Air Malta, Club Class – A 319: Malta to Zürich

Folie1

Getting to the Airport

Means of transport: bus
Fare: EUR1.50
Journey time: ca. 20 minutes, depending on traffic
Frequency: a mystery – the bus lines X4, X5 and X7 all run via different routes from Valletta to the airport

The development of Maltese public transport over the last few years is a bit of a saga. If, like me, you only visit the island occasionally and only catch a glimpse of what’s going on in the news, then it all seems like rather an entertaining comedy. If however, you live in Malta and have to deal with public transport on a daily basis, then it’s probably more like a tragedy.

Up until 2011 Malta operated a fleet of ancient buses. The buses were privately owned and operated on behalf of what was then the Malta Transport Authority. Back then, every town and village had its own dedicated bus line with a direct service to Valletta. The service was highly unreliable to say the least, the buses had no air conditioning and, more often than not, didn’t even have doors either. The fare was something of a gamble. Of course the service was dirt cheap officially, but if you looked remotely foreign you could be sure to get ripped off in a big way. There was general consent among the populace that really only the taxi drivers were more lowly than the bus drivers.

And then came Arriva. The bus service was privatised and promised to be better and faster. Suddenly the drivers wore uniforms with a shirt and tie, the buses had air conditioning and there was even something remotely resembling a schedule. At the time, knowing that as a rule the Maltese are an unruly lot, I wondered how long the new regime would last. Alas, the novelty quickly wore off.

Journey times increased because instead of taking the most direct routing to the terminus in Valletta, Arriva set up a series of hubs and interchanges around the island and merged some of the thinner routes. Then there was a series of accidents because the bendy buses proved too big for many of Malta’s narrow roads and ended up causing major damage to roads and buildings. Oh yes, and then there was also a series of buses catching fire in mid-journey, because the air conditioning couldn’t cope with the hot Maltese summer.

Eventually Arriva was kindly asked to leave Malta as quickly as possible and the service was temporarily returned into the hands and responsibility of the government. This could only go horribly wrong – and did.

And now it’s Sunday noon and I’m standing at the bus stop in Valletta, waiting for the bus driver to return from his break to take me to the airport. Apparently the previous bus that should have left ten minutes previously never showed up – not that anybody seems to notice or care. The uniforms, shirt and tie have disappeared and the driver is wearing shorts and a white t-shirt. Are those flip flops he’s got on?

I walk up to him and tell him I need a ticket to the airport. I speak in Maltese, hoping that this might make him think twice about ripping me off. Much to my surprise though, the complete opposite happens and instead of overpricing, he simply explains that he can’t be bothered to switch on the ticket machine. I thank him for a loss of anything else to say. As I take a seat it dawns on me that we’re really back to square one.

Check-in

Facilities: on flights departing from Malta, Air Malta offers web check-in, mobile check-in and airport check-in
Dedicated counters: there are dedicated counters for Club Class passengers and upper tier members of Air Malta’s frequent flyer programme

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The airport is quite busy when I arrive. After all, this is the busy summer season. I walk up to the check-in desk where a young lady first greets me in English, before switching to Maltese when she sees my passport. She prints my boarding pass and issues an invitation to the La Valette Business Class lounge. The invitation also gives you access to the priority lane for the security check.

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The Lounge

Type of lounge: La Valette contractor lounge
Facilities: toilets, business centre with Apple computers and a printer/fax
Wifi: available for free, there is a password
Food: an interesting selection of Maltese foods, like ftira with tuna, bigilla dip, and hobz biz-zejt

The lounge has been extended recently. I think it looks rather good and there are a few nice touches, like the lamps made out of colourful Malta Glass. What’s more, the food selection in the lounge is really good, with an interesting range of hot and cold snacks.

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No boarding calls are made in the lounge.

Boarding

At 13:55 my flight shows up as ‘boarding’ so I collect my stuff and make my way to gate five, from where the flight will be leaving. Just as I exit the lounge they’re already making the final call for the flight. Either somebody’s in a hurry or the flight really is not very full. As it turns out later on, there are 108 passengers on today’s flight.

From gate five we’re bussed to the aircraft. It’s a lovely day and once we pull up next to our Airbus A 319 I let all the other passengers disembark so I can take some pictures.

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The Cabin

There are three rows of Club Class, with a total of twelve seats. There are four passengers seated in Club and I notice there is a blanket and pillow available for every passenger.

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The Crew

Literally the moment I sit down a young man appears with a tray of drinks. He welcomes me on board and offers me a glass of orange juice. He vanishes into the galley and reappears a moment later with the Sunday Times of Malta. He also tells me there are Maltese language papers available as well if I’d prefer one of those instead.

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The purser on this flight is a woman in her late thirties and she’s truly quite amazing. She makes all the announcements live in Maltese, English and nearly flawless German – apart from an obvious, heavy Semitic accent. She’s also very proactive in taking care of the passengers: originally there is a gentleman sitting next to me on the aisle on 2D. As soon as boarding is completed, the purser comes along and informs us that we’re free to move around and change seats as we please. Later on, she notices one passenger reading and switches the overhead reading light on for him.

We take off in a northerly direction. As we climb out we get some good views of Malta from above. From where I’m sitting you can also see the writing on the inner side of the cowling very well.

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The Meal

Pre meal drink: yes
Type of service: individual tray service
Menu: no menus are provided
Choice: there is no choice available
Meal:

  1. a plate of cheese (Red Leicester, Gorgonzola and a goat’s cheese) with dried apricot, prune, grape and cucumber
  2. Cold breast of chicken in breadcrumbs with Salade Niçoise
  3. Two buns
  4. Strawberry mouse with chocolate flakes

Once the seatbelt sign is turned off, the purser comes through the cabin taking orders for the pre meal drinks. Of course I ask for a Kinnie, which is brought to me with a slice of lemon in it.

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Before the meal scented hot towels are distributed.

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The trays are served individually and I’m delighted to see it’s a different meal to the one I had on the outbound. The service remains attentive, with the crew regularly checking up on us to make sure the passengers have everything they need.

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A cup of coffee rounds off the meal, my tray is removed and I doze off. When I wake up again we’ve already crossed the Alps and we’re descending towards Zürich.

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Arrival

Not bad at all. At 16:41 the main landing gear makes contact with runway 16 and the thrust reversers open to slow us down. Eventually we come to a stop at the very last gate at the far end of the A dock. At 17:00 I’m already sitting on the train to Basel, with four minutes to go before we start. Tragically, I’ll be back at Zürich Airport in about eighteen hours.

Valletta – Malta

Valletta

At ten o’clock in the morning the office workers, bureaucrats, politicians, shoppers and large tour groups congregate at Café Cordina’s in Valletta for a mid-morning cappuccino and pastizzi.

The service at Cordina’s is notoriously slow and notoriously indifferent. The bad service lends the place a certain distinction. And then there’s also the pigeons. Perhaps I ought to warn you. If you don’t like birds, you may want to keep away. Inevitably, with such a large seating area outside the actual café in the square in front of the library, Cordina’s is usually crawling – literally – with disease-infested, scrawny-looking pigeons. It’s quite alright as long as they’re just scavenging for food between your feet or under your chair. But the buggers have become so accustomed to human beings that they’re quite fearless and have no qualms at all about getting on the table and picking at the food on your plate.

But despite all of this, there must be only few places on this planet that provide such an excellent vantage point for heavy duty people watching. To sit there under the stern and watchful eyes of the Queen Victoria statue, watching the world go by, is quite simply priceless. They really do come in all shapes and sizes and all of them file past Cordina’s at some point.

My favourite ones to watch are the droves of young people on a guided tour of Valletta, organised by the many English language schools in Malta. To be honest, I very much doubt if any of the young ones really come to Malta to improve their English. I certainly wouldn’t. Most of them, I suspect, see it as a convenient way of letting their parents down gently, by going off to Malta for some fun in the sun under the pretence of wanting to enhance their academic potential to the fullest. At least that’s the impression they give you as you watch them shuffling past. The tour guide up front stops at regular intervals to explain this and point out that while in the back, the young ones are obviously more interested in surreptitiously ogling the members of the opposite sex in their group instead of hearing about Napoleon’s ignominious visit to the Maltese islands.

Personally, I think the best time to visit Valletta is in the late afternoon, preferably after five o’clock, by which time the large tour groups from the cruise ships ‘doing’ the Med have scurried aboard again and the language school students are sprawled on some beach recuperating from the morning’s culture onslaught while their hormones run riot.

But I digress. Valletta in the evening is a much nicer, quieter and more authentic experience. In the afternoons Valletta belongs to the Maltese again. The pace of the city becomes much slower, more laidback.

Valletta is not pretty in the traditional picture postcard, ideal for tourists kind of way. The city is old and traces its history to the sixteenth century, when the previous settlement was fortified  to be prepared for another attack by the Ottoman empire – an attack which never came.

Valletta is not only old, in some places it’s quite simply grubby and dilapidated – which makes it kind of hard to explain wherein the attraction lies. I don’t think I could say.

This is what used to be known as Kingsway. But that changed and when the Brits left and Malta became independent it was renamed to Republic Street. Even so, in Maltese it is still referred to as Strada Rjali – Kingsway.

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If you’re feeling hungry and want something sweet, I can highly recommend Camilleri’s on Merchant Street. They have a huge selection of freshly made Maltese pastries, like kannoli. A kannol is a piece of pastry rolled up and filled with sweet ricotta cheese. The one you can see here is with a rich chocolate cream which – while perhaps not quite so traditional – is still very tasty.

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Have you ever wondered how the models they use for those wonder bra adverts are in real life probably the most unlikely persons ever to need a wonder bra to enhance?

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For the best views of the Grand Harbour and the three cities across the water head for the Upper Baraka Gardens. Don’t let the smell of horse piss by the gates put you off. The gardens are very nice inside and the view is spectacular.

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Air Malta, Business Class – Airbus A 319: Zürich to Malta

Folie1

Introduction

My last meeting in the office comes to a happy end just after 15:30. In just over two hours my flight to Malta will be leaving. It’s been quite a while since my last trip home, mainly due to the fact that I’ve been travelling around so much for work lately that I haven’t really had the time – nor the desire – to get on a plane again in my private time as well. But the semester is now finally over, the exams have been duly corrected and so I think I’ll be off.

Getting to the Airport

Mode of Transport: train
Journey Time: ca. 10 minutes
Price:
Leaves from: Winterthur
Arrives: Zürich Flughafen
Frequency: there are five trains an hour, four of which are nonstop

I catch the train at 15:58, arriving at Zürich Airport just after 16h. In about an hour’s time my flight to Malta will be boarding, which gives me enough time to go get myself some Euros before heading airside. On my way to security I decide to walk through the new check-in area in Terminal B or whatever it’s called nowadays, and I’m rather surprised to find the place deserted, despite the fact that the school holidays started in many parts of Switzerland last weekend. DNATA isn’t checking in a single flight on row 1 and Swissport on row 4 doesn’t look much busier either.

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Check-in

Handling agent: Swissport
Location: row 4
Facilities: there is one dedicated queue for Business Class passengers

Air Malta doesn’t have an app. However, you can check-in online. If you’re checking in for the flight from Switzerland, the Air Malta website will redirect you to the Swissport check-in page, which works very well.

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The Lounge

Type of Lounge: Swiss International Air Lines Business Class lounge
Location: upper level of the airside centre – turn right as you exit the duty free shop behind security

Presumably because the flight to Malta is operated as a code-share with SWISS, Air Malta uses the SWISS lounge in Zürich. Today though, I decide to give the lounge a miss. First of all because I only have another 15 minutes to wait before boarding starts, and secondly because I really don’t think I’m missing much by not using the SWISS lounge, which is always very crowded.

Incidentally, if you book the flight on the Air Malta website it will normally be about CHF100 or so cheaper than on the SWISS website. Even so, if you check-in on the SWISS website, you will be checked in on the LX flight number and if you enter your Senator number you will be entitled to access the Senator lounge.

In any case, my ride to Malta is just pulling onto stand as I reach the gate. I really must say I wasn’t much of a fan of the new livery when I first saw it, but slowly it’s beginning to grow on me. At least it’s different!

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Boarding

Only one call for boarding is made and there is no special queue for Business Class passengers or members of the frequently flyer programme Flypass. By the looks of it, today’s flight is going to be full. Later on when the gate agent brings the load sheet she mentions a total of 136 passengers, which is pretty good for our little Airbus A 319.

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The Cabin

Configuration: 2 + 2
Seat: standard European Economy Class with the middle seat left empty. The back of the middle seat folds down to provide an additional stowage area
Facilities: none
Audio and video: audio and video are available, but on today’s flight only the moving map and flight information are available

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The Crew

There are four cabin crew on today’s flight – three middle aged females and one younger male. All of them are very friendly and courteous in the way they treat the passengers. We’re six in total in Business Class today and I notice the crew have obviously done their homework and gone through the passenger list: I’m addressed in Maltese and by my family name by the crew, which is always a nice touch.

Announcements are made live in English and Maltese, with additional pre recorded messages in German. Our captain today is female. She makes a point of making her announcements in Maltese and English and keeps us updated on our progress throughout the flight.

Service begins with the distribution of the Times of Malta while we’re still on the ground. Next there’s a welcome drink with a choice of water or orange juice.

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The Meal

Welcome drink on the ground: yes, orange juice
Hot towel before the meal: yes, not scented
Pre meal drink: no
Choice: no
Delivery: individual tray service
Type of meal: light supper, cold meal
Menu:

  1. salmon tartar
  2. grilled aubergine and bell pepper with a dressing of pine nuts and parmesan shavings
  3. two bread rolls
  4. cheese plate with three different cheeses, including the typically Maltese Gbejna
  5. sponge cake with cherries
  6. hot and cold drinks

It takes a while for the crew to be released as it’s quite a bumpy ride and takes us a while to clear the clouds. The service eventually begins with the distribution of hot towels.

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Since I last flew Air Malta Business Class in November 2013 they appear to have changed their menu. The meal is adequately portioned for the duration of the flight and the day time of the flight. It’s also surprisingly tasty, although I will admit that may have something to do with the fact that I skipped lunch today.

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To drink I have a Kinnie and throughout the meal service the crew make sure all passengers are sufficiently hydrated and satisfied. It’s little things that set a good crew apart. As the cabin crew come to remove the trays after the meal they make a point of asking each passenger if perhaps they’d like another drink or if there’s anything else they need.

Arrival

Our routing today takes us from Zürich across the Alps to Genova, from where we cross the Tyrrhenian sea to Palermo in Sicily. As we pass Palermo our aircraft gently dips it’s nose and we start our descent into Malta.

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The airport is quiet when we arrive. There is just a Ryanair flight which landed ahead of us and a B747 freighter standing around on the ramp. I only have hand luggage with me, so 15 minutes after landing I’m already sitting in a taxi on my way to Valletta.