Belgrade is a strange place, when you think of it. First of all, it’s not exactly pretty. There are a few elegant buildings that look as though they were recently done up, scattered around the city. But the vast majority of the streets and buildings look as though they’re in a sad state of repair. Of course, the buildings littered around town that still carry the vestiges of war, even after all these year, certainly don’t help to make the city look appealing.
But nonetheless, there is something about Belgrade. It’s a city I like being in. Probably it has something to do with the green trams you see in the street that were given to Belgrade transport by the city of Basel in Switzerland, where I live.
GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
In Belgrade I’m staying at the Radisson Blu Old Mill, which is located on the fringe of the city centre. It’s a really nice building and the rooms are elegantly appointed. To get to the airport this morning I’ve decided to order the hotel shuttle. As far as I’m concerned, the shuttle is good value for money at EUR25 per ride for up to four passengers. The shuttle van is extremely comfortable, there’s wifi and they’ve even provided water.
I’ve checked-in online using the Air Serbia website. At the airport, Air Serbia has its own dedicated section in the terminal and there are a lot of check-in counters available. It is also possible to check in using the self-service devices. But access to these is blocked by a very long queue of passengers checking in for the Antalya flight when I arrive.
Immigration is one floor up from the general check-in area. There’s even a fast track for Business Class passengers. Although in the sum of all things, it’s likely to be the most useless, superfluous fast track ever. First of all, because it’s only the fast track for immigration, the security check is done right at the gate. And secondly, because the passport booth at the end of the fast track is unmanned. The one next to it is marked ‘staff only’, and just by looking at her it becomes apparent that the immigration officer on that line really, really couldn’t give a shit…
From immigration I head straight for the lounge. There are two lounges right next to each other at Belgrade airport. The Air Serbia lounge is a bit further down the hall from the general purpose lounge. But it’s well signposted.
The lounge is empty when I arrive. I take a seat and once the staff have finished discussing whatever, one of the young ladies comes to ask me what I’d like to drink.
The lounge is nice and includes a separate dining area, toilets and showers and separate washrooms for ablution before the Muslim prayer. There is also a separate dining area. As you enter the lounge they’ll tell you that no boarding calls are made. Which is true, although the lounge dragon will still come to light a fire under your butt if she thinks you’re overstaying.
Belgrade uses a closed gate system, which is all sorts of awkward. First of all, because there’s hardly enough space in the gate area to hold all the passengers of a fully booked Airbus A 319. Secondly, because there’s no separate lane or anything of the sort for Business Class passengers. Once you’re inside the gate, there is a separate queuing line for Business Class passengers, but nobody, including the gate agent, seems to pay that any attention.
The last time I flew Air Serbia, they still had a dedicated Business Class cabin, which was really something else and made a refreshing change from the usual misguided European concept of Business Class comfort. But alas, with Etihad pulling the plug on Air Serbia, the carriers has had to adapt to the harsh realities of the European aviation market, and has replaced those lovely seats it had with standard Economy Class seats – simply leaving the middle seat empty in Business Class. All in all, there’s nothing wrong with Air Serbia adapting its product to that of the competition. But Air Serbia also operates the A 319 on flights to Abu Dhabi, which has a block time of about six hours. Luckily, I’ve never had to do it myself, but I’m very sure I would not want to spend six hours in this seat, especially not if I’m paying a Business Class fare for it.
There are three cabin crew on this flight. The lead purser is very senior, to the point where I’m wondering why she hasn’t retired yet to be able to spend more time with her grandchildren. Having said that, the advantage of having such senior cabin crew, is that they tend to be more at ease with themselves and usually have a way with passengers. And the purser on today’s flight is no exception.
While we’re still on the ground, one of the cabin crew offers me a bottle of still water. But there are no refreshing towels or anything of the sort.
The flight time is announced as one hour and thirty minutes.
While the aircraft is still on the ground, the crew distribute menus for me and the other passenger in the Business Class cabin.
Although to be honest, I really wonder why they even bothered. The appetizer (!) is announced as a packet of peanuts. And for the main course, there is a choice between Serbian mezze and a Caesar salad. I order the Serbian mezze, which means that the other passenger is inevitably left with the Caesar salad, because apparently they only loaded one of each.
When I last flew Air Serbia, I really was quite blown away by their service. In fact, truth be told, back then I thought it was a bit over the top. In addition to the nice, comfortable seats, they also served a hot meal on a short flight of ninety minutes and even found time for a proper starter and dessert. But the meal I am served on today’s flight couldn’t be more different. I mean, given the sad state of Etihad and Air Serbia, I really wasn’t expecting a hot meal service any more. But not this. The meal arrives in a cardboard box. They don’t even use proper cutlery anymore, and instead, the crew give me a plastic fork and knife to contend with. Even the Coke Zero I order is served in a plastic cup. There is no bread with the service and the peanut appetizer, as it were, has obviously also been done away with unceremoniously. For dessert there should have been a choice between some typically Serbian walnut biscuit and a vanilla biscuit. Again, in reality the word ‘choice’ really means that I am given one biscuit, while the other passenger receives the other. Whether he likes it or not…
After the meal, I ask for a cup of coffee. To be honest, I already started to regret my request before the coffee had even arrived. The purser asks me if I’d like a black coffee, so Nescafé. I tell her I’d like some milk as well. To which she explains that they don’t have milk any more but that she could make me an instant cappuccino instead, if I don’t mind it being a little sweet…
Eventually we start our descent into Zürich. Fortunately, 14h30 is not a busy time at Zürich, so there’s no hold up for the approach. We come to a stop at one of the B gates at 14h28. By 14h43 I’m already on the train to Zurich main station, from where I’ll catch a train to Basel.
Air Serbia is falling apart
I must say, I really am quite amazed by my experience on Air Serbia today. There was really nothing at all about this flight that made it deserving of the label ‘Business Class’. Since Etihad stopped its funding in the company, Air Serbia has really gone to shit. As such, their progression into decay seems somewhat symptomatic of the state of the whole Etihad group. From the look of things, Etihad’s modus operandi so far appears to have been to simply throw as much money at an airline until it starts to look like yet another version of Etihad. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if only Etihad were a better airline.
Following the demise of Air Berlin and their rather ill-advised investment in Alitalia – at least they should have seen that one coming…- Etihad Airways announced recently that it would be focussing its strategy on providing good air service to and from its home in Abu Dhabi. There’s nothing wrong about that either, in theory. But Abu Dhabi is not Dubai. Abu Dhabi is quiet, more conservative and unlikely to attract the tourists like Dubai does. Which leaves the local market. But that will hardly work for Etihad, given that it’s a very small market that is, moreover, only a ninety minutes’ drive away from Dubai airport.