The Summer Palace of the Empress Dowager Cixi, Beijing

The Summer Palace is located about 20km away from the Forbidden City of Beijing.

The history of the Summer Palace is very closely linked to that of the Empress Dowager Cixi who, for all practical purposes, ruled the Qing Dynasty for nearly 40 years. The Empress Dowager is referred to by the Chinese as the Dragon Lady. Her reign is known as the reign of blood because of all the people she had murdered to retain power.

Cixi became the Empress Dowager following the death of her husband during the second Opium War in 1861. The idea had been for her to reign until her son was old enough to take over power. But when the time came, the Empress Dowager was reluctant to hand over power and instead had her son murdered. She then appointed one of her nephews to be the new emperor. He was only three years of age, which bought her some time before he too would make a rightful claim to the Dragon Throne, requiring her to relinquish power. Tragically, the little boy did not last very long and the Empress Dowager eventually had him murdered as well.

Dragon Lady then nominated a little boy that went by the name of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, also aged three at the time, to ascend to the Dragon Throne. Which eventually he did, but only because the Empress Dowager died a little while after she made the nomination. Pu Yi went on to become the last Emperor of China. He died in 1967 in Beijing, as a simple gardener of the People’s Republic of China.

Aman Summer Palace Beijing

The Aman Summer Palace Hotel is situated about 20km away from the centre of Beijing, if you assume that the Forbidden City is the actual centre of this enormous city.

The actual hotel is set in the grounds of what used to be the imperial kitchens of the Summer Palace and is laid out in the shape of a series of small courts yards that are separated by pavillions and buildings. It’s actually a very calm and relaxing environment, to the extent that when you’re inside the hotel you nearly forget you’re actually in an enormous city.

The rooms of the hotel are luxuriously appointed, but without decent artificial lighting, photography is a bit difficult inside the rooms.

I very much enjoyed my stay at the Summer Palace. It probably is one of the nicer hotels to stay at in Beijing. However, if you’re looking for a hotel with a central location to explore the sights of China’s capital, this is probably not the place.

As you may have guess, for me a good measure of a hotel’s quality is usually the afternoon tea they offer. The Aman Summer Palace does a really nice afternoon tea with lovely, fluffy scones.

Air Malta, Economy Class – A 319: Zürich to Malta

Introduction

Air Malta is currently in the middle of a rebranding exercise, which includes new uniforms for the crew and also a new livery which made its debut in September 2012. Things have been rather tough for this little airline in recent years: it is in an awkward position in that it has many masters and is trying to serve all of them equally well. A futile endeavour! There is the government and the national Maltese tourism industry which relies heavily on the carrier to bring tourist to its shores. But with the increasing popularity of the Maltese islands as a holiday destination, the competition for Air Malta has also increased. And then there is the obligation to provide connections for Maltese nationals wishing to travel abroad, albeit a very small niche market. One way or another, with the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair eating away at Air Malta’s leisure traffic, and Lufthansa and Emirates taking whatever is left, Air Malta finds itself stuck in the middle. The future will tell what will become of Air Malta.

Date: 17. August 2012
From: Zürich
To: Malta
Airline: Air Malta
Aircraft: A319
Cabin: Economy
Seat: 10E, aisle on the emergency exit

My narrative begins as I make my way to the viewing gallery on the reconstruction of what used to be terminal B at Zürich airport. It’s a lovely day and quite warm. But at least there is a slight breeze going to make the temperature outside bearable. I put my rucksack in a locker and pay the CHF5 entrance for the viewing gallery. 

The airport is calm around this time of day and save for an Air France Embraer 190 all the stands are empty.

I really like the design of the building from the outside. From the inside it is a tad cramped. Anyway, there are steps leading down onto the roof of one of the airbridges, which allows you to get up pretty close to the aircraft.

Boarding

Much to my shame I must confess that I don’t really take the heat and sun very well, despite the fact that I was born in Malta, where temperatures in excess of 35 degrees Celsius are not uncommon from late May to early November.

Eventually the heat becomes too much for me and I decide to head airside.

I arrive at the gate and surreptitiously peek at the screen displaying the DCS information for this flight: two passengers in Business Class, 115 passengers in Economy. Not a bad load considering the holiday season is over. In actual fact, from what I can tell from the conversations I pick up and the passports I can see, most passengers would appear to be Maltese anyway.

Boarding

The Swissport agent announces that boarding will commence shortly. She also informs us that due to the incredible heat in the airbridge, boarding by seat rows will be strictly enforced to avoid people standing in the sweltering heat too long. And true to their word the two ladies proceed to do the most orderly boarding process I have every seen. No mean feat if a bunch of Maltese is involved.

The Cabin

I am greeted at the door by the purser, an elderly and very friendly looking gentleman. He looks like he could be your favourite granddad. The other crew member is a young lady with stunning features: black long hair and blue eyes. She’s quite a looker and she knows it. The entire crew is wearing the new uniform and I must say it is a vast improvement over what they had.

I grab a free copy of the Times of Malta, which is available to all passengers and laid out right by the entrance to the aircraft, and head for my seat.

Initially I am seated on 9F, but then a couple takes the seats next to me and starts snogging wildly. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing against a good snog, but the mere sound of others slobbering all over each other makes me want to throw up. I look behind me to find the aisle seat on the emergency row is still empty, so are the middle seats. So I quickly ask a crew member if I can change. He tells me that sure I can, proviso I pay the fee for the extra leg room. The slobbering continues on row 9 and so I consent. The fee is EUR25. The seats are marked with the word ‘RESERVED’ written on the head rest covers.

The legroom on the exit row is, of course, excellent.Departure is from runway 28. Shortly after take-off we to a left turn to point the aircraft southwards for the Alps, the Med and eventually Malta. Our routing takes us over mainland Italy to Rome, from where set out across the Thyrrenian sea to Palermo in Sicily and from there on to Malta.

The Crew

The crew is friendly and makes detailed announcements in Maltese and English, followed by a recorded message in German. Soft drinks, one beer or wine are for free. Any further alcoholic drink must be paid for.

The Meal

There are two options on the flight today. The vegetarian one is a tomato and mozzarella salad on iceberg lettuce. On the tray there is also a small tub of butter and a small container with salad dressing, a large bun and a cupcake. The non-vegetarian option is cheese with ham, boiled eggs and tomatoes on a bed of iceberg lettuce. The dessert is an almond filled biscuit type thing. It’s a small meal but it serves its purpose on a flight of one hour and 50 minutes.

Arrival

By the time we reach Palermo and we begin our initial descent, the sun has already started to set and the light outside turns a warm and balmy colour.

The approach into Malta is very atmospheric. As the aircraft dips its nose and the engines go increasingly silent to slow us down, a hush of anticipation spreads throughout the cabin as the tourists and Maltese alike peer out of the windows excitedly to catch a first glimpse of the islands rising out of the sea.

For most of the descent the aircraft flies head on towards Gozo, the northern island. Outside the passengers see only the vastness of the Mediterranean sea and the golden reflection of the sun dancing on the waves. But the then aircraft banks every so light to the left and suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Gozo appears – the island of Calypso. The aircraft flies along the north-eastern coast of the island, then past Comino and then along the island of Malta proper. It’s usually at this stage the tourists cannot be amazed at how dry the island is and how few trees there are. The Maltese, like myself, look out and glance down at this small rock in the sea and attempt to conceal that yes, they are moved.

Eventually the aircraft reaches the south end of Malta. The right wing dips and we round Delimara point, pass the natural harbour of Marsaxlokk and eventually line up with runway 31 as we cross over St. George’s bay. And then we land and I am home.

I wait until everybody has disembarked and then walk to the rear of the aircraft to exit through the back. This gives me an opportunity to take a few pictures from an unusual angle.

I get on the bus. I even manage to take a picture of the new uniform before the doors close and we are bussed to the Schengen arrivals.

That concludes the aviation part of this report. I leave you with a few shots from Malta taken the next day.

Republic Street aka King’s Way
After all it was once a British Dominion…
Typically Maltese: at 10:00 head for the Café Premier for a refreshing Kinnie and some Pastizzi
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
The Auberge de Castille
Looking across the Grand Harbour towards the cottonera: L-Isla, Birgu and Bormla
The water taxi connecting Birgu with Valletta

KLM, Business Class – MD-11: Montreal to Amsterdam

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.

Check-in

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

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.

The Cabin

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!

The Crew

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.

The Meal

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 Salad

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!

Dessert

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.

Arrival

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.

Conclusion

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.

British Airways, Business Class – Airbus A 318: London City to New York JFK

Transfer in London City

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.

The 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.

Boarding

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’.

The Cabin

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!

The Meal

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?

The Crew

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.

Amenities

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 Salad

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

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!

Arrival

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.

Conclusion

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.

British Airways, Business Class – Embraer 175: Amsterdam to London City

Introduction

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.

Boarding

As usual in Amsterdam, the gate is quite a trek from the gate, so I make sure I leave enough time to get there.

The Cabin

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.

The Meal

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.

Arrival

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!

Asiana Airlines, First Class – B 747-400: Basel to Seoul via Frankfurt

Part I: Positioning to Frankfurt

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.

Check-in

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!

The Lounge

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.

Boarding

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.

The Cabin

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

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.

The Meal

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.

Arrival

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

asiana-airlines-logo-1024x310

The Lounge

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.

Boarding

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.

The Cabin

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.

Amenities

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.

The Crew

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…

The Meal

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.

Amuse Bouche

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.

Caviar Service

While airlines like Lufthansa will give you only a portion of Caviar, Asiana gives you the entire jar!

First Course

Then we have an antipasto of veal with a roll of marinated eggplant and peppers and shrimps in herbs on a balsamico reduction.

The Soup

And then comes the carrot soup with pine nuts. This is simply out of this world.

The Salad

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!

The Cheese

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.

First Course

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.

Main Course

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.

Arrival

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.

Conclusion

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.

KLM, Business Class – MD-11: Basel to Montreal via Amsterdam

Introduction

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.

Airside

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.

My ride to Amsterdam: Fokker F 70

Boarding

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.

The Cabin

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.

The Crew

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.

The Meal

‘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.

Arrival

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.

Boarding

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.

The Cabin

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.

The Crew

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!

The Meal

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.

The Salad

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!

Dessert

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.

Arrival

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.

Conclusion

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.

Oman Air, Business Class – A 330-200 / E-175: Zürich to Dubai via Muscat

Part I: Heading for Muscat

Introduction

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.

Check-in

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.

The Lounge

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.

Boarding

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 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.

The Crew

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.

Amenities

The Meal

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.

Amuse Bouche

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.

The Soup

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.

Dessert

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.

Arrival

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

The Lounge

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.

Boarding

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

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.

The Meal

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.

Arrival

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!

Conclusion

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.

Finnair, Business Class – A 320: Milan Malpensa to Helsinki

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

Check-in

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.

The Lounge

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

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.

The Cabin

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.

The Crew

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.

The Meal

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.

Arrival

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.

Conclusion

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.