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

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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.

THE CABIN

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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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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SERVICE

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:

  • a plate of cheese (Red Leicester, Gorgonzola and a goat’s cheese) with dried apricot, prune, grape and cucumber
  • Cold breast of chicken in breadcrumbs with Salade Niçoise
  • Two buns
  • 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.

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