The Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), First Class – Giruno RABe 501: Zürich Airport to Milano Centrale

Introduction

Today I am on my way to Milan to see Salome at La Scala. To be honest, I find Salome more than just a little disturbing, but I have been meaning to see an opera at La Scala for a long time, and now seemed like a good time. I figured I could also use this as an opportunity to run a little experiment of my own and compare journey times between the train and airplane on the route between Zürich and Milan.

First Leg – Zürich Airport to Zürich Main Station

I catch the 14:48 train from the airport to Zürich Main Station. Trains are frequent, and the journey time is usually about eight minutes give and take. At the Main Station I have nine minutes to make my connection.

Second Leg – Zürich Main Station to Lugano

Direct trains between Zürich and Milan run every two hours. Alternatively, there are trains to Lugano with a good connection to Milan, which is what I am doing today. Strangely, the connection via Lugano is even slightly shorter. The departure from Zürich is at 15:05, with an arrival in Lugano at 16:58.

The services to Milan are operated with rolling stock belonging to the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB). The Giruno is a fairly new addition to the fleet that was introduced to replace the highly unreliable Pendolino trains that previously ran on the line. Like its predecessor, the Giruno has tilting capabilities that allow it to travel at higher speed through Switzerland’s mountainous terrain. The Giruno is built by Swiss manufacturer Stadler.

The Cabin & Seat

There are four First Class coaches, one dining car and six Second Class coaches that make up a unit. Today two units have been coupled together. The First Class cabin is spacious and comfortable in a 1 + 2 configuration. There are plenty of seat options available depending on whether you are travelling on your own, as a couple or in a larger group. However, if you are planning to work on your laptop, take note that not all seats have a tray table suitable to place a laptop on. Some seats do not have a tray table at all.

Every seat comes with a coat hook and a power outlet, with separate plugs for European and Swiss standards.

The Route

The journey from Zürich to Milan is interesting and scenic, as it takes the train past Lake Zürich, Lake Zug, and Lake Lucerne. The route also passes through the world’s longest railway tunnel, the Gotthard, with a length of 57 kilometres. The journey through the tunnel takes about 20 minutes. It is the only time the train speeds up to 200km/h on the journey.

Catering

The dining car serves a wide selection of hot and cold dishes that you can enjoy in the dining car or that can be taken away to eat at your seat.

Third Leg – Lugano to Milano Centrale

I have four minutes to make the connection in Lugano. And from what I am told, they usually wait if there is a bit of a delay. The trip from Lugano to Milan is operated by a Swiss regional train. There is a First Class section at the head of the train, but reservations are not possible. Seating is arranged in facing pairs. The only difference to Second Class is that the pitch is slightly better. The train leaves Lugano at 17:02, to arrive at 18:15. However, we pick up a delay on the way, so that the train does pull into Centrale until 18:28.

Getting to the Hotel

In Milan I am staying at the Room Mate Giulia Hotel near the Duomo, in walking distance to La Scala. It is four stops by metro from Centrale. Eventually, I arrive at the hotel at 18:45, more or less four hours after I departed from Zürich Airport.

Conclusion

The journey from Zürich Airport to Milano Centrale is easy and straightforward. The Giruno is a very nice and comfortable train. It is also very nice that the hotel is only four stops away by metro, which is very convenient. The only negative aspect of the journey is the regional train for the last sector from Lugano to Milan. Not only is that train not very comfortable, it was also incredibly crowded from Como onwards and all the way to Centrale. I think next time, I would make sure to catch one of the direct services instead.

Edelweiss Air, Business Class – Airbus A 340-300: Muscat to Zürich

Introduction

The main advantage in taking the Edelweiss Air flight back to Zürich is that it is one of the few flights that leave Muscat bound for Europe as a day flight. Most of the other flights depart in the dead of night, which is not at all pleasant. With a flight time of only seven hours, a night flight is usually not long enough to get a good night’s rest. The Edelweiss Air flight however, departs Muscat at 09h20, to arrive back in Zürich at 13h40. Previously, Muscat was served from Zürich as a tag-on to SWISS’ daily Zürich to Dubai service. Since the flight was taken over by Edelweiss, it only operates once a week on Saturdays.

Getting to the Airport

I’ve spent the whole of the last week in Sohar, which is Oman’s second city in the West of the country. From Sohar to Muscat it’s a little more than 200km. There is the old main road and what looks like a recently completed six lane motorway. I would recommend taking the motorway, simply because it’s a much more pleasant drive and the scenery is quite beautiful. Just watch our for the goats that have a nasty habit of walking into the middle of the motorway like they own the place…

I spend my last night in Oman at the Hilton Garden Inn, which is roughly 15 minutes away by car from the airport terminal. The close proximity to the airport is great if, like me, you forget your passport, ID, and wallet in the hotel safe and have to return to get them – because you only remember as your car pulls up at the curb outside the terminal that you didn’t take them out of the safe.

Check-In

At As-Seeb airport there is a segregated check-in area for First and Business Class passengers. Even if you’ve checked in online, I would still recommend you pass by the Business Class check-in area, as it gives you direct access to a dedicated queue for immigration and security.

Muscat Prime Class Lounge

The only lounge other than the Oman Air lounges is the Prime Class lounge, which is located one floor up from the duty free shopping area. This is also where you’ll find the entrance to the airport transit hotel.

The lounge is large and has many comfortable seating options. It also has wifi, and showers are available too.

The food options look interesting. There is a good choice of hot and cold dishes. Behind the buffet area is an attended bar where you can order alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Given that I had to go back to the hotel and then hurry back to the airport, I don’t spend all that much time in the lounge.

Boarding

The new terminal uses a closed gate concept. There is only one queue, and there is no priority for Business Class passengers to access the gate area, so that by the time I enter the gate, boarding has already started. I figure I might as well wait for the initial scrum to settle and busy myself taking photos of my aircraft instead.

The Cabin & Seat

The cabin layout of Edelweiss’ Business Class is a bit strange. The Business Class cabin is sandwiched between the forward Economy Class cabin and the rear Economy Class section. As you enter through the L2 door, the Business Class section is to your right. Which basically means that the Business Class cabin shares two loos with the entire forward Economy Class section.

There are seven rows of seats in the Business Class cabin. Row 11 is the bulkhead row. On rows 11, 14, and 16 the seats are configured in a 1+2+1 layout, whereas on the other rows they are in a 2+2+1 layout. The port side seats 11A, 14A and 16A are the throne seats that offer some additional storage space compared to the other seats. 14A also has a larger foot well, which come in handy with my size 11s.

The Business Class seat is essentially the same one that SWISS has installed on its long-haul fleet. The main difference being that the Edelweiss seat is covered in a light blue fabric.

The seat is comfortable enough, and being able to sit on your own is nice. But it doesn’t offer much in terms of privacy.

The Crew

The crew on this flight are excellent. They’re very friendly and hard working. Being a day flight, most passengers stay awake, and the crew make sure they have everything they need, passing through the cabin regularly offering snacks and drinks. It’s also noteworthy that the number of crew who actually speak Swiss German is much higher than it is on SWISS.

As soon as I take my seat and stow my luggage, one of the cabin crew comes to offer me a choice of orange juice, champagne or water and a packaged cold towel.

Amenity Kit

The amenities (socks and a tooth brush) are packaged in a cardboard box for “maximum impact”. I kind of like the idea. But I’m not sure how effective that box is in mitigating the CO2 emmissions being produced by the aircraft’s four engines.

In any case, at 09:35 we push back from our gate. One after the other, the four engines come to life with a quiet murmur and we slowly make our way to the active runway. The flight time is seven hours.

The Meal – Breakfast

The main meal service is breakfast. There is no menu, and there do not appear to be any choices either.

The crew set the table with every dish individually. The downside of that, of course, is that it means you cannot get out of your seat unless you remove every item individually.

The meal consists of a very tasty bircher müsli and small fruit salad.

A plate with a slice of Emmental, some smoked cheese and some revolting looking slice of cold cut that I don’t touch.

The hot meal is an omelette with peppers in a tomato sauce with creamy spinach and potatos.

With that the crew serve a wide selection of breads, which are served with butter and a variety of HERO jams or honey. The crew makes several rounds with the bread basket, which may account for how I end up having five slices of buttery Zopf…

At 11:00 the remains of the meal are cleared away. And I am mightily impressed. Just 80 minutes after wheels up the meal service is over, and passengers can kick back and relax. I fire up my laptop to work on my thesis.

The Second Meal

Ninety minutes out of Zürich, the crew pass through the cabin with sandwiches. There is a choice of roast beef or grilled peppers with cream cheese. And they’re very tasty. For dessert passengers are served a Biberli, which is a kind of honey and gingerbread sweet filled with almonds.

Arrival in Zürich

Shortly after, our A 340 dips its nose and we begin our descent into the murky Swiss clouds. It’s so much greener here than in Oman. Eventually, we touch down at 13:40, exactly on time, and make our way to the parking stand at the E pier, which is the satellite terminal. From there I catch the SkyMetro to the main terminal. There’s quite a queue for immigration, but at least it moves quickly.

Conclusion

I have to say that I rather enjoyed this flight with Edelweiss. I’m not even sure what I was expecting exactly, but this was certainly better. The crew was excellent and very friendly and the food was adequate for a flight of seven hours. The only thing I didn’t like that much was the seat, because you’re quite exposed in it. Other than that, it was good to get another flight on the A 340, as these aircraft are becoming increasingly hard to come by.

As for my trip to Oman, it was really great to be back. The one thing that always impresses me about the Omanis, and that I think really sets them apart from many of the other Gulf states, is just how incredibly friendly, down to earth and hospitable they are. There is something very dignified in their pride for their country. They make you feel welcome from the very first step you take off the aircraft when you arrive. And the ruggedness of the landscape is stunningly beautiful. I hope I’ll be back one day!

Lufthansa, Business Class – Airbus A 319: Amsterdam to Frankfurt

Getting to the Gate

I emerge from the Mercure Hotel which is airside in the non-Schengen lounge area 3 at Schiphol airport and make my way to immigration. Once I’m through and back in the Schengen zone, I head for the lounge for some much needed caffeination and breakfast.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight to Amsterdam is from gate B17. Originally, this flight should have been operated by an A 320 NEO, but it appears to have been downgraded to an A 319.

The Cabin

There are three rows of Business Class on this flight and only six passengers. Originally, I’m seated on row 2. However, when boarding is completed and all of row 1 stays empty, I decide to move forward for some extra peace and quiet.

One thing I like about the bulkhead seat of Lufthansa’s Airbus narrowbody fleet is that the tray tables on the A, B, E, and F seats are mounted on the bulkhead. This means that you can still lift the armrests for some extra space. On SWISS or KLM for example, the tray table folds into the armrest, which means that it cannot be moved at all.

The Service

There are three cabin crew on the flight, and all three of them are surprsingly friendly and chirpy. They’re all smiles and even their announcements don’t sound completely robotic. There are no towels or drinks served before departure. The flight time is expected to be 45 minutes.

The Meal – Breakfast

The presentation of the breakfast is quite nice. There is a plate with smoked meat, salami and cheese. Although I’m not quite sure where the ‘Heimat’ part of Lufthansa’s catering concept fits in here, given that the cheese on the plate is Emmental, which is Swiss and not German. There is also a small bowl with some sort of cheese cake. I don’t try that, so I’m not quite sure what it tastes like. After the meal, the crew pass through the cabin offering large red apples, which apparently a thing with Lufthansa.

To drink with the meal I have coffee.

Arrival

Talk about a déjà vu. As on my previous flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt, we make our approach for the northernmost runway, which is normally farthest away from the apron. That is of couse, unless you’ve been assigned a very remote remote stand. Which is exactly what they’ve done with our flight. The stand is so remote that you can’t even see the airport terminal. I time it and it takes us 14 minutes by bus to make the journey.

By the time I arrive at the terminal it’s 09:05. I know have exactly one hour to make the connection to Muscat. Plenty of time.

Conclusion

I really don’t think I’ll ever be a fan of Lufthansa’s. But I’m sure they can live with that. Even so, I must say that I was positively surprised by the crews and the quality of the meals on these two recent trips I made. The crews were all friendly enough and didn’t look as though they’d rather be anywhere else. The food is an acquired taste of course. I’ll never be a fan of cold cuts, but I’m probably not the target demographic either.

Without a doubt, the biggest disadvantage of flying with Lufthansa is that they call Frankfurt airport their home, which really is just a hovel, a rat hole and a dump that was designed with everything but the poor passengers in mind that have to transit through it. At Schiphol you can taxi for a long time too if they bring you down on the Polderbaan. But at least when the aircraft finally comes to a standstill, you’re either on a contact stand or at least the bus ride is only a short one. There’s always Munich, I guess.

British Airways, Club Class – Airbus A 320: London Heathrow to Amsterdam

Transfer in Heathrow

I step off the mighty Boeing B 777-300 from Tokyo and follow the signs for Heathrow flight connections. I take a set of escalators down into the basement and then cross under the taxiway that separates the satellite 2B from the main terminal. At the other end, I go up another set of escalators to reach the first floor, and then from there down another set to take me to ground level for the bus stop for T2 to T5 transfers. It’s awfully quiet in Heathrow today, and there are only four of us making the journey to T5.

British Airways Club Class Lounge Southside

The lounge is still decked out in Christmas decorations, and Christmas songs are blaring from the loudspeakers. Wish all you like Mariah, but you’re going to have to wait another year.

The lounge looks as though there’s just been a Mongol invasion. There’s hardly any place to sit and all the tables look as though the cleaning staff may have overdosed on eggnogg at the Christmas party and havn’t recovered since.

The furniture is also looking decidely worse for wear and is either stained with things I don’t want to know, or simply damaged.

Boarding

At the boarding time indicated on my boarding pass, I make my way down to gate A20, from where the flight will be boarding. There’s a slight delay that was caused on the inbound from Stockholm.

Boarding is strictly by zones, and the ground crew check to make sure passengers are queuing in the right lane.

The Cabin

There are four rows of Business Class on this flight. The cabin looks neat and elegant, but it’s also a bit gloomy – especially with the dark grey bulkhead.

I am seated on 2A, and the seat pitch is still quite good. It reduces rapidly towards the rear, to the point that it becomes painful.

The Service

There are two cabin crew working the Club Class cabin. One is a friendly elderly gentleman, and the other is a calm and efficient young lady with the most outrageously oversized fake eyelashes I’ve ever seen. I mean, she’s great and does a really good job, but those things are hideous!

Before departure, the crew pass through the cabin offering disinfectant towels.

The Meal

Given that the flight time to Amsterdam is usually just slightly over 30 minutes, I’m not really expecting anything special on this flight. Much to my surprise though, there are actually three options to choose from: cold roast beef, sweet potato salad or a couscous and beetroot salad, which is what I have.

The presentation of the main dish is very nice, and the taste is good. There is also a small bun and a dessert on the tray.

The dessert is some sort of Tiramisu, and it’s sinnfully good!

To finish the meal, I have a cup of peppermint tea. Zero points for presentation though.

We land after a flight time of 35 minutes and then make the long taxi to our gate on the non-Schengen D pier.

Conclusion

Perhaps it’s because my expectations were really low, but I was rather pleasantly surprised by this flight. The crew were friendly, the seat pitch wasn’t too dreadful, and the catering was very nice. But that lounge is in dire need of some TLC.

Lufthansa Cityline, Business Class – Canadair CRJ-900: Amsterdam to Frankfurt

Introduction

I spend the day exploring the town of Utrecht, which is located south of Amsterdam and is directly accessible by train from Schiphol airport. A return first class ticket will cost you EUR33. Utrecht is a lovely town, and I certainly want to return here, but preferably not in winter, not when it’s raining and not when it’s cold.

At 13:21 I catch the intercity back to the airport. The Dutch have these rather funky looking trains…

I still have some time to kill, so I figure I might as well make a stop at Amsterdam South to visit Wagamama before returning to the airport.

By the time I get to Schiphol airport it’s 15:30. I have another three hours to kill before my flight. But given my last experience here at security on my way back from Bogotà, I figure I better plan ahead.

Check-In

Lufthansa checks in at Departures 3. From there it is quite a schlepp to the access gates for the security screening for the Schengen gates.

Apparently, there is a dedicated row for security for Business Class passengers – which is closed today. Still, it doesn’t really make a difference: the queue is moving quickly and the new scanners at Amsterdam mean you don’t have to remove anything from your bag.

The Amsterdam Star Alliance Lounge

The Star Alliance has its own lounge in the Schengen area at Amsterdam, lounge 27. Access is via stairs or lift. The lounge is located one floor up from the public airside area.

I must say, the lounge is rather nice. Of course it also helps that it’s not very busy when I visit.

The lounge has a large selection of hot and cold dishes from a buffet.

There are plenty of seating options in the lounge, including office desks if you’re trying to get some work done.

Of course, my favourite seat is by the window…

The toilets in the lounge are nice and clean. There are no showers, though.

Boarding

Boarding is expected to begin at 18:05 from gate B23. However, at some point there is a gate change and a delay for our flight. As a result, eventually boarding starts at 18:30, which is the departure time, from gate B17. There is a further hold up because the check-in system is not working properly, and the lone gate agent is having to board passenger in the system manually.

The Cabin

There are six rows of Business Class on the flight this evening. In total there are six passengers in the forward cabin.

I am seated on row two, which is the bulkhead row on the starboard side of the cabin. The leg space is good, and with so few passengers the cabin feels roomy.

The Service

There are two cabin crew working this flight. Both of them are middle aged females. They are friendly and laid back, but without being sloppy. What I always find interesting about the Germans, compared to the Swiss, is that they put a sinking intonation when they make an utterance, even if it is intended as a question. The immediate effect of that is that makes them sound as though they just really have so little of a s**t to give, when really it is just the way they talk.

While we are still on the ground, bottles of still water are handed out. Meanwhile I am growing increasingly concerned about my connection in Frankfurt, which would already have been just an hour even if we were on time.

Eventually, we take off at 19:05. With an expected flight time of 45 minutes that should bring me into Frankfurt with 15 minutes to spare before the next flight starts boarding.

The Meal

This is my first experience with the Lufthansa Taste of Heimat catering, and I am not sure what to make of it. The tray is definitely an improvement over the KLM cardboard boxes. But what is it with the Germans and their obsessive compulsion for meat?

The meal consists of a plate of some mushroom terrine, an egg and cream cheese paste and two slices of meat in an onion dressing. The meal is served with a selection of breads.

For dessert there is a piece of chocolate cake in some sort of coulis.

And to end the meal there is a small piece of chocolate, which I am guessing is SWISS rubbing off on Lufthansa.

Transfer in Frankfurt

Of course, the flight takes a little longer than 45 minutes, of course we have to land on the northern most (and remote) runway, and of course we have been assigned the remotest stand to park on. By the time the bus taking us to the terminal gets moving, it is already 20:15. My connecting flight has just started boarding, while I am stuck on a bus getting the grand tour of what must be the ugliest airport in Europe…

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.