Le Palais de Versailles

Introduction

Shortly before his death in 1643, King Louis XIII expressed in his testament that a council should be put in place to rule on behalf of his underage son, who would later become Louis XIV. However, upon his death, his newly widowed wife, Queen Anne, had the testament annulled. She had most of her husband’s former ministers sacked or exiled, declared herself her son’s regent and appointed the mercenary Cardinal Mazarin as her minister toversee the affairs of the state.

Queen Anne successfully expanded the range of the crown’s power with the help of Mazarin. She appears to have held the unwavering belief that the crown’s entitlement to rule was divine providence, and in her view that meant that the monarch was destined to reign supreme. In as much, a lot of the decisions she took as regent were aimed to secure her son’s reign by increasing his powers.

Eventually, Louis XIV assumed control of the government upon the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661, at the age of 23. It had been expected that he would appoint a minister to oversee the government of the state, similar to the way his mother had with Cardinal Mazarin and his father before that had with the ruthless Cardinal Richelieu. But Louis XIV was his mother’s son, and believed that it was his duty to shoulder the divine burden of ruling the country by himself. And so the young Louis proclaimed to his astonished parliament that ‘l’état, c’est moi ‘-‘I am the state’, and assumed control of all affairs of the state.

Louis XIV went on to rule the French monarchy for 72 year. His reign saw the rise of absolutism in France and in Europe, which firmly placed the monarch at the very heart of political power.

I mention this all here, because the château de Versailles played an important role in fostering the image of the King who ruled by divine appoinment. The building is imposing, to say the least, and its dimensions are difficult to grasp, even from close quarters. Clearly, its main purpose had been to impress and to indimidate, to make sure the Roi de Soleil’s claim to power went uncontested.

My visit in July 2021

Today, the palace and its grounds are open to the public and are undoubtedly one of France’s major tourist attractions. The palace sits on a vast domain of land that sprawls over an area of more than 800 hectares. My plan had been to visit the palace during the Covid pandemic, in the hope of avoiding the worst of the notorious crowds that are usually lining up to enter the building and its grounds. And I think I managed that rather well. I purchased a ticket in advance with a jump the queue option. And indeed, I was able to enter without delay. There still were quite a few people. Nonetheless, it was still possible to amble through the palace and enjoy it at my own pace.

Where to stay

I stayed at the MGallery The Louis in Versailles itself. MGallery is one of the many brands of the Accor group of hotels. Usually, I rather like their properties. But sadly, The Louis is certainly not one of them. The infrastucture is a bit dated and the staff could really do much better. However, what The Louis has going for it, is its excellent location only 200 metres away from the main entrance to the Palais de Versailles.

Conclusion

Below I have added some pictures taken during my visit. However, I am painfully aware of the fact that they do not really do the place justice. I also don’t think I would be able to fully describe the grandeur of the place in words. So I’ll just say that I’m glad I visited the Palais de Versailles. Not just because I wanted to tick it off the bucket list, but because it really is a truly very impressive sight to behold that is so closely linked and so prominent in the history of Europe.

The Salon des Glaces

TGV Lyria, First Class: Basel SBB to Paris Gare de Lyon

Introduction

Welcome to the first installment of a series of posts that form part of my grand tour of Europe. There are a few places that have been on my bucket lists for a very long time, but that I never got round to visiting. It’s not even that I never found the time to visit. Rather I was put off by the horror stories one hears of having to queue for three hours in the sweltering heat to enter Versailles or being ‘processed’ through the sistine chapel without ever managing to see any of its exhibits.

As travel to Europe is still very restricted by the Covid pandemic, I figured I might just get my chance this year, if I play my cards right. Without the American and Chinese tourists to contend with, I reasoned that my chances of a hassle free experience, or a least a less cumbersome one, were as good as they were ever going to get.

Getting to the station

The first leg of the grand tour sees me taking the TGV Lyria from Basel SBB to Paris Gare de Lyon. As I live close to the station, I leave my flat six minutes before the train’s departure at 08h34. After a brief spell of nice weather, we’re back to the rain and the grey here in Switzerland.

After a long restoration that lasted a few years, the French railway station that is adjacent to the Swiss station has been reopened. In the picture below you can see the hall connecting the Swiss part of the station to the French part.

Boarding

Today, only trains originating their journey in Basel and heading for France use the French station. My TGV will be departing from the Swiss sector, as the train originates in Zürich and only transits through Basel.

The train is departing from track 9.

The cabin

TGV Lyria is a joint venture between the French SNCF and the Swiss SBB, who jointly operate the services between Switzerland and France by TGV. Currently, the Lyria service operates to Zürich via Basel, Geneva and Lausanne in Switzerland. With the change to the winter schedule of 2020 in December 2019, all services between Switzerland and France have been shifted to trains with twin deck carriages. On demand, two trains sets are merged together. I always prefer sitting on the upper deck, simply because the view is better.

The seats are in a 2 + 1 abreast configuration, and there are several options to choose from: single seats facing backwards or forwards in an airliner style layout, twin seats next to eacher other or facing each other, and sets of four seats for larger groups.

There is also ample space to store large and small pieces of luggage. There is a power outlet at every seat and there is also a bistrot car in between the First and Second class sections serving snacks and drinks.

The seats are plush and offer a level of comfort that is simply unimaginable on a short-haul airliner in Europe these days. The seat also has a good recline, which is operated electronically by means of a switch in the arm rest.

The 08h34 service makes the journey from Basel SBB to Paris Gare de Lyon in three hours and four minutes and only calls at two stations on the way, in Mulhouse and Bélfort. Up until Bélfort, the train uses the regular train lines and goes at what I would call a normal speed for a train. However, no sooner does the train pull out of Bélfort station, that’s when the TGV comes into its own, as it accelerates up to speed of 300 to 322km/h on its own dedicated track.

As far as I’m concerned, the TGV is nothing short of amazing. The speed at which it goes is impressive and the comfort inside the cabin is exceptional and so much superior to an airplane. Usually, I read a lot when I travel. But on the TGV, I never seem to be able to concentrate, distracted by the rapidly changing views outside.

Arrival

Eventually we pull into the Gare de Lyon on time, at 11h38. While I wait for the platform to empty and passengers to pass through the barriers, I take a moment to take a few pictures of my chariot.

In the picture above, my train is the one on the right. The train on the left is an older generation TGV, but no less impressive.

Getting to Versailles

So the first stop on my grand tour is going to be the palais de Versailles. The quickest way to go is to exit the Gare de Lyon and then walk the short distance across the Seine river to the Gare d’Austerlitz. Normally, there is a direct train, the RER C, to Versailles Rive Gauche. However, due to construction on the line, I will have to first take a metro line 10 train to Duroc, change there to a line 13 mentro to the Gare de Montparnasse, and then from there catch the Île de France N train to Versailles. I know it sounds a bit inconvenient, but public transport in Paris is easy and trains are frequent.

So let’s see what happens next… In the meantime: get your vaccine as soon as you can. Get your vaccine as soon as you can, not just to protect yourself, but to protect others too! It is your civic duty.

Stay healthy, all of you!

William

Wideroe, Economy Class – Dash 8-300: Haugesund to Bergen

Getting to the airport

Skudeneshavn is a picturesque fishing village on the southern tip of Karmoy island. Before I head to the airport, 35 minutes away by car, I find a small café/souvenir shop and have some lunch. What you can see here in the picture is a ‘Kanelknute’, a very yeasty dough that’s chewy and sweet, with a subtle hint of cardamom and cinnamon. In the interest of investigative blogging, I had three. And I can confirm that they were all of the same outstanding quality. The wrap I also had was tasty as well.

Check-in

It’s not very often I manage to get the entire terminal facility and adjoining office building in one shot. So here you have it, boys and girls, Haugesund international airport in all its glory.

Check-in for this flight is interesting. The routing HAU-BGO-AMS-BSL was purchased and issued on one ticket via the KLM app. However, check-in on the app is not possible. However, 24 hours before departure, I receive an email from Wideroe, informing me that check-in is now open and that I have been assigned 7D on the Haugesund to Bergen leg. I am able to download all three boarding passes into my iPhone wallet. I’m must say, I’m impressed. The interface with other airlines is not always so nicely implemented!

Because of Covid, access to the terminal building is currently only permitted for passengers. Although there’s nobody there to check, really.

The departure screen may perhaps explain the empty terminal…

Airside

There is no lounge for premium passengers at the airport. Initially, when I arrive at around 14h15, the place is pretty much deserted, save for a few diehards getting in some serious drinking before they board their flight. I just hope they’re not on my flight…

Boarding

Boarding for the flight starts on time. Don’t you just love an airport without airbridges? From what I can tell, there are about 40 passengers on the flight.

The cabin

Outside and inside the aircraft and cabin are in mint condition. In my experience with SAS, they tend to work their aircraft pretty hard, and it usually shows. So I was expecting the same thing from Wideroe. But much to my surprise, the aircraft looks new. The cabin is fresh and roomy and the seats are plush and comfortable. The pitch is also good and provides good leg space. Much better, incidentally, than KLM’s E175.

The only downside of my seat on 7D is that it’s right under the wing, limiting the views of the outside while we’re still on the ground. The flight has a block time of 30 minutes, although our actual flight time is only 20 minutes.

The cabin crew

There is one cabin crew aboard this aircraft, which means that the seating capacity is not more than 50. The young lady is friendly enough and goes about her duties in an efficient, friendly manner. Obviously, with a flight time of only 20 minutes, there is no service. But that’s okay, because our route takes us along Norway’s coast. And the weather today is just glorious!

Arrival

The first thing I notice when we land, is that the airport is a lot busier than it was when I arrived. We taxi to the new domestic terminal and disembark in front of the terminal.

Transfer to Amsterdam

In Bergen I’m transferring to a KLM flight to Amsterdam. It’s quite a long schlepp from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, but at least you won’t have to go through security a second time.

The international terminal is deserted, as ours is the only flight to depart from this part of the airport. Most shops are closed, and I’m surprised to see there’s a kiosk open, where you can by drinks and snacks, like those horrific artificially pink sausages they seem to love in Norway.

Before boarding, my Covid documents and passport are checked, seeing as this was not done on the domestic flight from Haugesund to Bergen.

Epilogue

The trip back to Basel is quite uneventful, so I will spare you the details. Entering Switzerland is always a mess in Basel, ever since France suspended the Schengen treaty over security concerns. The Covid situation in France has done little to make the process any smoother or any more pleasant. But this too will pass.

Overall, this was a pleasant trip. Everything worked well, and it was nice to spend some time again in Amsterdam and in Haugesund. But before I let you go, I just have three things I’d like to get off my chest:

First, I really, really do not like the E175. Not just in KLM’s configuration (which is one of the better ones out there), but in general. It feels cramped and tight and the seats are simply very hard and overall just uncomfortable, even on row 1.

Second, KLM and Air France’s strategy is clearly to bring as much of the network as possible back online as quickly as possible. With the exception of the last flight from Amsterdam to Basel though, none of the flights I took were really full. I’m obviously not complaining because it’s always nice to have a bit more space. My point is that, like many of the European carriers, KLM and Air France were able to secure substantial funds to tie them over until traffic starts to pick up in earnest. While one might argue about the merits of investing literally billions of EUROs into an industry that was already heavily lossmaking even before Covid, at least KLM and Air France have done something useful with those funds. And I wish them and their staff the best of luck with that.

And third, most importantly, get your vaccine as soon as you can. Your arm will hurt a bit just after you get the jab, but it will not become magnetic, no matter what people tell you. Get your vaccine as soon as you can, not just to protect yourself, but to protect others too. That is your civic duty. And seriously, it certainly beats having to queue for a stupid test every time you want to go partying, travel abroad, visit a concert or go to the museum.

Stay healthy, all of you!

William

KLM Cityhopper, Business Class – Embraer 175: Amsterdam to Bergen

Getting to the airport

My day begins at 06h45 when I exit the CitizenM in Amsterdam South to walk the short distance to the railway station. From there I catch one of the frequent trains to Amsterdam Schiphol airport. The journey takes six minutes to complete and the train is nearly empty.

Check-in

There is no need for me to check-in for the flight to Bergen, as that was already done for me at Basel airport the previous day. The safety checkpoint area is in the process of being expanded at Schiphol airport. Premium passengers are segregated and go through security one floor up from the main check-in concourse. The only down side is that to access the upper level, you have to go via the SkyTeam check-in desk area.

The nice thing about new regime is that once you’re through, there is a direct access to the airlines lounges, which leads you more or less straight to the entrance of the KLM Crown lounge.

The KLM Crown lounge

As the result of the new security area on the upper floor, the shape and size of the KLM lounge has changed. They’ve also added some new furniture, since I was here the time, about a year ago.

I spend my time writing a few office mails, until eventually it’s time to make the long schlepp to gate B32, from where the flight is departing. At a leisurely walking pace, the walk from the Crown lounge to gate B32 takes about 10 minutes.

Boarding

There’s been an aircraft change. The flight will now be operated by the smaller Embraer 175. I wait to board last, seeing as I’m seated on 1A anyway. From what I can tell, the aircraft is only two thirds full.

At no point are my travel or vaccine documents checked before the flight.

The cabin

There are two rows of Business Class with a total of eight seats, and I’m the only passengers seated in the Business Class section. If, like me, you enjoy looking out the window, I would not recommend taking a seat on row 1 on the E 175 though. In order to squeeze in an extra row of seats, row 1 is so far forward that the window on that row is abeam with the seat. So that you really need to crank your neck to be able to look out.

The crew

The crew is very attentive and friendly. As soon as the pilot announces there will be a short delay with our departure while they finish loading the luggage, one of the crew brings me a bottle of still and sparkling water and asks me which one I would prefer while we wait. She also brings me a wet wipe.

Once we’re airborne, the crew inform the passengers that the forward lav is for Business Class only, while the aft lav is for everybody else. And they actually enforce this during the flight, which makes for one rather entertaining conversation with a Japanese lady. As she tries to sneak past the crew to access the forward toilet, one of them stops her and explains to her that the Economy Class toilet is in the rear. To which the Japanese lady says “yes, but the one at the back is locked”. To which the cabin crew makes the rather obvious remark: “yes, because there’s somebody in it…”. “Oh” says the Japanese lady and walks off, quite as thought the concept of an occupied airplane loo were quite novel…

The flight time is one hour and 25 minutes.

The meal

With a departure at 09h15, breakfast is served on this flight. It’s a different meal to the one I had on the flight from Basel the previous day. Although I’m not sure if a small bowl of grapes already qualifies as a “fresh fruit salad”.

Arrival

Just before we reach the top of descent, the pilot comes on to inform us that the weather in Bergen is cold, wet and with limited visibility. Which is great, because I forgot to take a jacket on this trip – so I’m about to get soaked and freeze…

When we land, the airport is very empty. We’re the only international arrival and most of the terminal looks shut down.

As per 20 July 2021, upon arrival in Norway, passengers are segregated in two lines: one for passengers who are fully vaccinated and have the necessary documentation on them, and one for the passengers who do not. At the checkpoint I have to show both my Covid certificate and my passport. The immigration officer wants to know which vaccine I had received. The guy behind me is turned away and instructed to contact KLM about getting him back to Amsterdam, because he’s only had one vaccine. He explains that he hasn’t had a second dose because he’d already had Covid19. But when he is unable to provide a doctor’s certificate to that end, that’s it. Out.

Other than that, the rules seem to be more relaxed in Norway, or at least in the greater Bergen area. Nearly nobody is wearing a mask in public or on public transport. And social distancing is attempted, rather than implemented.

Getting to Haugesund

For the journey to Haugesund I could have taken the plane. However, that would have meant a boring four hours wait at the airport for a flight of 30 minutes. And let’s face it, the place is so eeriely quiet right now, it’s not like there’s anything much to watch going on outside on the ramp.

So instead, I decide to go for the more cumbersome, but certainly more scenic option and take the tram, a bus, a ferry and then the bus again to get me to Haugesund. The journey from the airport to Bergen by tram takes 45 minutes. I don’t have a bus to Haugesund until after 13h, so I’m not in a hurry. Otherwise, instead of going all the way into Bergen, it would also be possible to change from the tram to the Haugesund bus at Nestun.

From Bergen the X400 bus will take you straight to Haugesund. The journey takes about three hours and 15 minutes. After about one hour’s drive, the road abruptly ends by the water and makes way for a ferry landing.

The journey by ferry takes 45 minutes. And then it’s another hour to Haugesund on the bus.

Fortunately, the weather starts to improve and the rain stops. By Wednesday it’s simply glorious! So that I am at least able to stick my feet in the water at Akresand after the meeting I’m attending.

Conclusion

All in all, while I enjoyed my day in Amsterdam on Monday and the trip to the beach on Wednesday, I found the travelling part quite tiresome and inconvenient for the most part. My initial reaction to that being that travelling in times of Covid19 is simply a whole lot of hassle and not much else. However, upon closer inspection, it dawns on me that air travel has not really changed all that much because of Covid. But I have. And all things considered, I rather enjoy a much quieter life, working from home at my own pace.

KLM Cityhopper, Business Class – Embraer 190: Basel to Amsterdam

Introduction

I’m on my way to Haugesund in Norway. In the old days, I would have taken a SWISS or SAS flight from Zürich to Olso and connected there to a domestic service to Haugesund. But then COVID happend.

In the summer of 2021 the connection via Oslo no longer exists. There aren’t that many flights between Zürich and Oslo anymore, making an overnight stay in Oslo unavoidable. So I figure I might as well do something completely different and make an outing of it. My first leg takes me from Basel to Amsterdam, a route I have now travelled more often than I can count. In as much, this post is not really so much about the cabin design or the food served on board. It is more of a time piece about European short-haul travel during COVID.

Check-in

As per 18 July 2021, you can still check in on the KLM app or online. You will need to complete a health declaration form, which has been integrated into the check-in process. Also, even if you have checked in online, you will still need to go to the check-in desk at the airport for the airline to verify your travel documents and issue the boarding pass.

So when I arrive at the airport the next day, I’m not really surprised to find a considerable queue at the Air France/KLM counters. Even so, the Platinum status means I can join the SkyTeam queue only have to wait about 10 minutes before it’s my turn. The check-in agent scans my passport and the COVID certificate issued by Switzerland and then issues the boarding pass.

Security is surprsingly painless and a fairly civilised affair. You get the impression that passengers are aware of the fact that we’re really all in the same boat in this, which is nice.

Lounge/Airside

The Swissport lounge has now been closed for over a year, and it doesn’t look like it will be opening any time soon, which is hardly surprising. It’s mainly a low-cost operation at Basel right now. British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa only fly sporadically, leaving only Austrian Airlines, KLM and Turkish Airlines.

So instead, I find myself a place by the window to admire the view. The nice thing at Basel airport is that the aircraft come up really close at some stands.

Boarding

Boarding is the usual scrum. Some things obviously never change. As I’m seated on row two anyway, I figure I might as well wait for everybody else to board. I would say the flight is three quarters full today.

The crew have obviously been trained, or at least briefed about, how to deal with difficult passengers and the COVID deniers. The passenger on 1C hasn’t got her face mask on, and the flight attenendant makes quick work of reminding her, and making sure she has, and keeps, her mask on.

The seat

An important point to note is that on the Embraer, KLM sells both seats on a row of two in Business Class, unlike the Lufthansa group, where the seat next to you always stays empty. I think I may have complained about this before… I’d say that KLM clearly has a disadvantage here, because I’m quite sure there would be quite a few passengers willing to pay a bit more for a Business Class seat in the current situation, simply to avoid having to sit next to a stranger who may or may not be contagious.

The Meal

I think we might as well go straight to the meal section of the report. And I’m happy to find that nothing much has changed in this department. The only differences I can tell are that there is only one bun, which is sealed in plastic, and that the salt and pepper shakers have been removed. Other than that though, the meal is just fine for a flight time of one hour. To drink with that I have glass of apple juice.

Arrival

After a flight time of just over one hour, we land in Amsterdam. It’s certainly busier than when I was here a year ago, but I think we’re still very, very far off from calling the place busy in the usual sense of the term. The airport has certainly made a huge effort to adapt to the new realities: there are hand sanitising stations everyhere and all counters with direct customer contact have now been decked out with glass or plexiglass partitions.

Getting into town

I’ll be spending the one night in Amsterdam at Amsterdam South, which is only seven minutes by train from Schiphol airport but still very close to the city centre in walking distance.

It’s a lovely day. So once I get to the hotel and finish off my work, I head out for a long walk. Okay, I head for scones and creamy cakes at De Bakkerswinkel. But at least I have the decency to walk back to work off the calories when I’m done. No judgement, okay?

Flying First Class in a Pandemic: SWISS vs. Emirates

Background

At the start of January 2021, I travelled from Switzerland to Dubai to give a course in Ras Al-Khaimah, which is one of the emirates that make up the UAE. I decided to fly in First Class on this trip to avoid having to sit next to another passenger. I’m quite willing to believe that the HEPA filters are effective. But I’m not sure how much help that is if the guy you’re sitting next to in Business Class is coughing all over the place.

On the outbound I flew SWISS. Originally, I should have returned on Saturday on SWISS. But eventually, I got myself a new ticket on Emirates, which allowed me to return home a day early. As such, I was able to make a direct comparison between the two carriers in general, as well as of how they handle flying in the pandemic.

Schedule

Currently, both SWISS and Emirates still operate on the Zürich to Dubai route. However, neither one of the two carriers provides a daily service anymore. Emirates flies five times a week, and the route has been downgraded from an Airbus A 380 to the Boeing B 777-300. Whereas SWISS operates three to four times a week and is sending anything from the Airbus A 330-300 to the Boeing B 777-300 down to Dubai these days. SWISS has terminated the extension of the flight from Dubai to Muscat.

The SWISS flight has been rescheduled and now departs Zürich at 16h15, to arrive in Dubai at 01h25. The Emirates flight departs Zürich at 14h35, to arrive in Dubai at 23:45.

The return flight with SWISS departs from Dubai at 03h50 and arrives back in Zürich at 08h05. Whereas Emirates departs from Dubai at 08h25, to arrive at 12h25.

As far as I’m concerned, Emirates has the more attractive schedule in both directions, simply because you’re not travelling in the middle of the night. At a block time of about six hours, the flight is hardly long enough to get any decent sleep. And a departure at 03h50 from Dubai is simply a human rights violation to me.

Booking

The whole purpose of flying First Class on this trip was for me to have as much personal space as possible on the aircraft. Both SWISS and Emirates have a First Class cabin layout in a 1 + 2 + 1 configuration. Clearly, my intention on this trip was to secure one of the single seats. However, on the Emirates website you only get to see which seats are still available in the cabin once you have completed the booking and go into the ‘Manage my Booking’ section to select your seats. This is much better on the SWISS website, where the seats can be selected before payment is made.

Getting to and from the airport

Emirates’ complimentary chauffeur service is a hard act to follow and just takes another burden off your mind when travelling. Public transport in Switzerland is excellent and generally very reliable, even in snow and adverse weather. But these days you still have to contend with the Corona sceptics who refuse, on principle, to wear their mask properly as a rather puerile act of civil disobedience. I have no idea if the masks really offer that much protection. But that’s neither here nor there and quite frankly, if you think refusing to wear a mask in public is what defines you as a person, I think you’re rather a sad human being.

Experience on the ground & lounge access

At their hub in Zürich airport, SWISS has more or less shut down all of its usual First Class services. There are two First Class check-in counters, but the First Class island is temporarily closed. The lounges on the A and E piers are also closed, and with them the segregated security lines too.

In Dubai SWISS only uses remote stands. And I mean really remote. The transfer to the terminal is by bus and takes about ten minutes. There is a dedicated First Class bus, but that’s still not as convenient as a contact stand. SWISS does not provide a lounge for its departing passengers in Dubai, which is particularly nasty if you’re looking at a departure at 03h50 in the morning.

At their hub in Dubai airport, Emirates has kept the First and Business Class terminal open. The First Class lounge is temporarily closed. However, the Business Class lounge remains open and one half of it has been sectioned off for First Class passengers only. In the First Class section food can be ordered from the staff, the menu is available online and can be viewed using a QR code.

In Zürich, there is no lounge available for First Class passengers on Emirates, as their lounge is located on the E pier which is currently in hibernation.

Interaction with the staff and crew

On the ground I couldn’t really say there was much of a difference in the way passengers interact with the staff. There are Plexiglas screens at the check-in counters, and staff were all wearing their face masks properly.

With the cabin crew though, it’s a very different story: on SWISS the crew were merely wearing face masks. An announcement was made informing passengers to keep their masks on for the duration of the flight and especially when approached by the cabin crew. On my flight this was mostly respected. There have been a few minor changes in the service on SWISS: the starters are no longer served from a trolley and instead, passengers are brought all their courses individually, directly from the galley.

In contrast, the crew on Emirates were wearing this strange paper cover over their uniform. In addition to the face masks, they were also wearing protective shields over their eyes. At the start of the meal service, the cabin crew explicitly asked me a) if I wanted them to bring the food with the covers removed, b) if I wanted them to remove the covers once the individual dishes were served or c) if I wanted to remove the covers myself. As such, my impression was that Emirates was more proactively addressing passengers’ concerns with the service aboard the aircraft.

Cleanliness of the cabin

On SWISS the cushions were sealed in plastic. There were no blankets available, though. Every passenger was given one small disinfectant towel.

On Emirates the pillow, duvet and mattress were sealed in plastic. In addition, every passenger was given a travel kit which contained two sealed face masks, two pairs of plastic gloves and seven sachets of disinfecting gel.

The cabin and seat

Irrespective of the pandemic, the SWISS First Class cabin is elegant and stylish and a pleasure to behold. It’s typically Swiss I find, in that the designers were clearly aiming for understated elegance and a somewhat rustic vibe with the light wood finish. Other than that though, the seat isn’t really all that comfortable – in the sitting or sleeping position. What’s more, when extended into a bed there was a hard bit pressing into the small of my back, and it was impossible to find a comfortable position to sleep in. The seat isn’t very private either. The doors do not fully close, and the partitions are not very high. So that when you’re sitting fully upright, your head sticks out above. Storage space is limited and inconveniently located.

In contrast, the old Emirates First Class seat really is just very ugly to look at. The finish is garish and ostentatious and the faux gold just looks cheap. If you can see beyond all that though, it is an immensely comfortable seat. It’s very practical in its design and offers a lot convenient storage space. It’s also very private. The partitions are high enough to ensure that you are completely concealed form view with the doors closed.

Food & beverage

The meal service is always a highlight on SWISS. The crew tend to celebrate the best of Swiss hospitality in First Class. And despite the adaptations that were made to the service because of the pandemic, this was still the case on the flight from Zürich to Dubai. The tableware is simple but elegant and the setup of the table makes it look inviting. From the amuse bouche to dessert and the drink pairings suggested by the crew, the meal was a pleasure. The quality of the food was also very good.

On Emirates, the tableware looks a bit old-fashioned in style. For example, where SWISS has these sturdy looking wooden salt and pepper mills, on Emirates they’re made of plastic and look as though they’ve seen better days. The table set up is functional rather than enticing. It’s little things: there is a cheese course offered on both Emirates and SWISS, but on the former it doesn’t tell you anywhere what the cheese are. The quality of the food on Emirates was okay, although I don’t think it was as good as SWISS, and the plating of the dishes was not done quite so expertly either.

However, what is certainly a big plus on Emirates, for me at least, is that the meal service is à la carte, so passengers can have their meal any time they like. On SWISS the entire First Class cabin is served at the same time, usually right after take-off and irrespective of the time of night or day.

Overall impression

My overall impression of the two flights in comparison is that the Emirates experience seemed a lot more professional and standardised in terms of dealing with passengers when flying in a pandemic. I don’t think the experience was particularly personal on Emirates, but I felt well taken care of and the hassle of travel was kept to the minimum, while at the same time respecting the regulations in place.

SWISS has much more personal touch to its service. On the one hand, that can be rather nice. But overall, it makes the whole product susceptible to variability as the result of the human factor. Furthermore, the adaptations made by SWISS make the experience not quite so hassle free.

Emirates Airlines, Boeing B 777-300ER – First Class: Dubai to Zürich

Introduction

I awake early on Friday morning with a large red sore across the bridge of my nose from having had to wear a face mask for the last seven days. But the course I was in Ras Al-Khaima for is now done, and I’m ready to go home. Travelling in times of Covid 19 is tedious, cumbersome and tiring.

Getting to the airport

Ras Al-Khaima is about 80 minutes away from Dubai airport by car. Given that my departure to Zürich is just after eight in the morning and I really don’t feel like having to wake up at the crack of dawn, on Thursday afternoon I head back to Dubai to spend my last night at the Sofitel Downtown.

I’ve ordered an Emirates car to pick me up just before six in the morning; which is still early. The journey to the airport takes about twenty minutes. You can order the car yourself online in the ‘Manage my Booking’ section of the Emirates website, which is where you can also book a car to pick you up at the airport at your destination.

If you’re travelling in First Class, you get a larger and more ostentatious type of vehicle than you would in Business Class. And so, taking me to the airport this morning is a gorgeous BMW 7.

Check-in

Emirates checks in at Terminal 3, and there is a dedicated section of the terminal for Business and First Class check-in only. I wouldn’t say the place is teeming with people when I arrive, but it’s certainly a lot busier than I would have expected in the current situation.

There is no queue for the First Class check-in counters and I’m surprised by just how many counters are actually open. The check-in agent makes quick work of my suitcase and then I head for security and immigration.

The e-gates are available for passengers leaving the country. To use them you have to register your passport when you arrive in the country.

Emirates temporary First Class lounge

The lounges are located one floor up from the public airside area. The standard Emirates First Class lounge is temporarily closed to passengers, however. Instead, one half of the Business Class lounge has been sectioned off and converted into the First Class lounge.

The main feature of the lounge is the dining area. In accordance with the current situation, there is no buffet and passengers are served at their table. The menu is available online via QR code. There are some passengers in the lounge, but I wouldn’t say it is crowded.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight starts at 07h45. I arrive at the gate a few minutes later and the flight is already in the final stages of boarding. I ask the gate attendant and she confirms that while the load in Business Class is looking quite okay, in Economy it’s rather light. In First Class there are three passengers.

The cabin and seat

I’ve never really liked the look of the Emirates First Class cabin and seat. Generally speaking, I find the fake wood and fake gold trimmings a bit tacky. And the grey leather covers are about as bland and boring as Lufthansa.

But the seat is very comfortable and offers a lot of privacy and space.

I think what impresses me most about the seat, is the amount of thought that has obviously gone into the design to create a private space for the passenger that is functional, practical and very comfortable.

The minibar in the side panel of the seat has a standard stock of drinks. However, the crew are happy to change the contents of the minibar to suit your requirements.

Every passenger also gets a bowl of snacks, which are replenished throughout the flight.

There’s also a travel hygene kit at my seat. It contains two face masks, two pairs of plastic gloves and disinfectant.

On the shorter day time flights Emirates does not offer a vanity kit nor pjs. But they do offer cosmetics at the seat, and toothbrushes and toothpaste are available in the lavatory.

There’s also a drawer with a writing pen and a small notebook. The pen is rather useless though, and doesn’t write very well.

There is ample storage space for personal items in the seat.

Before we push back, the crew pass through the cabin handing out forms that need to be completed on arrival into Switzerland.

Next, they pass through the cabin for the traditional coffee and dates welcome, with every date packaged in plastic individually.

We take off in a southeasterly direction and then make a right hand turn to point us in the general direction of Europe. The SID takes us right over Sheikh Zayed Road and the fabulous Burj Khalifa.

A la carte service

The service is à la carte and passengers can order any time they like. I already had breakfast in the lounge, and so I decide to have a nap first.

Apéritif

Around three hours out of Zürich I order lunch. The menu is quite extensive and offers a good selection of breakfast items, starters, main courses and desserts. I start with a bowl of warm mixed nuts, a glass of sparkling water and a glass of the Dom Perignon 2008.

The first course

Next, the table is set for the meal. This is one area where I think Emirates could improve. The whole meal service, like the seat, it functional and on point but not really very elegant – be it in the design of the tableware or the presentation of the food on the plate.

Before the crew start serving the food, they ask me if I would prefer the dishes to be served with the covers still on and remove them myself or if I would rather have them removed.

The breads in the breadbasket come individually wrapped in plastic that can be heated in the oven. They’re not really good though, because the steam cannot escape properly and as a result, the bread turns soggy fairly quickly.

For the starter I go with the cold-smoked ocean trout, served with pickled potatos, capers and crème fraîche. It’s a lovely piece of trout, but the presentation is a bit of a mess.

The salad

The salad is very nice. There is the option to add some grilled beef or shrimps and it is served either with a French dressing or olive oil and Balsamico.

The main course

For the main course, I go with the prawns in a shellfish sauce, served with wild rice with lemon zest and cardamom. This is a flavourful dish, and the rice complements the prawns nicely. The cardamom and lemon zest really make the dish and add an exotic twist to it.

Dessert

To end the meal, I ask for the chocolate fondant and some mint tea. The dessert is a bit of a let down though. The centre of it is still not quite melted and the outer texture is rubbery. It’s hard to say if the dish was just not properly heated in the oven or if it just isn’t a good recipe.

The meal concludes with a small box of Emirati pralines.

The meal service is nicely paced. There are no long waits in between the individual courses, but the whole service is still unrushed. I guess it probably helps that there are only three passengers in the cabin on today’s flight.

Arrival

Thirty minutes out of Zürich our Spanish captain comes on the loudspeaker to inform us that we have reached the top of descent have have another half hour to run to Zürich. The temperature is minus 2 and they’re expecting it to have just finished snowing by the time we land. From above it certainly looks pretty outside.

We touch down on runway 16, which is quite unusual. I’m not sure if this is due to the snow (perhaps runway 14, which is normally in use for landings, has not been cleared) or if it was specifically requested by crew because it allows for a much shorter taxi time to the gate.

The E concourse, which is normally used for the non-Schengen flights, is currently in hibernation and all flights now depart from the D concourse on the B pier. This also means that there is currently no lounge available for Emirates passengers, as this is also located on the E concourse.

Immigration is swift. The e-gates are currently only available for citizens of Switzerland and Lichtenstein, though.

There’s a bit of a hold up with the luggage, and eventually we end up waiting for forty minutes before the first bags appear on the belt. I exit through customs and turn right, as instructed by the Emirates ground crew, in search of my driver.

Getting home

The chauffeur service is very well organised. In Zürich, Emirates works with a company called Blacklane. After I booked the service on the Emirates website, I received a mail from Blacklane directly, confirming the reservation. If you download their app and log in using the mail address and name used in the Emirates PNR, you can see the reservation with the contact details of the driver.

My driver today is a friendly young lady. She is quite petite and looks oddly out of place behind the steering of the enormous Mercedez. But she does a brilliant job and tells me not to worry about the copious amounts of snow everywhere. The drive back to Basel takes us a bit less than an hour and is very comfortable.

Conclusion

This has been an interesting trip for me. On the one hand, it made me realise just how much I’ve missed travelling. On my way from Dubai to Ras Al-Khaima we came across a group of camels standing in the middle of the road. I found the sight quite moving. Not necessarily because I’m particularly fond of camels, but because the experience perfectly captured what I enjoy about travel – the opportunity of doing and and seeing things you normally wouldn’t be able to. Having said that though, I can’t really say I enjoyed the trip – because with Covid 19 the outside world has become a hostile place to me.

Swiss International Air Lines, Airbus A 340-300 – First Class: Zürich to Dubai

Introduction

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.

Check-in

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.

The Cabin

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.

Welcome drink

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.

The Meal

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.

Amuse bouche

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.

First course

There is a wide selection of dishes to choose from for 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.

Salad

The sald is lovely. It comes with caramelised apples, veal speck, pumpkin seeds and a pumpkin vinaigrette.

Main course

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!

The cheese

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.

Dessert

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

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.

Arrival

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 possible found, passing row after row of grounded Emirates aircraft. It’s actually 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.

Conclusion

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.

Epilogue

Nearly eight months to the day after I contacted Lufthansa to request a refund of the ticket for my sabbatical in Australia, they finally managed to actually pay back the money that they owed me to my credit card.

I have to admit that I was not expecting ever to see the money I paid for that ticket again. Of course, I’m not complaining that I finally got the money back. But if I were Lufthansa, I think I’d be somewhat alarmed by the fact that their customers don’t even trust them enough anymore to refund money that rightfully belongs to them.

IATA, the airlines and airports have put a lot of time and effort in recent weeks into demonstrating that the risk of infection with the COVID19 virus aboard an airliner is minimal. And I’m willing to believe that’s probably even true. Some people are indeed reluctant to fly for health reasons. Others are likely very frustrated by the uncertainty of planning a trip due to the seemingly constantly chaning travel restrictions and entry requirements from one country to another. But I suspect that a large proporition of former customers are simply no longer willing to trust the airlines with their money. And frankly, I don’t blame them.

So instead of trying to prove to customers just how effective a HEPA filter on an aircraft can be, perhaps now would be a better time for airlines to show that they can be reliable and dependable partners that actually do put the customer first for a change.

Air France Platinum Service: Credit where Credit’s due

A few weeks ago, Air France sent me an email advising me that a booking I had pending with them had been cancelled as the result of the COVID19 pandemic. And then I promptly forgot about the booking.

At 10h30 this morning, I figured I needed to get myself and my reservations/cancellations sorted out. So I logged into my Air France account and requested a full refund of my ticket using the corresponding form in the PNR.

Just after 14h00 this afternoon, so the same day, I received two emails from Air France. One was an automated message confirming that the refund had been processed. The other was a message from an employee of the Air France Platinum hotline with more information about the refund process. My interaction with Air France was swift, efficient and very polite.

Thanks a lot Air France!

***

On 18 March 2020 I called Lufthansa to cancel a First Class ticket. It took me one hour of trying unsuccessfully to actually get on the line to Lufthansa, and then another hour before an agent could attend to me. Since then, I have called Luthansa three more times in this matter. The first time, I was told the refund was being processed as we speak, and I should expect to receive the money within days. Which evidently turned out to be a blatant lie. The second time I called, the agent told me she was “not trained well enough” to be able to tell be what the situation with the ticket was – but promised to call back the next day. Which never happened either, surprisingly. The third time I called, I had a really great guy on the phone – simply because I think he was the first employee of Lufthansa’s so far who was honest. Alas, he honestly could not tell me if and when I might get a refund… five months later I’m still none the wiser.