Virgin Australia, Business Class – Boeing B 737-800: Melbourne to Sydney

Introduction

How rude! 23 hours before my departure to Sydney, I receive two emails: one if from Air France and the other is from QANTAS. The email from Air France informs me that my flight to Sydney has been cancelled and I can request a refund of my FlyingBlue miles ticket. The email from QANTAS tells me that they’re working to rebook me and will get back to me within 72 hours. Great! A short while later another message arrives to inform me that QANTAS has found an alternative and booked me on the departure from Melbourne at 21h00 instead of 13h00. Alternatively, I can select another option under the ‘Manage booking’ tab on the app. Only, the other options are a departure at 06h00 or at 07h00 in the moring. So a refund it is. Luckily, I find an alternative flight on the Virgin Australia website, and it even has a better timing – with a departure from Melbourne at 14h00.

Getting to the airport

In Melbourne I was renting a flat in Southbank, very close to the Yarra river, the CBD and Flinders Street station. Check-out is at 10h00 in the morning. I then make my way with all my luggage to the southern end of the Elizabeth Street entrance to Flinders Street station. There’s a train from here to Southern Cross station roughly every ten minutes. The journe takes about four minutes and costs AUD4.60.

At Southern Cross I alight and change to the SkyBus for the airport.

The oneway ticket is AUD19. If you get a return ticket each way is slightly cheaper, meaning you’ll only pay AUD32.

The journey takes about 25 minutes.

Check-in

Virgin checks in at Terminal 3, which is the first stop on the Skybus. The SkyBus drops you off at arrivals on the ground level. Departures are one floor up.

Business Class passengers can either use the self-service check-in machines or one of the check-in counters, which is what I do. While the friendly lady checks me in, we have a little natter about the heat wave they’re having in Europe. While we’re at it, she tells me that weather in Melbourne is a bit like a woman’s mood: it changes four times a day but never the way you expect it too. I’ll take that into consieration, Ma’am. She gives me instructions to the lounge and sends me on my way.

The Virgin Australia Business Class lounge

The Virgin lounge is located right in between the E and F piers, before security. However, there are exits on both sides of the lounge that will eject you in a dedicated, segregated security- screening area for lounge visitors only.

The lounge is very big and not all that busy. It also doesn’t seem to be operating at full capacity, as not all the bars are open. There are also magazine shelves but no magazines, which I’m guessing is because of Covid19.

The large buffet is permanently manned, which makes it impossible to take pictures of it without getting the staff in the photos too.

The best feature of the lounge though, is the large window front that runs along the full length of it and that gives you good views of the ramp.

While I wait I track the progress of my aircraft. It’s running nearly two hours late on its previous flight from Gold Coast to Melbourne. Somewhere along the line, I notice there’s an aircraft change and our flight will now be operated on a different aircraft currently inbound from Hobart. That one will not reach Melbourne until 13h52, which means the 14h00 departure time is still not going to happen either way.

Once VH-VUS is safely on the ground and parked on its stand, I figure I might as well leave the lounge and go for a walkabout until boarding starts.

I reach gate 3 and they’re still unloading the cargo from the previous flight. The baggage carts with the Melbourne bound suitcases are already waiting, and I’m happy to spot my luggage on it too. The aluminium RIMOWA with all the stickers in the top left corner is one of mine.

Boarding

Eventually, boarding starts at around 14h35, which means we’re probably going to be running an hour late by the time we depart. Which actually suits me better. I step aboard as one of the last passengers. The purser welcomes me aboard, followed by “there you are”. Before I can even take my seat, she asks me if I’d like some sparkling wine or still water.

The seat

On my previous flight, I was seated on row 1. This time I’m on row 2. The seat pitch is geat. There is a large seat pocket and the seat has USB and electricity plugs.

The meal

I can’t seem to get it right. I don’t know, maybe the Aussies just struggle with my accent. On my last flight, the choice was between the chicken burger and a chickpea salad. I ordered the chickpea salad and all the purser understood was something with ‘chick…’, and immediately brought me the burger instead. Which was not good. So this time, the choice is between another chicken burger and a salad. The guy next to me orders the burger. And even though I clearly enunciate ‘salad’, all the purser hears is “same”. Only this time, I’m prepared, and I immediately correct her and specify that I want the salad.

And it’s a good choice. The salad comes with little pieces of rice-shaped pasta, rocket, pumpkin, bell peppers and a yoghurt dressing. It’s very nice. With that there is another packet of crackers with cheese and a chocolate heart. God, I’m missing Swiss chocolate right now…

Arrival

By the time we pull onto our stand it’s 16h10, so we’re running over an hour later. Which suits me fine, because I’m picking up the light of my life today, who will be arriving at 17h20 at the international terminal. My late arrival means a shorter wait.

My suitcases arrive very quickly. I then make my way outside to catch the complimentary Tbus that connects the domenstic terminals with the international terminal. The Tbus is orange, and you really can’t miss it. It runs every 15 minutes. The journey takes about ten minutes, depending on the traffic on the roads.

Virgin Australia, Business Class – Boeing B 737-800: Sydney to Melbourne

Introduction

It had always been a dream of mine that one day I would watch a performance at the Sydney Opera House. This weekend the stars lined up for me, and I was able to get a ticket to watch the last performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. I tought it was a brilliant production. The whole cast were solid. But the soprano’s rendition of the fabulous Un bel di vedremo was literally a show stopper.

Getting to the airport

At 11h40 on Sunday morning I step of the ferry from Manly and walk the short distance to Circular Quay station, from where I can catch a T8 train to Sydney airport. The journey should take about twenty minutes to the domestic terminal.

As it turns out though, they’re working on the line today. So the station is closed and trains to and from the airport are only running as far as Central station. So instead, I walk a few extra steps and board the L2 tram from Circular Quay to Central station. The journey takes about twenty minutes and both the L2 and the L3 run to Central.

And then from Central Station I catch the train to the airport. All in all, the journey from Circular Quay to the airport takes me about 45 minutes instead of 20, but I’m good for time. So no harm done. On public transport in Sydney there’s no need to buy a ticket in advance. You can just badge in and out with your credit card as you go. The maximum amount you’ll pay for a whole day of travel is AUD16.

I alight at the stop for the domestic terminals, which serves both Terminals 2 and 3. Virgin Australia operates out of Terminal 2.

Considering how big Sydney airport is, the distance from the station to the check-in area is surprisingly short.

I’ve already checked in using the app, so I head straight for security. There is no separate queue for Business Class passengers.

The Virgin Australia lounge

It’s rather nice that in Australia, on domestic flights you only have to take out laptops, and not all your liquids as well. The entrance to the Virgin lounge is off to the right as you exit security. It’s quite busy, so I don’t take a lot of photos. The lounge has a wide window front overlooking the apron and the runways beyond – perfect for some plane watching!

There is a fairly large buffet with a selection of cold snacks, such as crackers and cheese, egg sandwiches, tuna wraps, and salads. There is also a choice of two soups.

At around 14h15 I start to get bored, so I figure I mights as well make my way to the gate. Boarding should start at 14h35.

Boarding

There is a separate queue for Business Class passengers and passengers travelling with children or with special needs. If you’re sitting at the back of the bus, you can actually take the stairs down onto the ramp and then walk across to board the aircraft through the rear door.

The cabin

Virgin Australia has two rows of Business Class. Each seat has an adjustable headrest. I think I prefer this seat to that of QANTAS simply because of the fact that the seat back is more upright. For my liking the recline of the QANTAS seat in the upright position is a bit exagerated.

The seat pitch on row 1 is good.

And there’s a small tray that can be pulled out of the armrest for a bit of extra space.

Service

The service begins on the ground with either still water or sparkling wine. Other than that, the crew are very friendly. What is perhaps the most noticeable difference to QANTAS is that Virgin seem to take the Covid measures a lot more seriously. As passengers board, they are reminded to put on their face masks and there’s also a recorded announcement reminding passengers how the face mask should be worn properly.

We move off stand just after 15h00 and make our way to runway 34R, which is quite a schlepp from the domestic apron.

We take off and make a sharp right turn towards the sea. In the distance I can see Bondi beach and the North and South Heads.

The meal

To eat there are two choices: a chicken katsu sandwich with Japanese mayo or a Morroccan chickpea salad. It is perhaps a tad unfortunate that both dishes start with chick…, because I actually order the chickpea salad. Only, what I end up with is the chicken. I don’t bother to point out the mistake. The flight time is only seventy minutes or so. I think I’ll live. also on the tray is a package of cheese and crackers and a small chocolate heart.

And what a dreadful meal it is. The sandwich is incredibly oily and the chicken has a revolting rubbery texture. Needless to say, I put the thing down after one bite. The crackers are good, though.

Arrival

Our approach brings us in right over the city, with St. Kilda visible in the distance. The weather in Melbourne is not as nice as it was in Sydney. It’s overcast and also cooler.

We make a quick taxi to Terminal 3, which is where Virgin operates out of here in Melbourne.

Getting into Melbourne from the airport

Right outside the exit from arrivals is the bus stop for the Skybus, which runs into Melbourne every ten minutes. The journey takes about thirty minutes to Southern Cross station and a one way tickets costs AUD16.

And… it’s a double decker bus. Suitcases are stowed on the lower level, and passengers sit on the upper level. If you’re sitting on the first row, you get some great views as the bus approaches the city.

KLM, Business Class – Embraer 175 & Boeing B 737-800: Basel to Amsterdam and Oslo

Introduction

My first flight of 2022 sees me travelling from Basel to Amsterdam on KLM. I’m on my way to Trondheim. Originally, I booked a ticket on KLM for Basel-Amsterdam-Trondheim. But I wasn’t really happy with the itinerary, because both the flight to Amsterdam and then on to Trondheim would be operated by an Embraer 175. I don’t mind the little Embraer on a flight of one hour or so. But the block time for Amsterdam-Trondheim is over two hours, and the KLM Embraer 175 is very uncomfortable on longer journeys.

Then I decided to go to Paris to see Turandot on 30 December 2021 at the Opera de la Bastille. I figured there would be no point in returning to Basel in the evening of 1 January 2022, only to leave again the next morning at the crack of dawn. I was also still frantically looking for an excuse to get me out of having to spend so much time on the Embraer. Which is how I ended up booking a flight from Paris via Amsterdam to Oslo instead. First on an Air France A 320 and then a KLM B 737-800. Much better.

Then one week before I should have left for Paris, I decided to cancel the trip again because of Omicron. I’m double-jabbed and boosted, but I think it’s clear that the only way to get this pandemic under control is if we all show at least some restraint, by trying to keep our distance and avoiding any unnecessary travel. So probably not by spending over two hours in the Opera de la Bastille shoulder to shoulder with a couple of hundred culture vultures. Of course, that then meant that I had to change my ticket from Paris-Amsterdam-Oslo back to Basel-Amsterdam-Oslo… I really have to say, Air France KLM were excellent. No matter how often I called to change/refund me tickets, their staff were always friendly and competent.

Check-in

I’m carting a large suitcase with me on this trip, because I’ll be giving another course after the one in Trondheim. The check-in process at Basel airport is really slow. They’re checking in the flights to Paris and to Amsterdam at the same time. The majority of passengers are non-Schengen nationals heading back home after the holiday via either one or the other of the two hubs. Without a Schengen certificate though, checking that passengers have all the necessary documentation takes up a lot of time.

The Swissport Skyview lounge

The lounge in Basel is open again on both the lower and upper level, although half the upper level has been taped off, presumably to save costs on staff and cleaning. There aren’t that many passengers around either. The food options in the lounge are somewhat limited. There are three questionable hot items to choose from: a platter of rather dry looking samosas, sausages and soup. I don’t try any of them.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight starts on time and doesn’t take very long, as the load is very light. There are only about thirty passengers on the flight. There are two rows of Business Class, and I have the whole Business Class cabin to myself.

The cabin

So yes, the Embraer 175. There are a number of things that elude me about this aircraft. First, I’ve always wondered why it has a slightly nose-up attitude when standing on the ground. Especially seeing as its larger brothers, the E190 and 195, have a more nose-down attitidue. But that’s not really all that important. What bothers me though, is that none of the windows on the E175 ever seem to be properly aligned with the seat rows – no matter on which airline. You’re either having to crank back your neck to get a look outside, or you’re view is obstructed by the seat infront of you. The recline also isn’t very good, and pitch on row 1 could be better too.

In addition, this particular aircraft is having a toilet malfunction. As a result of which, the crew call button keeps going off every two minutes or so, even though there’s nobody in it.

The crew

The crew on the flight from Basel to Amsterdam are typical for KLM. Very professional and friendly. That is something KLM and Air France do well, I think. You always know exactly what to expect from their crews. And that’s exactly what you get.

The meal

There have obviously been a few changes and cutbacks to KLM’s European meal concept in Business Class. First, the food box that passengers previously only got on the Cityhopper flights has now been extended to the mainline fleet as well. Which is a bit of a let down. In addition, the meal is no longer served with breadrolls or butter. So it’s really just the main course, a dessert and a small plastic bowl with walnuts, which is just plain weird. Apart from that, KLM catering has a tendency to be a bit on the ‘experimental’ side…

Tonight’s offering is a bulgur salad with falafel, a few pieces of cheese and hummus. It may not look very appealing, especially the hummus, but the taste is surprisingly good.

On a positive note, those horrible little tubs of sweetened gelatine they used to pass for dessert have been replaced with these rather tasty little fruit pies.

KLM has also replaced the plastic cutlery with politically correct and biodegradable wooden cutlery.

Arrival

The weather in Amsterdam is not very nice when we arrive. It’s quite warm but raining. At least with such a light load it doesn’t take long for the passengers to disembark and the bus to bring us to the terminal. I think this is the first time I’ve actually been on a flight that parked on one of the remote stands between piers C and D. I’m guessing the aircraft will be heading to maintenance for some TLC and to check out the pinging loo.

Transfer in Amsterdam

I have one hour to make the connection to Oslo. Normally I probably wouldn’t bother with the lounge and would just browse through the shops until it’s time for boarding. Only, the shops have all been closed because of the lockdown measures in the Netherlands.

The flight to Oslo

The flight to Oslo is mostly unremarkable. As on my previous flight, the load is rather light. At least there are five passengers in Business Class in total. On this flight, the meal is the usual Cesar salad in a box. I seem to get that one quite often lately…

The crew

The really outstanding feature of this flight isthe crew. They’re just so nice! The purser is professional and competent. She makes excellent announcements and takes very good care of passengers during the flight. What’s more, when the pilot comes out of the cockpit during the flight, I even manage to pick his brain for my PhD. He’s just so friendly and helpful, just brilliant!

Arriving in Oslo

Eventually, we land in Oslo on time at 22h30. It’s very misty and there’s a thick layer of freshly driven snow. The pilot applies full reverse thrust to slow us down, and as we vacate the runway, the snow removing crew is already entering the runway to start clearing away the fresh snow.

As per 02 January 2022 visitors to Oslo from a Schengen country need to have a Covid test done upon entering the country. This can either be done directly at the airport, or at home. Arriving passengers also have to complete the registration form ahead of their arrival. The only problem is, nobody seems to be able to tell me what to do with the test result…

Conclusion

I’m assuming the diminished meal service on the European mainline fleet has less to do with Covid-related health measures and more to do with an urgent need to reduce costs wherever possible. Of course, one might argue that driving down the costs by making cuts where the passengers will easily notice them is rarely a good idea. But these are strange times, and if anything, my constantly changing travel plans showed how volatile and unpredictable air travel has become. With that in mind, it’s refreshing that KLM has taken that on board, making it easy and effortless for passengers to change their bookings, cancel trip altogether and request refunds – even at short notice. I’ll take that any day over a fancy meal and a plush seat. Furthermore, KLM’s strong point, as far as I can tell, has always been its staff. And that has certainly not changed, luckily.

Air France, Business Class – Boeing B 777-300ER: Singapore to Paris CDG

2000px-Air_France_Logo.svg

Introduction

In Singapore I’m staying at the Changi Crowne Plaza Hotel, which has direct access to Terminal 3. I spend a blissfully lazy Saturday by the pool. I mean, what else could you possibly ask for? I have a room that opens directly onto the pool, it’s warm outside and all I have to do to watch the aeroplanes taking off is to look up from my Kindle whenever I hear one thundering by.

Getting to the Airport

To get from the hotel to Terminal 1, I exit the hotel on the second floor level and do two right turns, which brings me to the Skytrain station for the short trip across to Terminal 1.

Check-in

The Air France check-in counters are on the very first row of counters when you enter Terminal 1 coming from the direction of the Skytrain. You really can’t miss them.

Online check-in is available, but it is not possible to save the boarding pass to Passbook or to have it printed. Still, it makes no difference to me, seeing as I’ll be checking in a suitcase anyway. There is one counter for La Première, four for SkyPriority and two baggage drop-off counters for Economy Class passengers.

There’s a bit of a hold up checking in. I’m not sure what’s going on, but the agents are taking their sweet time processing the passengers. Although admittedly, it probably doesn’t help that there’s one woman travelling on her own with, and I kid you not, five large Rimowa suitcases, four rucksacks, two laptop bags and one handbag. When the check-in agent breaks the news to her that, surprisingly, she’s exceeded her baggage allowance, she looks totally surprised…

The Lounge

Air France uses the DNATA lounge in Terminal 1, which is fairly big but also very busy when I arrive. There’s hardly anywhere left to sit. The lounge has a good selection of hot and hold dishes and a wide selection of drinks. Other than that, it’s not a particularly memorable lounge.

Boarding

The flight will be departing from gate D34, and on the boarding pass it says that boarding will commence at 22h30 for the 23h10 departure. I figure 22h30 indicates the time to report at the gate for the security check. Luckily, there is a separate and much shorter queue for SkyPriority passengers. Just as I’m packing away my things, boarding for the flight starts, with an invitation for SkyPriority passengers to board first.

The Cabin

On the Boeing B 777-300ER Air France has a reverse herringbone configuration, with the window seats facing towards the windows for more privacy. The seat is fully lie-flat and has more than enough storage space. USB and electricity plugs are also available. The seat is quite wide, so that when in the fully flat position, there’s still enough space to toss and turn in your sleep.

There are two Business Class cabins, one forward of the L2 door and the other aft of it. I am sitting in the forward cabin on 4A, which is the second row in the forward cabin with four rows of seats.

The cabin and seat are kept in Air France’s colours – white, red and blue – and look very attractive and fresh. When I arrive at my seat, a pillow, blanket and slippers have already been placed at my seat.

The Crew

The crew on this flight are excellent. They’re quite senior and they do an outstanding job. Throughout the flight they’re checking that the snack bar is replenished and the toilets are regularly checked, kept stocked and clean.

The Service

Once boarding is completed, the crew pass through the cabin with the welcome drinks. There is a choice of champagne or fruit juice on the tray, but other drinks are also available on request. After that, scented hot towels are handed out.

The flight time is announced at thirteen hours and twenty minutes.

Once we’re airborne, the crew distribute the menus and pass through the cabin with a tray offering more champagne.

The Meal

Originally, the plan was that I’d eat in the lounge and just go straight off to sleep once we’re airborne. Which is why I nearly overdosed on the creamy mashed potatoes they had in the lounge. That and the fact that I’m just a sucker for a good plate of mash… In any case, I make the mistake of looking at the menu and decide that it does all sound rather interesting. And I’m not really tired yet anyway, so… bugger it. I’m in! The tray arrives with the first course, the salad and the cheese already on it.

First Course

Semi-cooked tuna in a black pepper crust, served on quinoa salad and poached shrimp on a citrus salad with cucumber and a yuzu vinaigrette.

This is a tasty dish and the presentation works well. It’s also properly seasoned (which is something Singapore Airlines didn’t manage quite so well…).

Salad

The salad comes with a small bottle of balsamico mixed with olive oil. It’s mostly leaves but it’s still a fairly large salad. With that the crew offer a selection of breads.

Main Course

Penne with a mushroom ragout, roast tomatoes and garlic oil.

There is a choice of four different dishes for the main course. The pasta is good and has managed not to go all hard and rubbery as it sometimes tends to do on a plane. The ragout is flavourful and creamy.

The Cheese

Unfortunately, it doesn’t say anywhere what the cheeses are, but they’re very good!

Dessert

Chocolate praline éclair, violet mousse, yuzu meringue tart and strawberry sorbet.

For dessert there is a choice of either ice cream (banana, vanilla or strawberry sorbet) or three small pastries. I initially go for the pastries, but then the flight attendant tells me that the strawberry sorbet out of Singapore is usually rather nice too. Just in case I’m interested. Oh very well then, bring it on. Je souffre en silence…

After the meal, the crew set up a fairly substantial buffet in the galley with a good selection of some delectable French sweets by Fauchon, sandwiches, noodle soups and fruit.

And I go off to the land of nod for a solid seven hours. Incidentally, the blankets Air France provides in Business Class are lovely. They’re cosy and warm and fluffy.

Amenities

The amenity kit is some special edition to commemorate Air France’s 85th jubilee. It may not necessarily look like much, but at least it contains some useful items, including eye shades, ear plugs, a toothbrush and Signal toothpaste, a comb, and a pen.

The Second Service

The second service begins ninety minutes out of Paris. The lights come on and passengers are given a scented hot towel to revive.

The tray arrives with the hot meal and all the other items already on it. There are three choices for the hot meal. My meal consists of:

crêpes in a vanilla sauce with a passion fruit and mango salsa

The breakfast is quite substantial and the hot meal is simply divine. This is total comfort food. The vanilla cream is rich and not overly sweet and the pancakes are light and thin.

Arrival

Just under forty minutes out of Paris, we start our initial descent into Paris. The captain comes on to inform us that we’ll be doing an automatic landing in Pairs because visibility on the ground is very bad.

We touch down, the mighty triple seven gives us one last impressive roar as the reversers open to slow us down, and then it’s done. We’ve landed and I’m back in Europe. By the time we arrive at our gate in Terminal 2E it’s already 06h10. I now have just slightly over an hour to make my connection back to Zürich from Terminal 2F.