I step off the mighty Boeing B 777-300 from Tokyo and follow the signs for Heathrow flight connections. I take a set of escalators down into the basement and then cross under the taxiway that separates the satellite 2B from the main terminal. At the other end, I go up another set of escalators to reach the first floor, and then from there down another set to take me to ground level for the bus stop for T2 to T5 transfers. It’s awfully quiet in Heathrow today, and there are only four of us making the journey to T5.
British Airways Club Class Lounge Southside
The lounge is still decked out in Christmas decorations, and Christmas songs are blaring from the loudspeakers. Wish all you like Mariah, but you’re going to have to wait another year.
The lounge looks as though there’s just been a Mongol invasion. There’s hardly any place to sit and all the tables look as though the cleaning staff may have overdosed on eggnogg at the Christmas party and havn’t recovered since.
The furniture is also looking decidely worse for wear and is either stained with things I don’t want to know, or simply damaged.
At the boarding time indicated on my boarding pass, I make my way down to gate A20, from where the flight will be boarding. There’s a slight delay that was caused on the inbound from Stockholm.
Boarding is strictly by zones, and the ground crew check to make sure passengers are queuing in the right lane.
There are four rows of Business Class on this flight. The cabin looks neat and elegant, but it’s also a bit gloomy – especially with the dark grey bulkhead.
I am seated on 2A, and the seat pitch is still quite good. It reduces rapidly towards the rear, to the point that it becomes painful.
There are two cabin crew working the Club Class cabin. One is a friendly elderly gentleman, and the other is a calm and efficient young lady with the most outrageously oversized fake eyelashes I’ve ever seen. I mean, she’s great and does a really good job, but those things are hideous!
Before departure, the crew pass through the cabin offering disinfectant towels.
Given that the flight time to Amsterdam is usually just slightly over 30 minutes, I’m not really expecting anything special on this flight. Much to my surprise though, there are actually three options to choose from: cold roast beef, sweet potato salad or a couscous and beetroot salad, which is what I have.
The presentation of the main dish is very nice, and the taste is good. There is also a small bun and a dessert on the tray.
The dessert is some sort of Tiramisu, and it’s sinnfully good!
To finish the meal, I have a cup of peppermint tea. Zero points for presentation though.
We land after a flight time of 35 minutes and then make the long taxi to our gate on the non-Schengen D pier.
Perhaps it’s because my expectations were really low, but I was rather pleasantly surprised by this flight. The crew were friendly, the seat pitch wasn’t too dreadful, and the catering was very nice. But that lounge is in dire need of some TLC.
Airline: British Airways Aircraft: Airbus A 320 From: Malta International Airport To: London Gatwick Departure: 13:35 Arrival: 15:50 Flight time: three hours and fifteen minutes Seat: 5F, window on the starboard side
This trip has been just brilliant. First of all, I can’t remember the last time I went away on vacation for as much as two whole weeks in a row and without changing time zones! I had no idea how relaxing that can be! Of course, it helps that the weather in Malta has been lovely, with sunshine and temperatures hovering around 18 degrees celsius every day.
Getting to the Airport
To get to the airport from Valletta and Floriana by public transport, there are four buses you can take. The X4 is the ‘express’ which runs to Birzebbuga (there are a few diacritics missing there, sorry…) via the airport. The X4 actually stops right outside the terminal building and runs every half hour.
But then there are also the bus lines 71, 72 and 73, all of which go to Iz-Zurrieq and/or Qrendi on the other side of the airport. All three call at the bus stop ‘Cintra’, which is just at the entrance to the road tunnel under the runway. From ‘Cintra’ it’s a walk of about three minutes to the terminal building and there’s a pavement all the way. The 71, 72 and 73 run every six minutes. The journey time is 20 minutes.
When I arrive at check-in, quite a few of the check-in counters are open in preparation for the early afternoon rush. British Airways has its own, dedicated counters, with one counter for Club Class passengers and status card holders and three for all other passengers. Check-in is handled by Air Malta staff on behalf of British Airways.
The La Valette Lounge
The check-in agent tags my suitcase, issues me a boarding pass and an invitation to the the La Valette lounge.
The entrance to the La Valette lounge is immediately on your left as you exit through the obligatory duty free shop. Access to the lounge is via lift.
Seeing as it’s the only lounge at the airport, it’s also very busy at this time of day. There are three Air Malta flights, Lufthansa’s Frankfurt service, the Emirates flight and the BA flight to Gatwick all leaving at more or less the same time.
I grab myself a Kinnie from one of the fridges and then head outside to catch some sun. Luckily, I manage to snag a chair with a perfect view of the apron. I’m going to miss the warmth of the sun when I get back to Switzerland.
The easyJet and British Airways flights from Gatwick arrive in short sequence and both of them are running thirty minutes late due an ATC strike in France…
Gates 11 through 18 are the non-Schengen gates behind immigration. And today it’s a mess. The terminal is clearly very rapidly reaching full capacity during peaks. The British Airways flight is boarding from gate 18, which is the farthest gate. Next to us is the easyJet flight to Gatwick, next to that is the Ryanair flight to East Midlands, and next to that is the Ryanair flight to Manchester. And it’s chaos!
But at least I am rewarded for my labours, which include being body-checked by some vicious granny trying to jump the queue for the Manchester flight, because there is no bus for boarding and we are allowed to walk across the apron to our waiting chariot.
The cabin of this aircraft looks and feels different to that of the aircraft that operate to and from Heathrow. However, I don’t know if this bird is an exception or if this is the case for the entire Gatwick fleet. First of all, the cabin is not branded and the bulkhead is white with grey dots, instead of the dark grey coloured one with the Speedbird that you find on the Heathrow fleet.
And the seat is different too. There is no adjustable headrest. Other than that, the cabin looks very worn and in serious need of some TLC. They’ve removed the overhead screens. But instead of covering up the electric sockets where they used to be, they’ve just left everything uncovered. Not only does it not looks very nice, it also gives the impression that really this aircraft should be in maintenance and not in service.
At least on row 5 the seat pitch is still good enough for a flight of thre hours.
The crew on this flight are also unusual. First of all, the purser is a nice, friendly chap. But honestly, I’m wondering if he’s already old enough to have to shave. He’s also not wearing a standard issue uniform shirt. Either that or British Airways recently changed to off-white uniform shirts for their male crew that have the kind of matted grey colour you can only hope to achieve from chucking in a perfectly white shirt with your undies and socks to wash by mistake…
But apart from that, I have to say that all of the crew are excellent. They’re very friendly and they are constantly present in the cabin during the flight. They take could care of the passengers.
The flight today is full, and there are 36 passengers in the Business Class cabin.
The flight time is three hours and fifteen minutes due to the ATC strike. We take off towards the northwest, routing via Palermo and Rome, then across the Alps into Austria and then Germany and Belgium to avoid France.
The mix of passengers in the cabin is interesting. I think it’s safe to say that at 45 years of age, I am by far the most junior passenger in the forward cabin. The rest are all in their late sixties and early seventies and probably still remember Malta from when they were stationed there with the RAF, before Malta became independent.
And all of them look as though they’re travelling for leisure. Behind me is another elderly couple. The husband is your typical cockney geezer who insists on calling the female cabin crew ‘sweetheart’ – and has me wondering how long before he inadvertently becomes part of the #metoo movement but for all the wrong reasons.
There is no service at all on the ground. I don’t know if this is normal or just because the crew are in a hurry to get away as soon as possible.
Once we’re airborne, the crew pass through the cabin with lightly scented hot towels and distribute the menus for the flight.
There are three choices for the main dish.
Ahead of the meal there is a drinks service, and passengers have a coice of nuts or biscuits as a snack to go with that.
The whole meal is served on one tray from the galley, so there is no trolley service. While of course it is nicer to have your meal brought to you from the galley, instead of it being taken out of a trolley, I also think that tray service doesn’t really work on a narrow body, especially if you have a fairly large and full Business Class cabin as on this flight. By the time the crew deliver the last meals to row 9, the passengers on row 1 are already having their tea or coffee.
The First Course
There’s something delightfully oldfashioned about the starter, which is crayfish in a spicy cocktail sauce. It’s not bad, although a bit less sauce would have been perfectly fine too.
The Main Course
For the main course I have the fish, which is very good and has managed not to to dry up completely in the oven.
The cheese is my favourite part of the meal on BA and I just love that they serve it with chutney and crackers.
In addition to the crackers, the crew also make two rounds with the bread basket and there is a selection of white and brown breads.
The dessert is fine but really just way to sweet. My teeth ache just from looking at it. I give up on this one and only have half of it.
To finish off the meal I have a cup of mint tea to help pry my tongue off my hard palate after that sticky dessert…
Later on, as we start our descent into Gatwick, the crew pass through the cabin with a selection of Border’s biscuits. The biscuits are good, but I’m wondering if the presentation could be improved – because the crew pass through the cabin with this enormous retail size box of biscuits and distribute them from that. It’s not the height of sophistication to be honest…
En route over Italy the crew were able to get an improvement on our routing, to the extent that the delay is reduced to less than fifteen minutes. But by the time we’re sequenced for arrival and eventually touch down, we’re thirty minutes later after all.
The flight ends at Gatwick’s South Terminal. I now need to retrieve my suitcase and then make my way to the North Terminal for my connecting flight.
While there were a few oddities on this flight, such as the consition of the aircraft cabin, the appearance of the crew and the mix of passengers in the Business Class cabin, all in all this was not a bad flight. Moreover, I think that Gatwick is by far the much more pleasant passenger experience than Heathrow.
Flying British Airways may not be everyone’s cup of tea and honestly, they’re usually not my first choice anymore either. Even so, I still think it’s impressive that on a Friday afternoon in early February, which is during Malta’s deepest low season, they still manage to fill 36 seats in Business Class.
I know, I know. Carbon footprint and all that. And I have to say that I have been trying to reduce the number of private trips I make by plane. But Lord knows it’s not always easy. And so, I find myself on Saturday morning making plans to head for the airport…
I just arrived in London from Madrid on a Boeing 777-200. By the time the bus ejects me on the ground floor of Terminal 5, I have one hour left to make my connection to Basel. So I head up to the transit area and then from there through the automatic boarding pass scanners and on to the escalators that take you up one more floor to the security check area. Only, the queue for security has become so long that they’ve had to turn off the escalators, because passengers are queueing on them and are backed up all the way down to the lower floor.
Eventually, an eternity later, I actually manage to make it through security. I have just enough time to head for the departure gate. As soon as I arrive there, boarding starts. At least this is something that BA does really well: there is a separate queue for passengers with priority, which is boarded first.
From what I can tell, there are eleven rows of Business Class on today’s flight. And by the looks of it, all the seats are taken.
This must be a newer addition to the BA fleet. First of all, because it is fitted with the new sharklet type winglets. And secondly, because it is also already fitted in BA’s new cabin. It looks nice, but like all the other fun innovations BA has recently introduced, the main objective of the refurbishment is obviously to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Which translates into one of the tightest pitches out there right now.
There are two crew working the Business Class cabin today, who seem very friendly. The maître de in particular is professional and courteous.
I think we already established on the previous flight that BA’s meal service has seriously taken a beating. Previously, BA would offer a lovely tea service on flights departing in the afternoon. On today’s flight there are two meal options: one is a ploughman’s platter and the other is the afternoon tea. I decide to go with the latter. But this meal is a far cry from what it used to be and consists of three rather small finger sandwiches and a slice of some sweet creamy cake. That’s it.
The flight time to Basel is short at one hour and ten minutes. The ground is wet when we land and it looks as though we came in just behind some severe rain showers passing through the area.
The airport is busy, but even so the queue for passport control is manageable.
Wow, British Airways really is in a sad state right now and service standards have obviously slipped considerably. In addition, their hub at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is nothing short of a nightmare during peak hours. Add to that the fact that you have to go through security when travelling through the UK, the overall passenger experience really is not particularly enjoyable anymore and not one I want to repeat anytime soon. I don’t like!
My journey begins at 06h00 in the morning as I step outside the hotel to make my way to the airport for the flight to London. The wiry R. is already expecting me, bright eyed and bushy tailed as he takes another lazy draw from his cigarette.
Ten minutes later the shuttle bus ejects us on the pavement, under the large roof of Terminal 3. British Airways’ check-in counters are on row 230, which is on the side of the terminal adjacent to Terminal 2. The check-in agent checks us in for both this flight and the onward connection and gives us directions for the lounge. Rather conveniently, the fast track for security is right in front of the British Airways counters.
The British Airways Lounge
Signage is definitely not the airport’s forte. I’m a linguist and the wiry R. is an engineer. But even so, between the two of us we still manage to not locate the lounge. So here goes. For all those who will come after us, be brave: behind immigration, walk through the duty free shop and you will find yourself in the terminal’s shopping mall. Walk on, all the way through the mall and at the end turn left. That is where you will spot a sign for the British Airways and Alitalia lounges. Take the escalators one floor up and you should land right in front of the entrance to the lounge.
The British Airways lounge at Rome airport is fairly big. I’m assuming it’s probably available to the other OneWorld partners as well who operate here. Just one piece of advice though: keep away form the coffee machine. The stuff it produces is vile.
The flight is departing from gate E18. By the time we get there, priority passengers are already stepping aboard the plane. And by the time I step aboard there is no longer any space in the overhead bins, which is a bit unfortunate, given that I’m sitting on row 1. Fortunately, the gentlemen seated on the row behind me is a nice, friendly American. As soon as he notices I’m having problems stowing my two bags, he starts moving his own stuff around and even puts one bag under the seat in front of him to make room for me.
The cabin looks very smart and the first impression is good. However, the combination of the dark blue leather seats and the dark grey panelling on the bulkhead also make the cabin seem a bit dark and gloomy.
The seat is in the usual European getup with the middle seat kept empty and a tray placed between the aisle and window seats for some additional storage space. There are no ac power ports.
The crew on this flight is very professional and their service is polished and very polite, which is something that always impresses me about the British Airways crews because they are quite consistent about it.
Sorry if I go off on a tangent here, okay, but after all languages are my business. It’s just that it seems to me that there is some inflation going on in the English language with regard to expressions of politeness and the cabin service manager is a good example of this. No matter if he’s collecting the hot towels or passing you the tray with the food, he keeps saying ‘thank you so much’. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with that in general, but it does make me wonder what he says to express his gratitude when you do him a really big favour? My point is that this over use of the phrase ‘so much’ in an expression of gratitude is becoming an increasingly popular practice, especially among speakers of American English. Sorry, end of geeky linguist rant…
Oh yes, they serve you scented hot towels once boarding is completed. There are no pre-departure drinks or anything like that though, despite the flight time of over two hours.
At the start of 2017 British Airways launched a new catering concept on its European network. In Economy Class this means buy on board food, courtesy of Marks and Spencer.
In Business class there have been some changes too. First of all, there are now two options for the meal and accordingly, menus are distributed ahead of the meal service. In this particular case the choice is between a vegetarian omelette and the traditional full English breakfast. The tray is served with a tub of strawberry yoghurt, and there is a large selection of breads and croissants to choose from the breadbasket. Apparently, preserves have fallen by the wayside though and there is only butter but no jam on the tray. On a positive note, the hot meal is now served on a proper plate and not in a foil container as it used to be.
The worst thing that can happen to you when you’re flying into London is that you’re flight arrives way too early for its slot, in which case you are sent into a holding patter until it is time for you to turn onto the approach. I end up going off to Noddy land just as we enter the holding, so I’m not quite sure how many orbits we complete but I think it must be close to half an hour.
As ever, Heathrow is very busy and on the approach I count twelve aircraft queuing up for departure on the other side of the apron for runway 09R.
All in all this was a nice flight with BA that was pretty much up to their usual standards as far as I can tell. I thought the new service was fine. Apart from that, it never seizes to amaze me how British Airways manages to fill more than twenty seats in Business Class, even on an early Saturday morning.
The conference in Kuwait has gone well and our host, the Kuwaiti Directorate General of Civil Aviation has been very generous and hospitable. But now it is time for me to move on. I am not quite going home yet, but near enough. Today I am flying to Amsterdam via London’s Heathrow airport on British Airways, to attend a meeting in Amsterdam. On this occasion, British Airways offered the best schedule for my needs, mainly because they are one of the few airlines that depart Kuwait for Europe during the daylight hours of the morning and not at some ungodly hour, as for example KLM and Lufthansa do. Admittedly, the opportunity to get another flight on the mighty Boeing B 747-400 helped too.
Getting to the Airport
Transport: Complimentary hotel shuttle. Journey time: Roughly 30 minutes, depending on traffic.
My flight leaves Kuwait at 08h45, so I have arranged to have a car collect me at the Hilton at 06h00, which should be enough time to make the journey to the airport. The traffic in Kuwait can be rather bad, despite the very good and wide roads.
Location: Check-in area 4 on the first floor. Facilities: Online and web check-in are available. Counters: There is one counter for First Class passengers, two counters for Business Class passengers and four counters for Economy Class.
The driver drops me off in front of check-in area 4, which apparently is where British Airways checks in, although from what I can tell there is no signage to enlighten you to the fact. The departure concourse is only accessible to passengers, although by the looks of it there is nobody checking to make sure that this policy is enforced.
The two Business Class counters are occupied when I arrive, so I am ushered to one of the free Economy Class counters instead. The agent labels my bags with a priority and short connection tag and then I am on my way.
Behind check-in the bad signage continues. There is a dedicated security check for First and Business Class passengers, but it takes me a moment to locate where the entrance is. I am not sure what the point of this check is, given that the alarm goes off as I pass through the gate and nobody in particular seems to care. In fact, the guy doing the check is not even looking at the screen as my hand luggage goes through. I am hoping there will be a more thorough check before the gate.
Behind security is immigration and then, finally I am airside.
Location: As you exit from immigration, turn left. Type of Lounge: Pearl contractor lounge. Facilities: Hot and cold buffet, toilets are available but not shower. Internet: Free wifi is provided throughout the terminal.
The lounge is nothing special. It is large enough, but other than that the décor is rather bland and boring. The seats are covered is fake leather. There are a few waiters in the lounge, so you can either help yourself from the buffet or have them serve you at your table. Incidentally, the food in the lounge is absolutely atrocious.
About an hour before departure I have had enough of the boring lounge, and so I decide to head to the gate and hopefully take some pictures of the aircraft carrying me away to London. Kuwait airport has closed gates and I am happy to see that there is a proper security check at the entrance to the gate. The staff are polite but meticulous. There is a separate queue for Business Class and First Class passengers to enter the lounge.
It is only just gone eight in the morning when boarding for the flight already starts. I am still collecting my stuff after the security check. So I attempt to take a few decent pictures of the aircraft, which is not an easy task given the general grubbiness of the windows. And then I step aboard the mighty Boeing 747-400 and head for my seat on the upper deck.
Configuration: 2 + 2 on the upper deck, 2 + 4 + 2 on the main deck, there are 72 seats in total in Business Class. Seat: 63J, aisle seat. The British Airways cabin configuration in Business Class has seats arranged in pairs, with the aisle seats on the upper deck facing forward and the window seats facing towards the rear. There is a privacy screen which can be raised after take-off, so you will not have to look at your seat companion’s face for the duration of the flight.
If you are seated by the window, keep in mind that you will have to climb over the person sitting on the aisle seat, which can be a tad awkward given that the space is really tight and you have to be quite agile to get a leg over. The nice thing about 63J, is that it is an emergency exit, which provides extra leg space and means you will not have a complete stranger clambering over you during the flight.
To be honest, the BA seat has never truly convinced me. Obviously the idea with this seat had been to recreate the feeling of being at home in your own comfortable armchair. And if that was the objective, then I think it is safe to say it was met. However, the seat is fairly low above the ground and there are quite a few elderly passengers on my flight who struggle getting in and out of the seat. It is also a bit inconvenient for eating in the seat. Pitch: 72 inches. Width: 20 inches. Audio and Video: Audio and video on demand, touch screen. Facilities: A 110 ac power outlet is available at every seat.
There are two cabin crew serving the upper deck. The service begins with a choice of still water or orange juice.
After take-off, the crew distribute the menus, vanity kits and a flimsy scented hot towel. The vanity kit contains the usual creams by Elemis. There are also eyeshades, socks, a pen and a toothbrush with Colgate toothpaste.
Welcome drink on the ground: Orange juice. Hot towel before the meal: Yes. Pre-meal drink: Choice: There are two choices for the starter and four choices for the main course. Delivery: Trolley service. Type of meal: Breakfast.
Strawberry and mango smoothie.
Bircher Müsli with strawberries, kiwi and walnuts.
The meal is delivered at a good tempo. There is no rush, but there are no long waits in between the courses either. Once everything has been cleared away, the lights go out and passengers are expected to pretend it is night time, despite the fact that the flight left Kuwait just before nine in the morning.
The Second Service
About fifty minutes out of Heathrow, the second service begins, which is a kind of slimmed down afternoon tea. Choice: None. Delivery: Trolley service. Type of meal: Snack.
Turkey pastrami with Dijon mustard and gherkin sandwich.
Gherkin and roasted vegetables sandwich with cream cheese.
A hot leek and potato twist.
Trio of mango cheesecake, cherry Bakewell and chocolate and black cherry roulade.
Transfer in London Heathrow
Eventually the mighty Jumbo dips its nose and we start on our descent into Heathrow. We are running twenty minutes early, and no delays are foreseen for our arrival. We disembark at the C satellite of Terminal 5.
Transferring in Heathrow can be rather cumbersome. From the C satellite I head downstairs into the basement to catch the automated people mover to satellite B and the terminal. At the terminal you have to go through a passport check and then through security again. The process is very efficient. But with all the passengers currently using Terminal 5, it will still take you about fifteen minutes to get processed.
Once I am through security, I check the departure screen, only to find that my flight to Amsterdam will be departing from the B satellite. Which means I shall have to go down into the basement again to catch another train taking me back in the direction which I originally came from.
The Executive Club Lounge
Location: One floor up from the departures concourse, the stairs are near the Harrods store. Type of Lounge: British Airways Galleries lounge. Facilities: Hot and cold buffet with a large selection of food items, bar, toilets and showers, workstations, newspapers. Internet: Wifi is available, the password is indicated on the screens.
I only have a short stay in the lounge before my flight shows up on the departure screen as ‘boarding’. It is going to be a full flight today. There are five rows of Business Class with a total of twenty seats, all of which are occupied.
I will spare you all the details of the flight to Amsterdam, and will limit myself to the meal service.
Hot towel before the meal: Yes. Choice: No. Delivery: Trolley service. Type of meal: Afternoon tea.
Selection of finger sandwiches: egg, cheddar and chicken.
A selection of plain scones and lemon and date scones with clotted cream and strawberry preserve.
Orange and hazelnut cake.
I just love BA’s European afternoon tea service, honestly. It is just so refined, especially when you are enjoying it above the clouds. And I must say, I really am impressed that Ba will even offer such a service, given that the flight time today is only 45 minutes.
Eventually we land at 16h39 and my long journey comes to an end, at least for the time being.
British Airways is an airline I tend to forget about. I suspect a lot of that has to do with their hub at Heathrow airport. Heathrow is always fun and impressive to see, but the number of passengers moving through Terminal 5 is just too much. The facility is crowded, and moving from the main concourse to the satellites takes seemingly forever.
But apart from all that, the on board experience was rather nice. The food on both flights was very good and the crews were very professional. The only thing I think I really will never get used to, is the Business Class seat.
I rather like Sofia. It’s a bit hard to explain. I like that fact that it’s much smaller than Bucharest, so the place feels a lot quieter and more relaxed. Moreover, there is a city centre which has a very open feel to it. There are many large squares and grand boulevards lined with some very beautiful architecture.
The heart of the city is the Nevsky Cathedral, which dominates the scene with its golden domes. The cathedral reminds me a lot of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which is obviously much larger and older. Even so, as you step inside the Nevsky Cathedral you get a pretty good idea of what the Hagia Sophia must have looked like before it was converted into a mosque.
I spend Saturday walking around the city in the pouring rain. Of course it would be so much nicer if the weather were fine and you could see the mountains, but in the rain the city has quite an atmosphere.
And just in case you were wondering, the food in Sofia is lovely. On the Saturday evening I have dinner at a place called the Spaghetti kitchen, which is just around the corner from the hotel, in an area with lots of restaurants and bars. In any case, I can highly recommend the Spaghetti kitchen. The staff are a bit reserved, but the quality of the food is good. And the portions are rather substantial as well. If you have a sweet tooth, I’d go with the chocolate soufflé.
So before we turn to the flying part of this review, allow me to share with you some pictures of Sofia.
And now I think it’s to my for me to leave. I hope I’ll be back some day, preferably when the weather is better though.
Getting to the Airport
Transport: Bus Nr. 84 Departs from: Sofia University Frequency: More or less every 20 minutes, depending on traffic Journey time: Between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on traffic Fare: Purchase the tickets with the driver, if you can…
Sofia University Metro station, from where the bus for the airport leaves, lies in close proximity to Nevsky Cathedral and the Radisson Blu hotel. Theoretically you can buy your tickets directly from the bus driver as you board the vehicle. But he may not be in the mood to issue a ticket, in which case you travel for free, courtesy of the Sofia public transport system.
One of the city’s metro lines is currently being extended, apparently it should reach the airport by 2015.
Location: Terminal 2 Facilities: Multipurpose self-service check-in machines, dedicated British Airways counters Counters: Counters 30 – 34, with 33 and 34 dedicated to Club Class and status card holders
There are two terminals at Sofia airport. Terminal 1 is the original building from 1937, which has since undergone several renovations and expansions. Today Terminal 1 is home to all low cost carriers and charter airlines operating to and from Sofia. All other traffic uses Terminal 2, including British Airways.
I check in using the British Airways App. But apparently Sofia is not a mobile check-in destination, so I opt to collect my ticket at the airport.
The check-in counters and the ticket counter at Sofia airport only open two hours prior to departure of the flight, which means at around 12:30 – or thereabouts… It’s just before 12:30 when I arrive, I’m a bit early today, so I decide to try checking in at one of the machines. Just beware that if you check-in at one of the machines in Sofia, you will need to present the credit card with which you paid for the original ticket. Otherwise the machine will not check you in and you will be sent to one of the manned check-in desks.
With my boarding pass in hand, I head one floor up to the security check and emigration. There are a few things strike me as being just a tad unusual here at Sofia airport. On the one hand, the facility looks fairly new and modern. At the same time though, the entire building is incredibly badly lit and the television screens hanging from the ceilings look like a relict from the 1990s, when the airport hadn’t even been built yet. The other thing that strikes me, is that the facility is nearly completely deserted. It’s just empty. But it’s not only that there are no passengers, the building is empty. There is a transfer desk with three empty desks, of which one doesn’t even have a computer, screen or a telephone. And there are just lots of empty spaces, where other airports would have long placed an averagely sized shopping mall.
Location: After emigration turn right, it’s lounge 2 Type of Lounge: Contractor lounge operated by Sofia airport Facilities: There are no toilets in the lounge, there is a limited selection of cold and hot drinks, cold snacks. Internet: Free wifi is available, with the longest password I’ve ever seen in an airport lounge
There are three lounges at Sofia airport. Lounge 1 is the Swissport lounge, which seems to serve Bulgaria Air and all the Star Alliance carriers operating into Sofia. And then there’s lounge 2, which serves everybody else. The other lounge is one floor down and appears to me some sort of arrival lounge.
The lounge is fairly small, but it serves its purpose. Theoretically you need a lounge invitation to access the lounge, which I don’t have because I checked in at one of the machines. But this does not appear to be a problem. The lounge dragon makes a quick phone call downstairs to check-in and subsequently welcomes me to the terminal.
Boarding for the flight is announced 50 minutes before departure. Boarding announcements are made in the lounge. Keep in mind though, that Sofia has closed gates so in fact boarding simply means that the gate is open. Incidentally, should you suddenly feel the call of nature once you’re inside the boarding gate, there’s no need to worry – there are toilets.
Boarding is a bit messy and there isn’t really a boarding call as such. Passengers requiring assistance and passengers with children are invited to board first, but this only results in a general scrum for boarding, with passengers allowed to board indiscriminately.
Configuration: 2 + 2, the middle seat is left empty Audio and Video: Video screens that drop down from the overhead bins, however these remain closed during the flight and are only used at the beginning of the flight to show the safety on board demonstration video.
The aircraft has your standard British Airways Club Class cabin and seat. But I notice that this bird has the new type of lockers for the overhead bins, so I’m not sure if this is just a newer addition to the fleet or if perhaps it’s an ex-BMI bird. With a flying time of three hours, there are also pillows and blankets at every seat in Business Class. There are four rows of Business Class on this today, and as fare as I can tell, all 16 seats are taken.
The cabin crew consists of four persons, three males and a female purser. All of them are slightly past middle-age. They’re not particularly rude, but they’re not exactly gushing either.
While we’re still on the ground, the crew distribute the menus for the flight and hot towels. The latter are rather flimsy, in fact they’re pretty pathetic compared to the plush ones I got on Air Serbia.
Welcome drink on the ground: No Hot towel before the meal: Yes, before departure Pre-meal drink: Yes Choice: Chicken or seafood; dessert or cheese Delivery: traditional tray service Appearance: Like something the cat dragged home and spat out on the carpet Type of meal: Menu: Menus are distributed before departure
seasonal salad with olive oil and balsamico
chicken, leek and mushroom casserole with roast new potatoes
crackers and cheese
ginger ale to drink
We begin with a drinks round right after take-off. I have a ginger ale, which is served with a packed of mixed nuts. I am reminded of Air Serbia, where the nuts are served warm and in a ramekin and by a friendly young flight attendant who addresses you by your name.
The meal service is a bit strange. First of all, the meals have been heated up in plastic containers covered with tinfoil. The flight attendant asks me if I’m having chicken or seafood. I decide to go with the chicken. So she takes one of the plastic containers, removes the foil and spills the whole concoction into the ceramic plate on my tray. The procedure looks and sounds a lot like what used to happen to my cat Boozey when she’d had too much cat nip…
But seriously, what’s wrong with these people? Of course, I know it’s a casserole and all, so everything is mixed up anyway. But on a flight with a block time of three hours, surely the flight attendant could have prepared the meals individually in the galley. Perhaps if she’d done that, the passengers would also have been able to enjoy their drinks with the meal, rather than after it, because she first served everybody their meal before returning to the galley and coming back out again with the drinks trolley.
Once the main meal is over, the dishes from the main course are removed. There is a choice of apple tart or cheese to end the meal. I decide to go with the cheese, assuming that this will be served, as announced on the menu, with crackers. I’ve already demolished the ones that were on the tray when it first arrived. But unfortunately I am mistaken – no crackers. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t occur to the flight attendant to offer me some more bread, despite the fact that the bread basket is sitting in the galley, still quite full – I notice it later on my way to the toilets.
Good heavens, the weather is really bad here and it’s only just before we touch down that the ground comes into view. I think I’m cursed or something!
Most of British Airways’ flights – including the one to and from Sofia – arrive and depart from Terminal 5. There quite a queue for immigration, but fortunately I have a biometric passport, which significantly speeds up the process.
Getting into Town
Transport: Heathrow Express Train Departs from: The basement of Terminal 5 Frequency: Every 15 minutes Journey time: 15 minutes Fare: GBP21 for a single journey, which is quite pricey for a trip of only 15 minutes
I take the train into London. The Heathrow Express has a very good app with which you can also buy tickets. You will receive an e-ticket confirmation by mail. In addition, if you’ve got passbook, the ticket will be saved in that app as well.
The express serves Paddington station. From there you can connect onto the Bakerloo tube line, which takes you to the heart of the West End. I alight at Oxford Circus, from where it’s just a short walk to the Masala Zone restaurant behind Carnaby Street. I’m in the mood for a thali.
I spent all of last week commuting to the office by train. Every day, the same routine. Actually I thought it was quite exotic for a change. But today I’m back to the old routine. Exactly one week and one day after I return from London, I’m off again. This time, I’m heading for…eh…London again. In my defence, I shall only be changing planes in Heathrow this time. What’s more, at least I had the decency of picking another flight for the outbound than I did last 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 Link:Basler Verkehrsbetriebe – BVB
To look at the amount of luggage I’m carting with me on this trip, you’d easily be mislead to think I’m emigrating to Australia. Not this time. But I will be gone for two weeks, and it is a business trip after all.
I catch the 05:35 bus. The passengers are mostly travellers with small carry-ons, gazing absentmindedly into their iPhones through tired eyes. Right opposite of me is a young couple. They look so sweet. I have no idea where they’re heading, but he is obviously very excited about the journey they are about to embark on. While she tenderly strokes his hand, quite obviously finding pleasure in relishing in his excitement.
Location: Departures level on the first floor, Swiss side Facilities: Self-service check-in machines and baggage drop counters Counters: Dedicated British Airways counters
I enter the terminal and head straight for the British Airways counters. Somewhere in the back of the building I can hear a man laughing. But it’s not a normal kind of laugh. More like the insane, evil laugh of the Über-villain in a James Bond movie. And he won’t stop either. The check-in agent simply rolls her eyes and explains that he’s a regular. Charming!
Incidentally, the check-in agent is a competent young lady with excellent manners. She’s French and speaks very good English. She checks my suitcase through to my final destination, gives me instructions to the lounge and sends me on my way wishing me a pleasant flight.
There’s quite a queue for security this morning, but fortunately for me the priority lane is open and empty.
The Skyview Lounge
Location: Airside on the second floor, in the Schengen sector Type of Lounge: Skyview contractor lounge operated by Swissport Facilities: Washrooms, showers, public computers Internet: Free, unlimited WiFi; no password required
There are two young American gentlemen ahead of me as I enter the lounge. Apparently they’re travelling on the KLM service to Amsterdam. One young man is granted access to the lounge while the other is informed that he will not be allowed to enter without a status card. The two young men deliberate what to do next, seemingly oblivious to me, waiting behind them. Eventually the guy who has access to the lounge simply says: ‘Okay buddy, I’ll just grab a bite to eat here and I’ll be outside in about 25 minutes. See you at the gate. Bye’. Well that’s not very nice.
I only have a cappuccino in the lounge, in anticipation of another one of those delectable British Airways breakfasts.
Separate queue for status and Business Class passengers
Boarding starts exactly on time. I exit the lounge, turn left to the non-Schengen gates and passport control. I don’t know how British Airways does it, honestly. The cabin divider is pushed all the way back to the row behind the emergency exit, which makes ten rows of Business Class with a total of forty seats. And from what I can tell, there are no empties this morning.
There’s a bit of a hold up for departure. It’s quite misty this morning so arrivals and departures have had to be slowed down.
Configuration: 2 + 2 Seat: Standard European Economy Class seat with the middle seat left empty Pitch: 34 inches Width: 19 inches Facilities: Overhead video screens, no audio outlet
I’m becoming rather fond of these BA seats, I must say. So much better than those horribly thin seats most carriers seem to have on short-haul these days, that have your back aching and your butt going numb within minutes of sitting down. I still don’t know how I managed to fly all the way from Vienna to Larnaca in one of those. Yes, this is definitely so much better.
There are two cabin crew working the Business Class cabin this morning – the male Customer Service Manager and a young lady. Initially I don’t much like the CSM because his smile looks kind of put on. Later on though I realise I must revise my impression of him. It’s just the way he smiles and he seems in fact genuinely friendly and very customer oriented.
Hot Towels Before the Meal: Yes, slightly scented Choice: English breakfast or a plate of cold cuts Delivery: Tray service from trolley Appearance: Metal cutlery, crockery and glassware, hot meal served in tinfoil Type of Meal: Breakfast, hot meal Menu: No menu distributed
Bread and butter, marmalade
Cereal bar with cherries
Tea or coffee, a selection of juices and soft drinks
British Airways recently revamped their catering concept and there now appears to be a choice of two different dishes for every meal service. Of course I go with the English breakfast, which hits the spot nicely. The scrambled eggs in particular are really excellent, with a rich, creamy texture and a sinful buttery taste. The coffee is still an abomination though…
Outside it’s a beautiful day for flying. Just as we reach the French coast the trays are removed and we begin our descent into Heathrow. Time to sit back and contemplate…
Terminal: 5A, British Airways terminal – this is where most European flights arrive and depart
We’re treated to a beautiful approach into London this morning. We reach the city from the south east and then to a sharp left turn. As we come out of the turn I can clearly see the illuminated billboard on Piccadilly Circus. We then to another left turn to point us in a southwesterly direction, passing due south of Heathrow. We then execute a series of very gentle right turn until eventually we are lined up for a 09Left arrival.
As we touch down I spot three Cathay Pacific Airways Boeing B 777-300s. One of them is wearing the infamous and absolutely stunning Asia’s World City livery. Could this perhaps mean…hush my heart…hush…hush….
Him again! Yes, me. Perhaps I ought to warn you, I think you better brace yourself to have quite a few trip reports of mine coming your way over the next few weeks. Sometime towards the end of the last year I had the brilliant idea – a kind of preempted New Year’s Resolution if you will – to write a trip report of at least one flight of every trip I make in 2014. I’ve made a further resolution to travel less in 2014. So theoretically this is going to be a walk in the park. Or so I thought… but it’s still early days and who knows, things may calm down or I may simply give up trying to keep track of myself at some point.
And one more thing. As the camera I’m using the iPhone 5 because it’s s0 much more convenient.
So yes, three days after I return from Nicosia, I find myself heading for the airport again – this time, to catch a plane to London. I’m giving a course in Oxford.
Getting to the Airport
Well at least I’m flying from Basel airport. The journey time from the main station to the airport takes 16 minutes to complete with the bus line 50. A ticket to the airport should cost you around CHF 5. The bus is not really full.
Two rows in front of me there’s a guy sitting with tattoos and piercings all over his face. I can’t help wonder what the metal detector at security will do when he tries to pass. He also reeks of stale cigarettes and alcohol. I certainly don’t envy the poor bastard who’s going to have to sit next to him. Luckily, it’s not me!
I checked in using the BA app on my iPhone yesterday evening. The app saves the boarding pass for you in the Passbook app. The reliability of Passbook has improved considerably recently, and so I wake up this morning to find my boarding pass already displayed on the lock screen. Ready for me to swipe.
The Skyview Lounge
Somehow it seems strange to think that I was in this lounge on a KLM ticket only three weeks ago on my way to Japan. Twelve flights later and I’m back in the same place again.
The selection of food and drinks really isn’t bad in this lounge. There are breads with cheese, butter and jams and there is also quite an interesting selection of hot items, such as scrambled eggs, baked beans and sausages.
Wifi is free in the lounge. In addition, they’ve recently also added an al fresco smoking area on the balcony of the lounge. But somehow it’s just a bit too cold for that for me today.
Boarding for our 11:30 departure starts at 10:50, which is rather early. I exit the lounge and head through passport control to gate 30, from where my flight will be leaving. Most passengers already appear to have boarded by the time I arrive.
There are six rows of Business Class in a 2 + 2 configuration. The on right-hand side of the aircraft, the middle seat in the row of three is kept empty. On the left-hand side however, the row of two is created by pushing the middle seat together. So in actual fact there is slightly less space on the left rows.
I must say, yet again I am impressed by the British Airways cabin crew. What strikes me upon boarding the plane is how dapper they look in their pin strip uniforms. It’s quite a contrast from the frumpy Austrian Airlines crew and their god-awful red uniforms.
Announcements are made by Cabin Service Manager, whose English and French are flawless and accent free. Moreover, there are recorded announcements in German. Funnily enough, the voice used in the recordings has a very strong Swiss German accent, which is a nice local touch I find.
The CSM also points out that although it doesn’t say so in the safety video yet, British Airways has changed its policy and now allows you to leave your mobiles on during the flight as long as they’re in flight mode.
We take off from runway 16. We execute a gentle right turn to point us in the direction of London.
Once the seatbelt sign is turned off, service begins with the distribution of scented hot towels.
There are two options on today’s flight. One is a plate of cold meats and salad, the other, which I choose, is a warm croissant with ham and cheese in it. There is also a small plate with fruit. A bred basket is also available. To drink I have a coffee, which is an abomination, and a glass of still water with ice and lemon.
We’re running 35 minutes ahead of schedule. We do one circuit in a holding before eventually turning onto the approach for runway 27Right.
We come in straight over the West End. And even with partially cloudy skies, ground visibility is good and I manage to get a glimpse of St. Paul’s and Westminster.
Getting to Oxford
There are direct buses from Heathrow’s T5 to Oxford by National Express. The journey takes approximately ninety minutes, with buses leaving every thirty minutes or so. A single ticket will cost you £24.
In Oxford I am staying at the Remont, which is in fact a B&B but offers a standard of comfort and service that is more like a hotel.
I can highly recommend the Remont. It may perhaps be a bit far from the city centre, but there is a bus stop conveniently located about one minute away from the hotel. Take any line 2 bus and it will bring you to the centre in about ten minutes or so.
My vacation is quickly drawing to an end, but at least it will be a gentle re-acclimatisation. Yesterday I arrived in London from Japan. So theoretically today I could simply fly home to Basel and that’s that. It would even give me enough time to go to the gym and work off some of the calories of that lovely Japanese food. Or I could return to Amsterdam first for a day of shopping.
Getting to the Airport
I spend the night at the Sofitel Heathrow adjacent to Terminal 5. It’s a five minutes walk – if you’re walking slowly – from the hotel lobby to the departure level of Terminal 5, which is on the fifth floor.
I checked in using the BA app yesterday evening in the hotel. So no need to use the check-in counters. In Terminal 5 there is a Fast Track for security.
I never would have thought I’d see Heathrow looking so empty. Security is a breeze. There is only one woman ahead of me and that’s only because she’s taking her time while she’s busy doing some heave duty flirting with the security guy.
The British Airways Galleries Lounge
There are two Galleries Lounges in the main building of Terminal 5. I’ve never been to the North Lounge, so I decide to check that one out first today – new year, new habits.
Eventually though, I decide not to stay at the lounge. Somehow it doesn’t feel quite as cosy and comfortable as the South Lounge. It’s very bright and looks a bit sterile. So the new habits go flying out the window and I head for the South Lounge instead, my usual haunt in Terminal 5. On the downside, half the toilets are out of order – half the toilets!
But the food selection in the lounge is simply amazing.
Incidentally, the lounge is equipped with electric sockets for all kinds of plugs.
The first boarding call is for status card holders and Business Class passengers. I’m surprised to see that today’s flight has been upgraded to an Airbus A 321. And from what the flight attendant tells me, it’s going to be a full flight.
It’s quite windy today, you can feel the aircraft lightly shaking while we’re still parked at the gate. We take off form runway 09R, and I figure I might take some interesting shots of the line up of exotic heavies gracing Terminal 4. But as soon as we get airborne the aircraft starts shaking violently with the wind and all the pictures I manage to take are seriously blurred and de facto useless.
The seats on this bird look rather worn, but apart form that I’m assuming that this must be either one of the newer aircraft of the type in the British Airways fleet, or it’s something BA inherited from BMI.
The Business Class section takes up the entire space between the L1 and L2 doors, which means 7 rows of Business Class with a total of 28 seat, although I think two seats remain empty on this flight.
I count five ladies working the cabin this morning. They’re all of them a very friendly bunch. The purser takes her time to welcome everybody aboard, and even finds time to give the many kids on this flight a special welcome.
Despite the full cabin and a very short flight time of only 40 minutes, the crew still manage to serve every passenger a hot breakfast in a very unrushed and unhurried manner.
Service begins on the ground with the distribution of scented hot towels.
The main event! Breakfast consists of a small plate with fruit, and a hot breakfast with button mushrooms, tomato, omelet, bacon and a sausage. I take a croissant and a warm bun from the bread basket.
Fortunately the weather in Amsterdam is slightly better than what we left behind in London. At least the sun is trying to break through the low cloud.
We make our approach for runway 18R, the infamous Polderbaan. Ahead of us is a Saudia Boeing B 747-400 freighter.
Getting into Town
The first thing I do once I arrive in Amsterdam is find a locker to put all my stuff in. I don’t much fancy carting all my junk around the city for a whole day. The lockers are located in the basement of the shopping plaza. Lockers are available in different sizes. A medium sized locker will cost you 18 Euros for 24 hours.
And then from there I head into town by train. The journey from the airport to the city takes 17 minutes by intercity train. There is a train departing for the central station every few minutes. A return ticket will cost 8 Euros. If you’re planning to stay in Amsterdam for a longer period, I would recommend that you get yourself a chip card, which works the same way as the London Oyster Card. The chip card can be used on all public transport in the Amsterdam area.
Train tickets can be obtained either at the ticket counter of the Dutch railways or from one of the many ticketing machines in the plaza. The machines take either cash or credit card, but not both. Also, it is worth pointing out that the machines only accept credit cards with a four digit PIN code.