Easyjet, Economy – A 320: London Gatwick to Basel

Introduction

This one may surprise a few people. I know two of my assistants at work were stunned when I told them what I was planning. It’s frightening how well they know me. But yes, there you have it: I’m flying EasyJet. It’s been a few years since I last flew them and recently I had found myself contemplating taking another flight with them, simply to see how the intervening years had treated EasyJet. And then suddenly, out of the blue the opportunity arose.

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Getting to the Airport

Transport: Gatwick Express Train
Departs from: Victoria Station
Frequency: Every 15 minutes
Journey time: 30 minutes on the nonstop trains
Fare: GBP19.90 for a single

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I take the Victoria Line tube from Oxford Circus to Victoria Stations, which is the second stop after Green Park. At Victoria the Gatwick Express is clearly signposted and there are dedicated ticket machines and counters on the platforms, so there’s no need to queue with all the other travellers.

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The journey on the Gatwick Express is a pleasant one. As it makes its way south, the train passes through the suburbs of London, until eventually the urban sprawl that makes up London gives way to rolling hills with juicy greens fields.

Check-in

Location: North Terminal
Facilities: Web App, web check-in, check-in counters
Counters: There is a dedicated check-in area for Easyjet at the south end of the North Terminal

Easyjet operates out of both the South Terminal and North Terminal. Flights operating with a flight number starting with 5 depart from the South Terminal, while flights starting with an 8 depart from the North Terminal.

I shall be departing from the North Terminal today. To access the facility, there is an automated train that leaves from a station adjacent to the railway station for the main line trains to and from London. The journey takes about two minutes. Once you’re inside the terminal, head one floor up for check-in and departures.

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Airside

There is none. Actually, I’m only starting to realise just now how incredibly boring and inconvenient travelling is when you haven’t got a lounge to use – no free wifi, uncomfortable seats and no peace and quiet. I wouldn’t mind just sitting in a corner at the gate reading my Kindle, but alas in Gatwick the departure gates are only announced about 20 minutes before departure.

Other than that, it’s really quite amazing really, airside the North Terminal looks and feels more like a shopping mall than an airport- quite a contrast to Sofia airport, which looks abandoned.

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Boarding

Our flight is departing from gate 111, which is in the satellite terminal. Access to the satellite is via a bridge over the taxiway, which gives you a bird’s eye view of the airfield – this is pretty cool me thinks. Sorry about the bad quality of the pictures from the bridge. The sun was working against me this morning, and so were the dirty windows…

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Gatwick uses closed gates, but at least you don’t have to go through security again to enter the holding pen. Boarding starts with a call for passengers with children, passengers in need of assistance and passengers who’ve booked speedy boarding. There’s a bit of a hold up in the airbridge because the crew isn’t quite ready yet. Apparently there was some last minute change and the aircraft now flying to Basel should originally have been going to Geneva instead.

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The Cabin

Configuration: 3 + 3
Seat: 1F, later moved to 1D
Facilities: NIL
Audio and Video: NIL

I’m sitting on the first row, on the right side of the aircraft, opposite the galley. Of course you have much more legroom on the left side, seeing as there is no bulkhead or cabin divider. Then again, if you’re sitting on 1A, the container with the evacuation slide can get in your way. The flight appears to be nearly full this morning. From what I can tell, the only seats left empty are in the first two rows. There is one person by the window on each side of row two and we’re two persons on the right side of row one. The left three seats are empty. The cabin is in excellent condition.

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The Crew

There are three cabin crew on the flight this morning. All of them are French, from what I gather. They’re not incredibly friendly I’d say, but they are very professional in the way they go about their duties. The safety on board demonstration is taken very seriously and the crew are conscientious in the way they conduct the pre-departure check.

The Meal

Catering on Easyjet is buy on board or bring your own. I have a blueberry muffin and a cappuccino for GBP3.60, which isn’t bad I think. Easyjet has quite a selection of food and drinks, including some hot items like a croque monsieur.

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Arrival

We land in Basel on time. And of course it’s raining, which is hardly surprising given my track record. It’s quite cool too. Our aircraft parks on the Schengen side of the terminal, so we are bussed the short distance to the other side, where the arrivals entrance for non-Schengen flights is located.

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Getting into Town

As I exit the building, a line 50 bus is already waiting and will be leaving in five minutes. Perfect!

It’s been quite a while since my last Easyjet experience. So how did they compare on this trip compared to back then? In the sum of all things, I think Easyjet has made a few minor adjustments to its model but with maximum impact. The fact that they assign seats now for everybody, and little perks like speedy boarding and advanced seat reservations make the experience with Easyjet a lot more pleasant than it used to be, at least for me.  I hope nobody at Easyjet who reads this will hold it against me, because I mean it as a compliment, but all in all I think that they’ve become just like all the other airlines in Economy Class in Europe these days, no better and no worse.

British Airways, Club Class – A 320: Sofia to London Heathrow

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Introduction

I rather like Sofia. It’s a bit hard to explain. I like that fact that it’s much smaller than Bucharest, so the place feels a lot quieter and more relaxed. Moreover, there is a city centre which has a very open feel to it. There are many large squares and grand boulevards lined with some very beautiful architecture.

The heart of the city is the Nevsky Cathedral, which dominates the scene with its golden domes. The cathedral reminds me a lot of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which is obviously much larger and older. Even so, as you step inside the Nevsky Cathedral you get a pretty good idea of what the Hagia Sophia must have looked like before it was converted into a mosque.

I spend Saturday walking around the city in the pouring rain. Of course it would be so much nicer if the weather were fine and you could see the mountains, but in the rain the city has quite an atmosphere.

And just in case you were wondering, the food in Sofia is lovely. On the Saturday evening I have dinner at a place called the Spaghetti kitchen, which is just around the corner from the hotel, in an area with lots of restaurants and bars. In any case, I can highly recommend the Spaghetti kitchen. The staff are a bit reserved, but the quality of the food is good. And the portions are rather substantial as well. If you have a sweet tooth, I’d go with the chocolate soufflé.

So before we turn to the flying part of this review, allow me to share with you some pictures of Sofia.

Nevsky Cathedral. This is the view from my room.
Nevsky Cathedral. This is the view from my room.
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The main drag with all the shops. So where are all the shoppers? This was taken just before noon on Saturday
The main drag with all the shops. So where are all the shoppers? This was taken just before noon on Saturday
I'm only happy when it rains, I'm only happy when it's complicated. And even though you can't appreciate it, I'm only happy when it rains (Garbage)
I’m only happy when it rains, I’m only happy when it’s complicated. And even though you can’t appreciate it, I’m only happy when it rains (Garbage)
The excellent Street bar and Co - really very friendly staff and with free wifi
The excellent Street bar and Co – really very friendly staff and with free wifi
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And now I think it’s to my for me to leave. I hope I’ll be back some day, preferably when the weather is better though.

Getting to the Airport

Transport: Bus Nr. 84
Departs from: Sofia University
Frequency: More or less every 20 minutes, depending on traffic
Journey time: Between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on traffic
Fare: Purchase the tickets with the driver, if you can…

Sofia University Metro station, from where the bus for the airport leaves, lies in close proximity to Nevsky Cathedral and the Radisson Blu hotel. Theoretically you can buy your tickets directly from the bus driver as you board the vehicle. But he may not be in the mood to issue a ticket, in which case you travel for free, courtesy of the Sofia public transport system.

One of the city’s metro lines is currently being extended, apparently it should reach the airport by 2015.

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Check-in

Location: Terminal 2
Facilities: Multipurpose self-service check-in machines, dedicated British Airways counters
Counters: Counters 30 – 34, with 33 and 34 dedicated to Club Class and status card holders

There are two terminals at Sofia airport. Terminal 1 is the original building from 1937, which has since undergone several renovations and expansions. Today Terminal 1 is home to all low cost carriers and charter airlines operating to and from Sofia. All other traffic uses Terminal 2, including British Airways.

I check in using the British Airways App. But apparently Sofia is not a mobile check-in destination, so I opt to collect my ticket at the airport.

The check-in counters and the ticket counter at Sofia airport only open two hours prior to departure of the flight, which means at around 12:30 – or thereabouts… It’s just before 12:30 when I arrive, I’m a bit early today, so I decide to try checking in at one of the machines. Just beware that if you check-in at one of the machines in Sofia, you will need to present the credit card with which you paid for the original ticket. Otherwise the machine will not check you in and you will be sent to one of the manned check-in desks.

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With my boarding pass in hand, I head one floor up to the security check and emigration. There are a few things strike me as being just a tad unusual here at Sofia airport. On the one hand, the facility looks fairly new and modern. At the same time though, the entire building is incredibly badly lit and the television screens hanging from the ceilings look like a relict from the 1990s, when the airport hadn’t even been built yet. The other thing that strikes me, is that the facility is nearly completely deserted. It’s just empty. But it’s not only that there are no passengers, the building is empty. There is a transfer desk with three empty desks, of which one doesn’t even have a computer, screen or a telephone. And there are just lots of empty spaces, where other airports would have long placed an averagely sized shopping mall.

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The Lounge

Location: After emigration turn right, it’s lounge 2
Type of Lounge:
Contractor lounge operated by Sofia airport
Facilities:
There are no toilets in the lounge, there is a limited selection of cold and hot drinks, cold snacks.
Internet:
Free wifi is available, with the longest password I’ve ever seen in an airport lounge

There are three lounges at Sofia airport. Lounge 1 is the Swissport lounge, which seems to serve Bulgaria Air and all the Star Alliance carriers operating into Sofia. And then there’s lounge 2, which serves everybody else. The other lounge is one floor down and appears to me some sort of arrival lounge.

The lounge is fairly small, but it serves its purpose. Theoretically you need a lounge invitation to access the lounge, which I don’t have because I checked in at one of the machines. But this does not appear to be a problem. The lounge dragon makes a quick phone call downstairs to check-in and subsequently welcomes me to the terminal.

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Boarding

Boarding for the flight is announced 50 minutes before departure. Boarding announcements are made in the lounge. Keep in mind though, that Sofia has closed gates so in fact boarding simply means that the gate is open. Incidentally, should you suddenly feel the call of nature once you’re inside the boarding gate, there’s no need to worry – there are toilets.

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Boarding is a bit messy and there isn’t really a boarding call as such. Passengers requiring assistance and passengers with children are invited to board first, but this only results in a general scrum for boarding, with passengers allowed to board indiscriminately.

The Cabin

Configuration: 2 + 2, the middle seat is left empty
Audio and Video: Video screens that drop down from the overhead bins, however these remain closed during the flight and are only used at the beginning of the flight to show the safety on board demonstration video.

The aircraft has your standard British Airways Club Class cabin and seat. But I notice that this bird has the new type of lockers for the overhead bins, so I’m not sure if this is just a newer addition to the fleet or if perhaps it’s an ex-BMI bird. With a flying time of three hours, there are also pillows and blankets at every seat in Business Class. There are four rows of Business Class on this today, and as fare as I can tell, all 16 seats are taken.

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The Crew

The cabin crew consists of four persons, three males and a female purser. All of them are slightly past middle-age. They’re not particularly rude, but they’re not exactly gushing either.

While we’re still on the ground, the crew distribute the menus for the flight and hot towels. The latter are rather flimsy, in fact they’re pretty pathetic compared to the plush ones I got on Air Serbia.

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The Meal

Welcome drink on the ground: No
Hot towel before the meal: Yes, before departure
Pre-meal drink:
Yes
Choice:
Chicken or seafood; dessert or cheese
Delivery:
traditional tray service
Appearance:
Like something the cat dragged home and spat out on the carpet
Type of meal:
Menu:
Menus are distributed before departure

  1. seasonal salad with olive oil and balsamico
  2. chicken, leek and mushroom casserole with roast new potatoes
  3. crackers and cheese
  4. ginger ale to drink

We begin with a drinks round right after take-off. I have a ginger ale, which is served with a packed of mixed nuts. I am reminded of Air Serbia, where the nuts are served warm and in a ramekin and by a friendly young flight attendant who addresses you by your name.

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The meal service is a bit strange. First of all, the meals have been heated up in plastic containers covered with tinfoil. The flight attendant asks me if I’m having chicken or seafood. I decide to go with the chicken. So she takes one of the plastic containers, removes the foil and spills the whole concoction into the ceramic plate on my tray. The procedure looks and sounds a lot like what used to happen to my cat Boozey when she’d had too much cat nip…

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But seriously, what’s wrong with these people? Of course, I know it’s a casserole and all, so everything is mixed up anyway. But on a flight with a block time of three hours, surely the flight attendant could have prepared the meals individually in the galley. Perhaps if she’d done that, the passengers would also have been able to enjoy their drinks with the meal, rather than after it, because she first served everybody their meal before returning to the galley and coming back out again with the drinks trolley.

Once the main meal is over, the dishes from the main course are removed. There is a choice of apple tart or cheese to end the meal. I decide to go with the cheese, assuming that this will be served, as announced on the menu, with crackers. I’ve already demolished the ones that were on the tray when it first arrived. But unfortunately I am mistaken – no crackers. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t occur to the flight attendant to offer me some more bread, despite the fact that the bread basket is sitting in the galley, still quite full – I notice it later on my way to the toilets.

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Arrival

Good heavens, the weather is really bad here and it’s only just before we touch down that the ground comes into view. I think I’m cursed or something!

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Most of British Airways’ flights – including the one to and from Sofia – arrive and depart from Terminal 5. There quite a queue for immigration, but fortunately I have a biometric passport, which significantly speeds up the process.

Getting into Town

Transport: Heathrow Express Train
Departs from: The basement of Terminal 5
Frequency: Every 15 minutes
Journey time: 15 minutes
Fare: GBP21 for a single journey, which is quite pricey for a trip of only 15 minutes

I take the train into London. The Heathrow Express has a very good app with which you can also buy tickets. You will receive an e-ticket confirmation by mail. In addition, if you’ve got passbook, the ticket will be saved in that app as well.

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The express serves Paddington station. From there you can connect onto the Bakerloo tube line, which takes you to the heart of the West End. I alight at Oxford Circus, from where it’s just a short walk to the Masala Zone restaurant behind Carnaby Street. I’m in the mood for a thali.

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TAROM, Economy Class – ATR-42: Bucharest to Sofia

Introduction

This will be an interesting one. This one also confirms that I really am a nerd. Originally, the main objective of my eastern adventure had been to sample the Qatar Airways service between Bucarest and Sofia, which is operated with an A 320. But then when it came down to planning the trip, the prospect of trying out a combination of a new type with a new carrier got the better of me. And so, instead, I booked TAROM.

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Of course it’s pouring with rain here in Bucharest. I mean, what is it with me and the bad weather? I feel like I’m being stalked. In Montreal it was agonisingly cold, with temperatures around -17 degrees Celsius, while back home in Basel apparently the weather was quite pleasant. Everybody at ICAO kept telling me it was exceptionally cold. Oh really…?

And then there was Portugal and the Azores, where it rained more or less nonstop for an entire week, from the moment I arrived on Sunday afternoon until I left again the following Saturday. Everybody kept assuring me that this was really quite unusual for Lisbon and the Azores. Well, whatever. And actually Poland wasn’t much better either, although at least there it only actually rained once. But still, the weather was not pleasant.

Worse still, I’m waiting to be served at reception to check out of my room. The guy in front of me is just checking in. He’s talking to this other guy and I over hear him saying ‘…so yes, I just arrived from Sofia…at least it’s much warmer here in Bucharest, but apart from that the weather was pretty similar to here…’. Well that’s just charming.

The problem with Bucharest in the rain is that it’s nearly impossible to avoid getting wet. If you walk too close to the buildings, you end up getting showered from the faulty drains splashing and splattering all over the pavement. If however, you walk too close to the edge of the pavement, you end up getting sprayed by a passing car. The potholes they have in Bucharest quickly turn the city into a lake when it rains.

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Getting to the Airport

Transport: Bus
Departs from: University
Frequency: Every 10 to 15 minutes depending on traffic
Journey time: 30 to 40 minutes, again depending on traffic
Fare: 3.5 Lei one way

The bus to the airport can be rather crowded if you board at one of the intermediate stops. So if you don’t fancy standing for 40 minutes in heavy, stop-start traffic, then perhaps a taxi is more for you.

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Check-in

Location: Ground floor
Facilities: Self-service check-in
Counters: Dedicated SkyPriority counters

I managed to do online check-in the evening before. The only problem is that you can only print the boarding pass, there is no Tarom App yet and no SMS with a weblink to the boarding pass, not matter what the Tarom website tries to tell you. So upon arrival at the airport I head straight for one of the many self-service devices. The machine even recognises my passport, only to inform me however, that I have already checked in. Yes, I was aware of the fact, thanks.

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So eventually I have no choice but to head for one of the SkyPriority counters, where a grumpy but very friendly ground agent re-issues my boarding pass together with an invitation to access the Tarom Business Class lounge.

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The TAROM Business Class Lounge

Location: On the second floor, above departures
Type of Lounge:
Tarom Business Class lounge
Facilities:
Toilets outside the lounge, cold and hot drinks, in terms of food there are only snacks to nibble on, like crisps or salty peanuts, and yoghurt
Internet:
Free wifi (with password)

Access to the lounge is only granted if you are holding a lounge invitation for that particular day, so although you may not need to make a stop at one of the check-in counters, if you want to access the lounge, you have to.

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The lounge itself is in the ceiling of the terminal building and offers some excellent views of the ramp and of the arriving aircraft. I like the design and layout of the lounge, but the food and drink options really are very limited. Eventually I get hungry, so I exit the lounge and get myself a sandwich from one of the many shops in the food court one floor down.

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Boarding

Our flight will be boarding from gate 28 today, which is one of the bus gates. The load is pretty light and there are only 23 passengers on the bus as we make our way to the aircraft, plus a further passenger with impaired vision, who is brought to the aircraft separately ahead of the other passengers.

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The Cabin

Configuration: 2 + 2
Seat: 7A, later moved to 2A
Pitch:
Width:
Facilities: NIL

The cabin on this bird is in pretty good condition. With the light load I decide to move forward from 7A to 2A, which is the bulkhead row on the left side of the aircraft so I have an unobstructed view. There is only a row 1 on the right hand side of the aircraft, which faces row 2. I’ve only ever sat backwards on a plane once, that was on a BA Boeing 747-400 from JFK to Heathrow. I thought it was rather cool.

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The Crew

There are two cabin crew on today’s flight. A woman who is in her late thirties I’d say. She’s very professional, polite and friendly. There’s something very charming about the woman, despite her somewhat stern expression and the tightly pulled back hair she wears in a pony tail.

The other cabin crew is what appears to be a pubescent boy and quite frankly, I think he really couldn’t care less. Except perhaps for the young lady on 3F. Sometimes I really wish I spoke more languages. Quite obviously he knows the young lady, or at least he’s trying to get to know her better, as in way better. Which is okay, it’s just that he seems to have forgotten there are a few other passengers on board as well. Apart from that, I find it all just a bit disconcerting. I mean, this guy looks as if he doesn’t even shave yet, which makes it seem all the stranger that he should be so obviously trying to chat up one of the lady passengers. I think I’m getting old…

The Meal

Welcome drink on the ground: NIL
Towel before the meal: Towel served with the meal
Pre-meal drink:
NIL
Choice:
NIL
Delivery:
In a plastic bag
Appearance:
Neat and tidy
Type of meal:
Snack

  1. packed cheese sandwich
  2. packet of salty peanuts
  3. apple juice to drink

Much to my surprise, Tarom serve food in Economy Class on this flight. I wasn’t actually expecting to be given anything. The meal is served in a neat opaque plastic bag for you to place all the rubbish in. I kind of like the idea, it looks very neat and tidy.

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The cheese sandwich is rather tasty, and contrary to my expectations the bread is not stale or rubbery. The packet of peanuts is rather substantial.

Arrival

Of course it’s raining when we arrive. What else when I’m travelling. I think Sofia must be surrounded by some quite high hills or mountains, but with the low clouds you can’t really make out anything.

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Getting into Town

Transport: Hotel shuttle
Departs from: Arrivals
Frequency: Upon request
Journey time: 15 minutes
Fare: Complimentary, depending on the room type
In Sofia I’m staying at the Radisson Blu, which is right opposite the Nevsky cathedral. If you advise the hotel in advance they will come and pick you up at the airport. I’m staying in a junior suite, which has the airport transfer included in the rate.

Epilogue

I quite like the hotel. My room has a large balcony overlooking the square and the cathedral. If it were sunny, you might even be able to sit outside and enjoy the view. I know, you can always dream…

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Air Serbia, Business Class – Boeing B 737-300: Belgrade to Bucharest

Introduction

I just arrived in Belgrade on an Air Serbia flight from Zürich. This is not my first visit to Belgrade but it shall be the first time I transit at Belgrade airport.

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Transfer in Belgrade

Transferring at Belgrade airport could hardly be easier. As you exit the airbridge you immediately find yourself airside. Owing to the size of the facility, and also probably to its age, arriving and departing passengers are not segregated at Belgrade airport.

The airport appears to be undergoing renovation at the moment. There is the nice shiny, new part at the heart of the terminal complex and then, the farther away you move from the centre, the shabbier the place becomes. But I think it will look rather nice once the entire facility has been completed.

In any case, I was issued with the boarding pass for my onward connection to Bucharest when I checked in this morning in Zürich, so I guess I might as well head straight for the lounge.

The Lounge

Location: The lounge is located close to gate A1 in the newly refurbished part of the terminal
Type of Lounge:
Contractor lounge operated by Belgrade airport
Facilities:
Cold food (salad bar) and hot and cold drinks, toilets are located in the lounge but there are no showers
Internet:
Free wifi, but a password is required

The lounge has a very modern feel to it and the selection of food and drinks is quite good. The only downside, as far as I can tell, is that this is the only lounge available to serve all the airlines operating to Belgrade. As a result, the place is probably already a bit too small, which is also why I didn’t take that many pictures.

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Boarding

Do not let the FIDS mislead you! Or your boarding pass for that matter. A quick glance at my boarding pass confirms that apparently boarding starts one full hour before departure. This is confirmed when I check the FIDS for my flight and the status is already at ‘go to gate’ even more than an hour before departure.

Belgrade uses a closed gate system. In order to access the gate area or holding pen, you have to go through security first, and quite obviously they want to make sure passengers don’t arrive late. In any case, there’s no queue anymore when I arrive at the gate roughly 35 minutes before departure. But there isn’t any space to sit left either. It’s standing room only.

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On a positive note however, it would appear that the new shiny A 319 that was scheduled to operate this flight today has been substituted with a Boeing B 737-300. And as the icing on the cake, she’s even an albino. Completely white, with only the registration revealing her origins. Normally I would consider this a downgrade. But I think the B 737 is on its way out with Air Serbia since Etihad took over. And the B737-300 is slowly becoming rare in Europe, so for me this really is a stroke of luck!

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The Cabin

Configuration: 3 + 3 with the middle seat left empty in Business Class
Seat: 2F
Pitch:
Width:
Facilities: None
Audio and Video: NIL

This is much more like what I’m familiar with. The usual euro-style Business Class with the middle seat left empty. The seats look vaguely familiar and I find myself wondering if this bird perhaps once flew for Lufthansa in a previous life, many moons ago. But apart from that, everything is the same as on the previous flight. Including the blanket and red pillow at every seat.

Once more though, I’m not sitting on the seat I was originally booked on, this time I’m on 2F instead of 1C. But never mind.

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There are two rows of Business Class, with seven of eight seats taken. And by the looks of it, the seat fairy has done her magic again and I’m the only passenger to have a whole row to himself. Jay!

The Crew

The crew on this flight are a lot like the previous one: very friendly and chatty, cracking jokes with the passengers in a very charming and disarming manner. One of the young ladies is quite flirty, a fact which does not escape most of the male passengers – and their girlfriends…

The Meal

Welcome drink on the ground: Yes, freshly squeezed orange juice
Hot towel before the meal: Yes, rose scented hot towel served on the ground
Pre-meal drink:
No, due to the short flight time
Choice:
Vegetarian or meat
Delivery:
Individual tray service
Type of meal:
Light snack with dessert
Menu:
No
Meal:

  1. two sandwiches filled with fresh vegetables and grilled aubergine
  2. skewer of fruit
  3. coffee

Once boarding is completed, little miss flirty comes through the cabin with hot rose scented towels and takes orders for pre departure drinks. Again I have a fresh orange juice.

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There are two cabin crew working the Business Class cabin on this flight, presumably to speed things up on such a short sector.

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After take-off orders are taken for drinks and food, and a short while later the tray appears. I’m quite impressed that even for such a light meal Air Serbia will place a table cloth on the tray table.

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The two sandwiches hit the spot nicely and the fruit tastes fresh and juicy. As the purser removes my tray, he asks me if I enjoyed the meal and if there’s anything else I’d like. So I ask for a coffee, not quite sure if I’ll get one, given the fact that we’re already descending towards Bucharest by this time. But all he has to say about the fact is ‘Of course, milk and sugar?’ And a short while later my coffee appears with a last rose scented hot towel.

Arrival

There isn’t really much to say about our arrival into Bucharest, it’s quite a bumpy approach with the strong wind. That’s all.

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Getting into Town

Transport: Bus
Departs from: One floor down from arrivals
Frequency:
Journey time: 30 – 40 minutes
Fare: 7 Romanian Leu for a return ticket, you have to purchase a chargeable card from the ticket booth at the far end of the pavement, outside the terminal.

I’m staying at the Radisson Blue in Bucharest. The easiest way to get there is by bus line 783. The journey time varies considerably, depending on traffic. Alight at bus stop ‘University’ from where it is just a short walk to the hotel.

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Conclusion

As you might have guessed already, I shall not be returning home to Basel the way I came with Air Serbia, which is a shame really, because their service really is quite outstanding. Obviously on this sector the hardware was no match for the newer A 320 I had on the previous leg, although the aircraft looked and felt very well maintained. Nonetheless, the crew on this flight demonstrated quite spectacularly just how true it is that the impression you have of an airline largely depends on the staff, the people that make the airline. I enjoyed these two flights, and should I ever be heading to this part of the world in future, Air Serbia will definitely be on my list of likely carriers.

Air Serbia, Business Class – A 320: Zürich to Belgrade

Introduction

A week after my return from the workshop in Warsaw sees me going up in the air again. But this time it is a private trip. After a lot of humming and hawing about where to go and what to do for the long Easter weekend, eventually I settled on something not quite so far afield as my recent trips, but certainly just as interesting – at least from a flying perspective. For the first installment, I’ve decided to give the new Air Serbia a spin. For those of you who may not be familiar with the carrier, Air Serbia is the latest incarnation of what used to be JAT – Yugoslav Air Transport. The carrier is now under new management and funding, courtesy of Etihad Airways, and the future is looking much brighter than it has for a long time for this carrier.

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Getting to the Airport

Transport: Train
Departs from: Basel SBB, the station of the Swiss Federal Railways
Frequency: every thirty minutes
Journey time: ca. 75 minutes, which includes changing at Zurich main station
Fare: CHF37 one way, second class

I awake to find it’s another beautiful day, there isn’t a single cloud in the sky this morning. There’s still a nip in the air, but still it feels as though spring is finally only just around the corner.

My flight this morning leaves at 09:55 from Zurich, so I figure I might as well take the train at 06:33 to Zurich, which is the one I normally take to go to work. With that one, I should arrive at Zurich airport just before 08:00. Of course this may be a tad early, but what with it being the long Easter weekend, I’m not really quite sure what to expect in terms of queues at the airport.

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The train is definitely less crowded than it normally would be – presumably because it’s Maundy Thursday – and there’s a very lazy atmosphere in the carriage that you don’t normally notice.

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Check-in

Location: Check-in 2, row 4 – the area is currently undergoing reconstruction
Facilities: No self-check-in available
Counters: The handling agent for Air Serbia is Swissport, there are dedicated Business Class check-in counters which are available for the passengers of all the airlines handled by Swissport.

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Row 4 of Check-in 2 is located in the newly refurbished part of what used to be Terminal B. The numbering is perhaps a little confusing right now. Row 4 is in fact at the back of row 1. Perhaps all of this will make sense once the other half of the departures concourse has been renovated.

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Before heading for the lounge, I decide to go out on the viewing terrace to have a look at what’s going on outside. Entrance to the terrace is CHF5.- and there are lockers if you don’t fancy carting your belongings through the security check. There is a depot of CHF2.- to use the lockers.

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Perhaps the most interesting thing to see this morning is a Swiss A 330-300 which is heading for Athens. Presumably it’s substituting for Swiss’ A 321 which recently suffered rather substantial damage went it experienced a tail strike on touch down.

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The Lounge

Location: On the upper floor of the shopping centre, I mean airside…
Type of Lounge:
Oneworld contractor lounge
Facilities:
Cold food and drink, coffee and tea making facilities, there are no toilets inside the lounge
Internet:
Free internet for one hour only inside the lounge

Air Serbia uses the Oneworld lounge in Zürich, which is a pleasant surprise. For a moment I was worried they might use that god awful DNATA lounge opposite, which really doesn’t have enough space to swing a cat.

This is my first visit to this lounge. I quite like the design of the lounge, kind of rustic with a modern twist.

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Boarding

Priority Boarding: There is no separate queue, but a boarding call is made inviting Business Class passengers to board at their leisure.

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There’s a bit of a mix up with the seats. Originally I should have been on 1A, the window on the left side of the bus. Once I’m on board though, I take a look at my boarding pass and realise that I’ve been moved to 2C, an aisle seat. I’m really not quite sure what the point is in having advanced seat assignment when the airline is not in a position to honour that seat assignment later on. But that is just a minor detail and so far my impression of Air Serbia is pretty good.

The Cabin

Configuration: 2 + 2 in a dedicated Business Class cabin
Seat: 2C, aisle on the left side
Pitch:
Width:
Facilities: Small tray table attached to the armrest in the middle, between the two seats
Audio and Video: NIL

Blimey! The cabin and the seat on this bird are really something. First of all, it’s highly unusual to be on an aircraft with a dedicated Business Class cabin on a short intra-European hop of only 95 minutes. Secondly, the aircraft is obviously still quite new, or at least was only recently refurbished. I like it!

There are two rows of Business Class and today, all eight seats are taken. The back of the bus looks rather full as well.

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There is a large pillow and a blanket at every seat. I have a quick peek into Economy Class and there are pillows in every seat there too, although they’re slightly smaller.

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The Crew

Quite simply charming, that’s really the only way to describe the crew on this flight. Passengers are greeted at the door by a pleasant young man with a genuine smile. Service in the Business Class cabin is done by a petite and very chic young lady while we’re still on the ground.

First there is a round of welcome drinks. I choose a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

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This is followed by the distribution of the menus for the flight and warm, rose-scented hot towels.

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Later on the flight attendant passes through the cabin with newspapers. As she does, she apologises to me because there are only local papers on board today.

And finally, just before the cabin is secured for departure, the crew pass through the cabin taking orders for drinks and the meal after take-off.

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The Meal

Welcome drink on the ground: Yes, freshly squeezed orange juice
Hot towel before the meal: Yes, war and scented
Pre-meal drink:
Orange juice with a ramekin of warm mixed nuts
Choice:
Beef or chicken
Delivery:
Individual tray service
Type of meal:
Lunch, hot meal
Menu:

  1. chicken, feta and spinach roll with potato and grilled yellow pepper salad
  2. beef tenderloin with mushroom sauce, served with chunky vegetables and roasted sliced potatoes
  3. chocolate cheesecake with whipped cream
  4. a slice of herb bread

As soon as we’re airborne, the purser springs into action. By the looks of it, he’ll be doing the service all by himself in Business Class. As he delivers the orange juice with the nuts he smiles again and even makes a point of addressing me by name.

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With excellent timing he appears again at my seat just as I finish the nuts. He opens the tray table for me and lays a crisp white linen tablecloth down. The presentation of the meal is good. The only thing you could complain about, and really just for the sake of complaining, is that there is no butter or olive oil to go with the meal.

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The gentleman sitting next to me has ordered a vegetarian meal, fortunately he doesn’t mind me taking a picture of his meal before he digs in. Thanks a lot.

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The quality of the meal is excellent. The beef is incredibly tender and flavourful and the vegetables have even managed to retain their flavour.

I give the dessert a try. It’s very chocolaty and rich, but way to sweet for me, so I only end up having a couple of spoonfuls.

As soon as he notices I’ve finished with the meal, the intrepid young man whisks away my tray and asks me if I’d like a coffee, hot chocolate or a tea. The milk with the coffee comes in this really cute little pot.

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The meal concludes with the distribution of another hot rose scented towel.

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And shortly after that it’s already time for us to begin the descent into Belgrade.

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Arrival

In Belgrade I shall be spending about two hours – I’m only in transit. My onward flight will also be with Air Serbia. So far so good, though. In fact it’s more than just good. The level of service provided by Air Serbia on this flight really is outstanding. All the crew are just so nice, they interact with their passengers, who are treated more like guests than travellers on a plane. And all the time they’re very charming and pleasant. The quality of the meal is also very good, moreover, the quantity of the meal really is something else.

Let’s see what happens next…

KLM, Business Class – Boeing B 737-700: Amsterdam to Warsaw

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Introduction

Goodness, talk about a déjà-vu experience! This morning when I boarded the plane from Basel to Amsterdam I was greeted at the door like a long lost friend. Turns out the layover of last night’s crew was exactly as long as mine! Later on when I arrived in Amsterdam, we touched down on runway 18C, as we did when I arrived from Lisbon fifteen hours previously.

So here I am. This evening I’m off to Warsaw to give a course with my colleague, the valiant M. In fact, we’ve been more or less each other’s shadows ever since I arrived in Montreal two week ago.

If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll spare you the details of how I got to the airport and what the Crown Lounge looks like. Instead, let’s begin this narrative just as I board the aircraft.

From: Amsterdam Schiphol
To: Warsaw Okecie
Date: 06 April 2014
Airline: KLM Royal Dutch Airline
Aircraft: Boeing B 737-700
Cabin: Business Class
Seat: 1F, window

Boarding

I arrive at the gate just as they finish calling out our names. It’s the last call. Strangely, that happens to me quite a bit when I’m travelling with M. and somehow always in Amsterdam. I’m not really quite sure what the hurry is. As we reach the end of the airbridge, there are still people queuing outside. I enter the cabin, only to find that Business Class is completely empty. At least I won’t have to worry about finding place for my luggage.

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The Cabin

There are two rows of Business Class, with a total of twelve seats for me to choose from. Twelve seats. All mine. Mine alone. I can even take the ‘Reserved for your comfort’ seat if I like! Originally I’m seated on 1A. But there’s a window missing on the left side, so instead I take 1F on the opposite side of the plane.

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The Crew

The crew on this flight are excellent. Of course it helps that up front we have a ratio of one flight attendant for one passenger. The purser is a friendly, chatty chap and we have a nice little natter throughout the flight, whenever he comes to check on my.

Service beings on the ground with the distribution of the newspapers and a welcome drink. I have a glass of fresh orange juice.

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Our departure is from 18L, if I’m not mistaken, and we’re treated to a truly poetic sunset on climb out.

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As soon as the seatbelt sign is turned off, the meal service begins.

The Meal

We start with a packet of salted almonds and another orange juice. Next the purser brings me the menu for tonight’s flight. I’m quite impressed to find that there are two options for the hot meal. One is beef and the other is fish. I go with the latter. Before the meal tray is brought to me though, I am handed a hot towel.

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The First Course

Cucumber gazapcho with diced tomato.

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The Salad

A seasonal salad with mozzarella cheese and bell peppers.

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The Main Course

Pan-fried salmon and tilapia with lemon butter sauce, vegetable medley and herbed potatoes.

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Dessert

Pineapple crumble with coconut jelly and strawberry.

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Coffee with Puneslie’s biscuits.

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Blimey KLM, that was really excellent. The hot meal is in fact piping hot when it arrives and the flavour of all the dishes is great. The dessert is perhaps a tad too sweet, but I just suffer in silence, all alone in the big empty Business Class…

Arrival

The flight is only 95 minutes long, and before long we’re already descending into Warsaw. Obviously it’s dark by the time we land.

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We decide to take a taxi to the hotel. Beware of the many drivers offering you a taxi as you exit the terminal. These are not authorised providers. It’s best if you queue at the normal taxi stand. We’re staying at the Warsaw Hilton in the centre. The fare from the airport will cost you about 40 Zloty by authorised taxi.

And with that ends another memorable journey with KLM. I think this will be the last report in this series. The return home is with KLM anyway. But if you’ll just give me a week, I’ll have something new and quite unusual lined up.

KLM, Economy Class – B 737-900: Lisbon to Amsterdam

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Introduction

I arrived back in Lisbon on Friday evening from Ponta Delgada. Although technically speaking it was already early Saturday morning by the time we landed in Lisbon. And so now what? Well, to be honest I’d love to say I’m finally on my way home again. But I’m afraid that isn’t entirely true. I am in fact about to fly from Lisbon via Amsterdam back to Basel, where I live. But I’ll only be there for about thirteen hours. On Sunday morning I’m heading back for Amsterdam and then on to give another a course. Perhaps you’re wondering what important business calls me back to Basel so urgently that I decided not to fly straight form Lisbon to Warsaw?

Well, it’s quite simple really: I need to wash some clothes!

Check-in

Hey guess what, KLM actually reads my blog! I know because they twittered me to let me know. While they were at it, they also reminded me to get in touch if ever I needed their help. As luck will have it, looks like that ever has arrived: I’m travelling with a colleague from work. We’re booked on different PNRs. At the time we booked the flights we were able to sit together. But since then there’s been an aircraft change and the flight is now being operated by a Boeing B 737-900. While I still have my original seat, my colleague does not. And I can’t change my seat any more.

But all of this is nothing to despair about. So I tweet KLM to ask them for help. And indeed, next thing I know I receive an email from them informing me that my colleague and I have been assigned seats together.

The down side is that we’re now sitting on row 32, which is I believe the penultimate row from the back. But that’s alright. After all it’s not every day you get to travel on a Boeing B 737-900.

Fortunately, I’m only travelling with hand luggage. The queue for the Air France/KLM check-in looks endless when we arrive at the airport. Having said that, the TAP Air Portugal queue is even worse. Much worse.

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So I decide to head straight for security and the lounge. The queue is quite long here too, but at least it’s moving quite fast. In my previous post I mentioned just how nice the guys at security in Lisbon are. Well, today while I’m standing behind security putting my stuff in my back in my bag, suddenly one of the security guys comes up to me and says ‘Hello, you again’! Seriously? I ask him how on earth he recognised me and he simply points to the ICAO sticker on my suitcase. He then wishes me a safe journey and goes back to his station.

I think I should perhaps take this as some divine sign. You’re probably already flying just a bit too much when the cabin crew start recognising you from previous flights. But when the guys at security even start to remember you’re face, you’re definitely pushing it.

The Lisbon Lounge

In Lisbon KLM uses the Lisbon lounge, which is operated by Lisbon airport, if I’m not mistaken. I rather like the lounge. It may not be quite as flashy and stylish as the TAP Portugal lounge, but it’s certainly quieter and a lot more spacious. Moreover, it’s the first airport lounge I’ve ever been to that has painted underpants hanging on the walls in the guise of what presumably should be art… Oh yes, and there’s free wifi as well.

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Boarding

About half an hour before departure I leave the lounge and walk the short distance to gate 15, from there my flight will be leaving. And indeed, a little while after I arrive, boarding begins.

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The Cabin

According to the Holland Herald, the KLM inflight magazine, maximum seating on the Boeing B 737-900 is only eight more than on the -800. Even so, this seems like an awfully long plane.

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Eventually the cabin fills up nearly completely, with only a few seats here and there left empty. Even this far back the seat pitch is perfectly adequate and even though I’m sitting in between two big guys, there’s still enough space for me.

Take-off is to the south-west. And I rather like it. It’s a powerful and noise affair.

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The Crew

To be honest, I think I’ve been travelling a little too much lately. I say this because I don’t really notice anything much about the service on this particular flight. Except perhaps that there’s a young couple with a baby in the seat row in front of me and the cabin crew take very good care of them.

The Meal

I can’t really comment on the taste of the meal either because I didn’t have much. The meal consists of a rectangular piece of pizza. It looks very greasy, and from what I can tell from the passengers sitting around me, the cardboard box the pizza is served in has a nasty habit of going all soggy from the grease and merging with the food into one huge globule of goo. But my colleague confirms that apparently the taste is okay. It must be, because eventually he even ends up eating my slice as well.

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The cabin crew come to collect the rubbish before doing a second drinks round with coffee and dessert. The latter consists of a piece of square chocolate cake with a bit of crumble on it. It’s not a bad dessert actually.

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Shortly before landing the crew does another drinks run, and also offers a selection of sweets snacks to choose from.

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Arrival

All in all the flight passes quickly and before long we’re already descending into Amsterdam.

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We land on runway 18C, which means rather a short taxi to our stand on the D gates. It’s now 19:30. In exactly 24 hours I shall be back in Amsterdam, boarding another flight. To be honest, right now this has stopped being fun…

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SATA International, Economy Class – A 320: Lisbon to Oceanic Control in Santa Maria

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From: Lisbon
To: Santa Maria
Date: 03. April 2014
Departure: 11:45
Arrival: 13:00
Flight time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Airline: SATA International
Cabin: Economy Class
Seat: 5F

It’s time to move on. To be honest, I can’t say I’m too cut up about leaving Lisbon. It certainly a very nice city, but the weather has really been something nasty.

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So where am I going today? Well, I’m off to Santa Maria in the Açores. I must confess I am rather excited about this trip because I’ve been invited to visit the Oceanic Control Centre, from where all the flights are released to cross the Atlantic. Jay!

Getting to the Airport

Mode of transport: Metro
Duration: 30 minutes
Price: EUR1.40

The entrance to the Avenida metro station is right in front of the Sofitel. To get from there to the airport you first have to take the blue line for three stops to Sao Sebastiao. From there you connect to the red line to the airport. It’s pretty straight forward, although if you’re carting around with you a heavy suitcase, then the metro may not be for you, as there are not escalators everywhere.

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Check-in

Where: Terminal 1, rows 34 – 39
Facilities: web check-in, self-service machine, dedicated check-in counters

Honestly, Lisbon airport is just such a complete mess. It’s quite apparent that the facility was extended in various stages over a period of time and, above all, seemingly without any concept or plan. Nothing is easy to find at the airport, including the check-in counters. Furthermore, the signage is utterly useless.

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Lisbon airport does have one redeeming feature though: the security check! Honestly, the guys working here really deserve a medal as far as I’m concerned. Every day they are confronted with hoards of passengers, most of which allegedly have not yet heard that laptops and liquids must be removed from bags, and still these guys are so patient, friendly and nice. They always find time to have a chat and they’re really polite and friendly.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight starts about forty minutes before departure. We’re using a bus gate today and our aircraft is parked on a remote stand on the other side of the runway, quite a distance away. There are two buses to ferry the passengers from the terminal to the aircraft. It’s hard to say what the load is on this flight, but I’d say the flight is not too busy today.

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The Cabin

Seat: 5F, window
Configuration: 3 + 3
Facilities: overhead video screens, individual audio plugs with channel selection and volume, mini tray that extends from the armrest, drinks holder on the outside of the tray table

The first impression of the cabin is good. It’s well maintained and clean. The seats are very comfortable, they’re rather soft and at a pleasant height above the ground. The seat pitch is also good.

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The Crew

There are four cabin crew on this flight, three females and one bloke. The crew are not overly friendly I’d say, but they’re not rude either. I think the proper term to use is ‘business friendly’.

We rake off in a northerly direction and then execute something like a 270 degree right hand turn, which first leads us out onto the river, before eventually bringing us back over the field to point us in the direction of the coast.

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Before we’ve even finished the turn, the smell – or rather the stink – of cigarette smoke slowly starts wafting through the cabin. Quite obviously the cockpit crew have decided it’s time to have a smoke. I must say, I really can’t stand it when the crew do this. First of all, the air inside the cabin is only recycled once every two minutes, which makes it impossible to escape the smell of smoke. Secondly, I find it a bit of an insult to my intelligence that Mr. Pilot seems to think we won’t notice the smell. And finally, it is quite simply very unprofessional. You lead by example.

The Meal

It takes quite a while for the meal service to being. I’m feeling rather hungry so I’m hoping they will be giving us something decent. After all, the flying time is two hours and fifteen minutes.

Eventually the trolley pulls up at my row and I am handed a cardboard box containing a small bottle of plum juice and a cheese and ham sandwich. With that I have a still water to drink. I am also handed a paper cup in preparation for the coffee service after the meal.

The sandwich is rather tasty. Perhaps the bread is a tad dry, but apart from that it’s good, something in the sandwich has a decidedly strong smell of garlic. Lovely!

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Arrival

Unfortunately the weather starts to deteriorate as we near the Açores, and by the time we’re on the approach the fog is thick as pea soup. Eventually though, the runway appears out of nowhere and we land. The airport, and I’m using the term freely here, is pretty quiet when we arrive. There is just one Dassault business jet on the apron, presumably doing a fuel stop before continuing on its journey. It’s also very windy!

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The airport literally only takes a minute to pass through.

Santa Maria is an interesting place. There are only 5000 inhabitants on the island and it’s very small. It is also very beautiful, green and lush. With a bit of luck the weather will improve tomorrow.

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