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.

Emirates Airlines, Boeing B 777-300ER – First Class: Dubai to Zürich

Introduction

I awake early on Friday morning with a large red sore across the bridge of my nose from having had to wear a face mask for the last seven days. But the course I was in Ras Al-Khaima for is now done, and I’m ready to go home. Travelling in times of Covid 19 is tedious, cumbersome and tiring.

Getting to the airport

Ras Al-Khaima is about 80 minutes away from Dubai airport by car. Given that my departure to Zürich is just after eight in the morning and I really don’t feel like having to wake up at the crack of dawn, on Thursday afternoon I head back to Dubai to spend my last night at the Sofitel Downtown.

I’ve ordered an Emirates car to pick me up just before six in the morning; which is still early. The journey to the airport takes about twenty minutes. You can order the car yourself online in the ‘Manage my Booking’ section of the Emirates website, which is where you can also book a car to pick you up at the airport at your destination.

If you’re travelling in First Class, you get a larger and more ostentatious type of vehicle than you would in Business Class. And so, taking me to the airport this morning is a gorgeous BMW 7.

Check-in

Emirates checks in at Terminal 3, and there is a dedicated section of the terminal for Business and First Class check-in only. I wouldn’t say the place is teeming with people when I arrive, but it’s certainly a lot busier than I would have expected in the current situation.

There is no queue for the First Class check-in counters and I’m surprised by just how many counters are actually open. The check-in agent makes quick work of my suitcase and then I head for security and immigration.

The e-gates are available for passengers leaving the country. To use them you have to register your passport when you arrive in the country.

Emirates temporary First Class lounge

The lounges are located one floor up from the public airside area. The standard Emirates First Class lounge is temporarily closed to passengers, however. Instead, one half of the Business Class lounge has been sectioned off and converted into the First Class lounge.

The main feature of the lounge is the dining area. In accordance with the current situation, there is no buffet and passengers are served at their table. The menu is available online via QR code. There are some passengers in the lounge, but I wouldn’t say it is crowded.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight starts at 07h45. I arrive at the gate a few minutes later and the flight is already in the final stages of boarding. I ask the gate attendant and she confirms that while the load in Business Class is looking quite okay, in Economy it’s rather light. In First Class there are three passengers.

The cabin and seat

I’ve never really liked the look of the Emirates First Class cabin and seat. Generally speaking, I find the fake wood and fake gold trimmings a bit tacky. And the grey leather covers are about as bland and boring as Lufthansa.

But the seat is very comfortable and offers a lot of privacy and space.

I think what impresses me most about the seat, is the amount of thought that has obviously gone into the design to create a private space for the passenger that is functional, practical and very comfortable.

The minibar in the side panel of the seat has a standard stock of drinks. However, the crew are happy to change the contents of the minibar to suit your requirements.

Every passenger also gets a bowl of snacks, which are replenished throughout the flight.

There’s also a travel hygene kit at my seat. It contains two face masks, two pairs of plastic gloves and disinfectant.

On the shorter day time flights Emirates does not offer a vanity kit nor pjs. But they do offer cosmetics at the seat, and toothbrushes and toothpaste are available in the lavatory.

There’s also a drawer with a writing pen and a small notebook. The pen is rather useless though, and doesn’t write very well.

There is ample storage space for personal items in the seat.

Before we push back, the crew pass through the cabin handing out forms that need to be completed on arrival into Switzerland.

Next, they pass through the cabin for the traditional coffee and dates welcome, with every date packaged in plastic individually.

We take off in a southeasterly direction and then make a right hand turn to point us in the general direction of Europe. The SID takes us right over Sheikh Zayed Road and the fabulous Burj Khalifa.

A la carte service

The service is à la carte and passengers can order any time they like. I already had breakfast in the lounge, and so I decide to have a nap first.

Apéritif

Around three hours out of Zürich I order lunch. The menu is quite extensive and offers a good selection of breakfast items, starters, main courses and desserts. I start with a bowl of warm mixed nuts, a glass of sparkling water and a glass of the Dom Perignon 2008.

The first course

Next, the table is set for the meal. This is one area where I think Emirates could improve. The whole meal service, like the seat, it functional and on point but not really very elegant – be it in the design of the tableware or the presentation of the food on the plate.

Before the crew start serving the food, they ask me if I would prefer the dishes to be served with the covers still on and remove them myself or if I would rather have them removed.

The breads in the breadbasket come individually wrapped in plastic that can be heated in the oven. They’re not really good though, because the steam cannot escape properly and as a result, the bread turns soggy fairly quickly.

For the starter I go with the cold-smoked ocean trout, served with pickled potatos, capers and crème fraîche. It’s a lovely piece of trout, but the presentation is a bit of a mess.

The salad

The salad is very nice. There is the option to add some grilled beef or shrimps and it is served either with a French dressing or olive oil and Balsamico.

The main course

For the main course, I go with the prawns in a shellfish sauce, served with wild rice with lemon zest and cardamom. This is a flavourful dish, and the rice complements the prawns nicely. The cardamom and lemon zest really make the dish and add an exotic twist to it.

Dessert

To end the meal, I ask for the chocolate fondant and some mint tea. The dessert is a bit of a let down though. The centre of it is still not quite melted and the outer texture is rubbery. It’s hard to say if the dish was just not properly heated in the oven or if it just isn’t a good recipe.

The meal concludes with a small box of Emirati pralines.

The meal service is nicely paced. There are no long waits in between the individual courses, but the whole service is still unrushed. I guess it probably helps that there are only three passengers in the cabin on today’s flight.

Arrival

Thirty minutes out of Zürich our Spanish captain comes on the loudspeaker to inform us that we have reached the top of descent have have another half hour to run to Zürich. The temperature is minus 2 and they’re expecting it to have just finished snowing by the time we land. From above it certainly looks pretty outside.

We touch down on runway 16, which is quite unusual. I’m not sure if this is due to the snow (perhaps runway 14, which is normally in use for landings, has not been cleared) or if it was specifically requested by crew because it allows for a much shorter taxi time to the gate.

The E concourse, which is normally used for the non-Schengen flights, is currently in hibernation and all flights now depart from the D concourse on the B pier. This also means that there is currently no lounge available for Emirates passengers, as this is also located on the E concourse.

Immigration is swift. The e-gates are currently only available for citizens of Switzerland and Lichtenstein, though.

There’s a bit of a hold up with the luggage, and eventually we end up waiting for forty minutes before the first bags appear on the belt. I exit through customs and turn right, as instructed by the Emirates ground crew, in search of my driver.

Getting home

The chauffeur service is very well organised. In Zürich, Emirates works with a company called Blacklane. After I booked the service on the Emirates website, I received a mail from Blacklane directly, confirming the reservation. If you download their app and log in using the mail address and name used in the Emirates PNR, you can see the reservation with the contact details of the driver.

My driver today is a friendly young lady. She is quite petite and looks oddly out of place behind the steering of the enormous Mercedez. But she does a brilliant job and tells me not to worry about the copious amounts of snow everywhere. The drive back to Basel takes us a bit less than an hour and is very comfortable.

Conclusion

This has been an interesting trip for me. On the one hand, it made me realise just how much I’ve missed travelling. On my way from Dubai to Ras Al-Khaima we came across a group of camels standing in the middle of the road. I found the sight quite moving. Not necessarily because I’m particularly fond of camels, but because the experience perfectly captured what I enjoy about travel – the opportunity of doing and and seeing things you normally wouldn’t be able to. Having said that though, I can’t really say I enjoyed the trip – because with Covid 19 the outside world has become a hostile place to me.

KLM Cityhopper, Embraer 190 – Economy Class: Amsterdam to Basel

Introduction

I spend two whole days in the Netherlands. And I must say, the change of scenery did me good. Back home the monotony of working from home seems to make my days just fly by. Which isn’t bad either, but it leaves you with a sense of everything being rushed, even when it’s not.

In Amsterdam I stayed at the CitizenM South, which I think is in a great location. It’s close to the the railway and metro station at Amsterdam Zuid and the tram line number 5, which takes you all the way into the city centre, stops just outside the hotel.

The staff at the hotel were really great, and did a brilliant job of trying to put visitors at ease and make them feel comfortable. Occupancy was only at 10%.

Amsterdam was very quiet and subdued. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it looking so calm and deserted. Of course, it probably didn’t help that the weather was atrocious during my visit…

Getting to the Airport

Trains between Amsterdam Zuid and Schiphol airport run frequently. The journey takes six minutes. The use of face masks is mandatory on public transport in the Netherlands right now.

The central plaza at Schiphol airport is very quiet. The place is usually crawling with clueless tourists trying to figure out how to purchase a ticket and which train to take. But not any more.

Only very few shops are open. It’s difficult to say though, if the closed ones are just opening later because of the reduced number of visitors to the airport, or if they are closed indefinitely.

Check-in

Check-in is surprisingly busy. The queue for security is quite long, and there is no longer a dedicated lane for SkyPriority passengers. Although I’m not sure if this may be due to the obvious construction that is going on.

I think the security check experience at Amsterdam really highlights the catch 22 the airlines and airports are facing right now: I would say most people in the queue were wearing face masks, but otherwise ignored the round markings on the floor indicating a distance of 1.5 metres. And in a way, I don’t blame them. Most of them looked like holiday makers that were probably relieved to finally get out and about and excited to travel again.

But that’s not the point and not so important. Ultimately, everyone must choose for themself if they want to play their part in bringing the situation under control or not. But Amsterdam, like many other hubs in Frankfurt, London or Paris, was built soley for the one purpose of operating a high performance hub, with many flights feeding a lot of passenger into their long haul networks. But right now, that seems rather difficult to reconcile with social distancing measures. First, because the airlines are all operating on a reduced schedule. This means that layovers at the transfer airports tend to be quite a bit longer than usual – which is precicely what the authorities are trying to prevent: a lot of people in a confined space for any length of time. And second, because Amsterdam Schiphol is probably already too small if the authorities were serious about properly implementing all the recommended social distanting measures – despite the diminshed network and the lower passenger volumes. As long as passenger numbers are down, the issue is manageable. But at airports arond the globe, the moment will come where the crowds will be too big to be kept under control.

The KLM Crown Lounge

The Crown lounge is open. It’s changed a lot since my last visit. The back part, which used to overlook the check-in area, is gone. Instead, the lounge has expanded sideways and now also covers an area which, I believe, was previously occupied by the Swissport lounge.

There is no longer a buffet in the lounge, and instead passengers have to queue at the bar to place their orders with one of the lounge attendants. Within the lounge, most people keep their masks on, perhaps only removing them to have a drink. As far as I can tell, there is hardly and food on offer.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight is from B02, which is a bus gate. Passengers are more or less evenly distributed across the two busses. The load is roughly 70 passengers.

The gate agents are very meticulous and stop anybody who tries to pass the gate without a mask. There’s a school class of mainly hormonal teenage boys. So as you can imagine, the gate agents have their work cut out before the last bus is finally allowed to leave for the aircraft…

The Cabin

There are two rows of Business Class, but only two seats on row 1 are occupied. I am on 3F, the first Economy Plus row. The whole row behind me is empty and there’s only one other passenger on 3A. So we’re good.

There’s a bit of a delay because of a technical issue that needs looking into, and for a moment I dread that next the pilot will have to inform us that we’ve missed out slots But then I chuckle to myself as it dawns on me that, very likely, it’ll be a few years before Amsterdam is restricted for slots again…

Eventually, we taxi out with a delay of about 15 minutes. As we turn on to the runway, I catch a glimpe of the new A pier, which is gradually nearing completion. Although I think it will still be a while before it is in it’s final configuration. Right now, there is still a categing facility between the A and the B pier, which will have to go sooner or later.

The Meal

The service is more or less the same as on the outbound: a small box with a cheese sandwich, a cookie and a tub of water. In addition, the crew distribute an information sheet by the Swiss federal government as well as a contact form for every passenger to complete in case anybody on the flight develops symptoms later on. The forms are collected by the ground agent upon disembarking.

Arrival

The flight time is one hour, most of which I Spend looking out the window. I’ve missed the view from the wing so, so much…

The weather in Basel is much better than in Amsterdam. We make our approach from the south, which means we come in right over the swimming pool where I usually do my laps. Which is convenient, because the place looks deserted from above. So I guess that answers what I’ll be doing this afternoon…

We land, and literally ten minutes later I’m already sitting in the bus on my way home.

Conclusion

So, this brings to a close my report on the new normal of air travel. I think it is likely that it will be at least another five to six years before the airline industry fully makes a recovery. Until then, I fear a lot of jobs will be lost and many airlines will pass on into history as yet another casualty of the pandemic. Especially the coming winter will not be easy.

For the airlines that survive though, I think it is important right now that they work on their reputation management. For the time being, people may not be travelling because of the uncertainties of travelling abroad. But sooner or later, the restrictions will ease. When that happens, it would serve the airlines well to have regained the trust and confidence of their customers, many of which have been rather badly treated by the airlines in recent months.

I appreciate that refunding all the unsued tickets all at once would probably have more or less grounded all airlines within days. Fair enough. But this voucher business the airlines are currently offering instead of a proper refund is, for the most part, a scam. Treating your customers badly has never been a good idea. Treating them like idiots only adds insult to injury.

Singapore Airlines, Business Class – Boeing B 777-200: Bandar Seri Begawan to Singapore

This is a previously unpublished post from 2013

Introduction

I have not idea what it was like for others of course, but many moons ago, for me as a student studying linguistics, I often wondered if I’d made the right choice. I used to worry I wouldn’t be able to find a job once I graduated or that I’d end up doing something I didn’t really enjoy for a loss of anything better to do.

Fortunately, with a lot of luck and a bit of help, things worked out. But little did I imagine back in those days what my life would be after I graduated. Today I consider myself very fortunate in that my work is something I really enjoy. My work has also allowed me to travel the world and meet so many fascinating people.

Looking back, there are a few moments that have stuck in my memory. Mainly, because I recall thinking to myself at the time: ‘How on earth to you end up here…?’. For example, the first time I gave a speech in the great assembly hall at ICAO HQ in Montreal. I wasn’t too phased by the audience of about 300 delegates watching. But I must confess, as a life long aviation geek it just gave me such a thrill knowing that the front of the podium I was standing behind was emblazoned with the ICAO logo.

Another such ‘how on earth’ moment was the trip I made in 2013 to Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei to attend a conference on the implementation of the ICAO language proficiency requirements. My colleague the flying Dutchman eventually ended up on the evening news and I made into the daily papers. In particular, I remember sitting next to an Indonesian captain at lunch, who was capable of flawlessly saying ‘Ja, ich han gärn Rösti’ – a phrase he picked up during his training at Swissair for his type rating on the MD-11. The phrase means ‘yes, I like Rösti’. He also had a few swear words and obscentities he could do in Swiss German, which certainly kept me entertained through lunch. But let’s not go there.

Another thing I remember about Brunei is that apart from being vey friendly, most of the locals I met were, in some form or other, related to the Sultan. Wherever I went, I was introduced to people who would mention, by way of greeting, that ‘yeah, he is my cousin…’.

And so it goes without saying that the Sultan even features in my departure from Bunei on my way back home to Switzerland via Singapore.

At the Airport

My flight to Singapore is scheduled to depart in the late afternoon, to connect to the night time service to Zürich. Brunei airport is a decently sized facility. It’s also very quiet.

The Lounge

The Business Class lounge is located on the first floor of an odd structure that looks as though it had been haphazardly plonked in the middle of the airside lounge area as an afterthought. For all I know, quite possibly that’s actually true.

The facilities at the lounge are fairly basic, but it has a good internet connection and the seating options are comfortable enough. Generally speaking, my one complaint about the whole terminal building is that views of the outside are very difficult and generally obstructed in one form or other.

Eventually, I see my aircraft from Singapore gliding down to land between the shutters. The aircraft slows to taxi speed, turns right off the runway and onto the taxiway – and then stops. The engines are turned off and a set of stairs is brought to the L1 door of the aircraft. Next, a red carpet is rolled out from the bottom step. Around the same time, a long line of about twelve black limousines line up, parallel to the aircraft.

One or two persons at a time emerge from the aircraft, walk down the stairs and into the first waiting limousine. The car drives off, and another two persons emerge and do the same thing. Until eventually, the last car leaves. The stairs are removed with the red carpet, the aircraft is hooked to a tug and subsequently towed to the gate. By this time the return flight’s departure time is just coming up.

Boarding

Eventually, boarding starts with quite a delay. I have a long layover in Singapore, so I’m not all that bothered. But some of the other passengers are looking decidely concerned about their connection in Singapore.

The Crew

The crew are in a mad rush to get passengers settled as quickly as possible. But that is no reason for the fabulous Singapore girls to forget their manners. Once boarding is completed, the lead flight attendant in the red Kebaya comes through the cabin to welcome every passenger on board individually and apologize for the delay. When she reaches my seat, I ask her what the black limousines were all about. She explains to me that apparently, his royal highness was on a state visit with his entourage but his aircraft went tech. As a result, the poor man had no other option but to suffer the inconvenience of booking the whole of the First and Business Class section for his return trip on a ‘commercial’ airline. I find that kind of ironic though, because the Sultan has a current type rating for the B747, an A 340 and a Gulfstream that he owns…

The Meal

Once we’re airborne, the service begins with welcome drinks. I have a glass of apple juice, which is served with a packet of mixed nuts.

The First Course

For the first course, there is a small bowl of salmon sashimi served with a bit of salad and pickles.

The Main Course

For the main course, I have the Nasi Uduk with fish. It’s basically a plate of steamed coconut rice that is served with pieces of fried fish, a boiled egg and some dried fish and peanuts for condiments. It’s very tasty. And the size of the portion is decent too!

Dessert

For dessert I have a chocolate brownie with vanilla sauce, which makes a change from those dreadful creams many other airlines offer and that are so generic and usually not very tasty either…

Arrival

Eventually we land in Singapore with quite a delay. Which suits me well, because it shortens the time of my layover in Singapore.

Malaysia Airlines, Business Class – Boeing B 737-800: Langkawi to Kuala Lumpur

This is a previously unpublished post from 2011.

Introduction

After four days in Langkawi, I make a move to return home. The first leg will see my flying to KL and then connecting to another flight to Bangkok the same day.

Getting to the Airport

I’m not sure there actually is any reliable public transport in Langkawi, which is why I decide to avail myself of the hotel shuttle to take me to the airport.

Check-in

At the airport there are dedicated counters for Malaysia Airlines and there is one counter for Business Class passengers. Passengers need to go through security screening before accessing the check-in area.

Airside

There is no Business Class lounge at the airport, but instead they have something much, much better: from the public gate area you have excellent views of the ramp. Aircraft tend to park nose in, which means it’s just perfect for people like me to geek out while they await their boarding call.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight starts rather abruptly without any calls being made.

The Cabin

This aircraft has yet a different cabin interior from the ones of the two previous flights. Apart from the fact that it’s a more modern seat, the covers are in violet (!) leather and the bulkhead is in some bamboo inspired pattern.

There is no service on the ground. I think there simply isn’t enough time for that, given that the taxi time is very short.

The Meal

The snack is pretty much the same concept as that on the outbound flight. Except that this time, one canapé is with camembert and fruit and the other is with smoked salmon, an olive and a pickle.

Once more, the dessert is an undefinable but very tasty sweet thing in a rather unappealing shade of green.

Arrival

There’s a bit of a hold up for us to start our descent into KL due to the presence of thunder storms in the area. On the row behind me is an Arab woman with her teenage son.

As soon as the pilot announces that we can start our approach soon, I hear somebody behind my spray and spraying and spraying. And just a short while later a horribly heavy scent starts wafting through the cabin. It’s so bad I have to stink my fingers up my nose and breathe through my mouth. It’s probably a very expensive scent, but it’s just way too strong. One of the cabin crew, who is already sitting on the jump seat, sees me and gives me a questioning look. To which I can only motion that somebody behind me just sprayed themselves. She covers her mouth and tries not to laugh. By the time we land I have a serious head ache…