Air Malta, Business Class – Airbus A 320 NEO: Malta to Zürich

Introduction

Goodness, the heat! I hadn’t been to Malta in the summer for a very long time, even before Covid19. And I think I now remember why. The heat is incredible. The day I arrived it was 41 degrees and it was so hazy it looked overcast, when in fact it was just the humidity. Luckily, two days into my stay, the temperature cooled off to 37, which at least made the sky look a lot clearer.

Today I’m flying back to Switzerland. The Air Malta flight departs at 14h20, which gives me the whole morning to do some shopping and have one last Kinnie before I leave.

Getting to the airport

Once I’ve checked out, I brace myself for the heat just inside the hotel lobby. I’m dreading having to go out there carting my luggage… There are four busses that take you to the airport. The X4 is the dedicated airport line and stops right outside the terminal building. Then there are the lines 71, 72 and 73 which all go in the general direction of Zurrieq on the other side of the airport. The stop Cintra is right before the airport tunnel that goes under the runway. From there it’s only about three minutes on foot to the terminal building. The journey time is the same for all busses, more or les.

Check-in

The airport is very busy when I arrive. All counters are open, checking in flights for Ryanair, Wizzair, EasyJet, SWISS, British Airways and Air Malta. There is one Business Class counter open for Air Malta, and the guy working the counter is struggling to deal with two young couples and their satanic brood (six cranky kids…) and what looks like a metric ton of suitcases, strollers, car seats and god knows what else. Still, the check-in guy uses the group’s apparent lack of functional English to his full advantage and manages to get them sorted and out of the way in about ten minutes.

To check in, passengers need to show a completed passenger locator form, which is sent by Air Malta by email a few days prior to departure, as well as their digital covid certificate. At check-in, you are then handed another two forms that need to be completed before boarding. Without the two sheets of paper, you will not be allowed airside. One of the documents is for the Swiss authorities, although I’m not sure what this is for because nobody bothers with it. The other form is for Air Malta. It is collected at boarding and handed over to the ground agent upon arrival in Zürich.

La Valette lounge

Fortunately, the priority lane for guests of the La Valette lounge is open, as is the lounge itself. Inside the lounge there is a strict seating regime, and passengers are assigned a seat when they enter. The guy who enters behind me is absolutely scandalised by this, tells off the poor lounge attendant (like it’s her fault…) and storms out again. As I’ve said before, if you think wearing or not wearing a face mask in public is what defines you as a man, you must have a really very small… personality.

The buffet is semi self-service. On the one side, facing the room, are cold dishes that are packaged, like salads and sandwiches. Passengers can help themselves to these. On the other side of the buffet are the hot dishes and drinks. This area is closed off and a lounge attendant serves the food and drinks to passengers from there.

I go for another Kinnie and a selection of unhealthy Maltese snacks: two pastizzi, one arancini and Twistees. Okay, and a bowl of salad as my saving grace.

The viewing terrace is also open, mainly for the smokers. I go out to check the view, but seriously, the heat…!

Boarding

Boarding is from a bus gate. Passengers are instructed to scan their boarding passes themselves and leave the passenger locator form on a pile prepared by the ground staff.

Today’s flight is operated by an Airbus A 320 NEO, of which Air Malta currently has four in service. It’s really quite surprising how few flights I’ve had on a NEO, especially given that they seem to be everywhere these days.

The Business Class cabin

I’m seated on 1F, which is the window seat on the right side of the aircraft. There are three rows of Business Class for a total of 12 seats. There are only two other passengers in the forward cabin with me today, one on 3A and the other on 3F.

The headrest on these seats is adjustable in height and the sides can be folded up for better support. The recline is decent, and the pitch on row 1 is very comfortable.

The crew

The crew are business friendly. They’re polite, but that’s just about it. Because of the Covid measures that have been put in place by the government, there is no welcome drink anymore, and instead of offering newspapers, the crew pass through the cabin with hygenic wet wipes and kits.

We take off from runway 34, which means we fly along the length of Malta and Gozo, from where we turn north towards Palermo. From there it’s more or less a straight line until we hit the mainland near Genova.

St. Paul’s bay, where St. Paul is alleged to have suffered shipwreck on the island on his way to Rome.
L-Ghadira bay near Mellieha. My favourite beach.
Gozo.

The meal

The meal is rather extensive and nicely presented in typically Maltese crockery. It’s a nice looking tray. There are no options to choose from for the meal and no menu is handed out. The crew bring the tray out without even as much as asking if I’d like to eat or telling me what’s on offer. The meal is served with the covers on. The photo was obviously taken after I’d removed them all.

The main dish is a salad of shrims and boiled egg.

The meal is served with a ramekin of three buns that have been heated in the oven.

Dressing for the salad.

A very tasty but very rich dessert of chocolate mousse and dried figs. It’s very unsual but so, so sweet.

A bowl of cheese with Gbejna (Maltese), Cheddar (British) and Camembert (French).

And a fruit salad.

Vinaigrette instead of butter.

I really wonder how much kerosene could be saved if airlines stopped carting around what must be tons of unnecessary cutlery. Air Malta is no exception. I unfold my napkin to find two forks, two knives and two teaspoon. I mean, am I supposed to be sharing…?

And to drink, one last Kinnie.

Arrival

The flight passes very quickly. As we approach the Alps, thick clouds appear, some of them towering high above us as we make our descent into Zürich.

The descent is fairly rough until we break through the clouds. Below, everything just looks so lush and green!

Arrivals are on runway 28, from the east. Which brings us in right past the town where I work.

The airport is fairly busy when we land. As we taxi in, the crew advise passengers to remain seated, and that initially only rows 1 to 10 should stand up to get ready for deboarding. I figure this is never going to work, but much to my surprise, the people in the back of the bus actually seem to be complying with the request.

Conclusion

I enjoyed this trip a lot, although I think in future I will keep avoiding going to Malta in the height of summer. The heat just really got to me, as you may have noticed. In comparison, the flight down on SWISS was by far more polished and ‘normal’ than the return with Air Malta. I felt that the SWISS crews went out of their way to make passengers feel comfortable and to put them at ease. The SWISS flight was nice.

The service on Air Malta was a bit lacklustre. Right now, I think it’s easy to give in to the temptation and blaming everything on the pandemic and the Covid restrictions in place. But I don’t think it’s just that. Having an extensive meal service is nice, but an airline must also be willing to invest in its staff.

Swiss International Air Lines, Airbus A 320Neo: Allow me to introduce you…

Today, 20 February 2020, SWISS received its first ever Airbus A 320Neo. The aircraft was delivered to the airline factory fresh from the Airbus plant in Hamburg Finkenwerder. Originally, the plan had been for the aircraft to land on runway 16 and then roll out slowly. This would have brought the aircraft right past the viewing gallery. However, as arriving traffic was quite heavy, it was eventually decided to vector the aircraft for a runway 16 arrival to fit it into the other arriving traffic. The aircraft landed at 10h50.

Luckily enough for me, I was invited by one of the Swiss national newspapers to attend the welcoming ceremony in my capacity as an aviation expert, such as it were.

The event started at 10h30 on the viewing terrace. After the aircraft had landed and taxied to the maintenance apron, guests were taken by bus to the hangar to view the aircraft and attend the welcoming ceremony, which included the baptism of the aircraft to the name of Engelberg.

Generally speaking, I think SWISS did a good job of the event. The speeches were kept fairly short and the alphorn blowers really gave the event a convicing touch of Swissness. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I would say the event was attended by about sixt persons, most of them from the media. The quest of honour was a monk from the monastery of Engelberg, which this year is celebrating 900 years of uninterrupted service.

Once the speeches were done, we were allowed aboard to take a look at SWISS’ new toy. First of all, the new aircraft will be installed with wifi. There will also be four USB ports per row of three. The seating capacity is for 180 passengers. The seat pitch on the first nine rows is 32 inches and then gradually decreases to a rather tight 29 inches on the last row. Interestingly enough, the seat back can only be reclines up until row 9. On the rows further back, it is not possible to recline the seat at all.

While I generally think seat recline on narrow bodies is somewhat superfluous, you also have to keep in mind that SWISS will also operate this aircraft to Tel Aviv and Cairo, both of which have a block time of more than three hours and and both night time services. I’m not sure how much passengers will appreciate the lack of recline on those flights.

Other than that, there is only a small rear galley. Instead, half the space on the rear bulkhead is take up by two toilets. This one I’m in two minds about. The toilets are wheelchair approved, which I think is a good idea. However, on the down side, because the orientation of the toilets is towards the rear, the curvature of the hull is not an issue, which means that an adult man can stand fully upright in the toilet. Unfortunately, not all of us have impeccable target practice…

The space in the cabin where the toilets would otherwise be located, has been taken up by an additional row of seats, row 38. If you’re on this row you have the worst pitch and no view, because there are no windows on this row.

Air Malta, Club Class – Airbus A 320NEO: London Heathrow to Malta

Introduction

My flight to Malta will be departing at 11:25. I check on flightradar24 for the whereabouts of my aircraft. It looks as though the inbound from Malta will be on time.

Today’s flight is special for two reasons: first of all, because today I’m finally getting my cherry popped, so to speak, because it’s my first time ever on a NEO. And secondly, this will be my first flight with Air Malta since the introduction of their new Business Class catering.

Check-in

In Heathrow, Air Malta serves Terminal 4. They check-in on row H.

There are three check-in counters open. Two for Economy Class and one for Business Class passengers.

The Lounge

Air Malta uses The House Lounge, which previously belonged to Etihad Airways. The lounge is located one floor down from the SkyTeam lounge and the entrance is near gate 10.

There are only few passengers in the lounge at this time of day.

The lounge is rather nice and even has a separate dining area, where you can have food from the buffet or à la carte menu.

Washrooms and showers are also available in the lounge.

Boarding

The flight is boarding from gate 20, which is a bitch to take pictures of the aircraft from…

I’m not quite sure what’s going on, but boarding is chaos. The flight is totally sold out and they’ve screwed up most people’s advanced seat reservations.

The Cabin

I’m seated on 1F. The cabin on the NEO has new seats installed that are thinner than those on the rest of the fleet.

Red is an interesting colour to pick for the seat covers, but I think they manage to pull it off.

Seat pitch is great on row 1. The middle seat is kept empty and there are electricity plugs too. On today’s flight there are 6 rows of Business Class for a total of 24 seats. And the cabin is sold out!

Service on the ground starts with a choice of sparkling wine, orange juice or water for a welcome drink and the distribution of newspapers.

Departure is at 12:40 and the flight time is two hours and 50 minutes. The one thing I do notice about the NEO, is that it’s very quiet on take-off.

The Meal

As soon as the cabin crew is released, the service for the meal starts. First the crew take orders for drinks. I have a sparkling water with ice and lemon.

Next the menu is distributed, which seems a bit unnecessary, seeing as there are no choices anyway except for the dessert.

Ahead of the meal, hot towels are handed out.

First Course

The new Business Class product is quite nice, I think, and captures the feel of the Maltese islands well. The tray is served with the first course, olive oil and warm bread on it.

The presentation of the meal is nice. But the quality of the food is not all that good. The starter is smoked salmon tartar with crème fraîche.

Main Course

Once I’m done with the starter, the dish is removed and the main course is served. This is veal filled with a chicken and cheese stuffing. It’s quite okay. Sorry about the photo. I had already started to dig in before I remembered to take a picture…

And finally, for dessert I go with the fruit.

The service is by individual tray. So there is no trolley in the aisle. While I generally agree that this is a nicer way to present the food, I also think today’s flight shows that it’s unsuitable for a full cabin: the crew are walking up and down the aisle throughout the meal service, bringing or removing things. As a result, there’s constantly foot traffic in the cabin during the meal service.

Drinks are rather difficult to come by on this flight. And the crew are not proactively offering to replenish drinks Either. Even so, about 90 minutes into the flight, they run out of sparkling water and Coke Zero.

Arrival

But the flight passes quickly, and eventually we land at 15:30. It’s certainly warmer here!

Conclusion

Quite frankly, I’m not sure what to make of today’s experience. On the one hand, I think Air Malta is desperately tring to set itself apart from the low-cost competition. But at the same time, their whole new Business Class concept lacks focus and quality. First of all, there’s the issue of the seat reservations, which they made a mess of. If you’re going to offer the service, then commit to it. If you can’t do that, then just drop it. Furthermore, now that it’s buy on board in Economy Class on Air Malta, there really is no reason why they had to introduce a fancier Business Class product. And even that is done half-heartedly. The drinks running out in mid-flight is just strange and unprofessional.