Air Baltic, Economy Class- Boeing B 737-500: Zürich to Riga

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Date: 14. January 2017.
Departure: 14:20.
Arrival: 17:30.
Flight time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
Seat: 10C, aisle on the emergency exit row.

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INTRODUCTION
For a very long time it looked as though the Bombardier CSeries might never fly. The development of the aircraft was marred by a series of technical problems with the power plant which eventually lead to a financial crisis that had the manufacturer Bombardier taking a serious nose dive. But all’s well that ends well as they say, and this rather elegant looking aircraft is finally being rolled out with airlines across Europe. Swiss International Air Lines was the launch customer for the type in the standard dash 100 version, while Air Baltic was the launch customer for the larger dash 300 version. On Sunday 15 January 2015 the aircraft is scheduled to operate the service from Riga to Zürich. Having just submitted my term paper and with nothing much else to do, I decide to fly to Riga on Saturday to be able to make the journey back to Zürich on the new shiny bird the next day.

The flight to Riga is operated by a Boeing B 737-500 which first flew in 1999 and spent the first years of its life flying for Air France.

GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
Transport:
Train.
Journey time:
1 hour 14 minutes, changing trains at Zürich main station.
Departs from:
Basel Swiss station (Basel SBB).
Arrives:
Zürich Flughafen.

It is snowing heavily in Basel as I make my way from my flat, across the square to the station. My train is just pulling in as I come down the escalators onto the platform. Considering how few people are travelling, it is quite surprising just how long the train is.

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The view outside is lovely. There is snow everywhere and everything is looking bright, despite the lack of sunshine.

CHECK-IN
Terminal: Check-in 2.
Row: 3.
Counters: Swissport common purpose counters.
Number of counters:
There is one Business Class counter, one baggage drop-off counter and two Economy Class counters.
Web check-in:
Check-in is available on the Air Baltic website and works very well. There is no app but if you have Passbook on your mobile, you can have the boarding pass sent to you by mail and can then download it onto your phone.
Self-service check-in at the airport:
Not available.
Apparently it is possible to collect miles in Etihad’s frequent flyer programme when travelling on Air Baltic. However, you will have to contact a check-in counter to have the number of your card added to the booking. If you check-in on the Air Baltic website you can only insert a number with their own frequent flyer programme.

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LOUNGE
This is one of those rare occasions when I am travelling without access to a lounge. But never mind. Inspired by a recommendation made to me by my friend and gourmet at large, the wiry R., I park myself at the Sprüngli café right after the duty free shop on the upper level and treat myself to a cup of hot chocolate and a truffe du jour. The hot chocolate is excellent and is served with shavings of dark chocolate on top. Lovely!

BOARDING
It is just gone 13h30 when I see my aircraft turning the corner of the A dock. The flight will be boarding from gate A65, which is the first gate on the A dock and gives me some great photo opportunities.

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Boarding starts with a slight delay at 13h50, which is hardly a problem given that the load on today’s flight is very low and probably not even quite 50%.

CABIN & SEAT
Configuration:
3 + 3.
Pitch: -.
Width: -.
AC Power:
Not available.
Audio and Video: Not available.
Connectivity: Not available.
The first impression of the cabin is good. Everything looks clean and tidy and the aircraft seems well maintained. There are still a few traces here and there of the aircraft’s previous owner, for example the ‘secours’ sign above the emergency exit.

The pitch on the emergency exit is good. On this particular aircraft (YL-BBD) the emergency exit is on row 10 and seating is row is only available at a charge unless the aircraft is full. The A and F seats on row 10, which are the window seats, have very good legroom because there is no window seat on 9A and F, so if you are seated on one of these seats, you can really spread out. I am on 10C, the aisle seat, and the legroom here is also very good.

The seat is the typical slimline Recaro seat that has become so typical for many of the European carriers. Storage space in the seat back is fairly limited, because the seat is lacking a net on the lower half of the seat back.

 SERVICE & CREW
There are three cabin crew on the flight. All three of them are friendly young ladies and I suspect the way they look may have been an important factor during the recruiting process…

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THE MEAL
Towel before the meal:
A cold and pre-packed scented towel is provided on the tray.
Choice:
There is a huge selection of dishes to choose from and combine on the Air Baltic website.
Delivery:
Tray service.
Type of meal:
Lunch.
First course:
Spicy salad with peppers, carrot, cucumber and dill.
Main course:
Chicken breast with roast potatoes and vegetables.
Dessert:
Chocolate truffe cake.
Beverages:
Still water.
Bread:
A slice of some dark bread with a tasty and strong flavour of spices, served with butter.
Air Baltic gives you the opportunity to pre order your meal before the flight. The selection of available dishes is really quite impressive and you can combine main courses with desserts and starters as you please. The standard hot meal will cost you EUR15 for the tray, including bread, a starter, dessert and a drink. If you do not order the meal at the time of booking, you can still do so when checking in online.

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As far as I am concerned, I think the meal offers good value for money. The food is tasty, the portions are good and the price is quite reasonable and certainly cheaper than dining at one of the expensive airport eateries.

ARRIVAL
The flight is very smooth and the atmosphere in the cabin feels very cosy and laid back. Of course it helps that the flight is nearly empty. Eventually we start our descent into Riga. As we come out of the clouds I can see thick layers of snow on the ground. It is also a bit misty.

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After landing we taxi to the non-Schengen dock and then from there we are bussed to the Schengen part of the facility. The terminal in Riga is really quite small and does not really seem sufficiently large for the amount of traffic it handles.

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GETTING INTO TOWN
Transport:
Bus.
Journey time:
20 minutes.
Departs from:
Arrivals level, just follow the signs.
Arrives:
Riga main railway station.
Cost:
EUR1.15 if you buy at the ticket vending machine or EUR2 if you pay the driver.
Ticket purchase:
If you are willing to pay the higher price, you can pay the driver. Keep in mind though that not all bus stops actually have a ticket machine. However, if there is a kiosk nearby you can usually purchase your tickets there.

Air Baltic, Business Class – Boeing B 737-500: Riga to Zürich

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INTRODUCTION
So here we are. This is it: my last flight of 2015 will be from Riga back to Zürich. From what little I manage to see this morning, I rather like Riga. It is very modern and looks like a perfect symbiosis of Vilnius and Tallinn.

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GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
Transport:
Bus.
Fare: EUR2.- if you pay on the bus or EUR1.15 if you purchase the ticket in advance at a kiosk.
Journey time: There are two busses that serve the airport, the minibus line 222 and the normal bus line 22. The difference between the two being that the minibus does not serve all stops on the route and once it is full, it will just keep going. Thus, the journey time is between 20 and 30 minutes depending on which bus you take.
Frequency: Both bus lines run more or less every 20 minutes.
Departs from: You can pick up both busses from the stop near the main railway station. The bus stop goes by the name of 13 January.
Arrives at: Riga airport departures.

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CHECK-IN
Location:
Departures concourse on the first floor, counters 8 – 17.
Facilities: Web Check-in with passbook, self-service check-in machines and counter check-in.
Fast track: Dedicated Business Class counters and fast track for security.

Thank god for the fast track! As I enter the terminal building, there is a very long queue for security which reaches all the way back to the check-in counters. But fortunately, Business Class passengers can bypass the queue using the fast track, which is off to the right of the general security screening. The process here is much swifter. There are two young families travelling with very young kids in strollers, and getting everybody through security takes a moment. But other than that, it is a smooth process.

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LOUNGE
Location:
Just follow the signs for the B gates. Eventually, you will reach the transfer desk for Air Baltic. The entrance to the lounge is to the right of the transfer desk.
Type of lounge: TAV Premium Class contractor lounge. From what I can tell, this is the only lounge at the airport.
Facilities: Toilets are available in the lounge, but there are no showers. There are Samsung laptops available as well.
Internet:
Complimentary wifi is available. Password required.
Catering: There is a small buffet with a good selection of salads and bread. There is also a pot of something that looks like rice pudding and some very tasty looking pancakes.

The lounge is nice and fairly quiet when I arrive, presumably it would be slightly different on weekdays. I rather like that the lounge is on two levels. The upper area is the quiet zone and indeed, I am the only person there. The views from the lounge are also very good, now if only there were also some traffic to watch…

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BOARDING
Boarding is from B10, which is a bus gate. I would say there are about 70 passengers in total on the flight today. Seated on row 1 gives me a good excuse to keep back in the queue and take some pictures of the chariot carrying me away to Zürich.

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CABIN
Configuration:
2 + 2, in Business Class the middle seat on the row of three is kept empty.
Seat: 1C, aisle. There is a tray table on the middle seat to provide some additional storage space. There are three rows of Business Class for a total of twelve seats. Of those, eight are occupied.

Just one word of caution though, especially if you are sitting on row one on the port side of the aircraft: there is no bulkhead. In other words, there is no wall to protect passengers sitting on 1A and 1C from the wind and icy temperatures this time of the year. So I would recommend you keep your coat on until boarding is completed, unless you enjoy freezing. On the up side, the nonexistent bulkhead means you have unlimited leg space.

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SERVICE
There are three cabin crew, two women and one man. All of them seem very young but they go about their job in a very professional and courteous way.

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THE MEAL
Drink before the meal:
Yes, I have a Coke Zero.
Type of meal: Lunch.
Service: Individual tray service.
Meal:

  1. Roast beef with hummus and pickled cucumber.
  2. Chicken in a Garam Masala crust, with vegetables and potatoes.
  3. Mango cheesecake.
  4. A selection from the breadbasket.
  5. Tea or coffee with milk or cream.

As on the previous flight the day before, passengers are handed a menu while the aircraft is still on the ground. The meal is tasty enough, although the dessert on this flight is nowhere near as good as that on the flight from Stockholm.

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ARRIVAL
Miraculously, I even manage to doze off for about an hour after the flight. When I awake, we are still forty minutes out of Zürich. Even so, the male flight attendant approaches me and asks me if I would like a cup of coffee before we land, explaining that I was already sleeping when he came round offering tea or coffee the first time.

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And then we land. Zürich airport is fairly quiet, the last departures of the midday bank can be seen queuing for departure from runway 16 as we glide past them to touch down on runway 14.

Twenty two minutes after the landing gear makes contact with runway 14, I am already sitting on the train back to Basel. Since the timetable change early in December, the airport train to Basel now also runs via Zürich Main Station, which only further increases the journey time and make the train even more inconvenient.

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And so another year of travel draws to an end.