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Welcome

Hello and welcome to this travel blog!

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.

– William

Flying First Class in a Pandemic: SWISS vs. Emirates

Background

At the start of January 2021, I travelled from Switzerland to Dubai to give a course in Ras Al-Khaimah, which is one of the emirates that make up the UAE. I decided to fly in First Class on this trip to avoid having to sit next to another passenger. I’m quite willing to believe that the HEPA filters are effective. But I’m not sure how much help that is if the guy you’re sitting next to in Business Class is coughing all over the place.

On the outbound I flew SWISS. Originally, I should have returned on Saturday on SWISS. But eventually, I got myself a new ticket on Emirates, which allowed me to return home a day early. As such, I was able to make a direct comparison between the two carriers in general, as well as of how they handle flying in the pandemic.

Schedule

Currently, both SWISS and Emirates still operate on the Zürich to Dubai route. However, neither one of the two carriers provides a daily service anymore. Emirates flies five times a week, and the route has been downgraded from an Airbus A 380 to the Boeing B 777-300. Whereas SWISS operates three to four times a week and is sending anything from the Airbus A 330-300 to the Boeing B 777-300 down to Dubai these days. SWISS has terminated the extension of the flight from Dubai to Muscat.

The SWISS flight has been rescheduled and now departs Zürich at 16h15, to arrive in Dubai at 01h25. The Emirates flight departs Zürich at 14h35, to arrive in Dubai at 23:45.

The return flight with SWISS departs from Dubai at 03h50 and arrives back in Zürich at 08h05. Whereas Emirates departs from Dubai at 08h25, to arrive at 12h25.

As far as I’m concerned, Emirates has the more attractive schedule in both directions, simply because you’re not travelling in the middle of the night. At a block time of about six hours, the flight is hardly long enough to get any decent sleep. And a departure at 03h50 from Dubai is simply a human rights violation to me.

Booking

The whole purpose of flying First Class on this trip was for me to have as much personal space as possible on the aircraft. Both SWISS and Emirates have a First Class cabin layout in a 1 + 2 + 1 configuration. Clearly, my intention on this trip was to secure one of the single seats. However, on the Emirates website you only get to see which seats are still available in the cabin once you have completed the booking and go into the ‘Manage my Booking’ section to select your seats. This is much better on the SWISS website, where the seats can be selected before payment is made.

Getting to and from the airport

Emirates’ complimentary chauffeur service is a hard act to follow and just takes another burden off your mind when travelling. Public transport in Switzerland is excellent and generally very reliable, even in snow and adverse weather. But these days you still have to contend with the Corona sceptics who refuse, on principle, to wear their mask properly as a rather puerile act of civil disobedience. I have no idea if the masks really offer that much protection. But that’s neither here nor there and quite frankly, if you think refusing to wear a mask in public is what defines you as a person, I think you’re rather a sad human being.

Experience on the ground & lounge access

At their hub in Zürich airport, SWISS has more or less shut down all of its usual First Class services. There are two First Class check-in counters, but the First Class island is temporarily closed. The lounges on the A and E piers are also closed, and with them the segregated security lines too.

In Dubai SWISS only uses remote stands. And I mean really remote. The transfer to the terminal is by bus and takes about ten minutes. There is a dedicated First Class bus, but that’s still not as convenient as a contact stand. SWISS does not provide a lounge for its departing passengers in Dubai, which is particularly nasty if you’re looking at a departure at 03h50 in the morning.

At their hub in Dubai airport, Emirates has kept the First and Business Class terminal open. The First Class lounge is temporarily closed. However, the Business Class lounge remains open and one half of it has been sectioned off for First Class passengers only. In the First Class section food can be ordered from the staff, the menu is available online and can be viewed using a QR code.

In Zürich, there is no lounge available for First Class passengers on Emirates, as their lounge is located on the E pier which is currently in hibernation.

Interaction with the staff and crew

On the ground I couldn’t really say there was much of a difference in the way passengers interact with the staff. There are Plexiglas screens at the check-in counters, and staff were all wearing their face masks properly.

With the cabin crew though, it’s a very different story: on SWISS the crew were merely wearing face masks. An announcement was made informing passengers to keep their masks on for the duration of the flight and especially when approached by the cabin crew. On my flight this was mostly respected. There have been a few minor changes in the service on SWISS: the starters are no longer served from a trolley and instead, passengers are brought all their courses individually, directly from the galley.

In contrast, the crew on Emirates were wearing this strange paper cover over their uniform. In addition to the face masks, they were also wearing protective shields over their eyes. At the start of the meal service, the cabin crew explicitly asked me a) if I wanted them to bring the food with the covers removed, b) if I wanted them to remove the covers once the individual dishes were served or c) if I wanted to remove the covers myself. As such, my impression was that Emirates was more proactively addressing passengers’ concerns with the service aboard the aircraft.

Cleanliness of the cabin

On SWISS the cushions were sealed in plastic. There were no blankets available, though. Every passenger was given one small disinfectant towel.

On Emirates the pillow, duvet and mattress were sealed in plastic. In addition, every passenger was given a travel kit which contained two sealed face masks, two pairs of plastic gloves and seven sachets of disinfecting gel.

The cabin and seat

Irrespective of the pandemic, the SWISS First Class cabin is elegant and stylish and a pleasure to behold. It’s typically Swiss I find, in that the designers were clearly aiming for understated elegance and a somewhat rustic vibe with the light wood finish. Other than that though, the seat isn’t really all that comfortable – in the sitting or sleeping position. What’s more, when extended into a bed there was a hard bit pressing into the small of my back, and it was impossible to find a comfortable position to sleep in. The seat isn’t very private either. The doors do not fully close, and the partitions are not very high. So that when you’re sitting fully upright, your head sticks out above. Storage space is limited and inconveniently located.

In contrast, the old Emirates First Class seat really is just very ugly to look at. The finish is garish and ostentatious and the faux gold just looks cheap. If you can see beyond all that though, it is an immensely comfortable seat. It’s very practical in its design and offers a lot convenient storage space. It’s also very private. The partitions are high enough to ensure that you are completely concealed form view with the doors closed.

Food & beverage

The meal service is always a highlight on SWISS. The crew tend to celebrate the best of Swiss hospitality in First Class. And despite the adaptations that were made to the service because of the pandemic, this was still the case on the flight from Zürich to Dubai. The tableware is simple but elegant and the setup of the table makes it look inviting. From the amuse bouche to dessert and the drink pairings suggested by the crew, the meal was a pleasure. The quality of the food was also very good.

On Emirates, the tableware looks a bit old-fashioned in style. For example, where SWISS has these sturdy looking wooden salt and pepper mills, on Emirates they’re made of plastic and look as though they’ve seen better days. The table set up is functional rather than enticing. It’s little things: there is a cheese course offered on both Emirates and SWISS, but on the former it doesn’t tell you anywhere what the cheese are. The quality of the food on Emirates was okay, although I don’t think it was as good as SWISS, and the plating of the dishes was not done quite so expertly either.

However, what is certainly a big plus on Emirates, for me at least, is that the meal service is à la carte, so passengers can have their meal any time they like. On SWISS the entire First Class cabin is served at the same time, usually right after take-off and irrespective of the time of night or day.

Overall impression

My overall impression of the two flights in comparison is that the Emirates experience seemed a lot more professional and standardised in terms of dealing with passengers when flying in a pandemic. I don’t think the experience was particularly personal on Emirates, but I felt well taken care of and the hassle of travel was kept to the minimum, while at the same time respecting the regulations in place.

SWISS has much more personal touch to its service. On the one hand, that can be rather nice. But overall, it makes the whole product susceptible to variability as the result of the human factor. Furthermore, the adaptations made by SWISS make the experience not quite so hassle free.

Emirates Airlines, Boeing B 777-300ER – First Class: Dubai to Zürich

Introduction

I awake early on Friday morning with a large red sore across the bridge of my nose from having had to wear a face mask for the last seven days. But the course I was in Ras Al-Khaima for is now done, and I’m ready to go home. Travelling in times of Covid 19 is tedious, cumbersome and tiring.

Getting to the airport

Ras Al-Khaima is about 80 minutes away from Dubai airport by car. Given that my departure to Zürich is just after eight in the morning and I really don’t feel like having to wake up at the crack of dawn, on Thursday afternoon I head back to Dubai to spend my last night at the Sofitel Downtown.

I’ve ordered an Emirates car to pick me up just before six in the morning; which is still early. The journey to the airport takes about twenty minutes. You can order the car yourself online in the ‘Manage my Booking’ section of the Emirates website, which is where you can also book a car to pick you up at the airport at your destination.

If you’re travelling in First Class, you get a larger and more ostentatious type of vehicle than you would in Business Class. And so, taking me to the airport this morning is a gorgeous BMW 7.

Check-in

Emirates checks in at Terminal 3, and there is a dedicated section of the terminal for Business and First Class check-in only. I wouldn’t say the place is teeming with people when I arrive, but it’s certainly a lot busier than I would have expected in the current situation.

There is no queue for the First Class check-in counters and I’m surprised by just how many counters are actually open. The check-in agent makes quick work of my suitcase and then I head for security and immigration.

The e-gates are available for passengers leaving the country. To use them you have to register your passport when you arrive in the country.

Emirates temporary First Class lounge

The lounges are located one floor up from the public airside area. The standard Emirates First Class lounge is temporarily closed to passengers, however. Instead, one half of the Business Class lounge has been sectioned off and converted into the First Class lounge.

The main feature of the lounge is the dining area. In accordance with the current situation, there is no buffet and passengers are served at their table. The menu is available online via QR code. There are some passengers in the lounge, but I wouldn’t say it is crowded.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight starts at 07h45. I arrive at the gate a few minutes later and the flight is already in the final stages of boarding. I ask the gate attendant and she confirms that while the load in Business Class is looking quite okay, in Economy it’s rather light. In First Class there are three passengers.

The cabin and seat

I’ve never really liked the look of the Emirates First Class cabin and seat. Generally speaking, I find the fake wood and fake gold trimmings a bit tacky. And the grey leather covers are about as bland and boring as Lufthansa.

But the seat is very comfortable and offers a lot of privacy and space.

I think what impresses me most about the seat, is the amount of thought that has obviously gone into the design to create a private space for the passenger that is functional, practical and very comfortable.

The minibar in the side panel of the seat has a standard stock of drinks. However, the crew are happy to change the contents of the minibar to suit your requirements.

Every passenger also gets a bowl of snacks, which are replenished throughout the flight.

There’s also a travel hygene kit at my seat. It contains two face masks, two pairs of plastic gloves and disinfectant.

On the shorter day time flights Emirates does not offer a vanity kit nor pjs. But they do offer cosmetics at the seat, and toothbrushes and toothpaste are available in the lavatory.

There’s also a drawer with a writing pen and a small notebook. The pen is rather useless though, and doesn’t write very well.

There is ample storage space for personal items in the seat.

Before we push back, the crew pass through the cabin handing out forms that need to be completed on arrival into Switzerland.

Next, they pass through the cabin for the traditional coffee and dates welcome, with every date packaged in plastic individually.

We take off in a southeasterly direction and then make a right hand turn to point us in the general direction of Europe. The SID takes us right over Sheikh Zayed Road and the fabulous Burj Khalifa.

A la carte service

The service is à la carte and passengers can order any time they like. I already had breakfast in the lounge, and so I decide to have a nap first.

Apéritif

Around three hours out of Zürich I order lunch. The menu is quite extensive and offers a good selection of breakfast items, starters, main courses and desserts. I start with a bowl of warm mixed nuts, a glass of sparkling water and a glass of the Dom Perignon 2008.

The first course

Next, the table is set for the meal. This is one area where I think Emirates could improve. The whole meal service, like the seat, it functional and on point but not really very elegant – be it in the design of the tableware or the presentation of the food on the plate.

Before the crew start serving the food, they ask me if I would prefer the dishes to be served with the covers still on and remove them myself or if I would rather have them removed.

The breads in the breadbasket come individually wrapped in plastic that can be heated in the oven. They’re not really good though, because the steam cannot escape properly and as a result, the bread turns soggy fairly quickly.

For the starter I go with the cold-smoked ocean trout, served with pickled potatos, capers and crème fraîche. It’s a lovely piece of trout, but the presentation is a bit of a mess.

The salad

The salad is very nice. There is the option to add some grilled beef or shrimps and it is served either with a French dressing or olive oil and Balsamico.

The main course

For the main course, I go with the prawns in a shellfish sauce, served with wild rice with lemon zest and cardamom. This is a flavourful dish, and the rice complements the prawns nicely. The cardamom and lemon zest really make the dish and add an exotic twist to it.

Dessert

To end the meal, I ask for the chocolate fondant and some mint tea. The dessert is a bit of a let down though. The centre of it is still not quite melted and the outer texture is rubbery. It’s hard to say if the dish was just not properly heated in the oven or if it just isn’t a good recipe.

The meal concludes with a small box of Emirati pralines.

The meal service is nicely paced. There are no long waits in between the individual courses, but the whole service is still unrushed. I guess it probably helps that there are only three passengers in the cabin on today’s flight.

Arrival

Thirty minutes out of Zürich our Spanish captain comes on the loudspeaker to inform us that we have reached the top of descent have have another half hour to run to Zürich. The temperature is minus 2 and they’re expecting it to have just finished snowing by the time we land. From above it certainly looks pretty outside.

We touch down on runway 16, which is quite unusual. I’m not sure if this is due to the snow (perhaps runway 14, which is normally in use for landings, has not been cleared) or if it was specifically requested by crew because it allows for a much shorter taxi time to the gate.

The E concourse, which is normally used for the non-Schengen flights, is currently in hibernation and all flights now depart from the D concourse on the B pier. This also means that there is currently no lounge available for Emirates passengers, as this is also located on the E concourse.

Immigration is swift. The e-gates are currently only available for citizens of Switzerland and Lichtenstein, though.

There’s a bit of a hold up with the luggage, and eventually we end up waiting for forty minutes before the first bags appear on the belt. I exit through customs and turn right, as instructed by the Emirates ground crew, in search of my driver.

Getting home

The chauffeur service is very well organised. In Zürich, Emirates works with a company called Blacklane. After I booked the service on the Emirates website, I received a mail from Blacklane directly, confirming the reservation. If you download their app and log in using the mail address and name used in the Emirates PNR, you can see the reservation with the contact details of the driver.

My driver today is a friendly young lady. She is quite petite and looks oddly out of place behind the steering of the enormous Mercedez. But she does a brilliant job and tells me not to worry about the copious amounts of snow everywhere. The drive back to Basel takes us a bit less than an hour and is very comfortable.

Conclusion

This has been an interesting trip for me. On the one hand, it made me realise just how much I’ve missed travelling. On my way from Dubai to Ras Al-Khaima we came across a group of camels standing in the middle of the road. I found the sight quite moving. Not necessarily because I’m particularly fond of camels, but because the experience perfectly captured what I enjoy about travel – the opportunity of doing and and seeing things you normally wouldn’t be able to. Having said that though, I can’t really say I enjoyed the trip – because with Covid 19 the outside world has become a hostile place to me.

Swiss International Air Lines, Airbus A 340-300 – First Class: Zürich to Dubai

Introduction

The day before my departure, I get a call from Swiss International Air Lines about my flight to Dubai. The friendly agent informs me that

  • there are no lounges open at Zürich Airport,
  • there is no First Class check-in available,
  • only Terminal 3 remains open in Dubai,
  • and therefore, SWISS will not provide a meet and greet service on arrival nor a lounge on departure from Dubai.

So basically, this means the SWISS First Class experience is going to be limited to the service on board.

Getting to the airport

The schedule for the SWISS flight to Dubai has changed. The flight now leaves at 16h15, instead of at noon, and arrives at the rather ungodly hour of 01:15. The flight also no longer continues on to Muscat from Dubai.

I take the 13h37 airport train from Basel’s Swiss railway station, which gets me into Zürich Airport at 15h04, slightly more than an hour before my flight to Dubai is scheduled to depart. With the Swiss Federal Council’s recommendation to do home office whenever possible, the trains are not so full these days. And so, today I have a whole carriage all to myself up until the last stop before the airport.

Check-in

My first stop is at the check-in counters in Zürich’s Terminal A. The lady checking me in is friendly. We have a brief chat behind the plexiglass screen and it turns out she and I worked for Swissair in the same building at the same time.

The check-in area is very quiet.

Airside & Boarding

The situation airside is not much better. Most of the restaurants are closed, except for those that are able to provide food for take away. A lot of the shops are closed as well. It’s quite sad to see, really.

The ramp outside isn’t all that busy either.

The E pier at Zürich airport has been shut down, with the stands there being used for aircraft storage. As a result, all long-haul flights are now serving the B pier, which has both a Schengen and non-Schengen area. The non-Schengen gates are on the lower D concourse.

I go through passport control and head one floor down to ground level – and the place is crawling with people. My flight is departing from D43, which is the last gate. There is a document check before you can enter the holding area. There is no social distancing, half the passengers just walk through, seemingly oblivious to the queues and the staff can only watch helplessly as the chaos unfolds. It’s not really their fault, although I think it is quite apparent that there simply isn’t enough staff on hand to properly manage the situation.

Boarding begins with a call for HON Circles, Senators and Star Gold members to board first. And immediately, the scrum begins… The picture below was taken even before the boarding call was made.

So I figure I might as well wait for the queue to disperse before heading on board. There is only one airbridge attached to the L2 door.

The Cabin

This is my first trip in SWISS First Class in a very long time and my first flight in the upgraded First Class seat with the sliding door. Generaly speaking, I think the seat is quite nice to look at. The first impression is good. But I also think the cabin looks a bit bland and, quite frankly, boring. And I suspect it will probably not age well either.

Storage space is good, though. There is place to store bags under the ottoman, and there’s also a drawer in the ottoman itself. More conveniently, there is a fairly large space in the side of the seat that is big enough to store a laptop.

Trying to find a position that is fully comfortable is not quite so easy, and the the pre-selected settings for sleeping and lounging are not much use. But the cool thing about the seat is that every part of it can be moved independently.

The seat offers a reasonable amount of privacy with its sliding doors, even though they don’t fully close. It’s not quite as private as the heavy curtains Air France has in its First Class cabin, but I think it’s better than nothing.

A pillow wrapped in plastic, a pair of slippers, a disinfectant towel and the vanity kit are already at my seat when I finally get on board.

First Class passengers are also given a voucher for 50MB of complimentary wifi during the flight, which doesn’t work all that well, though.

Welcome drink

As soon as I’m settled, the crew bring me the menus and offer me a drink. I have a glass of sparkling water, served with warm cashew nuts with herbs, which I don’t try.

By the time we push back, we’re already running forty minutes late. The flight time is announced at six hours. The first officer welcomes all passengers aboard and informs us that we’re going to have to make a stop at the de-icing pad on our way to the active runway and that as a result, we should expect a one hour delay on arrival in Dubai.

Even in these strange and troubling times, I take comfort in the fact that some things obviously never change… and the Airbus A 340-300 remains a really very bad climber. The engines spool up with an agonised howl and we gradually, slowly start picking up speed, until eventually we’re airborne.

The Meal

Once we settle into the cruise, the crew start their preparations for the meal service. My table it set with a crisp white table cloth.

Amuse bouche

To start off the meal, there is a mousse of gruyère cheese, served with a butter flûte in cumin. With that I have a glass of the Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle, which is a nice pairing. For the rest of the meal I have still water only.

Passengers have a choice of olive oil, butter or both to go with the warm bread.

The table is set with the wooden salt and pepper mills, which I find rather surprising, given the COVID19 situation. I would have thought they would have taken those out of use, at least temportarily.

First course

There is a wide selection of dishes to choose from for for the first course. Due to the restrictions in place, the first course is not plated in front of the passengers from a trolley any more. Instead, passengers order with the crew, who will then bring the plates out directly from the galley.

I go with the Balik salmon, served with crème fraîche, and the smoked char with a romanesco and cauliflower couscous and cauliflower cream. Both starters are really very good and of good quality.

Salad

The sald is lovely. It comes with caramelised apples, veal speck, pumpkin seeds and a pumpkin vinaigrette.

Main course

For the main course, again I go with the fish. And what an exceptionally good piece of fish it is! This must be one of the best main dishes I’ve ever had on a plane. The fish is perfectly cooked. It’s moist and not at all dry and the lemon beurre blanc is a smooth, velvety revelation. I am absolutely delighted!

The cheese

Let’s face it, by this time I’m already quite full. But I’ve always been a sucker for a nice bit of cheese. And so, when the friendly cabin crew comes to remove the main course and asks me if I’d like to try the cheese… a man is only so strong.

The plate is nicely presented on a round slate. The cheese on it are Tomme, Chèvre Frais, Vacherin, Gruyère Vieux and Bleu de Gruyère. The cheese is served with pear bread, warm buns and crackers. With that I have a glass of sweet white wine, the name of which I forget.

Dessert

I’m hoping I’ll be able to find a place to go for a jog during my stay in Dubai to pay for my sins… Yes, I confess. I have dessert too. And I’m not even all that ashamed of it either. Perhaps a little bit guilty. Dessert is mousse of white and dark Toblerone chocolate, served with slices of fresh orange and an orange sorbet. With that I have some Sirocco mint tea, which is served in an elegant, small tea pot.

To conclude the meal, the crew pass through the cabin with a box of Sprüngli pralines, which most passengers refuse. I ask the cabin crew if she knows what the individual ones are. To which she responds that she really doesn’t know. However, she offers me a deal, and tells me I can have as many of them as I like, as long as I promise to tell her what’s in them for future reference. And so it falls to me to help out the poor woman in her cluelessness. But I will not say how many I eventually end up having…

After the meal, I close the doors and extend the seat into a lounging position to read until we start our descent. The crew pass through the cabin a number of times with snacks. But I resist.

The crew

The crew on this flight are really good. They very strictly enforce the COVID19 measures and are quick to remind passengers to do the same. Apart from that though, I think they’re putting a lot of effort into making the best of a really shitty situation, by trying to make passengers comfortable and putting them at ease. Their interaction with the passengers is friendly and personal, but without ever crossing the line and being intrusive. And I think they do a good job. Throughout the flight the passengers in the First Class cabin are very well taken care of, and nothing seems to be too much effort for the crew.

Arrival

Eventually, we land in Dubai with a delay of about 45 minutes. It’s just coming up 2 o’clock in the morning when we touch down. I think this is the first time I’ve ever arrived into Dubai without there being any holding delays. The airport is very quiet. We taxi to the remotest remote stand they could have possible found, passing row after row of grounded Emirates aircraft. It’s actually quite upsetting to get a first hand glimpse of the extent of the fallout that has been caused by the pandemic.

The eight First Class passengers deboard first and are taken to Terminal 3 in a separate bus.

As we enter the terminal, I am struck by the silence and how eerily quiet the whole place is. Before I can head downstairs to arrivals, there is a checkpoint, where passengers have to show that they are holding a negative PCR test.

The e-gates for immigration have been closed, and all passengers have to go to one of the desks, where again they have to provide proof of a negative PCR test no older than 96 hours before they are allowed into the country.

Conclusion

This was an interesting experience with SWISS. I have to say, getting onto the plane is a hassle, as you struggle to maintain your social distance in the face of the blatant, and often times frustrating stupidity of the human race. You look at the way the passengers behave at the gate and wonder how we ever managed even to invent the wheel. No wonder some people believe that aliens built the pyramids…

But once you step on board, things improve – at least in First Class. The crew genuinely made an effort and I am honestly very thankful to them for that. This trip was unavoidable for me. I’m here to give another course that could not be postponed. Even so, I must say that this flight down to Dubai has made it clear to me that I will not be undertaking any further travels by air in the forseeable future, save for the flight back to Switzerland, and certainly not without vaccination.

Epilogue

Nearly eight months to the day after I contacted Lufthansa to request a refund of the ticket for my sabbatical in Australia, they finally managed to actually pay back the money that they owed me to my credit card.

I have to admit that I was not expecting ever to see the money I paid for that ticket again. Of course, I’m not complaining that I finally got the money back. But if I were Lufthansa, I think I’d be somewhat alarmed by the fact that their customers don’t even trust them enough anymore to refund money that rightfully belongs to them.

IATA, the airlines and airports have put a lot of time and effort in recent weeks into demonstrating that the risk of infection with the COVID19 virus aboard an airliner is minimal. And I’m willing to believe that’s probably even true. Some people are indeed reluctant to fly for health reasons. Others are likely very frustrated by the uncertainty of planning a trip due to the seemingly constantly chaning travel restrictions and entry requirements from one country to another. But I suspect that a large proporition of former customers are simply no longer willing to trust the airlines with their money. And frankly, I don’t blame them.

So instead of trying to prove to customers just how effective a HEPA filter on an aircraft can be, perhaps now would be a better time for airlines to show that they can be reliable and dependable partners that actually do put the customer first for a change.

Air France Platinum Service: Credit where Credit’s due

A few weeks ago, Air France sent me an email advising me that a booking I had pending with them had been cancelled as the result of the COVID19 pandemic. And then I promptly forgot about the booking.

At 10h30 this morning, I figured I needed to get myself and my reservations/cancellations sorted out. So I logged into my Air France account and requested a full refund of my ticket using the corresponding form in the PNR.

Just after 14h00 this afternoon, so the same day, I received two emails from Air France. One was an automated message confirming that the refund had been processed. The other was a message from an employee of the Air France Platinum hotline with more information about the refund process. My interaction with Air France was swift, efficient and very polite.

Thanks a lot Air France!

***

On 18 March 2020 I called Lufthansa to cancel a First Class ticket. It took me one hour of trying unsuccessfully to actually get on the line to Lufthansa, and then another hour before an agent could attend to me. Since then, I have called Luthansa three more times in this matter. The first time, I was told the refund was being processed as we speak, and I should expect to receive the money within days. Which evidently turned out to be a blatant lie. The second time I called, the agent told me she was “not trained well enough” to be able to tell be what the situation with the ticket was – but promised to call back the next day. Which never happened either, surprisingly. The third time I called, I had a really great guy on the phone – simply because I think he was the first employee of Lufthansa’s so far who was honest. Alas, he honestly could not tell me if and when I might get a refund… five months later I’m still none the wiser.

KLM Cityhopper, Embraer 190 – Economy Class: Amsterdam to Basel

Introduction

I spend two whole days in the Netherlands. And I must say, the change of scenery did me good. Back home the monotony of working from home seems to make my days just fly by. Which isn’t bad either, but it leaves you with a sense of everything being rushed, even when it’s not.

In Amsterdam I stayed at the CitizenM South, which I think is in a great location. It’s close to the the railway and metro station at Amsterdam Zuid and the tram line number 5, which takes you all the way into the city centre, stops just outside the hotel.

The staff at the hotel were really great, and did a brilliant job of trying to put visitors at ease and make them feel comfortable. Occupancy was only at 10%.

Amsterdam was very quiet and subdued. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it looking so calm and deserted. Of course, it probably didn’t help that the weather was atrocious during my visit…

Getting to the Airport

Trains between Amsterdam Zuid and Schiphol airport run frequently. The journey takes six minutes. The use of face masks is mandatory on public transport in the Netherlands right now.

The central plaza at Schiphol airport is very quiet. The place is usually crawling with clueless tourists trying to figure out how to purchase a ticket and which train to take. But not any more.

Only very few shops are open. It’s difficult to say though, if the closed ones are just opening later because of the reduced number of visitors to the airport, or if they are closed indefinitely.

Check-in

Check-in is surprisingly busy. The queue for security is quite long, and there is no longer a dedicated lane for SkyPriority passengers. Although I’m not sure if this may be due to the obvious construction that is going on.

I think the security check experience at Amsterdam really highlights the catch 22 the airlines and airports are facing right now: I would say most people in the queue were wearing face masks, but otherwise ignored the round markings on the floor indicating a distance of 1.5 metres. And in a way, I don’t blame them. Most of them looked like holiday makers that were probably relieved to finally get out and about and excited to travel again.

But that’s not the point and not so important. Ultimately, everyone must choose for themself if they want to play their part in bringing the situation under control or not. But Amsterdam, like many other hubs in Frankfurt, London or Paris, was built soley for the one purpose of operating a high performance hub, with many flights feeding a lot of passenger into their long haul networks. But right now, that seems rather difficult to reconcile with social distancing measures. First, because the airlines are all operating on a reduced schedule. This means that layovers at the transfer airports tend to be quite a bit longer than usual – which is precicely what the authorities are trying to prevent: a lot of people in a confined space for any length of time. And second, because Amsterdam Schiphol is probably already too small if the authorities were serious about properly implementing all the recommended social distanting measures – despite the diminshed network and the lower passenger volumes. As long as passenger numbers are down, the issue is manageable. But at airports arond the globe, the moment will come where the crowds will be too big to be kept under control.

The KLM Crown Lounge

The Crown lounge is open. It’s changed a lot since my last visit. The back part, which used to overlook the check-in area, is gone. Instead, the lounge has expanded sideways and now also covers an area which, I believe, was previously occupied by the Swissport lounge.

There is no longer a buffet in the lounge, and instead passengers have to queue at the bar to place their orders with one of the lounge attendants. Within the lounge, most people keep their masks on, perhaps only removing them to have a drink. As far as I can tell, there is hardly and food on offer.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight is from B02, which is a bus gate. Passengers are more or less evenly distributed across the two busses. The load is roughly 70 passengers.

The gate agents are very meticulous and stop anybody who tries to pass the gate without a mask. There’s a school class of mainly hormonal teenage boys. So as you can imagine, the gate agents have their work cut out before the last bus is finally allowed to leave for the aircraft…

The Cabin

There are two rows of Business Class, but only two seats on row 1 are occupied. I am on 3F, the first Economy Plus row. The whole row behind me is empty and there’s only one other passenger on 3A. So we’re good.

There’s a bit of a delay because of a technical issue that needs looking into, and for a moment I dread that next the pilot will have to inform us that we’ve missed out slots But then I chuckle to myself as it dawns on me that, very likely, it’ll be a few years before Amsterdam is restricted for slots again…

Eventually, we taxi out with a delay of about 15 minutes. As we turn on to the runway, I catch a glimpe of the new A pier, which is gradually nearing completion. Although I think it will still be a while before it is in it’s final configuration. Right now, there is still a categing facility between the A and the B pier, which will have to go sooner or later.

The Meal

The service is more or less the same as on the outbound: a small box with a cheese sandwich, a cookie and a tub of water. In addition, the crew distribute an information sheet by the Swiss federal government as well as a contact form for every passenger to complete in case anybody on the flight develops symptoms later on. The forms are collected by the ground agent upon disembarking.

Arrival

The flight time is one hour, most of which I Spend looking out the window. I’ve missed the view from the wing so, so much…

The weather in Basel is much better than in Amsterdam. We make our approach from the south, which means we come in right over the swimming pool where I usually do my laps. Which is convenient, because the place looks deserted from above. So I guess that answers what I’ll be doing this afternoon…

We land, and literally ten minutes later I’m already sitting in the bus on my way home.

Conclusion

So, this brings to a close my report on the new normal of air travel. I think it is likely that it will be at least another five to six years before the airline industry fully makes a recovery. Until then, I fear a lot of jobs will be lost and many airlines will pass on into history as yet another casualty of the pandemic. Especially the coming winter will not be easy.

For the airlines that survive though, I think it is important right now that they work on their reputation management. For the time being, people may not be travelling because of the uncertainties of travelling abroad. But sooner or later, the restrictions will ease. When that happens, it would serve the airlines well to have regained the trust and confidence of their customers, many of which have been rather badly treated by the airlines in recent months.

I appreciate that refunding all the unsued tickets all at once would probably have more or less grounded all airlines within days. Fair enough. But this voucher business the airlines are currently offering instead of a proper refund is, for the most part, a scam. Treating your customers badly has never been a good idea. Treating them like idiots only adds insult to injury.

KLM Cityhopper, Embraer 190 – Economy Class: Basel to Amsterdam

Introduction

125 days ago, I returned to Basel from giving a course in Luxembourg. The week after, I was scheduled to make one last trip to Luxembourg before heading off to Australia on sabbatical for six months. While in Australia, I should have made a side trip to Bangkok, and then another to Ulan Baatar via Singapore and Hong Kong. But then the world shut down – slowly, gradually and irrevocably.

And my world slowed to a pleasant, leisurely pace. I was fully expecting to miss the flying. I was also fully expecting to well and truly get on everybody’s nerves once the withdrawal symptoms kicked in. If the effort it took to get me off the pacifier when I was four years old was anything to go by, I was convinced this was not going to be pretty…

But 125 days later, my watch has left a pale mark on my bronzed wrist from all the cycling and swimming I’ve managed to do. My PhD is on track and in the peaceful tranquility of my own home I have been so much more productive than I ever could have been in an office full of people.

And now today, I am taking my first flight. I’m curious to see how much aviation has changed in just 125 days.

Getting to the airport

I leave my flat at 10:25 to catch the bus line 50 to the airport. The 10:33 service runs nonstop to the airport, although I’m not quite sure what the point is, because it’s not really any faster than the regular service.

Since Monday, 06 July 2020 it is a mandatory requirement to wear face masks on all public transport in Switzerland. So today is the first time I’m using public transport and therefore, also the first time I’ve had to use a face mask. I don’t want to argue about the merits or disadvantages of wearing one of these things. But… first, I think my face is too big for a standard issue face mask. If I pull it up to properly cover my nose, then my chin keeps slipping out the bottom and the mask rides up to uncover my mouth. If I pull it down, my nose is uncovered… And second, the mask is a bit of a nuisance if, like me, you have varifocals, because it pushes the glasses higher up on your nose. And as a result, you end up looking into the distance through that part of the lens which is actually intended for short distances. And my breath is making the glasses fog up too. So basically, in the sum of all things I kind of feel like something out of Gorillas in the Mist… but cross-eyed.

Sixteen minutes later we arrive at the departures level of the airport, and the other four passengers and I disembark.

There’s a sign at the entrance to the terminal, advising passengers that wearing a face mask is mandatory inside.

Check-in

I’ve checked in online. As a Platinum member with Air France KLM I can select any seat on the aircraft free of charge. Originally I was seated on row 7, which was the first row in the Economy Class cabin. A few days before departure though, KLM does the inventory for its flights, which means that they usually open up seats further up front once the final position of the cabin divider is decided. And so I move forward to row 2 at check-in.

Check-in is eerily quiet. It looks as though everyone just left abruptly and forgot to switch off the lights.

Airside

I don’t think I’ve ever been through security at Basel airport this quickly. There are hardly any passengers, and even with just the one line open, the staff still have plenty of time to check every passengers very carefully and still manage to have a enough time to chatter and gossip.

I think I always understood that magnitude of recent events and their impact on the aviation industry. But today is the first time I have the opportunity to witness the devastation up close. It’s really quite upsetting.

The beautiful Swissport lounge is closed.

Boarding

The only place with signs of life is gate 1, from where the flight to Amsterdam will be departing. I count a total of 77 passengers, which isn’t a bad seat load factor for an Embraer 190 with a capacity of about 90 seats. Although having said that, KLM is currently operating just the one flight to Basel, where previously they had four.

Boarding is by seat rows from the back of the plane and takes a lot longer to ensure there are no queues in the air bridge or in the cabin. KLM strictly enforces the use of face masks on its flights, and it is stated at the time of booking and in the confirmation e-mail that passengers without a mask will not be admitted to the flight.

The Crew

There are two cabin crew, one female and one male. I think it’s quite obvious they’re making an effort to appear as though this flight is business as usual, and I think they deserve a lot of credit for trying to do a good job in seriously adverse conditions. But I’m not sure it’s working. Because the atmosphere on board is subdued. Passengers are wary and tense, as though they’d much rather be somewhere else.

The Cabin

There is one row of Business Class on today’s flight, and the forward toilet is reserved for the crew only. All passengers are required to use the toilet in the rear of the aircraft.

The Meal

The flight time is one hour. As this is a lunchtime service, every passenger in Economy is given a small box with a packaged half of a cheese sandwich, a biscuit and some water. In addition to that, there is a separate drinks service from the trolley.

While I applaud KLM for their effort to maintain a standard level of service in these strange times, I think on such a short flight they might as well do away with the service for the time being. Either that, or they should provide disinfectant wipes to passengers. From what I can tell, not that many passengers actually touch the food.

I stash mine away to eat when I get to the hotel.

Arrival

We land in Amsterdam on time. There’s definitely a lot more traffic here than there was in Basel, but it’s still a far cry from what it used to be like not so long ago. What’s more, there are aircraft parked everywhere. And obviously they’re there for long term storage. It’s really quite sad to see.

At least since my last visit the construction of the new A pier at Amsterdam has progressed quite a lot, although I still don’t quite get what the final layout of the building will be.

Our flight pulls up to a stand at the B pier. The weather in Amsterdam is atrocious. It’s raining and much cooler than Basel.

There aren’t many passengers in the terminal, and most of the shops appear to be closed. Half the luggage belts in the arrivals hall are turned off permanently.

Conclusion

I must say, this flight today has been quite an eye opener. As I previously mentioned, I was already aware of the disastrous consequences the events of the last few months have had on the airline industry. But seeing the devastation up close from the passenger’s perspective is sobering and really quite depressing.

It is difficult to assess the current situation without coming across as being overly pessimistic. But right now, things are really not looking very good for the airline industry – despite the significant rescue packages some of them have received from their governments and the slow resumption of flights. It is common wisdom in the industry that the airlines earn most of their money during the peak summer months. What they don’t manage to earn during that period, they will not be able to recover in the slower winter season.

Air Malta – Boeing B 720B

Introduction

I am aware of the fact that for many people, the isolation that comes with social distancing is distressing and may be the cause of concern and anxiety; and by no means to I want to diminish or disregard the struggle of anyone finding it difficult to cope in the face of this unprecedented situation.

For me though, the pandemic has also had its good sides. It has certainly allowed me to slow down considerably, especially given how much travelling I was doing before the outbreak. And when I feel the need to escape the physical confines of the current situation, my happy place are the memories of the many places I have been fortunate enough to visit over the years. And of course, those memories tend to come with a very heavy dosage of airplanes and airports.

This blog post is not so much of a trip report. I’d rather avoid calling it a trip down memory lane too because that is just lame… But rather, when I went through the photos I am posting here, I kept wondering to myself ‘man, how on earth did they manage back then…?’. I like to think that in many years to come, people will look back on 2020 and think the same; and then come to the realisation that while perhaps nothing is still the same, at least it has changed for the better.

So, it’s 1987, 33 years ago. I’m a slightly awkward thirteen year-old adolescent. My face, or rather my upper lip, is covered in a dark, downy fluff which I’d like to get rid of. But rumour has it among the other boys at school that if I take my dad’s shaver to get rid of the stuff, it’ll only come back stronger, until eventually I’ll have it all over my face and will have to get rid of it on a daily basis – unless of course, I want to end up looking like captain caveman…

Buying a ticket

In 1987 the world wide web is still three years away. As such, tickets have to be purchased with a travel agent or directly with the airline by phone or by visiting one of their airport or town offices.

But at least for your efforts the airlines have the decency to provide you with a ticket wallet for your travel documents.

The airline ticket is something that exists independently of the flight booking or PNR. The ticket has a document number and a ticket number. The first three numbers are the airline designator. So in this case, 643 marks an Air Malta document. The airline ticket is a booklet with a maximum of four coupons, the passenger receipt and the audit coupon.

And yes, back in 1987 a hand-written ticket is actually quite normal, as long as the validator in the top right corner is visible. Bascally, every coupon in the ticket had a sheet of red carbon paper at the back, so what is written on the first page is printed on all subsequent pages too.

In Economy Class there are only few different booking classes, such as the APEX, PEX, SUPERPEX and Full fare. The main difference between the PEX fares and the full fare is that the fomer have a restricted validity period, for example one month from the date of original departure.

Check-in

In the absence of computers or a check-in system, in Malta at least, check-in is done completely manually. Which means that first the station prints a passenger list with all the names. Then a twin desk of counters opens for check-in, with two agents sharing large sheets of papers with small stickers on them with seat numbers. To issue the boarding pass, the check-in agent first peels off the sticker and stamps it to an empty boarding pass. Then they write down the seat assignment on the passenger list. Check-in closes when there are no stickers left or all the names have been ticked off…

The Boeing B 720

When the Maltese government decided to set up its own airline, it soon realised there was no expertise on the island to do so. Initially, the tender to support the government in setting up an airline was supposed to go to Pan Am. But then at the last moment Pakistan International Airline made a bid that was simply too good to refuse – because it also included three used Boeing B 720s. At the time, the offer faced a lot of opposition in Malta, because it was obvious that the aircraft PIA was offering Air Malta were already quite old. Even so, the Maltese government went ahead and in April of 1974, Air Malta set up operation. Later on, they would purchase two more of the type from Western Airlines to operate a total of five aircraft. The Boeing B 720 remained with Air Malta until 1989, when they were replaced with a fleet of six factory new Boeing B 737-200s.

I more or less grew up with the Boeing B 720. We lived in St. George’s bay, which is quite near the airport in Malta. The P&W JT3D-1 turbofan engines were outrageously loud by today’s standard and made a very distinct noise that sounded a lot like a whistle. As such, they were rather hard to miss.

I always enjoyed the B 720 because it felt very solid, as though it was built to last. But as a child you don’t realise or understand that nothing lasts for ever. When I was young I was always keen to try out new aircraft when we travelled as a family. When Air Malta started taking delivery of the B 737s, I would always hope there would be an aircraft change and that we’d get one of those instead of the rickety old 720s. But today I must say, I really miss the aircraft.

Catering

Back in those days, catering was not one of Air Malta’s fortes, and quite frankly they could have done without asking your for beef or chicken, because most of the time it was impossible to identify what was on the tray in front of you anyway. I haven’t got any photos of Air Malta meals from back then, but I did find some interesting ‘accessories’ in my archives.

Conclusion

Air Malta is now 46 years old, like me. After the Boeing B 720 and the B 737-200 the company went on to operate the B 737-300, -400 and -700, the B 727-100 and -200, the BAe ATP, the Avro RJ70, the Airbus A 310-200, and a few wet-leased types. Right now, the company is in the process of replacing its A 320 fleet with the A 320NEO. It remains to be seen how Air Malta will weather the storm, especially given that tourism is Malta’s bread and butter and the airline’s main role is to deliver fresh tourists to the island.

The BAe ATP and the Airbus A 310 are the only two types operated by Air Malta that I never flew on with the airline. The B 737s were always fine. The Avro RJ70 was dreaful and so cramped it really was nothing short of a human rights violation. But the Boeing B 720B will always be the best of the lot. Probably not just beause it dates back to an era when airlines simply saw now need to have to pack in the tourist and could therefore afford to give passengers at least some comfort – even in Economy Class. But I also think I will always be very fond of the B 720B because I associate it with summer holidays at the beach in Malta.

Kruisheren Hotel

The building housing the monastery of the Crutched Friars of the Order of the Holy Cross in the beautiful city of Maastricht is one of only very few buildings in the Netherlands build in the Gothic tradition that remains intact in its entirety.

In 2003 what used to be the monastery was sold to a hotel group and turned into the Kruiserenhotel, which is also a member of the Design Hotels. The hotel lies in a central location just off the main square of the town and about twenty minutes walk from the main railway station.

Once you are inside the hotel, there is a large outdoor courtyard that is closed off on all sides and is very serene and quiet. Generally speaking, there is something very grand and imposing about the place that constantly has you feeling you really should be whispering.

The hotels’s public area with the resturant and bar are probably the most spectacular features of the hotel. In the bar, the decor is kept in plush, extravagant dark red velvet that clashes dramatically with the austere lines of the gothic architecture.

The restaurant sits on top of the bar and here the decor is kept simple, presumably so as not to distract from the spectacular ceiling that gives an impression of infinity in the abesence of any other visual references to gauge the height. Which is probably the effect they were already aiming for when it was still a church.

There are sixty rooms in the hotel. The decor is something you may like or you may not. The contrast is certainly interesting between the bright decorations and the vaulted gothic ceilings in the building. A lot of the hotel’s design is dictated by the fact that when work started to turn the building into a hotel, they were not permitted to alter the structure. As such, anything that was added had to be inserted to the existing buildings.

All in all, the rooms at the Kruisheren are fairly small, after all the rooms were built for modesty and not opulence. But the hotel is comfortable, and even if you’re not staying, it’s definitely worth a visit.

The food at the hotel is very good and dining in a church is an interesting experience. They have a tasting menu which is extensive and probably safe even for the pickiest eater, because they will adapt the menus to suit your preferences.

SAS, Economy Class – Boeing B 737-600: Stockholm Arlanda to Zürich

This post isn’t so much of a trip report as it is a commentary. The Boeing B 737 is the most successful jet airliner in aviation history, with a total of more than 10’500 aircraft of the type built. It is currently in its fourth generation with the ill-fated B737 Max, the future of which does not look too bright in the wake of the two fatal accidents more than two years ago.

The B 737 was originally built to operate from small airports with limited infrastructure. This meant that the aircraft’s layout required it not to be too high off the ground for better access for the service vehicles and for the possibility to incorporate a set of retractable passenger stairs.

The result was an aircraft with a short, stuby appearance. It is most easily recognisable by the fact that the engines had to be mounted directly under the wing in order to maintain enough clearance to the ground and thus to avoid them becoming contaminated by ingesting debris lying on the ground.

Over the years, the B 737’s fuselage has been stretched a number of times. The wing has also been modified, together with new avionics and more powerful engines. The original B 737-100 was only 29 metres long. Today, the longest version of the type is the B 737-900 at 42 metres.

The B 737-600 is a bit of a squirt, at just 31 metres length. It is also the least successful model of the B 737 series, with only 69 aircraft ever built. Of those 69 aircraft, only about half remain in active service in 2020. Part of the -600’s problem was that it was simply too heavy for the number of passengers it was able to carry, which might also explain why it is the only version of the B 737 for which the manufacturer did not offer the option to have winglets, which would only serve to make the aircraft even more overweight.

SAS was the first and, at one time, the largest operator of the B 737-600, with a fleet of 30 units that were ordered mainly for domestic operations in Sweden. Their intention had been to replace part of their fleet of old DC-9s and MD-80s with the -600. The Scandinavian airline decommissioned its last B 737-600 in 2019.

The much more elegant MD-80 that the B 737-600 ought to have replaced…

For the passenger though, the -600 had a lot to offer in terms of comfort, because the cabin of the B 737 in general is much wider than that of other hundred seaters currently in the market, such as the Embraer 195 or the A 220. At least on the -600 there were hardly ever any issues finding a place to store your hand luggage in the overhead bin. As such, it made for a rather pleasant ride on the sector such as Stockholm to Zürich, which has a flight time of slightly more than two hours.

On the face of it, the benefits of having a standard model aircraft for a specific type of mission and then offering it in different models in varying sizes makes a lot of senses, especially in terms of crew training, planning flexibility and maintenance. And for the larger of the B 737 types, that obviously seems to have worked rather well. But the -600 also shows that at the bottom end of the scale, there comes a point where the benefits from having cockpit commonality and sharing parts with other types can no longer make up for the fact that you are, at the end of the day, carrying around with you a lot of dead weight that directly translates in the amount of kerosene you have to upload. That was pretty much the also experience Airbus made with its mini Airbus A 318, of which only 80 were built.