Air Malta, Business Class – Airbus A 320: Malta to Zürich

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INTRODUCTION
June is probably one of the best months to visit the Maltese archipelago. The weather is already reliably and consistently warm but without the oppressive and stifling heat of July and August, when temperatures peak in the upper thirties and have even been known to exceed the forties. In contrast, the sea is already warm enough to swim in, while the beaches are still far form being too crowded.

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In Malta even the cats are crazy…
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As luck would have it, it was decided that this year’s user group meeting and a workshop on language test item development would be held in Malta in June. All in all, the meeting went well. Encouraged by the lovely weather on the island, the course participants were very efficient and disciplined in their work – obviously keen to finish on time every day so they would still have enough time to explore the sights and sounds of Malta.

And I even managed to squeeze in a visit to the beach at Mellieha bay, thanks to the meeting ending early and the stupendous driving skills of the valiant M., who joined me on this trip.

GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
The journey by car from Valletta to the airport normally takes about twenty minutes, depending on traffic. Or seven minutes if the valiant M. is driving and making an impressive effort to blend in with the natives, mainly by adapting his style of driving to that of the locals.

Alternatively, you can also take the bus for EUR1.50. The driving is still crazy but at least the busses are slower, making the journey in roughly thirty minutes. The busses are fairly frequent and the service is quite reliable these days. Busses depart from the terminus right outside the city gate in Valletta.

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CHECK-IN
There is one dedicated check-in counter for Club Class passengers and check-in is possible up to 23 hours before departure. The young lady working the desk is unusually efficient. She issues my boarding pass, tags my luggage for priority and hands me an invitation to the La Valette lounge, which is the only lounge at Malta airport.

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The terminal is currently undergoing expansion to cope with the increased number of additional passengers. As a result, there’s a bit of a detour right now for security. But at least the detour is clearly signposted (Are you reading this Vienna airport?).

There is a dedicated queue for premium passengers. Once I’m airside, I head for the lounge.

THE LOUNGE
The La Valette lounge was recently relocated. To access the lounge you have to walk through the duty free store, past the cashiers and then take a sharp left. You should then end up standing in from of a lift that will take you up to the lounge’s entrance on the third floor.

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The lounge is very nicely designed and there is even a fairly large open air seating area in the lounge. Although with the sweltering heat I’m not sure who in his right mind would want to sit outside. The place is also much bigger than the previous lounge.

The food offerings are good and include a wide range of local snacks. Most importantly though, the lounge has an excellent view of the apron.

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BOARDING
Boarding is via a bus. Our flight today is operated by a fairly new addition to the Air Malta fleet which only joined the airline in April of 2017. The aircraft is wearing hybrid colours of sorts, with a white hull and red engine cowlings. The only marking I can see is a small ‘Air Malta’ sticker next to the L1 door. Interestingly, unlike the other aircraft in the Air Malta fleet, which all have CFM56 engines, this specimen is equipped with the V2500.

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THE CABIN
The cabin of this aircraft is nearly identical with the rest of the Air Malta fleet. But not entirely. The seats and carpets are the same but the bulkhead looks different and also provides more leg space. And there is no cabin divider to separate the Club Class and Economy Class cabins. This turns out to be rather irritating immediately after take-off, when seemingly half the aircraft a) decide now would be a good time to go to the loo and b) fail to realise that there are in fact two perfectly functional loos in the rear of the aircraft.

SERVICE
There are four females on this aircraft and they really are excellent. Especially the purser Joyce is very charming and personable. They take their time to chat with the passengers during the service and they’re very proactive in their service delivery – for example offering to bring down my backpack from the overhead lockers after take-off without me even asking.

I’m also quite surprised that they make their announcements in Maltese, English and in German.

The service on the ground starts with the distribution of newspapers and either juice or water for a welcome drink. The hot towels they used to provide appear to have fallen by the wayside. Instead, there is a pre-packed scented cold towel on the tray with the food.

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Mellieha Bay
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THE MEAL
The meal service starts with a drinks round. Of course I have a Kinnie with ice and lemon.

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The meal service hasn’t changed much since my last trip with Air Malta. Only the menu is different. The main course consists of a plate of roast beef with crumbled Gorgonzola and a skewer of tomato and mozzarella on a creamy mustard seed dressing. There is a dish with three different types and cheese and also a profiterole filled with some sort of nutty cream. There are also two warm buns with butter on the tray and during the meal service the crew come by twice offering more bread and butter.

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The meal is good and hits the spot nicely, although on a flight of over two hours I think a hot meal would not be too much to ask.

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I have two cups of coffee at the end of the meal. But even so, I’m so exhausted that I doze off immediately once the tray is removed and I don’t wake up until the aircraft rolls onto stand and comes to a halt at the gate.

CONCLUSION
We land in Zürich with a delay of roughly thirty minutes, which was caused by a problem starting up the engines when we were still in Malta and that needed to be looked at by Air Malta’s ground engineers. But apart from that, this was a really nice flight and even the valiant M. is feeling generous and willing to give Air Malta ten out of ten for the on board experience!

As the financial problems at Air Malta continue, the carrier’s future hangs in the balance. The government has announced that in two weeks time a new strategic plan will be presented to the unions for review. Air Malta is a nice little airline and I think it would be a shame to see them go. But to be honest, I won’t hold my breath for their new strategy if it is driven by the government, when in fact Air Malta’s biggest problem has always been the government’s persistent and incessant interference.

– William

10 Strait Street, Valletta

In Malta I usually stay at the Phoenicia. This time however, I had to make different arrangements because the hotel is currently under renovation, refurbishment and expansion. Of course there are plenty of hotels in Malta, but I wanted to stay in Valletta. First of all, because there are plenty of things to do and see in Valletta and there are many good restaurants. And secondly, because it is fairly easy to access any place on the island by bus from Valletta.

And so I stumbled upon 10 Strait Street via Air BnB. I was in flat 1, which is fairly large, and with two bedrooms each with a double bed. The location of 10 Strait Street could hardly be any better. Strada Stretta, as Strait Street used to be called, has a long history and is located just a stone’s throw away from all the interesting sights like the Upper Barrakka Gardens and St. John’s co-cathedral.

Especially if you are planning a long stay on the Maltese islands, I think 10 Strait Street may be a viable and far more pleasant option than a hotel.

And here’s the link to the website. Bookings must be made via Air BnB though.

Air Malta, Club Class – A 319: Malta to Zürich

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GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
Means of transport:
bus
Fare: EUR1.50
Journey time: ca. 20 minutes, depending on traffic
Frequency: a mystery – the bus lines X4, X5 and X7 all run via different routes from Valletta to the airport

The development of Maltese public transport over the last few years is a bit of a saga. If, like me, you only visit the island occasionally and only catch a glimpse of what’s going on in the news, then it all seems like rather an entertaining comedy. If however, you live in Malta and have to deal with public transport on a daily basis, then it’s probably more like a tragedy.

Up until 2011 Malta operated a fleet of ancient buses. The buses were privately owned and operated on behalf of what was then the Malta Transport Authority. Back then, every town and village had its own dedicated bus line with a direct service to Valletta. The service was highly unreliable to say the least, the buses had no air conditioning and, more often than not, didn’t even have doors either. The fare was something of a gamble. Of course the service was dirt cheap officially, but if you looked remotely foreign you could be sure to get ripped off in a big way. There was general consent among the populace that really only the taxi drivers were more lowly than the bus drivers.

And then came Arriva. The bus service was privatised and promised to be better and faster. Suddenly the drivers wore uniforms with a shirt and tie, the buses had air conditioning and there was even something remotely resembling a schedule. At the time, knowing that as a rule the Maltese are an unruly lot, I wondered how long the new regime would last. Alas, the novelty quickly wore off.

Journey times increased because instead of taking the most direct routing to the terminus in Valletta, Arriva set up a series of hubs and interchanges around the island and merged some of the thinner routes. Then there was a series of accidents because the bendy buses proved too big for many of Malta’s narrow roads and ended up causing major damage to roads and buildings. Oh yes, and then there was also a series of buses catching fire in mid-journey, because the air conditioning couldn’t cope with the hot Maltese summer.

Eventually Arriva was kindly asked to leave Malta as quickly as possible and the service was temporarily returned into the hands and responsibility of the government. This could only go horribly wrong – and did.

And now it’s Sunday noon and I’m standing at the bus stop in Valletta, waiting for the bus driver to return from his break to take me to the airport. Apparently the previous bus that should have left ten minutes previously never showed up – not that anybody seems to notice or care. The uniforms, shirt and tie have disappeared and the driver is wearing shorts and a white t-shirt. Are those flip flops he’s got on?

I walk up to him and tell him I need a ticket to the airport. I speak in Maltese, hoping that this might make him think twice about ripping me off. Much to my surprise though, the complete opposite happens and instead of overpricing, he simply explains that he can’t be bothered to switch on the ticket machine. I thank him for a loss of anything else to say. As I take a seat it dawns on me that we’re really back to square one.

CHECK-IN
Facilities:
on flights departing from Malta, Air Malta offers web check-in, mobile check-in and airport check-in
Dedicated counters: there are dedicated counters for Club Class passengers and upper tier members of Air Malta’s frequent flyer programme

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The airport is quite busy when I arrive. After all, this is the busy summer season. I walk up to the check-in desk where a young lady first greets me in English, before switching to Maltese when she sees my passport. She prints my boarding pass and issues an invitation to the La Valette Business Class lounge. The invitation also gives you access to the priority lane for the security check.

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THE LOUNGE
Type of lounge:
La Valette contractor lounge
Facilities: toilets, business centre with Apple computers and a printer/fax
Wifi: available for free, there is a password
Food: an interesting selection of Maltese foods, like ftira with tuna, bigilla dip, and hobz biz-zejt

The lounge has been extended recently. I think it looks rather good and there are a few nice touches, like the lamps made out of colourful Malta Glass. What’s more, the food selection in the lounge is really good, with an interesting range of hot and cold snacks.

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No boarding calls are made in the lounge.

THE CABIN

At 13:55 my flight shows up as ‘boarding’ so I collect my stuff and make my way to gate five, from where the flight will be leaving. Just as I exit the lounge they’re already making the final call for the flight. Either somebody’s in a hurry or the flight really is not very full. As it turns out later on, there are 108 passengers on today’s flight.

From gate five we’re bussed to the aircraft. It’s a lovely day and once we pull up next to our Airbus A 319 I let all the other passengers disembark so I can take some pictures.

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There are three rows of Club Class, with a total of twelve seats. There are four passengers seated in Club and I notice there is a blanket and pillow available for every passenger.

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SERVICE

Literally the moment I sit down a young man appears with a tray of drinks. He welcomes me on board and offers me a glass of orange juice. He vanishes into the galley and reappears a moment later with the Sunday Times of Malta. He also tells me there are Maltese language papers available as well if I’d prefer one of those instead.

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The purser on this flight is a woman in her late thirties and she’s truly quite amazing. She makes all the announcements live in Maltese, English and nearly flawless German – apart from an obvious, heavy Semitic accent. She’s also very proactive in taking care of the passengers: originally there is a gentleman sitting next to me on the aisle on 2D. As soon as boarding is completed, the purser comes along and informs us that we’re free to move around and change seats as we please. Later on, she notices one passenger reading and switches the overhead reading light on for him.

We take off in a northerly direction. As we climb out we get some good views of Malta from above. From where I’m sitting you can also see the writing on the inner side of the cowling very well.

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THE MEAL
Pre meal drink:
yes
Type of service: individual tray service
Menu: no menus are provided
Choice: there is no choice available
Meal:

  1. a plate of cheese (Red Leicester, Gorgonzola and a goat’s cheese) with dried apricot, prune, grape and cucumber
  2. Cold breast of chicken in breadcrumbs with Salade Niçoise
  3. Two buns
  4. Strawberry mouse with chocolate flakes

Once the seatbelt sign is turned off, the purser comes through the cabin taking orders for the pre meal drinks. Of course I ask for a Kinnie, which is brought to me with a slice of lemon in it.

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Before the meal scented hot towels are distributed.

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The trays are served individually and I’m delighted to see it’s a different meal to the one I had on the outbound. The service remains attentive, with the crew regularly checking up on us to make sure the passengers have everything they need.

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A cup of coffee rounds off the meal, my tray is removed and I doze off. When I wake up again we’ve already crossed the Alps and we’re descending towards Zürich.

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ARRIVAL

Not bad at all. At 16:41 the main landing gear makes contact with runway 16 and the thrust reversers open to slow us down. Eventually we come to a stop at the very last gate at the far end of the A dock. At 17:00 I’m already sitting on the train to Basel, with four minutes to go before we start. Tragically, I’ll be back at Zürich Airport in about eighteen hours.

Valletta – Malta

Valletta

At ten o’clock in the morning the office workers, bureaucrats, politicians, shoppers and large tour groups congregate at Café Cordina’s in Valletta for a mid-morning cappuccino and pastizzi.

The service at Cordina’s is notoriously slow and notoriously indifferent. The bad service lends the place a certain distinction. And then there’s also the pigeons. Perhaps I ought to warn you. If you don’t like birds, you may want to keep away. Inevitably, with such a large seating area outside the actual café in the square in front of the library, Cordina’s is usually crawling – literally – with disease-infested, scrawny-looking pigeons. It’s quite alright as long as they’re just scavenging for food between your feet or under your chair. But the buggers have become so accustomed to human beings that they’re quite fearless and have no qualms at all about getting on the table and picking at the food on your plate.

But despite all of this, there must be only few places on this planet that provide such an excellent vantage point for heavy duty people watching. To sit there under the stern and watchful eyes of the Queen Victoria statue, watching the world go by, is quite simply priceless. They really do come in all shapes and sizes and all of them file past Cordina’s at some point.

My favourite ones to watch are the droves of young people on a guided tour of Valletta, organised by the many English language schools in Malta. To be honest, I very much doubt if any of the young ones really come to Malta to improve their English. I certainly wouldn’t. Most of them, I suspect, see it as a convenient way of letting their parents down gently, by going off to Malta for some fun in the sun under the pretence of wanting to enhance their academic potential to the fullest. At least that’s the impression they give you as you watch them shuffling past. The tour guide up front stops at regular intervals to explain this and point out that while in the back, the young ones are obviously more interested in surreptitiously ogling the members of the opposite sex in their group instead of hearing about Napoleon’s ignominious visit to the Maltese islands.

Personally, I think the best time to visit Valletta is in the late afternoon, preferably after five o’clock, by which time the large tour groups from the cruise ships ‘doing’ the Med have scurried aboard again and the language school students are sprawled on some beach recuperating from the morning’s culture onslaught while their hormones run riot.

But I digress. Valletta in the evening is a much nicer, quieter and more authentic experience. In the afternoons Valletta belongs to the Maltese again. The pace of the city becomes much slower, more laidback.

Valletta is not pretty in the traditional picture postcard, ideal for tourists kind of way. The city is old and traces its history to the sixteenth century, when the previous settlement was fortified  to be prepared for another attack by the Ottoman empire – an attack which never came.

Valletta is not only old, in some places it’s quite simply grubby and dilapidated – which makes it kind of hard to explain wherein the attraction lies. I don’t think I could say.

This is what used to be known as Kingsway. But that changed and when the Brits left and Malta became independent it was renamed to Republic Street. Even so, in Maltese it is still referred to as Strada Rjali – Kingsway.

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If you’re feeling hungry and want something sweet, I can highly recommend Camilleri’s on Merchant Street. They have a huge selection of freshly made Maltese pastries, like kannoli. A kannol is a piece of pastry rolled up and filled with sweet ricotta cheese. The one you can see here is with a rich chocolate cream which – while perhaps not quite so traditional – is still very tasty.

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Have you ever wondered how the models they use for those wonder bra adverts are in real life probably the most unlikely persons ever to need a wonder bra to enhance?

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For the best views of the Grand Harbour and the three cities across the water head for the Upper Baraka Gardens. Don’t let the smell of horse piss by the gates put you off. The gardens are very nice inside and the view is spectacular.

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