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

Introduction

After a somewhat mild and rather pleasant start to winter, the beginning of February 2012 saw temperatures across Europe go way below the freezing point, with icy cold winds blowing in all the way from Siberia. Here in Switzerland the temperature went as low as -15 Celsius on some nights. To me, that’s really where it stops being funny, no matter how pretty everything looks covered in snow. So it was around the same time the cold set in that I decided it was time to head for the warmer climes of my native country for the weekend. This trip review is of the return flight back to Switzerland.

Date: 03. February 2012
Flight: KM4901
From: Malta
To: Zürich
Aircraft: A 319
Cabin: Business Class
Seat: 1F

Check-in

About two minutes after I enter the terminal building, check-in for the flight to Zürich begins. I find my check-in counter and immediately spot something interesting:

As my luck would have it, they are offering the Zürich route for a EUR99 upgrade to Business Class, an offer I simply cannot refuse. The offer is valid irrespective of the original fare you purchased. Which is a good thing as I’m travelling on a rock-bottom promotion fare for CHF225. For the EUR99 upgrade you get lounge access, the full Business Class treatment on board, priority for your luggage, which does not apply in my case, and full Business Class bonus points with Air Malta’s FFP Flypass. Not bad me thinks. Since I first tried out the scheme last summer they seem to have streamlined the process. The passenger is no longer required to queue separately at the Air Malta ticketing office and everything is done at the check-in counter. The friendly check-in agent assigns me seat 1F, hands me my boarding pass and lounge invitation and sends me on my way.

To reach the lounge you first have to go through security and then from there through the rather huge Duty Free shop.

Allow me to introduce you to Twistees. I think they’re Maltese but to be honest, I’m not even sure. Twistees are a Maltese snack. Apparently they’re not too bad for you because they’re made of backed rice. They taste of cheese and they come covered in this strange powder that cakes around your fingers as you eat the Twistees. They sound revolting, I know. And they probably really are too. But they remind me of when I was a child, sitting on the beach with a bottle of Kinnie.

The Lounge

The lounge is quite full. Apart from the Emirates flight which leaves at the same time as my flight, there is also a delayed Alitalia flight and the 07h50 departure to Heathrow, which is delayed to 14h25 due to the weather in London.

Boarding

As soon as the flight shows up as ‘BOARDING’ on the screen, I leave the lounge and make my way to gate 4. When I arrive most passengers have already boarded so I needn’t queue and can take my time taking pictures.

The Crew

Once on board, the purser comes round with a copy of the two English language newspapers. A female FA offers me a glass of orange juice as a welcome drink. There are two others sitting in Business Class on the flight.

Departure is to the northwest, from runway 31. Today’s load is fairly light, and with the temperature not too high either, we do not taxi all the way back to the beginning of the runway and instead make our departure from an access taxiway about half way down the runway.

The Valletta Peninsula, with Marsamxett Harbour on the left and the Grand Harbour to the right of the Peninsula.

The Cabin

Sitting on the first row, leg room is obviously very good. If perhaps you’re wondering if the EUR99 are worth it for an upgrade, the answer is a very clear ‘yes’. Back in Economy the seat pitch on Air Malta is tight for an average sized person. I’m 184 cm tall.

On the bulkhead Air Malta has these framed pictures of Maltese sceneries. I like them and I think they’re a nice touch for somebody visiting the islands for the first time.

Like most European carriers, Air Malta has a convertible seat in Business Class. Meaning it’s the standard set of three Economy Class seats. In a Business Class layout however, the back of the middle seat folds down to provide some extra space.

Once the seat belt sign is turned off, the crew closes the cabin divider. I like the red curtains, they go well with the dark blue seats.

The Meal

After take-off, the meal service starts with the distribution of the hot and rather soapy towels. This is followed by the table cloth and the tray with the meal. The tray contains a side plate with two different types a cheese, the blue one is particularly strong. There are also two bread rolls and an antipasto dish with rocket salad, hummus, slices of chicken breast, Kapunata (a Maltese dish made with eggplant, tomatoes and cheese), shrimps, zucchini and a parsley salad with lemon. And last but not least there are profiteroles filled with vanilla cream and smothered in chocolate for dessert. Divine!

This contraption is to stabilise the table.

Throughout the flight the crew takes good care of me and the other passengers and makes sure we have everything, frequently refilling empty glasses.

My last Kinnie.

Arrival

The best part of the flight comes as we start our descent into Zurich. It is a lovely, clear day and the Alps look simply stunning, just beautiful!

The route for the approach is rather surprising, as they bring us in right above the airport on a northerly track. This means doing a rather steep right hand turn to line up for an approach to runway 14.

Conclusion

All in all this has been an enjoyable flight with Air Malta. The staff were professional and friendly. I guess it helped that the flight was not full up front, which gave the crew more time for a more personalised service.

In December I’m heading to Malta for a short visit before Christmas. I’ve requested a miles upgrade on the way down but so far it has not been confirmed. I’m not so much alarmed about having to sit in Economy if the upgrade doesn’t come through, but I am slightly worried it may not materialise because Air Malta may decide to abolish Business Class by then. Please don’t!

Epilogue

Before I close, let me share with you a few images of Malta in the winter.

Street vendor at City Gate.
Glancing across the Grand Harbour to the Cottonera – the Three Cities: Bormla
Glancing across the Grand Harbour to the Cottonera – the Three Cities: Birgu.
Glancing across the Grand Harbour to the Cottonera – the Three Cities: L-Isla.
The Auberge de Castille, the Prime Minister’s office.
Friendly natives.
The main entrance into Mdina, the old capital.

SAS, Economy Class – MD-80: Stockholm Arlanda to Skelleftea to Stockholm Arlanda

Introduction

The MD-80 figures prominently in my childhood memories of lazy summer vacations spent at the beach in Malta, sitting in the shade, digging my toes into the backing sand and gazing out across the azure shades of the Mediterranean sea.

In those days there were not that many direct flights to Malta. Air Malta operated a three times weekly schedule to Zürich with the mighty B 720, and that was it. Not of course, that I would have minded as a child to travel with that old veteran but alas, my parents had their reservations, shall we say. Back then Air Malta was not the world’s most reliable airline and with only three weekly flights tended to be rather pricey for family of five. So instead, we used to travel with Swissair from Basel via Zürich to Rome, initially with the DC-9-50 and later with the MD-80, and then from there on to Malta, either by Air Malta or with Alitalia on the B 727-200 and later also with the MD-80.

My memories of these flights are no longer clear and are now shrouded in the haze of the many years that have since elapsed. But I do remember Swissair serving lovely, tasty warm pancakes filled with spinach in a tomato sauce on the Zürich to Rome sector. I remember my elder sister, and I am still grateful to her for doing it, preparing a calendar for me to cross the days in the run-up to the summer holidays and the moment when I would finally set foot on an aircraft, an MD-80, again.

In later years, Swissair brought relief to us with the introduction of flights to Malta, also with the MD-80 of course. To begin with Swissair too operated on a trice-weekly schedule, which was later increased to daily except Tuesdays.

So perhaps you will now understand how the MD-80 came to be linked so closely to those adolescent, carefree memories of mine of summers suspended in the warmth of the summer sun. Perhaps you will now also understand why I wanted to take one last trip with the MD-80, to pay homage to this excellent aircraft before it disappears from Europe forever.

Planning the Trip

There are already not that many airlines left in Europe that operate the MD-80. I deemed charter flights to be too complicated because I only had a weekend to do the trip. Most tour operators only sell packages for at least one week’s stay somewhere. And Alitalia seemed like a bit of a wild card. Thus, very early on during the planning phase for this trip, it became apparent that SAS would be the easiest, most convenient option. There was however one complication that needed to be considered: the coolest thing about the MD-80 is of course the possibility to board/deplane through the rear exit, to the death defying, agonising roar of the running APU. Therefore, it was not simply a question of finding a flight operated by SAS with the MD-80 but also of finding a destination which did not have any airbridges, thus increasing my chances of availing myself of the peviously mentioned aft stairs.

Eventually, I decided on the following routing: Zürich-Stockholm-Skelleftea-Stockholm-Zürich with SAS. On Friday evening, 10 June 2011, I would fly from Zürich to Stockholm on an MD-80. I believe it was Björn Viking, a sprightly 26 year old. I would then spend the night at the Radisson Blue in Arlanda’s Sky City. The next day, in the morning of Saturday, 11 June 2011, I would fly to Skelleftea and back on the same plane, Olav Viking. After another night in Stockholm proper I would then fly back to Zürich on Sunday afternoon, 12 June 2011. This report covers the flights from Stockholm Arlanda to Skelleftea and back.

Date: 11 June 2011
Airline: SAS – Scandinavian Airlines
From: Stockholm Arlanda
To: Skelleftea
Aircraft: MD-80
Seat: 26F

I awake on Saturday to the sight of a magnificent Thai Airways B 747-400. After a quick coffee and a shower I check out of the hotel and make my way to Arlanda’s terminal 4, from where my flight to Skelleftea will be leaving.

Airside

The domestic terminal is very functional. On this Saturday morning it is also very empty. I go through security, where the staff on duty seem happy to see a ‘client’. I then make my way to a coffee shop and have breakfast, which consists of a cinnamon roll, or Kanel Bollar, and a coffee.

Boarding

The boarding gate has one attended queue and an automatic one, which I try and which works perfectly.

And then from there I walk down the gangway to my aircraft.

The Cabin

Judging by the condition of the cabin you’d never guess the age and hours on this bird!

With only 30 passengers on the flight, I couldn’t really say we take off. In actual fact I think blasting off or rocketing off would be more appropriate…

The Meal

Generally, SAS has buy-on-board service in Economy Class. However, on morning flights that leave before 09h00 they still serve a complimentary breakfast, even on our short flight of 55 minutes. The breakfast hits the spot. It consists of orange juice, blueberry yoghurt with müsli, two buns, cold cuts, cheese, tomato and salad.

Turnaround

I’m still sipping my coffee when the captain comes on the blower to inform us that we’re about the start the descent into Skelleftea. Outside the views are of very flat land, lush green vegetation and water.

Skelleftea is a mini airport. So far Ronne airport on the Danish island of Bornholm has been the smallest airport I have ever visited, but I think Skelleftea takes the biscuit.

My plan works and I am able to deplane through the back, which I greatly enjoy. I feel like a little kid again, emerging into the bright sunlight under the magnificent empennage of the MD-80. The only thing missing is the noise: alas the APU is not turned on as the aircraft had been plugged in to an external power supply.

As I make my way to arrivals I keep stopping to take pictures. The nice thing about this airport is that none of the staff actually seem to mind.

Date: 11 June 2011
Airline: SAS
Aircraft: MD-80
From: Skelleftea
To: Stockholm
Cabin: Economy Class
Seat: 28F

I am the last passenger to enter the terminal. I now have 20 minutes to ‘connect’ to the return flight. Theoretically, I could turn right at arrivals and go down a narrow hall that would bring me to departures – the terminal is like somebody’s country house – but instead I decide to step outside and enter the terminal again on the departures side. I guess in a way my reckoning being that by doing so I can now say that I actually was in Skelleftea proper and not just changed planes there, which technically would not be quite true either, given that I return to Stockholm on the same plane with which I had arrived…

Boarding

Skelleftea has one boarding gate, so while your boarding pass is scanned for you to go airside, you’re also reporting for your flight. Boarding starts rather unceremoniously. There is the sound a bell, then the doors open and we are free to get on board again. No announcement is made.

The flight attendant’s expression as she sees me coming back on board again is priceless. It’s a mixture of incomprehension, surprise and alarm. So I quickly show her my boarding pass and explain that I am undertaking the trip specifically to fly the MD-80 and not because I have any particular business in Skelleftea. This proves to be quite an ice breaker and throughout the flight, the entire cabin crew keep stopping at my row to talk to me about why I like the MD-80 so much, some of them also give details about how long they’ve been with SAS and why they like working on the MD-80.

With only 70 passengers on the return leg, boarding is soon completed, we make a quick taxi, backtracking to the end of the runway, and blast off from runway 10.

Feeling gratified by the mission successfully accomplished, I am able to lean back and enjoy the views outside.

Farewell

Just before landing the lead flight attendant comes by to inform me that the captain has been informed about me and would like to invite me up to the cockpit after landing to have a look around. I think this is really nice and indeed, once we land and everybody has disembarked and I make my way to the forward exit, where the cockpit crew is already expecting me. The first officer offers me his seat and takes a few picutre. We chat a bit about what a great aircraft the MD-80 is to fly. According to the first officer the last aircraft is expected to leave the SAS fleet by 2012 and he confirmes that this was much to the regret of many of the staff at SAS.

Eventually I manage to tear myself away, after all these kind people have work to do. So I thank them for their kindness and, with a heavy heart, I bid my last farewell the elegant MD-80.

All in all, this trip was really worth it and certainly one of the more memorable ones. I really enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to get one last flight with the MD-80. So I will have more fond memories of this aircraft to add to those of my childhood.

As for SAS, the kindness and friendliness of their crew really are the airline’s biggest asset!