Date: 19 July 2012 From: Montreal To: Amsterdam Airline: KLM Aircraft: MD-11 Cabin: Business Class Seat: 1A
It’s 16h10. My speech before ICAO is over and I am sitting in a taxi on my way to the airport. The trip to the airport costs 40 Canadian dollars, it’s a flat rate.
The driver drops me off at the international terminal, right outside the entrance to the section where Air France/KLM have their counters. I reprint my boarding pass and head through security. Strangely enough, there does not seem to be any sort of immigration, just a guy standing in the middle of the aisle who wants to see my passport and then that’s it. I have left the country.
The Air France KLM Lounge
The Air France lounge is rather nice. In fact I’d say it’s much better than any of the lounges of Air France I’ve ever seen in Paris. Luckily enough the place is not very busy, the earlier one of the Air France flights has just been called. For me this means that I will not have to wait for my turn for a shower.
The showers are nice. As I enter, I am given a kit of l’Occitane cosmetics and a set of nice, fluffy towels.
I change from my suit back into my travel gear and feel refreshed and clean.
Boarding for the 19h15 departure begins very early at 18h20. I’m kind of bored in the lounge so I figure I might as well go for a walk about and then get on the plane.
I’m the first passenger in the forward Business Class cabin, which gives me the chance to take a few pictures. As on the previous flight, the general impression of the cabin is a good one. The plane is old, but well maintained. Today I’m sitting in the forward Business Class cabin.
Our departure from Montreal is everything I had hoped for: its powerful and noisy. The engines spool up and I can feel the vibration of their rumble somewhere in my rib cage. And the views are nice too!
Again the crew on this flight is very friendly and very professional. As soon as they spot me, two of them come up to me and offer to take my jacket. I am informed that the flying time will only be a short five hours and 48 minutes today and that the flight will be full in all classes.
Next another flight attendant brings me the vanity kit – the same as on the previous leg – and asks if I would like a drink. Orange juice it is.
Once the seatbelt sign goes off, the inflight service begins with the distribution of hot towels and then the menus. Outside the sun has started to set. It’s going to be a short night.
This is followed by the first drinks service and the taking of orders for dinner. I have a Ginger Ale with the warm nuts.
The First Course
Jamaican-style chicken with aubergine and cherry tomatoes.
The Main Course
For the main course there are three options: Braised beef with mashed potatoes, carrots and onions; pasta with artichokes and a Marinara sauce or Atlantic salmon with rice. I go with the beef and it is very tasty!
Camembert and Cantal Cheese with seasonal fruit. But I am tired and already full, so I give this one a miss and try to get some sleep. I think in our cabin nobody had the cheese.
Surprisingly, the seat turns out to be a lot more comfortable than expected. Even so, I think I would not want to have to endure a flight of 12 hours or so in one of these seats.
The Second Service
I manage to get some decent sleep. When I awaken again, we are only 80 minutes out of Amsterdam. One of the flight attendants notices I’m awake and asks if I’d like breakfast. Of course I do!
Breakfast consists of cold cuts and cheese, a bowl of fruit and a choice of either a Frittata or a pastries selection consisting of a cinnamon roll, croissant and a bun with butter and strawberry jam. With that I have a coffee and an orange juice.
The scenery outside is spectacular and dramatic with low clouds and the early morning sun penetrating through the different levels of cloud to produce some spectacular effects.
We land on runway 18R, that’s the far away one. They’re also doing approaches on the parallel runway 18C, which for us means an even longer taxi than usual as we have to taxi to the end of 18C and go around the threshold so as not to interfere with the landing aircraft.
And thus my possibly last MD-11 flight comes to an end and I really feel reluctant to get off the plane.
The MD-11 was not a lucky aircraft and she was certainly no commercial success. But I also think she is better than her reputation. As for the MD-11 operation at KLM, I think it is quite apparent that without further heavy investment to upgrade the cabin of the aircraft, the airline will no longer have a competitive product here. Quite understandably though, at this stage of the game it seems unlikely that the new KLM long-haul Business Class cabin will ever grace the inside of an MD-11. I think KLM offers a really sound product in terms of the professionalism of the crew and the quality and quantity of the food. The only draw back right now is their hardware, the seat.
There is no transfer area in LCY. So upon arrival I make my way through arrivals. I stop at the BA desk and ask them to remove the Hindu Meal from my PNR, then take the stairs one floor up, go through security again and arrive airside once more.
Date: 6 April 2012, Good Friday Airline: British Airways Aircraft: Airbus A 318 From: London City via Shannon To: New York JFK Class: Business Class Seat: 5J
I head for Gate 24, which is the dedicated gate for the JFK flight and has been converted into a sort of mini-lounge.
Gate 24 is equipped with thirty-two seats for the passengers of Speedbird One. The staff are all exceedingly friendly and lend the entire event an air of being something special. Is it just me, or is there really a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air? I sit down and try to calm down. A friendly lady comes to offer me a glass of champagne and seems almost disappointed when I ask for a glass of still water with lemon and ice. I busy myself with completing the immigration and customs forms for the US, more to keep me occupied and hopefully to soothe my nerves.
And then suddenly, out of the blue it comes. It’s so short I nearly miss it. But I do hear it! The gate attendant slowly opens the door and a breath of fresh, cool air floods the small area of gate 24. And then it comes: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, BA 1 to New York JFK is now ready for boarding’.
So here was are again, and I’m finally on board Speedbird One. Only three seats remain empty. First impressions of the cabin are very good. The first thing that strikes me is that there are no over-wing exists on this bird. This is cool. The atmosphere on board is very laid back and relaxed. I’m not the only one taking pictures. The crew are, like their colleagues on the ground, very friendly. I am asked if this is my first time on The Speedbird One. I confirm that it is and I am promised that I’ll enjoy the ride. I hope so!
On board there are only 32 Business Class seats in a 2-2 configuration.
There is a nice fluffy pillow and a blanket on every seat.
Departure is to the West. This will only be a short hop for the A 318. Our take off is pretty much what I imagine departing an aircraft carrier to be like: first the throttle is pushed forward, the noise inside the cabin increases and the aircraft begins to gently sway back and forth. But nothing happens until, suddenly, the breaks are released and we go thundering down the runway. What fun! It’s really quite amazing how quickly we’re airborne!
An aperitif and the starter are served on the short leg to Shannon. I’m looking forward to this and I’m already enjoying this flight a lot, even before anything much actually happens! And then that Hindu Asian Meal rears its ugly head again. I am brought a plate with two skewers of fruit. Fig, date and raspberry to be precise. I explain that the Hindu Meal is a mistake. But alas, the pea and marjoram pie I had set my eyes on is already gone anyway by the time the crew reaches row five. All that is left is the salted beef with tomatoes and a few leaves of ruccola. Oh okay, perhaps the skewers will do just fine after all…
To drink I have a Coke Zero with that. I know, an awful combination but what will you?
Service is efficient and friendly. The food is served from a lovely, large, round silver tray. And then it is already time to land. Just before we do, a member of the cabin crew comes by and takes orders for the main course on the next leg.
Immigration in Shannon
Immigration at Shannon airport is a strange affair, and rather depressing. The terminal looks shabby from the outside. And although it may look better from the inside, the deserted terminal does not in any way help to lift spirits. The derelict aircraft littered across the airfield and parts of what used to be the MALEV fleet do not help matters.
But at least they have a vending machine and I buy myself a rather overpriced packet of salt and vinegar crisps to keep me going until I finally get something on the plane. There’s even another mini lounge for passengers of the flight. The guy at immigration is friendly enough and we have a nice little natter as he checks my passport and visa.
The wait is not a long one and very soon we’re allowed on board the aircraft again to continue our flight to New York.
After take off from Shannon the amenity kits and iPads are distributed. The amenity kits are small and contain a toothbrush, toothpaste, eye shades, socks and ear plugs. Everything you need. And a few creams I don’t use anyway.
The iPads appear to be a newer feature. In fact the inner armrest opens to reveal a contraption that was obviously originally intended for a small DVD player to be mounted on it. But with the iPad it has become superfluous. The iPads come in a nice soft leather cover that elegantly converts into a stand. The film selection is not bad at all. The main feature is ‘the Iron Lady’ which I saw a couple of weeks previously when I was in Amsterdam. No matter what you might think or say about Margaret Thatcher, the film is absolutely brilliant. Or rather Meryl Streep is. In a way it’s quite as though she plays two roles in one film. There is the ruthless and ambitious first female British Prime Minister on the one hand, and a frail, sad and lost, pathetic old woman suffering from dementia on the other.
The Meal, continued…
The second service starts with another drinks round. I have a glass of apple juice. It comes with a bag of salty nibbles.
I am still haunted by the curse of the Hindu Vegetarian Meal. The salad is fine, it is quite large and has lots of ruccola in it to give it flavour.
The bread looks and smells delicious, with a hint of sage in it. But I have no butter. I have margarine. But one must look at the positive side. Normally I find myself deliberating whether to use the unhealthy but oh so lovely butter or dip the bread into what’s left of the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. With the meal I have sparkling water to drink.
Then comes the hot meal. I take the fish and it is excellent and the mashed potatoes with saffron are a delight. Really, it’s one of the best pieces of fish I’ve ever had on a plane. It’s remained moist and the breadcrumb crust on it is simply amazing and goes well with the dill sauce and the sautéed asparagus and carrots.
The Main Course
Dessert is a choice between a very lovely sounding raspberry fool with chocolate and other goodies or cheese with crackers and chutney. The Hindu Vegetarian Meal however, gets strawberries in a…ehm…strawberry sauce. I try it and decide to give it a pass.
Once the meal is over the crew remove the trays and place a bottle of water and a small bar of Lindt Milk Chocolate at every seat.
As large slabs of ice drift by 38’000 feet below, my contemplations shift to The Speedbird One. It’s rather difficult to describe the experience. Perhaps the most obvious thing to do is to compare the actual flight experience and match it against what I was anticipating it to be like ahead of the journey. For sure this is not a First Class experience, even if you earn First Class miles for taking this flight over the normal service from Heathrow. The A 318 is a very small aircraft and LCY is a very small airport and both have their limitations.
As for the fuel stop in Shannon, I think if you’re heading to New York or the States this probably is the most hassle free way to do it. But it also makes it more difficult for you to settle into the flight the way you usually can on a mid-haul flight. Because you know that in one hour’s time you’ll have to pack up everything again. But the immigration process is smooth and convenient and gives you enough time to visit the loos before setting off again.
And then there is the hardware. The cabin has a very fresh and attractive feel to it and the high back of the seat also makes it quite private. As for the software, I think this is really where the staff at British Airways excel and make the journey on The Speedbird One something outstanding and special. A journey to remember. I like it, yes. I will use it again, yes.
The Second Service
And now it’s time for tea already. And it is a very lovely affair. Egg and watercress sandwich, beef and tomato sandwich and a chicken and coleslaw sandwich, served with a plain scone with clotted cream, strawberry preserves, fresh strawberries and two small but very tasty pastries. And a nice cup of tea to go with that. The Brits have such refined habits!
Shortly after we already begin our descent.
That’s when one of the flight attendants comes up to me and asks me what I’m taking all the pictures for. I explain what I do professionally, about Concorde and The Speedbird One. She listens and then she leaves. A few minutes later she returns to tell me the captain would like to meet me after we arrive.
And indeed, when we do I’m the last passenger to deplane and as I do, the purser simply says ‘they’re expecting you’ and opens the door to the ‘office’ for me. That captain and co-pilot are very friendly and obviously very proud of ‘their’ aircraft. We chat very openly about their profession and mine and then, just as I turn to leave, the captain gives me the flight plan and a map of the North Atlantic with the route we took drawn on it. A souvenir he says, shakes my hand and wishes me Happy Easter. I deplane grinning inanely like some imbecile. How nice of him! This is the kind of behaviour I witnessed with all the staff on the ground and in the air operating this flight. They were all very professional in their dealings with passengers and all displayed the same passion for their job and for this little airplane in particular. Admirable!
Getting into Town
At JFK, British Airways operates its own terminal which it shares with some of its Oneworld partners, United and a few others. Having done immigration in Shannon, arrival in The States is a painless affair. Only 15 minutes after I deboard I’m on the air train taking me to Jamaica station, from where I take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan.
My visit to Concorde and the Intrepid museum was very cool. The tour of Concorde included a guided tour that even took us inside the aircraft to look around. The guide was a friendly enough sort, but not very knowledgeable about Concorde. But I didn’t mind, as I had only made the journey to see her again up close and personal.
The Speedbird is the call sign of British Airways. The Speedbird emblem made its first appearance in commercial aviation as early as 1932, when it adorned the fleet of aircraft of Imperial Airways – aircraft with majestic sounding names, such as the Handley-Page Hermes, the Hannibal or the Victor.
In later years, when Imperial Airways had long been merged into BOAC, the Speedbird really came into its own. It was increased in size and assumed a more prominent position on the tails of the fleet, ablaze in hues of gold against a dramatic black backdrop.
And then, many years later still, amidst the turmoil, controversy and scandal that surrounded the introduction of the World Tails, the Speedbird remained the one reliable and dependable constant of the brand identity of the World’s Favourite Airline.
Today, eighty years after its inception, the Speedbird still soars. In its current design it has become a mere stylised ribbon and is referred to officially as the Speedmarque. It is a testimony to the talent and genius of Theyre Lee-Elliott, the graphic designer who invented the Speedbird in a time long gone by, in the very early days of aviation. Over the years, the Speedbird has evolved and matured to become perhaps one of the most iconic symbols for the achievements of aviation.
Of the many aircraft that bore with pride the emblem of the Speedbird through the decades, Concorde must be, without a doubt, the one most deserving of it. Over the last few months I have researched extensively the development history of Concorde for professional reasons. As a kind of side effect, so to speak, I found myself increasingly drawn by the lure of this legendary aircraft and that mythical call sign that for such a long time had been the prerogative of Concorde – synonymous with speed and luxury – the lure of Speedbird One…
And so it came that I decided to travel to New York for the Easter break in search of any vestiges of Concorde that may remain along her signature route between London and New York. And in a way that is really what this trip is all about: to pay homage to one of the most beautiful aircraft to ever grace the skies – a technical marvel – and the people who built such an outstanding piece of engineering.
My pilgrimage would include a visit to the Intrepid Museum of course, to pay my respects to the beautifully preserved British Airways Concorde standing on the pier there near the Intrepid. And how would I get there? Yes, simple really. A Speedbird will take me there of course.
In 2009 British Airways decided to resurrect the legendary Speedbird One with the launch of direct services from London’s City Airport to New York’s JFK. To this end, the airline acquired two A 318s in a Business Class only configuration with 32 seats. Payload restrictions at LCY require the aircraft to make an intermediate stop in Shannon in Ireland to refuel. Just like the good old days really. Passengers clear US immigration in Shannon while the aircraft is refuelled, thus putting to good use the necessary interruption of their journey and making the overall journey time from door to door comparable to that on a nonstop flight from London’s congested Heathrow to New York’s even more congested and crowded JFK.
Getting to the Airport
I wake up early on Good Friday. My home for the night at Amsterdam airport is the CitizenM, which I’ve stayed at many times and always greatly enjoy. The hotel is very conveniently located within walking distance of the terminal complex. But that is not its most appealing feature, of course not. It also has rooms overlooking the apron.
Date: 6 April 2010, Good Friday Airline: British Airways Cityflyer Aircraft: Embraer E-175 From: Amsterdam To: London City Class: Business Class Seat: 1F
This is a special trip, so I decide to treat myself to something special to celebrate. Yes, today I will be old fashioned and check-in at a check-in counter, one with a real human being sitting behind it who asks you if would prefer a window or an aisle seat and, in the good old days, if you’re smoking or non-smoking.
The British Airways Lounge
The queue for passport control is short for citizens of the EU and from there it’s only a short walk to lounge 40, operated by or for BA. The interior is very typically English. Food and drinks offerings are not bad either. But like the Skyteam lounge in Zurich, this one does not have a toilet either.
What the lounge also has though, is an elderly gentlemen at reception who makes boarding announcements.
As usual in Amsterdam, the gate is quite a trek from the gate, so I make sure I leave enough time to get there.
Despite the limited size of the aircraft, the cabin has a nice spacious feel about it. It probably helps that British Airways keep one of the seats on a row of two empty in Business Class, which is pretty much the industry standard on intra-European flights these days.
Departure is from the notoriously distant Polderbahn, which means we are treated to the grand tour of Schiphol airport as we trundle along on a 10 minutes long taxi. Take-off occurs some 14 minutes after we move off stand. Flying time is announced as a very short 40 minutes.
As soon as we’re airborne, the crew springs into action. That’s when I find out I have a Hindu Vegetarian Meal stored in my Executive Club profile. No idea where that came from. It will come back to haunt my on the next flight. But the cold meal I receive is very tasty, spicy and flavourful. It’s a kind of vegetarian Tikka Masala with pumpkin.
And then, it’s already time to land again.We approach the airport from the East. The steep approach into London City is always good fun!
Date: 25 May 2012 From: Basel To: Frankfurt Airline: Lufthansa Cityline Aircraft: Canadair Regional Jet 700 Class: Business Class Seat: 2F
Getting to the Airport
What a lovely day for flying! My first stop today, of course, is the Swiss railway station, where I pick up some Japanese Yen and some South Korean Won. Basel has three railway stations: there is the German one on the other side of the Rhine, known as the ‘Badischer Bahnhof’. And then there are the French and Swiss stations that are integrated in one building known as Basel SBB.
I collect the cash and then catch the bus line 50 to the airport. The stop is right outside the main door of the building. The journey takes 15 minutes to complete with the airport as the terminus station.
In due course the bus pulls up at the departures level of the Euroairport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg – as the facility is officially known – which is quite empty at this time of day. My flight to Frankfurt leaves at 14h10.
I recently decided that I prefer checking in at the airport to doing it online or via mobile. There is some old-school charm about checking in at the airport. So I walk up to the SWISS Business Class counter and am greeted by a friendly middle-aged woman. The moment she sees on her screen that I am travelling in First to Seoul, her manner changes. She becomes even more courteous and cannot do enough. She even offers to check me in for the flight to Fukuoka, which will not be until the day after tomorrow but is already open for check-in.
She places my boarding passes in a Lufthansa First Class folder, wishes me a pleasant flight and gives me instructions to the lounge.
Before I head upstairs through security I take a quick peek around the newly renovated, extended Easyjet check-in area at Basel airport. Looks rather nice actually!
Security is a breeze, in fact I am the whole queue.
And then I head to the lounge. Quiet as usual! The lounge is operated by Swissport on behalf of Swiss. It is the only lounge at the airport and is also available for passengers on BA. Air France/KLM passengers however, have no access, there is no agreement in place.
In many ways the lounge is like a fossil, it hails from the old days of aviation, when a setup like Crossair and its Eurocross hub at Basel was still regarded as a serious business proposition. Thus, the lounge is positively enormous! It is on two floors and offers some excellent views of the ramp from the upper level.
Departure is delayed by some 20 minutes. Apparently the ILS for one of the runways in Frankfurt is out of order, causing a few delays. When the flight was then ready to leave Frankfurt for the flight to Basel, the crew had exceeded their duty time and a replacement crew had to take over, causing the delay.
There are nine rows of Business Class on this flight. On the Canadair Regional Jet Lufthansa only uses two of the four seats in each row in Business Class. This means that passengers will always have the seat next to them empty.
Whatever you do, if you’re travelling in Business Class with Lufthansa on a CRJ 700, never take a seat on row one. These must be the worst seats in the house, because they are exactly opposite the Business Class toilet. Thus, I am quite happy with my seat on the right-hand side of row two. It is a bulkhead too, but without the pong of the loo in your face all the time.
The crew on this flight consists of two male flight attendants. The younger one of the two has a bit of an attitude issue. But not too bad.
Shortly after take-off the meal is served. Here is the menu.
And it is all quite tasty too! The only thing I do not eat is the poached veal.
Just as I finish the meal, the descent begins. We approach Frankfurt from the south and then make a left turn to fly due west along the length of the airfield, before finally doing a right 180 degree turn back towards the airfield for the final.
I even manage to get a picture of the cockpit. The co-pilot even poses for me!
I then take the complimentary guided bus tour of Frankfurt airport, which eventually drops me off at arrivals somewhere deep in the bowels of the terminal complex.
Part II: The Fun Part
Date: 25 May 2012 From: Frankfurt To: Seoul Incheon Airline: Asiana Airlines Aircraft: Boeing B 747-400 Class: First Class Seat: 2K
From arrivals I head through passport control and then to the Senator lounge. My flight is leaving from B48, which is right beneath the lounge and gives me some excellent photo opportunities as my bird arrives on the inbound flight from Seoul. The lounge is not too crowded and I manage to secure a seat by the window, where I can overlook all the action.
I arrive at gate B48 shortly before boarding begins. First and Business Class passengers have their own dedicated counter. I am the first to pass the gate. An Asiana member of staff introduces herself to me and shows me a piece of paper with the food options for my return flight in a week’s time. She would like to know what I would like to eat on the return so Asiana can prepare the experience for me. Blimey, I do not usually know what I fancy to eat one week in advance.
And then I go aboard my vessel. First impressions of the cabin are good. The colours are perhaps a bit strange – at least I do not fancy them much – and the seat may not be of the latest generation either. But it is rather comfortable and offers a lot of personal space and privacy. There is even a small closet for my shoes.
A day blanket and a pillow have already been placed at my seat when I arrive. In short sequence the cabin crew come by to introduce themselves personally and bring me the excellent BOSE noise cancelling earphones, newspaper, slippers, pjs, immigration and customs forms for arrival in South Korea and, above all, a lovely vanity kit. It is made of the softest leather and contains all sorts of goodies of Bulgari’s Essence de Thé Blanc.
There are six passengers in First Class today. Four seats remain empty.
Once the doors have been closed, two of the flight attendants working the First Class cabin on this flight position themselves in front of the bulkhead. As the purser makes his welcome aboard announcement, the two attendants bow deeply.
Service is everything you can expect it to be from an Asian carrier. The flight attendants pay a lot of attention to detail and are charming and polite. Moreover, they seem very personable in their approach. I am addressed by name and have a nice chat with some of the crew as they bring the food or remove the empty plates. They seem unrushed and very relaxed but very efficient.
Departure is to the east. Traffic is quite light so we do not have long to wait before it is our turn to depart.
Once we’re airborne I make myself comfortable. The flight to Seoul will take about ten hours. I take off my shoes and try the funky red slippers. Their XL is somewhat tight…
Welcome drinks are not served while the boarding process is in progress on Asiana. But once we push back, I am asked if there is anything I would like to drink while we taxi out. I choose a Buck Fizz, which is duly delivered with a small bowl of warm nuts.
Immediately after take-off, the Asiana inflight experience begins and it is truly outstanding. Apart from its excellent crews, catering is definitely one of Asiana’s strongest points.
To drink I have Perrier with lemon and ice. The cabin crew are very attentive. Every time one of them notices my empty glass, I am asked if I would like some more. Moreover, Asiana obviously ‘don’t do’ refills, instead I am given a new glass each time I ask for more Perrier.
We begin with an amuse bouche of grilled bell peppers and diced tomatoes rolled up in grilled eggplant with garlic and basil in a drizzle of olive oil.
Next the table is beautifully laid out for dinner. Asiana has lovely and delicate Fine Bone China and silver cutlery.
Next comes the breadbasket, which also includes some lovely garlic bread.
While airlines like Lufthansa will give you only a portion of Caviar, Asiana gives you the entire jar!
Then we have an antipasto of veal with a roll of marinated eggplant and peppers and shrimps in herbs on a balsamico reduction.
And then comes the carrot soup with pine nuts. This is simply out of this world.
The soup is followed by a mixed salad with either a lemon and yoghurt or a French dressing.
The Main Course
For the main course, one of my favourites: Bibimbap.
The large bowl contains minced beef, marinated cucumber, shitake mushrooms, carrots and two different types of marinated cabbage.
First you poor sesame oil and add some of the spicy pepper paste to the large bowl.
To that you then add the rice and mix all together very well using the metal chopsticks.
You eat the Bibimbap with a tasty kind of seaweed omelette, dried small fish, a light fish broth with spring onion and Kimchi, Korea’s national dish. It is basically a cabbage that is smeared, layer by layer, with a paste made of chillies, garlic, soy sauce and oysters, which is then left to ferment. It is excellent, nourishing, very tasty and so spicy it really helps to clear the tubes if you happen to have a cold!
After the Bibimbap comes the fruit and cheese with crackers and bread.
And then there should have been dessert. But by this stage I am simply too full and so I decline. I opt for an Earl Grey tea instead.
Once the meal is over, I ask to have my bed made up while I change into my pjs. And then off I go to sleepy land until it is time for the next meal. Good night!
The Second Service
I get a few hours of sleep. But I am unsettled and keep tossing and turning. I probably have indigestion…As soon as the crew realise I am awake, I am brought a towel and asked if I would like to have breakfast. To which of course, I say yes! I head for the bathroom to change back into my clothes. When I return, the bedclothes and pjs have been cleared away and there is a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice awaiting me.
Then the table is set once more with the beautiful Fine Bone China and the silver ware. Then comes the breadbasket, which is immediately followed by a tray of preserves for me to choose from.
The first course is a plate of fruit.
The cornflakes are served with milk and a bowl of what must be the tastiest, creamiest and most enjoyable blueberry yoghurt I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy.
After that comes the hot dish. Leek quiche with grilled tomato and a crèpe of sweet and sour chicken breast.
During the meal the coffee and Perrier are refilled regularly.
And then, all too soon, the flight draws to an end and we start our descent into Incheon. Just before we land one of the cabin crew comes by to thank me for having chosen to fly with Asiana. As a farewell present I receive a small designer terracotta pot with a scented candle inside it. Apart from KLM and their famous little Bols-filled town houses, Asiana is the only airline I know of that gives farewell presents. It is only a small gift and I am not really sure what to do with it, but still it is a very nice gesture.
Getting into Town
Incheon is rather quiet when we arrive. Customs and immigration do not take long at all to complete and very quickly I find myself landside.
The journey takes 43 minutes.
This concludes the first part of my journey. What can I say? Asiana were simply amazing, their crew, as well as both the quality and quantity of the food were outstanding.
I’m heading for Montreal, Canada to present a paper at ICAO HQ. I like visiting ICAO. If you’re an aviation nerd like me, ICAO HQ is like some sacred place. It’s also a fascinating building to visit, quite like a museum. There are many artifacts sponsored by the various contracting states, including a beautifully Garuda carved of wood.
The last couple of times I visited ICAO in Montreal, I flew with Air Canada from Geneva and then returned to Zurich with Swiss International Air Lines. Essentially I guess there would have been nothing wrong with doing that again. But I felt compelled to check my other options, to see if there might be any cool routings, airlines or types to get me to Montreal which might convince me to forfeit the comfort of a nonstop, direct flight.
Before long my search brought me to the KLM website. In fact, initially I was wondering if perhaps there might be an opportunity to fly the Air France A380 to Montreal. But by the looks of it, the type no longer serves that route. In any case, my search with KLM yielded that the connection from Basel via Amsterdam to Montreal was not ideal: a layover of seven hours on the outbound and another one of five hours on the inbound. Even so, there was one very convincing argument for me to choose the KLM option just the same: most probably my last chance ever to secure one last flight on the MD-11 before she is withdrawn from service with the Dutch airline.
Date: 17 July 2012 From: Basel To: Amsterdam Aircraft: Fokker F70 Airline: KLM Cityhopper Cabin: Business Seat: 1A
Getting to the Airport
Rather an early start today. My flight to Amsterdam will leave at 07h15 and although there is a fast track for security at Basel airport, I’m not really quite sure what the situation will be. After all, the summer holidays have only just started.
I leave my place at 05h30 to make my way by bus to the airport. Contrary to what I had been expecting, the airport bus is not at all full and security is calm as well.
I arrive at the airport just before 06h00. I still have loads of time to kill but alas no lounge of which to avail myself. So I settle for a cappuccino at the bar at the end of the terminal. The young lady there is quite apparently having a bad hair day and evidently trying hard to pretend as though she hasn’t actually seen me.
I pass my time at the bar sipping my drink and watching the mindless music clips of equally mindless pieces of music they’re showing on MTV.
Shortly before boarding for my flight is expected to begin, I’ve had enough of the mindless music, so I collect my belongings and go for a walk about. I’ve been doing quite a bit of travelling lately, and like some trip down memory lane, I spot some of the types and airlines I recently had the pleasure of using.
Judging by the queue to board the flight, I’d say KLM is doing a roaring trade between Basel and Amsterdam. I’m on 1A, so I decide to board the plane last. As I approach the aircraft, one of the gate attendants approaches me to take my carry-on suitcase off me and label it as hold baggage. I don’t mind actually if she does. But then she spots my Platinum tag and explains that I’m free to take everything on board with me.
The seat next to me is kept empty and the legroom is good.
As with my last KLM experience, the cabin on this bird is in excellent condition. She may be old, but time and some TLC by KLM maintenance have been kind to her. Even so, I can’t wait for the Embraer to come on this route with the beginning of the winter schedule.
I am greeted at the door by a friendly young man in a sharp uniform – the purser of the flight. I place my briefcase in the overhead bin and take off my suit jacket. Before I even have the time to wonder where to place it, the purser stretches out his hand and takes it from me. ‘Shall I hang that up for you, Mr A.?’
I must confess I am a bit impressed. This guy has obviously done his homework and checked the passenger list. I’m also a bit surprised he got my name right. Most people don’t, even after repeated attempts.
This sets the tone for the service of the entire crew on this flight. They are outstanding, very professional and friendly.
Next the purser brings me one of the Swiss daily newspapers. He has others he says, just in case I’d prefer one of those. The doors close, we push back and subsequently begin our taxi to the runway for a departure in a southerly direction from runway 15.
At least we have some good views of the city of Basel before doing a sharp right turn to point the aircraft in a northerly direction towards Amsterdam.
‘Mr. A. will you be joining us for breakfast this morning?’ This is the female flight attendant. I answer with an emphatic and enthusiastic ‘yes’. It was rather early this morning when I left home. The flight attendant opens the meal box for me and places it before me. She explains she will also open the other table for me to put the drinks and my other stuff on it.
The meal consists of an excellent fruit salad of apple, pineapple, grapes and melon; yoghurt of maracuja and orange; a selection of cheese with smoked meats and a small pot of marmalade; and two warm buns with that. There is even a menu!
Overall, it is a very pleasant and filling meal and really hits the spot on such an early flight. As soon as I finish, the meal is removed and I continue to read the paper until we begin the descent.
The weather in Amsterdam is not too hot. It’s drizzling, with low cloud and bad visibility.
We land on the infamous ‘Polderbahn’, which is a 15 minutes taxi away from the apron. In fact it’s so far away from anything that the runway that has its own tower.
We park at the Fokker farm and are subsequently bussed to the terminal.
Transfer in Amsterdam
I have seven hours before my next flight. The plan is to check in for the onward flight to Montreal and then deposit my luggage in the Schengen Transit area before heading into the city. Like that, when I return, I will not have to go through security again with all my stuff.
If only the check-in devices would let me. This is certainly not one of KLM’s finest moments! The first machine won’t read my passport, or the barcode on my boarding pass from the previous flight. So I have no other choice but to manually type in the number of my e-ticket. I finally manage to complete all the necessary information for immigration, the machine confirms that it is printing my boarding pass but in fact nothing actually really happens. No boarding pass. No KLM staff to assist in case of a problem either. Of course not, that’s why they put these machines there, because apparently some financial controller figured the machine could do the job of a human being just as well and hey, who needs human interaction or a personal touch anyway? So eventually I have no choice but to move to the next machine and try my luck again there. This time it works!
I dump my carry-on and my briefcase in a locker, go through customs and head for the city.
Date: 17 July 2012 From: Amsterdam To: Montreal Airline: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Aircraft: MD-11 Cabin: Business Class Seat: 1J
Getting to the Airport
In the early afternoon I head back for the ‘Centraal’ railway station and get on a train for Schiphol. The journey is not even 20 minutes.
I pass through security, collect my luggage from the locker and then from there head up to the KLM Crown Lounge. I figured it would probably be calmer than the lounge in the non-Schengen area as there seem to be quite a few long-haul flights leaving around the same time as us.
The KLM Crown Lounge
I like the Crown Lounge and when I arrive it is not too full either. The midday rush seems to have calmed down already.
About 45 minutes before departure I leave the lounge and make my way to the gate. I still have to go through immigration and I’m assuming I will have to go through a further security check.
Immigration is a quick affair. When I arrive at the gate though, there is already a long queue at the entrance. Fortunately there is a separate lane for SkyPriority passengers. Otherwise I would have been right at the very back of the queue of a very full MD-11 load of passengers. First my passport is checked, then my boarding pass is scanned and then eventually comes the security check before being released into the gate. It’s also my first experience with a naked scanner.
And then finally I am in the gate and I have an intimate moment with the hot bird taking me to Canada this afternoon. The MD-11 really is a quite a babe!
I barely have enough time to take a few pictures when already boarding begins. I’m quite excited!
I am greeted at the door by one male and one female flight attendant. I am instructed to take the second left to me window seat on 1J.
When I arrive, I am left well and truly speechless. The legroom available on row 1 is simply ridiculous! What’s more, there are no overhead bins over the middle row of seats, which only enhances the overall impression of space in the cabin.
The seat itself is everything but state of the art. To be honest I find myself wondering how I’ll possibly be able to sleep on the return leg, which is a night flight. But we’ll get to that in due time. All the same, just like the rest of the cabin, the seat gives the impression of being very well maintained and is really quite comfortable.
The IFE system could do with a revamp as well. But it serves its purpose and works sufficiently well. But it’s no KrisWorld!
One thing I find very interesting is that where other airlines have a curtain to divide the cabin from the space by the front door and the cockpit, KLM has a sliding door. Strangely enough though, only on one aisle, the other side has a curtain.
As on the previous leg, as soon as I take of my jacket a flight attendant appears and offers to put it in the wardrobe for me. This is then followed by the distribution of the vanity kits and a welcome drink service. I just have a glass of still water.
The crew are all very friendly and chatty, but without being nosy.
We push back more or less on time and make our way to the runway. We taxi out behind a company A330. On our way we pass an Aeroflot B767-300 standing at the gate. I had no idea they operated those to Amsterdam as well.
Other than the A330 there is no queue for departure and shortly after the Airbus takes to the skies, it’s our turn. And this is where I am reminded what I like so much about the MD-11: the acceleration, the power and – above all – the noise! Beautiful!
Quite evidently, my suspicion from the previous flight – namely that catering must be one of KLM’s strong points – is confirmed. The meal is not only very tasty but also plentiful.
We start with a drinks and warm nuts. I have a Ginger Ale. Then come the hot towels.
The First Course
Grilled shrimps with cherry tomatoes on potato salad with avocado mousse.
This comes with a side order tomato salad. As the attendant places the tray before me, she offers me some cheese and croutons for topping on the salad.
The Main Course
Chicken breast in a rich gravy with onions, served with mashed potato and mushrooms. There is a selection of three different main courses, but I can’t remember what they were anymore. My apologies!
Lemon tart on a digestive biscuit base, served with strawberries. What strikes me about this meal is the nice presentation. First the black tray makes a change from what you usually find on a plane these days. And then there is this rather intricate pattern, a recurring theme that you find on the tablecloth, the cutlery as well as the chinaware. It’s quite elegant I find and a nice detail.
After this tasty meal I settle down to watch ‘The best exotic Marigold Hotel’. I’m in two minds about the film. First of all it has an interesting line up of some of the finest actors Britain currently has to offer, such as the sublime Judy Dench and the amazing Maggie Smith. At the same time however, the story line seems a bit thin.
The Second Service
And then after that, yes, it’s time for the pre-arrival meal.
Chicken breast strips on a pasta salad with a tomato sugo. This is accompanied by a warm focaccia with mozzarella and tomato sauce. And for dessert a fruit Tiramisu.
And then, as we begin our descent, the cabin come through the cabin with a small farewell gift. It’s quite well-known by now across the world: a little delft house filled with BOLS.
We arrival in Montreal just after a heavy thunderstorm has passed over the airfield. We reach our parking position. I gather up my belongings, thank the crew for their great service and head for the exit. As I disembark it feels like walking into a brick wall. It’s so oppressive. The temperature is around 30 degrees Celsius, and with the recent storm the humidity in the air is unbearable.
This was a great experience with KLM, not just because of the MD-11. First of all the crew were all just so nice and attentive. It’s little things: throughout the meal they made sure drinks were replenished and repeatedly asked all the passengers if everything was alright and to their liking. They made sure to address every passenger by name, which made them more personable. As for the food, KLM certainly exceed my expectation here. The meals were plentiful and tasty.
I’m on the airport train. I’m heading for Zürich again. I’m off on a business trip to Dubai, where I will spend nearly a week. It’s nearly the end of June and the temperature has picked up, the clouds have subsided – finally. And something else is different. The light. My train departs Basel’s main station at 19h40 when the low evening light casts a lovely warm glow, brilliant shades of gold across the land.
Date: 22. June 2012 From: Zürich To: Muscat Airline: Oman Air (WY) Aircraft: Airbus A330-200 Cabin: Business Seat: 10K, first row of Business Class, window
‘Are there really no direct flights between Zürich and Dubai?’ I hear you ask. Of course there are. Swiss operates a daily A330-300. The last time I was on that flight, we had a ratio of one flight attendant to every passenger in First Class.
And then of course there’s Emirates, operating two daily flights to Zürich. Both of which I believe, are operated with a Boeing B777. I chose Oman Air out of simple curiosity. That, and because I want to try their new Embraer E-175.
Getting to the Airport
Here are some pictures of the train journey to Zürich Airport. Everything is a lush green and so different from the landscapes I am heading for.
Loads of leg space.
This here is the original castle Habsburg, from where the Habsburgs set out to become the most dominant political power of their day. It’s near Brugg.
A regional train in Brugg station.
I arrive at Zurich Airport just before 21h00. The place is fairly quiet. I reach check-in and here too, there are not many people. There is one couple checking in at an Economy Class counter and another, elderly couple checking in at the Business Class counter. There is a thick, lush carpet spread out before the check-in counter. As I arrive, an agent from DNATA, the handling agent, welcomes me to the flight and tags my luggage. Very friendly and polite.
From there I head through security and then on to the DNATA lounge. The lounge is located one floor up from the transit area, next to the Skyteam lounge. The offerings are more or less the same too, perhaps with the only difference is that the DNATA lounge is even smaller.
My stay is a short one. The flight will be leaving from the E dock, like most of the wide-bodies, so I assume there will be a long queue at immigration. And indeed, when I arrive, there are six lanes open and all of them look very busy. But I’m lucky and the queue of passengers moves quickly. After passport control I head downstairs to catch the Skymetro to the E dock.
A quick phone call to my mum later and I’m at my departure gate E46, where boarding for the flight has already started. Although there are two airbridges at the gate, only one is in use today. Even so, I do not have to queue and can go straight on board.
At the door I am welcomed by a friendly Asian female flight attendant and an oriental looking male. He takes my boarding pass and guides me to my seat in the first row of the cabin.
The first impression of the cabin is very good. First of all, I can’t but notice that the seat and stowage space are more like what many other airlines have on offer in First Class. The central bulkhead has two integrated small vitrines showcasing Omani craftsmanship and jewellery.
I stow away my things and sit down. Nick, the cabin manager arrives and introduces herself. She brings me a scented refreshing towel and a glass of Elder juice. While we’re chatting, one of her colleagues arrives with the vanity kit and the drinks and food menu. The vanity kit is an opulent affair in gold. Inside there are the famous Amouage cosmetics, as well as the usual shaving kit, toothbrush and tooth paste, a comb and socks. A nice big white pillow and a thick blanket are already at my seat.
The experience begins shortly before the doors close, I am served a tasty, sweet date and a cup of Arabic coffee. A nice touch, me thinks!
Departure is to the north and very smooth. As soon as the fasten seatbelt sign goes off, the cabin crew start taking orders for dinner. I ask for mineral water and receive a glass of San Pellegrino with warm nuts. Something tells me I’m going to enjoy this… Dining is à la carte and there is a rich and interesting selection of dishes.
First there is a vol-au-vent filled with a mousse of grilled aubergine, together with a shaving of Tête de Moine cheese and chives. ‘Tête de Moine’ literally translates into ‘Monk’s Head’. It’s a typically Swiss cheese. It gets its name from the fact that each serving is shaved off the top of the slab of cheese, making it look like the bald head of a monk.
After that, I have the creamy spring vegetable soup with garlic croutons and fine herbs. And it is outstanding. The taste is simply amazing, an interesting combination of pea and asparagus. The soup is served with a slice of lemon. The flight attendant explains that the idea is to squeeze the lemon in the soup. It proves an excellent combination!
The First Course
After the soup I have the tart of red pepper, goats cheese and caramelized onions with a balsamic reduction. This is served on a bed of fresh herbs: coriander, dill, estragon and mint. I am still in two minds if this or the main course was my favourite. The taste is simply outstanding and the pastry is not in the least soggy!
The Main Course
And then comes the main course: pan fried sea bass fillet with lemon-caper butter, braised Mediterranean vegetables and steamed rice with herbs. The lemon-caper butter in particular is exquisite. It is a finely balanced combination of ingredients that complement each other beautifully.
To finish off this outstanding meal, I attempt to tackle the home baked chocolate cake with whipped cream and fresh berries. It’s wicked, but in the end the chocolate cake is invincible. After getting through half of it I must admit defeat and capitulate to its sweetness and richness. A battle I tremendously enjoy losing.
After this epic meal, the flight attendant brings me a pair of slippers and pjs. I head for one of the very clean toilets to change. When I return to my seat, it has already been extended into a bed. Over and out!
The Second Service
My only grippe with this flight is really that it is too short for a good night’s sleep. You depart Zürich at 22h30 and arrive in Muscat at 06h30, which is two hours ahead of Zürich. About 80 minutes before we arrive, I awake and immediately one of the attendants asks me if I’d like breakfast. I say yes, but in actual fact I am still full from dinner. I just have the fruit, a brioche, coffee and orange juice. It is worth pointing out that the milk for the coffee is warmed.
And then all too soon we start our descent through the heat haze for our arrival into Muscat.
There is a separate coach bus ready to take the 14 Business Class passengers to the terminal. There are no airbridges yet in Muscat, although construction of the new airport is already quite advanced.
Deplaning via the stairs gives me some excellent photo opportunities. But in actual fact I am too close to capture all of the mighty A330 in one shot.
Part II: Connecting to Dubai
Transfer in Muscat
Transfer in Muscat is an efficient and painless affair. The lounge is very full when I arrive. But a short while later, the Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Frankfurt flights are called and the place quickly empties.
Date: 23. June 2012 From: Muscat To: Dubai Airline: Oman Air (WY) Aircraft: Embraer 175 Cabin: Business Seat: 2A, first row of Business Class, window
By the time the lounge empties, I’m starting to feel hungry again. The food selection in the lounge is an absolute delight. As they say, when in Rome do as the Romans do. So I treat myself to an Arabic breakfast to revive the spirits. I have a hard time choosing from all the lovely dishes there are.
After the meal I decide to leave the lounge and have a walk about around the terminal. There has been a recent extension to the facility with additional gates. It has a modern feel to it, with an Arabic twist. And the effect is rather nice, with a reoccurring intricate mashrabiya theme.
On my way to my gate I stop at a shop selling Amouage perfume. It is one of the most expensive perfumes that exist today. The young lady there strikes up a conversation with me. Out of curiosity I ask her which is the famous ‘original’ scent. Before I know it she grabs my arm and sprays some of the stuff on my wrist. The smell is, I must confess, quite exquisite. It smells expensive. It also gives me a headache straight away and I am somewhat alarmed when the young lady assures me that it lasts up to two weeks on the skin. As it turns out, that is perhaps a tad overstated. I head downstairs to the ground level of the building extension, where the gates are.
First all Economy Class passengers are boarded, again with a bus, while the Business Class passengers are boarded last, using their own dedicated bus. And again I’m too close for any decent pictures of the whole aircraft, even if it’s a little mini like the E-175.
The cabin of the aircraft seems new and has a dedicated and very spacious Business Class cabin in a 1 + 2 configuration. I am on 2A, the bulkhead row, which is on the row of single seats.
Service begins while we are still on the ground with the distribution of the very welcome and very refreshing cold towels. Right after this, the male cabin attendant makes a drinks round. I choose a glass of fresh lemonade with mint.
Everything is cleared away as we start our taxi to the runway. The ramp is quite busy at this time of the day. We stop at the holding point for a company E-175 to make its arrival. I can’t help noticing just how dry it looks outside, a vast expanse of desert.
We take off in an easterly direction. Shortly after departure we make a wide left 180 degree turn over a beautiful green blue sea. Our flight time is announced as 45 minutes. As soon as the fasten seatbelt sign is turned off, the cabin crew spring in to action. The cabin is full, with 12 passengers in Business Class. Even so, the cabin crew ask every passenger individually what they would like to eat and drink.
I order a Perrier and a coffee. A short while later, the cabin attendant returns with this. Quite impressive for such a short flight:
A mixed platter of (from left to right) pumpernickel with cheese, grilled apple, smoked salmon on a brioche filled with cream cheese, falafel with humus and garlic.
Grilled peppers and olives drizzled in pesto and olive oil.
And for dessert a slice of tasty carrot cake. The size of the meal is perfectly adequate for the duration of the flight and the quality of the food is excellent. Just as I wash down the last of the carrot cake with the coffee, the fasten seatbelt sign comes on again and we start our approach to Dubai.
The approach is quite bumpy. It’s very hazy outside so I can’t really see anything much until we are only a few hundred metres above the ground. Fortunately the airport is deserted at this time of the day, unlike the evenings when most of the European carriers arrive in the city. I make my way to immigration and there is next to no queue at all. The immigration officer is a friendly, chatty guy. He checks my visa and passport, and I’m good to go. I pass through customs and then from there head outside to grab a taxi. And I nearly keel over with the heat!
So what did I think of Oman Air? From what I understand, Oman Air does and always has run at a loss. To be honest, I’m really not surprised. Their product is outstanding in terms of hardware, the quality of the food and the friendliness of their crews. Basically they offer a First Class product at Business Class prices. Would I fly them again? Certainly! I just hope they will last long enough at Zürich for me to try them again.
Nine boarding pass receipts later and I find myself in the contractor lounge at Milan’s Malpensa airport. I arrived earlier in the morning on a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok. You’re probably wondering why on earth I chose Milan to change planes from Thai Airways to Finnair, given that it’s neither a Star Alliance nor a Oneworld hub. Well, the simple fact is, I didn’t choose. I should have been heading for Zürich, but then my plane went tech. The details of that trip you can find in my Thai Airways post.
Date: 13 September 2012 Airline: Finnair Aircraft: A320 From: Milan Malpensa To: Helsinki Cabin: Business Class Seat: 4A
I haven’t got a boarding pass. Actually, for that matter I haven’t got a ticket either. All I have is a FIM – a Flight Interruption Manifest. Essentially it is a document permitting the transporting carrier, Finnair in this case, to accept me as a passenger without a ticket due to an involuntary rerouting. The FIM will ensure that Finnair get paid for providing transportation despite the lack of a coupon to prove they did.
I’m sitting in the contractor lounge provided for Finnair passengers. The Thai Airways representative brought me here to ensure they let me into the lounge without a boarding pass or ticket.
It’s a nice enough lounge but it’s a pity there aren’t any windows. It’s turning into a lovely early autumn day outside. Even so, the lack of any natural light does not prevent all the Italian business men here from donning their sunglasses.
About an hour before departure I head downstairs to the gate area. Downstairs I find a place with some good views of landing and departing aircraft. I was unaware of how many freighters Malpensa receives.
Once the gate opens, I approach the counter. I hand over my FIM and in return I am issued a boarding pass for seat 3F, a window seat on the right side of the aircraft. There are 20 seats in Business Class but only eight passengers today.
At the gate next door they’re getting an Air Malta flight ready to depart.
Boarding starts and status members, Business Class passengers and families with kids are requested to board first. I don’t think the flight is going to be full judging by the queue.
I like the Finnair cabin. The bulkhead is covered in this pattern that I assume is intended to look like snow flakes falling. It’s nice, but I think if you live in a country that sees so much snow anyway, you’d probably appreciate some bright and sunny design more.
The seat is the standard RECARO slimline variety. The middle seat is kept empty in Business Class for more personal space and comfort. Once boarding is completed, I move across to 4A. I’m hoping to get at least one picture of the Thai Airways bird that brought me here earlier in the day. When we left Bangkok it was gone midnight and simply too dark for any decent pictures.
Departure is to the north and unfortunately we’re on the outer one of the two parallel runways. This means that even with the zoom I’ll be too far away to take any decent photos of the Thai bird. To reach the runway we pass behind the threshold of the inner runway. This still leaves enough height clearance for approaching aircraft passing overhead for landing.
Having spent the last two weeks flying mainly on heavy widebodies, I’m somewhat taken aback by the force and acceleration of the A320. We rocket into the sky and climb out past the low cost terminal.
We do a sharp right turn to fly along the Alps. In the distance I can make out the airfield of Lugano Agno. The mountains look so nice today, quite as though you could reach out and touch them.
We stay on an easterly track and maintain a rather steep rate of climb for a while until we’re clear of the mountains. Then we bank left again to point the aircraft towards Finland.
Oh I know, stereotypes and all that. But what will you do? Today’s crew really consists of four severely blond female flights attendants in their dark blue uniforms. They’re quite a contrast to the colourful Thai Airways crew from the previous flight. But they’re nice enough.
Before we depart the crew come round distributing Finnish, Italian and English newspapers. Once we’re airborne, service begins with the distribution of the menu and hot towels. They’re not scented.
After that comes a drinks round. I have a Diet Coke and a packet of Pretzels.
And then comes the meal. For starters we have a shrimp and potato salad with dill on some kind of rye bread toast. The main course is marinated and tremendously tender beef in a horseradish sauce with broccoli and some root vegetable mash, I mean purée. Dessert is some creamy thing with berries. With the meal the crew also pass round a basket of warm bread. I have a sparkling water to drink with that.
Generally speaking the quality of the meal is good, in fact it’s rather tasty. But the presentation is somewhat lacking. First of all, would it really cost so much more to serve the hot meal in a real dish, rather than that unsightly tin? Secondly, it would be nice to have the plastic lids removed from the dishes before the meal is served. And thirdly, the tray is too big. The meal looks a bit forlorn, quite as though there were a few items missing. But the meal hits the spot alright.
I’m starting to feel sleepy, but in a good way. Once the meal is removed I lean back, close my eyes and in that warm, oh so comfortable space before sleep overcomes me, the memories of my trip to Vietnam unfold before my eyes. It’s as though I am there again, but of course it is only a dreamtime. I think I will long remember Vietnam.
North of the Alps the weather is rather cloudy. It stays like that all the way to Helsinki. When we land the temperature is a mere 17 degrees Celsius.
We turn off the active runway and do one quick and short taxi to the gate.
We park next to this Icelandair B757-200 with a familiar sounding name…
The airport is busy when I arrive. Basically the development of the facility has not kept pace with the ambitions of its hub carrier Finnair. There are people everywhere. There are not enough places to sit, so in addition to the passengers actually going somewhere, there are also those passengers standing around for a loss of any better place to stand and wait. The fact that arriving and departing passengers are not segregated does not help either.
I exit the terminal building and it strikes me just how cold it is here, I’m definitely wearing the wrong clothes. Still, it feels like autumn already and I like that. So I shan’t complain.
Just one thing remains. I guess those of you who have followed this series from the start are wondering if things did work out all right in the end. No, they did not. When I arrive at the hotel I log in to my KLM account to check if my flights for the next day from Helsinki to Basel via Amsterdam are still there, just as the Thai Airways lady had promised. Of course they are not. A quick call to KLM establishes that Thai Airways did not actually do anything about the booking. As a result, I no-showed on the original Zürich-Amsterdam-Helsinki legs so the return was cancelled.
I ask the friendly KLM agent if she can reinstate the flights or something. But she tells me that the flights I was booked on are completely sold out, even with my Platinum status she cannot even get me on the wait list. So I have no other choice but to buy a new ticket with Lufthansa via Munich. Their flight leaves 15 minutes later than the original booking with KLM and arrives in Basel 30 minutes after the KLM flight. Just in case you’re wondering, a full fare Y class oneway from Helsinki to Basel will cost you in excess of CHF1000. But I am not angry. I guess I should have known better, having worked in ticketing for an airline myself for many years. Still, I give the Thai Airways lady full marks for trying. And I’m certainly not going to let this hiccup at the end ruin what has been a fantastic trip and really good fun.
Let me explain. I’m on my way back from my vacation in Southeast Asia. The original plan would have seen me returning from Bangkok to Zürich in Thai Airways First Class and then immediately carrying on with KLM via Amsterdam to Helsinki for a meeting. But then it all goes horribly wrong…read on!
Date: 13 September 2012 Airline: Thai Airways Aircraft: A 340-600 From: Bangkok To: Milan Malpensa Cabin: First Class Seat: 2K
I spend my last day in Asia exploring the sights of Bangkok, and I think I manage to do most of them. I check out of the Novotel Suvarnabhumi at eight o’clock in the evening, once I’ve finished packing and had a shower. I then make my way through the deserted underground passageway linking the hotel to the railway station and the terminal beyond.
I arrive at the Thai Airways First Class check-in area on row A just after 20h00.
First I am ushered to a sofa and brought a drink and a refreshing towel.
The friendly Thai Airways check-in agent apologises profusely as she informs me that the flight to Zürich has gone tech and instead of departing at 00h30, it is now scheduled for a departure at 07h30 in the morning, arriving in Zürich after 14h00 of the same day. So instead, she suggests I fly on the Thai Airways flight to Milan and then take a Swiss flight to Zürich from there, which would arrive at 11:00. I explain that I have a flight to Amsterdam with KLM at 09h50 on a separate ticket and need to be in Helsinki by the evening. So that won’t work.
In a bid to find a solution she first suggests I take the Thai Airways flight to Arlanda and then from there a Finnair flight to Helsinki. However the idea is quickly discarded because that would mean downgrading me to Business Class. On the Arlanda route Thai Airways operates a B747-400 with the old First Class seat, which is sold as Business Class. I don’t fancy that. So eventually we settle on a routing that will take me with Thai Airways from Bangkok to Milan in First Class after all, and then from there with Finnair to Helsinki in Business Class. Thai Airways generously also offer to endorse the KLM ticket, despite the fact that it’s not really their problem. For me this means that I will still be able to use the return portion from Helsinki to Basel via Amsterdam. I ask the check-in agent if this will work, they can’t just take another airline’s ticket and use part of it as they like. But she assures me that it will be fine. They will cancel the outbound from Zürich via Amsterdam to Helsinki and I keep the return for the following day.
I’m quite happy with the arrangement and as an aviation fan I normally welcome such irregularities. Although in this case it’s quite a pity because I was hoping to clock another flight with the B737-900 from Amsterdam to Helsinki. Some other time maybe. The check-in agent brings me a bottle of water and asks me for some more patience while she makes all the necessary arrangements.
40 minutes later, with my boarding pass for the Milan flight and a Flight Interruption Manifest for Helsinki in hand, I’m good to go.
The Thai Airways First Class Lounge
From check-in there is a direct access to a dedicated security lane and behind that is immigration for First Class passengers. The check-in agent escorts me through to the other side. It’s a swift process and even the immigration officer is all smiles and charm, even cracking a joke at seeing my ‘exotic’ passport. Blimey!
Behind immigration there is an escalator heading downstairs, straight into the Royal Silk Business Class lounge. At the bottom of the stairs another Thai agent is already expecting me with the funkiest buggy I’ve ever seen. The check-in agent bids me goodbye. I get on board my chariot and am whisked away to the entrance of the Royal First Class lounge.
Inside the lounge I am given yet another tremendously cold refreshing towel and a glass of some fruit juice. I also order a glass of sparkling water with a slice of lime.
My head has been bothering me all day, I think it must have been the uncomfortable seats on the river taxi, so I decide to head over to the Thai Spa and see if a massage might be able to do something about it. I am escorted to the Spa and handed over to my masseuse. First she gives me another refreshing towel (I’ve stopped counting…) and a glass of cold ginger tea. We discuss what I need taken care of and then head to the quiet area and the massage seats. The woman is a genius and over that ensuing forty minutes she works magic on my neck and shoulders. It feels like I’m being butchered but by the time she finishes me off I return to the First Class lounge feeling quite elated. And soon after it’s time to head to gate A3 for boarding.
Boarding starts just a few minutes after I arrive at the gate. First Class and premium passengers are invited to board first through the L1 door. I am the second passenger to arrive in the First Class cabin.
The vanity kit, a selection of newspapers, the earphones and an orchid are already at me seat. In short succession I am also given yet another refreshing towel, this time a warm one, a glass of water and my pjs.
The cabin and seat look nice and well maintained. In fact the seat looks nearly new. There are two cushions on every seat, as well as a blanket.
During the flight I visit the toilet and it is very clean and well stocked with products from Bulgari’s Essence de Thé Blanc and Essence de Thé Vert. All the refreshing towels are scented with the latter.
We depart slightly behind schedule due to the heavy traffic out of Bangkok tonight. Once we get airborne, we are treated to an excellent view of the urban sprawl that is Bangkok.
Service on this flight is efficient and friendly. The First Class cabin is served by the male purser, a very charming and funny middle-aged lady and a younger but equally friendly gentleman. All the female crew are wearing these beautiful traditional Thai costumes made of silk.
The purser introduces himself and wishes me a pleasant flight. He tells I’m in good hands with his colleagues and if there is anything I need, all of them will be more than glad to help.
There are no nibbles or canapés with the drinks before departure.
Once we take off the crew obviously want to make sure passengers manage to get as much rest as possible and so they get started with the service straight away. First the table is set for the meal. Every passenger has his own breadbasket. There is garlic bread too, I love garlic bread! Later on once I’ve demolished the bread basket a new one arrives.
The Caviar Service
First we have the caviar service. This is really tasty. Once I finished I am offered a second helping but I figure that would be too much of an indulgence.
The caviar is followed by a tasty minestrone with two side dishes of smoked salmon and a puff pastry filled with paté.
The Main Course
For the main course I have the salmon with linguine, basil sauce and Mediterranean vegetables.
And for dessert some fresh fruit.
After the meal I go and change while the flight attendant makes up my bed.
It’s seven hours later. I managed to have a really good sleep on the very comfy seat/bed.
I’ve overdosed on the garlic bread. I completely forgot I’ll be meeting with a business partner later on today. I head for the loo to brush me teeth. I even try scrubbing my tongue with copious amounts of high quality Colgate toothpaste. But it’s of no avail, now I can only hope the immigration officer will not have me arrested for threatening the life of an official of the Italian police with my lethal garlic breath. That was potent stuff on that bread.
The Second Service
Shortly after I take my seat again it’s time for breakfast. We start with another refreshing hot towel. After that the table is set again for breakfast. I check to make sure, yes there is no more garlic bread this time round.
We start with fruit salad, and very delicious it is.
Next come the Cornflakes with some milk and a bit of sugar.
And then comes the hot meal: Spanish omelette with grilled tomato, hash brown, sausage and bacon. I follow the purser’s suggestion and have some chilli sauce with that. And very tasty it is too.
During the breakfast service my coffee cup is replenished regularly. The meal ends with one last hot towel.
In the meantime it has been gradually becoming light outside. I look out to see the sun slowly rising over the Alps. You can tell it’s the end of summer because there is barely any snow left, even on the peaks.
We come in over the flatlands of the river Po. I must say, it’s been a nice holiday but I am still glad to be back to more familiar climes and sights.
The purser and the other two attendants working the First Class cabin pass from seat to seat to bid each passenger farewell individually and to thank them for flying Thai.
We bank left to point in a southern direction on the downwind for arrival. We pass the airport and then start doing a series of gentle right hand banks until eventually we are lined up with the runway. Just before touchdown I see an Air One A320 accelerating and an Easyjet bird waiting to line up behind it on the parallel runway to ours. And then we’re down.
We taxi in behind a Delta B767-400 but I forget to check where it’s coming from.
The L2 door opens and all the passengers in Business Class are instructed to wait while the First Class passengers disembark. As we do, each passenger is given another orchid as a farewell gift.
Transfer in Milan Malpensa
Outside there is a representative from the handling agent expecting me. She welcomes me to Milan and then escorts me through the airport, through security and immigration until we are eventually in the A concourse. She takes me up to the contractor lounge Finnair uses and briefs the receptionist about the irregularity. The receptionist will contact Finnair about two hours before departure to check me in, I can then collect my boarding pass directly at the gate as I board.
With that done she apologises once more on behalf of Thai Airways for the inconvenience and bids me a safe onward journey and a good day.
Where do I begin? First of all there is that Thai Airways lady at the front line, the person who deals with my case. She really tried her best, she had a very ‘can-do’ approach to finding a viable solution to my problem. But it’s not just her, the whole operation – at least from what I can tell as a passenger – is very polished, right down to the way I am taken care of upon arrival in Milan.
My holiday in Southeast Asia is quickly drawing to an end and it’s time for me to begin the long journey home. It’s been a lot of fun. Even so, I am looking forward to returning to more familiar climes. Vietnam is a lovely place and I hope to return some day, but it is also a vicious assault on the senses that leaves you reeling.
Date: 11. September 2012 Airline: Qatar Airways Aircraft: B777-300 From: Hanoi To: Bangkok Cabin: Business Class Seat: 1B, aisle seat In Hanoi I stayed at the Sofitel Legende Metropole. The original building, which still stands today and is still in use as a hotel, was opened in 1901. At the time it was the only decent place to stay in Hanoi and subsequently became the preferred hang out of the rich and famous, both resident and visiting.
Later on during the American war, it became a refuge and a safe haven to the foreigners in the beleaguered city, at the time many embassies converted the guest’s rooms at the hotel into offices and set up shop there.
After the war, the place fell into disuse and neglect, and by the time the Accor Hotel Group took over the building in the nineties, it was merely a derelict and rat infested ruin.
Today the Metropole is restored to its original splendour and enjoys once more the reputation of being the best place to stay on town.
Getting to the Airport
Just before 15h00 my butler knocks at my door to collect my baggage. I check out and head downstairs to the lobby, outside the driver is already expecting us. I leave central Hanoi just after 15h00, the journey to the airport takes some 45 minutes to complete. The roads and streets in central Hanoi are small and narrow, it’s a tight squeeze for us and the incessant swarm of the omnipresent Vespas.
The driver drops my bag on the carpet in front of the Qatar Airways Business Class check-in counter. He wishes me a pleasant journey and then bids me goodbye.
The agent at check-in issues my boarding pass as well as the lounge invitation. In Hanoi all airlines use the same lounge, with the exception of Vietnam Airlines who have their own one.
The lounge is one floor up from the public area. The terminal is a strange place, it’s packed with souvenir stalls with gaudy lights in some places, while other parts of the building are more or less deserted and empty.
The lounge itself is rather large for the airport and offers both warm and cold food and drinks. I help myself to the glass noodles with pak choy and enjoy the view outside until the time comes for me to board my flight to Bangkok.
At 16h50 a Qatar Airways rep comes to the lounge and invites all passengers to board. By the looks of it there are eight adults and four beastly kids on the flight this evening. By the time I reach the gate they’re already making the final call for the flight.
The cabin of this bird is very nice. I think of all the intra-Asian flights (some of which I’ll post later on) I took on this trip this is the nicest one. There is even a small kind of pot mounted to the bulkhead on both rows and the roses in it are actually real and very fresh. There is a cushion at every seat, as well as a pair of earphones, which have been placed in their specific compartment by the side of the seat.
The toilet on this bird is enormous. You could throw a party in there. It’s also well stocked with Molton Brown goodies, shaving kits and dental kits.
The crew, as is to be expected, are an interesting mix of nationalities. All of them are very friendly and take a professional approach to their job.
Service begins with drinks, served while we are still on the ground. I choose the lime and mint squash and it is delicious and refreshing.
After that I receive a small lacquer plate with a warm rose scented towel. This is followed by the distribution of the menus on this short sector. The flying time is announced as one hour and 25 minutes.
We push back right on time. We’re number three for departure behind a FedEx A310 and an Air Mekong Canadair Regional Jet. For an aircraft as grand and majestic as the Triple Seven it would be appropriate to describe the take-off roll in terms of power and grace, to go rambling on about thundering down the runway and defying the earth’s gravity and that kind of talk. But in actual fact the more suitable description in this case would be to say that we bounce down the runway until eventually we bounce into the air and stay there. The runway in Hanoi is the most uneven one I have every departed from! It has the whole plane shaking.
There are no choices on the flight today. The flight isn’t really long enough. When the tray arrives it contains a hot meal that is beef with rice, carrots and pak choy with garlic. The pak choy tastes very bitter so I just leave that. The rest is okay. Nothing outstanding, but it’s okay.
For dessert there is a fruit salad with dragon fruit, papaya, strawberries, pineapple and grapes.
To drink I have another glass of the excellent lime and mint juice and some San Pellegrino sparkling water. After the meal I have a cup of coffee.
All in all it’s an unspectacular flight, there no ‘wow’ moment but I have nothing to fault Qatar Airways with either on this short sector.
There is one very strong point in Qatar Airways’ favour. Before we land the cabin crew distribute the embarkation cards for Thailand. For passengers in Business Class they also provide a fast track voucher for immigration. This is something Egypt Air did not provide when I flew with them from Kuala Lumpur back to Bangkok earlier during the trip.
Out of the four airlines I did international flights with in Asia on this journey – Royal Jordanian, Egypt Air, Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways – Qatar Airways gave by far the most professional and polished performance.
As we climb out of Hanoi and the beautiful landscapes of Vietnam slowly vanish under a veil of humidity and heat haze, I reflect back upon my journey through this fascinating and amazing country. It will take me a while to fully appreciate and understand the country and the people I encountered. I don’t think I’ve ever before experienced anything quite like Vietnam.
Mission accomplished, I’ve finally seen the Petronas Towers. In fact my hotel, the Traders, stands right opposite the towers and offers unobstructed views of them. They look particularly nice by night when they are lit up.
So I guess I might as well leave. For my return to Bangkok I’ve picked another exotic 5th freedom flight, this time in Egypt Air Business Class aboard the mighty B777-300.
Date: 2 September 2012 Airline: Egypt Air Aircraft: B777-300 From: Kuala Lumpur To: Bangkok Cabin: Business Class Seat: 10C, aisle
Getting to the Airport
My flight back to Bangkok will not be leaving until 22h00 today. Although I haven’t really got any high expectations of the flight, I am still very much looking forward to it because it will be my first flight with Egypt Air and I am quickly becoming a fan of the mighty Triple Seven.
So in theory, it would be quite sufficient to be at the airport at around 20h30, which would mean leaving central KL at around 19h00. But I want to get to the airport before sunset to catch a glimpse and possibly take a few pictures of the incoming aircraft, which is scheduled to arrive at 18h10.
Just after 17h00 I leave the hotel and head across the park to the KL Conference Centre to catch the Monorail to Sentral Stesen, the main station. It’s about a 10 minutes leisurely walk from the Traders Hotel.
The Monorail journey to Sentral Stesen takes about 15 minutes, it’s six stops from the KLCC. The trip costs something like 2.4 Ringgit, which is virtually nothing.
At Sentral Stesen I get out and take the escalators down into the basement of the building from where the KLIA Ekspres departs.
The journey to the airport takes 28 minutes according to the announcement made on the train.
I arrive for check-in at Kuala Lumpur airport just after 18h45.
The counters for the flight are still being set up, but there’s already a long queue forming and for a horrible moment I suspect this may end up being the most chaotic check-in ever. But once the counters are set up, it becomes apparent that the Malaysia Airlines ground crew checking in the flight will not be standing for any nonsense and after just a few minutes the chaos has turned into orderly queues.
There is a separate counter for Business Class passengers. The agent types my Senator number into the reservation and issues me a boarding pass and the invitation to the Malaysia Airlines international lounge in the satellite building.
From check-in I head straight through immigration and security and then from there to the monorail station.
Once I reach the satellite I make a beeline for gate C22 from where my bird allegedly will be leaving, but much to my dismay, the gate is still empty. I hang around for a few more minutes, but nothing happens. And so I head for the Malaysia Airlines lounge instead.
The Malaysia Airlines Golden Lounge
The lounge is right above the station where the shuttle arrives.
I arrive at the lounge and am greeted by a friendly receptionist. She asks me to wait a second while she makes a phone call. Strange. The next thing I know, she hands me the phone and says ‘for you’. Stranger. I take the receiver. It’s the check-in agent from the Business Class counter. He just wants to make sure about my nationality. He explains that if I am from Malta I can get a visa on arrival in Bangkok. If however I’m from Mali, I would not be allowed to travel as I would need a visa. So I explain to him that I am in fact from Malta and not Mali. I feel compelled to ask if he had noticed at all when checking me in that I am in fact a rather pale pinkish colour, pale even by Maltese standards, and would therefore probably be unlikely to blend in as one of the locals in downtown Bamako.
The lounge is rather spectacular and offers some good views.
The lounge is huge and has a very high ceiling, giving it the feel of being in a cathedral.
There are various stations with different types of food and drinks. I try the Malaysian dishes and they are very nice and a bit spicy.
The only thing that is perhaps ‘out of cast’ is the toilets, which look kind of old and worn.
One hour before departure my flight already shows ‘BOARDING’. Kuala Lumpur uses closed gates. So basically ‘boarding’ merely means that the gate is open. So I probably still have time. Even so, I figure the load will probably be light to Bangkok so we may see an early departure. I collect my belongings and head for gate C22.
When I arrive, I am somewhat surprised to find a very long queue for the security check at the gate.
I enter the holding pen and then we wait for about 20 minutes before the actual boarding finally starts. There are two airbridges attached to the aircraft at the L1 and the L2 doors. Given that I am travelling in Business Class, I am directed to use the L1 door. This initially causes some confusion with the security guard manning the airbridge but eventually all is well and I am allowed on board.
I am greeted at the door by a friendly young woman who speaks very good English.
The first row of Business Class, which is also the first row on the aircraft, starts at number eight with Egypt Air.
I am on 10C, which means the third row from the front. There’s another passenger on 10A. Just as I close my seatbelt with a click, the announcement comes that boarding is completed. I look around and there’s another passenger sitting on 11A. But apart form that, the forward Business Class compartment is empty. 28 seats to share between three passengers. So I grab my stuff and move one row forward to the window on 9A.