It is probably safe to say that the Embraer E2 family of jets have not been the commercial success the Brazilian manufacturer had hoped for. To date, fewer than 270 aircaft have been ordered, whereas the rival Airbus A220 is gradually approaching 790 orders and calls some of the world’s most prestigious airlines its customers – and that includes Air France, Air Canada, and Delta.
Even though the E2 family was rolled out in 2013, to date only 55 aircraft have been delivered. In as much, and as I know from my own experience, catching a flight on one of these elusive birds is not easy. Currently, the two largest operators of the type are KLM and Helvetic Airways, both of which I use quite frequently. Even so, to date every time I was booked on a flight supposedly operated by an E2, there was a last minute aircraft change and a missed opportunity.
Until today. Finally, after several failed attempts I get to sample Helvetic Airways’ E2 on a flight from Luxembourg to Zürich operated on behalf of SWISS. Ironically, this opportunity arose unexpectedly as the result of yet another aircraft change.
At the Airport
If it’s all the same to you, I’ll skip the bit about getting to the airport or describing the lounge I didn’t visit… My flight departs Luxembourg at 15:00. When I get there, the place is deserted and there are hardly any people. Whatever the case may be, it means that I can settle by the window and watch the traffic until my E2 makes an appearance.
Just after 14:03 the inbound flight touches down and very gradually makes its was to its stand at gate A17.
The first thing that strikes me about the E2 is the size of its engines.
Boarding for the flight starts with a delay of 15 minutes. I count 85 passengers on the flight today. There are nine rows of Business Class for a total of 18 seats, of which 16 are taken.
The first impression as you step on the plane is very good. The cabin is tidy and neat. Other than that though, the narrow diameter of the hull gives it the look and feel of a commuter aircraft, which is not quite so apparent on the A220.
I’m seated on row 7, where the seat pitch is painfully tight. Fortunately, sitting in Business Class means that the seat next to me is empty, so at least I can stretch my legs sideways.
On each row of two seats there are four USB sockets.
There is also an overhead reading light and an air vent for each passenger. Perhaps the biggest drawback of Helvetic Airways’ seating configuration – apart from the overall lack of space and comfort – is that the seats on most rows are missaligned with the windows.
There are three cabin crew on this flight. The maître de is a woman with a thick eastern European accent but otherwise flawless English and German. In the back of the bus is a friendly young man who interacts pleasantly with passengers and a young lady who looks as though she’s afraid of her own shadow. She passes through the cabin wordlessly like a ghost.
Before we depart, the MC distributes refreshing towels and small bottles of still water.
The pictures of the outside were taken by sticking my iPhone next to the ear of the guy in front of me (and hoping he won’t notice) and then twisting my hand to the right to aimlessly point the camera lense in the general direction of the wing.
The meal service consists of a small tray with a plate of two stale canapés – egg & tomato and ham & cheese – and a small jar of vermicelles mousse and plums.
Before I even manage to take a bite, the ghost appears offering the chocolates. The guy in front of me asks if he might be allowed to take a second one “for my kid” (right…) to which he only receives an ever so slight and silent nod of the head.
The tray tables are a bit of a problem, mainly because they’re very small and my tray keep sliding off. Other than that, is it really too much to train the crew to crew to wait until the end of the flight to hand out the chocolates?
If I actually had a window, the views outside would be gorgeous. The colours are gradually changing to autumn, casting the landscape in a warm colour.
During the descent the crew advise passengers with connecting flights to go straight to their gates if they have connections within the hour. Beyond that though, no information about the departure gates of the connecting flights is given.
We park on a remote stand, where the dedicated bus for Business Class passengers is already expecting us to take us to the terminal building, which is eerily quiet.
I’m happy I finally got to try the elusive E2. In the sum of all things though, I can’t really say I was too impressed. First, considering that it is a fairly new design I thought the cabin looked rather old-fashioned. Second, no matter how hard you try to give the cabin an airy, spacious feel, there’s no denying that this is an aircraft with a very narrow fuselage. In as much, at least as far as I’m concerned, the E2 is no match for the A220 in terms of comfort and passenger experience. I also found that the aircraft is much louder inside than I expected.
Yet again, the crew were Helvetic’s saving grace on this flight, even though the one crew member didn’t actually say anything – but perhaps it’s for the better that way.
By the time I’m comfortably settled on one of the sofas in the SWISS First Class lounge it’s 06h30. I have another hour before my departure to Paris. As soon as I take a seat, one of the lounge attendants comes over and asks me if there’s anything I’d like to order from the menu. I tell her a coffee would be great. Other than that, I’m still quite full from breakfast on the plane.
The one thing that really always strikes me about SWISS, is just how incredibly ugly their uniforms are. And it’s not just that they’re ugly, they’re also clearly of very poor quality, badly cut and would even make a supermodel look frumpy. I understand that not all airlines can be like Singapore Airlines with their timeless and iconic SQ Kebaya that was designed by Balmain in 1968. But I also think that the appearance of an airline’s staff in their uniforms and the pride with which they wear it says a lot about the corporate culture and management’s appreciation for their frontline staff.
At 07h15 I exit the lounge and make my way to the boarding gate at A66. I figure I might as well wait for the initial scrum to pass before I step aboard. By the time I reach the gate it’s already more or less emptied, with just a few remaining passengers milling about. You know the ones. They wait until the very last moment to step aboard because of some incredibly important call they need to make at the top of their voices… Well let them, I’m tired and I need to sit down, so I make a B-line for the gate attendant who scans my boarding pass and then sends me on my way.
I’m seated on 1A. A bottle of still water and a refreshing towel are already at my seat when I arrive.
There are two middle-aged women working the Business Class cabin, and they couldn’t be more different from the crew of the previous flight from Singapore. One of them barely speaks any functional German and has a strong Eastern European accent when she speaks English. Meanwhile, her colleague is doing a convincing interpretation of the Queen of Frump. But I must say, they are friendly, if perhaps a tad reserved. We can’t all be social butterflies…
There are nine rows of Business Class, for a total of 36 seat. However, there are only four passengers in the forward cabin on this flight. I ask one of the cabin crew and apparently they’re expecting a full load on the inbound to Zürich.
The expected flight time is one hour.
The meal – breakfast
Within minutes of getting airborne, the crew start preparing for breakfast. On the small tray there is a glas of berry Birchermüsli and a plate with cold cuts, cheese and egg.
To drink I have a coffee and an orange juice. The crew make two rounds with the bread basket. As soon as I’m done, the crew remove my tray.
Looking from above, the difference between Europe and Australia is really quite striking. In Europe more or less every inch of land is exploited for agriculture, whereas in Australia you can spend hours flying over vast stretches of untouched wilderness.
Very soon we’re starting our descent into Paris. The crew pass through the cabin with the chocolates while the passengers are treated to a complimentary sightseeing tour of Paris. Our approach brings us in past Notre Dame cathedral, then the Tour Eiffel and the Arc de Triomphe at Etoile. We continue on a Westerly track in the direction of Versailles before eventually doing a 180 degree turn to line up for an approach towards the East.
I already miss Australia, but I’ve very much missed this too. No matter what troubles Europe may be heading into right now, the age and traditions of its cities are comforting to me – because they speak of longevity and of resilience.
Our aircraft comes to a stop at one of the stands on the D concourse, and within minutes my suitcases appear on the luggage belt. And just like that I’m back where it all began two months ago.
This brings to an end my sabbatical of 2022, which should have happened in 2020 originally, and then very nearly didn’t happen at all. Before I left on this trip, my dad asked me why it had to be Australia, if the purpose of this trip was for me to have some time to work on my Phd thesis in peace and quiet. And I guess it’s a valid point. All I can say is that I really like being in Australia. The lethal snakes, spiders, sharks and croccodiles aside, I like the way the earth smells in Australia, I enjoyed going for long walks along the beach early every morning in Manly, and I loved listening to the unique strangeness of the whistles and chirps (and also screeches…) of the birds. And I really, really enjoyed the openess and the friendly curiosity of the Australians.
A week after my return from Bogotà I am at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport again. In pre-Covid times the Lufthansa carriers operated out of Terminal 1 and even had their own, dedicated satellite. However, Terminal 1 has been closed since the start of 2020. And for the time being, the Lufthansa airlines have had to relocate to Terminal 2B.
From the RER B railway station at Terminal 2, it is about five minutes on foot to Terminal 2B. To get there, you first need to cross the departure hall of 2D.
In Terminal 2B there are two check-in areas. The Lufthansa group checks in its flights in area 1. There are two First Class counters, three Business Class counters and six Economy Class counters. The check-in agent sends my suitcase on its way and then wishes me a pleasant flight.
With my passport and three boarding passes in hand, I make my way to the security checkpoint, which is located between terminals 2B and 2D.
I really like the architecture of 2B/2D. The security checkpoint is one floor up, and there is a dedicated queue for First and Business Class passengers.
The security check is a bit of a mess, mainly because the staff are too busy bitching about the passengers to pay attention to what they are doing. But eventually I still manage to get through.
The contractor lounge is incredibly ugly, dirty and not very appealing. Although SWISS can hardly be blamed for that. The food options are simply strange and the place is a complete mess. I do a walk through and quickly realise I am probably better off outside where at least I can see the aircraft movements. I honestly think the public seating areas in this terminal are nicer than those in the lounge.
The added benefit of not staying in the lounge means that I am at the gate to watch the inbound from Zürich pulling onto its stand. The flight today is operated by an A 220-100, and the flight is full.
I’m the last to board. Sitting on 1A I think there’s hardly any reason to board first, only to have to watch the entire aircraft file past.
The cabin is well maintained. There are four rows of Business Class for a total of twelve passengers. All twelve seats are occupied.
Seating on row one is quite tight, with not much leg room.
The crew up front is a lovely young woman, presumably of Eastern European origin. She’s the maître de and she’s really excellent. She is serious, but not unfriendly, and very professional in her interaction with the passengers. Once the doors close, she passes through the cabin with small bottles of water and packaged towels.
The flight time is fifty minutes. The meal is another SWISS original – a hearty Wurst & Käse salad (slices of Cervelat with cheese, boiled egg, cornichons and radishes). You may like it, or you may not… With that, bread rolls and butter are served from a basket. Dessert is some gelatinous concoction. To drink I have a Coke Zero, and the cabin crew even ask me if I would like lemon and ice with that.
And there is a silver lining: at least on this flight the crew remember to pass through the cabin with chocolates for the Business Class cabin.
We land in Zürich at 16h20 after an uneventful flight. I now have six hours and twenty minutes to make my onward connection. I think I am slowly starting to get excited about this trip…!
I spend five days in Budapest attending a workshop and conference on qualitative research in language testing. I hadn’t been to Budapest in a very long time, so it’s nice to be back. Of course it helps that the weather is stunning. It’s warm, but without the oppressive heat of summer.
Getting to the airport
To get to Ferihegy airport by public transport there are several options. The bus lines 100E and 200E run from the city out to the airport and are obviously the cheapest option. They’re also the slowest option. Google will tell you that the journey takes forty minutes, but depending on a set of variables – from the driver’s level of insanity to the state of the traffic on the roads – it’s more like an hour.
Then there’s the train. But this I really wouldn’t do. There is a railway station opposite the entrance to the old Ferihegy 1 terminal, which is no longer in use. It’s not really that far from there to Ferihegy 2, but I was unable to find any information about how to get from the railway station to the passenger terminal.
And then there’s the hotel shuttle, which the concierge of your hotel can order for you. The journey costs EUR6.- and the journey time really depends on where your hotel is located and on how many other pick ups the driver has to make on the way to the airport.
Terminal 2 is divided in sections 2A and 2B. The former is for the Star Alliance and SkyTeam Alliance.
The Lufthansa group checks in on counters 1 to 4. There are two counters open for passengers in First or Business Class.
It’s fairly busy when I arrive. There is a fast track for security and there are self-service machines where you can purchase tickets to access the fast track. Access to the fast track is only for passengers with at least Star Gold status. So just having a Business Class ticket is not enough.
Airside & lounge
The airside area is attractive. It’s a wide open space with a high, vaulted ceiling. On the upper level there is a large food court. This is also where two of the premium lounges are located. However, the lounge that SWISS an the other Star carriers use is on the main level. The entrance to the Platinum lounge is opposite gate A7. But it’s hardly worth the bother. It’s dark and gloomy inside and there are no windows either. It’s also not very big.
Life is so full of disappointments. Originally, when I booked this flight it should have been operated by an E2, which would have been my first flight on the type. When I checked in the day before, the SWISS app didn’t show any aircraft type. So I’m a bit upset when I arrive at the gate to find yet another old E1 standing there.
Still, there is a silver lining because seating on Helvetic is really just so incredibly tight – even on row 2 where I’m seated. At least they keep the adjacent seat empty, so by sitting sideways I can at least minimise the risk of getting a third slipped disc from sitting in this torture instrument.
I find the crews on the Helvetic Airways flights are a lot more friendly than those on SWISS, and this flight is no exception. The purser working the Business Class cabin is a charming young lady who goes about her duties in a very professional manner.
Once boarding is completed, each passenger receives a bottle of water and a refreshing towel. For some reason I’m very thirsty and more or less down the water in one big schluck.
The next time the purser passes through the cabin, she notices and promptly brings me a new bottle on her way back to the rear of the aircraft. By the time she returns a few minutes later, the second bottle is also already empty. She picks it up on her way to the forward galley and immediately returns with the third bottle, commenting that “actually, you’re right. I should also drink more in my line of work”, clearly in an attempt to not make me feel awkward, which I think is rather nice.
Having said that, I’m not sure about the other two cabin crew. They’re both male and also very friendly. One of them is of South Asian origin. I suspect he may be a trainee. The problem is that he’s the one making the announcements, and his pronunciation is so bad that it’s difficult even to make out if he’s speaking German or English. It’s not a big deal, because his manners are excellent and he’s very friendly. An accent is something you can learn to control, whereas manners are more of a question of attitude.
In any case, our departure from Budapest is quite spectacular. We take off and make a wide left-hand turn that brings us back over the city. From my seat on 2F I have an excellent view of the parliament building, the centre of town and castle hill.
And then the meal service begins, perfectly performed by the purser. It’s not much more than a snack, but it’s the middle of the afternoon anyway and the quality of the food is good.
The main dish is two slices of smoked salmon, and it’s a very good piece of fish. It’s not at all chewy, it’s tender and tastes of salmon and not just fishy, which is what usually happens with inferior cuts. With that there is an avocado cream and a bit of taboulé.
And then of course, there is the cheese. My guess would be Gruyère for the flat slice and a very young Tilsiter for the wedge of cheese.
Bread rolls are served with the meal and the purser comes through the cabin for seconds and thirds.
Crackers and butter are also available.
The dessert is a panna cotta with strawberry. And to end the meal I have cup of Sirocco’s mint tea.
And, unlike the crews on my two previous SWISS flights, this crew actually remembers to pass through the cabin with the fabulous SWISS chocolate.
The flight time to Zürich is ninety minutes. Although Zürich is quite busy, we are still able to make an approach straight in, without having to hold, for an on time arrival. We park on a remote stand. For Business Class passengers there is a small minibus to take us to the terminal. It takes the luggage from my flight 45 minutes to start arriving and the luggage belt is crawling with passengers, as the flights from Brussels, Athens, and Malta are also being delivered to this belt. Eventually, I manage to catch a train an hour after I land at 17h15, which is still not bad, even if it’s not up to Zürich’s usual standards. And so the quest for the E2 continues…
I’m on my way to Budapest to attend a language testing conference. The evening before my flight I try to check in on the SWISS app, but for some reason it’s not working. After several failed attempts I go to the Lufthansa app and try there, and this time it works. But I can’t download the boarding pass from the link I received by SMS. The next morning I try again on both the SWISS and Lufthansa apps, but no. Not working. I guess it makes no difference, seeing as I’ll be checking in a suitcase and will need to pass by a counter anyway. But you do wonder.
Zürich airport is surprisingly busy when I get there at 10h45. In check-in 3 SWISS has installed self-service baggage drop counters, which seem to be rather popular, judging by the length of the queue. Business Class passengers have their own dedicated lane, which leads to two womanned counters for checking in the old-fashioned way.
From check-in I head straight to security, figuring there’s likely to be a queue there too. Which there is. However, it moves quickly and the wait there is really no more than about seven minutes in the priority lane.
The lounge looks quiet enough from the outside, so I decide to give it a try. Uhm, yeah. No. Inside, the place is crawling with disgruntled looking business men and women. All of them look as though they’d much rather be somewhere else. And given the size of the queue for the buffet, I can’t really blame them! Where are all these people going?
So I make a u turn and exit the lounge from where I came in. But I’m still hungry. I check out the café at the beginning of the A pier, but they’re actually asking CHF7.80 for a rather small salami sandwich with some wilted looking lettuce and a few slices of salami. I refuse to pay that kind of money for a simple bloody salami sandwich. So I guess I’m doomed. My faith rests now in the hands of SWISS. My only hope now is that they won’t serve up one of their odd concotions, or that the crew won’t have mistakenly already served all the Business Class meals, as was the case on my last flight from Brussels back to Zürich.
My aircraft arrived from Palma de Mallorca and is running just a few minutes late. Instead of at 11h55, boarding will now begin at 12h05. Seeing as I’m seated up front, I might as well wait for everybody else to board first. So I head for the window to admire the elegant Airbus A 220-300 that will be carrying me to Budapest this afternoon. It really is such a nice aircraft!
Originally I’m on 3A. However, once boarding is completed, the twin seats on rows 1 and 2 are still empty, so I move forward to 2A so the guy on 2D can take my seat to be closer to his wife and kid on 4B and 4A. There are six rows of Business Class, and with me there are eleven passengers in the Business Class cabin. Which is a lot more than I had expected.
Row 2 on the A 220 is excellent. The seat pitch is very good and because you have the seat next to you empty, you needn’t worry about finding a place to store your bag if the overhead bins are full.
We take off from runway 28. The SID takes us in a southwesterly direction, before bringing us back to fly parallel to the departing runway, heading in the opposite direction.
Our routing takes us past lake Constance and further in an easterly direction into Austria.
It’s a lovely day here in Switzerland. However, as we progress east the weather gradually deteriorates. By the time we land in Budapest it’s overcast and slightly fresher than Zürich.
The meal is surprisingly not bad. It consists of some Asian-style noodles with a sesame oil dressing, some veg and two slices of smoked tuna. It’s a very small dish, but then again the flight is only slightly over one hour.
With that there is a small plate with two pieces of cheese. I’d say a Camembert and an Appenzeller. But I’m not sure.
For dessert is something that I think should be Tiramisu, but is essentially small pieces of soggy cantucci on gelatine with coffee. Meh…
And to finish the meal: a coffee.
The crew on this flight are friendly. They’re also totally with the birds. When they start the service, they had the bread basked on the trolley, but obviously forget to ask passengers if they’d like a bread roll. The male flight attendant plonks down my tray and moves on. So I ask him, in English, if I could have a bread roll for the cheese. First, he replies: “Es Brötli?”. He then uses the tongs to grab a roll from the basket, and then promptly places it on my tray so that it immediately rolls off and lands on the floor before either one of us can catch it. So then he asks me if I’m okay with that, or if I’d like another one. It’s really on the tip of my tongue to tell him that I’m not in the habit of eating bread rolls that have been hand picked off the seedy carpets of commercial airliners. But I let it go and just ask for a new Brötli.
But I don’t know what it is with this guy and his “Brötli”. Because after my row he continues asking all the passengers “would you like es Brötli?”. I don’t know if he thinks he’s giving the service a bit of Swissness, because honestly, it’s just weird.
Oh yes, and in case you’re wondering, there is no SWISS chocolate at the end of the flight for the Business Class passengers. I don’t know if the crew just forget, or if Business Class passengers no longer get a chocolate because they were treated to coffee flavoured gelatine. Such a treat…!
Despite our slightly delayed departure form Zürich, we still manage to land in Budapest on time. We come to a stop next to my friends in blue. Passengers disembark via an airbridge. However, at the other end of the airbridge we are directed to go downstairs to board a bus which then drives us to the arrivals hall. I have no idea what all that is about.
The luggage doesn’t take much time to arrive and then I’m already on my way to Budapest on the 100E bus.
The Belgian ANSP has a very convenient shuttle that runs from the Brussels tower to the main terminal building. The really cool thing though, is that the shuttle passes along the inner side of the airport perimeter fence. It’s a bit like getting your own prviate tour of Brussels airport. The journey takes about twenty minutes, which is a lot less than it would take on the public road.
I’ve checked in online for the flight, so I can just head straight for security and the lounge. Brussels only has one terminal with two piers. There is no priority lane for Business Class passengers at security. However, despite the many people around, the queue is very well managed and moves along swiftly. Behind security you are forced through a complex labyrinth of duty free shops and restaurants before eventually emerging on the other side to find yourself at the head of the A pier, from where the Schengen flights depart.
The lounges on the Schengen pier are located one floor up from the main passenger concourse.
Brussels Airlines operates The Loft Lounge on behalf of its Star Alliance partners. Access to the lounge is only for Business class passengers and Star Gold members.
The lounge has a wide selection of hot and cold dishes to chose from. More importantly, there is a row of comfortable sofas that runs along the windows overseeing the main apron. So that’s where I park myself until it’s time for my flight.
I think I’m starting to remember why I don’t really enjoy airline lounges all that much. If you will just indulge my rant, what is it with some people that a) they have no other means to occupy themselves other than by making one phone call after the other, and b) that said phone calls have to be done with them yelling at the top of their voice? And don’t get me started on the Scandinavian Airlines passengers, who basically see a trip abroad as an opportunity to access cheap or, in the case of the lounge, complimentary booze. Okay, thanks. I’m feeling better now…
But I digress. The lounge is very nice, despite the patrons.
Boarding is done by groups, with a first call for status holders (group 1) and Business Class passengers (group 2). The process is very similar to flying with Easyjet. We walk down the airbridge and are stopped by one of the handling agents half way down. Apparently they’re not done cleaning the plane yet. So we spend another five minutes in the smelly airbridge waiting for the cleaners to be done. Here’s a novel idea: if the plane is not ready yet, why did you start boarding in the first place…?
There are three rows of seats in the Business Class cabin. There are three people on row 2, and just me on row 1.
Once boarding is done, the crew pass through the cabin with still water and towels.
In the past, I have been accused of being overly critical of SWISS. But I really don’t think that’s entirely my fault, and this flight is no exception. Once we’re airborne, the purser informs the Business Class cabin that she made a mistake on the outbound leg and accidentally served all the meals for the return leg too. Although I’m not fully sure how that happens “accidentally”. Instead, we’re going to have to choose something off the Economy Class buy on board menu.
When she comes to apologise, I tell her not to worry about it, and make a joke about having overdosed on Belgian waffles in the lounge anyway. To which she tries to make a joke by saying that I really ought to be careful, because “you wouldn’t want to end up with diabetes…”. I mean, is it just me, or is that not something inappropriate to make a joke about?
Later on, as we start our descent into Zürich, the purser seems very preoccupied by the gorgeous sunset. So she kneels on the ground on row 1 to take a few pictures, commenting loudly to her colleague in Swissgerman that “das isch jo huere geil”. “Geil” litterally means horny, whereas “huere” acts as an intensifier to express that you think something is really, really very good. It is a bit awkward that “huere” derives from the German word for a whore. So in other words, “huere geil” roughly translates into “fucking brilliant”.
The option is between a chicken breast sandwich or a pulled beef brioche. I go with the chicken, and I must say, it’s very good. Once we’re done, the guy behind me asks about dessert. He saw on the Economy Class menu that there were Luxeburgerlis, Sprüngli’s signature confectionary. In no uncertain terms the crew tell him that he can have them, but he’ll have to pay, which I just find a bit cheap. Surprisingly, the passenger declines…
Zürich airport really is just brilliant! We touch down on runway 28 at 21:26. We pull onto our stand at 21:30. By 21:41 I‘m already at the station waiting to catch the train home at 21:45.
All in all, this was a pleasant enough flight. It always helps when the cabin isn’t full and you can spread out. The mishap with the food was unfortunate. But these things happen and the alternative that was offered was good. To be perfectly honest, I’d say the Sprüngli sandwich I received was probably way better than what should have been served on that flight in Business Class. However, I do think they could have given the guy behind me his Luxeburgerli for free, considering it was their fault to start with that there was no dessert.
The cabin crew were generally very friendly, and that includes the purser. I also think she gets kudos for not making up some cock and bull story about the botched catering and just being honest about it. Never any harm done in telling the truth. But her joke about the diabetes was imply in bad taste and her – let’s call it overly enthusiastic – choice of words to comment on the spectacular vistas was really very badly chosen.
It’s been a long time since I last visited Berlin, probably twelve years or so. My recent trip for the inauguration of the Air France A220 doesn’t count, because that time I continued to Vienna after a short layover of about two hours. This time around I’ll actually be leaving the airport and spending two nights in the city.
Some of the more regular readers to this blog will probably know that this year’s plan was to make the best of Covid 19, by visiting the many sights of Europe without having to deal with all the overseas tourist. So far I’ve ticked off the bucket list:
Le Chateau de Versailles in Paris
La Gioconda in the Louvre Museum in Paris
A night at the Opéra de la Bastille in Paris
La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris
The Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel in Rome
The Colosseum in Rome
St. Peter’s in Rome
The Duomo di Milano
Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna
A night at the Staatsoper in Vienna
Linzer Torte in Linz
In Berlin, my aim is to finally visit the Pergamon Museum to see its reconstruction of the famour Ishtar Gate.
But first things first. The narrative begins as I am ejected from security into the airside duty free at Zürich airport. It’s just gone 17h30, and even though security was quiet, there are a lot of people airside. The airport is already decked out for Christmas, which is nice. But I must say that Covid 19 doesn’t really give me the warm and fuzzies, so it’s not as though I’m in much of a Christmas mood yet.
My first attempt to enter the SWISS lounge is foiled by the long queue to enter. It looks like there are more people inside the lounge than outside. And there isn’t a mask to be seen inside either. Okay, maybe not then…
So I go for a bit of a walkbout. Which is nice too, becaue it gives you an interesting, if not pretty, glimpse into the strangeness of the human race…
I also spot one of SWISS’ new A 321NEOs pulling onto its stand. Like WizzAir, SWISS has opted for a configuration with only one door on either side before the wing and two overwing hatches.
Just before 18h00 I decide to try my luck again. I’ve had enough of mankind anyway, and the maskless shaker-movers in the lounge have mostly dispersed.
SWISS has a separate Senator lounge and a Business Class lounge in Zürich. As on my previous visit, they have the connecting door between the two lounges open and passengers can sit in either one or the other. Shortly after I enter though, they start removing the buffet and prepare to shut down the Business Class lounge.
I wasn’t planning on eating anything in the lounge. But a man is only so strong… have I mentioned that I love Spätzli? I think there is not very much I wouldn’t do for a plate of that doughy goodness. As it turns out, later on I will be grateful for having next to zero discpline where food is concerned…
My boarding pass says that boarding will start at 18h10 for an 18h30 departure. But when I arrive at the gate just after 18h15, boarding is already in the final stages.
I’m seated on the window seat, on 2F. The middle seat is kept empty, and there are two bottles of SWISS’ famous, iconic no-brand water and two refreshing towels on the middle seat.
I’m not sure how many times exactly the aircraft type for this flight changed since I booked it. At some point it looked as though it might be an A 320NEO, but thankfully my kneecaps and two herniated discs have been spared, and instead the flight is operated by the slightly less tight A 320CEO.
I think there are seven or eight rows of Business Class, and while the Business Class cabin is not sold out, I’d say it’s a fairly good load.
As we taxi out, the purser informs us that on today’s flight wifi is available. And as the system is still being tested, the service is complimentary for all passengers. I give it a try, but at no point during the flight am I able to log in. But it’s not that important to me anyway.
The two female cabin crew are both German and make the snow queen look like a very chirpy people person. They’re not rude or anything, but just totally lacking in anything that might remotely be recognised as an interest in their passengers. Probably it doesn’t help that 1D is either a Senator or a HON and is hellbent on making sure that everybody, probably even the guy on row 31, knows just how experienced a flyer he is. Honestly, the guy would put me is a foul mood too.
The meal is served with the plastic still on it, which I’m assuming is due to Covid 19. And sweet baby Jesus, what in the name of creation is this meal supposed to be anyway?
The main dish is two slices of some kind of dried meat with a few limp leaves of salad on top of it and a globule of pumkin flavoured gelatine.
And a dollop of… mayonnaise? Just in case the whole thing wasn’t already greasy enough.
The meal’s saving grace are the two slices of cheese.
And for dessert, it’s more gelatine – this time of the sweet variety. Let nobody every say SWISS catering is boring.
At least they didn’t forget to dish out the little chocolates, as they have a tendency of doing on Austrian Airlines.
We land after a flight time of one hour and ten minutes and I’m really glad to be allowed off the plane. Our stand is more or less in the middle of the terminal. Even so, it’s still quite a schlepp from the gate to the exit.
My hotel is near Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten. I could take the S9, which is a direct service that takes about 55 minutes to make the journey from the airport. But that won’t be leaving for another 18 minutes. So I catch a train to Ostkreuz, which takes 15 minutes, and then from there a S5 service to Zoologischer Garten. Even with the change at Ostkreuz, the journey is shorter and only takes 42 minutes to complete.
It’s been more than 18 months since I last visited Malta, and I’m seriously starting to have withdrawal symptoms. Add to that the fact that it has rained pretty much every day here in Switzerland since mid-June, and I’m feeling positively ecstatic at the prospect of some sunshine!
I booked this trip at relatively short notice (one week before departure). Even so, I was still able to secure a miles tickets in Business Class on SWISS for the outbound, which suggests that tourist traffic to Malta is still only just picking up again. It probably also helps that the school summer holidays are nearing the end in Switzerland, which means that most of the traffic on the route will be heading back north at this stage.
As per 11 August 2021, passengers from the Schengen area are required to complete the PLF form, that Italy is also using, to enter Malta by plane. You need to create a login before you can complete the form. Once you’re done, you will receive a mail confirmation that you must be able to present at boarding and upon arrival on the island – either in print or digital form.
About a week before my departure, I start receiving almonst daily mails from SWISS, reminding me to check the entry requirements for Malta and to ensure that I have completed all the necessary paperwork before I depart. SWISS’ approach is sensible and makes a lot of sense to me. I think it’s clear that we’re all going to have to come to terms with the fact that Covid19 is here to stay, so we better start getting used to it. It is every individual’s own responsibility to stay safe and with that, to decide how much they are willing to let this virus run their lives.
Getting to the airport
The flight to Malta departs at 12h15. I have not been to Zürich airport in six months, and I have no idea what the situation will be when I get there. So I take the 08h33 train from Basel, which runs nonstop to Zürich main station in 49 minutes. In Zürich I change trains to the airport, where I arrive at 09h42 with plenty of time to spare.
The second class carriages are quite full, but I have a First Class carriage nearly all to myself!
Considering how crowded the trains are, I’m expecting the airport to be very busy. But much to my surprise it’s quiet. There are people, but it’s certainly not as busy as it used to be.
I’ve already checked in online, but I don’t fancy schlepping around my suitcase. So the first stop is one of the Business Class check-in counters in Check-in 1, the home of SWISS and the Lufthansa group.
The young lady is friendly and efficient. She tags my bag, issues the boarding pass and wishes me a safe journey and a great holiday. As I turn to leave, she eyes my Maltese passport: “I’ve never seen one of these…”. Yes, I know. I get that quite often… she does not ask to see the completed entry form or my Covid certificate.
My next stop is security. There is a dedicated entrance to the checkpoint for First and Business Class passengers. Not that it matters today, because the place is deserted and I can just walk straight up to any one of the entrances without having to wait at all.
SWISS Business Class lounge for Schengen flights
The lounge situation in Zürich is a bit confusing right now. When I arrive, the Business Class lounge is closed, so all passengers must use the Senator lounge instead. Initially, the place is far from crowded. However, as the time for the midday bank of departures approaches, the place begins to fill up until eventually they have no other choice but to open the Business Class lounge too.
The lounge is well stocked and SWISS seem to have upped their game with the catering. Due to COVID19, there is no longer a buffet, but there’s a very charming lady behind the counter serving passengers. There is a choice of warm or cold breakfast sets, but they’re quite generous and willing to provide you any other combination of dishes you might request.
Much to my surprise, by the time I leave the lounge just after 11h30, there’s a queue forming at the entrance. I’m not entirely sure if this is because of social distancing or because the lounge is just too busy.
My flight is boarding from gate A56, which is good news and bad. It’s good news, because it means the aircraft is parked on a remote stand. So I’ll get to take a few pictures. It’s bad news though, because gate A56 is in a dreadful hovel that was erected provisionally many moons ago but that they then conveniently forgot to tear down again. It’s small, and cramped and simply not large enough for all the people waiting to board their flights at the same time. There are people everywhere!
It’s not until boarding for my flight starts that I realise what the problem is: in order to maintain social distancing, they’re only allowing about 35 passengers per bus. Which means that even for our small Airbus A 220-100 with a load of only 84 passengers they still need to use three busses.
I wait to board the last bus. And all my woes are forgotten to moment we pull up next to our aircraft for today’s flight. Well hello, Sweetness…!
There are five rows of Business Class for a total of 15 seats, of which twelve are occupied today. Right in front of me is an obnoxious old bat, who won’t even let her poor husband sit by himself. So instead of taking advantage of an empty seat next to her on the row of two, with him on the aisle seat on the other side, she insists that he sits with her on the twin seat. She spends the rest of the flight chatting at the top of her voice. Thank God for the Sony WH-1000XM4 earphones I remembered to pack this time. Let me see, the Sisters of Mercy should do the trick to drown out the sound of her horrible voice droning on… “… she looks good in ribbons…just walk away…”.
Oh yes, and there’s a bottle of still water at my seat when I arrive. Excuse me while I go off on a tangent, because this is yet another instance of useless SWISS marketing rubbish: according to the SWISS website, the water is bottled exclusively for SWISS in Glarus, from a source at an elevation of 1156 metres. Hence the name. The website also tells us that the bottle comes in a ‘distinctive design’. I mean, I’ve lived in Switzerland long enough to know how much pride they take in the spectacular beauty of the Swiss Alps. Even so, I’m pretty sure most people honestly won’t give a rat’s bum about the altitude at which the source is, as long as they can rest assured that taking a sip of the bottle is not likely to give them diphtheria or something equally disturbing. And second, with all due respect, a distinctive design is the timeless shape of the Perrier bottle or the iconic Evian logo. But not this.
So the bottome line, boys and girls, is that SWISS serves a no name brand of still water that nobody has ever heard of. But they’re trying to pretend it’s because it’s so exclusive.
The crew on this flight is absolutely brilliant. I really cannot praise them enough, especially the maître de. If every SWISS crew were like this, I seriously wouldn’t bother flying any other airlines. The maître de is German. His announcements are clear, properly enunciated and nicely structured to form well-rounded and grammatically correct and coherent sentences in both German and in English. What’s more, he makes a point of remiding passengers repeatedly during the flight about the requirement to wear a face mask.
During the service, his interaction with the passengers is charming and easy going. Honestly, it’s a joy being taken care of by him! But first, let’s get the flight underway…
The meal is a very pleasant surprise. The maître de informs me that there’s going to be a hotmeal for lunch and there are two choices. The meat option is beef meatballs, whereas the vegetarian option is rice with grilled vegetables.
I decide to go with the meatballs pretty much the moment he mentions that they are served with mashed potatos and green beans in a creamy mushroom sauce. Total sucker for the mash here.
Also on the tray, there is a salad of mixed leaves with sunflower seeds.
A plate of soft and hard cheese. I have no idea what cheese it is, and at altitude everything tastes different anyway. My guess would be that the soft cheese is a French Camembert, whereas the hard cheese is probably a Gruyère.
There is also a selection of dark and white bread and crackers and a small bottle of vinaigrette for the salad.
And finally, for dessert there is a slice of rhubarb crumble with raspberry coulis and what I’m guessing is either a vanilla or white chocolate mousse.
To drink with that I have a glass of apple juice, which the maître de serves me together with a glass of sparkling water without me even having to ask for it.
To complete the meal, I ask for a mint tea, which is served with a small piece of chocolate. SWISS serves Sirocco tea on its flights. Now that, to me, would be a lot more worthwhile to mention if I were SWISS. Sirocco is a very old Swiss company that has been in the tea trading business for over a hundred years. Their teas are excellent, and apart from the more traditional blends, they also have a few fairly unusual and very tasty ones too.
The quality of the food is very good, well done SWISS. The salad is not at all limp and the main course is just very tasty and filling.
The flight passes surprisingly quickly. There’s a lot of heat haze, making it difficult to see the ground. I can barely make out that we’re just leaving the coastline behind and figure that must by Sicily. So it can’t be much longer.
Our approach into Malta is quite unusual. I’m not sure I’ve actually ever arrived like this. We’re making the approach from the southeast. What is unusual, is that we’re flying down along Malta’s southern coast, putting the island on our left. We pass Filfla island below and continue out to sea, past Malta, before eventually turning back to line up with runway 13.
The Med looks lovely, with the sun glittering on the surface. The pilot informs us that the temperature on the ground is 39 degrees Celsius, and expected to rise to a high of 41 degrees before it starts to cool down again. As soon as we cross the shoreline, the aircraft is hit by the hot air rising, making the last few minutes of the descent rather bumpy. But we land safely. Malta l-hanina, I’ve missed you, 18 months is too long, and I’m so glad to be back!
There are only three aircraft standing on the apron, one Air Malta A 320, a Ryanair B 737-800 and the Emirates B 777-300. However, right behind us, another Air Malta, then a Ryanair and an Easyjet arrive.
We’re parked on a remote stand away form the terminal, which means we’re going to have to take a bus to arrivals. By the time I arrive at the luggage belt a short while later, my suitcase is already there. Behind customs is the health check that all passengers have to go through upon arrival on the islands. You will need to show your passport, the completed health declaration form and your Covid certificate if you ticked the box that you are fully vaccinates. The process is fairly painless and efficient. There are twenty counters open processing arriving passenger.
With that out of the way, it’s time to make my way to the hotel.
Man, what a rathole! I disembark from my flight from Paris at 14h40. Boarding for my next flight should start in ten minutes. But apparently, connecting from the French sector to the Schengen area is not really foreseen in Geneva. And so I end up going up and down a whole set of ugly and narrow corridors, at the end of which I am ejected in front of a security check point. Okay, fine…
The airport is very busy and crowded. There are people sitting on the floor everywhere. The SWISS lounge is one floor up from the gate area. Turn left and right a few times and eventually you should get there…
The SWISS Business Class lounge Genève
If my First Class departure from Zürich were on the same day, I’d be entitled to use the First and Hon lounge in Geneva, but because my departure is still more than two weeks away, it’s the regular Business Class lounge for me today. And it’s quite nice. It’s a descent size and rather empty this afternoon.
The flight is delayed by twenty minutes because of an incident with a dog on the runway earlier on. Boarding will be from gate A02.
… is a complete mess. There are grumpy passengers pushing and shoving everywhere. At some point, a Portuguese speaking mother boards with her baby in a pram and what looks like the combined baggage allowance of about twenty passengers. Oh yes, and she‘s also decided that standing in the middle of the aisle is a brilliant place to make a phone call. Eventually, the passenger behind her explains that she has a tight connection in Zürich, so it would be really good for the mother to get out of the way to let the other passengers board quickly.
So the mother quickly dumps her stuff in five overhead bins and then vanishes behind the curtain to find her seat in Economy Class.
Of course this isn‘t any of SWISS‘ fault. There are annoying passengers on every airline. But I do also think it might have helped if the crew had been in the cabin to help the poor woman, instead of hiding in the forward galley and doing a bloody convincing impersonation of somebody who is both blind and deaf.
Which brings me, of course, to the crew on this flight. Upon entering the aircraft, there is one male crew standing in the galley. He has one job, to say hello and welcome to passengers as they step aboard, but apparently even that is too much to ask.
Instead, he just stands there in his waistcoat, which is really not doing anything to hide just how badly fitting and tight the uniform is. He hasn‘t bothered to close the top button of his shirt either and looks, in short, like a complete and utter slob.
And just to make sure there‘s as little interaction as possible, the usual refreshing towel and bottle of water have been placed on the seats before boarding.
The meal service consists of one of the sandwiches they usually serve in Economy on international flights. The slob shoves the tray under my nose, without as much as asking if I‘d like to eat anything. I ask him what‘s in the sandwich, but he just shrugs and continues to ignore me. Turns out it‘s mozzarella with mushrooms and hits the spot nicely.
The purser quickly hands out chocolates, again without saying a word. Oh yes, and there is no drinks service. Apparently, the welcome drink was it.
Luckily, it‘s not a long flight and we land in Zürich at 16h30 after a short flight of 30 minutes.
The difference between Air France and SWISS on these two flights was like night and day. The Air France staff on the ground and in the air were so friendly and nicely turned out. The interaction with them was just brilliant and really left a good impression.
The SWISS crew, on the other hand, were really not good. They have zero motivation, they look as though they’re really unhappy to be there and resent you for actually making them work. I’m aware of that fact that a short hop of thirty minutes hardly gives any airline an opportunity to shine and interact with the customer. But even so, I have to say that on this flight it really felt like they were intentionally not making the effort.
Yesterday, on Sunday afternoon, I flew back from London Heathrow to Basel just as the chaos of another epic IT failure started to unfold in Heathrow. The upshot of that being that I had to spend three hours sitting in agony in BA’s painfully cramped Economy Class to make a journey that normally should only last a bit more than an hour. So as you may well imagine, I didn’t really fancy getting on a plane again on Monday. But this is for work, and I guess there are worse things to have to endure than SWISS’ Business Class.
Getting to the Airport
My flight is scheduled to depart at 17h35. I catch the 16h24 train from Winterthur, which arrives in Zürich Airport at 16h40. The airport is very quiet, which may have something to do with the fact that I think it’s the public school skiing holiday, when a lot of people head for the slopes with their families. All the better for me, because it means there are only very short queues for security.
I haven’t really got that much time left before boarding begins, so I figure I might as well head to the gate directly. I take a few pictures of my aircraft on the way.
Boarding starts on time. And I’m pleased to say that they appear to have implemented some changes to the check-in system which trigger an alarm if passengers try to board before their boarding group is called. It makes the whole process a lot more efficient.
There are four rows of Business Class on today’s flight, for a total of twelve seats. However, only six of the seats are occupied and the load in Economy Class doesn’t appear to be all that heavy either.
I rather like the cabin layout SWISS has on the A 220-300. It’s a very comfortable experience for the passenger. The only thing I don’t like is the colour scheme, which looks rather bland and drab.
Another thing I really like on the A 220, is the Business Class loo, which is very roomy and large enough for me to be able to stand up straight in front of the sink. Usually, on the A 320 the curvature of the hull makes it impossible to stand upright.
The crew in the cabin consists of three young females. The maître de is 26 years old. She was married to a guy from Antigua and she really just couldn’t imagine living in the US, which is why he moved to Switzerland after they got married. But that only lasted for two years, because you know, honestly, after two years she’d really just had enough and couldn’t stand being married anymore. Like. I can also tell you what she studied and then broke off, what she’s currently studying, what she wants to do in future, and where she gets her nails done.
Don’t get me wrong, she’s actually very good at her job. She’s just a little Miss Chatterbox and clearly unaware of the fact that yes, the A 220 really has got very quiet engines indeed.
The service on the ground is the usual packaged towel and still water.
We make our way to runway 28 for departure. The weather really is quite dreary here today…
Much to my surprise, there’s a full meal service, depsite the short flight time. There is no choice for the meal. But I like that every passenger is served individually from the galley.
The main course
The main course is roast beef (bleeach…!) with potato salad, pickled radishes and carrots.
The meal is served with the usual small plate of Swiss cheese.
The crew pass through the cabin twice offering warm bread rolls.
And for dessert there is a Läckerli cream thingy (you better google that one…). And as if I haven’t had enough sweetness for one day, I have a coffee to finish the meal, which is served with a little SWISS chocolate.
The roast beef is so not my thing. But the potato salad is quite okay and the dessert is just lovely.
Before I manage to finish the coffee, we’ve already started our descent into Prague, where eventually we land on time. The one thing I never fully understood about Prague is that although the airport is quite large, it’s also usually fairly empty. At least when I visit. And today is no exception, there are only a few aircraft standing around.
Getting into town
Public transport to and from the airport is a bit tricky in Prague. There is a bus that will take you to the closest metro station. But there is no rail link from the airport to the city. The hotel has organised a car to pick me up though, which makes the journey into town in about twenty minutes.