Air France, Business Class – Embraer 190: Paris Charles de Gaulle to Basel

Transfer in Paris Charles de Gaulle

My driver picks me up at the L2 door as I exit the mighty Boeing B 777-300 that has just brought me to Paris from Dubai. We descend to ground level and exit onto the apron. She opens the door for me to take a seat and then takes my bag and puts it in the booth. It’s just a short ride to the La Première lounge. Once we arrive at the lounge, I go through security and passport control.

We then go up to the main level and my driver wishes me a nice stay and tells me she’ll be back to pick me up at 08h40. The lounge is still quiet at this time of day. That is, until two Chinese gentlemen enter and start making phone calls. Apparently the reception is not so good, because it sounds like they’ve decided to shout whatever it is they want to discuss all the way to China instead of using the good old-fashioned phone. I think I’ll just go take a shower first…

The showers in the lounge are large and spacious. They’re basically fully equipped bathrooms and come with slippers, fluffy towels and a bathrobe.

By the time I’m done with the shower, there’s only me left in the lounge. It’s peaceful again. First, I ask for a cappuccino and a fresh orange juice.

Followed by Viennoiserie, still water and hot cocoa.

Boarding

At 08h40 my driver comes to collect me. My aircraft is parked on a remote stand at Terminal 2G. The terminal is currently closed, but the stands are still being used.

The busses with the other passengers are right behind our car. There’s a bit of a delay to let passengers onto the aircraft. Apparently, the purser is arriving off a flight from Turin which landed with a bit of a delay.

When eventually they give us the thumbs up, my driver comes to open the door for me and hands me my luggage. Funnily enough, I notice some of the passengers in the first bus taking photos of me and the car – probably just in case I turn our to be somebody famous. Don’t bother, it’s only me.

The cabin

There are two rows of Business Class for a total of eight passengers, seeing as KLM and Air France do not block the adjacent seat on the regional jets. But there are only three passengers anyway in Business Class this morning, so we still all get a row to ourselves.

Seat pitch on row 1 is excellent!

The service

There’s a further delay loading the suitcases onto the aircraft due to a shortage of rampers caused by Omicron. While we wait, the purser hands us a bottle of still water and a packaged refreshing towel.

We push off our stand with a delay of 35 minutes. However, with a flight time of only 45 minutes this morning we’ll only be about 15 minutes late arriving in Basel.

The cabin crew inform us that due to the Covid restrictions imposed by the French government, there will be no service on today’s flight.

The meal

Much to my surprise though, as soon as the fasten seatbelt sign is turned off after take-off, the cabin crew passes through the Business Class cabin asking passengers if there’s anything we’d like. I ask for a chocolat chaud, which she serves me with two buttery biscuits.

I have no idea if this the regular domestic Business Class service, or if this is also the result of the Covid measures.

Arrival

The weather en route is lovely, with good ground visibility. It’s a beautiful sunny day – until we reach les Vosges. The Rhine valley sits in a depression between Les Vosges in the west, the Schwarzwald in the east and the Jura in the south, making it susceptible to dense and often very persistent fog. Just like today.

The captain instructs passengers to completely turn off their mobile phones in preparation for an automatic landing.

And it really is bad. The ground only comes into view seconds before we touch down. The view reminds me a bit of that film ‘The Others’ with Nicole Kidman. There’s this scene when her dead husband returns from war and she meets him out in the forest… it’s that kind of low visibility.

The nice thing about arriving in Basel with Air France is that you can save yourself the aggravation of having to queue endlessly to enter France and then Switzerland.

Instead, we end up waiting forty minutes for the first bags to finally arrive on the belt. Here too the handlers are having to deal with a staff shortage caused by Omicron. But these things happen. I wish all those affected a swift and full recovery and no lasting effects.

As of 15 January 2022 persons entering Switzerland by air must complete an entry form online within 48 hours prior to their arrival. They also need to show a negative PCR test that was taken no more than 72 hours prior to the start of their journey, even if they are fully vaccinated and boosted.

Before customs and the exit to Switzerland the airport authority has set up a checkpoint for passengers entering Switzerland with this large queueing system. There are signs everywhere asking passengers to get their QR code and negative test result ready for inspection. Only… there’s nobody there and I just walk through.

God, I’m glad to be back home again!

Conclusion

This brings to an end the first two weeks of 2022 and my first bout of travel for this year. As I mentioned in one of the previous posts, it’s been interesting to see how the authorities in different countries are trying to handle the pandemic and the population. I think the measures in place say a lot about a society and its culture. Having said that, I’m not going to discuss what I think it says about Norway that they think not selling alcohol is an appropriate measure to combat the spreading of Covid 19…

Travelling in times of Covid 19 is tedious, a nuisance, and expensive. There is also an apparent lack of harmonization between countries that makes it difficult to prepare. In 2022 I think there is no longer such a thing as an seasoned traveller, because the rules keep changing. However, this trip also made me realise that many of the rules have probably not been put in place because they are, in and of themselves, considered effective measures to combat the spreading of the virus. My arrival in Basel is just one of many examples of that. I got a PCR test done in Dubai before I left and I registered online within 48 hours of arrival – even though the evidence suggests that the authorities couldn’t even be bothered to have somebody man the checkpoint at the airport to make sure. It seems to me, therefore, that the only real point of many of these measures is simply to deter people from travelling.

I know I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep on saying it. There is only one effective way out of this pandemic: you need to get vaccinated and you need to get your booster. It is your civil and moral obligation, and everything else is just selfishness. It’s unlikely that we’re going to eradicate Covid completely, so we might as well start getting used to living with it.

In terms of airlines, on this trip I flew with KLM, SAS/Air Baltic and Air France. KLM’s short-haul Business Class product on the mainline fleet was a disappointment. It has been stripped down to the absolute minimum. It’s basically the same service you get on the Cityhopper flights. But while the latter tend to be fairly short runs, the mainline routes can be fairly long.

SAS was a major source of overall suckage. They’re currently transitioning into something of a virtual airline, and frankly, it hasn’t done them a world of good. Their frumpy staff and the fact that they only appear to cater unhealthy and unappealing food options did not exactly give me the warm and fuzzies. It’s kind of tragic that I consider myself lucky that the flight from Oslo to Paris with SAS was actually not operated by them! And Air France were simply brilliant. Not only did they manage to meet my expectations from previous experiences with their La Première product, they even succeeded in surpassing them! Flying is quite a hassle with Covid 19, but Air France’s impeccable premium service reduced that hassle to the absolute minimum.

SAS, Business Class (operated by Air Baltic) – Airbus A 220-300: Oslo to Paris Charles de Gaulle

Introduction

Today I’m on my way from Oslo to Paris. I exit the hotel just after six in the morning and make my way across the road to the terminal.

Departures are on the upper floor of the building. The check-in hall is an enormous, cavernous space. At six in the morning the place is not very busy.

I print my own baggage tag at one of the multi-purpose self-service machines and then head over to the Star Alliance Business Class drop-off. Behind check-in is a long corridor that leads to the security checkpoint. Along the way, I stop at the Dr. Dropin test facility to get the mandatory PCR test out of the way.

There is a dedicated fast track for Business Class passengers and the process is swift. OnceI’m airside, I’m still in the domestic part of the terminal. The border crossing to leave the country is to the right.

The SAS Gold lounge

SAS has a lounge in both the domestic and international part of the terminal. They are both one floor up from the common airside area.

Business is obviously still slow, because the Business Class lounge is closed off and not in service. Instead, all passengers are invited to use the Star Gold lounge.

There are plenty of seating options, and the lounge is nearly empty during my stay.

There is a nice selection of cold breakfast dishes available from the buffet. Just a word of warning though. Coffee is generally dreadful in Norway, and the SAS Gold lounge is no exception.

The terminal is very generously laid out, with lots of space and enough place to sit.

Boarding

Our departure is scheduled for 07h55, with boarding supposedly starting at 07h25. Eventually we start boarding at 07h40, which is no big deal, because there are only 32 passengers on the flight.

The cabin

The flight today is operated by a wetlease from Air Baltic with one of their Airbus A 220s. The aircraft is a stark contrast to the old and tatty looking B 737-700 I flew into Oslo on yesterday.

The A 220 really is such such a lovely aircraft from a passenger’s perspective. It’s spacious and so quiet. Of course it helps that the flight is not even half full. Air Baltic only has a row 1 on the starboard side of the aircraft, as the opposite side of the cabin is occupied by storage space. Thus, on the port side, row 2 is the first row of the cabin.

In the middle of the row of three there is a large, removable table, which is very convenient.

Leg space on row 1 is good.

Once we move off stand, our first stop is the de-icing station. It’s an interesting operation they have going on here. They are de-icing six aircraft at a time, and the process only takes a few minutes to complete.

Once we’re airborne, we’re treated to some spectacular views of the vibrant sky.

The crew

The crew have also been leased in from Air Baltic and they’re a lot more engaging than the SAS crew I had yesterday. They take their job seriously and tend to passengers’ needs in a charming and old-fashioned way.

The meal

Okay, this really is abissmal. Shame on you SAS! The flight attendant enters the cabin and inquires if there’s anything I’d like. I request an orange juice and a coffee. Juice is not available, but instead the flight attendant offers me an orange and mango smoothie. And that’s it. She moves on to the next row.

On her way back to the galley I hail her down and shyly inquire if there’s actually anything to eat. To which she replies that they had been informed by SAS that food for passengers was only on request and not actively offered. She tells me she’s happy to bring me something if I like. Then minutes later she’s back with my hot breakfast…

I think not even the Italians have pizza for breakfast, and they invented the bloody thing. But apparently that’s the only ‘dish’ the crew have on offer.

Well that was surprisingly disappointing… With the meal out of the way, I sit back, read, and enjoy the views outside.

Arrival

We land in Paris with a slight delay, caused by the defrosting before departure. The flight ends at terminal 2D. Terminals 1 and 3 at Charles de Gaulle airport are currently still closed.

The wait for the suitcases to arrive is very short. I guess that’s one of the few advantages of the pandemic and the result of there being less travellers.

From terminal 2D I walk to the railway station between terminals 2E and 2F and grab a Roissyval train to Roissy-Pole, which is the airport’s ground transportation hub and the location of all the airport hotels.

Conclusion

What on earth was that? It’s kind of tragic that the only good thing about this flight was that it was not operated by the carriers that should have been doing the flight. If this is seriously SAS’s idea of a European short-haul Business Class product, then I have to say I think it really sucks. Their only saving grace was that the flight was operated by Air Baltic.

I’m definitely not impressed with the two flights I took with SAS on this trip. And I’m certainly going to try to avoid them in the future. Definitely not worth it!

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.

SWISS, Business Class – Airbus A 320: Zürich to Berlin

Introduction

It’s been a long time since I last visited Berlin, probably twelve years or so. My recent trip for the inauguration of the Air France A220 doesn’t count, because that time I continued to Vienna after a short layover of about two hours. This time around I’ll actually be leaving the airport and spending two nights in the city.

Some of the more regular readers to this blog will probably know that this year’s plan was to make the best of Covid 19, by visiting the many sights of Europe without having to deal with all the overseas tourist. So far I’ve ticked off the bucket list:

  • Le Chateau de Versailles in Paris
  • La Gioconda in the Louvre Museum in Paris
  • A night at the Opéra de la Bastille in Paris
  • La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris
  • The Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel in Rome
  • The Colosseum in Rome
  • St. Peter’s in Rome
  • The Duomo di Milano
  • Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna
  • A night at the Staatsoper in Vienna
  • Linzer Torte in Linz

In Berlin, my aim is to finally visit the Pergamon Museum to see its reconstruction of the famour Ishtar Gate.

But first things first. The narrative begins as I am ejected from security into the airside duty free at Zürich airport. It’s just gone 17h30, and even though security was quiet, there are a lot of people airside. The airport is already decked out for Christmas, which is nice. But I must say that Covid 19 doesn’t really give me the warm and fuzzies, so it’s not as though I’m in much of a Christmas mood yet.

My first attempt to enter the SWISS lounge is foiled by the long queue to enter. It looks like there are more people inside the lounge than outside. And there isn’t a mask to be seen inside either. Okay, maybe not then…

So I go for a bit of a walkbout. Which is nice too, becaue it gives you an interesting, if not pretty, glimpse into the strangeness of the human race…

I also spot one of SWISS’ new A 321NEOs pulling onto its stand. Like WizzAir, SWISS has opted for a configuration with only one door on either side before the wing and two overwing hatches.

The lounge

Just before 18h00 I decide to try my luck again. I’ve had enough of mankind anyway, and the maskless shaker-movers in the lounge have mostly dispersed.

SWISS has a separate Senator lounge and a Business Class lounge in Zürich. As on my previous visit, they have the connecting door between the two lounges open and passengers can sit in either one or the other. Shortly after I enter though, they start removing the buffet and prepare to shut down the Business Class lounge.

I wasn’t planning on eating anything in the lounge. But a man is only so strong… have I mentioned that I love Spätzli? I think there is not very much I wouldn’t do for a plate of that doughy goodness. As it turns out, later on I will be grateful for having next to zero discpline where food is concerned…

Boarding

My boarding pass says that boarding will start at 18h10 for an 18h30 departure. But when I arrive at the gate just after 18h15, boarding is already in the final stages.

I’m seated on the window seat, on 2F. The middle seat is kept empty, and there are two bottles of SWISS’ famous, iconic no-brand water and two refreshing towels on the middle seat.

The cabin

I’m not sure how many times exactly the aircraft type for this flight changed since I booked it. At some point it looked as though it might be an A 320NEO, but thankfully my kneecaps and two herniated discs have been spared, and instead the flight is operated by the slightly less tight A 320CEO.

I think there are seven or eight rows of Business Class, and while the Business Class cabin is not sold out, I’d say it’s a fairly good load.

As we taxi out, the purser informs us that on today’s flight wifi is available. And as the system is still being tested, the service is complimentary for all passengers. I give it a try, but at no point during the flight am I able to log in. But it’s not that important to me anyway.

The crew

The two female cabin crew are both German and make the snow queen look like a very chirpy people person. They’re not rude or anything, but just totally lacking in anything that might remotely be recognised as an interest in their passengers. Probably it doesn’t help that 1D is either a Senator or a HON and is hellbent on making sure that everybody, probably even the guy on row 31, knows just how experienced a flyer he is. Honestly, the guy would put me is a foul mood too.

The meal

The meal is served with the plastic still on it, which I’m assuming is due to Covid 19. And sweet baby Jesus, what in the name of creation is this meal supposed to be anyway?

The main dish is two slices of some kind of dried meat with a few limp leaves of salad on top of it and a globule of pumkin flavoured gelatine.

And a dollop of… mayonnaise? Just in case the whole thing wasn’t already greasy enough.

The meal’s saving grace are the two slices of cheese.

And for dessert, it’s more gelatine – this time of the sweet variety. Let nobody every say SWISS catering is boring.

At least they didn’t forget to dish out the little chocolates, as they have a tendency of doing on Austrian Airlines.

Arrival

We land after a flight time of one hour and ten minutes and I’m really glad to be allowed off the plane. Our stand is more or less in the middle of the terminal. Even so, it’s still quite a schlepp from the gate to the exit.

My hotel is near Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten. I could take the S9, which is a direct service that takes about 55 minutes to make the journey from the airport. But that won’t be leaving for another 18 minutes. So I catch a train to Ostkreuz, which takes 15 minutes, and then from there a S5 service to Zoologischer Garten. Even with the change at Ostkreuz, the journey is shorter and only takes 42 minutes to complete.

Austrian Airlines, Business Class – Airbus A 320: Berlin to Vienna

For the trip back from Berlin to Basel, the easiest thing, no pun intended, would have been to book the direct easyJet flight. The only problem with that was that I booked the Air France trip at fairly short notice, once it became clear where the inaugural flight of the A 220 would be going to. By which time there weren’t any extra legroom seats left on easyJet. At my age and with two herniated discs, that’s a serious consideration. And so I figured I might as well return with Austrian via Vienna.

Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt

I’m not really sure what I was expecting when I arrived in Berlin. I suppose after all the bad press the airport received and the serious delay for it to finally open, I think I was probably expecting some half finished ruin. Turns out the terminal is rather nice airside. The wood finish gives it a nice, warm feel.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the airport in the future. Many of the low-cost carriers operating to Berlin have already said that they would like to return to the old DDR-era Schönefeld terminal once it reopens after Covid. But as it is, most of the traffic at the new terminal is by low-cost carriers such as Ryanair, Wizzair or easyJet. If they were to return to the old facility, the new one would be even more oversized that it clearly already is now.

Lufthansa lounge

The Lufthansa lounge is in an odd place, is an odd size and an odd shape. If you’re walking too fast, there’s also a good chance you’ll miss the entrance to the staircase that takes you to the lounge.

In a way, the lounge is something of a relic from a bygone era. When the airport was announced, Lufthansa had big plans for it. Ten years down the line and the only two routes operated by Lufthansa out of Berlin are to Frankfurt and Munich. In as much, it’s really quite surprising they still have a lounge at all.

The décor of the lounge is in the typical Lufthansa style, which is a matter of personal taste. Some may like it, and others not. Personally, in general I find the Lufthansa brand rather dated and frumpy. One way or another, there’s something off about the lounge, and I can’t really explain what it is. It has all the Lufthansa branded furniture, but is otherwise nearly completely lacking in any sort of decorations or… something that might give it character.

There are the usual food options, although they’re looking quite unappealing – even the rice looks dry! But I will say that the views are good.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight is from B07 and starts with a call for passengers in Business Class or with status. It’s going to be a full flight. I take my seat on the window on 1F and wait for the aircraft to fill up.

The crew

Alas, the crew on this flight are…meh. They’re a big, uncoordinated mess. I’m not even sure what exactly the issue is, but for some reason they seem disorganised and totally stressed before we even get going. I think part of the problem is that one of the two young men on the crew is, with all due respect, rather useless. He’s either inexperienced or he simply doesn’t care. So that leaves only three crew to do the job of four.

The flight time is 55 minutes, and once we’re airborne, the service is unnecessarily rushed and hectic. Even though there’s plenty of time with only ten passengers in the forward cabin.

The seat and cabin

There are three rows of Business Class on the flight, which is quite surprising, given that there were only two rows originally when I booked the flight. Of the twelve seats, nine are occupied. Although I might also like to add that there were eight passengers booked in Business Class, plus one Italian who figured he’d try it out and see if anybody noticed. They did eventually, and at least he had the decency of paying for the upgrade right there and then…

On row one the pitch is probably the worst in the whole Business Class cabin, because on all subsequent rows at least you can stick your feet under the seat in front of you. As usual, the middle seat is kept empty.

Austrian has the standard issue Lufthansa group seat with zero cushioning on its short-haul fleet. The seat is okay, but even after only 55 minutes of flight my butt is starting to ache.

The meal

Food is always a highlight on Austrian, and this flight is no exception. For the main course there is a plate with three sandwiches: salmon and cream cheese, cheddar and onion chutney, and tuna with chives. Although apparently the crew have not been informed and have no idea what they’re serving (Mr 2F, behind me, asks and get something of a strange reply from the crew…).

The sandwiches are really tasty and have not totally dried up on their way from Vienna to Berlin.

Dessert is a piece of Tiroler cake, I’d say, which is a hazelnut cake with chocolate chips in it. This is okay, but a bit too oily.

Arrival in Vienna

By the time we start our descent, the sun has already started to set. I always hate the shift back to winter time, precisely because it gets dark even earlier.

Vienna airport is very busy and there is hardly anywhere to sit while I wait to catch the connecting flight to Basel. But I will spare you the details on that flight.

Conclusion

As I mentioned, catering on Austrian is something they do really well. The dishes are usually nicely prepared and appeal to an international audience. The three sandwiches on this flight were simple but very tasty. Other than that though, the whole experience was a bit underwhelming and the crew were just disappointing. Which makes you wonder how much training these people actually receive before they’re let loose on humanity.

Of course, I did wonder during the flight if perhaps my perception of the flight was tarnished by my previous experience with Air France, which was very elegant and polished. Because that’s probably wouldn’t be fair either – there’s hardly any point in comparing a somewhat insignificant subsidiary such as Austrian to one of Europe’s leading airlines.

But I don’t think it’s that. A crew will make or break a passenger experience, and that’s precisely the problem with Austrian – their crews are unpredictable and more often than not they’re likely to disappoint. Which does not exactly instill me with a strong desire to book my next trip with them.

Air France, Airbus A 220-300 inaugural service: Paris Charles de Gaulle to Berlin in Classe Affaire

Introduction

Early in October 2021, Air France took delivery of its first of 60 Airbus A 220-300s, making it the largest operator of the type in Europe. F-HZUA has spent most of the month flying around France for crew training purposes. With the beginning of the winter schedule on Sunday, 31 October 2021, the aircraft will be deployed on Air France’s extensive European network. The inaugural flight will see it flying to Berlin.

Check-in

I check-in for the flight on the Air France app. However, boarding passes are not issued on the app because of Covid. So instead, the boarding pass is issued as a pdf that needs to be printed. One way or another, you’ll have to contact one of the check-in counters directly at the airport.

Terminal 2F is Air France’s Schengen terminal and has a dedicated SkyPriority area for check-in. I have a pleasant chat with the lady at check-in. She issues me a boarding pass and wishes me a lot of fun on my flight to Berlin.

From the check-in area there is a direct access to the security screening area.

The new Salon Air France in Terminal 2F

As I already mentioned in my previous post, Air France recently opened a new Business Class lounge in between the two piers of Terminal 2F. The lounge is very nice and enjoyable!

Boarding

The flight departs at 09:55, and boarding is scheduled for 09:10.

When I reach gate F55, all the video screens are showing off the new Air France A 220-300, highlighting its fuel efficiency and improved fuel burn compared to older types. There are Air France ground staff everywhere, holding up signs that read ‘Welcome A 220’.

Boarding starts with zone 1, which is for SkyPriority passengers with status or seated in Business Class. And I really must say, Air France has risen to the occasion to make the even something special. As I enter the airbridge, there are two Air France staff holding trays with Air France A220 branded gear pins.

And then in the airbridge, there is a lineup of staff on both sides holding up the same ‘Welcome A 220’ signs. As passengers pass by them, they are greeted by every one of the staff individually.

The cabin

Air France has its A 220-300 in a standard 2 + 3 configuration. In Business Class, only one of the seats on a row of two is sold, and on the row of three the middle seat is kept empty.

The seats have good pitch, and it’s the same pitch throughout the cabin. Every seat has a USB and thunderbolt port, a cup holder and a headrest that can be adjusted for height.

The seats are in dark blue, and there are the usual brand elements you find everywhere on Air France, for example the little red swish embroidered on the headrest. The little seahorse is emblazoned on the winglets, on the engine cowlings and on the fuselage right next to the L1 door.

The crew

The crew on this flight are truly excellent and have obviously been trained specifically for this event. Both the cockpit and cabin crew make all their announcements in French, German and English and make sure to point out how delighted they are to be joining this inaugural flight to Berlin. They also actively encourage passengers to ask them anything about the new aircraft.

But apart from that, they seem genuinely happy to be there. They’re all smiles and very attentive.

Once boarding is completed, the crew pass through the cabin with sealed refreshing towels.

And then we’re on our way…

The meal

It takes a while for the meal service to begin, and I suspect the crew are still trying to find their way around the new aircraft. I also think the trolley containing the food has been specially chosen for this flight, because it’s spotlessly clean and looks new.

The meal consists of a crêpe with a tasty vegetable and cream cheese filling. There is also a dollop of cream cheese on top of the crêpe, as well as a spicy red pepper sauce. A slice of French cheese completes the dish.

In addition, there is a separate bowl of yoghurt with jam and a plate with apricot jam and butter. The crew make two rounds through the cabin with bread rolls and croissants. And of course, being a French airline, there are copious amounts of Laurent-Perrier going around.

The meal is very good and hits the spot nicely. To drink I have a glass of orange juice and some still water.

Arrival into Berlin

The flight time to Berlin is 80 minutes, which brings us in at around 11:30. As we start the descent, the crew pass through the cabin with flight certificates.

We taxi off the runway and come to a stop right in front of the Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt sign, presumably for the photo shoot that is likely to happen while the aircraft is on the ground in Berlin.

And with that, my inaugural flight on the Air France A 220-300 is over. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and Air France did a good job in bringing back a bit of the excitement of flying in their organisation of the event.

Presenting the New Salon Air France in Terminal 2F, Paris Roissy Airport

Terminal 2F is the Schengen Terminal for the mainline fleet of Air France. It has two piers. Previously, there was a separate lounge in the tip of each pier, one floor down from the public airside areas. The lounges tended to get crowded quickly. Because they were located on the ground- and first floors, the views were somewhat limited.

Fast forward to the summer of 2021 and Air France has opened a new and very elegant centralised lounge, located right in between the two piers. The new lounge covers a large area and stretches over two floors. There are plenty of seating options on both levels, and there are multiple bars for guests to get food and drinks.

Perhaps the most important improvement of this lounge is that is has a lot more showers, which can be booked at reception. There’s also a dedicated quiet zone, with dimmed light and heavy curtains for passengers in need of a rest.

Most noticeable, the design of the lounge is very beautiful and modern. The centerpiece of the lounge is the grand white staircase leading to the upper level of the lounge. There is plenty of natural light, which is complemented by shifting mood lighting.

It’s difficult to capture just how elegant this lounge is and the sense of space it gives. Personally, I think this new lounge is one of the nicest Business Class lounges I’ve every visited. I also think it’s probably the best Schengen Business Class lounge out the right now.

Austrian Airlines, Business Class – Airbus A 320: Tirana to Vienna

Introduction

Originally, when I booked this flight, it should have been operated by an Airbus A 321, with a departure from Tirana at 17h00. But then, a few weeks later I received a schedule change from Austrian Airlines, informing me that the flight would now be operated by an Airbus A 320 and that the departure had moved forward to 15h00. It seems that Austrian has replaced the A 321 with two flights. One is an Airbus A 320 that leaves at 15h00, and the other is an Embraer 195 which departs a few minutes later.

Getting to the airport

There’s a lot of excitement in Tirana this morning, because German Chancellor Angela Merkel is visiting on her farewell tour of the Balkans. As a result, the authorities have shut down all the access roads to the airport for traffic. Nobody gets in, and nobody gets out. But it’s only a short distance from the facilities of the Albanian ANSP to the terminal, and it’s a lovely day for a walk anyway.

Check-in

The airport is a lot busier today than it was the last time I was here a week ago at three o’clock in the morning. In fact, I’d say the terminal facility is way too small for the amount of passengers it handles.

The girl at check-in has some serious Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde issues going on. When I reach the counter, the guy checking in at the counter next to me has scattered a ton of suitcases all over the place. He’s basically blocking three check-in counters but using only one. My check-in agent gives me the sweetest smile and welcomes me to Austrian Airlines. Then she turns to face the guy with the many suitcases and basically just rips him a new one in Albanian. I have no idea what on earth she says to him, but by the time she’s done, I’m really starting to feel sorry for the guy.

Tirana Airport Business Class lounge

The queue at security is long, but it moves quickly and the staff are very efficient. Once I’m through, I head one floor up to the Business Class lounge. It’s already gone 13h30 and I haven’t had lunch yet.

The lounge offers a nice selection of snacks, soft drinks and warm drinks. I’m not sure if alcohol is available too. Lavatories are available on the premises and are very clean. Complimentary wifi is also available in the lounge, with the password marked all over the place.

I ask the lady behind the buffet if she can just give me a bit of a taste of the Albanian dishes, which apparently means everything and in copious amounts. I end up with three plates. On the picture below you see pickled peppers filled with soft cheese, some shredded bell pepper, a healthy dollop of fresh cheese and another dollop of ajvars. Her English is about as good as my Albanian, but she makes it clear that the idea is that you mix the cheese with the ajvars and smear it on bread. Not in the picture are the plate full of bread and another plate with a cheese borek and a spinach borek that have been warmed. That should tie me over for the next week…

Boarding

Boarding already starts at 14h15. Even though it says 14h30 on the boarding pass. I get the feeling the ground staff are planning ahead in case there are any delays caused by all the diplomatic traffic. There’s a military Learjet from Macedonia and a Serb Embraer, in addition to Mutti’s Airbus of the Deutsche Bundeswehr.

The first bus departs just as I exit the terminal, but at least we’re allowed to wait outside in a closed off area for the next bus to arrive.

Most passengers are either making a mad dash to board the aircraft, or trying to capture a picture of the German Bundeswehr jet. My attention is immediately drawn to the completely white, non-standard engine cowling. What’s up with this bird?

The cabin

In the cabin there’s also something slightly different about this bird. First, the fittings on the seats are in silver colour, and not the usual Austrian Airlines red. And secondly, the Austrian Airlines logo is missing from the right bulkhead.

There’s a passenger missing and the crew are busy preparing the cabin for our departure, so I don’t want to pester them by asking about the aircraft.

There are three rows of Business Class on this aircraft, and there is one other gentlemen in the forward cabin with me.

The crew

The crew on this flight are a mixed bag, which seems to be quite normal on Austrian. Again, it’s just a small thing, but I really think it would be kind of nice to ask passengers if they’d like something to eat first, and not just dump the tray in front of them, whether they like it or not.

In any case, departure is to the north, flying directly towards Albania’s beautiful coastline. It’s a brilliant day for flying and visibility is excellent. About ten minutes into the climb, the captain comes on the mic to inquire if a certain passenger is on board. He explains that the second aircraft is delayed on the ground because of a missing passenger, and the handling agent figured he may have boarded the wrong aircraft ‘by accident’. Well that’s comforting…

The meal

After all the food in the lounge, I can’t honestly say that I’m still hungry. But goodness, the chocolate mousse cake for dessert sure looks tasty. And I mean, I didn’t have anything sweet in the lounge. It would be just such a shame to waste it. Oh, f*%@ it…

Now this dessert is really something. It’s very, very rich and sweet. The first spoon has my heart racing! But it really is just so good.

And just in case I hadn’t had enough chocolate yet, the crew pass through the cabin with farewell chocolates as we start the descent.

Arrival

Our arrival route into Vienna takes us past the airport on the downwind, to make an approach from the north. The light and shadows of the clouds dancing on the ground make the landscape look as though it has been painted on an enormous canvas.

We park on a remote stand. But at least this time the bus brings us to the head of the concourse, so we won’t have to walk too far.

Getting into Vienna

Next week the autumn semester starts and my life basically comes to a grinding halt until the end of the semester just before Christmas. So I figure I might as well break the journey and spend a few days in Vienna on a kind of mini-vacation.

To get into town, the train is probably the fastest and cheapest option. There are regular trains that run to either Wien Hauptbahnhof or Wien Mitte. The journey takes about 25 minutes to complete. There is a dedicated airport train called the CAT. However, apart from the fact that it’s currently not operating, it’s also outrageously expensive and really not worth the extra price.

Austrian Airlines, Business Class – Airbus A 320: Vienna to Tirana

Transfer in Vienna

My flight from Basel lands just after 21h00. I now have one hour to make the connection to Tirana. As my blog is getting a bit heavy on the Austrian Airlines posts, and it’s dark outside with not much to see anyway, I figured I’d just post an abridged post here with only the most important information.

Austrian Airlines Business Class lounge

Austrian Airlines has a Business Class lounge in both the Schengen and non-Schengen areas. Luckily I decide to head for the Schengen lounge to grab something to eat before I do anything else, and then go through passport control after. And what an excellent choice that turns out to be! Because the Business Class lounge in the non-Schengen area is only open in the mornings from 07h45 to 13h30.

The cabin

This evening’s flight to Tirana is operated by an A 320. There are three rows of Business Class and only four passengers. I’m seated on 1A, and to be honest, I’m not a fan. The pitch on row 1 is not as good as on the other rows : it’s impossible to stretch my legs because of the bulkhead. But I can’t really move them sideways either, because the tray on row 1 is stowed in the arm rest, which therefore cannot be raised. So overall, I’m feeling a bit like an unhappy Pretzel.

The crew

The crew on this flight are not exactly gushing, but they are polite. They make quite a few announcements about Covid, the correct use of the masks and how to disembark once we reach Tirana – and then go on to immediately violate their own recommendations and not follow through with what they advised passengers to do.

The crew of this flight operates the Tirana rotation as a kind of split shift. Meaning that the same crew that arrives with this flight at 00h15 will also be returning to Vienna on the same aircraft that departs at 04h25. And I know this because they’re in the same hotel as me, and I hear them requesting a wake up call at 03h10. To be honest, I think if that were me, I really would not be all that motivated either.

The meal

Without even asking any of the passengers if they’d like to eat, the crew rather unceremoniously plonk a tray of grub in front of each passenger. I’m not complaining, because while I think that Austrian’s cabin crew training is seriously lacking, catering is obviously something they do really, really well. I mean, what other airline will serve you a hot meal on a flight with a block time of only 75 minutes?

Tonight’s offering is Paprika chicken with Spätzle.

And a passion fruit panna cotta for dessert. The crew also pass through the cabin twice with the bread basket. Both the main and the dessert are excellent. The chicken sauce is rich and creamy and the Spätzle have retained their chewy fluffiness. Perhaps they could do some work on presentation though, because the dessert looks a bit forelorn on the large plate.

Arrival

We land in Tirana at 00h15. We’re on time, and for a change there is no queue at immigration. Within minutes I’m at the luggage belt waiting to pick up my suitcase, which duly arrives after only a very short wait.

Air Malta, Business Class – Airbus A 320 NEO: Malta to Zürich

Introduction

Goodness, the heat! I hadn’t been to Malta in the summer for a very long time, even before Covid19. And I think I now remember why. The heat is incredible. The day I arrived it was 41 degrees and it was so hazy it looked overcast, when in fact it was just the humidity. Fortunately, two days into my stay, the temperature cooled off to 37, which at least made the sky look a lot clearer.

Today I’m flying back to Switzerland. The Air Malta flight departs at 14h20, which gives me the whole morning to do some shopping and have one last Kinnie before I leave.

Getting to the airport

Once I’ve checked out, I brace myself for the heat outside. I’m dreading having to go out there carting my luggage… There are four busses that take you to the airport. The X4 is the dedicated airport line and stops right outside the terminal building. Then there are the lines 71, 72 and 73, which all go in the general direction of Zurrieq on the other side of the airport. The stop Cintra is right before the airport tunnel that goes under the runway. From there it’s only about three minutes on foot to the terminal building. The journey time is the same for all busses, more or less.

Check-in

The airport is very busy when I arrive. All counters are open, checking in flights for Ryanair, WizzAir, EasyJet, SWISS, British Airways and Air Malta. There is one Business Class counter open for Air Malta, and the guy working the counter is struggling to deal with two young couples and their satanic brood (six cranky kids) and what looks like a metric ton of suitcases, strollers, car seats and god knows what else. Still, the check-in guy uses the group’s apparent lack of functional English to his full advantage and manages to get them sorted and out of the way in about ten minutes.

At check in, passengers need to show a completed passenger locator form, which is sent by Air Malta by email a few days prior to departure, as well as their digital Covid certificate. At check-in, you are then handed another two forms that need to be completed before boarding. Without the two sheets of paper, you will not be allowed airside. One of the documents is for the Swiss authorities. The other form is for Air Malta. It is collected at boarding and handed over to the ground agent upon arrival in Zürich.

La Valette lounge

Fortunately, the priority lane for guests of the La Valette lounge is open, as is the lounge itself. Inside the lounge there is a strict seating regime, and passengers are assigned a seat when they enter. The guy who enters behind me is absolutely scandalised by this, tells off the poor lounge attendant (like it’s her fault…) and storms out again. As I’ve said before, if you think wearing or not wearing a face mask in public is what defines you as a man, you must have a really very small… personality.

The buffet is semi self-service. On the one side, facing the room, are cold dishes that are packaged, like salads and sandwiches. Passengers can help themselves to these. On the other side of the buffet are the hot dishes and drinks. This area is closed off and a lounge attendant serves the food and drinks to passengers from there.

I go for another Kinnie and a selection of unhealthy Maltese snacks: two pastizzi, one arancini and Twistees. Okay, and a bowl of salad as my saving grace.

The viewing terrace is also open, mainly for the smokers. I go out to check the view, but the heat…!

Boarding

Boarding is from a bus gate. Passengers are instructed to scan their boarding passes themselves and leave the passenger locator form on a pile for the ground staff.

Today’s flight is operated by an Airbus A 320 NEO, of which Air Malta currently has four in service. It’s really quite surprising how few flights I’ve had on a NEO, especially given that they seem to be everywhere these days.

The Business Class cabin

I’m seated on 1F, which is the window seat on the right side of the aircraft. There are three rows of Business Class for a total of 12 seats. There are only two other passengers in the forward cabin with me today, one on 3A and the other on 3F.

The headrest on these seats is adjustable in height and the sides can be folded up for better support. The recline is decent, and the pitch on row 1 is very comfortable. Not so sure about the colour though.

The crew

The crew are business friendly. They’re polite, but that’s just about it. Because of the Covid measures that have been put in place by the government, there is no welcome drink anymore, and instead of offering newspapers, the crew pass through the cabin with hygenic wet wipes and kits.

We take off from runway 34, which means we fly along the length of Malta and Gozo, from where we turn north towards Palermo. From there it’s more or less a straight line until we hit the mainland near Genova.

St. Paul’s bay, where St. Paul is alleged to have suffered shipwreck on the island on his way to Rome.
L-Ghadira bay near Mellieha. My favourite beach.
Gozo.

The meal

The meal is rather extensive and nicely presented in typically Maltese crockery. It’s a nice looking tray. There are no options to choose from for the meal and no menu is handed out. The crew bring the tray out without even as much as asking if I’d like to eat or telling me what’s on offer. The meal is served with the covers on. The photo was obviously taken after I’d removed them all.

The main dish is a salad of shrimps and boiled egg.

The meal is served with a ramekin of three buns that have been heated in the oven.

Dressing for the salad.

A very tasty but very rich dessert of chocolate mousse and dried figs. It’s very unsual but so, so sweet.

A bowl of cheese with Gbejna (Maltese), Cheddar (British) and Camembert (French).

And a fruit salad.

Vinaigrette instead of butter.

I really wonder how much kerosene could be saved if airlines stopped carting around what must be tons of unnecessary cutlery. Air Malta is no exception. I unfold my napkin to find two forks, two knives and two teaspoon. I mean, am I supposed to be sharing…?

And to drink, one last Kinnie.

Arrival

The flight passes very quickly. As we approach the Alps, thick clouds appear, some of them towering high above us as we make our descent into Zürich.

The descent is rough until we break through the clouds. Below, everything just looks so lush and green!

Arrivals are on runway 28, which brings us in right past the town where I work.

The airport is busy when we land. As we taxi in, the crew advise passengers to remain seated, and that initially only rows 1 to 10 should stand up to get ready for deboarding. I figure this is never going to work, but much to my surprise, the people in the back of the bus actually seem to be complying with the request.

Conclusion

I enjoyed this trip a lot, although I think in future I will avoid going to Malta in the height of summer. The heat just really got to me, as you may have noticed. In comparison, the flight down on SWISS was more polished and ‘normal’ than the return with Air Malta. I felt that the SWISS crew went out of their way to make passengers feel comfortable and to put them at ease. The SWISS flight was nice.

The service on Air Malta was a bit lackluster. Right now, I think it’s easy to give in to the temptation and blame everything on the pandemic and the Covid restrictions in place. But I don’t think it’s just that. Having an extensive meal service is nice, but an airline must also be willing to invest in its staff.