Air Malta – Boeing B 720B

Introduction

I am aware of the fact that for many people, the isolation that comes with social distancing is distressing and may be the cause of concern and anxiety; and by no means to I want to diminish or disregard the struggle of anyone finding it difficult to cope in the face of this unprecedented situation.

For me though, the pandemic has also had its good sides. It has certainly allowed me to slow down considerably, especially given how much travelling I was doing before the outbreak. And when I feel the need to escape the physical confines of the current situation, my happy place are the memories of the many places I have been fortunate enough to visit over the years. And of course, those memories tend to come with a very heavy dosage of airplanes and airports.

This blog post is not so much of a trip report. I’d rather avoid calling it a trip down memory lane too because that is just lame… But rather, when I went through the photos I am posting here, I kept wondering to myself ‘man, how on earth did they manage back then…?’. I like to think that in many years to come, people will look back on 2020 and think the same; and then come to the realisation that while perhaps nothing is still the same, at least it has changed for the better.

So, it’s 1987, 33 years ago. I’m a slightly awkward thirteen year-old adolescent. My face, or rather my upper lip, is covered in a dark, downy fluff which I’d like to get rid of. But rumour has it among the other boys at school that if I take my dad’s shaver to get rid of the stuff, it’ll only come back stronger, until eventually I’ll have it all over my face and will have to get rid of it on a daily basis – unless of course, I want to end up looking like captain caveman…

Buying a ticket

In 1987 the world wide web is still three years away. As such, tickets have to be purchased with a travel agent or directly with the airline by phone or by visiting one of their airport or town offices.

But at least for your efforts the airlines have the decency to provide you with a ticket wallet for your travel documents.

The airline ticket is something that exists independently of the flight booking or PNR. The ticket has a document number and a ticket number. The first three numbers are the airline designator. So in this case, 643 marks an Air Malta document. The airline ticket is a booklet with a maximum of four coupons, the passenger receipt and the audit coupon.

And yes, back in 1987 a hand-written ticket is actually quite normal, as long as the validator in the top right corner is visible. Bascally, every coupon in the ticket had a sheet of red carbon paper at the back, so what is written on the first page is printed on all subsequent pages too.

In Economy Class there are only few different booking classes, such as the APEX, PEX, SUPERPEX and Full fare. The main difference between the PEX fares and the full fare is that the fomer have a restricted validity period, for example one month from the date of original departure.

Check-in

In the absence of computers or a check-in system, in Malta at least, check-in is done completely manually. Which means that first the station prints a passenger list with all the names. Then a twin desk of counters opens for check-in, with two agents sharing large sheets of papers with small stickers on them with seat numbers. To issue the boarding pass, the check-in agent first peels off the sticker and stamps it to an empty boarding pass. Then they write down the seat assignment on the passenger list. Check-in closes when there are no stickers left or all the names have been ticked off…

The Boeing B 720

When the Maltese government decided to set up its own airline, it soon realised there was no expertise on the island to do so. Initially, the tender to support the government in setting up an airline was supposed to go to Pan Am. But then at the last moment Pakistan International Airline made a bid that was simply too good to refuse – because it also included three used Boeing B 720s. At the time, the offer faced a lot of opposition in Malta, because it was obvious that the aircraft PIA was offering Air Malta were already quite old. Even so, the Maltese government went ahead and in April of 1974, Air Malta set up operation. Later on, they would purchase two more of the type from Western Airlines to operate a total of five aircraft. The Boeing B 720 remained with Air Malta until 1989, when they were replaced with a fleet of six factory new Boeing B 737-200s.

I more or less grew up with the Boeing B 720. We lived in St. George’s bay, which is quite near the airport in Malta. The P&W JT3D-1 turbofan engines were outrageously loud by today’s standard and made a very distinct noise that sounded a lot like a whistle. As such, they were rather hard to miss.

I always enjoyed the B 720 because it felt very solid, as though it was built to last. But as a child you don’t realise or understand that nothing lasts for ever. When I was young I was always keen to try out new aircraft when we travelled as a family. When Air Malta started taking delivery of the B 737s, I would always hope there would be an aircraft change and that we’d get one of those instead of the rickety old 720s. But today I must say, I really miss the aircraft.

Catering

Back in those days, catering was not one of Air Malta’s fortes, and quite frankly they could have done without asking your for beef or chicken, because most of the time it was impossible to identify what was on the tray in front of you anyway. I haven’t got any photos of Air Malta meals from back then, but I did find some interesting ‘accessories’ in my archives.

Conclusion

Air Malta is now 46 years old, like me. After the Boeing B 720 and the B 737-200 the company went on to operate the B 737-300, -400 and -700, the B 727-100 and -200, the BAe ATP, the Avro RJ70, the Airbus A 310-200, and a few wet-leased types. Right now, the company is in the process of replacing its A 320 fleet with the A 320NEO. It remains to be seen how Air Malta will weather the storm, especially given that tourism is Malta’s bread and butter and the airline’s main role is to deliver fresh tourists to the island.

The BAe ATP and the Airbus A 310 are the only two types operated by Air Malta that I never flew on with the airline. The B 737s were always fine. The Avro RJ70 was dreaful and so cramped it really was nothing short of a human rights violation. But the Boeing B 720B will always be the best of the lot. Probably not just beause it dates back to an era when airlines simply saw now need to have to pack in the tourist and could therefore afford to give passengers at least some comfort – even in Economy Class. But I also think I will always be very fond of the B 720B because I associate it with summer holidays at the beach in Malta.

Kruisheren Hotel

The building housing the monastery of the Crutched Friars of the Order of the Holy Cross in the beautiful city of Maastricht is one of only very few buildings in the Netherlands build in the Gothic tradition that remains intact in its entirety.

In 2003 what used to be the monastery was sold to a hotel group and turned into the Kruiserenhotel, which is also a member of the Design Hotels. The hotel lies in a central location just off the main square of the town and about twenty minutes walk from the main railway station.

Once you are inside the hotel, there is a large outdoor courtyard that is closed off on all sides and is very serene and quiet. Generally speaking, there is something very grand and imposing about the place that constantly has you feeling you really should be whispering.

The hotels’s public area with the resturant and bar are probably the most spectacular features of the hotel. In the bar, the decor is kept in plush, extravagant dark red velvet that clashes dramatically with the austere lines of the gothic architecture.

The restaurant sits on top of the bar and here the decor is kept simple, presumably so as not to distract from the spectacular ceiling that gives an impression of infinity in the abesence of any other visual references to gauge the height. Which is probably the effect they were already aiming for when it was still a church.

There are sixty rooms in the hotel. The decor is something you may like or you may not. The contrast is certainly interesting between the bright decorations and the vaulted gothic ceilings in the building. A lot of the hotel’s design is dictated by the fact that when work started to turn the building into a hotel, they were not permitted to alter the structure. As such, anything that was added had to be inserted to the existing buildings.

All in all, the rooms at the Kruisheren are fairly small, after all the rooms were built for modesty and not opulence. But the hotel is comfortable, and even if you’re not staying, it’s definitely worth a visit.

The food at the hotel is very good and dining in a church is an interesting experience. They have a tasting menu which is extensive and probably safe even for the pickiest eater, because they will adapt the menus to suit your preferences.

SAS, Economy Class – Boeing B 737-600: Stockholm Arlanda to Zürich

This post isn’t so much of a trip report as it is a commentary. The Boeing B 737 is the most successful jet airliner in aviation history, with a total of more than 10’500 aircraft of the type built. It is currently in its fourth generation with the ill-fated B737 Max, the future of which does not look too bright in the wake of the two fatal accidents more than two years ago.

The B 737 was originally built to operate from small airports with limited infrastructure. This meant that the aircraft’s layout required it not to be too high off the ground for better access for the service vehicles and for the possibility to incorporate a set of retractable passenger stairs.

The result was an aircraft with a short, stuby appearance. It is most easily recognisable by the fact that the engines had to be mounted directly under the wing in order to maintain enough clearance to the ground and thus to avoid them becoming contaminated by ingesting debris lying on the ground.

Over the years, the B 737’s fuselage has been stretched a number of times. The wing has also been modified, together with new avionics and more powerful engines. The original B 737-100 was only 29 metres long. Today, the longest version of the type is the B 737-900 at 42 metres.

The B 737-600 is a bit of a squirt, at just 31 metres length. It is also the least successful model of the B 737 series, with only 69 aircraft ever built. Of those 69 aircraft, only about half remain in active service in 2020. Part of the -600’s problem was that it was simply too heavy for the number of passengers it was able to carry, which might also explain why it is the only version of the B 737 for which the manufacturer did not offer the option to have winglets, which would only serve to make the aircraft even more overweight.

SAS was the first and, at one time, the largest operator of the B 737-600, with a fleet of 30 units that were ordered mainly for domestic operations in Sweden. Their intention had been to replace part of their fleet of old DC-9s and MD-80s with the -600. The Scandinavian airline decommissioned its last B 737-600 in 2019.

The much more elegant MD-80 that the B 737-600 ought to have replaced…

For the passenger though, the -600 had a lot to offer in terms of comfort, because the cabin of the B 737 in general is much wider than that of other hundred seaters currently in the market, such as the Embraer 195 or the A 220. At least on the -600 there were hardly ever any issues finding a place to store your hand luggage in the overhead bin. As such, it made for a rather pleasant ride on the sector such as Stockholm to Zürich, which has a flight time of slightly more than two hours.

On the face of it, the benefits of having a standard model aircraft for a specific type of mission and then offering it in different models in varying sizes makes a lot of senses, especially in terms of crew training, planning flexibility and maintenance. And for the larger of the B 737 types, that obviously seems to have worked rather well. But the -600 also shows that at the bottom end of the scale, there comes a point where the benefits from having cockpit commonality and sharing parts with other types can no longer make up for the fact that you are, at the end of the day, carrying around with you a lot of dead weight that directly translates in the amount of kerosene you have to upload. That was pretty much the also experience Airbus made with its mini Airbus A 318, of which only 80 were built.

Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens and Primrose Hill

As you exit Oxford Circus Station and step into the street, there are four ways you can go. Heading west will take you up Oxford Street to Marble Arch, while heading east will take you down the other half of Oxford Street to Tottenham Court Road. You can also turn into Regent Street and head south, past Liberty’s, Hamley’s and the entrance to Carnaby Street towards Picadilly Circus.

Or else, you could just head up north in the direction of the BBC building. Keep on going until eventually you will stumble upon a very small enclosed park, which is known as the crescent and which houses, among other things, the entrance to Regent’s Park tube station. Keep heading north. Cross the road and you will find yourself at the entrance to the much larger Regent’s Park.

Queen Mary’s Rose Garden is located in the middle of Regent’s Park. The entrance is quite unspectacular, but if you go there when the flowers are in bloom, the delicate scent of the roses is quite dazzling the moment you step into the garden. Inside the garden it’s easy to forget that you’re actually still in London, one of the busiest cities in Europe. It’s peaceful and quiet and there are plenty of benches to sit and take in the sights and the smells of your surroundings.

Eventually, if you keep heading north you will arrive at the entrance to London Zoo and the exit from the park. Exit Regent’s Park and then turn east to walk along the canal, until eventually you will emerge in Camden Town near the old Camden Lock.

By this time, you may be feeling hungry. As some of you may know, I have a bit of a thing about Indian food. And fortunately for me, there is a Masala Zone in Camden that also opens for lunch. Without fail, I always have the Grand Thali…

On Camden High Street keep heading in a northwesterly direction towards Chalk Farm tube station. Turn left into a narrow lane that will eventually take you up on a foot bridge across the railway lines. Cross the bridge and keep walking until eventually you reach another vast green area – and that is Primrose Hill.

Primrose Hill is not a natural formation. The mound is man-made and was created when the engineers of London started excavating to build the tube. The rubble they dug out of the ground was eventually dumped in the same place and eventually created the hill.

From up top you have a brilliant view of the London sky line. In the summer is a nice spot to just sit and watch the city.

Al-Maha Resort Dubai

Introduction

The Al-Maha Resort is situated around half-way between the city of Dubai and the town of Al-Ain, which is actually in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. On clear days you can see as far as the Hajjar Mountains that separate the United Arab Emirates from the Sultanate of Oman.

Originally, the hotel belonged to the Emirates Airlines group, but has since been sold to Marriott Hotels.

Al-Maha is the Arab word for an oryx antilope, of which you’re likely to see quite a few during your stay. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you may catch one of the braver animals venturing right up to the edge of your pool for a drink in the early morning.

The Rooms

The hotel only has free standing villas, most of which have their own private pool and vary mostly in terms of size and the number of quests they can accommodate.

The interior of the villas is very Lawrence of Arabia, if oyu know what I mean, but they’re comfortable enough. The villas also have an easel, canvas and paints – in case you feel inspired to express your creativity during your stay. And I must admit, the light on the desert during the twilight hours really is quite spectacular to watch.

The Private Pool

So, as I already mentioned, most villas come with their own private pool. There is also a larger, common pool. But during my stay I don’t think I ever saw anybody in the larger pool.

The layout of the individual villas offers a lot of privacy. There is the main deck right by the steps leading into the pool. And then there is a separate sun deck off to the right.

Activities

I suppose if you wanted to, you could drive in to Dubai from the Al-Maha for some shopping or sightseeing. The journey by car without traffic is probably around 45 minutes. But in Dubai there is always traffic, and a lot of it.

The hotel does offer a good range of outdoor activities, which usually are scheduled for the early morning or in the evening, when the sun is not so fierce. You can go dune surfing, visit the falconry station or take a camel ride into the desert in the evenings for a sundowner.

Conclusion

I very much enjoyed my stay at the Al-Maha, mainly because I just loved the size of that private pool and because the venue of the hotel really is in a nice spot. There is something quite poetic about the desert. Other than that though, while the villa was comfortable, the style was not so much my cup of tea. Although I should say that the fittings and furnishings of the villa was very nice.

The Chedi on Ghubrah Beach

Introduction

The Chedi Muscat is one of my favourite resorts. It’s just a very nicely finished and very well managed hotel. The moment you set foot inside the beautiful lobby, you just know you’re going to enjoy your stay.

I have no idea who the interior designer of the hotel is, but they definitely took good care to incorporate local architecture in the layout of the grounds and the individual buildings. As such, The Chedi is laid out in a style that is clearly reminiscent of the Al-Hambra in Spain. There is the main building with the lobby, restaurants and the standard rooms. But then there are the garden villas, the spa and the lounge, which are set amid neatly trimmed lawns and connected with each other by a system of elegant fountains and ponds.

The Service

The service at the Chedi is impeccable and very attentive. When you arrive, the first thing that happens is that you are seated and brought a wonderful rose scented cold towel and a glass of iced lemon water with mint. Everything is explained in detail, and the staff will point out things that may be of interest to you along the way as they show you to your room or villa.

There are many comfortable seating options outside where you can just lounge or have a drink. However, you have to keep in mind that this is Oman and the heat and humidity can be very high in the summer months. So sitting outside may not be the best idea, unless you’re visiting in winter. Even in the evenings, the temperature rarely dips below thirty degrees.

The Rooms

The rooms are richly appointed and very well maintained. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to capture all the fine details on photo. I usually stay in one of the garden villas, which have their own small patio and, in some cases, overlook one of the many ponds.

The villas are very private, and even when you’re sitting outside, you rarely every see any of the other guests.

I can highly recommend breakfast out on the patio, if you’re staying in a villa. But again, with the heat it’s probably best to have an early breakfast before the temperature and the humidity become too stifling.

The Beach

If you’re going for a classic beach front vacation, The Chedi may not be what you’re looking for. The hotel has its own private section along Ghubrah Beach, and while it’s clean, it’s also not spectacularly beautiful. Furthermore, there are a few things to keep in mind when you’re at the beach in Oman: it gets so hot that it’s basically impossible to walk in the sand barefoot. You will literally burn your feet.

And don’t expect any respite once you enter the water, because the sea is warm too. You have to swim out quite far for the temperature of the water to cool down and refresh you. But unless you’re a good swimmer and used to swimming in the open sea, I really wouldn’t venture too far out.

The Pools

The Chedi has three pools. One is for adults only and is close to the main building. Then there is a second pool down by the beach, and eventually the long pool in the most recently added part of the hotel. My favourite is definitely the beach side pool, because there’s usually a nice breeze going there and it offers enough shade to avoid the worst of the sun. And the pool restaurant is very good too!

The Location

Muscat is the name of a fairly large, sprawling area along the coast of Oman. As such, The Chedi is in Muscat but it’s still on the outskirts of the actual city. If you’re just visiting for a resort vacation and aren’t planning on going anywhere anyway, then that’s fine. But if you’re intending to see the sights, you’ll probably need a car or a driver. However, this is not necessarily a drawback specific to The Chedi, it’s an issue you’ll face which every hotel you stay at in the area.

The royal palace, the souk and the Corniche along the harbour are all located in Mutrah, which is about twenty minutes by car from the hotel. If you are going to rent a car in Oman, the good thing is that the petrol is dirt cheap. The driving is an experience.

Conclusion

The Chedi is a lovely hotel. It’s quiet, calm and very relaxing. It offers a lot of privacy to its guests and the grounds are extensive enough to make it easy to avoid having to interact with the other guests if you don’t feel like it.

The staff are exceptionally nice and genuinely friendly. Whether it’s in the lobby, by the pool or in the restaurant, they always have time for a friendly chat and ask you how your day has been.