Monday, May 30, 2011

The Royal Tour Part 2 - Zurich to Edinburgh via Frankfurt. Business on Lufthansa

After 24 hours of travel I had arrived at Zurich airport, and it was a new experience for me! First things first though, time for a shower in the Swiss lounge! On my way to the lounge I spotted this Austrian Airlines A320 in special retrojet livery:


Always nice to spot special schemes, particularly ones that you would never see at your home airport. Anyway after taking a quick snap it was off to the Swiss lounge. I walked in and was given a key from the front desk for one of the shower rooms. Once you are done you hang a sign on the handle indicating that the room was used and needed cleaning and then return your key to the desk. Not very convenient since it's a bit of a walk from the desk to the bathrooms!


Swiss lounge Zurich - Shower Room
The shower room was basic but had everything needed and I left feeling somewhat human again. It was still early morning and there was not a lot on offer in the lounge other than fruit, croissants and biscuits. I sat down and had a cup of coffee, I was still full from breakfast on the inbound flight so I passed on the food.

Swiss Lounge
For smokers there is a bar area seen on the far left of the photo above. In this area people are free to smoke, quite unusual to me as you would never see this in Australia - but I guess smoking is still fashionable in Switzerland? There is NO free internet in the lounge, you must pay if you want to use wifi. Very poor and i soon got bored and went for a wander around.

Nice bar/restaurant at Zurich Airport

Star Alliance dominating at Zurich - Swiss and Austrian tails

Helvetic Fokker 100 pushes back - long haul terminal in the background

Swiss Avro RJ100 - Cute! I want to fly on one, my last time was in the late 1990s with Ansett Australia

Another RETROJET! This one belonging to Finnair Czech A320 in background
Airbus and Star alliance absolutely dominate Zurich Airport with Swiss not operating any Boeings in its fleet and A320's the short haul aircraft of choice for most european carriers. For me though, it was a now 'classic' Boeing 737-300 for my next leg to Frankfurt. Lufthansa still operates a very large fleet of these now aging 737s. According to airfleets.net they still have 63 of them, a mix of -300 series and -500 series. Having never flown on a -500 before it would be nice to cross it off the list, but today I would be on a -300. With 35 minutes before departure the inbound aircraft from Frankfurt landed and parked:






ZURICH TO FRANKFURT

AIRLINE: Lufthansa
FLIGHT: LH1187

AIRCRAFT: Boeing 737-300 (D-ABEE)

SCHEDULED TO DEPART: 10.10
ACTUAL DEPARTURE: 10.07

SCHEDULED TO ARRIVE: 11.15
ACTUAL ARRIVAL: 11.10 (5 minutes early)

SEAT: 3F (Business)
LOAD FACTOR:  Economy - 70%, Business - 50% (approximates)

At about 09.50 Lufthansa flight 1187 was called for boarding. There was a massive rush to the gate and economy class and non status passengers were supposed to form a queue on the right, and those in business or with elite status on the left. This didn't really work well or was not understood by many passengers so quite a long queue formed in both lanes. I didn't mind waiting though. Soon enough I was on board D-ABEE, a  Boeing 737-300 delivered new to Lufthansa in 1991. It was just shy of its 20th birthday!


D-ABEE shortly before boarding, Swiss A320 passing behind

I knew business class on most European carriers was nothing special. In fact it features the same economy class seating (perhaps with slightly more leg room) but with the added comfort of a middle seat block. Some airlines also have a fold down drinks tray in the middle seat too. On this aircraft we had exactly that. The advantage to this configuration is the ability to quickly convert business class seats to economy class at short notice... the disadvantage is obvious, it is not exactly the most comfortable way to travel! At least you get a better meal and drink service.


Seat 3F - notice the slightly increased seat width with the movable armrest and pull down drinks tray in middle seat

Leg Room

The overhead controls looking very old fashioned now!
Boarding was over pretty quickly and we were underway. If you are flying LH anytime soon, do not expect much from them in european business class. There was no welcome on board, no welcome drink and virtually no acknowledgement from the flight attendant whatsoever. I was impressed however with the captains style of taxi'ing... he absolutely powered down the taxi way at high speed barely slowing for corners and we entered the runway at half power and as soon as we lined up moved up to takeoff power. The whole taxi from gate to runway was about 90 seconds. This style of high speed agressive taxi'ing continued on the ground in Frankfurt too. They don't waste time on the ground at Lufthansa!

Takeoff from Zurich
Flying time was announced as a very short 45 minutes on this beautiful Swiss morning. The weather was stunning and the scenery beautiful. I didn't know what to expect on a short mid morning flight like this but I was pleasantly surprised when this light meal was placed in front of me:



Just a plastic throwaway tray but the presentation wasn't too bad and it was quite a tasty little meal really. After the food was delivered drinks were on offer and I took a coke. By the time I was finishing my meal we were already well and truly on descent into Frankfurt.

The crew were cheerful enough during service and did offer me a refill on my coke, so that was good. We flew past the airport (as seen in pic to the left) and made a couple of right turns before a smooth touchdown. Another high speed taxi to a remote parking spot and we were soon on the bus and off to the terminal.

Disembarking LH1187 and onto the bus - remote parking stand at Frankfurt
I had less than one hour to connect in Frankfurt so I only managed a very brief visit to one of the Lufthansa lounges near to my gate. Along the way I passed through passport control as I was leaving the SCHENGEN area and heading to the UK.

LH Business Lounge - Frankfurt (one of many!)

Apricot Cheesecake and Apple Juice in the Lounge
After a quick snack I packed up and headed over to the gate. As I arrived boarding was already well under way with one bus load of passengers already on the way to the aircraft which was again parked at a remote stand. There was some kind of standoff at the gate between a passenger and the gate agent with the passenger accusing the staff member of calling him stupid. I'm not sure exactly what happened but there was a bit of swearing going on from BOTH sides. The staff member was actually quite unprofessional and retaliated instead of trying to remain calm. It did seem to end pretty quickly though and the passenger was allowed on board.

On the bus to the next flight

FRANKFURT TO EDINBURGH

AIRLINE: Lufthansa
FLIGHT: LH962

AIRCRAFT: Boeing 737-300 (D-ABEO)

SCHEDULED TO DEPART: 12.10
ACTUAL DEPARTURE: 12.07

SCHEDULED TO ARRIVE: 13.05
ACTUAL ARRIVAL: 13.02 (3 minutes early)

SEAT: 4F (Business)

LOAD FACTOR: Economy - 90%, Business - 70% (approximates)


D-ABEO Boeing 737-300 operating my flight to Edinburgh
After a long bus ride past many larger aircraft including a couple of Lufthansa A380s we arrived beside Lufthansa Boeing 737-300 D-ABEO. This aircraft was slightly younger than the previous flight at 19 years old. It did have one big difference though - it had been refitted with Lufthansa extreme slimline seating. You can see just thow thin it is in the photo below... is this a plane or a suburban train??


They actually call this BUSINESS CLASS. The leg room is better than on the old style seats but come on, how do they get away with this as business class? I know I'm not used to European airlines but this is pathetic. Take me back to asia where we whinge when we don't get a lie flat bed on regional flights! This newer style seating doesnt even include the centre seat drinks tray, instead the centre seat head rest just says 'your space'.


Despite how uncomfortable these seats look they aren't completely awful to sit in. They don't feel like they are short of padding but  I would not want to be sitting in them for much more than about 2 hours. We were the last bus to arrive so once we were on we pushed back and made another high speed taxi to the runway, although this particular Captain was slightly less aggressive than the previous one!

Taxi to the Runway

On our way!
This flight was slightly longer than the previous one and it was a lunch service. There were no choices and it was a basic cold meal but it was pretty tasty.  The main was a turkey salad and the dessert was a mascarpone with fruit sauce and macadamia cookie. The dessert was actually delicious and I would have liked several more!


Menu
Once the meals were distributed the crew came around offering a drinks service. I had the sparkling wine (not a Champagne), and it was drinkable. The crew were actually quite attentive in offering me top ups on the wine and I had to politely decline a 4th glass as I was picking up a rental car on arrival!



Drinks Cart
During the flight we flew over Cologne and Amsterdam airports before leaving the European mainland and crossing over to the UK. Weather was looking quite cloudy and we made our descent through several cloud layers before popping out over a very green looking Scotland. After 31 hours travel the Lufthansa crew made a smooth landing and I was here!

About to turn finals

The Lufthansa 737 parked at the gate - Edinburgh

I bid the crew farewell and made my way down the jetway following a BMI ground crew staff member as she opened various doors leading us down the passageway to international arrivals and immigration. There was only ONE officer processing non-EU passports and it was about a 30 minute wait by the time I got there. I wasn't too impressed but what can you do?? 

Eventually I cleared immigration grabbed my bags and made my way over to Avis to pick up the car! There was just 4 more sleeps until the Royal Wedding of the century! But before that, there is so many palaces and castles to explore!! Next up is my Scottish visit... stay tuned


Monday, May 23, 2011

The Royal Tour Part 1 - Melbourne to Zurich via Bangkok. Business on Thai

INTRODUCTION


Welcome to the first of a series of posts I am calling 'The Royal Tour'. Basically, as a bit of a monarchist I was quite excited to hear about the engagement of HRH Prince William of Wales to Catherine Middleton late last year. I watched with interest as the media hype built up in the months following, and suddenly at about 3am on a nightshift I had a thought, why not get on a plane and be in the crowd!? After all, this was going to be a major moment in history no matter which way you look at it. So, with my mind made up I started planning on ways to get there in comfort, and seeing a few airports I had never seen along the way!

Along with airports I decided to stick with the royal theme and visit as many palaces and castles as I could squeeze in. On the way home I had a family wedding to attend to in Cairns, so that would have to be integrated into the plan as well.


THE FLIGHT PLAN

After a lot of playing around with schedules I came up with an itinerary involving several airlines:

 Quite a bit of variety with both Star Alliance and oneworld alliance airlines represented, plus a mix of Boeing and Airbus aircraft, including my first ride on an A340-600. Here is how the itinerary looks:

Melbourne - Bangkok - Zurich : Thai Airways Business class
Zurich - Frankfurt - Edinburgh : Lufthansa Business Class
Edinburgh - London Heathrow : British Airways Economy class
London Heathrow - Berlin Tegel - London Heathrow : bmi Business class
London Heathrow - Bangkok - Sydney - Cairns - Melbourne : Qantas (multiple classes)

PART 1 - MELBOURNE TO ZURICH VIA BANGKOK

AIRLINE: Thai Airways
FLIGHT: TG466
AIRCRAFT: Boeing 777-300 (HS-TKB)

SCHEDULED TO DEPART: 15.00
ACTUAL DEPARTURE: 15.01

SCHEDULED TO ARRIVE: 21.30
ACTUAL ARRIVAL: 20.55 (35 minutes early)

LOAD FACTOR: Economy - 21%, Business - 63%


Thai Airways International flight TG466 is one of my most regularly flown flight numbers, it is my preferred way to Bangkok from Melbourne with a lovely mid afternoon departure and evening arrival in Bangkok. It is also perfectly timed for European connections out of Bangkok, such as the midnight flight to Zurich that I would be taking tonight.

I arrived at the airport to find the check in counters staffed but with only about 2 passengers checking in. I enquired with the staff and found the load was going to be extremely low in economy class, only 21% of capacity. Not good for the airline, but great for those in economy, everyone would have a row to spread out and sleep if they wished. I had 4 sectors to check in for today, Melbourne-Bangkok-Zurich-Edinburgh. My bags were tagged all the way through but only the first 3 boarding passes were able to be printed. I was told to grab the fourth from the transit desk in Frankfurt en route.

While I was checking in I noticed an older gentleman approach the service desk with his younger Thai girlfriend. He wanted to know if she could fly out on the next flight, and bring forward her return date from the following month. Apparently it is 'too cold' in Melbourne for this girl and she needed to get back to sunny Thailand. Too cold? Or perhaps trouble in paradise seems a more likely story. I felt a bit sorry for the poor girl as she checked in her tiny suitcase saying absolutely nothing. The check-in staff were friendly though and put her on the flight, space was not an issue today! With check-in complete it was time to head for the usual hangout of the Air New Zealand Koru Club.

 After being welcomed into the club I found a seat and went over to the guest book to see who had been in since I last visited, just a little habit I picked up a year or so ago. Whilst I was browsing I found this rather amusing little exchange between guests, and if you are out their Wanda, I do tend to agree with the following 2 guests I'm afraid!

NZ Koru Club MEL guest book
Once I was settled I headed straight for the sparkling! I found a new drop on offer that I don't recall trying before, Brancott Estate from Blenheim in New Zealand. Appropriate for the Air New Zealand lounge! It wasn't bad to drink either, so I returned for a second glass shortly thereafter! To go with it I had 2 mini beef pies, a chicken sandwich and chocolate mousse. Tasty!




After sitting in the lounge for a while boarding was announced and my fellow passengers and I made our way to the gate. Boarding was almost complete by the time I arrived, as you would expect with such a light load today! The flight was being operated by HS-TKB, a 12 year old Boeing 777-300 still flying in Thais old livery. The aircraft underwent a cabin refurbishment at some time in the past few years but for reasons unknown Thai did not see fit to repaint her in the current livery. I don't mind the old colours anyway, although they are looking a bit faded on old HS-TKB!


I was seated in 11A today, which is a left hand window in the first row on the aircraft. Always nice to be in the first row especially on these 777s, the space in front of the seat to the bulkhead is huge! Lucky for me 11B remained free giving me even more room to stretch out.

Placed on my seat was the usual Thai business amenity kit and duvet. Champagne, water and juice were soon on offer as pre takeoff drinks and as per usual I had a champagne. Shortly afterwards, at 3.01pm exactly, the doors were closed and I watched the ground crew on the jetbridge give the pilots a cheerful wave goodbye as we commenced pushback. I was pretty excited at this point to be officially on my way to probably the biggest Royal wedding in my lifetime. The future King was to be married and I was going to be there!

The weather in Melbourne was beautiful with a southerly breeze meaning it was off to the 3657 metre long runway 34 for takeoff. With no other traffic ahead we were off the ground in no time.

Thai 466, Runway 34, Cleared for Takeoff!
It wasn't long after departure that service commenced. It is a full dinner service that is on offer although Thai just call it the 'First Serving'. It is a little early for dinner after all!

In fact I would prefer they waited a little while before starting the meal service because it is too soon after snacks in the lounge and a little bit later would be more suitable for dinner. I suspect the crew prefer to do it ASAP after takeoff, get the lights out and blinds down so they have as little work as possible to do during the flight.

Anyway, if you would like to view the menu for the first serving you can see it on the left. Quite a decent offering really, although as per usual the main courses are no different to economy class offerings in presentation, in fact economy class are offered 2 out of those 4 choices themselves. I decided to have the stir fried beef with cashew nuts as my main.



First on offer was the drinks cart along with a packet of nuts. I continued to drink the Charles Heidsieck champagne on offer. No sooner had my nuts been delivered was I then presented with the 'Hot Savoury' part of the menu. Personally I believe this should have been offered after the first drinks and nut service. Thumbs down for pushing this at us so early.


The gyoza dumpling was pretty nice although there is only two of them, a third wouldn't have gone astray! Once they were cleared away the crew came around with table cloths and then presented the first course along with drinks service. I was drinking a white wine and I can't remember what it was other than I believe it was French. My mistake for not taking a pic of the drinks menu sorry. Interestingly the beef first course came with what appeared to be a small piece of lobster beside it... that was not mentioned on the menu but it was nice anyway! The salad seemed a bit dry like it had been out in the air for too long, and it was boring with just lettuce and cucumber. The bread basket was brought out promptly and I selected some garlic bread which was a little soggy but edible.

First Course
Main Course
The main came in the usual small casserole dish straight out of the oven. There is no arranging items on a proper plate like some other airlines do in business class. It was quite tasty but that is pretty usual for ex-MEL catering in my experience. They do a good job! Far better than Bangkok catering.

After the main was complete my tray was removed and I was offered a plate with cheese and fruit. When I took this same flight a year or so ago the fruit and cheese was offered from a trolley and you could select what you wanted and the crew made up a plate for you. The dessert was offered at the same time. These days it seems you just get a standard plate and dessert is served afterwards. I prefer the proper fruit and cheese board service myself.... bring it back please Thai! Shortly after I was done with the cheese the coffee and dessert were delivered to my seat. The Macadamia Apple tart with vanilla sauce was quite delicious and went down very nicely indeed. 

Fruit and Cheese Plate

Dessert with Coffee
The whole meal process went too quickly for my liking and I felt QUITE bloated by the end of it. I would have preferred the courses to be spaced out a little, after all this flight departs mid afternoon and most passengers are not interested in sleeping so early. As it was the entire meal service was complete by 4.20pm, just 1 hour 20 mins since we had left the gate! Then it was lights out and blinds down! I left my blind open for a while though, I dont want to sleep this early thanks very much!

I took a walk around the economy cabin which was like a ghost town with just 70 out of 330 seats occupied. Very comfortable for everyone with full rows of 3 to lie down and get some rest and watch some movies. Almost made business class feel crowded!!

Rear economy cabin mid flight
I ended up watching a movie after dinner and had a doze for a couple of hours before flicking through the audio video on demand system a bit more. The ride was nice and smooth for the whole flight as the sun slowly set, its always a very long sunset when flying towards the sun and I enjoy the view from the window. Eventually about 6 hours after dinner we were passing by Singapore and it was time for the 'Second Serving'. The second service has no options, its rice noodles or nothing!

For me I was quite happy to have it as I quite like noodles and prawns! The table cloths came out again and the meal which is served on a single tray was presented along with drink selections. It wasn't much to look at but again, compliments to Melbourne catering... very tasty! And I do like a Ferrero Rocher too which came with it!
Second Serving
After the meal was cleared it was time for a freshen up in the lavatory, and I just want to point out one change which i quite liked in the lavatory. New toothbrush packs and the hand towels were placed neatly rolled in a basket rather than stuffed into the dispenser unit. It looked quite nice and the toothbrush packs were of a decent quality. 

The first flight was rapidly coming to an end as we made our descent into the hot and humid Bangkok where we made a smooth landing and.... as is all to common with TG, we taxi'ed to a remote stand to await bussing to the terminal! I had a brief chat with the crew at the front door about this, I mentioned it is annoying and far too regular, the crew did not seem to think it was very common at all! Which is strange as I find I am bussed from this flight regularly, and from plenty of others. Anyway, it was on to the bus for us all and a rather long drive to the international arrivals drop off point. I took a shot of my seat on the way out:

11A and 11B on Thai B777-300
One flight down - but many more to go. It was time for a freshen up and a massage during my 3 hour transit here in Bangkok. First of all - off to Concourse C Royal Silk lounge for a hot shower! The shower rooms are large and look good, the towel even has a Thai logo on it.

Concourse C Thai shower room - nice!

After a shower I headed over to the Concourse D Thai Spa to book in for a head and shoulder massage. The wait was about 20 minutes, but not a problem as there is comfortable seats and you get served a cold tea while you wait.


The massage was fantastic and afterwards I was feeling totally relaxed and ready for the upcoming 11.5 hour trip to Zurich.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
AIRLINE: Thai Airways
FLIGHT: TG970
AIRCRAFT: Airbus A340-600 (HS-TNB) - First time on A340-600!

SCHEDULED TO DEPART: 00.30
ACTUAL DEPARTURE: 00.44 (14 min delay)

SCHEDULED TO ARRIVE: 07.25
ACTUAL ARRIVAL: 07.23

LOAD FACTOR: Economy - 100%, Business - 100%, First - 100%

Gate C8 - Boarding about to commence for TG970 to Zurich
I spent the rest of the transit time in the concourse C lounge having a few vodkas and catching up on the news and internet forums I read. Just before midnight I made my way to gate C8 where a queue was forming for boarding. The flight was sold out in all classes so it was fairly busy in the gate area. Eventually First and Business class passengers were given the go ahead to board so I made my way onto my first A340-600 and quickly found seat 12K.

Special sticker on the entry door for HM The King
Leg room 12L
View from 12K - First Class can be seen from here
Unlike Qantas and some other airlines that know something a little more about service, there is no special greetings by name by any of the crew on Thai. You just find your seat and get comfortable, in fact nor I or my seat partner were offered to have our jackets hung in the cupboard. Never mind I just made use of the coat hook in the seat.



Just confirming - our destination is ZURICH!
The blankets on the seats were the economy style thin ones, I still don't understand how some routes have proper duvet's but others have these thin blankets. A little bit of consistency would be nice, but then again, this is Thai Airways. No point groaning, I am used to it by now. Amenity kits were also on the seats. Pre takeoff drinks were soon offered to me and my 59 other business class passengers, I took a champagne and got comfortable. The captain came on to the PA advising we would have a slight delay at the gate waiting for a departure slot with many flights departing to Europe at this moment.

At 44 minutes past midnight HS-TNB and her full load of passengers pushed back and we were on our way. The departure was off runway 19R, towards the south. I watched the night lights of Bangkok below us until they disappeared into the distance, it was strange for me to transit through Bangkok without leaving the airport. I would  be back here in a bit over a week though, for a few days on my way back to Australia.


Pre Supper Drinks
Although it was past 1am, we had a full supper service on this flight. This started with drinks and then went like this:

Appetiser - 1 prawn, how completely NOT generous!

Lamb with mashed potato main

Cheese Plate (I ate a couple of grapes before I took this)

Dessert
This was the worst meal I have had on Thai in business class. Very ordinary indeed. For a starter we had a SINGLE prawn. Cost cutting gone made, it looks a bit silly in my opinion. I believe it is advertised as a 'King Prawn' but still, its not very big is it? I took the lamb main course and presentation was very ordinary, it was edible although nothing outstanding.

The cheese on the fruit and cheese plate was barely edible. Thai really needs to get some decent cheese although I know it is not something that you can buy as easily in Thailand as the western world, but that is no excuse. The only thing I enjoyed was the dessert which was some kind of apple pastry thing with ice cream. It was quite tasty. I forgot to photograph the menu I'm afraid sorry! Once dinner had been cleaned up it was lights out and after quite a long day so far I was pretty tired and ready to sleep. The seats are a slightly different style to those found on the 777-300 and they seemed a little more flat and comfortable for sleeping. I managed a few hours of broken sleep.

I took a peak out the window and found we were over some scenic mountain ranges and the sun was coming up behind us. You fly over a lot of the 'stan' countries on these S.E Asia - Europe flights, how different life must be for those below us. 

I watched a few TV shows on the IFE system, the selection seems to have been extended recently on Thai. There is more episodes of each show than before, very happy with that improvement Thai! 


Flying over some interesting places
At 1 hour 30 minutes before landing the lights were switched on and breakfast service commenced. We had actually placed our order the night before so there was no need to disturb anyone too early. Breakfast was an improvement on the previous meal, but when will Thai stop serving those ridiculously ugly chicken sausages ex-Bangkok. They are visually disgusting and the taste isn't that much better in my opinion. The cheap yoghurt is not very nice either. I was quite happy with the pastry selection and fruit though!

Breakfast - fruit starter
Breakfast - main course
Business Cabin - after breakfast
There was a steady flow of passengers to the lavatories and soon queues were forming, even in business class. I patiently waited my turn to head for a freshen up - wash the face, brush the teeth and moisturise. Feels so much better!

Morning Sunshine!
IFE System showing our route
The captain announced our descent into a sunny Zurich, although still quite a chilly morning, about 7 degrees outside. The countryside looked beautiful out my window with lovely green fields and trees... very scenic and I am a Europe newbie so I was glued to my window all the way down! Another smooth landing and we made our way to the terminal.
Qatar A330 from Doha touches down after us
Arriving at parking position E57
Around 24 hours after departing Melbourne I had landed in Zurich. I was thankful for having several naps along the way, and glad I was flying business class on this trip. On the way out I took a snap of my seat in the daylight:

12K now vacated by me
HS-TNB takes a rest before heading back to Bangkok
Next up in part 2 is the final 2 flights of this mammoth 4 flight journey, Zurich-Frankfurt-Edinburgh on Lufthansa. Stay tuned!



Zurich Airport