Air Serbia, Business Class – Airbus A 319: Belgrade to Zürich

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Introduction

Belgrade is a strange place, when you think of it. First of all, it’s not exactly pretty. There are a few elegant buildings that look as though they were recently done up, scattered around the city. But the vast majority of the streets and buildings look as though they’re in a sad state of repair. Of course, the buildings littered around town that still carry the vestiges of war, even after all these year, certainly don’t help to make the city look appealing.

But nonetheless, there is something about Belgrade. It’s a city I like being in. Probably it has something to do with the green trams you see in the street that were given to Belgrade transport by the city of Basel in Switzerland, where I live.

Getting to the Airport

In Belgrade I’m staying at the Radisson Blu Old Mill, which is located on the fringe of the city centre. It’s a really nice building and the rooms are elegantly appointed. To get to the airport this morning I’ve decided to order the hotel shuttle. As far as I’m concerned, the shuttle is good value for money at EUR25 per ride for up to four passengers. The shuttle van is extremely comfortable, there’s wifi and they’ve even provided water.

Check-in

I’ve checked-in online using the Air Serbia website. At the airport, Air Serbia has its own dedicated section in the terminal and there are a lot of check-in counters available. It is also possible to check in using the self-service devices. But access to these is blocked by a very long queue of passengers checking in for the Antalya flight when I arrive.

Immigration is one floor up from the general check-in area. There’s even a fast track for Business Class passengers. Although in the sum of all things, it’s likely to be the most useless, superfluous fast track ever. First of all, because it’s only the fast track for immigration, the security check is done right at the gate. And secondly, because the passport booth at the end of the fast track is unmanned. The one next to it is marked ‘staff only’, and just by looking at her it becomes apparent that the immigration officer on that line really, really couldn’t give a shit…

The Lounge

From immigration I head straight for the lounge. There are two lounges right next to each other at Belgrade airport. The Air Serbia lounge is a bit further down the hall from the general purpose lounge. But it’s well signposted.

The lounge is empty when I arrive. I take a seat and once the staff have finished discussing whatever, one of the young ladies comes to ask me what I’d like to drink.

The lounge is nice and includes a separate dining area, toilets and showers and separate washrooms for ablution before the Muslim prayer. There is also a separate dining area. As you enter the lounge they’ll tell you that no boarding calls are made. Which is true, although the lounge dragon will still come to light a fire under your butt if she thinks you’re overstaying.

Boarding

Belgrade uses a closed gate system, which is all sorts of awkward. First of all, because there’s hardly enough space in the gate area to hold all the passengers of a fully booked Airbus A 319. Secondly, because there’s no separate lane or anything of the sort for Business Class passengers. Once you’re inside the gate, there is a separate queuing line for Business Class passengers, but nobody, including the gate agent, seems to pay that any attention.

The Cabin

The last time I flew Air Serbia, they still had a dedicated Business Class cabin, which was really something else and made a refreshing change from the usual misguided European concept of Business Class comfort. But alas, with Etihad pulling the plug on Air Serbia, the carriers has had to adapt to the harsh realities of the European aviation market, and has replaced those lovely seats it had with standard Economy Class seats – simply leaving the middle seat empty in Business Class. All in all, there’s nothing wrong with Air Serbia adapting its product to that of the competition. But Air Serbia also operates the A 319 on flights to Abu Dhabi, which has a block time of about six hours. Luckily, I’ve never had to do it myself, but I’m very sure I would not want to spend six hours in this seat, especially not if I’m paying a Business Class fare for it.

The Crew

There are three cabin crew on this flight. The lead purser is very senior, to the point where I’m wondering why she hasn’t retired yet to be able to spend more time with her grandchildren. Having said that, the advantage of having such senior cabin crew, is that they tend to be more at ease with themselves and usually have a way with passengers. And the purser on today’s flight is no exception.

While we’re still on the ground, one of the cabin crew offers me a bottle of still water. But there are no refreshing towels or anything of the sort.

The flight time is announced as one hour and thirty minutes.

The Meal

While the aircraft is still on the ground, the crew distribute menus for me and the other passenger in the Business Class cabin.

Although to be honest, I really wonder why they even bothered. The appetizer (!) is announced as a packet of peanuts. And for the main course, there is a choice between Serbian mezze and a Caesar salad. I order the Serbian mezze, which means that the other passenger is inevitably left with the Caesar salad, because apparently they only loaded one of each.

When I last flew Air Serbia, I really was quite blown away by their service. In fact, truth be told, back then I thought it was a bit over the top. In addition to the nice, comfortable seats, they also served a hot meal on a short flight of ninety minutes and even found time for a proper starter and dessert. But the meal I am served on today’s flight couldn’t be more different. I mean, given the sad state of Etihad and Air Serbia, I really wasn’t expecting a hot meal service any more. But not this. The meal arrives in a cardboard box. They don’t even use proper cutlery anymore, and instead, the crew give me a plastic fork and knife to contend with. Even the Coke Zero I order is served in a plastic cup. There is no bread with the service and the peanut appetizer, as it were, has obviously also been done away with unceremoniously. For dessert there should have been a choice between some typically Serbian walnut biscuit and a vanilla biscuit. Again, in reality the word ‘choice’ really means that I am given one biscuit, while the other passenger receives the other. Whether he likes it or not…

After the meal, I ask for a cup of coffee. To be honest, I already started to regret my request before the coffee had even arrived. The purser asks me if I’d like a black coffee, so Nescafé. I tell her I’d like some milk as well. To which she explains that they don’t have milk any more but that she could make me an instant cappuccino instead, if I don’t mind it being a little sweet…

Arrival

Eventually we start our descent into Zürich. Fortunately, 14h30 is not a busy time at Zürich, so there’s no hold up for the approach. We come to a stop at one of the B gates at 14h28. By 14h43 I’m already on the train to Zurich main station, from where I’ll catch a train to Basel.

Conclusion

I must say, I really am quite amazed by my experience on Air Serbia today. There was really nothing at all about this flight that made it deserving of the label ‘Business Class’. Since Etihad stopped its funding in the company, Air Serbia has really gone to shit. As such, their progression into decay seems somewhat symptomatic of the state of the whole Etihad group. From the look of things, Etihad’s modus operandi so far appears to have been to simply throw as much money at an airline until it starts to look like yet another version of Etihad. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if only Etihad were a better airline.

Following the demise of Air Berlin and their rather ill-advised investment in Alitalia – at least they should have seen that one coming…- Etihad Airways announced recently that it would be focussing its strategy on providing good air service to and from its home in Abu Dhabi. There’s nothing wrong about that either, in theory. But Abu Dhabi is not Dubai. Abu Dhabi is quiet, more conservative and unlikely to attract the tourists like Dubai does. Which leaves the local market. But that will hardly work for Etihad, given that it’s a very small market that is, moreover, only a ninety minutes’ drive away from Dubai airport.

Air Serbia, Economy Class – ATR 72: Ljubljana to Belgrade

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Introduction

With my business here in Slovenia successfully completed, it’s time for me to head home. But of course, it would hardly be like me if I just got on a plane going directly back to Zürich. And so, instead my next stop will be Belgrade.

I enjoyed my stay in Ljubljana very much. It’s a small city, but it’s very well kept, and the scenery, with the mountains surrounding the city on all sides, is truly grand.

Getting to the Airport

My flight will be departing from Ljubljana at 10h05. So at 08h40 I exit the hotel and take a taxi to the airport. Being Saturday morning, the traffic is light and the journey only takes about 25 minutes to complete. The journey to the airport only costs EUR35, whereas the inbound journey is more expensive at EUR50.

Check-in

Ljubljana’s terminal is a dinky little thing. I’m sure it must be one of the smallest terminals I’ve ever been through. Online check-in for the flight is not possible, so my first stop will have to be the Air Serbia counter. Which, incidentally, is located literally in the far corner of the terminal.

There are two counters for check-in, one for Economy and one for Business Class and Gold members of Etihad’s frequent flyer programme. Strangely enough though, both counters are occupied by one couple which has managed to spread out and has luggage littered all over the place.

But eventually I receive my boarding pass. For a moment my heart sinks as I take in the endless queue of passengers. But then I realise they’re not in fact queuing for security but for check-in for the Wizzair flight to Luton.

Airside

Once I’m through security, I head one floor up and then turn right. This is where the passport control takes place to exit the Schengen area. From there I head one floor down again on the other side to where the bus gates in the non-Schengen area are located.

The Cabin

Boarding starts on time, and it looks as though the flight today is not completely full. On the ATR-72 boarding is through the aft door of the aircraft. Row numbering starts at the front of the cabin, as usual. Which means that the priority seats are located at the rear of the aircraft, to be closer to the door.

I can’t say I like the bright blue colour of the seats much. Other than that though, I think the seat pitch is good and once seated, there is enough space.

I am seated on 3A, which is just slightly forward of the propeller. Unfortunately though, the view of the outside is not really good enough to take pictures because the outer glass has started to turn opaque.

The Crew

There are two female cabin crew on this flight. The more senior one is very friendly, whereas the younger one has a somewhat surly expression and a general aura of really not wanting to be there…

The Meal

Like Adria Airways, Air Serbia has a buy on board service on Economy Class. However, with Air Serbia this means that literally everything is buy on board and you don’t even get offered a cup of water. Furthermore, and I find this rather strange, despite the fact that there is a buy on board service, the crew do not pass through the cabin with a trolley and don’t make any announcements either. So if you want to make a purchase, you have to call the crew to order. All in all, I think Adria Airways’ approach to inflight sales is a lot more charming and also makes a lot more sense. I think if the crew announce that there is possibility to make a purchase and pass through the cabin, the likelihood of somebody actually buying something is greater than if you just have a menu in the seat pocket and assume that passengers will see it. Perhaps one of Air Serbia’s many issues is that the interests of the cabin crew are strangely at odds with those of the airline’s management…

Arrival

We land after a flight time of seventy minutes. It’s obviously just been raining recently, because the runway is still damp. The ramp is busy with some exotic aircraft. Air Serbia’s only A 330 is being readied for another sortie to JFK, there are two A 320s of Etihad and Qatar Airways respectively, and there is an A 300 of Iran Air getting ready to depart.

As I’m only travelling with hand luggage, I’m out of the terminal in record time. To get into town I shall be taking the A1 airport bus. The fare is RSD300 or EUR3. If you pay in Euros, you will even be given change in Euros. The journey will take about twenty minutes and there is a stop by the old main railway station in the heart of the city and one further on in the centre of town.

Air Serbia, Business Class – Boeing B 737-300: Belgrade to Bucharest

Introduction

I just arrived in Belgrade on an Air Serbia flight from Zürich. This is not my first visit to Belgrade but it shall be the first time I transit at Belgrade airport.

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Transfer in Belgrade

Transferring at Belgrade airport could hardly be easier. As you exit the airbridge you immediately find yourself airside. Owing to the size of the facility, and also probably to its age, arriving and departing passengers are not segregated at Belgrade airport.

The airport appears to be undergoing renovation at the moment. There is the nice shiny, new part at the heart of the terminal complex and then, the farther away you move from the centre, the shabbier the place becomes. But I think it will look rather nice once the entire facility has been completed.

In any case, I was issued with the boarding pass for my onward connection to Bucharest when I checked in this morning in Zürich, so I guess I might as well head straight for the lounge.

The Lounge

Location: The lounge is located close to gate A1 in the newly refurbished part of the terminal
Type of Lounge:
Contractor lounge operated by Belgrade airport
Facilities:
Cold food (salad bar) and hot and cold drinks, toilets are located in the lounge but there are no showers
Internet:
Free wifi, but a password is required

The lounge has a very modern feel to it and the selection of food and drinks is quite good. The only downside, as far as I can tell, is that this is the only lounge available to serve all the airlines operating to Belgrade. As a result, the place is probably already a bit too small, which is also why I didn’t take that many pictures.

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Boarding

Do not let the FIDS mislead you! Or your boarding pass for that matter. A quick glance at my boarding pass confirms that apparently boarding starts one full hour before departure. This is confirmed when I check the FIDS for my flight and the status is already at ‘go to gate’ even more than an hour before departure.

Belgrade uses a closed gate system. In order to access the gate area or holding pen, you have to go through security first, and quite obviously they want to make sure passengers don’t arrive late. In any case, there’s no queue anymore when I arrive at the gate roughly 35 minutes before departure. But there isn’t any space to sit left either. It’s standing room only.

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On a positive note however, it would appear that the new shiny A 319 that was scheduled to operate this flight today has been substituted with a Boeing B 737-300. And as the icing on the cake, she’s even an albino. Completely white, with only the registration revealing her origins. Normally I would consider this a downgrade. But I think the B 737 is on its way out with Air Serbia since Etihad took over. And the B737-300 is slowly becoming rare in Europe, so for me this really is a stroke of luck!

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The Cabin

Configuration: 3 + 3 with the middle seat left empty in Business Class
Seat: 2F
Pitch:
Width:
Facilities: None
Audio and Video: NIL

This is much more like what I’m familiar with. The usual euro-style Business Class with the middle seat left empty. The seats look vaguely familiar and I find myself wondering if this bird perhaps once flew for Lufthansa in a previous life, many moons ago. But apart from that, everything is the same as on the previous flight. Including the blanket and red pillow at every seat.

Once more though, I’m not sitting on the seat I was originally booked on, this time I’m on 2F instead of 1C. But never mind.

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There are two rows of Business Class, with seven of eight seats taken. And by the looks of it, the seat fairy has done her magic again and I’m the only passenger to have a whole row to himself. Jay!

The Crew

The crew on this flight are a lot like the previous one: very friendly and chatty, cracking jokes with the passengers in a very charming and disarming manner. One of the young ladies is quite flirty, a fact which does not escape most of the male passengers – and their girlfriends…

The Meal

Welcome drink on the ground: Yes, freshly squeezed orange juice
Hot towel before the meal: Yes, rose scented hot towel served on the ground
Pre-meal drink:
No, due to the short flight time
Choice:
Vegetarian or meat
Delivery:
Individual tray service
Type of meal:
Light snack with dessert
Menu:
No
Meal:

  1. two sandwiches filled with fresh vegetables and grilled aubergine
  2. skewer of fruit
  3. coffee

Once boarding is completed, little miss flirty comes through the cabin with hot rose scented towels and takes orders for pre departure drinks. Again I have a fresh orange juice.

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There are two cabin crew working the Business Class cabin on this flight, presumably to speed things up on such a short sector.

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After take-off orders are taken for drinks and food, and a short while later the tray appears. I’m quite impressed that even for such a light meal Air Serbia will place a table cloth on the tray table.

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The two sandwiches hit the spot nicely and the fruit tastes fresh and juicy. As the purser removes my tray, he asks me if I enjoyed the meal and if there’s anything else I’d like. So I ask for a coffee, not quite sure if I’ll get one, given the fact that we’re already descending towards Bucharest by this time. But all he has to say about the fact is ‘Of course, milk and sugar?’ And a short while later my coffee appears with a last rose scented hot towel.

Arrival

There isn’t really much to say about our arrival into Bucharest, it’s quite a bumpy approach with the strong wind. That’s all.

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Getting into Town

Transport: Bus
Departs from: One floor down from arrivals
Frequency:
Journey time: 30 – 40 minutes
Fare: 7 Romanian Leu for a return ticket, you have to purchase a chargeable card from the ticket booth at the far end of the pavement, outside the terminal.

I’m staying at the Radisson Blue in Bucharest. The easiest way to get there is by bus line 783. The journey time varies considerably, depending on traffic. Alight at bus stop ‘University’ from where it is just a short walk to the hotel.

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Conclusion

As you might have guessed already, I shall not be returning home to Basel the way I came with Air Serbia, which is a shame really, because their service really is quite outstanding. Obviously on this sector the hardware was no match for the newer A 320 I had on the previous leg, although the aircraft looked and felt very well maintained. Nonetheless, the crew on this flight demonstrated quite spectacularly just how true it is that the impression you have of an airline largely depends on the staff, the people that make the airline. I enjoyed these two flights, and should I ever be heading to this part of the world in future, Air Serbia will definitely be on my list of likely carriers.