Helvetic Airways, Business Class – Embraer 190: Zürich to London Heathrow

Introduction

We’re in week five of the new year, and so far I have spent a grand total of seven days at home. Not seven consecutive days though, I might add. Another two weeks and then the semester starts. And then I’m done travelling for a while.

Getting from Berne to Zürich Airport

This year, the Swiss Federation is celebrating 175 years since the constitution of 1848 was ratified. To mark the occasion, the Bundeshaus is offering special guided tours to the public – which is why I’m in Berne today.

The tour ends just after 14:30, which gives me enough time to grab a cake and coffee from Loeb before heading across the square to collect my luggage and catch the 15:31 train to the airport. The journey takes eighty minutes, with the train stopping at Zürich Main Station and Oerlikon on the way.

Once again I am absolutely amazed by just how incredibly ugly the railway station in Berne is. Think brutalist meets dead boring and painfully bland.

The service to the airport today is operated by a Dosto composition. That’s right, it’s the train I mentioned previously that shakes about violently enough to cause disorientation, blurred vision and possibly also concussion.

But at least the First Class carriages are quite nice – and empty.

Check-in

Speaking of empty, Zürich airport isn’t exactly jumping this afternoon either. Most of the people landside seem to be shoppers, not passengers. Check-in 1, where SWISS checks in, is pretty much deserted.

There is one counter for First and Senator passengers, which is where I head to drop off my suitcase. Something seems to have changed on the Wallet app, because I can open my boarding pass, but I can’t seem to save it.

SWISS Senator Lounge Zürich Airport

There is a Senator lounge in the Schengen area, and another on the non-Schengen D concourse. When I inquire with the check-in agent though, she tells me she’s not sure if the lounge on the D concourse is even open and suggests therefore, that I use the Schengen lounge instead.

Just like the rest of the airport, the lounge is quiet. The mute noise and the high ceiling make it feel a bit like being in a church.

There is a hot and cold buffet in the lounge, with a small but nice selection of dishes.

I go for the Älpermagrone, a Swiss dish of pasta with a cheesy sauce, apple compote and fried onions.

Boarding

At 18:00 I leave the lounge to make my way to gate D 52. I still need to go through passport control. Although I needn’t have worried, because there’s hardly anybody around here either. This is now becoming just a wee bit eerie.

D 52 is a bus gate. I just miss the first bus when I arrive, but it doesn’t look as though the flight is packed. Before boarding there is a document check for all passengers.

Our aircraft is parked on a remote stand. Really the remotest of remote stands at the far end of runway 16, near the old Swissair hangar. On our way, we pass a long line up of Swiss, Edelweiss and Helvetic aircraft that don’t look as though they’ll be heading off somewhere anytime soon.

The Cabin

There are four rows of Business Class on this aircraft. I’m the only passenger in the forward cabin this evening, which means that I can take my pick from any one of the eight available seats. I park myself on 1F, just in case they bring us in for an approach from the East in Heathrow, which would take us right over the Westend.

Seat pitch on row 1 is okay. However, it quickly diminishes towards the back of the bus, and Helvetic really know how to pack them in.

The Crew & Service

There are three crew on the flight this evening. They’re very young and also very good. I’m quite impressed actually. Straight off the bat they address me with my family name in every interaction they have with me. They are friendly and polite.

The service on the ground begins with a small bottle of still water and a scented disinfectant towel. Just before we reach the threshold for runway 28, one of the crew asks me if I’ll be having dinner and takes my order for drinks after take-off. The flight time is eighty minutes.

The Meal

The meal consists of a plate of smoked duck with wedges of parsnip, celery and potato mash and red cabbage. I don’t try the meat, but the vegetables all taste very good – especially the mash.

During the meal, the crew make two rounds with the breadbasket. I have one roll with the cheese and a packet of Darvida biscuits with butter. To drink I have a Coke Zero.

Throughout the meal, the crew keep close tabs on me – checking regularly to inquire if they can get me anything. Once I’m done with the food, the tray is quickly removed and I am brought a mug of mint tea. And then shortly after that, the crew hand out the chocolates and we start our descent.

Arrival

Cool. The approach does indeed bring us in over London. We break through the cloud abeam London City airport and then continue past the Shard, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace towards Heathrow.

There’s a bit of a hold up for the luggage to be delivered. But other than that, the arrival in Heathrow is fairly smooth.

Getting to the Hotel

Tomorrow, I’ll be departing from Terminal 4. That’s why I decide to spend the night at one of the hotels near T4. Getting there from Terminal 2, where my flight from Zürich arrives, takes a while. First, because you walk quite a bit and have to go up and down many flights of stairs. And second, because trains from the central Heathrow railway station to Terminal 4 are infrequent and only run every thirty minutes in the evening.

The trip between terminals is complimentary. However, you’ll still need a ticket to get through the barriers to reach the platform. There is a dedicated vending machine that prints tickets to that end. They’re really hard to miss.

The journey time is about five minutes.

Mercure Hotel, Amsterdam Schiphol non-Schengen Lounge

There are several hotels airside within the terminal complex at Amsterdam Schiphol airport. All of them are located in the non-Schengen area. Apparently, even if you’re only travelling between Schengen countries but need to spend the night at the airport, the immigration officers will let you pass. However, I haven’t ever tried that myself, and I’m not sure I would want to either unless I had a viable plan B.

Last summer I tried the Yotel Schiphol airport, which is located above the non-Schengen departure lounge 2. I guess it was okay, but it’s not like I’m gagging to return there any time soon.

The Mercure Hotel in the non-Schengen departure lounge 3 is a much more appealing alternative. Admittedly, it’s also quite a bit more expensive, but it feels more like a proper hotel.

Making a Booking

The Mercure chain of hotels belong to the ALL Accor Group. I am a Platinum member, and usually the app works really well. However, trying to book this facility online is impossible. It’s even impossible to book through the ALL Accor call centre. If you want to make a booking, your best option is to call the hotel directly or send them an email. They reply swiftly!

When you make the booking, specify as closely as you can your arrival and departure time, because this will influence how much you end up paying. It’s an hourly rate.

Check-in

The front desk staff are very friendly and very helpful. I don’t know if they’ve been trained specifically, but they seem to understand that the people staying at their hotel are tired and wary from their long travels and just need a place to sleep in peace and quiet and without any hassle. And that’s what you get.

There is a small fridge next to the reception desk where you can buy soft drinks. Slippers can be purchased at reception for EUR3.-. There is no restaurant attached to the hotel.

The Room

I have a room at the end of the corridor, which looks slightly bigger on the floor map than the others. I suspect that may have something to do with the Platinum status. Or it could be a coincidence.

Obviously, the room has no windows as it is located inside the terminal building. Instead, the wallpaper on one side is this huge black and white photo of a typical canal scene. Or rather, what tourists probably think is typical for Amsterdam.

The bed is comfortable and large enough for two adults to sleep comfortably.

Also in the room are a television and tea and coffee making facilities. The bottle of lemon flavoured water in the picture below I bought at reception. However, two complimentary bottles of still water are available in the room. The receptionist was kind enough to point out that there would be water in the room.

The bathroom is well lit and quite large. In my room there is only a shower and no bath – which serves its purpose perfectly.

Conclusion

Next time I need to spend the night at Schiphol airport, the Mercure Hotel will certainly be my first choice. The staff are great and the room was quite nice and very clean. I should also add that because the hotel is right in the middle of the terminal building, it’s also very quiet. As a result, I manage to get an exceptionally good night’s rest.

TGV Inoui, First Class: Basel via Mulhouse to Luxembourg

Getting to the Railway Station

Today I am on my way to Luxembourg for work. As you may already have guessed, I have this little idea in my head to try to use the train as much as possible this year and see how it goes. Today I am on my way to Luxembourg. There are no flights between Basel and Luxembourg, so the train is really a no brainer. There are no direct trains either, but there is a convenient connection via Mulhouse, with only ten minutes to wait. So that is what I am doing.

The regional or commuter trains to France depart from the French sector of the main railway station in Basel. The hall in the picture below connects the Swiss station to the French sector.

In the old days, passengers used to have to go through customs and immigration to access the plattforms, which was done in the cavernous hall in the picture below. Since Schengen, the ugly offices that used to occupy the space have been removed, and passengers can move freely between the two sectors.

SNCF TER Grand Est, First Class: Basel SNCF to Mulhouse

For the first leg of my journey, I take a local express train bound for Strasbourg. The journey to Mulhouse takes 23 minutes, with the train only stopping once in St. Louis on the way.

There is only one First Class coach on the train, and five Second Class coaches.

The cabin of the First Class carriage is very old school. I mean, this thing even still has curtains! The seats are plush and soft, and the stripe design is kind of retro and very funky!

My only grippe is that the seat pitch is not very generous. But it does not really matter. The train is nearly empty anyway.

Transfer in Mulhouse

I know I say this everytime I am here, but good heavens! The station in Mulhouse is just so, so ugly. It looks like it was last updated in the sixties, when it was molded out of a large, unsightly blob of concrete. But it does not matter. I am only changing trains here.

TGV Inoui, First Class: Mulhouse to Luxembourg.

At 11:21 the mighty TGV from Montpelier pulls into Mulhouse station, and as usual I am smitten by how sleek the train looks. I am seated in coach 11, which is right behind the engine in the direction of travel. There are three First Class coaches, which are separated from Second Class by the dining car.

I am seat on 112, which is on the upper deck, at the very front of the coach. Behind me is only the luggage storage area. 112 faces backwards on this journey.

The seats are mostly in what I call an airplane configuration, with twin seats on one side, and single seats on the other side of the aisle. Half the seats face the rear, whereas the other half face forwards.

Leg space is excellent, and the recline is also exceptionally good. The seatback is reclined electrically, using a button in the arm rest.

The tray table is large enogh to place a laptop, the power socket is conveniently located right next to the unfolded tray table.

The train continues from Mulhouse to Colmar, Strasbourg, Metz Ville and Thionville. It is nearly full up until Strasbourg, where most people alight, but hardly any new passengers board. By the time the train is on its last sector from Thionville to Luxembourg there is just me and another passenger in the entire coach.

Luxembourg

At Luxembourg station I change to a local train for one stop, to Pfaffendal. This train seriously looks like it belongs in a museum.

At Paffendal I alight and take the escalator one floor up to the station of the funicular railway that takes you up onto the Kirchberg plateau, where all the offices are.

And then from there I take the tram for one stop to get to my hotel.

Conclusion

I arrive at the hotel just before 15:00. The journey has taken me four hours and 15 minutes door to door, which is slightly less than it would have taken me by air. It is certainly a lot cheaper than flying though, especially given that the level of comfort and private space on the TGV is unrivalled by any bog standard European short-haul airplane seat! However, The down side is that trains are infrequent. As a result, I will have to spend an extra night in Luxembourg simply to catch a train in the morning.

Swiss International Air Lines, Economy Class – Airbus A 321: Milan Malpensa to Zürich

Getting to Malpensa Airport

Part two of the experiment is now to see how long it takes me to get back to Zürich by plane. I have a late breakfast and then take a last walk through the misty streets of Milan. At 11:20 I check out of the hotel and walk the short distance to the metro station. This time I catch a line 1 train to Cadorna railway station, three stops down the line. From there I catch a Malpensa Express to the airport. From Cadorna trains run every thirty minutes and take 37 minutes to make the journey to the airport.

Check-in at Terminal 1

The Lufthansa group has quite a presence at Malpensa. The group checks in on row 6 of Terminal 1. Security is swift and oddly efficient, and unlike any other airport I have visited recently, the staff are friendly and polite.

The Malpensa Lufthansa Lounge

Lufthansa even has its own lounge in Malpensa. It is a fairly big too, and has a surprisingly good selection of food and drinks. And it offers some decent views of the apron.

I have to laugh though, because apparently this lounge does not have toilets but, and I quote, „premium restrooms in cooperation with Villeroy and Boch“. I mean, it is still a loo, you know…

Boarding

Originally, the flight today should have been operated by a Helvetic Embraer 190. But there seems to have been an aircraft change, and instead the flight is now operated by an A 321 CEO. A rather empty A 321, I might add.

I am seated on row 27. I booked the absolutely lowest possible fair on this route, which means that even with my Senator status I would still need to pay to sit further up front. Given that the aircraft is nearly empty, it makes no difference. Other than that, the CEOs are a lot more comfortable than the NEOs, it seems to me.

The cool thing about sitting so far back in the aircraft is that I have a perfect view of the movements of the wing!

The Service

The flight time is announced at forty minutes. There is twenty minutes delay pushing off stand, because apparently Zürich is very busy with all the WEF traffic.

On such short sectors SWISS does not offer buy on board. Instead, every passenger gets a bottle of water and the signature Swiss chocolate.

Arrival into Zürich

Just over 24 hours after my last landing at Zürich Airport coming from Muscat, I am back again. As we approach the airport, the weather starts to clear up. We make a short taxi to one of the stands on the A pier, and with that, I am finally back home again after three weeks of travel. Shame I shall be leaving again tomorrow.

Getting to Zürich Main Station

With only hand luggage on me, I manage to catch the 16:31 train from the airport, which stops in Oerlikon and Hardbrücke on the way. I alight at Zürich Main Station at 16:45, five hours and twenty minutes after leaving the hotel in Milan. It has taken me 80 minutes longer to make the same journey I did in reverse yesterday. Of course, one could argue that the additional hour arose from the wait of one hour I had at the airport until boarding. But while that may true, I see no reason to subtract that hour from the overall journey time. Having to take a metro, a train, a plane and another train is hardly efficient either. And even though I have rarely had such a pleasant safety screening as the one at Malpensa, not having to undergo screening when you travel by train is always much nicer. So in the sum of all things, I would say the score is train: 1, airplane: 0.

The Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), First Class – Giruno RABe 501: Zürich Airport to Milano Centrale

Introduction

Today I am on my way to Milan to see Salome at La Scala. To be honest, I find Salome more than just a little disturbing, but I have been meaning to see an opera at La Scala for a long time, and now seemed like a good time. I figured I could also use this as an opportunity to run a little experiment of my own and compare journey times between the train and airplane on the route between Zürich and Milan.

First Leg – Zürich Airport to Zürich Main Station

I catch the 14:48 train from the airport to Zürich Main Station. Trains are frequent, and the journey time is usually about eight minutes give and take. At the Main Station I have nine minutes to make my connection.

Second Leg – Zürich Main Station to Lugano

Direct trains between Zürich and Milan run every two hours. Alternatively, there are trains to Lugano with a good connection to Milan, which is what I am doing today. Strangely, the connection via Lugano is even slightly shorter. The departure from Zürich is at 15:05, with an arrival in Lugano at 16:58.

The services to Milan are operated with rolling stock belonging to the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB). The Giruno is a fairly new addition to the fleet that was introduced to replace the highly unreliable Pendolino trains that previously ran on the line. Like its predecessor, the Giruno has tilting capabilities that allow it to travel at higher speed through Switzerland’s mountainous terrain. The Giruno is built by Swiss manufacturer Stadler.

The Cabin & Seat

There are four First Class coaches, one dining car and six Second Class coaches that make up a unit. Today two units have been coupled together. The First Class cabin is spacious and comfortable in a 1 + 2 configuration. There are plenty of seat options available depending on whether you are travelling on your own, as a couple or in a larger group. However, if you are planning to work on your laptop, take note that not all seats have a tray table suitable to place a laptop on. Some seats do not have a tray table at all.

Every seat comes with a coat hook and a power outlet, with separate plugs for European and Swiss standards.

The Route

The journey from Zürich to Milan is interesting and scenic, as it takes the train past Lake Zürich, Lake Zug, and Lake Lucerne. The route also passes through the world’s longest railway tunnel, the Gotthard, with a length of 57 kilometres. The journey through the tunnel takes about 20 minutes. It is the only time the train speeds up to 200km/h on the journey.

Catering

The dining car serves a wide selection of hot and cold dishes that you can enjoy in the dining car or that can be taken away to eat at your seat.

Third Leg – Lugano to Milano Centrale

I have four minutes to make the connection in Lugano. And from what I am told, they usually wait if there is a bit of a delay. The trip from Lugano to Milan is operated by a Swiss regional train. There is a First Class section at the head of the train, but reservations are not possible. Seating is arranged in facing pairs. The only difference to Second Class is that the pitch is slightly better. The train leaves Lugano at 17:02, to arrive at 18:15. However, we pick up a delay on the way, so that the train does pull into Centrale until 18:28.

Getting to the Hotel

In Milan I am staying at the Room Mate Giulia Hotel near the Duomo, in walking distance to La Scala. It is four stops by metro from Centrale. Eventually, I arrive at the hotel at 18:45, more or less four hours after I departed from Zürich Airport.

Conclusion

The journey from Zürich Airport to Milano Centrale is easy and straightforward. The Giruno is a very nice and comfortable train. It is also very nice that the hotel is only four stops away by metro, which is very convenient. The only negative aspect of the journey is the regional train for the last sector from Lugano to Milan. Not only is that train not very comfortable, it was also incredibly crowded from Como onwards and all the way to Centrale. I think next time, I would make sure to catch one of the direct services instead.

Edelweiss Air, Business Class – Airbus A 340-300: Muscat to Zürich

Introduction

The main advantage in taking the Edelweiss Air flight back to Zürich is that it is one of the few flights that leave Muscat bound for Europe as a day flight. Most of the other flights depart in the dead of night, which is not at all pleasant. With a flight time of only seven hours, a night flight is usually not long enough to get a good night’s rest. The Edelweiss Air flight however, departs Muscat at 09h20, to arrive back in Zürich at 13h40. Previously, Muscat was served from Zürich as a tag-on to SWISS’ daily Zürich to Dubai service. Since the flight was taken over by Edelweiss, it only operates once a week on Saturdays.

Getting to the Airport

I’ve spent the whole of the last week in Sohar, which is Oman’s second city in the West of the country. From Sohar to Muscat it’s a little more than 200km. There is the old main road and what looks like a recently completed six lane motorway. I would recommend taking the motorway, simply because it’s a much more pleasant drive and the scenery is quite beautiful. Just watch our for the goats that have a nasty habit of walking into the middle of the motorway like they own the place…

I spend my last night in Oman at the Hilton Garden Inn, which is roughly 15 minutes away by car from the airport terminal. The close proximity to the airport is great if, like me, you forget your passport, ID, and wallet in the hotel safe and have to return to get them – because you only remember as your car pulls up at the curb outside the terminal that you didn’t take them out of the safe.

Check-In

At As-Seeb airport there is a segregated check-in area for First and Business Class passengers. Even if you’ve checked in online, I would still recommend you pass by the Business Class check-in area, as it gives you direct access to a dedicated queue for immigration and security.

Muscat Prime Class Lounge

The only lounge other than the Oman Air lounges is the Prime Class lounge, which is located one floor up from the duty free shopping area. This is also where you’ll find the entrance to the airport transit hotel.

The lounge is large and has many comfortable seating options. It also has wifi, and showers are available too.

The food options look interesting. There is a good choice of hot and cold dishes. Behind the buffet area is an attended bar where you can order alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Given that I had to go back to the hotel and then hurry back to the airport, I don’t spend all that much time in the lounge.

Boarding

The new terminal uses a closed gate concept. There is only one queue, and there is no priority for Business Class passengers to access the gate area, so that by the time I enter the gate, boarding has already started. I figure I might as well wait for the initial scrum to settle and busy myself taking photos of my aircraft instead.

The Cabin & Seat

The cabin layout of Edelweiss’ Business Class is a bit strange. The Business Class cabin is sandwiched between the forward Economy Class cabin and the rear Economy Class section. As you enter through the L2 door, the Business Class section is to your right. Which basically means that the Business Class cabin shares two loos with the entire forward Economy Class section.

There are seven rows of seats in the Business Class cabin. Row 11 is the bulkhead row. On rows 11, 14, and 16 the seats are configured in a 1+2+1 layout, whereas on the other rows they are in a 2+2+1 layout. The port side seats 11A, 14A and 16A are the throne seats that offer some additional storage space compared to the other seats. 14A also has a larger foot well, which come in handy with my size 11s.

The Business Class seat is essentially the same one that SWISS has installed on its long-haul fleet. The main difference being that the Edelweiss seat is covered in a light blue fabric.

The seat is comfortable enough, and being able to sit on your own is nice. But it doesn’t offer much in terms of privacy.

The Crew

The crew on this flight are excellent. They’re very friendly and hard working. Being a day flight, most passengers stay awake, and the crew make sure they have everything they need, passing through the cabin regularly offering snacks and drinks. It’s also noteworthy that the number of crew who actually speak Swiss German is much higher than it is on SWISS.

As soon as I take my seat and stow my luggage, one of the cabin crew comes to offer me a choice of orange juice, champagne or water and a packaged cold towel.

Amenity Kit

The amenities (socks and a tooth brush) are packaged in a cardboard box for “maximum impact”. I kind of like the idea. But I’m not sure how effective that box is in mitigating the CO2 emmissions being produced by the aircraft’s four engines.

In any case, at 09:35 we push back from our gate. One after the other, the four engines come to life with a quiet murmur and we slowly make our way to the active runway. The flight time is seven hours.

The Meal – Breakfast

The main meal service is breakfast. There is no menu, and there do not appear to be any choices either.

The crew set the table with every dish individually. The downside of that, of course, is that it means you cannot get out of your seat unless you remove every item individually.

The meal consists of a very tasty bircher müsli and small fruit salad.

A plate with a slice of Emmental, some smoked cheese and some revolting looking slice of cold cut that I don’t touch.

The hot meal is an omelette with peppers in a tomato sauce with creamy spinach and potatos.

With that the crew serve a wide selection of breads, which are served with butter and a variety of HERO jams or honey. The crew makes several rounds with the bread basket, which may account for how I end up having five slices of buttery Zopf…

At 11:00 the remains of the meal are cleared away. And I am mightily impressed. Just 80 minutes after wheels up the meal service is over, and passengers can kick back and relax. I fire up my laptop to work on my thesis.

The Second Meal

Ninety minutes out of Zürich, the crew pass through the cabin with sandwiches. There is a choice of roast beef or grilled peppers with cream cheese. And they’re very tasty. For dessert passengers are served a Biberli, which is a kind of honey and gingerbread sweet filled with almonds.

Arrival in Zürich

Shortly after, our A 340 dips its nose and we begin our descent into the murky Swiss clouds. It’s so much greener here than in Oman. Eventually, we touch down at 13:40, exactly on time, and make our way to the parking stand at the E pier, which is the satellite terminal. From there I catch the SkyMetro to the main terminal. There’s quite a queue for immigration, but at least it moves quickly.

Conclusion

I have to say that I rather enjoyed this flight with Edelweiss. I’m not even sure what I was expecting exactly, but this was certainly better. The crew was excellent and very friendly and the food was adequate for a flight of seven hours. The only thing I didn’t like that much was the seat, because you’re quite exposed in it. Other than that, it was good to get another flight on the A 340, as these aircraft are becoming increasingly hard to come by.

As for my trip to Oman, it was really great to be back. The one thing that always impresses me about the Omanis, and that I think really sets them apart from many of the other Gulf states, is just how incredibly friendly, down to earth and hospitable they are. There is something very dignified in their pride for their country. They make you feel welcome from the very first step you take off the aircraft when you arrive. And the ruggedness of the landscape is stunningly beautiful. I hope I’ll be back one day!

Oman Air, Business Class – Boeing B 787-9: Frankfurt to Muscat

Transfer in Frankfurt – I am never, ever doing this again!

I enter the Schengen area of Terminal 1 in Frankfurt at 09:05. I have an hour before my departure on Oman Air from the D concourse of Terminal 2. I follow the signs to the D gates, and before I know what’s really happening, I’m landside again. Which is of course not so good, because it means that in addition to passport control, I will also have to go through security again.

Is there a strike on or a go slow that nobody has told me about? I follow the sign for the fast track to immigration, where the gentleman supposedly checking boarding passes descides to completely ignore me. I’m standing right in front of him. Well, two can play this game. So I decide to just walk through, which certainly gets his attention, “Sie können nicht einfach davon laufen”. So he scans my boarding pass and allows me access to the e-gates for biometric passports.

On the D concourse the gates are grouped together so that four gates share a security checkpoint with three separate lanes. Two are for Economy Class passengers and one is for priority passengers. Not that anybody has even the littlest of shits to give here. The checkpoint for my flight is an utter mess. Only one of the Economy Class lanes is open, and halfway through the process the staff manning the priority lane decide it’s time for their break, so they literally just close the door and walk off. Behind me people are pushing and shoving. A group of French travellers is full of indignation, because their flight to Muscat has already started boarding. They ask to skip the line to which I tell them that I’m on the same flight and another guy tells them his flight has already closed. In future I am certainly going to make any effort to avoid Frankfut. It’s not just that the process is very unpleasant and tedious. I’m also raising into question just how safe the screen process actually is. Clearly, the staff are too busy complaining and arguing among themselves to actually watch what was going on.

I’ve managed to stay surprisingly calm. It’s 10:15 and my flight has officially departed by the time I’m through security. I help and old Serb heading for the Belgrade flight hold his dog while he collects his belongings, and then I make my way to gate D8.

Boarding

The flight is still there. Apparently they’re still missing 38 passengers in the queue and figured it was easier to wait than have to dig around for 38 suitcases. At the gate I exchange my electronic, Lufthansa-issued boarding pass for an old-fashioned Oman Air branded one. And then I step on the plane. I try to take a photo, but the angle just doesn’t work.

The Cabin

I’m greeted at the L2 door and guided to my seat on 11A, which is the last row in the larger Business Class cabin that is located between the First Class cabin and the L2 galley. I really like the Oman Air seat. It’s elegantly designed, very comfortable and sufficiently long when extended into a bed. The only downside of course, is that you have a passenger sitting next to you – which is particularly problematic on this flight, because I’m stuck next to a gassy Frenchman. He starts before we even get airborne, which kind of has me wondering what will happen as we start climbing. Won’t the gasses start expanding with increased altitude? But I digress, the seat. The beauty of this layout is that the aisle seat is staggered slightly behind the window seat, which means that all passengers have direct aisle access.

There is a partitioning screen, which works sufficiently well in that it is high enough. Although it doesn’t really do anything to protect me from the depraved and gazeous stench that keeps wafting across throughout the flight. What on earth was this guy eating…?

When I reach my seat there is already a pillow, a thick blanket and a comfortable mattress, a bottle of still water, the vanity kit and the earphones. I do not use the earphones, so I don’t know what brand they are.

The Service

As soon as I am settled in my seat, one of the cabin crew comes to ask me if I would like to have either an orange juice or lemon juice with mint.

Shortly after, they bring me a warm wet towel.

And the menus.

Once boarding is completed, the crew pass through the cabin with packaged dates and cardamom coffee.

Eventually, we push back with a delay of one hours.

On our way to the runway we pass this ugly thing. Although, it’s not really ugly. Just perhaps a bit ridiculous.

The Meal – Lunch

The meal service is quite extensive, with an à la carte menu and a broad selection of dishes to choose from.

For the amuse bouche there is a warm, grilled scallop in a sesame crust.

Next, the table is set for lunch, and I am brought a bowl with warm bread as well as butter and olive oil.

I start with a trio of beetroot, tuna and balik salmon on crème fraîche, which is very flavourful and delicious.

For the main course I have the fish, which is served on a lovely, creamy bisque.

And then comes the cheese dish. The description of the cheese on the menu is not very clear, but I think perhaps that’s a cultural thing that the French or the Swiss tend to be a lot more concerned about than others.

And then for dessert, mercy! I shouldn’t, I really shouldn’t. But cinnamon and strawberry bread and butter pudding served warm with custard and pecan crumble are hard to resist. This is just so, so good. That’s what I call grade A1 comfort food!

The friendly male flight attendant working on my aisle comes to clear the table. He asks me there’s anything else I’d like before he looks up at me. He notices the look on my face, smiles and just says “okay, maybe later”. Yes, probably better. Ta!

The flight time to Muscat is just over six hours, so there is no second service. At some point though, I do order a cup of coffee with milk.

Arrival

We land in Muscat with a delay of 45 minutes. The airport is quite busy.

This is my first time back in Oman since the new airport has opened, and I must confess my heart breaks just a little. The old as-Seeb terminal was kind of cool, even if it was way too crowded and hardly big enough to handle half the traffic flying into Muscat these days. But there was just something so typically and endearingly Omani about the old place. As Heraclitus said, you cannot step into the same river twice.

Conclusion

My last trip on Oman Air was a few years ago, when I flew them from Zürich via Muscat to Kuala Lumpur. I remember that the trip had not been so nice, especially the red-eye from Zürich to Muscat. So I’m glad to see that things have improved again at Oman Air. The crew were very friendly and just seemed happy. The service was swift, attentive, and well-paced. And the food was very good. Alas, my return will not be on Oman Air, so it remains to be seen whether the airline has gotten its act together again or if perhaps this was just a flash in the pan, as they say.

As for Frankfurt, that was really scandalous and nothing else.

Lufthansa, Business Class – Airbus A 319: Amsterdam to Frankfurt

Getting to the Gate

I emerge from the Mercure Hotel which is airside in the non-Schengen lounge area 3 at Schiphol airport and make my way to immigration. Once I’m through and back in the Schengen zone, I head for the lounge for some much needed caffeination and breakfast.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight to Amsterdam is from gate B17. Originally, this flight should have been operated by an A 320 NEO, but it appears to have been downgraded to an A 319.

The Cabin

There are three rows of Business Class on this flight and only six passengers. Originally, I’m seated on row 2. However, when boarding is completed and all of row 1 stays empty, I decide to move forward for some extra peace and quiet.

One thing I like about the bulkhead seat of Lufthansa’s Airbus narrowbody fleet is that the tray tables on the A, B, E, and F seats are mounted on the bulkhead. This means that you can still lift the armrests for some extra space. On SWISS or KLM for example, the tray table folds into the armrest, which means that it cannot be moved at all.

The Service

There are three cabin crew on the flight, and all three of them are surprsingly friendly and chirpy. They’re all smiles and even their announcements don’t sound completely robotic. There are no towels or drinks served before departure. The flight time is expected to be 45 minutes.

The Meal – Breakfast

The presentation of the breakfast is quite nice. There is a plate with smoked meat, salami and cheese. Although I’m not quite sure where the ‘Heimat’ part of Lufthansa’s catering concept fits in here, given that the cheese on the plate is Emmental, which is Swiss and not German. There is also a small bowl with some sort of cheese cake. I don’t try that, so I’m not quite sure what it tastes like. After the meal, the crew pass through the cabin offering large red apples, which apparently a thing with Lufthansa.

To drink with the meal I have coffee.

Arrival

Talk about a déjà vu. As on my previous flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt, we make our approach for the northernmost runway, which is normally farthest away from the apron. That is of couse, unless you’ve been assigned a very remote remote stand. Which is exactly what they’ve done with our flight. The stand is so remote that you can’t even see the airport terminal. I time it and it takes us 14 minutes by bus to make the journey.

By the time I arrive at the terminal it’s 09:05. I know have exactly one hour to make the connection to Muscat. Plenty of time.

Conclusion

I really don’t think I’ll ever be a fan of Lufthansa’s. But I’m sure they can live with that. Even so, I must say that I was positively surprised by the crews and the quality of the meals on these two recent trips I made. The crews were all friendly enough and didn’t look as though they’d rather be anywhere else. The food is an acquired taste of course. I’ll never be a fan of cold cuts, but I’m probably not the target demographic either.

Without a doubt, the biggest disadvantage of flying with Lufthansa is that they call Frankfurt airport their home, which really is just a hovel, a rat hole and a dump that was designed with everything but the poor passengers in mind that have to transit through it. At Schiphol you can taxi for a long time too if they bring you down on the Polderbaan. But at least when the aircraft finally comes to a standstill, you’re either on a contact stand or at least the bus ride is only a short one. There’s always Munich, I guess.

British Airways, Club Class – Airbus A 320: London Heathrow to Amsterdam

Transfer in Heathrow

I step off the mighty Boeing B 777-300 from Tokyo and follow the signs for Heathrow flight connections. I take a set of escalators down into the basement and then cross under the taxiway that separates the satellite 2B from the main terminal. At the other end, I go up another set of escalators to reach the first floor, and then from there down another set to take me to ground level for the bus stop for T2 to T5 transfers. It’s awfully quiet in Heathrow today, and there are only four of us making the journey to T5.

British Airways Club Class Lounge Southside

The lounge is still decked out in Christmas decorations, and Christmas songs are blaring from the loudspeakers. Wish all you like Mariah, but you’re going to have to wait another year.

The lounge looks as though there’s just been a Mongol invasion. There’s hardly any place to sit and all the tables look as though the cleaning staff may have overdosed on eggnogg at the Christmas party and havn’t recovered since.

The furniture is also looking decidely worse for wear and is either stained with things I don’t want to know, or simply damaged.

Boarding

At the boarding time indicated on my boarding pass, I make my way down to gate A20, from where the flight will be boarding. There’s a slight delay that was caused on the inbound from Stockholm.

Boarding is strictly by zones, and the ground crew check to make sure passengers are queuing in the right lane.

The Cabin

There are four rows of Business Class on this flight. The cabin looks neat and elegant, but it’s also a bit gloomy – especially with the dark grey bulkhead.

I am seated on 2A, and the seat pitch is still quite good. It reduces rapidly towards the rear, to the point that it becomes painful.

The Service

There are two cabin crew working the Club Class cabin. One is a friendly elderly gentleman, and the other is a calm and efficient young lady with the most outrageously oversized fake eyelashes I’ve ever seen. I mean, she’s great and does a really good job, but those things are hideous!

Before departure, the crew pass through the cabin offering disinfectant towels.

The Meal

Given that the flight time to Amsterdam is usually just slightly over 30 minutes, I’m not really expecting anything special on this flight. Much to my surprise though, there are actually three options to choose from: cold roast beef, sweet potato salad or a couscous and beetroot salad, which is what I have.

The presentation of the main dish is very nice, and the taste is good. There is also a small bun and a dessert on the tray.

The dessert is some sort of Tiramisu, and it’s sinnfully good!

To finish the meal, I have a cup of peppermint tea. Zero points for presentation though.

We land after a flight time of 35 minutes and then make the long taxi to our gate on the non-Schengen D pier.

Conclusion

Perhaps it’s because my expectations were really low, but I was rather pleasantly surprised by this flight. The crew were friendly, the seat pitch wasn’t too dreadful, and the catering was very nice. But that lounge is in dire need of some TLC.

ANA All Nippon Airways, Business Class (The Room) – Boeing B 777-300: Tokyo Haneda to London Heathrow

Getting to Haneda Airport from Shinjuku

I haven’t been in Japan long enough to get jetlag, which is good because it means that when I leave my hotel in Shinjuku just before six in the morning, I’m actually feeling rather bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

To get from Shinjuku to Haneda airport by public transport, you can either catch an airport bus from the bus terminus at Shinjuku, or you can take a train and then the monorail – which is what I do. First, I take the Yamanote JR Line to Hamamatsucho. The nice thing about the Yamanote is that it runs in a circle. So even if you catch a train going the wrong way, you’ll still get there in the end.

From Hamamatsucho I catch the Tokyo Monorail from one floor up to take me to Haneda. The train’s first stop at the airport is Terminal 3, which is from where the international flights leave. The ticket is JPY700 for a oneway from Shinjuku to Haneda.

Check-in

ANA checks in on rows C, D and E. If you’re in Business Class and not using the check-in kiosks, head for row C. But be warned… The Japanese are incredibly polite, but also incredibly complicated. It takes me 20 minues to reach the head of the queue, mainly because the check-in agents spend a lot of time doing utterly useless things. For example, they label a suitcase on the conveyor belt. Next they open the security screen, check twice that there is nothing stuck in the conveyor belt, and then push the button for the belt to start moving and the suitcase to move forward to the main belt. Once the suitcase is gone, they close the screen, again checking that nothing has managed to get stuck anywhere. Mindfullness is one thing, but this just really very inefficient and very frustrating. I mean, it’s not as though lives hang in the balance by leaving the screen for the main conveyor belt open.

The check-in agent checks me in to Heathrow and then informs me that she cannot check me in for the last leg, because ANA has no check-in interline agreement in place with BA…

After check-in comes security, which again seems way more complicated in how it’s organised than it need be. But eventually, I manage, I’m through security and passport control.

The ANA Business Class Lounge

At Haneda airport ANA has a First Class lounge and the Business and Star Gold lounge. The views from the lounge are excellent. Too bad the place is crawling with people and there’s hardly any place to sit.

The lounge has an interesting selection of hot and cold Western and Japanese food items available from a buffet. The selection is good, but you need a bit of patience…

The entrance to the lounge is opposite gate 110, which also happens to be my gate for London.

Boarding

Boarding is by zones and a very orderly and quiet process. It looks as though it’s going to be a full flight.

Our departure is scheduled for 09:25. However, there’s a bit of a hold up because of something related to having to check the hold luggage. By the time we push back, we running an hour late.

The Room

ANA’s Boeing B 777-300 fleet has The Room Business Class seat installed. The main feature of the seat is a side panel that can be raised and a sliding door for more privacy. The door isn’t very high, though. The unevenly numbered seats are rear-facing and closer to the window, whereas the evenly-numbered seats are forward-facing and closer to the aisle.

The big advantage of this seat is that it is quite spacious. Other than that though, I have to say that it’s one of the more uncomfortable seats I’ve ever experienced, especially given that our flight time to London today is going to be 14 hours. First of all, the seat is very low above the ground. With my feet flat on the floor, the angle of my thighs to my torso is about 45 degrees and not very comfortable. The seatback is fully flat and offers zero back support.

I am 184 cm tall, which is pretty average for a male adult. Even so, it’s impossible for me to stretch out fully with the seat extended to a bed. The best results are achieved by lying at an angle, but even then it is not a comfortable surface to sleep on.

As far as I’m concerned, the seat’s only redeeming feature is that it gives me a comfortable and unobstructed view of the wing and the engine. The size of those things…

The Service

There are two Western cabin crew on this flight. One of them is male. The rest of the cabin crew are female. Service begins on the ground with the distribution of the welcome drinks. On offer are sparkling wine and orange juice. The cabin crew kindly oblige me with a still water instead.

After an hour of more or less incessant announcements in both Japanese and English, none of which make any sense, we’re finally ready to push. As we taxi out to our runway, we pass a whole line up of aircraft that look as though they have not been active in quite a while, including this B 787 with both its engines missing.

You can say what you like, but the B 777-300 is a total beast. Even heavily laden for a 14 hour leg across both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans the acceleration is impressive. Our climb out takes us in a zig-zag route over Tokyo toward Narita, from where we start our Pacific crossing.

Our routing today takes us up north along the Kamchatka peninsula. We then cross the Bering strait and make a beeline for Greenland, then Iceland and eventually Scotland. As we fly over the Northpole, it’s fascinating to watch the compass on screen gradually adjust.

The Meal – First Service

As on the outbound flight, I decide to go with the Japanese option.

The planned amuse bouche has been swapped and replaced with a special Japanese New Year dish of dried fish and something. It’s not very good and rather bland.

To be perfectly honest, the meal is incredibly boring and very bland. Essentially, it’s soy sauce with a variety of different veggies, meat or fish that all taste of, well… soy sauce and not much else.

The only remarkable thing about this meal is the stupendous chocolate mousse, which is rich, creamy and sumptuous.

The Meal – Inflight Snacking

ANA has a wide selection of snacks available in case you get the hungries on such a long flight, of which I try the delectable fondant biscuits, the vanilla ice cream, the fruit, the cheese plate and the IPPUDO plant-based ramen. If I’d known earlier, I think I would have skipped the main meal and just had the ramen.

The ramen can be spiced up with a small red sachet of red chilli paste, which is lovely!

The Meal – Second Service

Two hours out of Heathrow, the second meal service starts, and again I go for the Japanese option. Perhaps a note for vegetarians: ANA is really not very good with non-meat dishes. If you don’t want to go hungry, I would strongly recommend ordering a special meal ahead.

As expected, the second service tastes a lot like soy sauce. I have a coffee and a fondant biscuit for dessert just to make sure I’m not suffering from a sudden loss of taste.

Arrival into Heathrow

We make landfall over Scotland and fly down the length of the UK to make an approach from the East. Our final decent brings us in right over London and the West End. It’s a spectacular view that just never gets old!

Despite our departure delay of one hour, we land in Heathrow exactly on time, at 15:25. Our flight comes to an end at the satellite terminal 2B. I now have two hours to make my connection from Terminal 5.

Conclusion – The Verdict

Meh…! That was a bit of a let down, from the mess at check-in and the crowds in the lounge to the very bland food on the plane and the uncomfortable seat, this was not a pleasant experience with ANA. I seriously think I’m going to have to see a chiropractor when I get back. The flight’s redeeming features were a) the crew, which were all just so nice and friendly, and b) the fact that the flight was operated by a Boeing B 777-300. I mean, have you seen the size of those engines…!? Other than that, I wouldn’t actively avoid ANA in future, but I definitely won’t go out of my way to fly with them either.