Iberia, Business Class – Airbus A 319: Madrid to Basel inaugural flight

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Date: 26 March 2017.
Departure: 16:00.
Arrival: 18:00
Flight time: 2 hours.
Aircraft: A 319.
Seat: 3D, aisle seat on the third row.

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INTRODUCTION
No sooner have I completed my homework for this week it’s already time to head back home to Basel to get ready for my trip to Luxembourg tomorrow. I check out of the hotel and walk the short distance to Atocha station. Part of the road has been closed off for traffic, and there are families with kids running around where usually the cars are stuck in traffic. It’s still quite fresh here in Madrid, nonetheless it certainly feels as though spring is just round the corner.

GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
If you’re flying from Terminal 4 at Madrid Barajas, your best bet by public transport is the Cercania line C1, which runs from Atocha station to Terminal 4. The journey takes just under 30 minutes and will set you back EUR2.60 for a oneway ticket.

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CHECK-IN
I checked in for the flight yesterday evening using the Iberia app, which is quite erratic in its behaviour. But eventually I manage and find myself assigned to 4F, a window seat, which is fortunate seeing as this will be the inaugural flight to Basel and I’m kind of hoping for a water canon salute.

The terminal has a nice airy feel, which is achieved partly by the very high ceiling that is designed to give the impression of waves on the sea, and partly by the fact that the facility is indeed more or less deserted. Where is everyone?

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Incidentally, there is a fast track for security if you have status or if you’re in Business Class. Just follow the signs marked Fast Track VIP.

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LOUNGE
Terminal 4 is dedicated to the Oneworld alliance carriers and a few others. My flight will be leaving from the satellite, which also has a few Schengen gates. However, be warned that there is absolutely nothing at all in the Schengen part of the satellite – no shops and no lounge. So it’s best not to journey across to the facility too early.

The lounge is spacious and offers ample seating opportunities. There is a quiet area with day beds and there are also showers in addition to the toilets, which are very clean.

The food selection is good, but not quite as nice and extensive as in the non-Schengen lounge. Admittedly, the presentation could be improved – all the dishes are served in these rather ugly plastic containers. But the quality of the food is good.

Complimentary wifi is available in the lounge.

BOARDING
The flight to Basel is boarding from gate M28 according to the flight information displays. However, at some point an announcement is made that for some reason there has been a gate change and the flight to Basel will now be leaving from M49. Only thing is, M49 is occupied by the flight to Munich. Eventually though, the whole thing is sorted, and apparently Munich is boarding from M51 right next door.

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Boarding is by areas and the first passengers invited to board the aircraft are Business Class and status holders.

CABIN & SEAT
Well, well, well! There seems to have been an aircraft change. And what a pleasant surprise it has turned out to be. Instead of an Airbus A 319 with the usual European style Business Class cabin with the middle seat empty, this aircraft has its own dedicated Business Class cabin with amazingly plush seats in a 2 + 2 configuration.

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Admittedly, the finish of the seat is not particularly nice but the seat is certainly comfortable. I suspect that this must be one of those aircraft Iberia normally sends on some of its long thin routes.

Storage space is good, but there are no power plugs and there is no inflight entertainment system either.

There are four rows of Business Class and every seat is taken, which is rather surprising given that this is the inaugural flight.

SERVICE & CREW
The crew are a nice, friendly bunch, but for some reasons they’re totally stressed out during boarding. But once the flight eventually gets underway on time, they seem to calm down.

The service begins with the distribution of Spanish and English language newspapers.

THE MEAL
Iberia may have just restored my faith in European Business Class!

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The meal is rather nice and the purser working the Business Class cabin does an excellent job of making passengers feel comfortable. The service and food have a rather nice and decidedly Spanish feel.

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ARRIVAL
After a flight time of roughly two hours we start our descent into Basel. The captain informs us that there will be a water canon salute to celebrate the inauguration. And what a grand show it is! It’s a nice sunny day in Basel, and as we glide down onto the runway, I can see spotters lining the perimeter fence to watch us coming in. The water canon salute is simply cool and as we disembark, every passenger is handed a goody bag with souvenirs of both Iberia and the Euroairport to mark the occasion.

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CONCLUSION
All in all, I really enjoyed this flight. I think the standard on Iberia is very good and the crew were all just so nice. Easyjet already operates on the Madrid-Basel route. But I think if they’re not careful, Iberia may end up giving them quite a run for their money. Terminal 4 in Barajas is far superior to the terminal Easyjet uses. Add to that the fact that as an Executive Club member flying Iberia gives you access to fast track immigration and security and lounge access, and it seems like a done deal.

Air France, Business Class – Airbus A 319: Paris to Madrid

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Date: 25 March 2017.
Departure: 15:10.
Arrival: 16:50.
Flight time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
Aircraft: Airbus A 319.
Seat: 2F, window on the second row.

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INTRODUCTION
Terminal 2E and 2F are connected airside and you can easily make the transfer on foot. On this particular occasion the process is incredibly swift, given that I’m the only customer at the security checkpoint and the many staff at the four open security lanes look absolutely bored out of their wits.

CHECK-IN
I checked in for the flight using the Air France app, which works very well since the last release. As I already mentioned, my flight will be leaving from Terminal 2F, which is the Schengen terminal for all SkyTeam carriers. There are two piers to the terminal.

I really like the architecture of the building.

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LOUNGE
There is an Air France Business Class lounge located in the tip of the pier and both piers have their own lounge. However, right now the lounge on the one pier is closed for refurbishment. The lounge that is opens appears to have undergone recent refurbishment. They didn’t do anything drastic, it’s more of a facelift really.

The lounge is nice and has many seating options along the huge curved windows that offer some excellent views of the activities on the apron.

The food options in the lounge are good, with a wide selection of salads, soup, sandwiches, cheese and sweet snacks.

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Showers and toilets are available in the lounge.

BOARDING
Boarding for the flight is from gate F21, which is a bus gate. Which means I hit the jackpot and my ride to Madrid is parked on a remote stand. Oh happy day!

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CABIN & SEAT
The cabin layout is your bog standard European Economy Class seat with the middle seat left empty. Even so, I think Air France have done a good job working on the appearance of the aircraft, which looks elegant and bright. There is a red pillow at every seat as I board the aircraft.

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Seven of the twelve seats are occupied.

SERVICE & CREW
There is one gentleman working the Business Class cabin. I assume he must be the purser. His English and Spanish are both excellent and he goes about his duties conscientiously.

The service on the ground begins with the distribution of small bottles of water and packed refreshing towels which are lightly scented.

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THE MEAL
There is no drinks service ahead of the meal being served. Despite the flight time of one hour and forty minutes, we are served the same type of meal that you also get on the much shorter sector from Paris to Zürich. But somehow, given my recent experience with Lufthansa from Munich to Malta, that really should not surprise me. Short-haul Business Class catering in Europe is definitely going to the dogs.

It’s not that there is something wrong with the meal and it tastes okay, I just think it’s a bit small. It’s also an odd combination of randomly selected items.

The meal consists of:

  • a savoury cheese muffin, served warm
  • a brioche filled with cream cheese and tomato paste
  • two shrimps sautéed in sesame oil, served cold
  • a berry maccaron
  • one profiterole
  • and some incredibly rich chocolate thing that clings to your teeth
  • a box of chocolate covered wafers

To drink I have a Coke Zero and then coffee.

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ARRIVAL
I think this is the first time I’ve landed in Madrid coming in from the north. The airport is fairly busy, with quite a few departures to Latin America. There are three LATAM aircraft parked at the gate and two Avianca Dreamliners taxiing out for departure.

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In Madrid, Air France uses Terminal 2. Normally you can make your way into town using the metro. However, for the time being, the station and tunnels of the metro line that runs to the airport are out of service for maintenance. But a there is a replacement bus service in operation – the SE2 – that takes passengers to the next open metro station. Just stay on the bus until the final destination and then follow the other passenger.

CONCLUSION
Air France provided a solid service on both flights today. The crews were friendly and professional and the aircraft both looked as though they were in mint condition, with a tidy and modern cabin. Of course it helps that the B 787-9 from London to Paris still has that ‘new car’ smell to it and the crew were obviously very proud and eager to show off the product.

As I said, the meal was a bit of a let down. But I think that has less to do with Air France and more likely reflects a general trend among the European carriers.

The transfer in Paris was painless, highly efficient and certainly much more pleasant than connecting at that rat hole they call Frankfurt airport.

Air France, Economy Class Extra – Boeing B 787-9: Heathrow to Roissy

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Date: 25 March 2017.
Departure: 10:30.
Arrival: 12:04.
Flight time: 30 minutes.
Aircraft: Boeing B 787-9
Seat: 10B, aisle seat in the second row of the Economy Class Extra cabin.

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INTRODUCTION
It’s 07:30 on a Saturday morning as I step off my British Airways flight from Basel. We actually arrived 15 minutes ahead of schedule and we weren’t even penalised by ATC for it!

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I have no particular business in London today and in fact I’m only here now to make a connection from T4. Air France recently received its first Boeing B787-9 and is deploying the aircraft on the Roissy to Heathrow route for training purposes. This will be my first flight on the larger B787-9.

CHECK-IN
In Heathrow Air France and the entire SkyTeam alliance use Terminal 4, which used to be British Airways’ long-haul hub until Terminal 5 opened. I have checked in for the flight using the Air France app.

There is an airside bus transfer from Heathrow’s T5 to T4 which runs every ten minutes and takes roughly 15 minutes to complete the journey. There are only two of us on the bus making the trip.

Transferring between terminals at Heathrow really is the best and by the time we eventually pull up at the bus stop for Terminal 4 I’ve all but drooled all down my front at the sight of so many A 380s of so many different carriers on the ground in the same place at one time.

LOUNGE
The SkyTeam lounge is located opposite gate 10 and I must say, the entrance is rather stylish. Inside, the lounge looks clean and modern and features these walls with greenery growing out of them. I know there’s probably some more appropriate and totally hip description or term for the thing. But if there is, I don’t know it. But it sure looks nice.

Toilets and showers are available in the lounge. I do not try the shower but the toilets are in very good condition. On a side note, it strikes me that in England the pissoirs tend to be mounted much lower on the wall than they normally are on the continent, which kind of forfeits the purpose – unless you’ve been very disciplined with your target practice…

Moving along swiftly before this blog starts listing precariously towards the bottomless pit that is toilet humour, have I mentioned the food in the lounge at all? I don’t think so, which is a pity because it’s brilliant. I live in Switzerland, where people tend to be awfully health conscious and start ‘tsk-tsking’ with disapproval if you so much as confess that you occasionally enjoy a good old English fry up.

Which is why my wee little hearts starts beating just a little faster to a gentle pitter-patter at the sight of the breakfast spread in the SkyTeam lounge! Although the pitter-patter might also be from the cholesterol invoked semi-coma I lapse into after demolishing three sausages… But there are healthy options too, things like fruit salad, yoghurt or doughnuts.

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BOARDING
Boarding is from gate 9, which is awful for so many reasons that you start to suspect they did it on purpose. First of all, it’s impossible for me to take a decent photo of the aircraft taking me to Paris today. Which was sort of the point of coming to London in the first place. And secondly, it’s awfully cramped and once boarding starts, it’s really just a complete mess. There is a SkyPriority queue, but trying to reach it is not so easy.

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CABIN & SEAT
Air France still knows how to treat its passengers. As a Platinum member of the Flying Blue frequent flyer programme I am able to select any seat in both Economy cabins free of charge. And so I park myself on 10B, which is an aisle seat on the second row of the Economy Extra cabin.

The Economy Extra cabin on the Boeing B 787-9 consists of three rows in a 2 + 3 + 2 configuration, for a total of 21 seats. Much to my surprise, Air France seems to be fairly confident about the B 787’s reliability because they’ve sold most of the seats on the flight today.

The seat itself is very nice. In fact I think if I really had to, I could well imagine doing a daytime long-haul flight in this seat. Recline is good and the padding seems adequate enough to remain comfortable even on long flights. There is also ample storage space.

The inflight entertainment system is very good and has an extensive selection of media available to while away the time on long flights. The system is touch-screen operated and is very responsive. More over, the moving map is pretty cool and the transition between the different types of views on the map is smooth.

Wifi is available on board the aircraft, which I don’t try out on this flight, and there are individual A/C power ports and USB plugs at every seat.

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SERVICE & CREW
The crew are rather nondescript on this flight, although to be fair, with a flight time of only 30 minutes, it’s not as though they’re given much of a chance to shine!

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THE MEAL
Once the fasten seatbelt sign is turned off, pretty much as soon as the main lading gear doors have closed, the service begins. There is a choice of hot chocolate, tea, coffee or cappuccino. To eat every passenger is given a rather large and tasty croissant.

ARRIVAL
No sooner have I taken my last bite of croissant, the captain comes on again to advise the cabin crew about the ‘début de descente’ and down we go. It’s a nice sunny day in the Paris area today and we’re lucky to be given a straight in arrival. Presumably to make up for the forty minutes delay we picked up leaving Heathrow.

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Our flight arrives in terminal 2E, which is the non-Schengen terminal. My next flight will leave from 2F.

British Airways, Economy Class – Airbus A 319: Basel to Heathrow

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Date: 25 March 2017.
Departure: 07:00.
Arrival: 07:30.
Flight time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
Aircraft: Airbus A 319.
Seat: 10A, window seat on the exit row.

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This is more of a commentary than a trip report. At the beginning of this year, British Airways implemented a whole range of changes to adapt its business model to that of the low cost carriers by aligning its short-haul Economy Class product to that of the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair.

Seat reservations are only available at a charge – and they are not cheap, especially if you’ve set your heart on one of the extra leg-room exit row seats. Even with Executive Club Silver status advanced seat reservations are only possible against payment.

And then in January 2017 British Airways introduced buy on board food and beverages on short-haul Economy Class. The carrier has teamed up with Marks & Spencer, presumably hoping that the retailer’s excellent brand recognition will do something to offset customers’ undoubtedly frosty reception to buy on board service.

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There are only snack available really. Things like the plowman’s cheddar sandwich, chocolate bars, etc. And of course it’s really all very healthy. The prices are rather steep though. A sandwich will set you back GBP3, while a coffee is GBP2.80, which I find rather a lot.

I’m an old romantic at heart and I yearn for the good old days when hot meals in Economy Class were the norm and not the exception and were actually edible. Even so, British Airways’ move makes a lot of business sense to me. By reducing complimentary services in the rear of the cabin, the gap between the Economy Class product and the Business Class product is widening again, without the burden of having to invest in a costly upgrade to the premium product or cabin.

But of course the whole thing could also go horribly wrong. From what I could tell, on today’s flight not that many people ordered something from the buy on board selection. Unless British Airways can make this venture worthwhile for Marks & Spencer, it will probably not last very long. But we shall see.

Lufthansa, Business Class – Airbus A 320: Munich to Malta

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Date: 04 March 2017.
Departure: 09h35.
Arrival: 11:40.
From: München.
To: Malta.
Flight time: 2 hours 5 minutes.
Seat: 2F, window.

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INTRODUCTION
A while back I figured it might be a fun idea to participate in the Malta half marathon on Sunday, 5 March 2017. The 21.1km race begins in Rabat, just outside the city gate of Malta’s elegant old capital, Mdina. From there the course takes you all the way down towards the east coast of the island, past Mtarfa, through Mriehel and Marsa to Floriana. From il-Bombi the route branches off to the left, down to the water’s edge at Sa Maison for the last five kilometres, which run along the shoreline of Marsamxet harbour, through the outskirts of Gzira, Msida and Ta’Xbiex to cross the finish line at il-Ferry in Sliema.

GETTING TO MÜNCHEN
And so I find myself in Munich on an early Saturday’s morning. It’s just gone seven as I step off the Bombardier CRJ-900 that has brought me here from Basel. I really think Lufthansa should get rid of these little airplanes. I mean, I love flying but those things are just so narrow and awkward that even I start to get claustrophobia.

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Normally I make a point of flying Air Malta when I travel to the island, mainly because you’re never quite sure if perhaps it might be your last flight with them, given the financial state they’re in. But I only have the weekend to make the trip. I have to be back in Basel by Sunday evening. So on this occasion, Lufthansa was simply the best choice and allowed me to arrive in Malta at noon on Saturday and leave again the next evening after the race. As the German saying goes, in der Not frisst der Teufel Fliegen!

CHECK-IN
I check in using the Lufthansa app, which works nicely. I also think Lufthansa do a very good job in keeping you up to date on the status of your flight, sending you notifications of gate changes by mail and by text message.

LOUNGE
My first stop is the Lufthansa Business Class lounge. It was still early when I left Basel this morning so I only had a coffee at the airport and some still water on the flight to Munich.

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The lounge in Munich is pretty nondescript. Essentially it is just one big cavernous room with a somewhat anonymous, nondescript atmosphere. It gives the appearance of somebody having really made a gargantuan effort to strip the place of any character it might have had. Who designed this place?

I don’t try the showers but the toilets are definitely starting to look a bit rough around the edges. They’re not exactly in the cleanest condition either.

The food options are okay. There is a buffet with typical breakfast fare – a good selection of different breads, cheese, cold cuts, cucumber and tomato. There is also Müsli, fruit salad and scrambled eggs.

BOARDING
Boarding starts at 09h10, fifteen minutes behind the time advised on the boarding pass. The initial call is for Business Class passengers and status card holders to board first, although from what I can tell nobody is really paying attention and the gate agent doesn’t seem too bothered about that either.

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CABIN & SEAT
The seat and cabin have been stripped to the absolute minimum level of comfort. There are no power plugs at all and from what I can tell there is also no inflight entertainment system either, which is okay because the flight attendant doing the safety on board demo seems to be having a whale of a time pretending she’s on the catwalk in Milan or Paris…

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There are three rows of seats in the Business Class cabin this morning, with eleven of the twelve seats occupied. Originally, I’m the lucky guy with a whole row of three to myself. But after take-off Mr 1C moves across to sit next to me on 2D. I suspect he’s probably had enough of the crew tripping over his feet every time they exit the galley.

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 SERVICE & CREW…WHERE ART THOU?
The crew are nondescript too. Not overly gushing but not rude or impolite either. As far as the service is concerned though, I think I’m starting to see a pattern here. In fact I think the service is about as lackluster as the lounge and the crew and the cabin of the aircraft. There are no welcome drinks and no refresher towels. After take-off there is no drinks service ahead of the meal service either.

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THE MEAL
So essentially, this means the service on this flight consists of a unmotivated flight attendant unceremoniously parking a tray before you with grub on it. And what a frugal meal it is! There is a small bowl of some passion fruit concoction, which does, admittedly, taste rather nice. Then there is a small plate, a really small plate, with one slice of some sort of ham, one piece of hard cheese, a blob of cream cheese and more fruit. And that’s it. For a moment I wonder if perhaps somebody I know is trying to give me an oh so subtle hint that I should loose weight by ordering the low-calorie meal for me. But no such luck.

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To drink I have coffee which is tepid and bland and probably even too weak for an American.

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The crew come through the cabin with a large breadbasket, which has more than enough bread in it for the eleven passengers in the Business Class cabin. However, it is quite apparent that seconds from the breadbasket are not encouraged and actually frowned upon by the crew.

When the flight attendant comes to remove my tray she asks me if there’s anything else I’d like to drink. For a moment I consider giving her my best puppy eyes and asking her, with a shaky voice and trembling lips if ‘please Ma’am, can I have some more…’? But then I decide against that, figuring she probably wouldn’t know Dickens anyway. Besides, I think it might cause her physical pain to smile and I’m not that cruel. And so she saunters off in the direction of the galley looking mightily pissed off. A few seconds later she returns with the bread tongs holding one single piece of bread. After all, we wouldn’t want any of the other passengers getting funny ideas now, would we?

I smile and say thank you, to show her I appreciate her effort. But alas, as the saying goes, there’s no hell on earth that’s like a woman’s scorn and my flippant trespass shall not be forgiven so quickly and so the snow queen simply gives me an icy glare before she silently glides away.

The rest of the flight passes just as unspectacularly uneventful as the boring meal service. The woman behind me sounds like she’s got a serious bout of hooping cough, which apparently is alleviated by not covering your mouth when you cough to achieve maximum exposure to your germs for all the passengers in the immediate vicinity, which can be quite a few people in the confined space of an airplane cabin.

ARRIVAL
But all of that recedes into the background as we leave the Sicilian coastline behind us and the captain initiates the descent. We get some spectacular views on the approach. The islands look so green around this time of the year.

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Eventually, we land slightly ahead of schedule. As I step down onto the apron I am consumed by a mix of emotion – wondering what on earth I was thinking to register for the race tomorrow, feeling happy to be back home again and making a mental note to never ever again waste money on a Lufthansa Business Class ticket.

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