Air France, Business Class – Airbus A 321: Amsterdam to Paris Charles de Gaulle

Transfer in Amsterdam… it is not pretty!

My flight from Bogotà arrives in Amsterdam at eleven in the morning. My onward connection to Paris is not until 14h30. At 11h15 the aircraft comes to a stop on its stand, we disembark and I make my way to security – where there’s already a very long queue forming. There are ground staff everywhere, trying to manage the queues. All in all it takes me over ninety minutes to reach the head of the queue. The security staff do an excellent job, despite the fact that they are basically being subjected to a constant stream of verbal abuse, yelled at, and even threatened.

I think what strikes me the most about the situation in Amsterdam is the incredibly high level of aggression among passengers. That, and the complete and utter stupidity of the human race. Standing in a queue for ninety minutes brings out all the worst in humanity, and makes you wonder how we managed even to invent the bloody wheel before killing each other. There’s one guy giving the girl from security hell, insisting that his Business Class ticket gives him privileges to jump the queue. She makes several attempts to explain to him that the priority line has been shut down, and there there is only the one, very long queue. Then there’s the American family who feel they need to jump the queue because their flight will be leaving in 45 minutes, to which another American tells them to just shut the f**k up and deal with it, he actually watched his flight depart without him from the queue… It really is quite horrible. Still, at least the queue for immigration is very short.

By the time I get to the Crown lounge in the Schengen area it’s already coming up to 13h00 and the place is crawling with disgruntled passengers. Bugger this, I’m better off outside where I can at least see the aircraft departing.

Boarding

My flight is leaving from C07. Next to us at C05 is the previous flight to Paris, which leaves only thirty minutes earlier, at 14h00. While I sit and wait, I watch the poor front line staff dealing with passenger after passenger who arrives at the gate, only to be told that they have missed their connection. What’s probably worse, is that the aircraft is still on stand, probably due to a slot restriction. And passengers don’t get that, “if the aircraft is still here, why won’t you let me on…?”.

My flight is running more than an hour late by the time we start boarding. The missed connections from the flight at 14h00 contact the gate agent of my flight to be reprotected, only to be told that the flight is already full. Which is, of course, a joke, because by this time everybody on the flight knows that not all passengers that are booked on the flight are going to make it through security on time. There’s a lot of frustration everywhere, especially when eventually we push back from the gate with twenty reported no-shows, twenty empty seats that could have been taken by the passengers from the previous flight.

The seat

I’m seated on 3A. The middle seat is left empty, and there is an elderly American gentleman on 3C. Seat pitch on row three is very tight, my best option is to spread my legs wide to avoid having my knee caps crushed when the guy in front of me decides to recline his seat while we wait. Other than that, the seat has a USB port integrated in the arm rest and there’s wifi available on board. There are six rows of Business Class on this flight, and all seats are taken.

The service

While we wait for our ATC clearance, the cabin crew pass through the cabin with packaged towels and still water.

The meal

The flight time to Paris is fifty minutes. Service is by FlyingBlue status, and as a result, I ended up being served first, which is rather awkward, to be honest. The meal consists of a zucchini and mozzarella salad, bread and camembert cheese and a very rich chocolate cake that is so thick that I am unable to finish it.

Arrival

The weather in Paris is lovely. It’s sunny but not too warm, with a temperature of about 22 degrees. We land from the West, and then take the long taxi route to our stand at 2F.

More delays

But the fun doesn’t stop there, boys and girls. First, there is a delay with the delivery of the luggage, which takes about thirty minutes to start arriving. Still, at least my suitcase made it, so there is that.

Getting into town

In Paris I’ll be staying at the Molitor Hotel near the Roland Garros tennis court. Only, the RER B train line from CDG airport is not running today. So instead, I first have to catch a replacement bus to Stade de France.

Then from there I catch the RER D train to Châtelet-Les Halles.

Then from there the RER A to Auber.

And then from there the metro line 9 to Ange-Molitor. In total it takes me two whole hours to get form the airport to the hotel. By the time I arrive I’m just a total wreck.

Conclusion

The short hop from Amsterdam to Paris was incredibly tiring and really not at all enjoyable. It wasn’t just that there were many delays and a lot of queueing involved. These things happen. What made the whole experience unpleasant was the extremely high level of anger and aggression – and the rather off-putting stench of entitlement coming off some of the passengers.

I salute all the front line staff in the call centres, at security, the receptionists at the lounges, the gate agents, the cabin crew, the ground handlers and rampers, the stoic pilots and the excellent air traffic controllers for their professionalism. You guys are doing an incredible job in the face of adversity this summer. May you receive really, really fat bonuses and pay rises for it very soon. You deserve it. Not everybody would put up with the shit you guys are having to deal with. Until then, you have my gratitude for returning me home safely. Thank you!


– William

Aegean Airlines, Business Class – Airbus A 321: Athens to Berlin

Getting to the airport

In Athens I stay at the Sofitel Athens Airport, which is literally just across the road and one floor down from the terminal. Journey time: 2 minutes. If you’re coming from the city though, there is a train and a metro that run out to the airport. The journey time from Syntagma square is about 45 minutes and the trains only run every thirty minutes. A oneway ticket will cost you EUR9.90.

Check-in

I enter the terminal building just after 12h00 and it’s crawling with people. Currently, the terminal is a bit of a construction site, because expansion works are underway. And about time too, by the looks of it.

Athens attracts quite some unexpected traffic. American, United, Delta and Air Canada all operated two flights a day from their respective hubs. In addition, all the middle eastern carriers, like Gulf Air, Saudia and Emirates, also operate a regular schedule to the Greek capital.

There is a fast track for security, with no queue at all. It’s a bit misleading though that there’s a sign asking passengers to remove nail clippers and scissors from their bags – because most passengers interpret that to mean that they won’t need to remove liquids or laptops (which are not mentioned explicitly) – only to be barked at by the dragon at the security checkpoint.

The Aegean Airlines lounge

The Aegean lounge is located at the far end of the terminal, near gates 11 and 12. The young lady at reception informs me that the lounge is full up. She hands me a voucher of EUR10 to buy food and drinks at any one of the concessions outside and asks me to come back later to check if there’s any space in the lounge.

Let’s face it, the view is much better outside the lounge anyway, which just overlooks the car park…

Boarding

Our boarding gate changes twice, and actually I don’t know what the original gate should have been. I just keep receiving notifications from Aegean in the app. First we are redirected to gate B20, only to be informed when we get there that we should all go to gate B27 instead. The boarding announcement is in the style of “I’ll just yell something incomprehensible in my thick Greek accent and wait for passengers to start moving”. And then the scrum begins. Their only saving grace is that we’ll be boarding from a bus gate.

The cabin

There are four rows of Business Class for a total of 16 seats. And the cabin is full. On a row of three the middle seat is kept empty, and there is a little table that folds out of the seatback of the middle seat to provide some extra storage space. Other than that though, there are no video screens, no electricity plugs and no wifi.

The leg space on row three is excellent.

Alas, the cleanliness of the cabin leaves much to be desired. There’s a snotty hankerchief in my seat pocket, and the others don’t look much better either…

The service

While boarding is underway, the cabin crew pass through the cabin offering champagne, orange juice or still water.

There are five crew on this flight. It is noticeable that all of them are very young. There is only one male in the crew and the four females are heavily, but at least professionally, made up. They’re quite friendly and interact with passengers with ease.

The meal

While we’re still on the ground we’re also handed the menus. However, I already booked my meal online at the time of booking. Preodering is not just available for special meals.

The meal service begins very soon after take off. First, a cover is placed on the tray table.

The meal is quite extensive.

For the main course I go with the fish and the celeriac and potato mash, which is very nice. The fish is juicy and the mash is quite unusual.

There’s also a salad. And if I ever meet the creep who though adding pomegranate to every blood thing was a good idea, I’m seriously going to give him a piece of my mind. I mean, why?

On the tray is also a small bottle of olive oil with balsamico and crackers…

… some tasty greek cheese…

… and dessert. Bread rolls are also offered from the bread basket.

The dessert is very good, but also very rich. It’s basically pieces of biscuits with milk chocolate.

After the meal, the crew don’t offer coffee or tea. However, they do offer small boxes of dark and milk chocolate.

For the rest of the flight, I busy myself reading and wondering if the American sitting in front of me was raised on a farm, of if perhaps she just thinks it’ll look better on her Insta profile to post picture after picture of her duck face, while she dirties the seat with her shoes. Some people…

Arrival

The flight time to Berlin is two hours and forty minutes.

It’s very bumpy on the approach, which probably accounts for the very positive landing we experience… We taxi to our stand and then I make the long schlepp to arrivals and then the railway station.

Getting into Berlin

From the airport I first catch an intercity train going to Berlin Hauptbahnhof, which takes about thirty minutes. And then from there I catch the S Bahn for three stops to Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten in what used to be West Berlin.

WizzAir, Economy Class – Airbus A 321: Basel to Tirana

Introduction

It’s a lazy late summer’s evening here in Switzerland. The temperature is warm and balmy, and there are little insects dancing in the last rays of light as the sun slowly dips below the horizon. Just after 20h I leave my flat and make my way across the square to catch the 20h15 bus to the airport.

The bus is nearly empty. Considering this is the airport bus after all, it’s a bit surprising that I’m the only traveller making his way to the airport. Facing me is an elderly lady. Despite the warm weather, she sits there in a woolly hat and a thick coat, absently staring into space, drawing symbols on the wind with her bony index finger. I wonder if she even knows what she’s doing. I follow the lines of her hand and the outstreched finger, but I am unable to decipher the cryptic symbols she is painting in the air.

Check-in

The departures concourse is quiet when I arrive there at 20h30. There are only two more departures this evening. The WizzAir flight to Tirana at 21h45 and a SunExpress flight to Izmir shortly after. There are two counters open for each flight.

I’ve already checked in online using the WizzAir app. Two weeks before my flight, WizzAir starts with the reminders and regular updates about the Covid restrictions in place for Albania. As of 05 September 2021, entry into the country is only with a valid Covid certificate.

Boarding

Airside there are hardly any passengers and most shops look as though they closed a long time ago.

Boarding is an interesting concept with WizzAir. I have a ticket that gives me ‘priority’ privileges for boarding, which means that I can jump the queue – only to end up having to wait the longest until all the passengers have entered the holding pen. The aircraft hasn’t even arrived yet when I get there!

I think what strikes me the most about this flight is the number of babies and infants. Loud, yelling and screaming babies and infants. There are more minors than adults on the flight. And the air around the holding area is rife with the horrific stench of baby poo and the noise of cranky toddlers. You can’t really blame them, either. This is not a time for little kids to be travelling.

Boarding takes for ever and literally leaves me speechless. I’m mean, how do all these people manage to create such complete and utter chaos out of nothing? The aircraft is a mess. Some people who are sitting at the front of the bus obviously thought it would be a great idea to use the rear stairs. Only to then have to battle their way forward to row 3, where they’re actually seated. One woman with a baby thinks the emergency exit looks like a nice place for her baby to sleep on the floor, while grandad mistakes the aircraft’s cabin for a cocktail party and idly chats with whoever happens to catch his eye, completely oblivious to the queue building up behind him. Meanwhile, the guy who just got on the plane is yelling at him from the front, telling him to move the f*@!k on…

The Crew

There are five cabin crew members on this flight, and they do a good job of managing the crowds. They’re very no-nonsense, but I suspect that’s probably the only thing that will work in this case. One of the crew is this petite, young brunnette. But she’s fierce. Even the old patriarchs shy away from her!

The Cabin

The cabin is rather dirty and obviously hasn’t been cleaned for a few days, I’d say, judging by the grime and crushed potato chips littered across the floor. I can literally feel the crunch under my feet as I make my way to my seat at the emergency exit on row 12.

WizzAir has a very high density configuration on the A 321. Seat pitch is tight, so if you’re more than 6ft. tall, I would really recommend you pay the extra fee for the emergency exit. It’ll save you a boatload of health bills for the chiropractor to realign your vertabrae.

Catering

Catering on WizzAir is buy on board. The prices are reasonable. I order a bottle of still water and a KitKat, which sets me back four Euros. Payment is possible in Albanian Lek, Euros or by credit card.

Arrival

The flight passes quickly enough. It helps that I have a whole row of three to myself to spread out. We land ten minutes ahead of schedule at 23h35. The transfer to the terminal is by bus. Luckily, immigration is empty when we get there. Even so, the process takes quite a while, as obviously not everbody got the memo about the new requirement of having to present a Covid certificate.

Conclusion

This was a fairly short post. As usual with the low cost carriers, there isn’t really all that much to say about the experience. Mainly, because the experience has been stripped of anything that might make it memorable. The ride was comfortable and convenient, because I could fly directly from Basel. Other than that, flying with WizzAir feels a lot like getting on a bus. And not much else. What ever happened to the romance of flying and travel…?

Air France, Economy Class – Airbus A 321: Paris Roissy to Zürich

Airline: Air France
Aircraft: Airbus A 321
From: Paris Charles de Gaulle (Roissy)
To: Zürich
Departure: 13h20
Arrival:
14h15
Flight time: 55 minutes
Seat:
25A, emergency exit on the port side

Transfer in Paris Roissy

I disembark the Airbus A330-200 that brought me to Paris from Dubai and enter into Terminal 2E. My connecting flight to Zürich will depart from Terminal 2F, which sits opposite 2E. The route to take is clearly signposted for connecting passengers.

The security check is done in Terminal 2E and there is a dedicated queue for SkyPriority passengers. Right behind security is the passport control to enter the Schengen area. And then from there it‘s just a short walk to the main airside area of 2F.

Terminal 2F has two piers. And like the other terminals, it also has a striking desing.

By the time I get to 2F it‘s 12h, and I still have 50 minutes before boarding for the next flight begins.

The Lounge

The Air France lounge, le Salon, is located one floor below the gate area.

The lounge is very busy, which is why I don‘t take any photos. It has a good selection of hot and cold drinks and cold snacks, which are replenished and changed throughout the day.

Boarding

At 12h35 I leave the lounge to find my gate. The flight is departing from F49, which is right next to the escalator coming up from the lounge. Boarding has just started for zones 1 and 2.

The Cabin

I‘m seated on row 25, which is the second emergency exit row on the A 321. Leg space is absolutely brilliant. What‘s more, the middle seat stays empty, so I have more than enough space to spread out!

On the down side, there is no window on row 25. But it‘s cloudy all the way to Zürich anyway, so that‘s okay.

The Meal

As soon as we‘re airborne, the service begins. As a snack there is a tomato and egg sandwich. To drink I have a can of Perrier.

Arrival

Eventually we touch down at 14h15. By 14h46 I‘m already on the train to the office, where I need to sign off a few documents. And then from there I head back to the airport.

On the four flights I took with Air France for this trip to Dubai, the airline provided a solid product at a consistently high standard. Unlike boring Lufthansa in its perpetual identity crisis and dreadful BA, flying with Air France is still a pleasure, firmly establishing them, in my view, as Europe‘s best airline right now.

SWISS, Business Class – Airbus A 321: Zürich to Stockholm

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Introduction

The valiant M. and I are on our way to Shanghai to present a paper on the use of Rasch measurement in testing. The first part of our journey will take us from Zürich to Stockholm on SWISS.

Getting to the Airport

Yeah, that’s a bit of a problem in this case. Admittedly, the connection via Stockholm is not the best, with a six-hour layover in Sweden. Worse still, the flight from Zürich to Stockholm will already be departing at 06h50. Alas, the first train from Basel to Zürich does not arrive at the airport until 06h07 according to the schedule. Also, the Swiss Federal Railways are currently operating on a reduced summer schedule, and the information on their app is somewhat unreliable. I think if I were only travelling with hand luggage, I’d probably risk it. But with the big suitcase I’ll need to check in, I’ve decided to go to the airport the evening before and spend the night at the Radisson Blu at Zürich airport.

The Radisson Blu is not a very good hotel, I don’t think. But it has the advantage of being the only hotel that is directly connected to the terminal and check-in 1, which is home to SWISS.

Check-in

The check-in area for premium passengers at Check-in 1 was done up not too long ago. It looks nice. Although I’m not really sure how having a little desk lamp on the counter top is supposed to enhance my experience… On the other hand, I must admit that the check-in process is very swift. Despite the fact that it’s the busy holiday period, there is no queue and the check-in agent immediately checks my suitcase all the way through to my destination.

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The SWISS Business Class Lounge

There is a separate access point to the security area for Business Class passengers. And there are two lanes open at the checkpoint for Business Class passengers. Pretty much like every other time I’ve travelled with the valiant M., I pass through security without a hitch, while he has to endure having the security staff more or less take apart his entire hand luggage, only to eventually tell him that he’s okay…

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By the time the valiant M. has reassembled his carefully packed bags, it’s 05h23. The SWISS Business Class lounge doesn’t open until 05h45 though. So we mosey around the airside area for another twenty minutes before I can get my morning coffee fix.

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The SWISS lounge recently reopened after an extensive refurbishment, which, in my view, was long overdue. The first thing that strikes me, is that there are automatic gates to access the lounge. I find this quite striking, because it means that if you’ve checked-in online and you use one of the gates to access the lounge, even as a premium passenger your interaction with the airline is quite limited.

The lounge itself is nice, although the valiant M. and I agree that it’s also a bit sterile. I’m not sure what to make of the design though, because it looks like a strange mix between an IKEA showroom and a Starbucks coffee shop that has hipster written all over it.

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The good news is that there’s a lot more place to sit now. Partly, this has also been achieved because the smoker’s lounge and bar on the upper floor of the lounge have been removed to make space for extra seating. Although no food is permitted on the upper floor.

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Boarding

Boarding for the flight starts at 06h30, twenty minutes before departure. Economy Class passengers are expected to use the automatic gates, while Business Class passengers can either use those or jump the queue and have their boarding pass scanned by the gate agent.

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The Cabin

There are three rows of seats in the Business Class cabin with a total of twelve seats. Nine seats are occupied by paying passengers and two are taken by staff that have been bumped up from Economy.

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The seat pitch on the second row is good, as the x-rated picture of my hairy legs shows. To be honest, I prefer the second row to the first, because you can get on the plane last and just dump your bag under the middle seat of the row in front if the overhead bins are already full. There are no power plugs for passengers on this aircraft.

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I am seated on 2F, which is a window seat.

The Crew

The crews on SWISS can be a bit of a hit or miss affair. Either they just really so couldn’t care less and make it painfully obvious, or they’re outstanding. There doesn’t seem to be anything in between. Luckily, today’s crew fall in the latter category. They are very courteous in the way they address the passengers, very polite and they make a point of addressing every passenger by their last name, literally every time they address them.

Once the boarding process is completed, the crew distribute the prepacked scented towels and a small bottle of still water.

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We take off in a northerly direction on runway 34. The flight time is announced as two hours.

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The Meal

Once the fasten seatbelt sign is turned off, the meal service begins.

The meal is served on one tray. There is a choice of two hot meals: a cheese omelette or scrambled egg with bacon, a small rösti and a grilled tomato. Also on the tray is a bowl of Bicher Müsli, a plate of fruit and another plate with cheese and butter. The crew make two rounds with the bread basket.

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Again, it strikes me that the crew are so attentive with their service. So far, I must say, I’m quite positively surprised by SWISS. This meals service is definitely way above the airline’s usual standards and the crew is excellent!

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Arrival

The flight passes quickly and there’s a comfortable, quiet hush in the cabin as we head towards Stockholm. Eventually we land in Stockholm pretty much on time.

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Conclusion

This flight was really nice. The crew were attentive but still left passengers in peace and quiet. The experience with check-in and the lounge made me think though. Perhaps not even so much about SWISS specifically, but because of the way that air travel appears to be evolving. As I mentioned above, you can check-in, access the lounge and even board the plane without having to interact with a single person. Which mean that the first and only opportunity for the airline to interact with its passengers is through its cabin crew. But even in this respect, opportunities are somewhat limited if, for example, the airline offers buy on board.

For a very long time, the airline industry was very much focussed on hospitality and offering the passenger a personalised experience. But that no longer seems to be the case, or at least it is, but only to a lesser degree.

Lufthansa, Business Class – Airbus A 321: Frankfurt to Malta

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Introduction

I’m on my way to Malta for this year’s edition of the Malta Marathon. I shall be running the half-marathon with a distance of 21.1 kilometres, which is in fact longer than the width of the island!

I confess I’m a bit of a wuss, I’ve never been able to bring up the cojones to attempt a full marathon. That’s still one for the bucket list. Others of course, like my friend the valiant M., probably do a nippy full marathon every morning, just to work up an appetite for breakfast…

But I digress. Again. So yes, last year I flew with Lufthansa via Munich and I must say, I was hardly impressed. But given my recent, rather positive experiences on SWISS, I figured I might as well give Lufthansa another chance. There’s also that fact that their schedule is the most convenient for my purpose.

Getting to the Airport

Just to give Lufthansa a bit of a head start, I shall not regale you with a full trip report of the Basel to Frankfurt sector. Suffice to say it was not so nice. My biggest complaint is the aircraft. Those Canadair RegionalJets really are stinkers! Everything is really tight and cramped and the bins are simply too small for all the hand luggage people take on board these days.

Lufthansa Business Class Lounge

The bus from the aircraft to the terminal ejects me somewhere in the bowels of the A concourse of Terminal 1. From here I take the stairs one floor up and make my way to the Lufthansa Business Class lounge.

The lounge is nicely designed and very bright, using a lot of white paint and light wooden panelling. The views of the apron are quite spectacular too, despite those pesky stripes that run along the width of the windows.

It’s just too bad there hardly any place left to sit. There are people everywhere and I’m left wondering if all these good men and women really have nothing better to do on a Saturday morning than hang around an airport lounge. But it doesn’t matter. I only have about 15 minutes in the lounge before it’s time for me to head for gate A 36, from where the flight will be boarding.

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Boarding

Only, getting to the gate may prove to be a bit trickier than I thought. The queue of passengers for Schengen emigration is so long that it’s blocking access to the A concourse, which is in the opposite direction from the non-Schengen area. But eventually, after a long stream of ‘uh…sorry…hello…’tschuldigung…was that your toe, sorry…excuse me’ I finally get through and reach my gate just as boarding is about to start.

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The Cabin

Today’s flight is operated by an Airbus A 321. I am seated on 2F, which is a window seat on the starboard side of the aircraft. On this side of the aircraft, row 2 is the first row of Business Class, there is no row 1. Whereas on the opposite side there is.

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The leg space is excellent on the bulkhead row. Other than that though, the seat is very hard, with little or no cushioning and – and I know I keep saying this – the grey metallic finish of the panelling really makes the cabin look rather dark and gloomy.

In total, there are 14 Business Class seats on this service. Occupancy is at 50%, with six human beings and a rather regal looking feline who looks as though he owns the aircraft. And Lufthansa actually…

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The Crew

The maître de is a woman in her fifties, I should say. What strikes me about her is the eloquence and ease with which she makes her announcements. It seems unrehearsed, but it comes across as being very polished, charming and approachable.

The service only begins really once the aircraft is airborne. Until then, unlike SWISS or KLM, there is no welcome drink, refreshing towel or anything of the sort.

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The Meal

Once the fasten seatbelt sign is turned off, the meal service begins. Despite the fairly long flight time of two hours and fifteen minutes it is obviously not foreseen that there should be a drinks service before the meal.

The meal is cold and consists of:

  1. a very nice yoghurt, the content of which I was unable to make out, save for the slice of orange and the pistachios,
  2. a plate of cheese,
  3. a plate of cold meats,
  4. a bowl of fruit,
  5. a selection of buns and croissants that are served warm and nearly burn your fingers,
  6. the bread is served with unsalted butter and Hero strawberry jam,
  7. cream, sugar and a towl are also on the tray.

As the flight attendant passes through the cabin with the bread basket, she encourages the passengers to take as much as they like, insisting that there’s really more than enough. All in all, the meal is rather tasty and hits the spot nicely.

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Arrival

It looks like it’s my lucky day today. Landings and take-offs are towards the north, which means that passengers seated on the starboard side of the aircraft are treated to a spectacular view of the island.

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The airport is fairly busy when we arrive, but seeing as I only have hand luggage, I’m already on the X2 bus to St. Julian’s within just 15 minutes of landing.

Conclusion

5 Star Airline – I don’t think so…

So what about my Lufthansa experience? First of all, to be fair, I think I should say straight away that this experience was by far much more agreeable to the flight from Munich to Malta last year. Where last year’s crew were a right bunch of nasty old witches, this lot was a more accommodating and willing to interact in a professional and friendly way with the passengers. On this flight I actually felt welcome, and not like I was a burden.

On the down side, and I know this is something Lufthansa has only limited control over, the experience on the ground in Frankfurt really is a nightmare. The airport is a rat hole, with long journeys by bus to and from the aircraft, seemingly endless corridors to walk along and people everywhere that make it difficult to get through.

The inflight product on the other hand, is something Lufthansa very much can control, which makes it all the more unfortunate that precisely this is the carrier’s weakest point. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with what passengers are offered on board in Business Class, it’s just that it’s quite obvious that every attempt has been made to cut costs. I don’t in principle think there’s anything wrong with that. After all, the airline is accountable to its shareholders. But even so, I think the passengers should never be allowed to see the cost cutting.

Other than that, throughout today’s flight there was a constant stream of passengers coming through from Economy Class to use the forward toilet. And quite frankly, I don’t blame them, given that the crew left the curtain between Business Class and Economy open throughout the flight and actually encouraged passengers to use the forward loo. Again, this is in itself not a big issue. But it certainly makes me wonder wherein exactly Lufthansa sees the selling point of its European Business Class product: it’s not the lounges, because they’re too full to be enjoyed anyway; it’s not the catering; and the seat is the same one they have installed in the back of the bus. Which leaves what exactly?

So in the sum of all things, yeah this flight was not bad. But honestly, if anyone at Skytrax seriously thinks Lufthansa is deserving of its 5 Star ranking, then I suspect they probably also still believe in Father Christmas.

Etihad Airways, Business Class – Airbus A 321: Colombo to Abu Dhabi

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Date: 16. April 2017
Departure: 21:10
Arrival: 00: 35
Flight time: 4 hours 25 minutes
Seat: 2A, window

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Introduction

Time to move on. I wouldn’t have minded staying in Sri Lanka a little while longer. I’ve rather enjoyed being here. But I have to get back home because I’ll be traveling week after next and still need to get a few things done before then.

Let’s see. I’ve tried Qatar Airways, Oman Air and Emirates. So I think it’s only fair to give Etihad a try before I make up my mind if Qatar Airways really is my favourite airline.

The flight to Abu Dhabi will not be leaving until 21h10. Which means I have the whole day to spend by the pool revising a paper I have to submit soon and having afternoon tea at the lovely Galle Face Hotel before it’s time to head for the airport.

Getting to the Airport

I’ve ordered a car to pick me up at the hotel at 17h30. The journey to the airport is only 36 kilometres. Colombo is still only just coming back to life after most of the city folk left the city behind to celebrate the Singalese New Year with their families.

Security at the airport is very tight and there are roadblocks and barriers set up all along the road leading to the terminal.

Check-in

The driver drops me off before the entrance to departures. And then the hassle begins. First, I need to show a police officer standing guard by the entrance my passport and a copy of my ticket to even be allowed to enter the terminal building. Immediately inside the terminal is a first security checkpoint where I need to have all my bags screened and another police officer pats me down. From there I follow a long corridor that looks as though it was originally set up as a provisional building but then accidentally, brutally started sprouting retail space.

At the end of the corridor I finally enter the terminal proper. From here passengers have to go through another security checkpoint and show their passport again to enter the actual check-in area. Photography is strictly prohibited within the terminal.

Check-in for the Etihad flight opens three hours before departure. The departure hall is very crowded with passengers checking in for their flights with Emirates, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines and Sri Lankan which all seem to depart around the same time.

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From check-in I walk to the far right of the departure hall and queue again for immigration. I’m not really sure why they bother though, because the officer is obviously so busy reading text messages that he nearly forgets to stamp my passport.

And then, finally, I’m airside.

The Araliya Lounge

Etihad Airways uses the Araliya lounge, which is at the beginning of the pier on the left hand side. The lounge only has very basic facilities, but there is a small selection of hot and cold snacks, there’s wifi and the toilets and shower are very clean. The lounge’s best feature though, is the excellent view of the action on the apron.

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Boarding

Not again, seriously? My flight will be departing from gate B5, which is a bus gate. To enter the gate area I need to show my boarding pass and passport again to another police officer guarding the staircase. Once he lets me pass, I head downstairs to the holding area for the gate, which pretty much looks like a badly converted broom cupboard. But not as pretty. And yes, I have to go through security. Again. I don’t have to take out any liquids or laptops but I do have to take off my shoes and get another pat down under the watchful eyes of no less than eight police officers manning one conveyor belt and one security gate.

Shortly after, and somewhat unceremoniously, boarding begins. Our bus pulls up to the rear stairs of the aircraft and I step outside. I try to make my way to the forward door but one of the five police officers guarding the plane won’t let me pass and insists I take the rear door. But then a member of Etihad’s ground crew here in Colombo talks to her and I’m allowed to walk to the forward door.

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The Cabin

I rather like the cabin. I think the design and colours have some serious retro vibe going on, but somehow it works. There are four rows of seats in a 2 + 2 configuration for a total of 16 seats. Every seat has an AC and USB power port. The aircraft also has wifi, although I don’t actually try it out. The air is very humid tonight and as a result, there is thick mist coming out of the air conditioning system, which is a pretty nifty effect.

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The recline of the seat is good and the seat controls are electric. Stretching my legs is problematic though because of the IFE box under the seat in front of me which takes up a lot of space.

A large blanket, pillow, earphones and the menu have already been placed at the seats. The blanket is rather funky in that one side is in this velvety fake fur material which feels kind of kinky. Now I know what Jane Fonda must have felt like rolling around naked on that fur rug during the opening credits of Barbarella.

The Crew

The crew up front consists of a young man of Pakistani origin and a Chinese young lady. Both of them are friendly and courteous in their manner and give all the passengers a warm greeting as they board the plane.

The service begins with a welcome drink and a hot towel.

Amenities

The flight time to Abu Dhabi is four hours and twenty minutes. Etihad does not provide a full vanity kit on this flight, but they do provide eye shades, socks and earplugs.

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IFE

The IFE is touchscreen enabled and works really very well. The selection is fairly large, but as usual there’s nothing I’d really be interested in watching.

The Meal

… or HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM…BUT IT’S BEAUTIFUL…
The meal service is a bit of a let down and definitely not on a par with Qatar Airways’ offerings. We start with an aperitif and a bowl of warm nuts.

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The First Course

For the first course I have the Arabic mezze, which basically is a small dollop of hummus, with a huge portion of parsley that’s been drowned in lemon juice and some vegetable pickles and a greasy samosa. The tray is served with a bun, Arabic flat bread and butter. The taste of the food is so so, but the presentation of the tray really is nice.

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The Main Course

For the main course I have the Indian chicken and pea curry, which is quite simply disgusting. Yuk! There’s something chewy and green on the plate that tastes of nothing and is hard to bite. The chicken itself is mainly bone and skin and I decide not to touch it. The only edible parts of the meal are the spicy coconut rice and the warm beetroot.

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Dessert

And then for dessert I make the mistake of ordering a bowl of vanilla ice cream, which is served with a sablé on top. The only problem is, the ice cream is so cold the sablé is welded to it. I can’t get it off! And the ice cream is so hard I think you could knock somebody unconscious with it if you threw it at them. So I wait a few minutes. But eventually my impatience gets the better of me and I make the fatal mistake of trying to take a spoonful of ice cream.

Next thing I know, the spoon hits the bowl with a clank, and the blob of ice cream slips off to the left and goes flying through the cabin. The whole thing happens in slow motion. I swear I can actually hear the opening chords of Strauss’ ‘Thus spoke Zarathustra’ and feel the compulsion to ask HAL what’s going on… But then I manage to catch the ball of ice cream with my hand, but the thing is slippery and gets away, eventually landing and sitting in my lap. Well fine. I scoop the ice cream off my groin and when the flight attendant passes my seat next, I tell him to take the ice cream with him. A few minutes later though he returns. Apparently he’s put the blob in the oven to thaw it a bit for me. Which is kind of a nice gesture, only now the ice cream has a faint and very disturbing taste of the curry chicken I refused to eat a short while previously…

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Arrival

But at least the flight passes quickly and before long we’re starting our descent into Abu Dhabi. We land in darkness and then taxi for a very long time to the main apron. We park on a remote stand, but things happen so quick that I don’t really have any time to take any photos before the Business Class bus whisks us off to the terminal.

Conclusion

Of all the flights I’ve done on this trip, I think this one was the most unremarkable one. The crew were friendly enough and very polite but the food really was bad. The seat was okay, But I think a flight time of over four hours is really pushing it for passenger comfort in the premium cabin.

MINT by Jetblue, First Class – Airbus A 321: San Francisco to Boston

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Date: 18 August 2016
Departure: 12:55
Arrival: 21:30
Flight time: 5 hours and 10 minutes
Seat: 3C, aisle on the port side

bos

Introduction

I first visited San Francisco in 2008. I was on a round the world trip and arrived from Tokyo. It must have been some time around January. I remember the weather was awful, cold and wet. I did not manage to see the Golden Gate Bridge that time, because it was shrouded in dense fog all the time I was there. And it’s been bugging me ever since!

But this time, finally, after eight years I finally get to see and cross the famous Golden Gate Bridge. Granted, the weather is not much better this time round, but at least I can still see the city in the distance.

So now that has been taken care of and I can finally strike another item of the bucket list, I figure I might as well move on…

Getting to the Airport

Transport: Car rental.
Journey time: 55 minutes on local roads or 35 minutes on the highway.
Driving in the US really is rather cool. They have these enormous roads with four or six lanes in each direction. What is even more impressive though, is that despite the wide roads they still seem to have way too many cars on the road.

From the car rental drop off station it takes about five minutes to the terminal complex using the fully automated AirTrain. The views from the AirTrain are excellent by the way!

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Check-in

Location: International Terminal A, row 10.
Facilities: Web check-in, App check-in, self-service check-in or check-in at the counter.
Counters: There are two counters for JetBlue Mosaic and Mint customers and three counters for Economy Class passengers.

Airside

Alas, JetBlue does not operate a lounge at SFO and does not use any contractor lounge either. But that is really quite okay. Complimentary wifi is available in the terminal building and the view from gate A3A, from where my flight will be boarding, is simply excellent. I even get to witness a Virgin America A 320 executing a rejected take-off due to conflicting traffic on the crossing arriving runway.

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Boarding

Mint passengers are invited to board after passengers with special needs.

Something tells me this flight is going to be just brilliant, if the first impression I get from the gate agent is anything to go by. The guy obviously takes his job seriously and makes a point of keeping passengers informed about the entire boarding process. He also strictly enforces the boarding sequence.

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The Cabin

Configuration: 2 + 2 and 1 + 1.
Seat: Jetblue operates the A 321 in two configurations. The aircraft used in transcontinental services are branded as MINT by Jetblue. The aircraft have a seating capacity of 158, with 16 seats in Business Class. Rows 1, 3 and 5 are in a 2 + 2 configuration, while rows 2 and 4 are in a 1 + 1 configuration. The seats on the even numbered rows are referred to as the Business Suites. They have slightly greater pitch and more privacy, including a rather superfluous and useless sliding door. The suites are available on a first come first served basis.
Pitch: 60 inches.
Length as a bed: 80 inches.
Width: 22 inches.
Facilities:

  1. There are two 110 volt power ports and USB ports at each seat.
  2. Complimentary wifi is available on board and there are various price plans should you require more capacity.

Audio and Video:

  1. 15 inch LCD screen.
  2. There are more than 100 online radio programmes.
  3. There are 100 television programmes and a selection of films on flights longer than two hours.
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Seatmap courtesy of seatguru.com

The Crew

I reach my seat and there is a card welcoming me on board that has been signed by the two cabin crew working the forward cabin. In addition, the crew make a point of stopping at every seat to welcome every passenger on board individually. They explain the features of the seat, what the service is going to be like and then take orders for a welcome drink before handing every passenger the menu for the flight.

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I think what impresses me most about the crew is that they genuinely seem to enjoy their job and their interaction with the passengers seems authentic.

After take-off the crew distribute earphone and vanity kits, which are really nice, even if they do not really contain anything you might need during the flight. However, toothbrushes and toothpaste are available on request.

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The Meal

Welcome drink on the ground: Honey infused limeade and fresh mint.
Towel before the meal: Hot towel, not scented.
Pre-meal drink:
Another honey infused limeade, served with artichoke and avocado dip and taro chips.
Choice:
Passengers are invited to choose three dishes from a selection five, which includes two cold and three hot dishes.
Delivery:
Individual tray service.
Type of meal:
Late lunch.
Meal:

  1. Herby lentil salad with baby romaine, haricots verts, avocado, toasted pecans and pomegranate molasses vinaigrette.
  2. Lobster risotto with crimini mushrooms, Swiss cheese and herb breadcrumbs.
  3. Turkey chilli with avocado, cherry tomatoes and cotija cheese.
  4. Seasonal fruit salad.
  5. Organic blue marble ice cream.
  6. Tea or coffee.

I think it is safe to say that this must be one of the best airline meals I have ever had. Firstly, all the dishes are still hot when the tray arrives. But apart from that, the quality and the taste of the food is excellent. The chilli is nice and spicy and the lobster risotto is just lovely. The dessert at the end is good too.

Throughout the flight the crew pass through the cabin, making sure all passengers have everything they need. In addition, there is a self-service bar at the rear of the First Class cabin, which is stocked with soft drinks and a selection of snacks – things like crisps or Pretzels.

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Arrival

Eventually we start our descent into Boston. The crew make another round with hot towels for passengers to freshen up. After that, the purser comes through the cabin with a selection of cookies and personally thanks ever passenger for flying JetBlue. He even makes a point of addressing every passenger by name!

Conclusion

I think this flight on JetBlue was absolutely bloody brilliant! These guys are really giving the likes of Virgin America or American Airlines a good run for their money. And in fact, although this service was ‘only’ a regular domestic First Class service, I think it is way better than the American Airlines experience I had from New York to Los Angeles.

Of course, there are certain shortcomings, such as the lack of a dedicated lounge on the ground in San Francisco. And perhaps the tray the meal is served on is not quite so fancy. But I think what this flight really shows is that it really is the crew that makes the experience. And today’s crew – Derek and Margaret – were just excellent and demonstrated some great hospitality! I like.

American Airlines, First Class – Airbus A 321: New York JFK to Los Angeles

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Date: 14. August 2016.
Departure: 10:00.
Arrival: 13:15.
Flight time: 5 hours 25 minutes.
Seat: 2A.

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Introduction

I spend the night in New York at the Crowne Plaza near JFK airport. Today I am travelling on to the West Coast.

Getting to the Airport

Transport: Hotel shuttle.
Journey time: 15 minutes.
Departs from: Outside the hotel lobby.
Arrives: Departures concourse of Terminal 8.
Cost: Complimentary.

The shuttle will drop you off right outside your terminal on the departures level. Just tell the driver where you are going as you get aboard. There are nine passengers on the shuttle this morning, seven of which are Delta crew on their way to Terminal 4.

Check-in

Location: Terminal 8, which is the American Airlines terminal and also home to some of the other OneWorld carriers like Royal Jordanian.
Facilities: Web check-in and App check-in.
Counters: The American Airlines Priority counters are located on row 5 of the terminal.

The American Airlines Terminal has a modern, bright and airy feel to it. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Heathrow’s Terminal 5. Of course it helps that the place is not so busy, presumably because it is Sunday morning.

The Lounge

Location: C concourse in the satellite terminal.
Type of Lounge:
American Airlines Admiral’s Lounge.
Facilities:
Computer workstations, toilets, showers.
Catering: A small selection of breakfast items – things like bagels with Philadelphia cheese, müslis, oatmeal. Coffee, orange juice and ice water are complimentary. Other beverages are available at a charge.
Internet:
Complimentary wifi is available in the lounge.

Only passengers who have status in American Airlines’ frequent flyer programme are entitled to use the lounge, even if they are travelling in Domestic First Class. The transcontinental services from JFK to Los Angeles and San Francisco are exceptions. If you are travelling in First Class on one of these services, you are entitled to use the lounge and may even avail yourself of the international lounge on the main concourse.

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Boarding

Priority Boarding: There is a separate queue for Priority passengers and First Class passengers are invited to board first, followed by Business Class and then Economy Class passengers.

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The Cabin

Configuration: 1 + 1.
Seat: American Airlines operates the Airbus A 321 in three different configurations. The aircraft that operate the transcontinental flights has four cabins: First, Business, Main Cabin Extra and Economy. The total capacity is for 102, which is very low for the Airbus A 321. The seat is a flat bed with 180 degree recline. There are 10 seats in the First Class cabin.
Pitch: 62 inches.
Length: 82.5 inches.
Width: 21 inches.
Facilities:

  1. AC power port and USB port.
  2. Wifi is provided by AirCell gogo.

Audio and Video:

  1. 4 inch HD capable monitor with touchscreen.
  2. Bose noise cancelling earphones.
  3. 15 games.
  4. 350 audio programmes on demand.
  5. 75 films and 150 television programmes on demand.

The seat is comfortable and feels intimate and private. The only complaint I have is that the cabin looks rather drab, given that everything from the bulkhead to the seats is dark grey.

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Seatmap courtesy of seatguru.com
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Amenities

A pillow and blanket as well as the menu have already been placed at the seat as I enter the aircraft. There is also a bottle of still water and an amenity kit with eye shades, socks, dental kit and some other travel goodies.

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Other than that, the crew a friendly and chatty and make a lot of effort to make sure passengers are comfortable.

The Meal

Welcome drink on the ground: A selection of orange juice, still water or champagne.
Towel before the meal: Hot but not scented.
Pre-meal drink:
Coke Zero served with a ramekin of warm mixed nuts (plus refill on the nuts…).
Choice:
Two choices for the starter, three choices for the main course and two choices for dessert.
Delivery:
À la carte service.
Type of meal:
Early lunch.
Meal:

  1. Tomato and goat cheese strata with pickled ginger vinaigrette.
  2. Salad with fresh strawberries and hearts of palm with a choice of dressing.
  3. Selection form the breadbasket.
  4. Pan seared crab cakes with jicama slaw and tomatillo poblano cream sauce.
  5. Vanilla ice cream with a choice of topping.

The meal hits the spot nicely, but it is way too much food. Perhaps I should not have had that second ramekin of nuts. Especially the sundae with hot fudge and nuts for dessert is divine – probably the best dessert I have ever had on a plane.

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I spend the rest of the flight reading and, well, basically eating. First the crew brings me two packets of sea slated crisps, then the smell of warm freshly baked chocolate chip cookies starts wafting through the cabin and I figure it would be a shame not to try one. Oh okay, maybe two so I have something to go with the coffee…

Arrival

Eventually we touch down on the northernmost runway at Los Angeles airport. The view out the window is quite spectacular. There are already four A 380s standing there and just behind us, Air France arrives to make it five.

Transfer in Los Angeles

American Airlines uses Terminal 4 in Los Angeles. From here I need to transfer to Terminal 3 for my onward connection. Apparently, there is a shuttle bus that links all of the airport’s terminals but I am unable to locate the stop. Eventually I figure it is a nice enough day here in Los Angeles, not too hot. And so I walk to Terminal 3 instead. It only takes about seven minutes to walk across.

Air China, Economy Class – Airbus A 321: Beijing to Xi’an

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Date: 29 May 2016
Departure: 08:55
Arrival: 11:10
Flight time: 2 hours and fifteen minutes
Seat: 15L, window on the right side of the aircraft

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Introduction

The transfer from an international to a domestic flight is pretty straightforward and well signposted. I have two hours to make the connection, and it takes me an hour to make the transfer owing to the sheer size of the terminal complex.

Transfer in Beijing

Location: Terminal 3, main concourse – right next to the terminus station of the automated people mover.
Counters: Two Economy Class and one Business Class counter.

I only have my backpack with me on this trip, so the transfer check-in is swift and easy. From check-in I take the escalators one floor up, which takes me landside of the terminal. At the top of the escalators I turn right and right again until I reach the boarding pass check point to go airside again. From there I head back down one floor to the automated people mover to take me to the D concourse. Once again, the entire process is pretty straightforward. But the facility at Beijing is enormous, so you end up walking fairly long distances, going up and down between different levels.

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The D concourse is pretty much deserted when I arrive. There are only a few people sitting at gate 13, the gate for my flight to Xi’an. There do not seem to be any other flights leaving any time soon.

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What can I say? I’m a linguist…

Boarding

There are three queues, one for First and Business Class passengers, one for Premium Economy Class and another for Economy Class passengers. Boarding starts way ahead of time, and the passengers are only slowly trickling in. Eventually though, the flight is full.

The Cabin

Configuration: 3 + 3
Seat: Air China operates the A321 in two different configurations. The aircraft operating the service to Xi’an today has 16 seats in First Class and 161 in Economy Class. I am on row 15, which is right behind the emergency exit row. Seat pitch is good. Moreover, the seats are covered in material instead of the faux leather that seems to be so popular with most airlines these days. Seat numbering is a bit unusual if you are used to the European system. On most European carriers, the three seats on the port side are (from window to aisle) A, B, and C; while the three seats on the starboard side are (from aisle to window) D, E and F. On Air China though, the starboard seats are marked (from the aisle to the window) J, K and L.
Pitch: 31 inches.
Width: 17 inches.
Facilities: No power outlets available.
Audio and Video: Drop down screens in the Economy Class cabin, audio track selection and volume control in the armrest. Earphones are distributed half-heartedly at the beginning of the flight – I should think it is obvious that a small tray of earphones is not likely to be enough for all passengers on a fully loaded A321. But the cabin crew are not deterred. They start passing out earphones at the front of the Economy Class cabin, and once they run out of earphones at the third row, the job is done.

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Service

The crew is a bit odd, I must confess. Either I am just suffering from a lack of sleep, or there is some cultural issue going on that I have not figured out yet. One way or another, the impression I get is that the crew really couldn’t give a shit.

A young male cabin attendant is standing next to me as I put my backpack in the overhead bin. I innocently ask him if the flight is going to be full, but all I get in reply is ‘maybe’.

The crew’s attitude to safety is also rather strange. On the one hand, they insist that you have all electronic devices fully off, not just in flight mode. One of the female cabin attendants nearly has a meltdown when she sees me taking photos with my iPhone during the climbout. On the other hand though, the safety demonstration video is interrupted repeatedly by the cockpit crew coming on to make announcements about the flight. And the volume is so low that you cannot really hear a thing anyway. As a result, the video is still running as we go thundering down the runway. But nobody is paying any attention to it anyway.

The Meal

Towel before the meal: Pre packed wet wipe with a decidedly unpleasant stink of disinfectant.
Type of meal:
Snack.
Meal:

  1. Orange juice.
  2. Bag of missed nuts.

This really is nothing more than a snack, but that is okay. After all, the flight time to Xi’an is slightly less than two hours and I am feeling rather exhausted right now anyway.

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Once I finish my bag of nuts, it becomes impossible for me to keep my eyes open any longer and I spend the remainder of the flight doing that thing tired people do who are trying to sleep sitting upright: every time I nod off and my head lolls forwards, I raise my head again quickly, hoping that nobody saw me and I can pretend I am fully awake. Only to do the same thing again a few seconds later…

Eventually, I am taken out of my misery. We start our descent into Xi’an and the prospect of a proper bed makes me perk up a little.

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Arrival

Xi’an airport is fairly large and has currently three terminals. Terminal 3 is for international flight, Terminal 2 for domestic traffic, while Terminal 1 is the old airport and no longer in use.

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I have requested the hotel to send a car to pick me up. The terracotta warriors are not actually in Xi’an but in a place called Lintong. The journey from the airport to the hotel in Lintong will take you roughly 45 minutes in good traffic.