SAS, Economy Class – MD-80: Stockholm Arlanda to Skelleftea to Stockholm Arlanda

Introduction

The MD-80 figures prominently in my childhood memories of lazy summer vacations spent at the beach in Malta, sitting in the shade, digging my toes into the backing sand and gazing out across the azure shades of the Mediterranean sea.

In those days there were not that many direct flights to Malta. Air Malta operated a three times weekly schedule to Zürich with the mighty B 720, and that was it. Not of course, that I would have minded as a child to travel with that old veteran but alas, my parents had their reservations, shall we say. Back then Air Malta was not the world’s most reliable airline and with only three weekly flights tended to be rather pricey for family of five. So instead, we used to travel with Swissair from Basel via Zürich to Rome, initially with the DC-9-50 and later with the MD-80, and then from there on to Malta, either by Air Malta or with Alitalia on the B 727-200 and later also with the MD-80.

My memories of these flights are no longer clear and are now shrouded in the haze of the many years that have since elapsed. But I do remember Swissair serving lovely, tasty warm pancakes filled with spinach in a tomato sauce on the Zürich to Rome sector. I remember my elder sister, and I am still grateful to her for doing it, preparing a calendar for me to cross the days in the run-up to the summer holidays and the moment when I would finally set foot on an aircraft, an MD-80, again.

In later years, Swissair brought relief to us with the introduction of flights to Malta, also with the MD-80 of course. To begin with Swissair too operated on a trice-weekly schedule, which was later increased to daily except Tuesdays.

So perhaps you will now understand how the MD-80 came to be linked so closely to those adolescent, carefree memories of mine of summers suspended in the warmth of the summer sun. Perhaps you will now also understand why I wanted to take one last trip with the MD-80, to pay homage to this excellent aircraft before it disappears from Europe forever.

Planning the Trip

There are already not that many airlines left in Europe that operate the MD-80. I deemed charter flights to be too complicated because I only had a weekend to do the trip. Most tour operators only sell packages for at least one week’s stay somewhere. And Alitalia seemed like a bit of a wild card. Thus, very early on during the planning phase for this trip, it became apparent that SAS would be the easiest, most convenient option. There was however one complication that needed to be considered: the coolest thing about the MD-80 is of course the possibility to board/deplane through the rear exit, to the death defying, agonising roar of the running APU. Therefore, it was not simply a question of finding a flight operated by SAS with the MD-80 but also of finding a destination which did not have any airbridges, thus increasing my chances of availing myself of the peviously mentioned aft stairs.

Eventually, I decided on the following routing: Zürich-Stockholm-Skelleftea-Stockholm-Zürich with SAS. On Friday evening, 10 June 2011, I would fly from Zürich to Stockholm on an MD-80. I believe it was Björn Viking, a sprightly 26 year old. I would then spend the night at the Radisson Blue in Arlanda’s Sky City. The next day, in the morning of Saturday, 11 June 2011, I would fly to Skelleftea and back on the same plane, Olav Viking. After another night in Stockholm proper I would then fly back to Zürich on Sunday afternoon, 12 June 2011. This report covers the flights from Stockholm Arlanda to Skelleftea and back.

Date: 11 June 2011
Airline: SAS – Scandinavian Airlines
From: Stockholm Arlanda
To: Skelleftea
Aircraft: MD-80
Seat: 26F

I awake on Saturday to the sight of a magnificent Thai Airways B 747-400. After a quick coffee and a shower I check out of the hotel and make my way to Arlanda’s terminal 4, from where my flight to Skelleftea will be leaving.

Airside

The domestic terminal is very functional. On this Saturday morning it is also very empty. I go through security, where the staff on duty seem happy to see a ‘client’. I then make my way to a coffee shop and have breakfast, which consists of a cinnamon roll, or Kanel Bollar, and a coffee.

Boarding

The boarding gate has one attended queue and an automatic one, which I try and which works perfectly.

And then from there I walk down the gangway to my aircraft.

The Cabin

Judging by the condition of the cabin you’d never guess the age and hours on this bird!

With only 30 passengers on the flight, I couldn’t really say we take off. In actual fact I think blasting off or rocketing off would be more appropriate…

The Meal

Generally, SAS has buy-on-board service in Economy Class. However, on morning flights that leave before 09h00 they still serve a complimentary breakfast, even on our short flight of 55 minutes. The breakfast hits the spot. It consists of orange juice, blueberry yoghurt with müsli, two buns, cold cuts, cheese, tomato and salad.

Turnaround

I’m still sipping my coffee when the captain comes on the blower to inform us that we’re about the start the descent into Skelleftea. Outside the views are of very flat land, lush green vegetation and water.

Skelleftea is a mini airport. So far Ronne airport on the Danish island of Bornholm has been the smallest airport I have ever visited, but I think Skelleftea takes the biscuit.

My plan works and I am able to deplane through the back, which I greatly enjoy. I feel like a little kid again, emerging into the bright sunlight under the magnificent empennage of the MD-80. The only thing missing is the noise: alas the APU is not turned on as the aircraft had been plugged in to an external power supply.

As I make my way to arrivals I keep stopping to take pictures. The nice thing about this airport is that none of the staff actually seem to mind.

Date: 11 June 2011
Airline: SAS
Aircraft: MD-80
From: Skelleftea
To: Stockholm
Cabin: Economy Class
Seat: 28F

I am the last passenger to enter the terminal. I now have 20 minutes to ‘connect’ to the return flight. Theoretically, I could turn right at arrivals and go down a narrow hall that would bring me to departures – the terminal is like somebody’s country house – but instead I decide to step outside and enter the terminal again on the departures side. I guess in a way my reckoning being that by doing so I can now say that I actually was in Skelleftea proper and not just changed planes there, which technically would not be quite true either, given that I return to Stockholm on the same plane with which I had arrived…

Boarding

Skelleftea has one boarding gate, so while your boarding pass is scanned for you to go airside, you’re also reporting for your flight. Boarding starts rather unceremoniously. There is the sound a bell, then the doors open and we are free to get on board again. No announcement is made.

The flight attendant’s expression as she sees me coming back on board again is priceless. It’s a mixture of incomprehension, surprise and alarm. So I quickly show her my boarding pass and explain that I am undertaking the trip specifically to fly the MD-80 and not because I have any particular business in Skelleftea. This proves to be quite an ice breaker and throughout the flight, the entire cabin crew keep stopping at my row to talk to me about why I like the MD-80 so much, some of them also give details about how long they’ve been with SAS and why they like working on the MD-80.

With only 70 passengers on the return leg, boarding is soon completed, we make a quick taxi, backtracking to the end of the runway, and blast off from runway 10.

Feeling gratified by the mission successfully accomplished, I am able to lean back and enjoy the views outside.

Farewell

Just before landing the lead flight attendant comes by to inform me that the captain has been informed about me and would like to invite me up to the cockpit after landing to have a look around. I think this is really nice and indeed, once we land and everybody has disembarked and I make my way to the forward exit, where the cockpit crew is already expecting me. The first officer offers me his seat and takes a few picutre. We chat a bit about what a great aircraft the MD-80 is to fly. According to the first officer the last aircraft is expected to leave the SAS fleet by 2012 and he confirmes that this was much to the regret of many of the staff at SAS.

Eventually I manage to tear myself away, after all these kind people have work to do. So I thank them for their kindness and, with a heavy heart, I bid my last farewell the elegant MD-80.

All in all, this trip was really worth it and certainly one of the more memorable ones. I really enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to get one last flight with the MD-80. So I will have more fond memories of this aircraft to add to those of my childhood.

As for SAS, the kindness and friendliness of their crew really are the airline’s biggest asset!

SAS, Business Class – Airbus A 340-300: Beijing to Copenhagen

Introduction

At the end of May 2011 I decided to have a break and spend a few days in Beijing sightseeing. My residence during my stay in China’s capital city was the Aman at Summer Palace, a lovely hotel which sits adjacent to the Imperial Summer Palace and was built in what used to be one of the palace kitchens.

Date: 04 June 2011
Flight number: SK996
Aircraft: A 340-300
From: Beijing
To: Copenhagen
Cabin: Business Class
Seat: 2A

Getting to the Airport

I leave the hotel at 12:00. The journey to the airport takes us a little less than one hour, mainly due to the fact that traffic in Beijing is really bad and crawling most of the time. Having said that, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Chinese drive live mad men. The day before my departure I visited the Great Wall at Mutianyu. As soon as we left the inner city behind us, traffic became lighter. My driver kept swerving in and out of the traffic and left me wishing for a traffic jam to slow him down. But all that is another story.

In any case, upon arrival at the airport I am already being expected by a young lady from the hotel’s escort service. She takes my bags to the SAS Business Class check-in counter and then guides me to the shuttle to take me across to the satellite of terminal three, from where all international departures seem to leave. The journey is quite long and really impressive. The new Terminal 3 at Beijing really is amazing. Once we arrived at the satellite, my escort shows me the way to the immigration counters where she bids me farewell and a safe journey home.

Immigration takes about 10 minutes to complete, as there is quite a queue. At least behind immigration there’s an express line through security. In order to take advantage of the express lane at security though, you need to show your boarding pass to some official, not sure who he works for, who stamps your boarding pass no less than 4 times with the same stamp before letting you through.

Once you pass security there really isn’t that much to do, except gape in awe at the magnificent and impressive architecture of the building.

The Air China Lounge

There are a few shops, but there is not really anything appealing there so I head to the Air China Business Class lounge one floor up. The lounge is okay, nothing special but with a good selection food and beverages. By the time I leave to get on my flight it’s getting rather busy and the reception area is a complete mess, with people pushing and shoving their way forward to be served first. What fun!

Boarding

I arrive at the gate where boarding has already started. There is a dedicated line for Business and Economy Plus passengers and a separate airbridge for premium passengers. I am greeted at the door by an elderly but ever so stylish flight attendant. As soon as I settle in, a male flight attendant come round offering orange juice, water and champagne.

The Cabin

The cabin on this bird shows some signs of wear and tear but is still generally in good condition.

Our A 340 has rather unusual overhead bins over the middle row of seats. They’re same ones Royal Jordanian has on its A 330. They dropped open, pretty much like the bins on the Tripple Seven.

As we taxi to the active runway I suddenly spot a large dot gradually growing bigger. At first I figure it must be a B 747. A look through the lens of my camera however reveals it’s an A380. ‘What a great location for a photo’, I think. But alas, as the aircraft draws nearer I get tangled in the strap of the camera and by the time I free myself and have an opportunity to take a picture, the thing is already too close and too fast. And this is the outcome.

Take-off is another one of those painfully undignified A 340-300 departures. Such a lame duck! Accordingly, it takes us a while to climb through the pollution of Beijing.

Amenities

Once we are airborne, the crew come round handing out earphones, slippers, menus and vanity kits.

They then distribute the much appreciated hot towels. Check out the rather funky decoration with dry ice smoke coming out of the glass with the flower.

The Meal

Amuse Bouche

We begin with a drink run, served with dry pretzels and a shrimp and scallop on a toothpick with veg. The presentation in the plastic cup is not exactly the epitome of the much acclaimed Danish and Scandinavian design, but what will you?

What impresses me most about the service is the timing of the crew. Throughout the flight they make sure that they pass through the two aisles at the same speed, rather than having one side served way ahead of the other, as often happens on other carriers.

The meal tray duly arrives and has a a mixed salad on it, which comes with a bottle balsamico and olive oil.

The Salad

The First Course

The first course is Gravad Lachs with cucumbers marinated in dill. There is also a plate with cheese for dessert on the tray. But I demolish that before the main course arrives. Which however, does not mean that service is slow. Quite the contrary, it is very well timed.

The Main Course

And then comes the main course. I have the chicken in a tomato and basil sauce with polenta and grilled vegetables. And it isn’t bad either. My neighbour has the ravioli with mushrooms and vegetables and says it is also very nice. Thanks for letting me take a picture.

After the meal I have a lovely port.

Dessert

This is followed by dessert: apple and rhubarb pie with fruit and vanilla cream. I have a Sauterne and coffee with this. Lovely!

Inflight Snack

After the meal the blinds comes down and the lights are switched of. This is also when the crew set up the tremendously well stocked self service bar. Even so,the crew pass through the cabin regularly with drinks, sandwiches and ice cream.

I don’t usually ‘do’ a section on the toilets in my trip reports but I think I’ll have to make an exception this time. The SAS A340toilet is absolutely huge. There are even two windows including a shade for those of us who worry that they might be seen in an unflattering position by another aircraft passing close by…

The Second Service

And then, surprisingly quickly, it’s already time for the second service: we have a beef salad to start, followed by a buffet with a choice of either chicken or pork with rice and vegetables. The portion of the second serving is rather substantial!

Arrival

As they say, time flies. Shortly after clearing the trays from the second service, we’ve already started our descent into CPH. We make a beautiful approach over the Öresund, with the bridge connecting Denmark to Sweden coming into view just before we touch down.

In Copenhagen I have a connection onto the Swiss flight to Zürich. I have two hours to kill. The lounge in Copenhagen is nice and very typical of what I would call Scandinavia design. But perhaps all I’m trying to say is that it reminded me of an IKEA show room.

I was going to include my connecting flight to Zurich in this report. But as things turned out, I think I’ll save them the embarrassment and not comment. Save to say the flight was not one of Swiss International Air Lines’ finest moments.

Conclusion

I must say that SAS was a big surprise. I was not really expecting anything much but found their service to be excellent and very professional. Sure, it is not fancy and more functional than elegant. But they get the job done and rather well at that. I would choose them any time for another long-haul trip. In fact it’s a pity their network is not that extensive.

The Summer Palace of the Empress Dowager Cixi, Beijing

The Summer Palace is located about 20km away from the Forbidden City of Beijing.

The history of the Summer Palace is very closely linked to that of the Empress Dowager Cixi who, for all practical purposes, ruled the Qing Dynasty for nearly 40 years. The Empress Dowager is referred to by the Chinese as the Dragon Lady. Her reign is known as the reign of blood because of all the people she had murdered to retain power.

Cixi became the Empress Dowager following the death of her husband during the second Opium War in 1861. The idea had been for her to reign until her son was old enough to take over power. But when the time came, the Empress Dowager was reluctant to hand over power and instead had her son murdered. She then appointed one of her nephews to be the new emperor. He was only three years of age, which bought her some time before he too would make a rightful claim to the Dragon Throne, requiring her to relinquish power. Tragically, the little boy did not last very long and the Empress Dowager eventually had him murdered as well.

Dragon Lady then nominated a little boy that went by the name of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, also aged three at the time, to ascend to the Dragon Throne. Which eventually he did, but only because the Empress Dowager died a little while after she made the nomination. Pu Yi went on to become the last Emperor of China. He died in 1967 in Beijing, as a simple gardener of the People’s Republic of China.

Aman Summer Palace Beijing

The Aman Summer Palace Hotel is situated about 20km away from the centre of Beijing, if you assume that the Forbidden City is the actual centre of this enormous city.

The actual hotel is set in the grounds of what used to be the imperial kitchens of the Summer Palace and is laid out in the shape of a series of small courts yards that are separated by pavillions and buildings. It’s actually a very calm and relaxing environment, to the extent that when you’re inside the hotel you nearly forget you’re actually in an enormous city.

The rooms of the hotel are luxuriously appointed, but without decent artificial lighting, photography is a bit difficult inside the rooms.

I very much enjoyed my stay at the Summer Palace. It probably is one of the nicer hotels to stay at in Beijing. However, if you’re looking for a hotel with a central location to explore the sights of China’s capital, this is probably not the place.

As you may have guess, for me a good measure of a hotel’s quality is usually the afternoon tea they offer. The Aman Summer Palace does a really nice afternoon tea with lovely, fluffy scones.

Air Malta, Economy Class – A 319: Zürich to Malta

Introduction

Air Malta is currently in the middle of a rebranding exercise, which includes new uniforms for the crew and also a new livery which made its debut in September 2012. Things have been rather tough for this little airline in recent years: it is in an awkward position in that it has many masters and is trying to serve all of them equally well. A futile endeavour! There is the government and the national Maltese tourism industry which relies heavily on the carrier to bring tourist to its shores. But with the increasing popularity of the Maltese islands as a holiday destination, the competition for Air Malta has also increased. And then there is the obligation to provide connections for Maltese nationals wishing to travel abroad, albeit a very small niche market. One way or another, with the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair eating away at Air Malta’s leisure traffic, and Lufthansa and Emirates taking whatever is left, Air Malta finds itself stuck in the middle. The future will tell what will become of Air Malta.

Date: 17. August 2012
From: Zürich
To: Malta
Airline: Air Malta
Aircraft: A319
Cabin: Economy
Seat: 10E, aisle on the emergency exit

My narrative begins as I make my way to the viewing gallery on the reconstruction of what used to be terminal B at Zürich airport. It’s a lovely day and quite warm. But at least there is a slight breeze going to make the temperature outside bearable. I put my rucksack in a locker and pay the CHF5 entrance for the viewing gallery. 

The airport is calm around this time of day and save for an Air France Embraer 190 all the stands are empty.

I really like the design of the building from the outside. From the inside it is a tad cramped. Anyway, there are steps leading down onto the roof of one of the airbridges, which allows you to get up pretty close to the aircraft.

Boarding

Much to my shame I must confess that I don’t really take the heat and sun very well, despite the fact that I was born in Malta, where temperatures in excess of 35 degrees Celsius are not uncommon from late May to early November.

Eventually the heat becomes too much for me and I decide to head airside.

I arrive at the gate and surreptitiously peek at the screen displaying the DCS information for this flight: two passengers in Business Class, 115 passengers in Economy. Not a bad load considering the holiday season is over. In actual fact, from what I can tell from the conversations I pick up and the passports I can see, most passengers would appear to be Maltese anyway.

Boarding

The Swissport agent announces that boarding will commence shortly. She also informs us that due to the incredible heat in the airbridge, boarding by seat rows will be strictly enforced to avoid people standing in the sweltering heat too long. And true to their word the two ladies proceed to do the most orderly boarding process I have every seen. No mean feat if a bunch of Maltese is involved.

The Cabin

I am greeted at the door by the purser, an elderly and very friendly looking gentleman. He looks like he could be your favourite granddad. The other crew member is a young lady with stunning features: black long hair and blue eyes. She’s quite a looker and she knows it. The entire crew is wearing the new uniform and I must say it is a vast improvement over what they had.

I grab a free copy of the Times of Malta, which is available to all passengers and laid out right by the entrance to the aircraft, and head for my seat.

Initially I am seated on 9F, but then a couple takes the seats next to me and starts snogging wildly. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing against a good snog, but the mere sound of others slobbering all over each other makes me want to throw up. I look behind me to find the aisle seat on the emergency row is still empty, so are the middle seats. So I quickly ask a crew member if I can change. He tells me that sure I can, proviso I pay the fee for the extra leg room. The slobbering continues on row 9 and so I consent. The fee is EUR25. The seats are marked with the word ‘RESERVED’ written on the head rest covers.

The legroom on the exit row is, of course, excellent.Departure is from runway 28. Shortly after take-off we to a left turn to point the aircraft southwards for the Alps, the Med and eventually Malta. Our routing takes us over mainland Italy to Rome, from where set out across the Thyrrenian sea to Palermo in Sicily and from there on to Malta.

The Crew

The crew is friendly and makes detailed announcements in Maltese and English, followed by a recorded message in German. Soft drinks, one beer or wine are for free. Any further alcoholic drink must be paid for.

The Meal

There are two options on the flight today. The vegetarian one is a tomato and mozzarella salad on iceberg lettuce. On the tray there is also a small tub of butter and a small container with salad dressing, a large bun and a cupcake. The non-vegetarian option is cheese with ham, boiled eggs and tomatoes on a bed of iceberg lettuce. The dessert is an almond filled biscuit type thing. It’s a small meal but it serves its purpose on a flight of one hour and 50 minutes.

Arrival

By the time we reach Palermo and we begin our initial descent, the sun has already started to set and the light outside turns a warm and balmy colour.

The approach into Malta is very atmospheric. As the aircraft dips its nose and the engines go increasingly silent to slow us down, a hush of anticipation spreads throughout the cabin as the tourists and Maltese alike peer out of the windows excitedly to catch a first glimpse of the islands rising out of the sea.

For most of the descent the aircraft flies head on towards Gozo, the northern island. Outside the passengers see only the vastness of the Mediterranean sea and the golden reflection of the sun dancing on the waves. But the then aircraft banks every so light to the left and suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Gozo appears – the island of Calypso. The aircraft flies along the north-eastern coast of the island, then past Comino and then along the island of Malta proper. It’s usually at this stage the tourists cannot be amazed at how dry the island is and how few trees there are. The Maltese, like myself, look out and glance down at this small rock in the sea and attempt to conceal that yes, they are moved.

Eventually the aircraft reaches the south end of Malta. The right wing dips and we round Delimara point, pass the natural harbour of Marsaxlokk and eventually line up with runway 31 as we cross over St. George’s bay. And then we land and I am home.

I wait until everybody has disembarked and then walk to the rear of the aircraft to exit through the back. This gives me an opportunity to take a few pictures from an unusual angle.

I get on the bus. I even manage to take a picture of the new uniform before the doors close and we are bussed to the Schengen arrivals.

That concludes the aviation part of this report. I leave you with a few shots from Malta taken the next day.

Republic Street aka King’s Way
After all it was once a British Dominion…
Typically Maltese: at 10:00 head for the Café Premier for a refreshing Kinnie and some Pastizzi
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
The Auberge de Castille
Looking across the Grand Harbour towards the cottonera: L-Isla, Birgu and Bormla
The water taxi connecting Birgu with Valletta

KLM, Business Class – MD-11: Montreal to Amsterdam

Date: 19 July 2012
From: Montreal
To: Amsterdam
Airline: KLM
Aircraft: MD-11
Cabin: Business Class
Seat: 1A

It’s 16h10. My speech before ICAO is over and I am sitting in a taxi on my way to the airport. The trip to the airport costs 40 Canadian dollars, it’s a flat rate.

Check-in

The driver drops me off at the international terminal, right outside the entrance to the section where Air France/KLM have their counters. I reprint my boarding pass and head through security. Strangely enough, there does not seem to be any sort of immigration, just a guy standing in the middle of the aisle who wants to see my passport and then that’s it. I have left the country.

The Air France KLM Lounge

The Air France lounge is rather nice. In fact I’d say it’s much better than any of the lounges of Air France I’ve ever seen in Paris. Luckily enough the place is not very busy, the earlier one of the Air France flights has just been called. For me this means that I will not have to wait for my turn for a shower.

The showers are nice. As I enter, I am given a kit of l’Occitane cosmetics and a set of nice, fluffy towels.

I change from my suit back into my travel gear and feel refreshed and clean.

Boarding

Boarding for the 19h15 departure begins very early at 18h20. I’m kind of bored in the lounge so I figure I might as well go for a walk about and then get on the plane.

The Cabin

I’m the first passenger in the forward Business Class cabin, which gives me the chance to take a few pictures. As on the previous flight, the general impression of the cabin is a good one. The plane is old, but well maintained. Today I’m sitting in the forward Business Class cabin.

Our departure from  Montreal is everything I had hoped for: its powerful and noisy. The engines spool up and I can feel the vibration of their rumble somewhere in my rib cage. And the views are nice too!

The Crew

Again the crew on this flight is very friendly and very professional. As soon as they spot me, two of them come up to me and offer to take my jacket. I am informed that the flying time will only be a short five hours and 48 minutes today and that the flight will be full in all classes.

Next another flight attendant brings me the vanity kit – the same as on the previous leg – and asks if I would like a drink. Orange juice it is.

Once the seatbelt sign goes off, the inflight service begins with the distribution of hot towels and then the menus. Outside the sun has started to set. It’s going to be a short night.

The Meal

This is followed by the first drinks service and the taking of orders for dinner. I have a Ginger Ale with the warm nuts.

The First Course

Jamaican-style chicken with aubergine and cherry tomatoes.

The Salad

The Main Course

For the main course there are three options: Braised beef with mashed potatoes, carrots and onions; pasta with artichokes and a Marinara sauce or Atlantic salmon with rice. I go with the beef and it is very tasty!

Dessert

Camembert and Cantal Cheese with seasonal fruit. But I am tired and already full, so I give this one a miss and try to get some sleep. I think in our cabin nobody had the cheese.

Surprisingly, the seat turns out to be a lot more comfortable than expected. Even so, I think I would not want to have to endure a flight of 12 hours or so in one of these seats.

The Second Service

I manage to get some decent sleep. When I awaken again, we are only 80 minutes out of Amsterdam. One of the flight attendants notices I’m awake and asks if I’d like breakfast. Of course I do!

Breakfast consists of cold cuts and cheese, a bowl of fruit and a choice of either a Frittata or a pastries selection consisting of a cinnamon roll, croissant and a bun with butter and strawberry jam. With that I have a coffee and an orange juice.

Arrival

The scenery outside is spectacular and dramatic with low clouds and the early morning sun penetrating through the different levels of cloud to produce some spectacular effects.

We land on runway 18R, that’s the far away one. They’re also doing approaches on the parallel runway 18C, which for us means an even longer taxi than usual as we have to taxi to the end of 18C and go around the threshold so as not to interfere with the landing aircraft.

And thus my possibly last MD-11 flight comes to an end and I really feel reluctant to get off the plane.

Conclusion

The MD-11 was not a lucky aircraft and she was certainly no commercial success. But I also think she is better than her reputation. As for the MD-11 operation at KLM, I think it is quite apparent that without further heavy investment to upgrade the cabin of the aircraft, the airline will no longer have a competitive product here. Quite understandably though, at this stage of the game it seems unlikely that the new KLM long-haul Business Class cabin will ever grace the inside of an MD-11. I think KLM offers a really sound product in terms of the professionalism of the crew and the quality and quantity of the food. The only draw back right now is their hardware, the seat.

British Airways, Business Class – Airbus A 318: London City to New York JFK

Transfer in London City

There is no transfer area in LCY. So upon arrival I make my way through arrivals. I stop at the BA desk and ask them to remove the Hindu Meal from my PNR, then take the stairs one floor up, go through security again and arrive airside once more.

Date: 6 April 2012, Good Friday
Airline: British Airways
Aircraft: Airbus A 318
From: London City via Shannon
To: New York JFK
Class: Business Class
Seat: 5J

I head for Gate 24, which is the dedicated gate for the JFK flight and has been converted into a sort of mini-lounge.

The Lounge

Gate 24 is equipped with thirty-two seats for the passengers of Speedbird One. The staff are all exceedingly friendly and lend the entire event an air of being something special. Is it just me, or is there really a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air? I sit down and try to calm down. A friendly lady comes to offer me a glass of champagne and seems almost disappointed when I ask for a glass of still water with lemon and ice. I busy myself with completing the immigration and customs forms for the US, more to keep me occupied and hopefully to soothe my nerves.

Boarding

And then suddenly, out of the blue it comes. It’s so short I nearly miss it. But I do hear it! The gate attendant slowly opens the door and a breath of fresh, cool air floods the small area of gate 24. And then it comes: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, BA 1 to New York JFK is now ready for boarding’.

The Cabin

So here was are again, and I’m finally on board Speedbird One. Only three seats remain empty. First impressions of the cabin are very good. The first thing that strikes me is that there are no over-wing exists on this bird. This is cool. The atmosphere on board is very laid back and relaxed. I’m not the only one taking pictures. The crew are, like their colleagues on the ground, very friendly. I am asked if this is my first time on The Speedbird One. I confirm that it is and I am promised that I’ll enjoy the ride. I hope so!

On board there are only 32 Business Class seats in a 2-2 configuration.

There is a nice fluffy pillow and a blanket on every seat.

Departure is to the West. This will only be a short hop for the A 318. Our take off is pretty much what I imagine departing an aircraft carrier to be like: first the throttle is pushed forward, the noise inside the cabin increases and the aircraft begins to gently sway back and forth. But nothing happens until, suddenly, the breaks are released and we go thundering down the runway. What fun! It’s really quite amazing how quickly we’re airborne!

The Meal

An aperitif and the starter are served on the short leg to Shannon. I’m looking forward to this and I’m already enjoying this flight a lot, even before anything much actually happens! And then that Hindu Asian Meal rears its ugly head again. I am brought a plate with two skewers of fruit. Fig, date and raspberry to be precise. I explain that the Hindu Meal is a mistake. But alas, the pea and marjoram pie I had set my eyes on is already gone anyway by the time the crew reaches row five. All that is left is the salted beef with tomatoes and a few leaves of ruccola. Oh okay, perhaps the skewers will do just fine after all…

To drink I have a Coke Zero with that. I know, an awful combination but what will you?

The Crew

Service is efficient and friendly. The food is served from a lovely, large, round silver tray. And then it is already time to land. Just before we do, a member of the cabin crew comes by and takes orders for the main course on the next leg.

Immigration in Shannon

Immigration at Shannon airport is a strange affair, and rather depressing. The terminal looks shabby from the outside. And although it may look better from the inside, the deserted terminal does not in any way help to lift spirits. The derelict aircraft littered across the airfield and parts of what used to be the MALEV fleet do not help matters.

But at least they have a vending machine and I buy myself a rather overpriced packet of salt and vinegar crisps to keep me going until I finally get something on the plane. There’s even another mini lounge for passengers of the flight. The guy at immigration is friendly enough and we have a nice little natter as he checks my passport and visa.

The wait is not a long one and very soon we’re allowed on board the aircraft again to continue our flight to New York.

Amenities

After take off from Shannon the amenity kits and iPads are distributed. The amenity kits are small and contain a toothbrush, toothpaste, eye shades, socks and ear plugs. Everything you need. And a few creams I don’t use anyway.

The iPads appear to be a newer feature. In fact the inner armrest opens to reveal a contraption that was obviously originally intended for a small DVD player to be mounted on it. But with the iPad it has become superfluous. The iPads come in a nice soft leather cover that elegantly converts into a stand. The film selection is not bad at all. The main feature is ‘the Iron Lady’ which I saw a couple of weeks previously when I was in Amsterdam. No matter what you might think or say about Margaret Thatcher, the film is absolutely brilliant. Or rather Meryl Streep is. In a way it’s quite as though she plays two roles in one film. There is the ruthless and ambitious first female British Prime Minister on the one hand, and a frail, sad and lost, pathetic old woman suffering from dementia on the other.

The Meal, continued…

The second service starts with another drinks round. I have a glass of apple juice. It comes with a bag of salty nibbles.

I am still haunted by the curse of the Hindu Vegetarian Meal. The salad is fine, it is quite large and has lots of ruccola in it to give it flavour.

The Salad

The bread looks and smells delicious, with a hint of sage in it. But I have no butter. I have margarine. But one must look at the positive side. Normally I find myself deliberating whether to use the unhealthy but oh so lovely butter or dip the bread into what’s left of the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. With the meal I have sparkling water to drink.

Then comes the hot meal. I take the fish and it is excellent and the mashed potatoes with saffron are a delight. Really, it’s one of the best pieces of fish I’ve ever had on a plane. It’s remained moist and the breadcrumb crust on it is simply amazing and goes well with the dill sauce and the sautéed asparagus and carrots.

The Main Course

Dessert

Dessert is a choice between a very lovely sounding raspberry fool with chocolate and other goodies or cheese with crackers and chutney. The Hindu Vegetarian Meal however, gets strawberries in a…ehm…strawberry sauce. I try it and decide to give it a pass.

Once the meal is over the crew remove the trays and place a bottle of water and a small bar of Lindt Milk Chocolate at every seat.

As large slabs of ice drift by 38’000 feet below, my contemplations shift to The Speedbird One. It’s rather difficult to describe the experience. Perhaps the most obvious thing to do is to compare the actual flight experience and match it against what I was anticipating it to be like ahead of the journey. For sure this is not a First Class experience, even if you earn First Class miles for taking this flight over the normal service from Heathrow. The A 318 is a very small aircraft and LCY is a very small airport and both have their limitations.

As for the fuel stop in Shannon, I think if you’re heading to New York or the States this probably is the most hassle free way to do it. But it also makes it more difficult for you to settle into the flight the way you usually can on a mid-haul flight. Because you know that in one hour’s time you’ll have to pack up everything again. But the immigration process is smooth and convenient and gives you enough time to visit the loos before setting off again.

And then there is the hardware. The cabin has a very fresh and attractive feel to it and the high back of the seat also makes it quite private. As for the software, I think this is really where the staff at British Airways excel and make the journey on The Speedbird One something outstanding and special. A journey to remember. I like it, yes. I will use it again, yes.

The Second Service

And now it’s time for tea already. And it is a very lovely affair. Egg and watercress sandwich, beef and tomato sandwich and a chicken and coleslaw sandwich, served with a plain scone with clotted cream, strawberry preserves, fresh strawberries and two small but very tasty pastries. And a nice cup of tea to go with that. The Brits have such refined habits!

Arrival

Shortly after we already begin our descent.

That’s when one of the flight attendants comes up to me and asks me what I’m taking all the pictures for. I explain what I do professionally, about Concorde and The Speedbird One. She listens and then she leaves. A few minutes later she returns to tell me the captain would like to meet me after we arrive.

And indeed, when we do I’m the last passenger to deplane and as I do, the purser simply says ‘they’re expecting you’ and opens the door to the ‘office’ for me. That captain and co-pilot are very friendly and obviously very proud of ‘their’ aircraft. We chat very openly about their profession and mine and then, just as I turn to leave, the captain gives me the flight plan and a map of the North Atlantic with the route we took drawn on it. A souvenir he says, shakes my hand and wishes me Happy Easter. I deplane grinning inanely like some imbecile. How nice of him! This is the kind of behaviour I witnessed with all the staff on the ground and in the air operating this flight. They were all very professional in their dealings with passengers and all displayed the same passion for their job and for this little airplane in particular. Admirable!

Getting into Town

At JFK, British Airways operates its own terminal which it shares with some of its Oneworld partners, United and a few others. Having done immigration in Shannon, arrival in The States is a painless affair. Only 15 minutes after I deboard I’m on the air train taking me to Jamaica station, from where I take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan.

Conclusion

My visit to Concorde and the Intrepid museum was very cool. The tour of Concorde included a guided tour that even took us inside the aircraft to look around. The guide was a friendly enough sort, but not very knowledgeable about Concorde. But I didn’t mind, as I had only made the journey to see her again up close and personal.

British Airways, Business Class – Embraer 175: Amsterdam to London City

Introduction

The Speedbird is the call sign of British Airways. The Speedbird emblem made its first appearance in commercial aviation as early as 1932, when it adorned the fleet of aircraft of Imperial Airways – aircraft with majestic sounding names, such as the Handley-Page Hermes, the Hannibal or the Victor.

In later years, when Imperial Airways had long been merged into BOAC, the Speedbird really came into its own. It was increased in size and assumed a more prominent position on the tails of the fleet, ablaze in hues of gold against a dramatic black backdrop.

And then, many years later still, amidst the turmoil, controversy and scandal that surrounded the introduction of the World Tails, the Speedbird remained the one reliable and dependable constant of the brand identity of the World’s Favourite Airline.

Today, eighty years after its inception, the Speedbird still soars. In its current design it has become a mere stylised ribbon and is referred to officially as the Speedmarque. It is a testimony to the talent and genius of Theyre Lee-Elliott, the graphic designer who invented the Speedbird in a time long gone by, in the very early days of aviation. Over the years, the Speedbird has evolved and matured to become perhaps one of the most iconic symbols for the achievements of aviation.

Of the many aircraft that bore with pride the emblem of the Speedbird through the decades, Concorde must be, without a doubt, the one most deserving of it. Over the last few months I have researched extensively the development history of Concorde for professional reasons. As a kind of side effect, so to speak, I found myself increasingly drawn by the lure of this legendary aircraft and that mythical call sign that for such a long time had been the prerogative of Concorde – synonymous with speed and luxury – the lure of Speedbird One…

And so it came that I decided to travel to New York for the Easter break in search of any vestiges of Concorde that may remain along her signature route between London and New York. And in a way that is really what this trip is all about: to pay homage to one of the most beautiful aircraft to ever grace the skies – a technical marvel – and the people who built such an outstanding piece of engineering.

My pilgrimage would include a visit to the Intrepid Museum of course, to pay my respects to the beautifully preserved British Airways Concorde standing on the pier there near the Intrepid. And how would I get there? Yes, simple really. A Speedbird will take me there of course.

In 2009 British Airways decided to resurrect the legendary Speedbird One with the launch of direct services from London’s City Airport to New York’s JFK. To this end, the airline acquired two A 318s in a Business Class only configuration with 32 seats. Payload restrictions at LCY require the aircraft to make an intermediate stop in Shannon in Ireland to refuel. Just like the good old days really. Passengers clear US immigration in Shannon while the aircraft is refuelled, thus putting to good use the necessary interruption of their journey and making the overall journey time from door to door comparable to that on a nonstop flight from London’s congested Heathrow to New York’s even more congested and crowded JFK.

Getting to the Airport

I wake up early on Good Friday. My home for the night at Amsterdam airport is the CitizenM, which I’ve stayed at many times and always greatly enjoy. The hotel is very conveniently located within walking distance of the terminal complex. But that is not its most appealing feature, of course not. It also has rooms overlooking the apron.

Date: 6 April 2010, Good Friday
Airline: British Airways Cityflyer
Aircraft: Embraer E-175
From: Amsterdam
To: London City
Class: Business Class
Seat: 1F

This is a special trip, so I decide to treat myself to something special to celebrate. Yes, today I will be old fashioned and check-in at a check-in counter, one with a real human being sitting behind it who asks you if would prefer a window or an aisle seat and, in the good old days, if you’re smoking or non-smoking.

The British Airways Lounge

The queue for passport control is short for citizens of the EU and from there it’s only a short walk to lounge 40, operated by or for BA. The interior is very typically English. Food and drinks offerings are not bad either. But like the Skyteam lounge in Zurich, this one does not have a toilet either.

What the lounge also has though, is an elderly gentlemen at reception who makes boarding announcements.

Boarding

As usual in Amsterdam, the gate is quite a trek from the gate, so I make sure I leave enough time to get there.

The Cabin

Despite the limited size of the aircraft, the cabin has a nice spacious feel about it. It probably helps that British Airways keep one of the seats on a row of two empty in Business Class, which is pretty much the industry standard on intra-European flights these days.

Departure is from the notoriously distant Polderbahn, which means we are treated to the grand tour of Schiphol airport as we trundle along on a 10 minutes long taxi. Take-off occurs some 14 minutes after we move off stand. Flying time is announced as a very short 40 minutes.

The Meal

As soon as we’re airborne, the crew springs into action. That’s when I find out I have a Hindu Vegetarian Meal stored in my Executive Club profile. No idea where that came from. It will come back to haunt my on the next flight. But the cold meal I receive is very tasty, spicy and flavourful. It’s a kind of vegetarian Tikka Masala with pumpkin.

Arrival

And then, it’s already time to land again.We approach the airport from the East. The steep approach into London City is always good fun!

Asiana Airlines, First Class – B 747-400: Basel to Seoul via Frankfurt

Part I: Positioning to Frankfurt

Date: 25 May 2012
From: Basel
To: Frankfurt
Airline: Lufthansa Cityline
Aircraft: Canadair Regional Jet 700
Class: Business Class
Seat: 2F

Getting to the Airport

What a lovely day for flying! My first stop today, of course, is the Swiss railway station, where I pick up some Japanese Yen and some South Korean Won. Basel has three railway stations: there is the German one on the other side of the Rhine, known as the ‘Badischer Bahnhof’. And then there are the French and Swiss stations that are integrated in one building known as Basel SBB.

I collect the cash and then catch the bus line 50 to the airport. The stop is right outside the main door of the building. The journey takes 15 minutes to complete with the airport as the terminus station.

In due course the bus pulls up at the departures level of the Euroairport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg – as the facility is officially known – which is quite empty at this time of day. My flight to Frankfurt leaves at 14h10.

Check-in

I recently decided that I prefer checking in at the airport to doing it online or via mobile. There is some old-school charm about checking in at the airport. So I walk up to the SWISS Business Class counter and am greeted by a friendly middle-aged woman. The moment she sees on her screen that I am travelling in First to Seoul, her manner changes. She becomes even more courteous and cannot do enough. She even offers to check me in for the flight to Fukuoka, which will not be until the day after tomorrow but is already open for check-in.

She places my boarding passes in a Lufthansa First Class folder, wishes me a pleasant flight and gives me instructions to the lounge.

Before I head upstairs through security I take a quick peek around the newly renovated, extended Easyjet check-in area at Basel airport. Looks rather nice actually!

The Lounge

Security is a breeze, in fact I am the whole queue.

And then I head to the lounge. Quiet as usual! The lounge is operated by Swissport on behalf of Swiss. It is the only lounge at the airport and is also available for passengers on BA. Air France/KLM passengers however, have no access, there is no agreement in place.

In many ways the lounge is like a fossil, it hails from the old days of aviation, when a setup like Crossair and its Eurocross hub at Basel was still regarded as a serious business proposition. Thus, the lounge is positively enormous! It is on two floors and offers some excellent views of the ramp from the upper level.

Boarding

Departure is delayed by some 20 minutes. Apparently the ILS for one of the runways in Frankfurt is out of order, causing a few delays. When the flight was then ready to leave Frankfurt for the flight to Basel, the crew had exceeded their duty time and a replacement crew had to take over, causing the delay.

The Cabin

There are nine rows of Business Class on this flight. On the Canadair Regional Jet Lufthansa only uses two of the four seats in each row in Business Class. This means that passengers will always have the seat next to them empty.

Whatever you do, if you’re travelling in Business Class with Lufthansa on a CRJ 700, never take a seat on row one. These must be the worst seats in the house, because they are exactly opposite the Business Class toilet. Thus, I am quite happy with my seat on the right-hand side of row two. It is a bulkhead too, but without the pong of the loo in your face all the time.

The Crew

The crew on this flight consists of two male flight attendants. The younger one of the two has a bit of an attitude issue. But not too bad.

The Meal

Shortly after take-off the meal is served. Here is the menu.

And it is all quite tasty too! The only thing I do not eat is the poached veal.

Arrival

Just as I finish the meal, the descent begins. We approach Frankfurt from the south and then make a left turn to fly due west along the length of the airfield, before finally doing a right 180 degree turn back towards the airfield for the final.

I even manage to get a picture of the cockpit. The co-pilot even poses for me!

I then take the complimentary guided bus tour of Frankfurt airport, which eventually drops me off at arrivals somewhere deep in the bowels of the terminal complex.

Part II: The Fun Part

Date: 25 May 2012
From: Frankfurt
To: Seoul Incheon
Airline: Asiana Airlines
Aircraft: Boeing B 747-400
Class: First Class
Seat: 2K

asiana-airlines-logo-1024x310

The Lounge

From arrivals I head through passport control and then to the Senator lounge. My flight is leaving from B48, which is right beneath the lounge and gives me some excellent photo opportunities as my bird arrives on the inbound flight from Seoul. The lounge is not too crowded and I manage to secure a seat by the window, where I can overlook all the action.

Boarding

I arrive at gate B48 shortly before boarding begins. First and Business Class passengers have their own dedicated counter. I am the first to pass the gate. An Asiana member of staff introduces herself to me and shows me a piece of paper with the food options for my return flight in a week’s time. She would like to know what I would like to eat on the return so Asiana can prepare the experience for me. Blimey, I do not usually know what I fancy to eat one week in advance.

The Cabin

And then I go aboard my vessel. First impressions of the cabin are good. The colours are perhaps a bit strange – at least I do not fancy them much – and the seat may not be of the latest generation either. But it is rather comfortable and offers a lot of personal space and privacy. There is even a small closet for my shoes.

Amenities

A day blanket and a pillow have already been placed at my seat when I arrive. In short sequence the cabin crew come by to introduce themselves personally and bring me the excellent BOSE noise cancelling earphones, newspaper, slippers, pjs, immigration and customs forms for arrival in South Korea and, above all, a lovely vanity kit. It is made of the softest leather and contains all sorts of goodies of Bulgari’s Essence de Thé Blanc.

There are six passengers in First Class today. Four seats remain empty.

The Crew

Once the doors have been closed, two of the flight attendants working the First Class cabin on this flight position themselves in front of the bulkhead. As the purser makes his welcome aboard announcement, the two attendants bow deeply.

Service is everything you can expect it to be from an Asian carrier. The flight attendants pay a lot of attention to detail and are charming and polite. Moreover, they seem very personable in their approach. I am addressed by name and have a nice chat with some of the crew as they bring the food or remove the empty plates. They seem unrushed and very relaxed but very efficient.

Departure is to the east. Traffic is quite light so we do not have long to wait before it is our turn to depart.

Once we’re airborne I make myself comfortable. The flight to Seoul will take about ten hours. I take off my shoes and try the funky red slippers. Their XL is somewhat tight…

The Meal

Welcome drinks are not served while the boarding process is in progress on Asiana. But once we push back, I am asked if there is anything I would like to drink while we taxi out. I choose a Buck Fizz, which is duly delivered with a small bowl of warm nuts.

Immediately after take-off, the Asiana inflight experience begins and it is truly outstanding. Apart from its excellent crews, catering is definitely one of Asiana’s strongest points.

To drink I have Perrier with lemon and ice. The cabin crew are very attentive. Every time one of them notices my empty glass, I am asked if I would like some more. Moreover, Asiana obviously ‘don’t do’ refills, instead I am given a new glass each time I ask for more Perrier.

Amuse Bouche

We begin with an amuse bouche of grilled bell peppers and diced tomatoes rolled up in grilled eggplant with garlic and basil in a drizzle of olive oil.

Next the table is beautifully laid out for dinner. Asiana has lovely and delicate Fine Bone China and silver cutlery.

Next comes the breadbasket, which also includes some lovely garlic bread.

Caviar Service

While airlines like Lufthansa will give you only a portion of Caviar, Asiana gives you the entire jar!

First Course

Then we have an antipasto of veal with a roll of marinated eggplant and peppers and shrimps in herbs on a balsamico reduction.

The Soup

And then comes the carrot soup with pine nuts. This is simply out of this world.

The Salad

The soup is followed by a mixed salad with either a lemon and yoghurt or a French dressing.

The Main Course

For the main course, one of my favourites: Bibimbap.

The large bowl contains minced beef, marinated cucumber, shitake mushrooms, carrots and two different types of marinated cabbage.

First you poor sesame oil and add some of the spicy pepper paste to the large bowl.

To that you then add the rice and mix all together very well using the metal chopsticks.

You eat the Bibimbap with a tasty kind of seaweed omelette, dried small fish, a light fish broth with spring onion and Kimchi, Korea’s national dish. It is basically a cabbage that is smeared, layer by layer, with a paste made of chillies, garlic, soy sauce and oysters, which is then left to ferment. It is excellent, nourishing, very tasty and so spicy it really helps to clear the tubes if you happen to have a cold!

The Cheese

After the Bibimbap comes the fruit and cheese with crackers and bread.

And then there should have been dessert. But by this stage I am simply too full and so I decline. I opt for an Earl Grey tea instead.

Once the meal is over, I ask to have my bed made up while I change into my pjs. And then off I go to sleepy land until it is time for the next meal. Good night!

The Second Service

I get a few hours of sleep. But I am unsettled and keep tossing and turning. I probably have indigestion…As soon as the crew realise I am awake, I am brought a towel and asked if I would like to have breakfast. To which of course, I say yes! I head for the bathroom to change back into my clothes. When I return, the bedclothes and pjs have been cleared away and there is a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice awaiting me.

Then the table is set once more with the beautiful Fine Bone China and the silver ware. Then comes the breadbasket, which is immediately followed by a tray of preserves for me to choose from.

First Course

The first course is a plate of fruit.

The cornflakes are served with milk and a bowl of what must be the tastiest, creamiest and most enjoyable blueberry yoghurt I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy.

Main Course

After that comes the hot dish. Leek quiche with grilled tomato and a crèpe of sweet and sour chicken breast.

During the meal the coffee and Perrier are refilled regularly.

Arrival

And then, all too soon, the flight draws to an end and we start our descent into Incheon. Just before we land one of the cabin crew comes by to thank me for having chosen to fly with Asiana. As a farewell present I receive a small designer terracotta pot with a scented candle inside it. Apart from KLM and their famous little Bols-filled town houses, Asiana is the only airline I know of that gives farewell presents. It is only a small gift and I am not really sure what to do with it, but still it is a very nice gesture.

Getting into Town

Incheon is rather quiet when we arrive. Customs and immigration do not take long at all to complete and very quickly I find myself landside.

The journey takes 43 minutes.

Conclusion

This concludes the first part of my journey. What can I say? Asiana were simply amazing, their crew, as well as both the quality and quantity of the food were outstanding.

KLM, Business Class – MD-11: Basel to Montreal via Amsterdam

Introduction

I’m heading for Montreal, Canada to present a paper at ICAO HQ. I like visiting ICAO. If you’re an aviation nerd like me, ICAO HQ is like some sacred place. It’s also a fascinating building to visit, quite like a museum. There are many artifacts sponsored by the various contracting states, including a beautifully Garuda carved of wood.

The last couple of times I visited ICAO in Montreal, I flew with Air Canada from Geneva and then returned to Zurich with Swiss International Air Lines. Essentially I guess there would have been nothing wrong with doing that again. But I felt compelled to check my other options, to see if there might be any cool routings, airlines or types to get me to Montreal which might convince me to forfeit the comfort of a nonstop, direct flight.

Before long my search brought me to the KLM website. In fact, initially I was wondering if perhaps there might be an opportunity to fly the Air France A380 to Montreal. But by the looks of it, the type no longer serves that route. In any case, my search with KLM yielded that the connection from Basel via Amsterdam to Montreal was not ideal: a layover of seven hours on the outbound and another one of five hours on the inbound. Even so, there was one very convincing argument for me to choose the KLM option just the same: most probably my last chance ever to secure one last flight on the MD-11 before she is withdrawn from service with the Dutch airline.

Date: 17 July 2012
From: Basel
To: Amsterdam
Aircraft: Fokker F70
Airline: KLM Cityhopper
Cabin: Business
Seat: 1A

Getting to the Airport

Rather an early start today. My flight to Amsterdam will leave at 07h15 and although there is a fast track for security at Basel airport, I’m not really quite sure what the situation will be. After all, the summer holidays have only just started.

I leave my place at 05h30 to make my way by bus to the airport. Contrary to what I had been expecting, the airport bus is not at all full and security is calm as well.

Airside

I arrive at the airport just before 06h00. I still have loads of time to kill but alas no lounge of which to avail myself. So I settle for a cappuccino at the bar at the end of the terminal. The young lady there is quite apparently having a bad hair day and evidently trying hard to pretend as though she hasn’t actually seen me.

I pass my time at the bar sipping my drink and watching the mindless music clips of equally mindless pieces of music they’re showing on MTV.

Shortly before boarding for my flight is expected to begin, I’ve had enough of the mindless music, so I collect my belongings and go for a walk about. I’ve been doing quite a bit of travelling lately, and like some trip down memory lane, I spot some of the types and airlines I recently had the pleasure of using.

My ride to Amsterdam: Fokker F 70

Boarding

Judging by the queue to board the flight, I’d say KLM is doing a roaring trade between Basel and Amsterdam. I’m on 1A, so I decide to board the plane last. As I approach the aircraft, one of the gate attendants approaches me to take my carry-on suitcase off me and label it as hold baggage. I don’t mind actually if she does. But then she spots my Platinum tag and explains that I’m free to take everything on board with me.

The seat next to me is kept empty and the legroom is good.

The Cabin

As with my last KLM experience, the cabin on this bird is in excellent condition. She may be old, but time and some TLC by KLM maintenance have been kind to her. Even so, I can’t wait for the Embraer to come on this route with the beginning of the winter schedule.

The Crew

I am greeted at the door by a friendly young man in a sharp uniform – the purser of the flight. I place my briefcase in the overhead bin and take off my suit jacket. Before I even have the time to wonder where to place it, the purser stretches out his hand and takes it from me. ‘Shall I hang that up for you, Mr A.?’

I must confess I am a bit impressed. This guy has obviously done his homework and checked the passenger list. I’m also a bit surprised he got my name right. Most people don’t, even after repeated attempts.

This sets the tone for the service of the entire crew on this flight. They are outstanding, very professional and friendly.

Next the purser brings me one of the Swiss daily newspapers. He has others he says, just in case I’d prefer one of those.
The doors close, we push back and subsequently begin our taxi to the runway for a departure in a southerly direction from runway 15.

At least we have some good views of the city of Basel before doing a sharp right turn to point the aircraft in a northerly direction towards Amsterdam.

The Meal

‘Mr. A. will you be joining us for breakfast this morning?’ This is the female flight attendant. I answer with an emphatic and enthusiastic ‘yes’. It was rather early this morning when I left home. The flight attendant opens the meal box for me and places it before me. She explains she will also open the other table for me to put the drinks and my other stuff on it.

The meal consists of an excellent fruit salad of apple, pineapple, grapes and melon; yoghurt of maracuja and orange; a selection of cheese with smoked meats and a small pot of marmalade; and two warm buns with that. There is even a menu!

Overall, it is a very pleasant and filling meal and really hits the spot on such an early flight. As soon as I finish, the meal is removed and I continue to read the paper until we begin the descent.

Arrival

The weather in Amsterdam is not too hot. It’s drizzling, with low cloud and bad visibility.

We land on the infamous ‘Polderbahn’, which is a 15 minutes taxi away from the apron. In fact it’s so far away from anything that the runway that has its own tower.

We park at the Fokker farm and are subsequently bussed to the terminal.

Transfer in Amsterdam

I have seven hours before my next flight. The plan is to check in for the onward flight to Montreal and then deposit my luggage in the Schengen Transit area before heading into the city. Like that, when I return, I will not have to go through security again with all my stuff.

If only the check-in devices would let me. This is certainly not one of KLM’s finest moments! The first machine won’t read my passport, or the barcode on my boarding pass from the previous flight. So I have no other choice but to manually type in the number of my e-ticket. I finally manage to complete all the necessary information for immigration, the machine confirms that it is printing my boarding pass but in fact nothing actually really happens. No boarding pass. No KLM staff to assist in case of a problem either. Of course not, that’s why they put these machines there, because apparently some financial controller figured the machine could do the job of a human being just as well and hey, who needs human interaction or a personal touch anyway? So eventually I have no choice but to move to the next machine and try my luck again there. This time it works!

I dump my carry-on and my briefcase in a locker, go through customs and head for the city.

Date: 17 July 2012
From: Amsterdam
To: Montreal
Airline: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines
Aircraft: MD-11
Cabin: Business Class
Seat: 1J

Getting to the Airport

In the early afternoon I head back for the ‘Centraal’ railway station and get on a train for Schiphol. The journey is not even 20 minutes.

I pass through security, collect my luggage from the locker and then from there head up to the KLM Crown Lounge. I figured it would probably be calmer than the lounge in the non-Schengen area as there seem to be quite a few long-haul flights leaving around the same time as us.

The KLM Crown Lounge

I like the Crown Lounge and when I arrive it is not too full either. The midday rush seems to have calmed down already.

Boarding

About 45 minutes before departure I leave the lounge and make my way to the gate. I still have to go through immigration and I’m assuming I will have to go through a further security check.

Immigration is a quick affair. When I arrive at the gate though, there is already a long queue at the entrance. Fortunately there is a separate lane for SkyPriority passengers. Otherwise I would have been right at the very back of the queue of a very full MD-11 load of passengers. First my passport is checked, then my boarding pass is scanned and then eventually comes the security check before being released into the gate. It’s also my first experience with a naked scanner.

And then finally I am in the gate and I have an intimate moment with the hot bird taking me to Canada this afternoon. The MD-11 really is a quite a babe!

I barely have enough time to take a few pictures when already boarding begins. I’m quite excited!

I am greeted at the door by one male and one female flight attendant. I am instructed to take the second left to me window seat on 1J.

The Cabin

When I arrive, I am left well and truly speechless. The legroom available on row 1 is simply ridiculous! What’s more, there are no overhead bins over the middle row of seats, which only enhances the overall impression of space in the cabin.

The seat itself is everything but state of the art. To be honest I find myself wondering how I’ll possibly be able to sleep on the return leg, which is a night flight. But we’ll get to that in due time. All the same, just like the rest of the cabin, the seat gives the impression of being very well maintained and is really quite comfortable.

The IFE system could do with a revamp as well. But it serves its purpose and works sufficiently well. But it’s no KrisWorld!

One thing I find very interesting is that where other airlines have a curtain to divide the cabin from the space by the front door and the cockpit, KLM has a sliding door. Strangely enough though, only on one aisle, the other side has a curtain.

The Crew

As on the previous leg, as soon as I take of my jacket a flight attendant appears and offers to put it in the wardrobe for me. This is then followed by the distribution of the vanity kits and a welcome drink service. I just have a glass of still water.

The crew are all very friendly and chatty, but without being nosy.

We push back more or less on time and make our way to the runway. We taxi out behind a company A330. On our way we pass an Aeroflot B767-300 standing at the gate. I had no idea they operated those to Amsterdam as well.

Other than the A330 there is no queue for departure and shortly after the Airbus takes to the skies, it’s our turn. And this is where I am reminded what I like so much about the MD-11: the acceleration, the power and – above all – the noise! Beautiful!

The Meal

Quite evidently, my suspicion from the previous flight – namely that catering must be one of KLM’s strong points – is confirmed. The meal is not only very tasty but also plentiful.

We start with a drinks and warm nuts. I have a Ginger Ale.

Then come the hot towels.

The First Course

Grilled shrimps with cherry tomatoes on potato salad with avocado mousse.

The Salad

This comes with a side order tomato salad. As the attendant places the tray before me, she offers me some cheese and croutons for topping on the salad.

The Main Course

Chicken breast in a rich gravy with onions, served with mashed potato and mushrooms.

There is a selection of three different main courses, but I can’t remember what they were anymore. My apologies!

Dessert

Lemon tart on a digestive biscuit base, served with strawberries.

What strikes me about this meal is the nice presentation. First the black tray makes a change from what you usually find on a plane these days. And then there is this rather intricate pattern, a recurring theme that you find on the tablecloth, the cutlery as well as the chinaware. It’s quite elegant I find and a nice detail.

After this tasty meal I settle down to watch ‘The best exotic Marigold Hotel’. I’m in two minds about the film. First of all it has an interesting line up of some of the finest actors Britain currently has to offer, such as the sublime Judy Dench and the amazing Maggie Smith. At the same time however, the story line seems a bit thin.

The Second Service

And then after that, yes, it’s time for the pre-arrival meal.

Chicken breast strips on a pasta salad with a tomato sugo. This is accompanied by a warm focaccia with mozzarella and tomato sauce. And for dessert a fruit Tiramisu.

And then, as we begin our descent, the cabin come through the cabin with a small farewell gift. It’s quite well-known by now across the world: a little delft house filled with BOLS.

Arrival

We arrival in Montreal just after a heavy thunderstorm has passed over the airfield. We reach our parking position. I gather up my belongings, thank the crew for their great service and head for the exit. As I disembark it feels like walking into a brick wall. It’s so oppressive. The temperature is around 30 degrees Celsius, and with the recent storm the humidity in the air is unbearable.

Conclusion

This was a great experience with KLM, not just because of the MD-11. First of all the crew were all just so nice and attentive. It’s little things: throughout the meal they made sure drinks were replenished and repeatedly asked all the passengers if everything was alright and to their liking. They made sure to address every passenger by name, which made them more personable. As for the food, KLM certainly exceed my expectation here. The meals were plentiful and tasty.