The day before my departure, I get a call from Swiss International Air Lines about my flight to Dubai. The friendly agent informs me that
- there are no lounges open at Zürich Airport,
- there is no First Class check-in available,
- only Terminal 3 remains open in Dubai,
- and therefore, SWISS will not provide a meet and greet service on arrival nor a lounge on departure from Dubai.
So basically, this means the SWISS First Class experience is going to be limited to the service on board.
Getting to the airport
The schedule for the SWISS flight to Dubai has changed. The flight now leaves at 16h15, instead of at noon, and arrives at the rather ungodly hour of 01:15. The flight also no longer continues on to Muscat from Dubai.
I take the 13h37 airport train from Basel’s Swiss railway station, which gets me into Zürich Airport at 15h04, slightly more than an hour before my flight to Dubai is scheduled to depart. With the Swiss Federal Council’s recommendation to do home office whenever possible, the trains are not so full these days. And so, today I have a whole carriage all to myself up until the last stop before the airport.
My first stop is at the check-in counters in Zürich’s Terminal A. The lady checking me in is friendly. We have a brief chat behind the plexiglass screen and it turns out she and I worked for Swissair in the same building at the same time.
The check-in area is very quiet.
Airside & boarding
The situation airside is not much better. Most of the restaurants are closed, except for those that are able to provide food for take away. A lot of the shops are closed as well. It’s quite sad to see, really.
The ramp outside isn’t all that busy either.
The E pier at Zürich airport has been shut down, with the stands there being used for aircraft storage. As a result, all long-haul flights are now serving the B pier, which has both a Schengen and non-Schengen area. The non-Schengen gates are on the lower D concourse.
I go through passport control and head one floor down to ground level – and the place is crawling with people. My flight is departing from D43, which is the last gate. There is a document check before you can enter the holding area. There is no social distancing, half the passengers just walk through, seemingly oblivious to the queues and the staff can only watch helplessly as the chaos unfolds. It’s not really their fault, although I think it is quite apparent that there simply isn’t enough staff on hand to properly manage the situation.
Boarding begins with a call for HON Circles, Senators and Star Gold members to board first. And immediately, the scrum begins… The picture below was taken even before the boarding call was made.
So I figure I might as well wait for the queue to disperse before heading on board. There is only one airbridge attached to the L2 door.
This is my first trip in SWISS First Class in a very long time and my first flight in the upgraded First Class seat with the sliding door. Generaly speaking, I think the seat is quite nice to look at. The first impression is good. But I also think the cabin looks a bit bland and, quite frankly, boring. And I suspect it will probably not age well either.
Storage space is good, though. There is place to store bags under the ottoman, and there’s also a drawer in the ottoman itself. More conveniently, there is a fairly large space in the side of the seat that is big enough to store a laptop.
Trying to find a position that is fully comfortable is not quite so easy, and the the pre-selected settings for sleeping and lounging are not much use. But the cool thing about the seat is that every part of it can be moved independently.
The seat offers a reasonable amount of privacy with its sliding doors, even though they don’t fully close. It’s not quite as private as the heavy curtains Air France has in its First Class cabin, but I think it’s better than nothing.
A pillow wrapped in plastic, a pair of slippers, a disinfectant towel and the vanity kit are already at my seat when I finally get on board.
First Class passengers are also given a voucher for 50MB of complimentary wifi during the flight, which doesn’t work all that well, though.
As soon as I’m settled, the crew bring me the menus and offer me a drink. I have a glass of sparkling water, served with warm cashew nuts with herbs, which I don’t try.
By the time we push back, we’re already running forty minutes late. The flight time is announced at six hours. The first officer welcomes all passengers aboard and informs us that we’re going to have to make a stop at the de-icing pad on our way to the active runway and that as a result, we should expect a one hour delay on arrival in Dubai.
Even in these strange and troubling times, I take comfort in the fact that some things obviously never change… and the Airbus A 340-300 remains a really very bad climber. The engines spool up with an agonised howl and we gradually, slowly start picking up speed, until eventually we’re airborne.
Once we settle into the cruise, the crew start their preparations for the meal service. My table it set with a crisp white table cloth.
To start off the meal, there is a mousse of gruyère cheese, served with a butter flûte in cumin. With that I have a glass of the Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle, which is a nice pairing. For the rest of the meal I have still water only.
Passengers have a choice of olive oil, butter or both to go with the warm bread.
The table is set with the wooden salt and pepper mills, which I find rather surprising, given the COVID19 situation. I would have thought they would have taken those out of use, at least temportarily.
There is a wide selection of dishes to choose from for the first course. Due to the restrictions in place, the first course is not plated in front of the passengers from a trolley any more. Instead, passengers order with the crew, who will then bring the plates out directly from the galley.
I go with the Balik salmon, served with crème fraîche, and the smoked char with a romanesco and cauliflower couscous and cauliflower cream. Both starters are really very good and of good quality.
The salad is lovely. It comes with caramelised apples, veal speck, pumpkin seeds and a pumpkin vinaigrette.
For the main course, again I go with the fish. And what an exceptionally good piece of fish it is! This must be one of the best main dishes I’ve ever had on a plane. The fish is perfectly cooked. It’s moist and not at all dry and the lemon beurre blanc is a smooth, velvety revelation. I am absolutely delighted!
Let’s face it, by this time I’m already quite full. But I’ve always been a sucker for a nice bit of cheese. And so, when the friendly cabin crew comes to remove the main course and asks me if I’d like to try the cheese… a man is only so strong.
The plate is nicely presented on a round slate. The cheese on it are Tomme, Chèvre Frais, Vacherin, Gruyère Vieux and Bleu de Gruyère. The cheese is served with pear bread, warm buns and crackers. With that I have a glass of sweet white wine, the name of which I forget.
I’m hoping I’ll be able to find a place to go for a jog during my stay in Dubai to pay for my sins… Yes, I confess. I have dessert too. And I’m not even all that ashamed of it either. Perhaps a little bit guilty. Dessert is mousse of white and dark Toblerone chocolate, served with slices of fresh orange and an orange sorbet. With that I have some Sirocco mint tea, which is served in an elegant, small tea pot.
To conclude the meal, the crew pass through the cabin with a box of Sprüngli pralines, which most passengers refuse. I ask the cabin crew if she knows what the individual ones are. To which she responds that she really doesn’t know. However, she offers me a deal, and tells me I can have as many of them as I like, as long as I promise to tell her what’s in them for future reference. And so it falls to me to help out the poor woman in her cluelessness. But I will not say how many I eventually end up having…
After the meal, I close the doors and extend the seat into a lounging position to read until we start our descent. The crew pass through the cabin a number of times with snacks. But I resist.
The crew on this flight are really good. They very strictly enforce the COVID19 measures and are quick to remind passengers to do the same. Apart from that though, I think they’re putting a lot of effort into making the best of a really shitty situation, by trying to make passengers comfortable and putting them at ease. Their interaction with the passengers is friendly and personal, but without ever crossing the line and being intrusive. And I think they do a good job. Throughout the flight the passengers in the First Class cabin are very well taken care of, and nothing seems to be too much effort for the crew.
Eventually, we land in Dubai with a delay of about 45 minutes. It’s just coming up 2 o’clock in the morning when we touch down. I think this is the first time I’ve ever arrived into Dubai without there being any holding delays. The airport is very quiet. We taxi to the remotest remote stand they could have possibly found, passing row after row of grounded Emirates aircraft. It’s quite upsetting to get a first hand glimpse of the extent of the fallout that has been caused by the pandemic.
The eight First Class passengers deboard first and are taken to Terminal 3 in a separate bus.
As we enter the terminal, I am struck by the silence and how eerily quiet the whole place is. Before I can head downstairs to arrivals, there is a checkpoint, where passengers have to show that they are holding a negative PCR test.
The e-gates for immigration have been closed, and all passengers have to go to one of the desks, where again they have to provide proof of a negative PCR test no older than 96 hours before they are allowed into the country.
This was an interesting experience with SWISS. I have to say, getting onto the plane is a hassle, as you struggle to maintain your social distance in the face of the blatant, and often times frustrating stupidity of the human race. You look at the way the passengers behave at the gate and wonder how we ever managed even to invent the wheel. No wonder some people believe that aliens built the pyramids…
But once you step on board, things improve – at least in First Class. The crew genuinely made an effort and I am honestly very thankful to them for that. This trip was unavoidable for me. I’m here to give another course that could not be postponed. Even so, I must say that this flight down to Dubai has made it clear to me that I will not be undertaking any further travels by air in the forseeable future, save for the flight back to Switzerland, and certainly not without vaccination.