With my business here in Slovenia successfully completed, it’s time for me to head home. But of course, it would hardly be like me if I just got on a plane going directly back to Zürich. And so, instead my next stop will be Belgrade.
I enjoyed my stay in Ljubljana very much. It’s a small city, but it’s very well kept, and the scenery, with the mountains surrounding the city on all sides, is truly grand.
Getting to the Airport
My flight will be departing from Ljubljana at 10h05. So at 08h40 I exit the hotel and take a taxi to the airport. Being Saturday morning, the traffic is light and the journey only takes about 25 minutes to complete. The journey to the airport only costs EUR35, whereas the inbound journey is more expensive at EUR50.
Ljubljana’s terminal is a dinky little thing. I’m sure it must be one of the smallest terminals I’ve ever been through. Online check-in for the flight is not possible, so my first stop will have to be the Air Serbia counter. Which, incidentally, is located literally in the far corner of the terminal.
There are two counters for check-in, one for Economy and one for Business Class and Gold members of Etihad’s frequent flyer programme. Strangely enough though, both counters are occupied by one couple which has managed to spread out and has luggage littered all over the place.
But eventually I receive my boarding pass. For a moment my heart sinks as I take in the endless queue of passengers. But then I realise they’re not in fact queuing for security but for check-in for the Wizzair flight to Luton.
Once I’m through security, I head one floor up and then turn right. This is where the passport control takes place to exit the Schengen area. From there I head one floor down again on the other side to where the bus gates in the non-Schengen area are located.
Boarding starts on time, and it looks as though the flight today is not completely full. On the ATR-72 boarding is through the aft door of the aircraft. Row numbering starts at the front of the cabin, as usual. Which means that the priority seats are located at the rear of the aircraft, to be closer to the door.
I can’t say I like the bright blue colour of the seats much. Other than that though, I think the seat pitch is good and once seated, there is enough space.
I am seated on 3A, which is just slightly forward of the propeller. Unfortunately though, the view of the outside is not really good enough to take pictures because the outer glass has started to turn opaque.
There are two female cabin crew on this flight. The more senior one is very friendly, whereas the younger one has a somewhat surly expression and a general aura of really not wanting to be there…
Like Adria Airways, Air Serbia has a buy on board service on Economy Class. However, with Air Serbia this means that literally everything is buy on board and you don’t even get offered a cup of water. Furthermore, and I find this rather strange, despite the fact that there is a buy on board service, the crew do not pass through the cabin with a trolley and don’t make any announcements either. So if you want to make a purchase, you have to call the crew to order. All in all, I think Adria Airways’ approach to inflight sales is a lot more charming and also makes a lot more sense. I think if the crew announce that there is possibility to make a purchase and pass through the cabin, the likelihood of somebody actually buying something is greater than if you just have a menu in the seat pocket and assume that passengers will see it. Perhaps one of Air Serbia’s many issues is that the interests of the cabin crew are strangely at odds with those of the airline’s management…
We land after a flight time of seventy minutes. It’s obviously just been raining recently, because the runway is still damp. The ramp is busy with some exotic aircraft. Air Serbia’s only A 330 is being readied for another sortie to JFK, there are two A 320s of Etihad and Qatar Airways respectively, and there is an A 300 of Iran Air getting ready to depart.
As I’m only travelling with hand luggage, I’m out of the terminal in record time. To get into town I shall be taking the A1 airport bus. The fare is RSD300 or EUR3. If you pay in Euros, you will even be given change in Euros. The journey will take about twenty minutes and there is a stop by the old main railway station in the heart of the city and one further on in the centre of town.
It is time for me to start thinking about heading home. It has been and fun vacation, what with all the flying in the first week and the relaxing and interesting visits to Cambodia and Laos in the second week. My next stop on my way home will be Bangkok.
Getting to the Airport
Transport: Shuttle from the hotel. Journey time: The journey from the Amantaka to Luang Prabang’s new international terminal takes roughly twenty minutes.
Location: Ground floor, the departures level is in the east wing of the building, to the right. Facilities: Only airport check-in. Counters: There are two counters checking in the flight to Bangkok.
There is a bit of a queue for my counter, I assume it is because the agent checking passengers in appears to be in training. She takes her job seriously and even calls somewhere to make sure she is allowed to check me in for the flight with my passport. Her supervisor even comments and explains in an apologising tone that he has never seen a passport like mine, and inquires as to which continent Malta is on.
Bangkok Airways sees itself as a bit of a boutique airline that tries to make the whole travel experience as pleasant as possible for all passengers – even in Economy Class. Thus, at its homebase in Bangkok the carrier has a lounge that is accessible to all passengers flying with the airline. At outstations the carrier usually has its own dedicated kiosks where passengers can get something to drink or a small snack upon presenting their Bangkok Airways boarding pass. But in Luang Prabang this does not appear to be the case and I find the signage particularly entertaining, it reads ‘Lounge now not available’. Would it then not make more sense to just not advertise something that does not exist?
The aircraft arrives late from Bangkok, thus boarding starts with a delay of about fifty minutes. Boarding is strictly by rows and I am quite surprised by how strictly this is implemented by the ground staff. As I walk to the aircraft I take my time to snap as many pictures as I can of my aircraft.
Configuration: 2 + 2 Seat: 6A, window on the port side. Bangkok Airways operates the ATR-72 in an Economy Class only configuration with 70 seats. At 31 inches the pitch is the same, if not even better, than that on many European carriers. The seats are covered in material, which also marks a pleasant departure from those horrible faux leather seats that seem to be so popular with many airlines these days. Pitch: 31 inches. Width: 18 inches.
There are two cabin crew on today’s flight, one male and one female. The female is excellent and makes a very good and competent impression. The male however is, quite frankly, pretty useless. I am not sure if he just does not care or if maybe he may be still new to the job.
The doors close and the cabin crew come by distributing pre-packed refreshing towels (please excuse the hairy legs in the shot…).
Luang Prabang airport is surrounded by some pretty high mountains on all sides, which makes for a rather interesting departure to gain height. We take off on runway 23 in a south-westerly direction. We then do a right turn, which brings us back over the airfield heading in an easterly direction. Once we are passed the runway, we do a left turn in a south-westerly direction again, once more bringing us back over the airfield.
Choice: There is no choice, but it is possible to order special meals in advance. Delivery: Tray service. Type of meal: Lunch.
Mushroom, bell pepper and corn salad.
Noodles with broccoli, carrots and duck (served cold).
Mandarin flavoured sponge cake.
Much to my surprise, we are actually served a full meal and it is not even that bad either. The main dish comes with a plastic sachet with some spicy sauce which really is quite tasty. After the meal coffee and tea are available.
Eventually we start our descent, to land in Bangkok Suvarnabhumi at 14h55, only slightly behind schedule. We taxi to an open stand and from there we are bussed to the terminal.
The arrivals concourse is currently under renovation or reconstruction, so there is a lot of building going on. As my luck would have it, I end up queuing for a visa on arrival behind what looks like a whole aircraft load of Indians. It is quite simply chaos. The passengers, mostly men, seem to be travelling as a group and only a few have printed the PNR/e-ticket confirmation which you are obliged to show in order to get your visa on arrival… Eventually, after 45 minutes it is finally my turn and then I have finally arrived in Bangkok again.
Getting to the Hotel
Transport: Complimentary hotel shuttle bus. Departs from: Outside the arrivals concourse. As you exit immigration, follow the signs for the Novotel shuttle. Frequency: Every twenty minutes. Journey time: About eight minutes.
I never quite understood why they even offer the shuttle to the Novotel at Suvarnabhumi airport. Quite frankly, unless you are travelling with copious amounts of luggage, you are probably better off walking to the hotel. It is certainly quicker. To access the Novotel on foot, simply head two floors down from arrivals upon exiting immigration. Follow the signs to the railway station. Once you arrive at the station, just keep on walking straight ahead. Eventually you will reach an escalator that will bring you up to ground level right in front of the entrance to the hotel.
After returning from Banteay Srei, I spend the rest of my time by the pool enjoying my last day in Cambodia. Eventually, at 15h00 I make my way to reception to settle the bill and then it is time for me to move on.
Getting to the Airport
Transport: The gorgeous old Mercedes Benz again. Journey time: 20 minutes.
I leave the hotel just after three o’clock in the afternoon. It is hot outside. Even so, the streets of Siem Reap leading to the temple at Angkor Wat are bustling with vendors and tourists. I think that is what strikes me most about Cambodia: even now, economically the country is still struggling to get back on its feet after years of civil war. But even so, there is something very optimistic about the country and wherever you go, you will likely have some snotty nosed but enterprising kid running after you, badgering you to buy a set of postcards for one dollar. But what you do not see, are people begging.
Location: Ground floor, the entire airport is on one level only. Facilities: Only airport check-in. Counters: There are two counters checking in the Vietnam Airlines flight to Luang Prabang. Apparently, the flight continues to Hanoi.
The airport at Siem Reap is managed by a French company and is currently undergoing refurbishment and expansion. From the bits that have already been completed, I think the facility is going to look rather nice upon completion.
I admit that I am just a tad surprised to find a Vietnam Airlines SkyPriority sign at the airport. Quite frankly, the place is so small I would not have thought they would bother. But they did. The agent hands me my passport and boarding pass and gives me instructions for passport control and the lounge. Yes, apparently they have one…
Location: After security, once you have passed through the duty free area turn right. The lounge is where gate 6 would be. Type of Lounge: Contractor lounge operated by Cambodia Airport Authorities. Facilities: Small selection of warm and cold dishes, cold drinks, tea and coffee making facilities, workstations with computers. There are no toilets in the lounge. Internet: Not available.
Okay, I confess that I am surprised and just a tad impressed that a) there actually is a Business Class lounge here and b) that my Platinum status with Air France/KLM gives me access to the lounge even though I am flying on an Economy Class ticket.
The flight begins boarding at 16h30. I would say there are about fifty passengers on board. Once again, I take advantage of the fact that you have to walk across the apron to reach your aircraft and that the Cambodians see no problem in me happily taking pictures on the apron. Unfortunately, it is only once I board the plane that I notice I have been assigned an aisle seat next to some woman. So no pictures of our take-off. I wait until we are airborne and the fasten seatbelt sign is turned off before I move forward.
Configuration: 2 + 2. Seat: Originally on 16C, an aisle seat. After take-off moved to 7A, a window seat. Both on the port side of the aircraft. Pitch: I have no information about the pitch in inches or centimetres. But in any case, it is perfectly adequate and comfortable, even for a flight of two hours. Facilities: Air vent and reading lamp.
The aircraft is operated in an Economy Class only seating configuration. Some of these aircraft are operated by VASCO – the Vietnam Air Service Company – on behalf of Vietnam Airlines. Or the other way round. In any case, this aircraft is fully Vietnam Airlines branded.
There are definitely two cabin crew on this flight, one male and one female. Possibly there is also a third, but I am not quite sure about that. Interaction with the crew is zero. They seem okay, but that is all I can say about them.
Delivery: Box. Type of meal: Snack.
A sweet lime.
A tuna fish sandwich with vegetables.
A small bag of peanuts.
A glass of still water.
This is rather cool. I was kind of hoping there would be something to eat because I am hungry, but I was not sure what to expect on this flight. So I am pleasantly surprised to find that they are going to feed us. The meal is just right, I think. A small snack to tie me over until dinner. The tuna sandwich is tasty and certainly of a better quality than for example the sandwich I received on Air France on my flight from Zürich to Paris.
Just after 18h the captain comes on the loudspeaker to inform us about the flight’s progress. We will be starting our initial descent at about 18h15 for an expected arrival in Luang Prabgang at18h45, fifteen minutes ahead of schedule.
The approach into Luang Prabang is spectacular. The landscape is mountainous and we meander our way around quite a few high peaks before eventually we are lined up for the final approach.
The airport is more or less deserted when we arrive. There is just one A320 of Lao Airlines standing around, which does not look as though it recently arrived from anywhere. But perhaps that is not such a bad thing, because the new terminal is experiencing a power cut as we enter the immigration hall…
Citizens from Thailand and Switzerland do not require a visa to enter Laos. Most countries, including Malta, can obtain a visa on arrival. What you will need if you are eligible for a visa on arrival, is a passport size photo, a completed visa application form, which you can either get upon entering the terminal or which you can download from the internet, and an imbarcation card which should be distributed on the plane. You will also need USD31. I know the website tells you that you only need USD30 for the visa. However, what the website does not tell you, is that you also need to pay an extra USD1 to have your visa processed. Once the visa has been plastered in your passport, you move on to the next counter, where you pay the fees. Once that is done, you may queue to enter the country.
Getting into Town
Transport: Hotel shuttle. Journey time: 15 minutes.
In Luang Prabang I shall be staying at the Amantaka. Without me even requesting them to do so, they have sent somebody to come and pick me up right after immigration and drive me to the hotel.
Today I must leave this heavenly place and move on. I step outside onto the veranda and cannot help but wonder if this is what Adam and Eve must have felt like when they were informed that they had been evicted. At least I have enough time for one last swim in the pristine waters of Bora Bora before my flight departs back to Papeete at 12:30.
I should also like to point out that this is in fact the only backtracking flight I am making on this entire trip. Not to put too fine a point on it.
Getting to the Airport
Transport: boat Departs from: Pearl Beach Resort pontoon Frequency: when ever there is a flight leaving Journey time: 10 minutes Fare: ca. CHF15
The boat to the airport leaves at 11:30, one hour before the scheduled departure time. My initial thought is that this might be cutting it just a bit fine. Then I remember we are actually talking about a facility here with just one departure gate. So I think I will manage.
Location: on the right hand side of the souvenir shop Facilities: apparently web check-in is available Counters: there are three counters, two of which are open
I have some good news and I have some bad news. The bad news is that there is no premium lounge at all in this facility. The good news is – and personally I think this outweighs the lack of a lounge by far – is that there is no security check either! That is just brilliant, I have never experienced that in all my life. Yes, if you have done web check-in, you can walk straight from the boat pier to the departure gate and the aircraft beyond, a distance of about 500 metres.
Priority Boarding: available for families with children up to twelve years of age and passengers in need of assistance.
The little terminal is just about bursting at the seam; I figure it is going to be a full flight out of Bora Bora today. As on the outbound, the flight is free seating, which means I have to make a choice between getting aboard as soon as possible to get a window seat or to let everybody go ahead while I take some pictures of the aircraft flying me to Papeete today. Eventually I go with the latter.
I have seen this cabin before. Not on this trip. But I definitely recognise the pattern on the bulkhead. It only daws on me upon arrival in Papeete, as I exit the aircraft, that I have seen the same bulkhead pattern on a Vietnam Airlines ATR 72 on a flight from Con Dao to Hanoi. What I do not know, is if this mean the aircraft previously flew in Vietnam or if perhaps this is the standard ‘house’ design for the ATR 72 unless something else is specified by the operator.
There is not really very much to say about the crew, service is minimal but delivered with a smile. Other than that though, the flight is hardly long enough to enable any sort of interaction with the crew.
With a block time of fifty minutes, this sector is Air Tahiti’s equivalent of a long-haul flight. Consequently, this means that passengers are offered a free cup of pineapple juice. Other drinks and snacks, such as biscuits or crisps, are available to buy on board, at approximately CHF3.-.
The airport is pretty busy when we land. There is an Air Tahiti Nui A 340-300 receiving some TLC on the maintenance apron, and Air Tahiti’s sole ATR 42 is just about to move off stand as soon as we get out of the way.
It is only a short walk from the aircraft to the baggage reclaim belt and the suitcases start arriving shortly after. I grab my bag and head outside to catch a taxi to the hotel.
Getting into Town
Transport: taxi; M. if you are reading this, there really is no public transport to my hotel – honest Departs from: taxi bay just outside domestic arrivals Journey time: 10 minutes Fare: CHF15
In Papeete I shall be spending yet another night at the Intercontinental. It is quite amazing just how different everything looks in the daylight. I have a room on the second floor, facing the water. From here I have an excellent view of the Pacific Ocean and Moorea in the distance.
WHAT REMAINS… It only happens very rarely that I am lost for words, which is why I chose that quote of Pessoa’s for the beginning of this post. Bora Bora is amazingly beautiful. In fact it is so breathtakingly beautiful that already, it hardly seems real any more, even as I sit here in Papeete, barely 280 kilometres away. But perhaps that is just what makes places like Bora Bora so special. Their serene beauty offers distraction and the promise of solace…
I’m finally on my last three legs. Today I fly from Papeete to Bora Bora, which is in fact the reason why I am taking this whole trip in the first place. Flight VT241 takes one hour and forty five minutes to make the journey to Bora Bora, although the actual flying time is only fifty minutes. The flight stops in Moorea and Huahine on its way to Bora Bora.
Flying around Tahiti is a lot like taking the bus and very often, the air service is the only and most reliable connection to the main island of Tahiti and the international airport in Papeete. Flying here is also refreshingly easy and certainly not as complicated as it has become in Europe.
Location: ground floor, left side oft he building Facilities: self-service check-in kiosks
I arrive at the airport just before 11:30. I am way too early for my flight, which does not leave until 13:15. I drop my bag at check-in and then head for security. The airside area is pretty small, just like the rest of the airport. But there is a small café and there are toilets. There are three departure gates.
Boarding for the flight starts ten minutes before departure. It is free seating on this flight. I enter the cabin just behind a family with three small children. Originally my plan had been to grab a seat near the back, to get an unobstructed view along the journey. But the flight attendant has other plans. She needs an able bodied person at the emergency exit so she instructs me to take a seat on the first row. Initially I’m a bit reluctant, but there does seem to be more space on the bulkhead row.
The cabin is generally in good condition, with nice blue leather seats. The headrest covers all have different colours, which makes the cabin look nice and colourful.
There are two females working the cabin on this flight. They seem very friendly and chatty.
Food and drink are only available on the ‘long’ sector from Moorea to Huahine. It is buy on board and there are no warm drinks, which is a bit unfortunate really because it gets quite cold in the cabin once we are airborne. Eventually I order a tin of Pringles crisps for XFP300.
Given that the runways are all relatively short, the take-offs and landings are rather ‘interesting’. But apart from that the flights are all rather uneventful, so I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves.
First Sector: Papeete to Moorea – flight time 10 minutes, turn around 10 minutes
Second Sector: Moorea to Huahine – flight time 25 minutes, turn around time 15 minutes
Third Sector: Huahine to Bora Bora – flight time 15 minutes
Bora Bora airport is built on an outlying island of Bora Bora. Baggage delivery takes place outside, there are large metal racks onto which the suitcases are placed for you collect. From there, the transfer inevitably is by boat.
In Bora Bora I’m staying at the Pearl Beach Resort, which is about 10 minutes by boat from the airport. A representative from the hotel is available on arrival at the airport to assist you to make the transfer to the hotel.
I greatly enjoyed these three flights with Air Tahiti. It was fun to experience flying as it should be, pleasant and hassle free. It was also nice to get to see a bit of the islands from above; they really are quite beautiful.
Exactly one week after my return from Asia I’m off again. I have a meeting with the ICAO regional office in Paris, so at least it’s just a short trip this time.
Getting to the Airport
Transport: BVB bus line 50 Departs from: Basel SBB railway station, by the main exit Frequency: Every 8 to 10 minutes Journey time: 16 minutes Fare: CHF4.20, one-way
It’s a lovely day for flying today, and it’s quite warm too. I’ve arranged to meet my colleague at 14h00 by the meeting point of the main railway station as he’ll be arriving from Zürich. Just in case you’re wondering, there are flights from Zürich to Paris, but they only go to Roissy, which is much further out of town, while we’re heading for Orly today. Secondly, my colleague has never been on a turboprop and simply wanted to give one a try. In any case, we make a brief detour to the Confiserie Bachmann for me to pick up a chocolate bun. And then from there we catch the bus line 50 to the airport.
Location: Departures level on the first floor, French side Facilities: Self-service check-in machines and baggage drop counters Counters: Dedicated Air France counters
Once we are inside the terminal we cross into the French side, which is where the Air France check-in counters are located. The flight from Basel to Paris Orly can be booked as an international service from Basel to Paris or as a domestic service from Mulhouse to Paris. Obviously the latter will only cost you a fraction of the price of the international service. Strangely enough, if you look up the flight on the Air France website, you will find that, according to the timetable, the departure from the Swiss side is two minutes earlier than the departure from Mulhouse. We arrive at the baggage drop counter. While we’re there, we ask if it might be possible to sit together. When I checked in using the KLM app the evening before, I was automatically placed on 3A, while my colleague was relegated to the last row of the aircraft on 16D. Apparently passengers with status are automatically assigned seats in the front of the plane at the time of booking, even though the website does not in fact allow you to select seats on flights operated by HOP. Grudgingly the check-in agent agrees to move my colleague forward to the seat next to me. Not however, before insisting that she’s only doing this exceptionally and only because of my status. How very gracious, Ma’am. Later on when we board the plane, it turns out the flight is only half full anyway, so we could in fact have sat anywhere and I don’t quite understand what all the fuss is.
Air France does not have a lounge in Basel. And we’ve still got over an hour before the flight departs. So we decide to take advantage of the nice weather and visit the open air viewing gallery on the fourth floor until eventually our flight is called for boarding.
No priority boarding for Skyteam Elite members on domestic flights by the looks of it.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just thick but I just don’t get it. Apparently we’re booked on a HOP flight. But so far this looks and feels a lot like the usual Air France. Check-in is done by Air France, the gate is manned by Air France staff and the aircraft standing at the gate has the full old Air France livery. It’s cool though to have the opportunity to walk across the apron and board the aircraft the old fashioned way.
Configuration: 2 + 2 Seat: Standard economy seat Facilities: None Audio and Video: Nil
The cabin on this bird is starting to look a bit tired, but at least it seems well maintained. There aren’t that many status card holders on today’s flight. The first five rows are empty, save for row three which is occupied by my colleague and me. The rest of the passengers are sitting clustered together further down the back of the bus.
The cabin crew are very strict about the use of electronic devices during take-off and landing. So the only pictures I have of our departure are during the climb out. I kind of like the droopy effect of the prop blades.
There are two male flight attendants working the flight. I’m not really quite sure if one is more senior than the other as both of them have no stripes on their uniform. Both the crew also demonstrate the same apparent lack of interest in their customers – the passengers. But somehow, this being Air France I’m not even surprised by that. Before departure cold towels are passed around which have a rather overpowering odour.
A selection of hot and cold drinks (I have a coffee and a still water)
A choice between sweet biscuits or some strange looking salty snacks with dried sage (I decline)
The meal is nothing special for sure. However, given that HOP was conceived as a kind of low-cost carrier, one really can’t complain. The complete lack of warmth, personality or friendliness by crew on the other hand, makes any Ryanair crew seem positively gushing with enthusiasm. The meal ends with one of the flight attendants passing through the cabin with a brown paper bag for passengers to throw their rubbish in. I mean, at least they could have had the decency to use a rubbish trolley like every other self-respecting airline.
The flying time to Paris is just over one hour, which is good as the seats really aren’t that comfortable. The crew distribute sweets before the landing. There is a slight delay for our arrival once we land, because the marshaller takes a while to arrive to wave us onto the stand. Domestic flights arrive and depart at Orly West.
Getting into Town
Transport: Orlyval to Anthony, then the RER line B to the city Departs from: Departures level of Orly West Frequency: Every few minutes Journey time: 6 minutes from Orly to Anthony on the Orlyval, then ca. 25 minutes on the RER B to the city centre Fare: EUR9.- from Orly to Anthony, EUR3.50 from Anthony to the city centre
ICAO’s Paris office is located in Neuilly, roughly half-way between the Arc de Triomphe at Etoile and the new arch at La Défense. I’m staying at the hotel Foch, which is a very nice and small hotel near the Palais des Congrès at Porte Maillot and Etoile metro stations. To get there I have to take the Orlyval to Anthony, change to the RER B to Châtelet and then from there take the metro to Neuilly – Porte Maillot.
Don’t worry, I’m not doing a full report on the return. After all, a flight with HOP is hardly that exciting. But I still want to share with you the experience of checking in at Orly West, and how my colleague singlehandedly managed to destroy one of the automatic check-in machines with only very little help from me. It’s all rather complicated. In fact you cannot help but feel that somebody really must have put a lot of effort into making things just that little bit extra complicated to spice things up. We arrive at Orly West for the return flight and check our flight on the FIDS, which shows up as checking in at sector D. That’s all it says. The only problem is though, that there is a Hall 1, 2, 3 and 4 in Orly West. And each Hall has a check-in sector A, B, C and D. Which effectually means that there’s no means of guessing where to go unless you ask one of the friendly staff at the information desk.
So we finally find our check-in sector. I scan my boarding pass and out comes the baggage tag for my colleague’s suitcase. We figure like that it will get a priority label and might arrive as one of the first bags in Basel. My colleague then proceeds to one of the many baggage drop facilities and places the suitcase inside. He scans his boarding pass and then the door closes. And then the alarm sounds, the machine starts blinking in shades of green and yellow and slowly we begin to wonder if he will ever see his suitcase again. And then an Air France ground hostess arrives. Oh dear! She looks like she might be la présidente of the French general worker’s union. She also looks like my colleague is the only thing standing in the way of what she probably thinks is her well-deserved break. So she stands there looking at the machine, seemingly clueless about what to do next. Her mood does not improve any as she realises that we’re finding all of this rather funny. Eventually we manage to explain to her that the alarm probably went off because there was a mismatch between the name on the baggage tag and the name on the boarding pass that was scanned at the baggage drop. Well at least now she knows what went wrong, but she’s still not a happy bunny. Eventually some guy working for Aéroports de Paris arrives and finally manages to free the poor, frightened little suitcase from captivity.
And then the baggage drop process is repeated, this time however using my boarding pass. And off the little suitcase goes on its big journey home. And so do I. I now have the rare privilege of spending a whopping three weeks in a row at home before my next journey. I’m going to enjoy this. Oh yes, and just in case you were wondering: no, HOP! by Air France did not really impress me.
Uhm…this was a poster in the metro station. What can I say? I’m a fan!
This is a review of a trip I took in December of 2011. In the meantime a lot has been happening at Blue 1. The beginning of 2012 looked rather bleak for this Finnish SAS subsidiary, with the airline basically withdrawing from all its international services outside Scandinavia. In the meantime though, things have started to look up, at least slightly. With the financial situation at SAS continuing to deteriorate, it may well be that Blue 1 will end up taking over at least the entire European operation of the SAS group.
Date: 27 December 2011 From: Copenhagen To: Helsinki Airline: Blue1 Aircraft: B 717 Seat: 1F CabinClass: Economy Extra
Copenhagen airport is very busy when I arrive, judging by the queues it looks as though all of Denmark has elected to travel by air on this early morning!
Fortunately I checked in online the previous day, so I won’t have to join the not so fun looking queue down there.
In Copenhagen SAS has a dedicated Fast Track for passengers in Business Class on SAS or with Eurobonus gold status. Fortunately Economy Extra passengers on Blue1 may also avail themselves of the fast track.
There are two exits from the Fast Track security area, one leads you into a duty free shop while the other drops you off right outside the SAS lounges.
The SAS Gold Lounge
There are two lounges in one facility in Copenhagen. The SAS lounge for Business Class passengers is located on the ground floor, while the upper floor is the Scandinavia lounge for all Star Gold passengers. The lounge is rather peaceful. Not really quite sure what to expect in terms of catering on Blue 1, I decide to have breakfast in the lounge.
Eventually I head to the departure gate to catch a first glimpse of my ride to Helsinki. Et voilà!
My first impression of the cabin is good, although the carpets look rather worn and filthy. Of the three flights on a Bue1 B 717 I take on this trip, none were identical from the inside. This aircraft has a bulkhead covered in blue leather and is equipped with two lavatories in the rear of the cabin.
We take off into a murky looking Copenhagen sky, very soon though we are through the clouds and in lovely subdued sunshine.
Service already starts on the ground with a round of water or orange juice. There are eight rows of Economy Extra for only five passengers in this cabin, which makes for a very pleasant and quiet flight.
Once we we are airborne, breakfast is served, which comes with nice warm bread. The crew do a number of coffee and juice rounds throughout the flight. One thing that strikes me is that everything on this aircraft is SAS branded, from the seat covers to the salt and pepper sachets. So why not just call it SAS Finland?
The meal is tasty and certainly more than I expected. It hits the spot just nicely.
Soon we start our descent, which is a very bumpy affair, making it really hard to take any decent pictures.
Transfer in Helsinki
Upon arrival I head for the SAS lounge, which is right opposite my gate for the connection to Oulu. The lounge is nice and rather well stocked.
The weather is starting to clear up – I think.
Date: 27 December 2011 From: Helsinki To: Oulu Airline: Blue1 Operated by: Golden Air Aircraft: ATR 72 Seat: 18A Cabin Class: Economy Extra
Boarding for this flight is from a remote stand, so we are bussed to our aircraft, which is parked in a part of the airport that really does justice to the term ‘remote stand’.
The load on this flight is close to 100%. There are two rows of Economy Extra. As the ATR has the entry door at the rear, the premium section is also located in the rear section of the cabin. So I take my time and wait for everybody else to get on board.
Seating is rather tight, but quite okay for such a short flight. The cabin is clean and welcoming.
On this flight lunch is served, consisting of a chicken breast with some sort of pasta salad and chutney. Every tray comes with a bottle of wine on it (in a plastic bottle, I decided not to try it…). The food, as all the meals I have on Blue1 actually, is quite tasty. The chicken is succulent and not at all dry.
Landing in Oulu is pretty rough and there seems to be a blizzard passing through the area as we start our approach. Still the sturdy ATR 72 marches on persistently, seemingly unperturbed by the rough flying conditions. My greatest respect to the cockpit crew’s airmanship skills! As we slow down, there is a strong crosswind component sweeping snow across the airfield and the runway. The snow clearing squad is evidently having a hard time keeping the apron and runway clear of snow.
I have finally arrived in Oulu and clocked the B 717, Blue1 and Golden Air. It’s also so cold that I’m freezing my nuts off by the time I reach the hotel!
I like Blue 1. They’re a nice little airline and the service they provide on the four flights I have with them is consistently very good. I have nothing to complain about. But please, someone give those carpets a good scrub!
The four blissful days I spend at the Six Senses Resort in Con Dao are just so relaxing. In essence, I spend my time sleeping, swimming, reading and eating. Even so, I must say I’m also glad to be leaving again. I think another day of doing absolutely nothing at all and I might slowly start to get bored. Apart from that, I am more of a city person, so I’m looking forward to exploring Hanoi.
This trip review covers two sectors: first, the flight from Con Dao to Saigon in Economy Class, followed by the flight from Saigon to Hanoi in Business Class.
Date: 8 September 2012 Airline: Vietnam Airlines, on behalf of VASCO Aircraft: ATR-72 From: Con Dao To: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) Cabin: Economy Seat: 3G
Getting to the Airport
There is only one road on Con Dao island, which runs from the airport to the harbour. The term ‘road’ should be used in the most liberal sense here so as not to insult the sensitivities of the local population… The road in in fact a path covered with gravel and littered with heaps of cow shit. The perpetrators are usually not far off and to be found standing either on the road itself, seemingly oblivious to the traffic (such as it were), or by the roadside. Towards the airport the cow shit subsides and makes way for the proverbial sleeping dogs, lazily waging their tails in the heat of the midday sun.
I am driven to the airport by the hotel’s very own shuttle service. The trip from the hotel takes about 15 minutes. On our way there, we drive along the cost, which looks beautiful today with the waves breaking against the coral reef.
As soon as we arrive, one of the concierge’s sidekicks ushers me to a seat, takes my passport and heads over to the only one of the five check-in counters that’s open. The place is empty when I arrive, so the check-in process is quickly done.
I’m not usually one for collecting boarding passes, but I think this one I’ll keep, a boarding pass of VASCO printed on an ancient matrix printer.
About 45 minutes before departure, my ride arrives on the inbound from Ho Chi Minh City. The line for security does not open until the aircraft has landed and stopped in front of the terminal. There are two departure gates.
The gate is at ground level and there are a few large windows open to let in the breeze and also allow for some good photo opportunities of the admittedly rather quiet airfield.
At exactly 12h00, as stated on my boarding pass, boarding begins. Con Dao airport is a gem in that you get to walk across the apron to your aircraft. What’s more, none of the officials seem to mind the picture taking. At all airports I make a point of asking if I may take pictures. But Con Dao is the only place I’ve been to so far, where the official offers to take a picture of me in front of my plane!
This aircraft carries the full livery of Vietnam Airlines. I step inside to find the cabin is also Vietnam Airlines branded. Unlike the aircraft I flew down to Con Dao with, this one looks very neat and prim and I wonder just how long it’s been in service. Can’t be long by the looks of it. This bird has leather seats in the Vietnam Airlines colours and also the head covers carry their logo.
Originally I’m on 9B, an aisle seat. But fortunately, the flight is not entirely full and as the engines power up, I quickly move forward to grab a window seat on 3G. We backtrack down the runway and do a 180 degree turn at the end, with some nice views of the beach. We already have our clearance, so once we’re lined up with the runway, the props immediately spool up and we go hurtling down the runway. Right after take-off we do a sharp right turn to point us in the direction of the mainland and Ho Chi Minh City.
There are two cabin crew on board this bird, a young woman and a young man. Both of them are very friendly and helpful which, on second thought, I think I can say about all the Vietnamese I met on this trip. Both of them look very serious, but as soon as you interact with them they break out into a beaming smile.
As the seat belt sign goes off, we are given a lovely jasmine scented, prepacked refreshing towel. This is followed by a bottle of VASCO branded still water.
The flight is only 40 minutes. About 15 minutes into the flight the lovely shades of azure of the sea beneath turn a muddy brown as we approach the Mekong delta. A short while later, we make landfall and immediately start our descent into Ho Chi Minh airport.
Upon arrival, we taxi all the way back, past the domestic and international terminals, towards the threshold of the runway we just landed on. Space is scarce at Ho Chi Minh airport, so we park on a kind of mini apron which is capable of holding three aircraft the size of an ATR.
Transfer in Saigon
We are then bussed to the domestic terminal. In the arrivals hall I make my way to the Vietnam Airlines counter, where I receive my boarding pass for the onward flight, as well as an invitation to the Business Class lounge.
From there I go landside again, turn right and walk over to departures hall from where I left for Con Dao earlier in the week. From there I head upstairs for security and I am airside again.
Date: 8. September 2012 Airline: Vietnam Airlines Aircraft: A321 From: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) To: Hanoi Cabin: Business Class Seat: 3G
There are two Business Class lounges in the domestic terminal and both are operated by SASCO, the airport authority. One lounge is located near gate 1. It has great views of the domestic apron but it’s also the smoker’s lounge and I don’t much fancy that. So I head for the other lounge near gate 12, from where my flight will be departing. This lounge has no views, but it has wifi instead and there are no smokers in sight. The food options in the lounge are interesting. I help myself to a plate of chips but I only find out once I sit down that they’re stone cold!
Boarding starts on time, incidentally from the same bus gate I boarded to fly to Con Dao. There is a separate lane for Business Class passengers, and when I arrive at the bottom of the stairs I am pleasantly surprised to find there is also a separate bus for Business Class and premium passengers.
In due course, we are bussed to our aircraft, an Airbus A321 registered VN-A348. I take my time and let the others board ahead of me, which gives me an opportunity to take pictures of the gorgeous Vietnam Airlines livery.
An old Vietnam Airlines Tu-134 and a Lusinov L-2 next to it. Not very likely every to fly again.
I salute Vietnam Airlines for redefining the term ‘tight squeeze’!
Vietnam Airlines has a dedicated Business Class cabin on its A321 fleet. Interestingly though, there is only a standard curtain cabin divider between Economy and Business Class. The seat looks positively enormous and wide and is very comfy. I settle into my seat and wait for the service to begin.
One of the flights attendant comes through the cabin with scented cold towels, which are very welcome given that it’s 33 degrees outside and humid. Behind her, the lead flight attendant has a tray with orange or apple juice. I choose the apple juice.
And then we have a Problem
I barely have the time to finish my drink when captain Costas (surprising name for a Vietnamese…) comes on the blower to inform us that our plane will not be going anywhere because of pressurisation ‘issues’. He informs us that we will all have to deplane, return to the terminal and wait until a replacement aircraft becomes available. For a moment I suspect that this is where my holiday starts to go pear shaped.
The buses are already waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs, the smaller one for the premium passengers and two larger busses for everybody else. Inside the terminal, the Vietnam Airlines ground staff are already expecting us and hand out transit passes as we enter the building.
I return to the lounge and wait for further news. Originally, my flight should have left at 16h00. When I check the departure screens at around 16h30 to see if there’s any news, I notice that there are two other flights to Hanoi leaving soon. One is at 16h50 and the other at 17h30. So I make my way to the counter and ask the friendly young lady if perhaps it might be possible to rebook to one of those flights. To which she gives me a surprised look and informs me that actually my delayed flights has started boarding again from its original gate and will now also be leaving at 16h50.
So I return to gate 12, where indeed the flight is boarding. So we do the whole process again. I’m actually getting quite good at it in the meantime, only this time the bus heads to another corner of the airfield and indeed to another aircraft, VN-A345.
… or maybe not
Much to my surprise and pleasure, this aircraft looks and feels much newer. Apart from the fact that it has newer, nicer looking and even more comfortable seats up front, I am amazed by how clear the view is through the window. No greasy spots where some uncouth slob decided to lean his greasy bonce against the window and have a nap, no kiddie paw smudges and not a single scratch. Just my luck really, because by the time we reach Hanoi it will already be too dark anyway.
Eventually, we depart at 17h15, nearly two hours behind schedule. As we taxi out for take-off, we pass VN-A348, which has since been moved to the maintenance apron and is being taken care of by a bunch of engineers.
Once it becomes clear that the new plane is ready to fly, we get another towel and drinks round, although this time it’s only still water. In their announcements the crew welcome us aboard and repeatedly apologise profusely for the delay.
We take off in a southerly direction and subsequently do a wide right turn to point us north. This departure route brings us round to pass over the airport.
Once we’re airborne and the seat belt sign is switched off, the service begins. There is a choice of beef in some kind of pastry, dim sum or some Asian beef dish. I go with the dim sum of course and a soda water with that. Vietnam Airlines have this interesting system. Once you make your choice, the cabin crew will put a sticker on your seat which matches the tinfoil on your meal. Like this they can see at a glance what you’ve ordered, which I find rather nifty actually.
First, the table is set with a yellow tablecloth at the centre of which is the lotus blossom that is the Vietnam Airlines logo. When the tray arrives, it contains, apart from the dim sum, a salad with an Australian brand of dressing, a fruit salad, butter and additional chilli sauce. I’m not sure what this is for because the red stuff in the tinfoil served with the hotmeal is already quite sufficient to blow the top of your head off. There is also warm bread on offer and I choose the lovely garlic bread.
After a coffee round, my tray is collected again. Throughout the flight the crew does a number of drink runs. I’m quite impressed.
At some point, captain Costas, who initially I thought sounded Spanish but is now sounding increasingly Greek, comes on the blower. I figure this must be the ‘we’re about to start our descent’ speech. But instead, he informs us that we still have more than an hour to fly. Because of thunderstorms en route we’re having to circumnavigate. Rather than flying a straight line, our route takes us from Ho Chi Minh City in a northeasterly direction towards Da Nang and then from there we do a left turn towards Hanoi.
Eventually, we land in Hanoi at 19h25, with more than two hours delay. The hotel has sent a car to pick me up. The journey to the centre of Hanoi takes about 50 minutes to complete by car. The pick up is a BMW 7. Once I get in, the driver shows me the drinks menu and asks me what I’m having. There are also refreshing towels and a few macaroons sent as a welcome gift by the hotel’s pâtissier. Something tells me I’m going to enjoy my stay…
Despite the delay, or perhaps I should say precisely because of the delay, I had a very good experience with Vietnam Airlines. I am particularly impressed with the way they handled the irregularity of our aircraft going tech. I think they put a lot of effort into minimising the inconvenience for the passengers as far as possible. Throughout the process they were very apologetic but also very professional. So thumbs up for that! I would certainly have no problem at all flying Vietnam Airlines again. And I am rather curious about what their long-haul product is like…
So about Hanoi… Personally, I love the place and the people, both of which draw you in with their openness and charm. While Saigon is the economic powerhouse of Vietnam, Hanoi is far more laid back in the way that only a capital city can be that knows it has nothing to prove to anybody because it is, after all, the capital city.
With its horrific traffic, busy crowds and French boulangeries Hanoi leaves you confused, dazed and gagging for more. I am still trying to figure out why. There are certainly prettier and more spectacular cities around Asia. But I think that is precisely it: unlike ambitious Kuala Lumpur, chaotic Bangkok and sterile Singapore, Hanoi and her people are surprisingly untypically Asian. The obvious conclusion to draw from that might be to assume that the city has managed to retain some of its heritage as part of the French colonial territory of Indochine. But that would be to do the city an injustice, for it has its very own distinct style. So I think I’ll just leave it at that and simply say that Hanoi is unlike any other Asian city I have visited so far. And I like that!
VASCO is an acronym for ‘Vietnam Air Services Company’. This trip review covers my journey from Saigon to the to the beautiful island of Con Dao, which belongs to Vietnam and lies due south of the mainland, a short flight of 45 minutes away from the capital.
Date: 4 September 2012 Airline: VASCO on behalf of Vietnam Airlines Aircraft: ATR-72 From: Ho Chin Minh City To: Con Dao Cabin: Economy Class Seat: 1D
Getting to the Airport
Vietnam is a fascinating and beautiful country. Even Saigon has a certain charm about it, although it may not exactly be what you’d call beautiful. The city still retains many traces of its colonial past as part of French Indochine, most noticeably the cathedral of Notre Dame in the centre of town, which was built by French craftsmen using bricks that were brought all the way from Marseille in France.
So far, I was always under the impression that Beijing has the worst traffic I’ve ever seen, mainly due to the fact that most Chinese drivers seem to have a very developed death wish and simply drive like maniacs. That was until I came to Vietnam…
It’s not that there’s a lot of congestion, and you certainly can’t say they drive too fast. They couldn’t even if they tried probably. The thing is, the cities are crawling with Vespas. The Vespa is the most popular mode of transport within the cities and it’s not unusual to see as many as four or five persons on a Vespa, driving through the narrow streets of Saigon just like thousands of other drivers.
From what I gather, the strategy when driving in Vietnam is just to never stop, no matter what’s coming your way. Instead, slow down and start honking like something crazy.
Fortunately, I had the pleasure of being driven to the airport in the hotel shuttle, which I suppose is quite a derrogative term for something with a Mercedes star on the bonnet. The journey to the airport from the hotel takes about 45 minutes, mainly due to the traffic. The airport is very close to the city.
I arrive at the domestic terminal, which looks like it’s quite an old facility from its architecture. Apart from that though, it’s clean and seemingly well equipped. I find my row for check-in and am processed by a friendly young lady. Initially, she places me on 14A. Just as I turn to leave though, she calls me back and asks me if perhaps I would prefer the exit row ‘because you have long leg’. I have two actually and I agree that by Vietnamese standards I probably am rather tall. So she issues me a new boarding pass for 1D, a window seat.
The Vietnam Airlines Business Class Lounge
From check-in I head one floor up to the departure lounge. Security is a very relaxed affair, you don’t have to remove your liquids or your laptop, which makes the whole process much easier. There is a Business Class lounge, but the young lady tells me that my Air France Platinum card is only valid in the international lounges if travelling on an Economy Class ticket. So instead, I have a look around the airside shopping area, which is certainly different from the retail selection at other airports. Anyone for some frozen snake perhaps?
Boarding is called on time. Literally. I don’t know if the PA was kaput or what but the gate agent starts yelling something in Vietnamese – the only bit I understand is Con Dao – at which the other passengers at the gate stand up and go through the gate. So I follow suit. I head down the stairs to the waiting bus.
All in all, I count 40 passengers on this flight. The bus driver demonstrates the same driving style on the apron as his compatriots on the public roads.
The cabin of this bird looks very well used and the headrest covers look as though they’ve been ironed to death.
From what I can observe, the inner one of the two parallel runways is used for departures at Saigon, while the outer one is used for arrivals. Take-off is quite sprightly for this little turboprop. As announced by the pilot, we hit quite a bit of turbulence as soon as we get airborne.
The cabin crew consists of two young Vietnamese ladies, both of which are friendly and welcoming.
Service on this short flight consists of a bottle of VASCO branded still water and a jasmine scented prepacked towel.
By this time we’ve left the mainland behind us, rather abruptly the muddy brown waters of the Mekong Delta give way to the clearer waters of the open sea.
The approach into Con Dao is quite spectacular. Think St. Maarten in miniature. Most of the approach is over water, then we fly over the beach at a very low altitude before eventually touching down.
As the icing on the cake, I disembark and walk across the small apron to the terminal building.
The driver taking me to my hotel is already expecting me. For the next four days I am going to do exactly nothing at all, except sit in or by my own pool. What bliss!
Domestic flying in Vietnam is a lot like taking a bus. And from what I can tell, that’s how VASCO understands its mission. No more, no less. Can’t really argue with that!
My hotel in Con Dao is the Six Senses and I am even fortunate enough to get an upgrade to one of their beach villas. Although in actual fact it’s a bit of an overkill, the villa is spread out across three bungalows and can sleep six! Still, the large pool is certainly cool.