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

Introduction

We’re in week five of the new year, and so far I have spent a grand total of seven days at home. Not seven consecutive days though, I might add. Another two weeks and then the semester starts. And then I’m done travelling for a while.

Getting from Berne to Zürich Airport

This year, the Swiss Federation is celebrating 175 years since the constitution of 1848 was ratified. To mark the occasion, the Bundeshaus is offering special guided tours to the public – which is why I’m in Berne today.

The tour ends just after 14:30, which gives me enough time to grab a cake and coffee from Loeb before heading across the square to collect my luggage and catch the 15:31 train to the airport. The journey takes eighty minutes, with the train stopping at Zürich Main Station and Oerlikon on the way.

Once again I am absolutely amazed by just how incredibly ugly the railway station in Berne is. Think brutalist meets dead boring and painfully bland.

The service to the airport today is operated by a Dosto composition. That’s right, it’s the train I mentioned previously that shakes about violently enough to cause disorientation, blurred vision and possibly also concussion.

But at least the First Class carriages are quite nice – and empty.

Check-in

Speaking of empty, Zürich airport isn’t exactly jumping this afternoon either. Most of the people landside seem to be shoppers, not passengers. Check-in 1, where SWISS checks in, is pretty much deserted.

There is one counter for First and Senator passengers, which is where I head to drop off my suitcase. Something seems to have changed on the Wallet app, because I can open my boarding pass, but I can’t seem to save it.

SWISS Senator Lounge Zürich Airport

There is a Senator lounge in the Schengen area, and another on the non-Schengen D concourse. When I inquire with the check-in agent though, she tells me she’s not sure if the lounge on the D concourse is even open and suggests therefore, that I use the Schengen lounge instead.

Just like the rest of the airport, the lounge is quiet. The mute noise and the high ceiling make it feel a bit like being in a church.

There is a hot and cold buffet in the lounge, with a small but nice selection of dishes.

I go for the Älpermagrone, a Swiss dish of pasta with a cheesy sauce, apple compote and fried onions.

Boarding

At 18:00 I leave the lounge to make my way to gate D 52. I still need to go through passport control. Although I needn’t have worried, because there’s hardly anybody around here either. This is now becoming just a wee bit eerie.

D 52 is a bus gate. I just miss the first bus when I arrive, but it doesn’t look as though the flight is packed. Before boarding there is a document check for all passengers.

Our aircraft is parked on a remote stand. Really the remotest of remote stands at the far end of runway 16, near the old Swissair hangar. On our way, we pass a long line up of Swiss, Edelweiss and Helvetic aircraft that don’t look as though they’ll be heading off somewhere anytime soon.

The Cabin

There are four rows of Business Class on this aircraft. I’m the only passenger in the forward cabin this evening, which means that I can take my pick from any one of the eight available seats. I park myself on 1F, just in case they bring us in for an approach from the East in Heathrow, which would take us right over the Westend.

Seat pitch on row 1 is okay. However, it quickly diminishes towards the back of the bus, and Helvetic really know how to pack them in.

The Crew & Service

There are three crew on the flight this evening. They’re very young and also very good. I’m quite impressed actually. Straight off the bat they address me with my family name in every interaction they have with me. They are friendly and polite.

The service on the ground begins with a small bottle of still water and a scented disinfectant towel. Just before we reach the threshold for runway 28, one of the crew asks me if I’ll be having dinner and takes my order for drinks after take-off. The flight time is eighty minutes.

The Meal

The meal consists of a plate of smoked duck with wedges of parsnip, celery and potato mash and red cabbage. I don’t try the meat, but the vegetables all taste very good – especially the mash.

During the meal, the crew make two rounds with the breadbasket. I have one roll with the cheese and a packet of Darvida biscuits with butter. To drink I have a Coke Zero.

Throughout the meal, the crew keep close tabs on me – checking regularly to inquire if they can get me anything. Once I’m done with the food, the tray is quickly removed and I am brought a mug of mint tea. And then shortly after that, the crew hand out the chocolates and we start our descent.

Arrival

Cool. The approach does indeed bring us in over London. We break through the cloud abeam London City airport and then continue past the Shard, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace towards Heathrow.

There’s a bit of a hold up for the luggage to be delivered. But other than that, the arrival in Heathrow is fairly smooth.

Getting to the Hotel

Tomorrow, I’ll be departing from Terminal 4. That’s why I decide to spend the night at one of the hotels near T4. Getting there from Terminal 2, where my flight from Zürich arrives, takes a while. First, because you walk quite a bit and have to go up and down many flights of stairs. And second, because trains from the central Heathrow railway station to Terminal 4 are infrequent and only run every thirty minutes in the evening.

The trip between terminals is complimentary. However, you’ll still need a ticket to get through the barriers to reach the platform. There is a dedicated vending machine that prints tickets to that end. They’re really hard to miss.

The journey time is about five minutes.

Oman Air, Business Class – Boeing B 787-9: Frankfurt to Muscat

Transfer in Frankfurt – I am never, ever doing this again!

I enter the Schengen area of Terminal 1 in Frankfurt at 09:05. I have an hour before my departure on Oman Air from the D concourse of Terminal 2. I follow the signs to the D gates, and before I know what’s really happening, I’m landside again. Which is of course not so good, because it means that in addition to passport control, I will also have to go through security again.

Is there a strike on or a go slow that nobody has told me about? I follow the sign for the fast track to immigration, where the gentleman supposedly checking boarding passes descides to completely ignore me. I’m standing right in front of him. Well, two can play this game. So I decide to just walk through, which certainly gets his attention, “Sie können nicht einfach davon laufen”. So he scans my boarding pass and allows me access to the e-gates for biometric passports.

On the D concourse the gates are grouped together so that four gates share a security checkpoint with three separate lanes. Two are for Economy Class passengers and one is for priority passengers. Not that anybody has even the littlest of shits to give here. The checkpoint for my flight is an utter mess. Only one of the Economy Class lanes is open, and halfway through the process the staff manning the priority lane decide it’s time for their break, so they literally just close the door and walk off. Behind me people are pushing and shoving. A group of French travellers is full of indignation, because their flight to Muscat has already started boarding. They ask to skip the line to which I tell them that I’m on the same flight and another guy tells them his flight has already closed. In future I am certainly going to make any effort to avoid Frankfut. It’s not just that the process is very unpleasant and tedious. I’m also raising into question just how safe the screen process actually is. Clearly, the staff are too busy complaining and arguing among themselves to actually watch what was going on.

I’ve managed to stay surprisingly calm. It’s 10:15 and my flight has officially departed by the time I’m through security. I help and old Serb heading for the Belgrade flight hold his dog while he collects his belongings, and then I make my way to gate D8.

Boarding

The flight is still there. Apparently they’re still missing 38 passengers in the queue and figured it was easier to wait than have to dig around for 38 suitcases. At the gate I exchange my electronic, Lufthansa-issued boarding pass for an old-fashioned Oman Air branded one. And then I step on the plane. I try to take a photo, but the angle just doesn’t work.

The Cabin

I’m greeted at the L2 door and guided to my seat on 11A, which is the last row in the larger Business Class cabin that is located between the First Class cabin and the L2 galley. I really like the Oman Air seat. It’s elegantly designed, very comfortable and sufficiently long when extended into a bed. The only downside of course, is that you have a passenger sitting next to you – which is particularly problematic on this flight, because I’m stuck next to a gassy Frenchman. He starts before we even get airborne, which kind of has me wondering what will happen as we start climbing. Won’t the gasses start expanding with increased altitude? But I digress, the seat. The beauty of this layout is that the aisle seat is staggered slightly behind the window seat, which means that all passengers have direct aisle access.

There is a partitioning screen, which works sufficiently well in that it is high enough. Although it doesn’t really do anything to protect me from the depraved and gazeous stench that keeps wafting across throughout the flight. What on earth was this guy eating…?

When I reach my seat there is already a pillow, a thick blanket and a comfortable mattress, a bottle of still water, the vanity kit and the earphones. I do not use the earphones, so I don’t know what brand they are.

The Service

As soon as I am settled in my seat, one of the cabin crew comes to ask me if I would like to have either an orange juice or lemon juice with mint.

Shortly after, they bring me a warm wet towel.

And the menus.

Once boarding is completed, the crew pass through the cabin with packaged dates and cardamom coffee.

Eventually, we push back with a delay of one hours.

On our way to the runway we pass this ugly thing. Although, it’s not really ugly. Just perhaps a bit ridiculous.

The Meal – Lunch

The meal service is quite extensive, with an à la carte menu and a broad selection of dishes to choose from.

For the amuse bouche there is a warm, grilled scallop in a sesame crust.

Next, the table is set for lunch, and I am brought a bowl with warm bread as well as butter and olive oil.

I start with a trio of beetroot, tuna and balik salmon on crème fraîche, which is very flavourful and delicious.

For the main course I have the fish, which is served on a lovely, creamy bisque.

And then comes the cheese dish. The description of the cheese on the menu is not very clear, but I think perhaps that’s a cultural thing that the French or the Swiss tend to be a lot more concerned about than others.

And then for dessert, mercy! I shouldn’t, I really shouldn’t. But cinnamon and strawberry bread and butter pudding served warm with custard and pecan crumble are hard to resist. This is just so, so good. That’s what I call grade A1 comfort food!

The friendly male flight attendant working on my aisle comes to clear the table. He asks me there’s anything else I’d like before he looks up at me. He notices the look on my face, smiles and just says “okay, maybe later”. Yes, probably better. Ta!

The flight time to Muscat is just over six hours, so there is no second service. At some point though, I do order a cup of coffee with milk.

Arrival

We land in Muscat with a delay of 45 minutes. The airport is quite busy.

This is my first time back in Oman since the new airport has opened, and I must confess my heart breaks just a little. The old as-Seeb terminal was kind of cool, even if it was way too crowded and hardly big enough to handle half the traffic flying into Muscat these days. But there was just something so typically and endearingly Omani about the old place. As Heraclitus said, you cannot step into the same river twice.

Conclusion

My last trip on Oman Air was a few years ago, when I flew them from Zürich via Muscat to Kuala Lumpur. I remember that the trip had not been so nice, especially the red-eye from Zürich to Muscat. So I’m glad to see that things have improved again at Oman Air. The crew were very friendly and just seemed happy. The service was swift, attentive, and well-paced. And the food was very good. Alas, my return will not be on Oman Air, so it remains to be seen whether the airline has gotten its act together again or if perhaps this was just a flash in the pan, as they say.

As for Frankfurt, that was really scandalous and nothing else.

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

Introduction

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

Getting to the airport

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

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

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

The journey takes about 25 minutes.

Check-in

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

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

The Virgin Australia Business Class lounge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boarding

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

The seat

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

The meal

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

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

Arrival

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

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

Austrian Airlines, Economy Class – Embraer 195: Vienna to Basel

Introduction

Today I’m on my way from Vienna back to Basel. My flight departs at 17h40 and the hotel refuses to grant me a late check-out. So I exit the SO/ Vienna hotel just after 12h00 and make my way to Wien Mitte railway station to dump my suitcase and bag in a locker. It’s only ten minutes on foot from the hotel to the station. You could take public transport instead, but I suspect that would probably take longer.

Once that’s settled, I decide to pay a visit to Schloss Belvedere, which houses an extensive collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt.

On my way back to Wien Mitte I make a brief stop at the Konditorei Oberlaa for a last helping of Kaiserschmarn, a kind of fluffy shredded pancake served with jam and has comfort food written all over it.

Getting to Vienna Schwechat airport

From Wien Mitte there are frequent trains to Vienna airport. The journey will take about 25 minutes and costs EUR4.80 for a single trip for one person. However, if you’re travelling with somebody else, you already qualify as a group, in which case the fare is only EUR5.20 for both.

“Europe without Greece is like partying without drugs”. Indeed, it’s very patriotic and I think the Greece ministry of tourism should adopt this as its new slogan…

Check-in

Austrian Airlines checks in at Terminal 3. I’ve already received my boarding pass online, but I still need to drop off my suitcase. Austrian Airlines’ self-check in process for Economy Class passengers is easy to use and has been well planned. As you come off the escalators that lead up to departures, there is a large area with very easy to use scanning machines.

You scan your boarding pass and the machine will ask you to confirm your name. Once that’d done, the baggage label is printed. The queue for the fast bag drop is long, but at least it moves quickly.

At the counter where a check-in agent once used to sit, there is now another scanner. You place the suitcase on the conveyor belt, scan the bar code on the label, and that’s it. Gone!

Airside

The airport is busy this time of day. The other terminals in Schwechat have been shut down due to the pandemic, so Terminal 3 is now handling all the traffic – and it’s rather a tight fit. Eventually, I find a place to sit at the very last gate on the Schengen pier. As it happens, this is where the Ryanair flight to Thessaloniki is about to board. And I really must say, it’s rather entertaining. The gate agent is, with all due respect, a complete and utter bitch and the way she treats the passengers boarding the flight is nothing short of outrageous. You have to be really hard up financially to be willing to put up with this level of verbal abuse. I think given the choice I would prefer not to travel at all than have to endure this kind of treatment.

This is something I have never been able to understand about the business model of many of the low cost carriers. Yes, their prices are amazingly low sometimes. But irrespective of how high or low the price for the ticket is, people are still paying their good money to avail themselves of a service. The amount they paid should not determine the politeness or courtesy of service they receive. And it certainly should not determine how rudely they are treated by the staff. Of course the saying goes that you get what you pay for, and if the likes of Ryanair are not willing to pay for polite and properly trained staff or handling agents, then that’s just too bad. But I disagree.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight starts with a slight delay and takes for ever. This is largely due to the fact that in Austria it is mandatory for passengers to wear FFP2 masks. Every passenger wearing a standard issue surgical mask is stopped by the L1 door and given an FFP2 mask to wear instead, which they must put on in front of the cabin crew before they are allowed beyond the galley and into the cabin.

The crew & service

The crew are quite friendly, which is rather unusual for Austrian Airlines. The purser is clearly trying to respect all the rules in place, and while I personally think she should be commended for that and for putting the passengers’ health first, I think we also need to acknowledge that in Europe the lack of harmonization between countries is a huge pain in the ass and makes it near impossible to travel between countries without breaking at least one rule or other.

The flight itself is short and uneventful.

Arrival

Eventually we land in Basel after a flight time of one hour and ten minutes. The cabin crew announce that deboarding will be by seat numbers. Passengers should remain seated until their row is called. In theory, it may make a lot of sense to deboard the plane in such a way. But in practice, the sad truth is that it is completely useless: Basel airport is on French soil and has a French and a Swiss sector. There is one long corridor that connects the arrival gates to the head of the terminal building and immigration. Even though Austria and France are both part of the Schengen treaty, France has suspended the free movement of persons, which means that they have reintroduced border controls. This does not apply to Switzerland. But the exit to Switzerland is only at the very end of the corridor, meaning there is no way for passengers entering into Switzerland to bypass the queues for immigration for France. Regrettably, we land right after two full easyJet Airbus A 320s, and the queue for immigration is endless. It takes me forty minutes to reach the head of the queue. At least by the time I arrive at the luggage belt, my suitcase is already there.

Conclusion

So, I’ve now done six flights with Austrian Airlines in short succession – mostly in Business Class. On a positive note, I’m very much impressed by the quality of their food. It should not be taken for granted these days to be given a hot meal in Business Class on a short sector of only one hour. Other than that though, I found their service a bit lacking and seriously inconsistent. First, I really think it wouldn’t hurt Austrian Airlines to provide at least a bottle of water to passengers in Business Class as a kind of welcome drink. Second, I find it rather interesting that on all six flights I took, an announcement was made that deboarding would be done by seat rows, from front to back. But in fact this was only enforced by the crew on the last flight. My point is not whether or not the procedure makes sense. I just find it rather unprofessional to make such an announcement and then very obviously not give a rats bum. Austrian Airlines are okay, and their network to southeastern Europe is extensive. Other than that though, they’re hardly worth bothering with.

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.

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

Transfer in Vienna

Nothing about Vienna airport really makes any sense to me. The impression you get is that the airside facility was built with everything but the passenger and the usability of the terminal in mind. My aircraft from Tirana parks at a remote stand, which means we are taken to the terminal by bus. But instead of dropping the passengers off near the beginning of the pier, which is where the security checkpoint and passport control are located, the bus driver only drives a few meters and then has us disembark at the very end of the concourse. From where it’s a long schlepp to immigration and the Covid certificate check, before eventually you arrive at the very beginning of the pier and the queue for security.

The Austrian Airlines Business Class lounge

The Austrian Airlines lounge is behind security, but in the completely opposite direction to the Schengen gates on the F pier.

The lounge is already quite full when I get there. The food options are rather nice, though. Other than that, the interior design is quite cheap. The seats in the dining area are covered in fake leather and aren’t really all that comfortable either.

Boarding

Eventually, I leave the lounge to walk around a bit and stop me from falling asleep.

The cabin

I am seated on 2F. There are five rows of business class for a total of twenty seats. On this flight, only eight seats are occupied. And funnily enough, I’m the only passenger seated on the right side. I’m guessing the other passengers all chose to sit on the left to get a better view of the alps en route.

The crew

The crew on this flight are all female and very friendly. They’re all smiles and are engaging with the passengers. Unlike SWISS, Austrian does not offer any pre-departure drinks or refreshing towels.

The meal

As soon as the seatbelt sign is turned off after take-off, the maître de starts preparing for breakfast. The curtain is closed, but I can hear her pottering around in the galley as she loads the hot meals into the trolley. But then suddenly, there’s a terrific crash as the whole trolley tumbles backwards and eventually keels over. The flight attendant opens the curtain with a horrified expression on her face and simply mutters: “Na, jetzt is mir der Trolley umgfallen…”. It seems like an odd thing to say because the crash was so loud that I’m pretty sure they probably heard it all the way back in Vienna.

Eventually, the crew manage to get the trolley upright, but most of the food has spilled. I really feel for the cabin crew, because she’s obviously distraught and so embarrassed. She keeps passing through the cabin apologizing and explaining that she can’t possibly serve the meal, as “so was gibt’s nicht amol bei der Ryanair”… Clearly, to her Ryanair is rock bottom and if not even they would serve such a messy looking meal, then she certainly won’t either in Austrian Business Class. She’s really quite funny in her state of upset.

Eventually, we agree for her to just give me the hot meal and a coffee. It just wouldn’t be very gentlemanly to have to lick the yoghurt of the tray… The hot meal is an omelet with cheese served with spinach.

To conclude the meal, the crew pass through the cabin offering small chocolates. They’re not as good as the SWISS ones, but they rarely are.

Arrival

We approach Zürich from the East, which brings us in right over lake Constance. It’s a gorgeous day for flying.

The maître de welcomes us to Zürich amid more profuse apologies at having ruined breakfast. She insists that in all her career, this is really the first time this has ever happened to her. I feel quite sorry for her, because she’s clearly very upset.

Zürich airport is very empty and quiet when we land. Even after all these years, I still think it’s impressive to think that we touched down on runway 16 at 09h00, and by 09h13 I’m already sitting on the train home!

Conclusion

Catering is, and has always been, one of the airline’s strongest points. And today’s two flights from Tirana to Vienna and then on to Zürich were no different – despite the mishap with the trolley. To serve a hot meal on a flight of barely one hour is certainly not bad at all and definitely a lot more substantial than anything I was expecting. On the other hand, I think it’s a shame they won’t even place a bottle of water at every seat as a pre-departure beverage.

The crew were very nice, which is a pleasant surprise. In the past, I’ve had crews on Austrian that were really just plain rude. For Tirana, I really think Austrian has the best and most frequent connections. Which is why I chose them. However, if it weren’t for their extensive eastern European network, I don’t think I would go out of my way to actively seek them out for my next trip. I find the whole experience a bit bland, and the unpredictability of the crew doesn’t help. I wouldn’t intentionally avoid them though, either.

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

Introduction

I’m not really sure what made me think a departure from Tirana at 04h25 in the morning would be a good idea. But here I am at 03h00 in the morning, walking the short distance from the Hotel Airport Tirana to the terminal building. Still, at least this way I’ll be back home by 11h00.

The terminal building is small and compact, with departures and check-in on the left side, and arrivals on the right side.

Check-in

Check-in for the flight to Vienna is already open. And much to my surprise, there’s even a manned Business Class desk that isn’t being laid siege to by a hoard of unruly Albanians who, I’m am finding out, really have a very, very strong aversion to queueing of any sort.

The Tirana Airport lounge

Security and immigration are painless. There are hardly any passengers this time of the morning.

So I decide to investigate the Business Class lounge, which is open at this ungodly hour, even if I only have about 15 minutes before boarding begins.

The lounge is nice enough and looks fairly new. There’s a buffet with pastries and sandwiches to choose from, and there are more dishes in the kitchen that are available on request from the staff.

Boarding

Boarding starts at 03h55. Our aircraft is parked rather far away, which is why we’re being bussed to our remote stand.

The cabin

There are three rows of Business Class, for a total of 12 seats. However, only six of them are occupied. The cabin looks neat and tidy and the splashes of red in the Austrian sign on the bulkhead or the seat covers and seat belts make the cabin look a lot less shabby than Lufthansa’s.

Leg space on row 2 is very good and I am able to stretch my legs easily.

Service

There are four cabin crew on today’s flight, and all of them male. They’re business friendly, I’d say. Not very warm or genuine, but not rude either. There is no pre-departure drink. Passengers are just handed a disinfectant towel as they board.

Breakfast

Given the flight time of only one hour and ten minutes, I’m surprised they’re actually serving a hot meal on the short hop to Vienna. There are no options. Despite it’s rather unappealing appearance, the hot meal is rather good.

Croque monsieur with turkey ham.

Fruit salad.

A very creamy and fluffy yoghurt.

The potion that gives life.

Warm croissants.

During the meal service, the crew make multiple runs through the cabin with the breadbasket.

Arrival

The flight passes very quickly. At some point I think I even nod off to sleep. We touch down in Vienna at 05h40 and make our way to a remote stand. I now have a little less than two hours to make my connection to Zürich.

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.

Wideroe, Economy Class – Dash 8-300: Haugesund to Bergen

Getting to the airport

Skudeneshavn is a picturesque fishing village on the southern tip of Karmoy island. Before I head to the airport, 35 minutes away by car, I find a small café/souvenir shop and have some lunch. What you can see here in the picture is a ‘Kanelknute’, a very yeasty dough that’s chewy and sweet, with a subtle hint of cardamom and cinnamon. In the interest of investigative blogging, I had three. And I can confirm that they were all of the same outstanding quality. The wrap I also had was tasty as well.

Check-in

It’s not very often I manage to get the entire terminal facility and adjoining office building in one shot. So here you have it, boys and girls, Haugesund international airport in all its glory.

Check-in for this flight is interesting. The routing HAU-BGO-AMS-BSL was purchased and issued on one ticket via the KLM app. However, check-in on the app is not possible. However, 24 hours before departure, I receive an email from Wideroe, informing me that check-in is now open and that I have been assigned 7D on the Haugesund to Bergen leg. I am able to download all three boarding passes into my iPhone wallet. I’m must say, I’m impressed. The interface with other airlines is not always so nicely implemented!

Because of Covid, access to the terminal building is currently only permitted for passengers. Although there’s nobody there to check, really.

The departure screen may perhaps explain the empty terminal…

Airside

There is no lounge for premium passengers at the airport. Initially, when I arrive at around 14h15, the place is pretty much deserted, save for a few diehards getting in some serious drinking before they board their flight. I just hope they’re not on my flight…

Boarding

Boarding for the flight starts on time. Don’t you just love an airport without airbridges? From what I can tell, there are about 40 passengers on the flight.

The cabin

Outside and inside the aircraft and cabin are in mint condition. In my experience with SAS, they tend to work their aircraft pretty hard, and it usually shows. So I was expecting the same thing from Wideroe. But much to my surprise, the aircraft looks new. The cabin is fresh and roomy and the seats are plush and comfortable. The pitch is also good and provides good leg space. Much better, incidentally, than KLM’s E175.

The only downside of my seat on 7D is that it’s right under the wing, limiting the views of the outside while we’re still on the ground. The flight has a block time of 30 minutes, although our actual flight time is only 20 minutes.

The cabin crew

There is one cabin crew aboard this aircraft, which means that the seating capacity is not more than 50. The young lady is friendly enough and goes about her duties in an efficient, friendly manner. Obviously, with a flight time of only 20 minutes, there is no service. But that’s okay, because our route takes us along Norway’s coast. And the weather today is just glorious!

Arrival

The first thing I notice when we land, is that the airport is a lot busier than it was when I arrived. We taxi to the new domestic terminal and disembark in front of the terminal.

Transfer to Amsterdam

In Bergen I’m transferring to a KLM flight to Amsterdam. It’s quite a long schlepp from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, but at least you won’t have to go through security a second time.

The international terminal is deserted, as ours is the only flight to depart from this part of the airport. Most shops are closed, and I’m surprised to see there’s a kiosk open, where you can by drinks and snacks, like those horrific artificially pink sausages they seem to love in Norway.

Before boarding, my Covid documents and passport are checked, seeing as this was not done on the domestic flight from Haugesund to Bergen.

Epilogue

The trip back to Basel is quite uneventful, so I will spare you the details. Entering Switzerland is always a mess in Basel, ever since France suspended the Schengen treaty over security concerns. The Covid situation in France has done little to make the process any smoother or any more pleasant. But this too will pass.

Overall, this was a pleasant trip. Everything worked well, and it was nice to spend some time again in Amsterdam and in Haugesund. But before I let you go, I just have three things I’d like to get off my chest:

First, I really, really do not like the E175. Not just in KLM’s configuration (which is one of the better ones out there), but in general. It feels cramped and tight and the seats are simply very hard and overall just uncomfortable, even on row 1.

Second, KLM and Air France’s strategy is clearly to bring as much of the network as possible back online as quickly as possible. With the exception of the last flight from Amsterdam to Basel though, none of the flights I took were really full. I’m obviously not complaining because it’s always nice to have a bit more space. My point is that, like many of the European carriers, KLM and Air France were able to secure substantial funds to tie them over until traffic starts to pick up in earnest. While one might argue about the merits of investing literally billions of EUROs into an industry that was already heavily lossmaking even before Covid, at least KLM and Air France have done something useful with those funds. And I wish them and their staff the best of luck with that.

And third, most importantly, get your vaccine as soon as you can. Your arm will hurt a bit just after you get the jab, but it will not become magnetic, no matter what people tell you. Get your vaccine as soon as you can, not just to protect yourself, but to protect others too. That is your civic duty. And seriously, it certainly beats having to queue for a stupid test every time you want to go partying, travel abroad, visit a concert or go to the museum.

Stay healthy, all of you!

William