Iberia, Business Class – Airbus A 350-900: London Heathrow to Madrid Barajas

I know this is the old logo, but the new one is just so boring…

Catching the new Elizabeth Line to Heathrow

Just a few weeks ago, London opened parts of its new Elizabeth line, which runs from the East to the West of London and its suburbs. The trains also run to Heathrow, providing a viable and very attractive alternative to the outrageously priced Heathrow Express. Together with the Piccadilly tube line, there are now three options to get to Heathrow by public transport. The Heathrow Express is the fastest, and runs from Paddington to the airport in about fifteen minutes. The Elizabeth Line is much cheaper, but takes about thirty minutes to make the journey – if it goes according to plan. The tube is clearly the cheapest option but takes for ever!

In the end, so did my trip to Heathrow too. I depart from Paddington on the 15h47 train bound for Heathrow’s T4. The ticket costs GBP7.50. I’ll need to change trains at the T1-3 station for a train bound for T5. Only, when we reach Hayes & Harrington, where the line branches off to the airport, passengers are informed that the train will not be able make it to Heathrow. So instead, we should wait for the second train on the next platform, which will then run to T5.

So we all move to the next platform where soon enough the train pulls into the station. It runs nonstop to the station at T1-3. Only, when we get there, another announcement is made to inform passengers that there’s been a change of plan, and therefore, our train will now be running to T4 instead of T5. For the latter, passengers should wait on the same platform for the next train to arrive in ten minutes.

Eventually, the trip from Paddington to Heathrow’s T5 takes me over an hour.

Check-in

I’ve checked in online, so there’s no need for me to stop at a counter and I can head straight for the fast track for security. It’s Friday evening, which would normally be a busy time to travel. But Heathrow is eerily quiet. There are a lot of aircraft movements outside, but it certainly doesn’t look as though they’re very full, with so few passengers in the terminal.

Security is painless. I don’t think I’ve ever made it through so quickly at Heathrow!

My flight will be departing from the C satellite of T5, which means I’m going to have to take the shuttle train or walk – which I’m not sure I would recommend. It’s not a very nice walk.

The lounge in T5C is still closed, so passengers are adivsed to use the lounge in T5B, which is even quieter than the main terminal.

British Airways T5B lounge

The British Airways lounge is not much better either. Where is everybody? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this place so quiet.

I don’t actually have all that much time to spare. By the time I sit down in the lounge with a glass of sparkling water, it’s already coming up to six in the evening.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight starts at 18h05. However, given that I still need to get from T5B to T5C, the displays are all already showing the flight as Boarding. The process starts with group 1, which is all Business Class passengers. Which is all the same, because the A 350 taking me to Madrid is parked in such an awkward location that it’s impossible to get a clean shot of the aircraft.

As I pass the gate, the agent informs me I’ll need to wear a face mask for the duration of my stay onboard.

The cabin & seat

I’m a big fan of the A 350. It’s such an elegant looking bird. It’s also very quiet and comfortable inside. Flying a wide-body on a short intra-European sector is always nice, too.

The Business Class section is located between the L1 and L2 doors. The seats are in a 1 + 2 + 1 configuration. The single seats on the even numbered rows are the window (A) seats, and offer much more privacy than the single seats in the unevenly numbered rows, which are the aisle (C) seats.

The seat offers good storage space.

The inflight entertainment system is operated either from a hand-held device, or you can use the touch screen to operate it.

We taxi out with a delay of about 30 minutes, due to them having to offload the suitcases of passengers that never made it onto the flight. Our flight time is announced at two hours.

The meal

While we’re on the ground there are no welcome drinks or anything. The only interaction with the crew is when they distribute the menus.

After take-off, the service quickly begins. I go with the vegetarian dish, and I must say I’m quite surprised with the quantity and the quality, especially of the main dish.

I also admit though that I don’t touch the shrimp. With the meal, the crew make two rounds with the bread basket, which is offered together with olive oil.

The dessert is very good.

To finish the meal, the crew pass through the cockpit with small pieces of dark chocolate, which is incredibly rich.

Service

The service on this flight is what I would describe as typically Spanish. The crew are business friendly. They are helpful and they do their job in a professional and efficient manner. The food service is well paced. Other than that though, there is zero interaction. No smiles, nothing.

Arrival

Eventually we land in Madrid at 22h11, only slightly behind schedule. Our arrival brings us in right over the centre of Madrid. Once we land, we quickly taxi to our stand on the satellite terminal. From there I need to catch the train to the main terminal.

There is a health screening for passengers arriving from non-Schengen countries, and that includes Britain. Other than that, Madrid seems even quieter than London.

Getting into Madrid

To get into Madrid I first catch the line number 10 to Nuevos Ministerios and then the line 8 to Plaza de España, where my hotel is. If you’re travelling from the new terminal at Madrid, there is a supplement to pay which is automatically added to your ticket.

The St Pancras Hotel, London

Seeing as I arrived by train at St Pancras station from Paris, I figured I might as well save myself the hassle and stay at the Rennaissance St Pancras, which is part of what used to be the old station building. The St Pancras is a Marriot Bonvoy property.

The location of the hotel is excellent. The British museum is in walking distance and there is a tube station literally just down the road.

There are two wings to the hotel. The Chambers wing is in the old building. The centrepiece of which is a very grand old staircase that doesn’t look unlike the oppulent staircases I’ve seen at Fontainebleau or Versailles.

So, of course I’ve decided to stay in the old Chambers wing. My room is very spacious. Even though it’s not what I booked, I’ve been given a wheelchair accessible room. So I’m not sure if this is the standard size of a room in the Chambers wing, or if I just got lucky.

The design of the furniture is nice, and the room feels comfortable. But I think that gradually it’s starting to show its age. The bathroom is large and spacious. Of course, being an accessible room there is no bath. But that suits me just fine.

As in probably most hotels in London and the UK, there are tea and coffee making facilities in the room. What I do find a bit odd though, and not just a bit cheap, is that there is a Nespresso coffee machine and even a Nespresso coffee box next to it. But the capsules inside it are not Nespresso, but some other brand. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a coffee snob, I’m not even particularly fond of Nespresso. But I do think it’s more than just a bit shabby of the hotel to “pretend” they’re offering Nespresso to their guests in the rooms, when in fact it’s clearly not. I’m also not sure what Nespresso would have to say about this either.

Other than that, the staff at the hotel seemed a bit disoriented and were obviously not very well trained. For example, I only found out by accident after I checked in that my rate gave me access to the member’s lounge, which the guy at reception was oblivious to.

Access to the lounge is through the restaurant, The Booking Office. Funny thing is though, when I wanted to get a drink from the lounge before I headed out, the young lady at the restaurant’s reception had no idea about the lounge and wouln’t let me in.

All in all, the St Pancras wasn’t a bad place to stay. I don’t think it was so overwhelming though that I’d definitely stay here again in future.

Eurostar, Standard Premier Class: Paris Gare du Nord to London St. Pancras

Getting to the Gare du Nord

It takes me 90 minutes to get from Fontainebleau to Gare du Nord. I first catch the bus line 1 to the railway station at Fontainebleau Avon, and then from there the RER R train to Gare de Lyon. At Gare de Lyon I can’t resist the opportunity to take a photo of this legendary engine, which just looks really funky – despite it’s age.

On the other side of the platform are three resting TGVs.

From Gare de Lyon the RER D runs to Gare du Nord. It’s only two stops and takes about seven minutes.

At Gare du Nord I am temporarily distracted again…

Check-in

There is no check-in as such on the Eurostar. However, because you go through French immigration, French customs and English immigration at Gare du Nord, Eurostar advise you to be at the station two hours before departure. The Eurostar has its own terminal, located on the upper level of the station.

There is a dedicated line for Business Premier passengers, which means that they don’t have to show up quite so early for their train.

Once you’re through immigration and security, there is a fairly large waiting area. However, given that the Eurostar train has a capacity of 750, it does tend to get rather crowded.

Boarding

Boarding for the train starts thirty minutes before departure and it’s a complete mess. There are people pushing and showing everywhere, so I figure I better wait for the initial scrum to settle.

It also doesn’t help that there are no signs to tell you in which direction your coach is. As a result, the platform is full of people walking up and down in search of their carriage.

The cabin

The cabin of the train is in a two + one abreast configuration. There are a few units of four facing seats for families or groups.

Leg room is very good. In addition, when you recline the seat, the lower part moves forward, which means that you don’t infringe on the personal space of the person sitting behind you.

The service

Each one of the Premier coaches has its own attendant. The staff are nice enough and I have to say they’re very polite and really take care of passengers. If you ask them for extra water or a top up of you tea, they take care of it straight away.

The meal

There’s a delay of fifteen minutes departing Paris. As a result, the crew already start serving lunch while we’re still in the station. There is a choice of vegetarian or fish. I decide to go with the vegetarian.

The main dish is some sort of small pasta with olives and an artichoke pie.

For dessert there is a small apricot pie.

And the meal is served with a bread roll and butter.

A bottle of still water is on the tray, but other drinks are available from the trolley.

The meal ends with tea or coffee.

All in all, I think the meal service on the TGV is better than that on the Eurostar. I also think they present the meal a lot nicer on the TGV. Still, the quality of the food is good, and hits the spot nicely for an afternoon departure.

Arrival

Eventually we arrive in London with a delay of eleven minutes. The exit from the platform is at the very end, which gives me a chance to take a photo of the business end of our train. Eurostar is currently in the process of renewing its rolling stock with trains produced by Hitachi of Japan. However, I’m lucky to have had a last minute equipment change, which means I get to travel on the much cooler, older rolling stock that looks very similar to the TGV.

Conclusion

The journey time from Paris to London is two hours and thirty minutes. The time in the tunnel under the channel is only 20 minutes, which is quite amazing. I like travelling by train, and I think it makes sense to take a train where it is a viable option to travelling by plane. Nonetheless, I thought there was quite a bit of unnecessary hassle on this trip, starting with the fact that they expect you to be at the station two hours before departure. I think next time, unless it’s too expensive, I would try the Business Premier fare instead of the Standard Premier, simply because it allows you to arrive at the station much closer to the train’s departure time. The signposting at Gare du Nord could also be much improved.

EasyJet – Airbus A 320: London Gatwick to Basel

Airline: easyJet
Aircraft: Airbus A 320
From: London Gatwick
To: Euroairport Basel-Muhlouse Freibourg
Departure: 18:28
Arrival:
20:42
Flight time:
one hour and fourteen minutes
Seat:
1F, window seat on the starboard bulkhead row

Self-hubbing in Gatwick

By the time I collect my suitcase from the luggage belt at Gatwick’s South Terminal, it’s already coming up to 16h30. I now have ninety minutes to make my connection to Basel with easyJet from the North Terminal.

Signposting is very good, and the shuttle that takes you to the North Terminal is on the same level as the landside arrivals area. The journey by shuttle only takes a few minutes.

Check-in

Once I arrive at the other end, the easyJet check-in area is straight through the door, on the same level as the shuttle from the South Terminal.

I don’t know how many automatic check-in counters there are, but the row seems endless for sure. Which also means that I can just walk up to check in my suitcase without having to queue. This is my first time using one of these self-service machines, because I normally travel without checked luggage.

The process is easy to follow, if not perhaps a bit painful in my case… You see, at the time I made the booking, I remember paying extra to be able to check in a suitcase. Only, what I had purchased at the time was one checked bag weighing no more than 15 kilos. But two weeks in Malta is a long time, during which it’s only too easy to buy a few things here or there to take back with you.

So when I check in my suitcase at Gatwick, the scales indicate that it weighs in excess of 20 kilos, and the price for that is a whopping GBP60. And rather conveniently, you can pay the amount due right there at the check-in counter with your credit card.

Airside

Security is quick and efficient. That’s one of the few things I think the British really do very well. Once I’m through security, I just have enough time for a quick meal at Wagamama before it’s time to head for the gate. And for a changes there’s even no queue for a table.

My flight is departing from gate 102, which is located in the satellite that is connected to the main terminal by a bridge that aircraft can taxi under. It’s already dark though, so there’s not much to see.

The Cabin

I’m seated on 1F. I was hoping to take a picture of the seat as I boarded, but alas Ms 1D is already there and it’s impossible for me to take a photo without her in it. Still, she’s a very nice woman and very helpful with getting my backpack stowed away properly.

The seat pitch on row 1 is good and certainly comfortable enough for the short flight to Basel. Moreoever, the one thing I appreciate about easyJet is that their aircraft always appear to be in mint condition.

We start up and push back on time. but we don’t get very far. We make one right turn and then stop. The cockpit crew shut down one of the engines again and inform us that there will be a slight delay, with our slot time not coming up for another twenty minutes. Other aircraft are also having to wait.

The Crew

There’s nothing much to say about the crew, seeing as I don’t make any inflight purchases with them. The only thing I can say is that the purser is a young Italian man who’d make an interesting linguistic study. From his accent he’s unmistakably Italian. Other than that though, he’s highly proficient and uses many idiomatic expressions that you normally wouldnt’t expect from a speaker with such a heavy accent. Sorry, end of geek-out…

Arrival

After sixteen days away from home, I’m finally back in Basel. And it’s good to be back. But god it’s cold here…

British Airways, Club Europe – Airbus A 320: Malta to London Gatwick

Airline: British Airways
Aircraft: Airbus A 320
From: Malta International Airport
To: London Gatwick
Departure: 13:35
Arrival:
15:50
Flight time:
three hours and fifteen minutes
Seat:
5F, window on the starboard side

Introduction

This trip has been just brilliant. First of all, I can’t remember the last time I went away on vacation for as much as two whole weeks in a row and without changing time zones! I had no idea how relaxing that can be! Of course, it helps that the weather in Malta has been lovely, with sunshine and temperatures hovering around 18 degrees celsius every day.

Getting to the Airport

To get to the airport from Valletta and Floriana by public transport, there are four buses you can take. The X4 is the ‘express’ which runs to Birzebbuga (there are a few diacritics missing there, sorry…) via the airport. The X4 actually stops right outside the terminal building and runs every half hour.

But then there are also the bus lines 71, 72 and 73, all of which go to Iz-Zurrieq and/or Qrendi on the other side of the airport. All three call at the bus stop ‘Cintra’, which is just at the entrance to the road tunnel under the runway. From ‘Cintra’ it’s a walk of about three minutes to the terminal building and there’s a pavement all the way. The 71, 72 and 73 run every six minutes. The journey time is 20 minutes.

Check-in

When I arrive at check-in, quite a few of the check-in counters are open in preparation for the early afternoon rush. British Airways has its own, dedicated counters, with one counter for Club Class passengers and status card holders and three for all other passengers. Check-in is handled by Air Malta staff on behalf of British Airways.

The La Valette Lounge

The check-in agent tags my suitcase, issues me a boarding pass and an invitation to the the La Valette lounge.

The entrance to the La Valette lounge is immediately on your left as you exit through the obligatory duty free shop. Access to the lounge is via lift.

Seeing as it’s the only lounge at the airport, it’s also very busy at this time of day. There are three Air Malta flights, Lufthansa’s Frankfurt service, the Emirates flight and the BA flight to Gatwick all leaving at more or less the same time.

I grab myself a Kinnie from one of the fridges and then head outside to catch some sun. Luckily, I manage to snag a chair with a perfect view of the apron. I’m going to miss the warmth of the sun when I get back to Switzerland.

The easyJet and British Airways flights from Gatwick arrive in short sequence and both of them are running thirty minutes late due an ATC strike in France…

Boarding

Gates 11 through 18 are the non-Schengen gates behind immigration. And today it’s a mess. The terminal is clearly very rapidly reaching full capacity during peaks. The British Airways flight is boarding from gate 18, which is the farthest gate. Next to us is the easyJet flight to Gatwick, next to that is the Ryanair flight to East Midlands, and next to that is the Ryanair flight to Manchester. And it’s chaos!

But at least I am rewarded for my labours, which include being body-checked by some vicious granny trying to jump the queue for the Manchester flight, because there is no bus for boarding and we are allowed to walk across the apron to our waiting chariot.

The Cabin

The cabin of this aircraft looks and feels different to that of the aircraft that operate to and from Heathrow. However, I don’t know if this bird is an exception or if this is the case for the entire Gatwick fleet. First of all, the cabin is not branded and the bulkhead is white with grey dots, instead of the dark grey coloured one with the Speedbird that you find on the Heathrow fleet.

And the seat is different too. There is no adjustable headrest. Other than that, the cabin looks very worn and in serious need of some TLC. They’ve removed the overhead screens. But instead of covering up the electric sockets where they used to be, they’ve just left everything uncovered. Not only does it not looks very nice, it also gives the impression that really this aircraft should be in maintenance and not in service.

At least on row 5 the seat pitch is still good enough for a flight of thre hours.

The Crew

The crew on this flight are also unusual. First of all, the purser is a nice, friendly chap. But honestly, I’m wondering if he’s already old enough to have to shave. He’s also not wearing a standard issue uniform shirt. Either that or British Airways recently changed to off-white uniform shirts for their male crew that have the kind of matted grey colour you can only hope to achieve from chucking in a perfectly white shirt with your undies and socks to wash by mistake…

But apart from that, I have to say that all of the crew are excellent. They’re very friendly and they are constantly present in the cabin during the flight. They take could care of the passengers.

The flight today is full, and there are 36 passengers in the Business Class cabin.

The flight time is three hours and fifteen minutes due to the ATC strike. We take off towards the northwest, routing via Palermo and Rome, then across the Alps into Austria and then Germany and Belgium to avoid France.

The mix of passengers in the cabin is interesting. I think it’s safe to say that at 45 years of age, I am by far the most junior passenger in the forward cabin. The rest are all in their late sixties and early seventies and probably still remember Malta from when they were stationed there with the RAF, before Malta became independent.

And all of them look as though they’re travelling for leisure. Behind me is another elderly couple. The husband is your typical cockney geezer who insists on calling the female cabin crew ‘sweetheart’ – and has me wondering how long before he inadvertently becomes part of the #metoo movement but for all the wrong reasons.

There is no service at all on the ground. I don’t know if this is normal or just because the crew are in a hurry to get away as soon as possible.

Once we’re airborne, the crew pass through the cabin with lightly scented hot towels and distribute the menus for the flight.

The Meal

There are three choices for the main dish.

Ahead of the meal there is a drinks service, and passengers have a coice of nuts or biscuits as a snack to go with that.

The whole meal is served on one tray from the galley, so there is no trolley service. While of course it is nicer to have your meal brought to you from the galley, instead of it being taken out of a trolley, I also think that tray service doesn’t really work on a narrow body, especially if you have a fairly large and full Business Class cabin as on this flight. By the time the crew deliver the last meals to row 9, the passengers on row 1 are already having their tea or coffee.

The First Course

There’s something delightfully oldfashioned about the starter, which is crayfish in a spicy cocktail sauce. It’s not bad, although a bit less sauce would have been perfectly fine too.

The Main Course

For the main course I have the fish, which is very good and has managed not to to dry up completely in the oven.

The Cheese

The cheese is my favourite part of the meal on BA and I just love that they serve it with chutney and crackers.

In addition to the crackers, the crew also make two rounds with the bread basket and there is a selection of white and brown breads.

Dessert

The dessert is fine but really just way to sweet. My teeth ache just from looking at it. I give up on this one and only have half of it.

To finish off the meal I have a cup of mint tea to help pry my tongue off my hard palate after that sticky dessert…

Later on, as we start our descent into Gatwick, the crew pass through the cabin with a selection of Border’s biscuits. The biscuits are good, but I’m wondering if the presentation could be improved – because the crew pass through the cabin with this enormous retail size box of biscuits and distribute them from that. It’s not the height of sophistication to be honest…

Arrival

En route over Italy the crew were able to get an improvement on our routing, to the extent that the delay is reduced to less than fifteen minutes. But by the time we’re sequenced for arrival and eventually touch down, we’re thirty minutes later after all.

The flight ends at Gatwick’s South Terminal. I now need to retrieve my suitcase and then make my way to the North Terminal for my connecting flight.

Conclusion

While there were a few oddities on this flight, such as the consition of the aircraft cabin, the appearance of the crew and the mix of passengers in the Business Class cabin, all in all this was not a bad flight. Moreover, I think that Gatwick is by far the much more pleasant passenger experience than Heathrow.

Flying British Airways may not be everyone’s cup of tea and honestly, they’re usually not my first choice anymore either. Even so, I still think it’s impressive that on a Friday afternoon in early February, which is during Malta’s deepest low season, they still manage to fill 36 seats in Business Class.

EasyJet – Airbus A 320: Friedrichshafen to London Gatwick

Introduction

Schaffhausen is probably best known for its proximity to the spectacular Rhine falls in Neuhausen. But it’s definitely also worth a visit in its own right.

In Schaffhausen I spend the night at the lovely Hotel Rüden, which is located close to the railway station, on the fringe of the old town.

Getting to the Airport

There are two ways to get from Schaffhausen to Friedrichshafen airport. The boring way is to take the train and change in Friedrichshafen. The journey will take 1 hour and 27 minutes. The alternative is quite a bit longer at 2 hours and thirty minutes, but definitely more fun!

First, I take the 09h49 train from Schaffhausen to Kreuzlingen, which is a journey of about fifty minutes, part of which run along a very scenic route next to the river and then the lake.

In Kreuzlingen I have three minutes to make the connection to Konstanz, which is only another four minutes by train.

And then in Konstanz, I have twelve minutes to connect to the catamaran that goes across the Bodensee to Friedrichshafen.

Only, it turns out that because of the wind, the catamaran will not be operating. So I’m just going to have to take the train.

But that’s not quite so straightforward. First, I take the 11h40 train to Radolfzell, which is a ride of fifteen minutes.

And then in Radolfzell I have ten minutes before my train to Friedrichshafen arrives. This being Germany, it’s late of course. But it’s a diesel train, which we don’t have in passenger service in Switzerland. I think it’s kind of cool, and sounds like a bus more than a train.

In Friedrichshafen I just have enough time to walk down to the lake to take a look at the water, which is starting to look a bit rough.

And then from Friedrichshafen Stadt I take yet another diesel train at 13h09, which takes five minutes to get to the airport.

From the airport station it’s just a short walk across the road to the terminal, which is a nondescript, flat building. But there is an Ibis hotel.

Check-in

Departures are to the left of the building. Despite its limited size, inside every carrier has its own dedicated check-in counters. Although having said that, I hardly think there are all that many operators out of FDH.

Airside

Security for all gates is off the the left of the check-in hall. And of course, once you’re through security, you’re immediately ejected in the duty free shop.

All in all, there are seven gates, of which the five A gates are for Schengen departures and the two B gates for non-Schengen flights.

About 45 minutes before departure, the immigration officers appear to open up shop. The guy at my counter looks at my Maltese passport and just says ‘cool’ with this gleeful tone in his voice. ‘I’ve been there, you have great weather down there…’. And then he just lets me through.

At 14h20 the inbound from Gatwick glides down on runway 24. The A 320 looks slightly out of place and a but oversized compared to the terminal.

Boarding

Boarding starts at 14h45 for a 15h05 departure. But that’s okay, because it turns out there’s only 49 passengers on the flight anyway…

The Cabin

Originally, I’m seated on 1C. But once boarding is completed two minutes later, I switch to the window on 1F and have the whole row to myself!

On the first row the pitch is comfortable enough. I don’t think it’s much less than on the first row of SWISS’ A 320s. The only complaint I have though, is that there’s cold air coming in through the R1 door inflight. Obviously it’s not enough to depressurise the cabin, but it certainly gives you cold feet!

On the climb out of Friedrichshafen we’re treated to some excellent views of the lake.

The Meal

Once the buy on board service starts, I purchase a large cup of hot chocolate with two shortbread finger biscuits for GBP4.-, which I think is quite fair.

The Crew

The crew are a friendly bunch and they’re obviously enjoying not having a full load of passengers for a change.

Arrival

The flight passes quickly, and eventually we land after a flight time of 90 minutes and taxi to our stand at the satellite of the North Terminal.

Getting into Town

The airport is surprisingly quiet and I’m through immigration in no time. From arrivals I head one floor up to catch the shuttle train to the South Terminal, from where the Gatwick Express into London’s Victoria station will be leaving.

The journey into London takes 32 minutes if you’re lucky enough to catch the express and there are multiple trains per hour.

For a change, this time I won’t be staying in the West End. Instead, I’m off to Brixton…

I won’t be writing a post about the return flight to Basel with easyJet, so this is going to be my last post of 2019. I want to thank all those of you who have visited my blog throughout the year and read the posts or just looked at the pictures, but especially all those of you who also were kind enough to leave a comment – be it a question, criticism, explanation or correction. Thank you!

I wish you all a happy holiday and a spectacular festive season!

– William

Air Malta, Club Class – Airbus A 320NEO: London Heathrow to Malta

Introduction

My flight to Malta will be departing at 11:25. I check on flightradar24 for the whereabouts of my aircraft. It looks as though the inbound from Malta will be on time.

Today’s flight is special for two reasons: first of all, because today I’m finally getting my cherry popped, so to speak, because it’s my first time ever on a NEO. And secondly, this will be my first flight with Air Malta since the introduction of their new Business Class catering.

Check-in

In Heathrow, Air Malta serves Terminal 4. They check-in on row H.

There are three check-in counters open. Two for Economy Class and one for Business Class passengers.

The Lounge

Air Malta uses The House Lounge, which previously belonged to Etihad Airways. The lounge is located one floor down from the SkyTeam lounge and the entrance is near gate 10.

There are only few passengers in the lounge at this time of day.

The lounge is rather nice and even has a separate dining area, where you can have food from the buffet or à la carte menu.

Washrooms and showers are also available in the lounge.

Boarding

The flight is boarding from gate 20, which is a bitch to take pictures of the aircraft from…

I’m not quite sure what’s going on, but boarding is chaos. The flight is totally sold out and they’ve screwed up most people’s advanced seat reservations.

The Cabin

I’m seated on 1F. The cabin on the NEO has new seats installed that are thinner than those on the rest of the fleet.

Red is an interesting colour to pick for the seat covers, but I think they manage to pull it off.

Seat pitch is great on row 1. The middle seat is kept empty and there are electricity plugs too. On today’s flight there are 6 rows of Business Class for a total of 24 seats. And the cabin is sold out!

Service on the ground starts with a choice of sparkling wine, orange juice or water for a welcome drink and the distribution of newspapers.

Departure is at 12:40 and the flight time is two hours and 50 minutes. The one thing I do notice about the NEO, is that it’s very quiet on take-off.

The Meal

As soon as the cabin crew is released, the service for the meal starts. First the crew take orders for drinks. I have a sparkling water with ice and lemon.

Next the menu is distributed, which seems a bit unnecessary, seeing as there are no choices anyway except for the dessert.

Ahead of the meal, hot towels are handed out.

First Course

The new Business Class product is quite nice, I think, and captures the feel of the Maltese islands well. The tray is served with the first course, olive oil and warm bread on it.

The presentation of the meal is nice. But the quality of the food is not all that good. The starter is smoked salmon tartar with crème fraîche.

Main Course

Once I’m done with the starter, the dish is removed and the main course is served. This is veal filled with a chicken and cheese stuffing. It’s quite okay. Sorry about the photo. I had already started to dig in before I remembered to take a picture…

And finally, for dessert I go with the fruit.

The service is by individual tray. So there is no trolley in the aisle. While I generally agree that this is a nicer way to present the food, I also think today’s flight shows that it’s unsuitable for a full cabin: the crew are walking up and down the aisle throughout the meal service, bringing or removing things. As a result, there’s constantly foot traffic in the cabin during the meal service.

Drinks are rather difficult to come by on this flight. And the crew are not proactively offering to replenish drinks Either. Even so, about 90 minutes into the flight, they run out of sparkling water and Coke Zero.

Arrival

But the flight passes quickly, and eventually we land at 15:30. It’s certainly warmer here!

Conclusion

Quite frankly, I’m not sure what to make of today’s experience. On the one hand, I think Air Malta is desperately tring to set itself apart from the low-cost competition. But at the same time, their whole new Business Class concept lacks focus and quality. First of all, there’s the issue of the seat reservations, which they made a mess of. If you’re going to offer the service, then commit to it. If you can’t do that, then just drop it. Furthermore, now that it’s buy on board in Economy Class on Air Malta, there really is no reason why they had to introduce a fancier Business Class product. And even that is done half-heartedly. The drinks running out in mid-flight is just strange and unprofessional.

British Airways, Club Europe – Airbus A 320: Basel to London Heathrow

Introduction

I know, I know. Carbon footprint and all that. And I have to say that I have been trying to reduce the number of private trips I make by plane. But Lord knows it’s not always easy. And so, I find myself on Saturday morning making plans to head for the airport…

Getting to the Airport

At 10:01 I leave my flat to catch the 10:03 express bus from the main railway station to Basel airport. The express bus is not necessarily any faster than the regular service, but at least it doesn’t stop anywhere along the way. The journey takes about 15 minutes and there is no surcharge for the express.
The airport is moderately busy. It’s the end of August and the trailing end of the summer vacation in Europe, usually the time when couples without kids at school make their escape.
There is a separate fast track for security and the queue is not very long.

The Skyview Lounge

The Swissport Aspire lounge in Basel is always a pleasure. It sits above the main airside area and offers a 360 degree view of what’s going on outside.
Half the seating area has been closed off, presumably to save on cleaning during the quiet summer months when business travel in Europe is quite reduced.
The lounge’a best feature, though, has to be the outside viewing area which also functions as the smokers’ lounge.
On the downside, the lounge is located in the Schengen area of the terminal. With most flights now operating as non-Schengen out of Basel, there can be quite a long wait at immigration, so it’s best to plan ahead!

Boarding

I time it just a bit too finely. I also didn’t consider that there was an Air Algérie flight leaving around the same time. And so the queue is fairly long for passport control. But it moves quickly.
BA boards its flights by groups. Business Class passengers and Executive Club card holders are in group 1. Although by the time I get to the gate, they’re already boarding group 4.

The Cabin

The very first thing you notice as you step on board the aircraft, is how dark the cabin looks. The bulkhead is a dark shade of grey and the moodlights are a dark blue.
In Club Class on BA 1A is the window seat and 1C the aisle seat. The middle seat is kept empty and there is a small table for extra storage space. The seatbacks have a headrest that can be adjusted in height and that has a set of ears for better support.
Leg space on the first row is great. But keep in mind that on 1C you’re quite exposed, with boarding passenger turning right into the cabin right in front of you. But it does give you a great cockpit view at least.
There are eight rows of Club Class on this flight, for a total of 32 seat. According to the purser, the flight is completely sold out.
There are two middle aged gentlemen working the Club Class cabin, and I must say they’re really excellent: polite, engaging and very helpful. The latter is clearly appreciated by the many elderly Americans on the flight.
Once boarding is completed, the crew pass through the cabin with nicely scented hot towels.

The Meal

With a flight time of only one hour and 15 minutes, there is only a cold meal service on this flight. However, there is a choice between a quinoa salad or grilled chicken breast for the main course.
Quinoa salad with herbs, feta, cucumber and cherry tomato.
Mixed salad on the side, served with vinaigrette.
A selection of warm breads. There are no seconds for bread.
And for dessert, a delectable chocolate mousse with caramel topping that is outrageously sweet and obscenely good. Although probably the noises I’m making while I demolish it are worse…
35 minutes out of Heathrow, the trays are removed and I am brought a mug of milky sweet tea. This is served with a small chocolate from Hotel Chocolat to celebrate BA’s centenary.

Arrival

We land in Heathrow ten minutes ahead of schedule, and I‘m really quite amazed how quiet the place is, which a very rare occurrence in Heathrow.

Getting into Town

I head down into the basement and catch the Heathrow Express into Paddington. The journey takes 15 minutes and costs GBP18. And with the current rate of exchange to the Swiss Frank, that‘s not even so expensive.
I must say, after my last Club Class experiences with BA I wasn‘t expecting anything much. In fact, I’ve tried to avoid them recently. But it seems that the carrier may have just been going through a bit of a rough time. Because this was a much better and more pleasant experience, very much like what you would expect from a global carrier like British Airways. The crew were great and the food choice and quality were also good, especially given the short duration of the flight.

Helvetic Airways, Embraer 190 – Business Class: Zürich to London City

Introduction

My colleague at work, let‘s call him the talented Mr. F., recently complained about the apparent lack of any new posts on my blog in recents weeks. The talented Mr. F., incidentally, gets his name from his truly exceptional talent of getting airlines to pay him compensation for all sorts of things, including some reported cases where the airlines hadn‘t actually done anything wrong – other than being on time…

So here you go, this one‘s for you, Mr. F. May it inspire you to even greater greatness. Or something.

As usual, I arrive at Zürich Airport by train. It‘s just gone 16:15. One hour to go before my departure to London.
Security is quite busy. After all, it‘s still the holiday season. But it‘s nowhere near as bad as when I flew to Bucharest two weeks ago, just as the summer holidays in Switzerland got underway!
My flight will be boarding from D57. Which is a bus gate on the ground floor level of the non-Schengen terminal. I don‘t think I‘ve ever used one of these gates before. I rather like the B/D pier though. Even if the ceilings are quite low.
I can‘t be bothered with the SWISS lounge, so instead I buy myself some chocolate goodness from Sprüngli on my way to passport control.
Today‘s flight is operated by Helvetic Airways, on behalf of SWISS. Helvetic has 15 E2s on order, which are expected to enter the fleet in Q4 of this year. Ten of their aircraft are on a permanent wet lease to SWISS. My flight today will be with an Embraer 190.
I‘m seated on 1A. So I figure I might as well take my time and board last. And take a few pictures while I wait.
The pitch on row 1, the bulkhead row, is great. Although from past experience I have to say, it get‘s awfully tight towards the back.
The service on the ground starts with the distribution of the cold towels and a bottle of still water. There are five passengers in Business this afternoon. One thing I really like on SWISS, is that they keep the seat next to you empty.
No sooner has the seatbelt sign gone off after take-off, the meal service begins. There is no choice available, so if you‘re vegetarian or picky about what you eat, you may want to pre order a special meal.
Today‘s offering is vitello tonnato, served with rocket, capers and red onion.
Warm breads and crackers are served with the meal. The maître de does an excellent job of explaining what all the items on the tray are.
Of course, being SWISS, there has to be a small plate with cheese.
The dessert is brownies on a citrus yoghurt cream and strawberry compote.
The meal ends with a cup of coffee and a small Swiss chocolate.
We land in London City more or less on time. The airport is busy. There‘s a bit of a hold up because the guy bringing the stairs is having problems puttting it in position. The captain shrugs at me and says: ‚they expect us to land on something the size of a stamp, but they struggle with the stairs…‘.
It‘s a lovely evening in London, and so I decide to walk to the hotel. From London City airport it‘s a walk of about thirty minutes to the Emirates Air Line, the cable car that takes you across the Thames. The journey takes about ten minutes and you can pay either by Oyster card or with a touch credit card.
At the other end, the cable car spits you out in front of the O2 arena. I stop off at Wagamama and the make my way to the Intetcontinental O2.
I‘ve been to many lovely places across the globe. Including some I didn‘t know existed before I had to go there! And feel priviledged for the opportunity to travel and see so much of the world. But no matter where I go, sooner or later I‘m always drawn back to this city. For me, there really is no place like London!

P. S. In the background of the last picture, on the hill, is Woolwich, where my nannu was originally from.

Gulf Air, Business Class – Boeing B 787-9: Bahrain to London Heathrow

Transfer in Bahrain

We pull up on our stand at 23h40 local time. Bahrain is one hour behind Dubai. There are currently some major construction works going on at Bahrain airport for a new pier and terminal, with different parts already in an advanced state of completion. Alas, it’ll be a while before the new facility becomes available and until then, I am going to have to contend with the current facility, which is, with all due respect, a hovel. The terminal looks like something straight out of the late seventies. It’s worn and tired looking and obviously not much care has gone into maintaining the building and public areas properly. The corridors are long, narrow, with low ceilings and the smell of old socks that you only get in countries that have spent way too much time around the British and their obsessive compulsion with having carpets in really inconvenient places…

There is a security checkpoint that passengers need to go through to access the transfer area one floor up. But to be honest, I don’t quite understand what the point of it is, because clearly nobody gives a rat’s bum. The lady in front of me beeps. The male staff all look at each other and, realising there is no woman at hand to give the passenger a pat down, simply wave her through…

The Gulf Air Business Class Golden Falcon Lounge

The upper level of the terminal is not much better. Of course, the duty free shop and the food outlets have been updated over the years. But apart from that, the terminal reminds me a lot of Shannon airport. And anyone who’s ever been to Shannon will know that’s not exactly a compliment.

The lounge is yet one floor further up from the duty free shopping area. Like everything else here, it also looks very old fashioned and not particularly attractive. But at least there are no carpets. The place is also very full when I arrive, which is why I refrain from taking any pictures in the lounge.

But by far the most memorable feature of the lounge, is its receptionist. Sweet baby Jesus, what is that? It’s not just that she’s laid on the makeup pretty thickly. She must also be colour blind, because the two very bright pink circles on each check are clashing badly with the green stuff she’s also pasted on to her cheeks, around the pink. Shouldn’t the green stuff go on the eye lids? She also has the most obscenely thick and obviously artificial eye lashes.

Boarding

Fifty minutes before departure, the flight shows up on the departure screens as boarding. So I figure I might as well make my way to gate 11, from where my flight will depart. Perhaps that will keep me from going off to sleep.

There’s an additional checkpoint to enter the gate area, and for a moment I feel like I have done the Bahrainis an injustice for assuming they haven’t got their security under control. There’s even a separate queue for Business Class passengers. Only, this security check is just about as useless and ineffectual as the previous one. And so, I resign myself to accepting that it’s probably just a cultural thing. Under the guise of pluralism and inclusion it’s really quite amazing just what you can get away with these days.

There is an initial boarding call for Business Class passengers. And I mean that quite literal. Instead of using the microphone, the young male Philippino suddenly starts yelling at the top of his voice ‘only Falcon Gold, only Falcon Gold’…

Off we go…

The Cabin

So far, as you already might have guessed, I’m not too impressed by Gulf Air. But the Business Class cabin of this Boeing B 787-9 is just gorgeous. The dark colours give the whole cabin an elegant, subdued feel and the fact that passengers are boarding through the L2 door somehow makes the first impression just a little bit more dramatic, because from the L2 door the whole of the Business Class cabin is visible.

If I’m not mistaken, this is more or less the same gig that Japan Airlines and Oman Air have for their Business Class product. According to the Gulf Air inflight magazine, the pitch on this seat is 78 inches. And it really is quite impressive. When extended into a bed, the seat is still long enough that I still have room above my head and below for my feet. I’m about 184 cm tall.

The seats are staggered in such a way that the aisle seats are not abeam but slightly behind the window seats. As a result, every passenger has direct access to the aisle and a lot of privacy. And there is a divider which can be raised to provide more privacy. Of course, the window seat is a lot more private than the aisle seats. But from what I have seen, the shell of the seat reaches sufficiently far forward to ensure that passengers on the aisle seat are not completely exposed either.

On the down side, there is not a lot of storage space on this seat. Also, I find it quite uncomfortable trying to sleep in this seat, although that may also have to do with the fact that I currently have a slipped disc…

Amenities

The vanity kit provided by Gulf Air is extensive. In addition to the obligatory toiletries, Gulf Air will also provide pyjamas on night flights as well as a pair of solid slippers. Bedding for the seat is also provided.

The Crew

The crew is a mix of European and Middle Eastern nationals. And all of them give the impression of really just doing their job but not much else and without discernible signs of pride or enjoyment. The whole customer experience seems rather process oriented: the boarding process takes forty minutes to complete, which is ample time for the crew to take orders for food from the passengers. But instead, the food orders are only taken once boarding is completed. Inevitably, this means that the crew don’t manage to collect all the orders before they are required to take their seats for departure.

After take-off I’m simply too tired to wait any longer. I figure I’ll manage to get something to eat at some point and I don’t want dinner. I just want to sleep. So I change into my pjs, extend the seat into a bed, and go off to sleep. Forty minutes later the crew are finally released to start the service. One hour into the flight the ‘chef’ comes to wake me up to ask me what I’d like to eat. I mean, seriously? On a flight of six hours they won’t even let a guy sleep because they need to get his order in for food?

I explain I won’t be having dinner but yes, if they’re serving breakfast, I’ll probably join.

The service on the ground starts with the welcome drinks. Given my previous experience with the mint juice, this time I try the orange juice. This is followed by the newspapers, vanity kit, pjs, the menu and the towels. Again, there is a choice between a hot towel and a cold one. This time I go with the cold towel, but it’s lukewarm – just like the hot towel I had on the previous flight.

The Meal

We’re still two hours out of London when the crew start the breakfast service. Which to me seems just a tad early, given that there are only 26 seats in Business Class. The sequence in which the meal is served is odd.

First, I am brought a cup of coffee with milk, which is very weak, incidentally. Next the other flight attendant shows me a selection of preserves and marmalades to choose from. I request some apricot jam and then sit there thinking that it would be really cool to have something to smear the jam onto – a piece of bread spontaneously comes to mind. As though he can read my mind, the male crew member appears with a bread basket and asks me if I’d prefer toast or a croissant. I tell him I’ll have toast, and ask him if perhaps I might have a knife to smother the jam with and a napkin to put the bread on? To which he tells me the tray will be arriving ‘later’.

When eventually the tray arrives, the cabin crew have to first open my tray table, which is stowed in the side of the seat. Only, that’s where the coffee is standing. So I pick the saucer and cup up with my left hand, because I’m still holding my two slices of toast with the other hand, while the cabin crew juggles my tray in one hand and tries to open the table with the other.

But eventually we manage. And the tray does looks rather nice. There’s even a wire basket for me to put the toast in. But I still don’t understand why they couldn’t have brought the tray first and then the jam, bread and coffee.

The tray has on it a plate of fresh fruit.

A small ramekin of butter.

A glass of water & glass of juice.

Apparently, according to the menu, there also would have been yoghurt and Müsli. But the crew seem to be strangely unaware of any of this.

Once I have finished the fruit, the plate is removed and a short while later, my hot meal arrives. I’ve decided to go with the American pancakes with berries and maple syrup.

The pancakes are thick and fluffy. But to be honest, the whole thing is just a bit of a sugar overdose and could have done very well without either the maple syrup or the berries.

Arrival

By the time the crew clear everything away, we still one hour out of London. I lean back in my seat and watch the world go by far below, until eventually old Blighty comes in to view. Our approach into Heathrow offers some excellent views. First ATC bring us in due north of the city, with good views of the West End and Hyde Park. Initially, we’re on a westerly track, flying parallel to the runways at Heathrow. But it looks as though they’re going to bring us in on 09R, which is more convenient because Gulf air operates out of Terminal 4 in Heathrow, which is south of the runway. So eventually we turn south and fly overhead Heathrow, with the BA maintenance facility and Concorde clearly visible.

We land on time and make the short taxi to Terminal 4. It’s good to be back in Europe! I now have 95 minutes to make my connection.

Conclusion

Man, what a let down. When I booked this flight, I was expecting Gulf Air to be something of a boutique carrier, if there is such a thing. I knew I couldn’t expect anything on the scale of Emirates or Qatar, but maybe a bit like Oman Air. What I certainly hadn’t expected though was the badly managed, uncoordinated mess and the total lack of consistency in the service delivery of Gulf Air.

The seat on the B 787 is gorgeous, and the 787 is a very comfortable aircraft, from a passenger’s perspective. But even so, the inconvenient flight schedule, the rather unpleasant transfer at their very unattractive hub in Bahrain and the bad service really don’t make me really ever want to try Gulf Air again.

But I’ll give them this much, their livery is one of the best out there right now…