Thai Airways, Business Class – Airbus A 350-900: Milan Malpensa to Bangkok

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INTRODUCTION
Today I am travelling from Milan’s Malpensa airport to Bangkok. The flight is operated by an Airbus A 350-900. I must say, I’m quite taken by the A 350 – it’s width gives it a very spacious feel and it just comes across as being a lot more solid, or less flimsy, than the Boeing 787, which I always find has the look and feel of a narrow-body.

CHECK-IN
I check out of the Sheraton at around 09h45 and make my way to Terminal 1. Thai Airways checks in on row 16, which they share with Qatar Airways. Check-in opens three hours prior to departure. There are two Business Class counters, both of which have thick and rather grubby looking carpets laid out before them.

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Both counters are attending to passengers when I arrive, but I figure it won’t be long before it’s my turn. Or maybe not. The lady working the check-in counter on the left is obviously related to Little Miss Chatterbox. Oh hell…’veramente, senza occhiali…niente…bla bla bla…ieri sera, nel treno aveva ritardo…bla bla bla…’.

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Eventually, the lady on the other counter takes pity on me and figures I probably do actually want to take the flight, considering that I’ve bothered to make the schlep out to the airport this morning. So she issues my boarding passes to Bangkok and my final destination, tags my hand luggage and sends me on my way.

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Oh yeah, in case you’re wondering – no online check-in is available for Thai Airways ex Milan.

AIRSIDE/LOUNGE
There is a dedicated fast track for First and Business Class passengers. But the lines for passport control can get rather long when the airport is busy.

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Thai Airways uses the Pergolesi lounge in Malpensa, which is a contractor lounge operated by the Milan airport authority if I’m not mistaken. The lounge is located behind passport control. To be honest, it’s really not much to write home about, so you may want to skip this one. First of all, and I know others may have different priorities for a lounge, there are no windows – it’s basically just one big, gloomy room. The food and drinks selection is limited to things like fruit salad, sandwiches, focaccia and cake.

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Wifi is complimentary, but be warned that electricity plugs are in short supply in the lounge.

BOARDING
Boarding starts at 12h35, thirty minutes before departure. First, passengers with children are invited on board, followed by Business Class passengers. The airbridge is attached to the L2 door, which means that Business Class passengers turn left as they step aboard, while Economy Class passengers take a right.

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CABIN
The Business Class cabin is located between the L1 and L2 doors. I’m seated on 14B, which is an aisle seat on the port side.

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Thai Airways operates the A 350 in a two-class configuration with 289 seats in Economy Class and 32 seats in Business Class. The seat is fully lie-flat and horizontal; it has a width of 20 inches and a pitch of 44 inches in the seated position. In the lying position, the seat has a length of 73.5 inches.

The Business Class cabin is laid out in a 1 + 2 + 1 configuration, so that every passenger has direct access to the aisle.

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When I made the booking for this trip, only aisle seats were available – which are the B and J seats on even numbered rows and the D and G seats on uneven numbered rows. Before the flight, I was concerned that I might feel a bit exposed, especially with the seat extended into a bed. But turned out not to be an issue. First of all, the seats are staggered, with the seat on the other side of the aisle slightly further back to give you a bit more privacy. Secondly, the shell of the seat curves around the side of the seat, so that when you extend the seat into a bed, you’re partly shielded from the aisle.

CREW & SERIVCE
A pillow, a blanket, a thin mattress, the amenity kit, earphones and the menus are already at my seat when I arrive. Soon after, I am brought a lightly scented hot towel and my choice of drink.

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AMENITIES
The amenity kit is by FURLA and comes with the usual complement of items for which I have no use, except perhaps for the ear plugs and eye shades. In addition, and I think Thai Airways deserve some serious brownie points for this, they also provide slippers in Business Class.

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THE MEAL
The meal service begins with a drinks round. I have a Coke Zero, which is served with a bowl of mixed nuts.

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Thai Airways offers Western and Thai menus. For both menus there are two options for the main dish. Although strangely enough though, there are no vegetarian options. I decide to go with the Thai menu.

The first course is smoked salmon in a yuzu ponsu dressing, with avocado and crème fraîche. The starter is identical for both menus and is really very tasty, with the avocado blending nicely with the salty smoked salmon.

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The main course consists of a range of dishes:

  • a green pork curry
  • steamed rice with pak choi
  • a clear soup with shitake mushrooms and a cucumber filled with minced pork
  • a small bowl with a spicy chili sauce

These dishes are also very good. The curry is flavourful and spicy and actually tastes like authentic Thai food.

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After the hot meal comes the cheese course, which is served with grapes, dried fruit and crackers.

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And then finally, for dessert, I have the taro in coconut milk, which is just weird and rather bland.

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A few hours after the first meal service, I start to feel peckish again. So I order the noodle soup from the menu. Now this dish has some serious umpf – God it’s spicy! The noodles are served with boiled egg, crispy onion flakes and bits of minced pork.

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SECOND SERVICE
The second service starts just over two hours out of Bangkok. A flight attendant brings me a hot towel and takes my order for a coffee and orange juice.

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Shortly after, the tray is delivered. I’m quite surprised by how extensive this second service is. The tray contains

  • a bowl of fruit,
  • a yoghurt with müsli,
  • a bowl with bread and pastries and
  • the hot meal – which consists of a large portion of scrambled eggs, a pork sausage, bacon and cherry tomatoes.

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ARRIVAL
We land at 05h10 local time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Bangkok airport looking so deserted and quiet. Eventually, our aircraft comes to a standstill on a remote stand. But unfortunately it’s still too dark for me to be able to take any decent pictures.

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The bus spits us out at international arrivals, which is located more or less in the middle of the D concourse. From here I head two floors up to security and then from there to the Thai Airways Business Class lounge. I now have slightly more than one hour to make my connection. The transfer in Bangkok is fairly painless, but it’s not very well signposted.

VERDICT
Thai Airways provided a solid product on this flight. The seat was comfortable, the crew were friendly and attentive and the food was actually very good. All in all though, I don’t think that my flight in Thai Airways Business Class on this flight was anything outstanding. I wouldn’t go out of my way to fly with them again but I certainly wouldn’t avoid them either. I just don’t think they can keep up with the likes of Cathay Pacific or Qatar Airways, both of which, in my view, clearly have a superior product in terms of hardware and software.

Helvetic Airways, Economy Class – Embraer 190: Zürich to Milan Malpensa

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INTRODUCTION
Finally! It’s time for my well-deserved winter vacation and man, do I need it! I’ve so busy getting things finished that I feel as though I completely missed most of Christmas cheer this year. But anyway, I’ve submitted my presentation and my paper for my last assignment of 2017 and so I’m good to go.

The first segment of this trip sees me flying from Zürich to Milan Malpensa with Helvetic Airways. The flight is operated with an Embraer 190 on behalf of Swiss International Air Lines. This is only my second flight ever with Helvetic Airways. The last time I flew them was from London Gatwick to Zürich back in 2004, I believe. Back then, the carrier hadn’t yet entered into a strategic partnership with SWISS and was desperately and, let’s face it, rather unsuccessfully, trying to position itself as some kind of low-cost hybrid. Oh yes, and they had these cutesy pink little aeroplanes. Although I’m told it was actually magenta, not pink…

GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
The flight to Milan will not be leaving until 20h55. So I figure I might as well stay in the office a bit longer. Eventually, I take the 18h55 train from Winterthur, which brings me into Zürich airport just after 19h.

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CHECK-IN
I’ve checked in using the SWISS app. Depending on the fare you’ve purchased, seat selection is either free of charge or available against payment. In addition, there are also preferred seats, the exit row for example, which are available at an extra cost, unless of course you have status with Miles & More.

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If you do not select a seat at the time of booking, the check-in system will automatically assign you a seat 20 hours prior to departure that meets the preference specified in your profile – so basically aisle or window. This means that you have four hours to pick a seat yourself from the moment the flight opens for check-in. On today’s flight this isn’t really an issue, because the flight is operated by an Embraer 190 which has no middle seat. However, on the A 320 family or the C Series and depending also on the route, I think I might consider paying for a seat, if the alternative means having to sit in the cursed middle seat.

On this particular flight I am travelling with a bottom of the food-chain run of the mill fare that does not have the seat reservation included. I could have added that at a charge of CHF12, which is reasonable and comparable to other airlines’ practice.

AIRSIDE/LOUNGE
If you’re using the traditional airport check-in facilities, SWISS is at home in Terminal A, or Check-In 1, which is also home to some of the other Star Alliance carriers in Zürich. I like this building, because it incorporates parts of the original airport building that was built sometime in the late fifties or early sixties.

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The airport is really quiet for a Friday evening. Security is a breeze and the B dock, from where my flight will be leaving, is eerily quiet.

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BOARDING
Boarding starts exactly on time at 20h30. Surprisingly though, nobody seems to give a shit. The announcement is made, but none of the passengers seem to be in much of a hurry to get on board. And so I end up being the first one to step aboard.

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CABIN
The first four rows of the cabin are Business Class. They remain empty on this evening’s flight. I am sitting on 6A, which is the window seat on the port side of the aircraft.

Helvetic Airways operates the Embraer 190 in a 2 + 2 configuration with a seating capacity of 112, which is 12 seats or three rows more than what KLM Cityhopper has on its aircraft and the maximum number of seats possible on the Embraer 190. According to seatguru.com, the pitch on the Helvetic Airways aircraft is 32 inches throughout. Although to be honest, I think this can hardly be true. In fact, the seat is awfully cramped and not at all comfortable.

Fortunately, the flight time to Milan is only thirty minutes. Even so, by the time we land, the circulation to my legs has all but stopped, my kneecaps hurt like something nasty and my bum is numb. Ouch! No wonder the other passengers weren’t in a hurry to get on the plane.

Other than that, what really strikes me is that the cabin of this aircraft looks really drab and, quite frankly, boring.

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CREW & SERIVCE
The crew consists of three female flight attendants. One of them is German, while the other two speak both Italian and Swiss German fluently and without an accent. They’re not overly friendly, but they’re not unfriendly either and the announcements are nicely articulated with a good enunciation. Had I mentioned I’m a linguist…?

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THE MEAL
Given the short flight time, the service consists of a small piece of Frey chocolate and a small bottle of still mineral water.

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ARRIVAL
We arrive at the gate at 21h45, which means we’re pretty much on time. The airport is fairly deserted.

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TRANSIT
I will be spending just the one night in Milan. So rather than making the long schlep into the city, I’ve booked a room at the Malpensa Sheraton, which is directly connected to Terminal 1 and takes about ten minutes to reach from there on foot.

VERDICT
It’s been a while since I last flew with SWISS or one of its subsidiaries. I thought this flight was fine and pretty much comparable to the offerings of other airlines on sectors of a similar duration in Europe. However, having said that, given the really short flight time, there was hardly an opportunity for the crew and the service to shine – there was also hardly an opportunity for them to screw it up either. Except perhaps for the seat, which is really bad and very uncomfortable. The Helvetic Airways model of the Embraer 190 has an increased gross weight to give it more range. Apparently, originally Helvetic intended to deploy these aircraft as far afield as the Canaries, which are roughly four hours away from Zürich. I really cringe at the thought of my sore kneecaps…!

Santo Stefano di Sessanio

Santo Stefano de Sessanio is a small, beautiful medieval town high up in the Abruzzi. For many years most of the village lay in ruins, a situation that was exacerbated by the fierce earthquake that shook L’Aquila in 2009 during which the old Medici tower of Santo Stefano was destroyed.

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Currently, a project is underway to restore and preserve this old village. Parts of Santo Stefano have now been turned into a hotel, the Sextantio Albergo Diffuso. The hotel’s ambition is to restore and maintain the buildings in their original state and appearance. The result is a beautiful gem of a hotel that has the look and feel of a time gone by. The rooms are decked out with old wooden furniture and the only concession to modernity has been the installation of electricity and running water. Staying at the Sextatio is not so much about staying at an exclusive, luxury resort.

But it’s an interesting experience to walk through this silent town, moving among the ruins and getting a glimpse of just how hard life must have been back in the old days.

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Here’s the link to the hotel.

 

 

Recanati & Loreto, Italy

The old town of Recanati lies perched on a hill in the Marche Region of Italy. To the east the Adriatic expands to the horizon in beautiful shades of dark blue, while to the southwest the Abruzzi emerge like an apparition above the haze of the midday heat.

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Recanati is a nice, sleepy town that looks a lot like the setting of one of those old Don Camillo films from the fifties. Perhaps they’re just clichés, but it’s still surprising just how well Recanati lives up to those clichés: from the old grannies wobbling along the cobbled streets in all their finery on the way to mass, to the young ladies walking down the street in their skimpy short, languorously enjoying a gelato and seemingly, but only seemingly unaware of the effect they have on the young men that pass them in the street.

Close to Recanati is the town of Loreto, which was made famous by its basilica, in which the alleged house of the Virgin Mary of Nazareth is preserved.

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In Recanati I stayed at the Gallery Hotel, which is also where the meeting took place that I was attending. If you’re thinking of staying there, try to get a room with a view overlooking the valley. It’s worth it!

Here’s the link to the hotel.