security and immigration are painless. There are hardly any passengers this time of the morning.
So I decide to investigate the Business Class lounge, which is open at this ungodly hour, even if I only have about 15 minutes before boarding begins.
The lounge is nice enough and looks fairly new. There’s a buffet with pastries and sandwiches to choose from, and there are more dishes in the kitchen, that are available on request from the staff.
Boarding starts at 03h55. Our aircraft is parked rather far away, which is why we’re being bussed to our remote stand.
There are three rows of Business Class, for a total of 12 seats. However, only six of them are occupied. The cabin looks neat and tidy and the splashes of red in the Austrian sign on the bulkhead or the seat covers and seat belts make the cabin look a lot less shabby than Lufthansa’s.
Leg space on row 2 is very good and I am able to stretch my legs easily.
There are four cabin crew on today’s flight, and all of them male. They’re business friendly, I’d say. Not very warm or genuine, but not rude either. There is no pre-departure drink. Passengers are just handed a disinfectant towel as they board.
Given the flight time of only one hour and ten minutes, I’m surprised they’re actually serving a hot meal on the short hop to Vienna. There are no options. Despite it’s rather unappealing appearance, the hot meal is rather good.
Croque monsieur with turkey ham.
A very creamy and fluffy yoghurt.
The potion that gives life.
During the meal service, the crew make multiple runs through the cabin with the breadbasket.
The flight passes very quickly. At some point I think I even nod off to sleep. We touch down in Vienna at 05h40 and make our way to a remote stand. I now have a little less than two hours to make to connection to Zürich.
It’s a lazy, late summer’s evening here in Switzerland. The temperature is warm and balmy, and there are little insects dancing in the last rays of light as the sun slowly dips below the horizon. Just after 20h I leave my flat and make my way across the square to catch the 20h15 bus to the airport.
The bus is fairly empty. Considering this is the airport bus, it’s a bit surprising that I’m the only traveller making his way to the airport. Facing me is an elderly lady. Despite the warm weather, she sits there in a woolly hat and a thick coat, absently staring into space, drawing symbols on the wind with her bony index finger. I wonder if she even knows what she’s doing. I follow the lines of her hand and the outstreched finger, but I am unable to decipher the cryptic symbols she is painting in the air.
The departures concourse is quiet when I arrive there at 20h30. There are only two more departures this evening. The WizzAir flight to Tirana at 21h45 and a SunExpress flight to Izmir shortly after. There are two counters open for each flight.
I’ve already checked in online using the WizzAir app. Two weeks before my flight, WizzAir starts with the reminders and regular updates about the Covid restrictions in place for Albania. As of 05 September 2021, entry into the country is only with a valid Covid certificate.
The situation airside is not much better. There are hardly any passengers and most shops look as though they closed a long time ago.
Boarding is an interesting concept with WizzAir. I have a ticket that gives me ‘priority’ privileges for boarding, which means that I can jump the queue – only to end up having to wait the longest until all the passengers have entered the holding pen. The aircraft hasn’t even arrived yet when I get there!
I think what strikes me the most about this flight is the number of babies and infants. Loud, yelling and screaming babies and infants. There are more minors than adults on the flight. As a result, the air around the holding area is rife with the horrific stench of baby poo and the noise of cranky toddlers. You can’t really blame them, either. This is not a time for little kids to be travelling.
Boarding takes for ever and literally leaves me quite speechless. I’m mean, how can all these people manage to create such complete and utter chaos out of nothing? The aircraft is a mess. Some people sitting at the front of the bus obviously thought it would be a great idea to use the rear stairs. Only to have to battle their way forward to row 3, where they’re actually seated. One woman with a baby thinks the emergency exit looks like a nice place for her baby to sleep on the floor, while grandad mistakes the aircraft’s cabin for a cocktail party and idly chats with whoever happens to catch his eye, completely oblivious to the queue building up behind him. Meanwhile, the guy who just got on the plane is yelling at him from the front, telling him to move to f*@!k on…
There are five cabin crew members on this flight, and they do a good job of managing the crowds. They’re very no-nonsense, but I suspect that’s probably the only thing that will work in this case. One of the crew is this petite, young brunnette. But she’s fierce. Even the old patriarchs look intimidated by her!
The cabin is rather dirty and obviously hasn’t been cleaned for a few days, I’d say, judging by the grime and crushed potato chips littered across the floor. I can literally feel their crunch under my feet as I make my way to my seat at the emergency exit on row 12.
WizzAir has a very high density configuration on the A 321. Seat pitch is tight, so if you’re more than 6ft. tall, I would really recommend you pay the extra fee for the emergency exit. It’ll save you a boatload of health bills for the chiropractor to realign your vertabrae.
Catering on WizzAir is buy on board. The prices are reasonable. I order a bottle of still water and a KitKat, which sets me back four Euros. Payment is possible in Albanian Lek, Euros or by credit card.
The flight passes quickly enough. It helps that I have a whole row of three to myself to spread out. We land ten minutes ahead of schedule at 23h35. The transfer to the terminal is by bus. Luckily, immigration is empty when we get there. Even so, the process takes quite a while, as obviously not everbody got the memo about the new requirement of having to present a Covid certificate.
This is a fairly short post. As usual with the low cost carriers, there isn’t really all that much to say about the experience. Mainly, because the experience has been stripped of anything that might make it memorable. The ride was comfortable and convenient, because I could fly directly from Basel. Other than that, flying with WizzAir feels a lot like getting on a bus. And not much else. What ever happened to the romance of flying and travel…?
Goodness, the heat! I hadn’t been to Malta in the summer for a very long time, even before Covid19. And I think I now remember why. The heat is incredible. The day I arrived it was 41 degrees and it was so hazy it looked overcast, when in fact it was just the humidity. Luckily, two days into my stay, the temperature cooled off to 37, which at least made the sky look a lot clearer.
Today I’m flying back to Switzerland. The Air Malta flight departs at 14h20, which gives me the whole morning to do some shopping and have one last Kinnie before I leave.
Getting to the airport
Once I’ve checked out, I brace myself for the heat just inside the hotel lobby. I’m dreading having to go out there carting my luggage… There are four busses that take you to the airport. The X4 is the dedicated airport line and stops right outside the terminal building. Then there are the lines 71, 72 and 73 which all go in the general direction of Zurrieq on the other side of the airport. The stop Cintra is right before the airport tunnel that goes under the runway. From there it’s only about three minutes on foot to the terminal building. The journey time is the same for all busses, more or les.
The airport is very busy when I arrive. All counters are open, checking in flights for Ryanair, Wizzair, EasyJet, SWISS, British Airways and Air Malta. There is one Business Class counter open for Air Malta, and the guy working the counter is struggling to deal with two young couples and their satanic brood (six cranky kids…) and what looks like a metric ton of suitcases, strollers, car seats and god knows what else. Still, the check-in guy uses the group’s apparent lack of functional English to his full advantage and manages to get them sorted and out of the way in about ten minutes.
To check in, passengers need to show a completed passenger locator form, which is sent by Air Malta by email a few days prior to departure, as well as their digital covid certificate. At check-in, you are then handed another two forms that need to be completed before boarding. Without the two sheets of paper, you will not be allowed airside. One of the documents is for the Swiss authorities, although I’m not sure what this is for because nobody bothers with it. The other form is for Air Malta. It is collected at boarding and handed over to the ground agent upon arrival in Zürich.
La Valette lounge
Fortunately, the priority lane for guests of the La Valette lounge is open, as is the lounge itself. Inside the lounge there is a strict seating regime, and passengers are assigned a seat when they enter. The guy who enters behind me is absolutely scandalised by this, tells off the poor lounge attendant (like it’s her fault…) and storms out again. As I’ve said before, if you think wearing or not wearing a face mask in public is what defines you as a man, you must have a really very small… personality.
The buffet is semi self-service. On the one side, facing the room, are cold dishes that are packaged, like salads and sandwiches. Passengers can help themselves to these. On the other side of the buffet are the hot dishes and drinks. This area is closed off and a lounge attendant serves the food and drinks to passengers from there.
I go for another Kinnie and a selection of unhealthy Maltese snacks: two pastizzi, one arancini and Twistees. Okay, and a bowl of salad as my saving grace.
The viewing terrace is also open, mainly for the smokers. I go out to check the view, but seriously, the heat…!
Boarding is from a bus gate. Passengers are instructed to scan their boarding passes themselves and leave the passenger locator form on a pile prepared by the ground staff.
Today’s flight is operated by an Airbus A 320 NEO, of which Air Malta currently has four in service. It’s really quite surprising how few flights I’ve had on a NEO, especially given that they seem to be everywhere these days.
The Business Class cabin
I’m seated on 1F, which is the window seat on the right side of the aircraft. There are three rows of Business Class for a total of 12 seats. There are only two other passengers in the forward cabin with me today, one on 3A and the other on 3F.
The headrest on these seats is adjustable in height and the sides can be folded up for better support. The recline is decent, and the pitch on row 1 is very comfortable.
The crew are business friendly. They’re polite, but that’s just about it. Because of the Covid measures that have been put in place by the government, there is no welcome drink anymore, and instead of offering newspapers, the crew pass through the cabin with hygenic wet wipes and kits.
We take off from runway 34, which means we fly along the length of Malta and Gozo, from where we turn north towards Palermo. From there it’s more or less a straight line until we hit the mainland near Genova.
The meal is rather extensive and nicely presented in typically Maltese crockery. It’s a nice looking tray. There are no options to choose from for the meal and no menu is handed out. The crew bring the tray out without even as much as asking if I’d like to eat or telling me what’s on offer. The meal is served with the covers on. The photo was obviously taken after I’d removed them all.
The main dish is a salad of shrims and boiled egg.
The meal is served with a ramekin of three buns that have been heated in the oven.
Dressing for the salad.
A very tasty but very rich dessert of chocolate mousse and dried figs. It’s very unsual but so, so sweet.
A bowl of cheese with Gbejna (Maltese), Cheddar (British) and Camembert (French).
And a fruit salad.
Vinaigrette instead of butter.
I really wonder how much kerosene could be saved if airlines stopped carting around what must be tons of unnecessary cutlery. Air Malta is no exception. I unfold my napkin to find two forks, two knives and two teaspoon. I mean, am I supposed to be sharing…?
And to drink, one last Kinnie.
The flight passes very quickly. As we approach the Alps, thick clouds appear, some of them towering high above us as we make our descent into Zürich.
The descent is fairly rough until we break through the clouds. Below, everything just looks so lush and green!
Arrivals are on runway 28, from the east. Which brings us in right past the town where I work.
The airport is fairly busy when we land. As we taxi in, the crew advise passengers to remain seated, and that initially only rows 1 to 10 should stand up to get ready for deboarding. I figure this is never going to work, but much to my surprise, the people in the back of the bus actually seem to be complying with the request.
I enjoyed this trip a lot, although I think in future I will keep avoiding going to Malta in the height of summer. The heat just really got to me, as you may have noticed. In comparison, the flight down on SWISS was by far more polished and ‘normal’ than the return with Air Malta. I felt that the SWISS crews went out of their way to make passengers feel comfortable and to put them at ease. The SWISS flight was nice.
The service on Air Malta was a bit lacklustre. Right now, I think it’s easy to give in to the temptation and blaming everything on the pandemic and the Covid restrictions in place. But I don’t think it’s just that. Having an extensive meal service is nice, but an airline must also be willing to invest in its staff.
It’s been more than 18 months since I last visited Malta, and I’m seriously starting to have withdrawal symptoms. Add to that the fact that it has rained pretty much every day here in Switzerland since mid-June, and I’m feeling positively ecstatic at the prospect of some sunshine!
I booked this trip at relatively short notice (one week before departure). Even so, I was still able to secure a miles tickets in Business Class on SWISS for the outbound, which suggests that tourist traffic to Malta is still only just picking up again. It probably also helps that the school summer holidays are nearing the end in Switzerland, which means that most of the traffic on the route will be heading back north at this stage.
As per 11 August 2021, passengers from the Schengen area are required to complete the PLF form, that Italy is also using, to enter Malta by plane. You need to create a login before you can complete the form. Once you’re done, you will receive a mail confirmation that you must be able to present at boarding and upon arrival on the island – either in print or digital form.
About a week before my departure, I start receiving almonst daily mails from SWISS, reminding me to check the entry requirements for Malta and to ensure that I have completed all the necessary paperwork before I depart. SWISS’ approach is sensible and makes a lot of sense to me. I think it’s clear that we’re all going to have to come to terms with the fact that Covid19 is here to stay, so we better start getting used to it. It is every individual’s own responsibility to stay safe and with that, to decide how much they are willing to let this virus run their lives.
Getting to the airport
The flight to Malta departs at 12h15. I have not been to Zürich airport in six months, and I have no idea what the situation will be when I get there. So I take the 08h33 train from Basel, which runs nonstop to Zürich main station in 49 minutes. In Zürich I change trains to the airport, where I arrive at 09h42 with plenty of time to spare.
The second class carriages are quite full, but I have a First Class carriage nearly all to myself!
Considering how crowded the trains were, I’m expecting the airport to be very busy. But much to my surprise it’s rather quiet. There are people, but it’s certainly not as busy as it used to be.
I’ve already checked in online, but I really don’t fancy schlepping around my suitcase. So the first stop is one of the Business Class check-in counters in Check-in 1, the home of SWISS and the Lufthansa group.
The young lady is friendly and efficient. She tags my bag, issues the boarding pass and wishes me a safe journey and a great holiday. As I turn to leave, she eyes my Maltese passport: “I’ve never seen one of these…”. Yes, I know. I get that quite often… she does not ask to see the completed entry form or my Covid certificate.
My next stop is security. There is a dedicated entrance to the checkpoint for First and Business Class passengers. Not that it matters today, because the place is deserted and I can just walk straight up to any one of the entrances without waiting at all.
SWISS Business Class lounge for Schengen flights
The lounge situation in Zürich is a bit confusing right now. When I arrive, the Business Class lounge is closed, so all passengers must use the Senator lounge instead. Initially, the place is far from crowded. However, as the time for the midday bank of departures approaches, the place begins to fill up until eventually they have no other choice but to open the Business Class lounge too.
The lounge is well stocked and SWISS seem to have upped their game with the catering. Due to COVID19, there is no longer a buffet, but there’s a very charming lady behind the counter serving passengers. There is a choice of warm or cold breakfast sets, but they’re quite generous and willing to provide you any other combination of dishes you might request.
Much to my surprise, by the time I leave the lounge just after 11h30, there quite a queue forming at the entrance. I’m not entirely sure if this is because of social distancing or because the lounge is just too full.
My flight is boarding from gate A56, which is good news and bad. It’s good news, because it means the aircraft is parked on a remote stand. So I’ll get to take a few pictures. It’s bad news though, because gate A56 is in a dreadful hovel that was errected provisionally many moons ago but that they then forgot to tear down again. It’s small, and cramped and simply not large enough for all the people waiting to board their flights at the same time. There are people everywhere!
It’s not until boarding for my flight starts that I realise what the problem is: in order to maintain social distancing, they’re only allowing about 35 passengers per bus. Which means that even for our small Airbus A 220-100 with a load of only 84 passengers they still need to use three busses.
I wait to board the last bus. And all my woes are forgotten to moment we pull up next to our aircraft for today’s flight. Well hello, Sweetness…!
There are five rows of Business Class for a total of 15 seats, of which twelve are occupied today. Right in front of me is an obnoxious old bat, who won’t even let her poor husband sit by himself. So instead of taking advantage of an empty seat next to her on the row of two, with him on the aisle seat on the other side, she insists that he sits with her on the twin seat. She spends the rest of the flight chatting at the top of her voice. Thank God for the Sony WH-1000XM4 earphones I remembered to pack this time. Let me see, the Sisters of Mercy should do the trick to drown out the sound of her horrible voice droning on… “… she looks good in ribbons…just walk away…”.
Oh yes, and there’s a bottle of still water at my seat when I arrive. Excuse me while I go off on a tangent, because this is yet another instance of useless SWISS marketing rubbish: according to the SWISS website, the water is bottled exclusively for SWISS in Glarus, from a source at an elevation of 1156 metres. Hence the name. The website also tells us that the bottle comes in a ‘distinctive design’. I mean, I’ve lived in Switzerland long enough to know how much pride they take in the spectacular beauty of the Swiss Alps. Even so, I’m pretty sure most people honestly don’t give a rat’s bum about the altitude at which the source is, as long as they can rest assured that taking a sip of the bottle is not likely to give them diphtheria or something equally disturbing. And second, with all due respect, a distinctive design is the timeless shape of the Perrier bottle or the iconic Evian logo. But not this.
So the bottome line, boys and girls, is that SWISS serves a no name brand of still water that nobody has ever heard of. But they’re trying to pretend it’s because it’s so exclusive.
The crew on this flight is absolutely brilliant. I really cannot praise them enough, especially the maître de. If every SWISS crew were like this, I seriously wouldn’t bother flying any other airlines. The maître de is German. His announcements are clear, properly enunciated and nicely structured to form well-rounded and grammatically correct and coherent sentences in both German and in English. What’s more, he makes a point of remiding passengers repeatedly during the flight about the requirement to wear a face mask.
During the service, his interaction with the passengers is charming and easy going. Honestly, it’s a joy being taken care of by him! But first, let’s get the flight underway…
The meal is a very pleasant surprise. The maître de informs me that there’s going to be a hotmeal for lunch and there are two choices. The meat option is beef meatballs, whereas the vegetarian option is rice with grilled vegetables.
I decide to go with the meatballs pretty much the moment he mentions that they are served with mashed potatos and green beans in a creamy mushroom sauce. Total sucker for the mash here.
Also on the tray, there is a salad of mixed leaves with sunflower seeds.
A plate of soft and hard cheese. I have no idea what cheese it is, and at altitude everything tastes different anyway. My guess would be that the soft cheese is a French Camembert, whereas the hard cheese is probably a Gruyère.
There is also a selection of dark and white bread and crackers and a small bottle of vinaigrette for the salad.
And finally, for dessert there is a slice of rhubarb crumble with raspberry coulis and what I’m guessing is either a vanilla or white chocolate mousse.
To drink with that I have a glass of apple juice, which the maître de serves me together with a glass of sparkling water without me even having to ask for it.
To complete the meal, I ask for a mint tea, which is served with a small piece of chocolate. SWISS serves Sirocco tea on its flights. Now that, to me, would be a lot more worthwhile to mention if I were SWISS. Sirocco is a very old Swiss company that has been in the tea trading business for over a hundred years. Their teas are excellent, and apart from the more traditional blends, they also have a few fairly unusual and very tasty ones too.
The quality of the food is very good, well done SWISS. The salad is not at all limp and the main course is really just very tasty and filling.
The flight passes surprisingly quickly. There’s a lot of heat haze, making it difficult to see the ground. I can barely make out that we’re just leaving the coastline behind and figure that must by Sicily. So it can’t be much longer.
Our approach into Malta is quite unusual. I’m not sure I’ve actually ever arrived like this. We’re making the approach from the southeast. What is unusual, is that we’re flying down along Malta’s southern coast, putting the island on our left. We pass Filfla island below and continue out to sea, past Malta, before eventually turning back to line up with runway 13.
The Med looks lovely, with the sun glittering on the surface. The pilot informs us that the temperature on the ground is 39 degrees Celsius, and expected to rise to a high of 41 degrees before it starts to cool down again. As soon as we cross the shoreline, the aircraft is hit by the hot air rising, making the last few minutes of the descent rather bumpy. But we land safely. Malta hanina, I’ve missed you, 18 months is too long, and I’m so glad to be back!
There are only three aircraft standing on the apron, one Air Malta A 320, a Ryanair B 737-800 and the Emirates B 777-300. However, right behind us, another Air Malta, then a Ryanair and an Easyjet arrive.
We’re parked on a remote stand away form the terminal, which means we’re going to have to take a bus to arrivals. By the time I arrive at the luggage belt a short while later, my suitcase is already there. Behind customs is the health check that all passengers have to go through upon arrival on the islands. You will need to show your passport, the completed health declaration form and your Covid certificate if you ticked the box that you are fully vaccinates. The process is fairly painless and efficient. There are twenty counters open processing arriving passenger.
With that out of the way, it’s time to make my way to the hotel.
The main objective of my brief stop in Milan was to visit the duomo in the heart of the city. Like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the building is enormous. But that’s probably about as far as the similarities go. While St. Peter’s is built in the elegant Renaissance style that would later give way to the more opulent and gaudy Baroque style, Milan’s duomo is in the sombre and austere gothic style.
There is an interesting contrast between the outside of the cathedral and the inside. While the former is in bright, white stone that is nearly blinding to the eye on a sunny day, the interior is dark and gloomy and with very little decoration.
Next to the church is the duomo’s museum, which is interesting to visit. It houses a collection of many of the figurines that once decorated the church’s interior and exterior.
And if you’re weary from all the culture and spirituality, the Galleria Emanuele Vittorio II with its glitzy shops is right next to the duomo.
I visited the duomo in the late afternoon, and there were no queues to enter the cathedral itself nor the museum.