British Airways, Business Class – Airbus A 320: London Heathrow to Basel

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TRANSFER IN HEATHROW
I just arrived in London from Madrid on a Boeing 777-200. By the time the bus ejects me on the ground floor of Terminal 5, I have one hour left to make my connection to Basel. So I head up to the transit area and then from there through the automatic boarding pass scanners and on to the escalators that take you up one more floor to the security check area. Only, the queue for security has become so long that they’ve had to turn off the escalators, because passengers are queueing on them and are backed up all the way down to the lower floor.

BOARDING
Eventually, an eternity later, I actually manage to make it through security. I have just enough time to head for the departure gate. As soon as I arrive there, boarding starts. At least this is something that BA does really well: there is a separate queue for passengers with priority, which is boarded first.

From what I can tell, there are eleven rows of Business Class on today’s flight. And by the looks of it, all the seats are taken.

CABIN AND SEAT
This must be a newer addition to the BA fleet. First of all, because it is fitted with the new sharklet type winglets. And secondly, because it is also already fitted in BA’s new cabin. It looks nice, but like all the other fun innovations BA has recently introduced, the main objective of the refurbishment is obviously to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Which translates into one of the tightest pitches out there right now.

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THE CREW
There are two crew working the Business Class cabin today, who seem very friendly. The maître de in particular is professional and courteous.

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THE MEAL
I think we already established on the previous flight that BA’s meal service has seriously taken a beating. Previously, BA would offer a lovely tea service on flights departing in the afternoon. On today’s flight there are two meal options: one is a ploughman’s platter and the other is the afternoon tea. I decide to go with the latter. But this meal is a far cry from what it used to be and consists of three rather small finger sandwiches and a slice of some sweet creamy cake. That’s it.

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ARRIVAL
The flight time to Basel is short at one hour and ten minutes. The ground is wet when we land and it looks as though we came in just behind some severe rain showers passing through the area.

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The airport is busy, but even so the queue for passport control is manageable.

CONCLUSION
Wow, British Airways really is in a sad state right now and service standards have obviously slipped considerably. In addition, their hub at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is nothing short of a nightmare during peak hours. Add to that the fact that you have to go through security when travelling through the UK, the overall passenger experience really is not particularly enjoyable anymore and not one I want to repeat anytime soon. I don’t like!

British Airways, Club Class – Boeing B 777-200: Madrid to London Heathrow

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TRANSFER IN BARAJAS
My flight from Jerez comes to a standstill on stand K103, which is the one but last stand on the north side of Madrid’s terminal 4. My onward connection will be departing from gate S35 in the satellite terminal across the apron. The satellite is connected to the main terminal building by light railway, which makes the journey in about five minutes.

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The only problem though, is that there is a passport check once you get to the other side. And there are people everywhere. It looks as though half of Latin America has decided to congregrate in Madrid’s T4S. It’s round about this time that I start to wonder about the things I do just to fly on a particular aircraft. I could have taken the Iberia flight from Madrid back to Basel – no hassle, non non-Schengen. But no, I had to go with the mighty tripple seven.

There are separate counters for Schengen passport holders, but even this queue is endless, which is hardly surprising given that most of the people in the queue have probably never heard of Schengen. But anyway, eventually it takes me 20 minutes just to reach the head of the queue.

When I finally arrive at the gate, the flight is already in the final stages of preparation for departure. I take the stairs down to the ground floor to catch the bus to the aircraft, only to find it is nearly empty. Eventually, we make our way across the apron. Me and the remaining five passengers.

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Still, one has to look on the bright side: it’s not every day that you get to board a wide-body on a remote stand…

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CABIN
The British Airways cabin is rather unique, with half the seats facing towards the rear of the aircraft and the other half facing forward. The nice thing about this is that if, like me, you like airplanes (you may have guessed), you have a good view of the wing and engines, without having to contort to look back. The window seats are all rear facing.

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Other than that, I really don’t like BA’s long-haul seat. First of all, where other carriers are moving to four seats abreast in their Business Class cabins, British Airways managed to squeeze in a staggering eight seats. The upshot being that there is little to no storage space once you’re in the seat. There is a drawer at floor level, but this is so small that even my 15’ MacBook won’t fit. Also, the seat is fairly low and not particularly convenient to get out of, especially for elderly or less mobile persons. I could go on about all the things I don’t like about this seat and cabin configuration. Suffice to say it is quite apparent that BA’s hardware in Business Class is designed for mass production rather than quality.

Apart from all that, this particular aircraft is also in exceptionally bad condition. There are bits hanging from the ceiling where the panelling has not been properly mounted and the seat and floor are quite simply filthy with old dirt. I don’t mean the kind of oops-we-forgot-to-vacuum dirt but rather the biohazard variety that comes from years of neglect.

CREW
The crew seems friendly enough. I suppose it’s a question of personal preference whether a person uses make-up or not. But I also think it’s a thin line between looking well turned-out and looking like a total slapper. Strangely enough, many British females tends to overdo the make-up and end up falling into the latter category.

We move off stand slightly behind schedule and taxi out to runway 36L for departure. It’s a lovely day for flying and despite the fact that the airport is very busy this time of day, our wait is not too long.

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The fight time is announced as one hour and fifty-five minutes.

THE MEAL
The service begins with the distribution of those flimsy little hot towels. After that, drinks are served with a small packet of cashew nuts.

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BA recently introduced a new meal concept on its European Business Class product, which essentially means they’re trying to reduce costs further by offering less food. And what a sad meal it is! There is a choice between a cheese and beef panino and a chicken and potato salad.

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I decide to go with the beef and cheese panino. The crew hands me the tray, on which there is one plate with two panini and another with dessert. I really have to say this must be one of the most unattractive looking meal trays I’ve ever seen on a Business Class flight. I fully appreciate that all airlines need to reduce their costs to survive, but does that really mean serving meals with such an apparent lack of attention to detail?

By the time the tray is removed, we’re still forty minutes out of Heathrow. I ask the crew if perhaps I might have a cup of coffee, which is apparently not something they want to encourage. Grudgingly, one of them eventually brings me a cup and plonks is on my tray table. Charming, I’m sure…

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ARRIVAL
Surprisingly, we’re not sent into a holding, which makes a nice change from what normally happens at Heathrow. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we’re running late. Our approach brings us in from the east, right over the city, and I am reminded of just how much I really love London. I think I should plan for a visit some time soon. But maybe not necessarily on BA…

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We park on a remote stand. But apparently, the ground services were not expecting us. There are no busses to bring passengers to the terminal. Eventually, after ten minutes on the stand without anything much happening, one lonely bus eventually does pull up next to the aircraft. I’m just not quite sure they’ll manage to fit in all the passengers of a full triple seven into one standard size bus though…

CONCLUSION
The problem with large airlines like British Airways or Lufthansa is that their home markets are huge and can be relied on. As such, they don’t really have an incentive to do better. Because unlike me, most people will prefer to take a direct flight over an connection via another hub. And it shows. The hardware of BA’s product is old, worn and unattractive. The service and the food are bland and boring.

But apart from all that, I also think there has been a continuous deterioration in standards recently and I cannot help but feel that British Airways is going to the dogs.

Iberia, Economy Class – Airbus A 319: Jerez to Madrid

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GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
After two months on the ground, I finally resumed my travels last Friday with a flight from Zürich to Madrid and then from there on to Jerez, where I gave a presentation on the implementation of the ICAO language proficiency requirements and the need to also assess native speakers of English.

I wouldn’t have minded staying a little longer, the weather in Jerez was lovely. But alas, tomorrow I shall already be underway for my next trip. So I really should be heading home.

In Jerez I’m staying at the Hotel Casa Grande, which is right in the centre of town overlooking a quaint little square.

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The taxi picks me up outside the hotel just after eight in the morning. The journey to the airport takes about 15 to 20 minutes to complete, depending on the level of insane Spanish driving that you encounter, and will set you back about EUR20. There are busses to and from the airport too, and there is even a railway station opposite the terminal. But both the busses and trains are infrequent and the schedule is not always convenient.

CHECK-IN
I’ve already checked in using the Iberia app, the reliability of which is a bit of a hit or miss affair – but mostly miss. In the name of investigative blogging (yeah, right…), I nonetheless check out the departures area, to find that Iberia has two counters open for its flights to Madrid: one counter for regular passengers and another for Business Class passengers and status holders.

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The terminal is an interesting building that looks more like a railway station, with a high ceiling and a mezzanine floor overlooking the check-in hall.

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BOARDING
Security is swift and efficient. Once you’re airside, there are five departure gates. There is also a small café and of course a duty free shop. And that’s just about it really. There is no lounge, so I’m roughing it in the common gate area and hoping I won’t catch anything…

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Just after nine in the morning the gate agent appears. Is that blue make-up she’s wearing? I thought that had gone out of fashion when ABBA broke up many moons ago. I really make my best effort to supress a laugh when I see her, because she looks and behaves just like that woman from Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. You know, the one with the wingtip spectacles that’s just come out of the asylum.

Her face, the gate agent’s that is, is set in a perpetual pout and she’s squinting her heavily made-up eyes as though she can barely see a thing. Boarding starts somewhat unceremoniously when she yells out to the public at large ‘Madrid, embarque passajeros de priority’. Looks like we’re boarding.

Aaaand, jackpot! Jerez does not have airbridges, so we’re having to walk across the apron to our aircraft and board using the stairs. Cool! It’s a shame the sun is directly facing, but I think I still manage to take a few good photos of my chariot to Madrid.

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CABIN
I am seated on 10F, which is a window seat on the emergency exit of the A 319. This aircraft looks slightly different from the A 319 on my flight from Zürich. First of all, where that aircraft had the typical Recaro slimline seat most European carriers seem to favour these days, this model has the same type of seat as Air France. The cabin divider is also different.

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The legroom is good on the emergency exit. The only drawback is that the armrests on the emergency exit row are shorter. As such, they’re just a bit too short to be able to comfortably rest your arm on them.

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CREW
The crew consists of a female purser in her mid-fifties, I should think, and two young men that look, quite frankly, as though they’ve never previously seen the inside of an airplane and don’t exactly instil confidence. Also, their English is atrocious, verging on non-existent.

Just past our scheduled departure time at 09h30, the captain comes on the blower to announce a slight delay, which is caused by a minor technical issue the ground engineer needs to sign off first. But the delay drags on and eventually we depart 45 minutes behind schedule.

SERVICE
Iberia has been offering buy on board service for a while now. On short flights such as this (one hour), they don’t even bother to bring out the trolley and all items have to be ordered using the call button for the cabin crew.

I’ve never liked the concept of buy on board, but so far I’ve never really been able to explain, rationally, why that is. It’s not the money I think. It just never really felt right. On this flight though, I think it finally dawns on me what it is exactly that bothers me. Or rather what it is about full-service airlines that I prefer: the on board service, is, quite simply, the only opportunity the airline gets to interact with its customers. And that is the only thing they can leverage to set themselves apart. Even if you only get a packet of stale biscuits. There is always some interaction with the crew and, by extension, the brand. But on a buy on board airline, the interaction only becomes possible once, or if, the customer decides to make a purchase.

And this flight is a good example of that. The seat is in the same boring grey you get on Lufthansa, for example, and apart from the inflight magazine and the crew’s uniform, there is nothing in the cabin that might indicate to you that this is an Iberia aircraft or that you’re going to enjoy the typical Iberia experience.

ARRIVAL
The flight is uneventful and eventually we land in Barajas just after 11h20.

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By the time we come to a stop at our assigned stand, it’s already 11h30. I now have fifty minutes to make my onward connection.

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Mamà Framboise, Madrid

Mamà Framboise is a confiserie and patisserie with various shops scattered around Madrid. I visited the one in the Recoleto quarter of the city, which is located on the ground floor of a mall just off the surprisingly named Plaza Margaret Thatcher (Say what?)

The service concept is a bit strange, mainly because the staff are all too busy to explain properly. But it’s still worth it. First you have to wait to be assigned a table by one of the waiting staff. Once you have a table, you can then go back to the entrance and queue at the counter to place your order and pay. The food will then be brought to your table. The queues can be rather long, but they tend to move quickly. Besides, the delicacies they serve are, in my humble opinion, well worth the wait.

I went with the Tiramisù and the Blueberry Cheesecake, both of which were sinfully good and oh so tasty. The cheesecake was filled with fresh blueberries and the combination of coffee and chocolate in the Tiramisù was heavenly.

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My partner went with the Chocolate Sacher and Caramel, both of which were also very good.

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www.mamaframboise.com

Segovia, Spain

Segovia lies about 70 kilometres north of Madrid. To reach the town by train, you have to catch a RENFE mid-haul train from Chamartin, which is the main station for all trains heading north from the Spanish capital. The journey to Segovia only takes 27 minutes, with the train travelling at an impressive top speed of 250 km/h for most of the journey. The railway station of Segovia is literally out in the sticks though. You exit the station building to find cows grazing in the fields opposite.

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To get into town you can either take the bus lines 11 and 12 or you can take a taxi. The journey takes between 10 and 15 minutes by bus. The bus services are infrequent, but they are timed to coincide with the arrivals and departures of the trains. So it’s best to check for trains back to the station once you arrive at the city centre.

The centrepiece of Segovia is the Roman aqueduct that is believed to have been constructed in 98 A. D. Apart from its impressive length and height, the amazing thing about the aqueduct is that the building blocks are held together by precision and weight only. There is no mortar or anything of the sort to keep them in place.

Other than that, there is the Alcazar, which lies on the opposite side of the city from the aqueduct. The castle is rather strange because it does not really fit in, architecturally, with the rest of the buildings in the town and looks more like a French château, and not like something you would expect to find in Spain.

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For EUR2.50 you can go up the tower of the Alcazar. I can highly recommend doing this. It’s only 156 steps and from the top you have these amazing views of the surrounding countryside and those big skies you rarely get to see in a place as mountainous and densely populated as Sitzerland, where I live.

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I had three hours to walk around and explore the old town, which I really enjoyed. If you can make it, I would definitely recommend a visit to Segovia.