Begin of February, in the middle of a particularly harsh belgian winter... A colleague of mine was explaining to me how he had booked a cheap Ryanair flight to Corsica, with the idea to cross the whole island by foot with some friends.
It didn't take me more than this to open my web browser and type www.ryanair.com in the address bar, looking for good, short-term deals out of my local airport, Charleroi (an important Ryanair base). As I hadn't (financially) planned any trip before my long awaited trip to Ukraine in May, I was looking for the cheapest possible day-trip out of CRL, and finally found a mid-week day-return to Dublin for the impressive fare of... 20 EUR, all taxes and card fees included. I booked the trip for me and two colleagues, when all of a sudden, I was struck by the idea to offer my family (wife and 4 years old son) a winter break to some (supposedly) warm destination (so much for the financial planning...).
After further searching on the Ryanair website, I found a bargain fare to Fès (Morocco) : 135 EUR all-in for the three of us, including 2 checked bags. However, as the flight only operates thrice weekly, it was impossible to find a decently timed/priced flight for the return leg, so I decided that it would be cool to spend a week in Morocco, rent a car there and get back home from Casablanca.
Out (approximate) routes : outbound to FEZ, inbound from CMN.
The CMN-CRL route is served by 3 airlines : JetairFly, Jet4You and Air Arabia Maroc, the latter being the cheapest for my particular date. As it would be a new airline for me, I did not hesitate and booked the flight on the Air Arabia website, for a more expensive (but still decent) 200 EUR all-in.
I then found a good fare for a car rental on RhinoCarHire.com (pick up at FEZ and drop off at CMN) which I immediately booked, then decided to secure seats on the Air Arabia flight. For some reason, I was unable to pay the small fee (the payment system always returned an error, although I had just used the same credit card to pay for the flight), but I'm glad it went that way, because the flight was nowhere near full, with plenty of open seats.
Air Arabia Maroc
Air Arabia Maroc CN-NMC, the machine we'd get for the return leg.
Air Arabia Maroc (codes 3O / MAC) is a recent (operations started May, 2009) subsidiary of Sharjah based Air Arabia, operating LCC-style services between their Casablanca hub and (mainly) western european destinations. Unlike Ryanair, the airline only operates to secondary airports where those are within reasonable distance of the city they're supposed to serve (e.g. Charleroi > Brussels, Treviso > Venice, Sabiha Gökçen > Istanbul, Bergamo > Milan). When no such airport exists, they operate into main airports such as Paris-CDG or Barcelona (instead of Beauvais and Girona respectively). They are basically branded like their parent Air Arabia, with just "Maroc" (and arabic equivalent) titles added. Service-wise, they are hybrid between hardcore LCC's like Ryanair and service-oriented carriers, as they offer seat assignment (including pre-assignment for a fee), access to some major airports and free 20 kg baggage allowance, but without free food/drinks or frequent flyer program and lounges. The fleet is made of 3 recent CFM56-5 powered Airbus A320s, with more due to arrive.
Arriving at the airport
Although we live close to CRL airport, we had to wake up early (by our standards...) as I had booked a taxi for 5:15am, to avoid the outrageous airport parking fares. It was a really cold morning, and the driver kept telling us how lucky we were to go to a warmer latitude, how he once had the opportunity to marry a girl from Morocco he had chatted with on the Net (fortunately for him, he changed his mind on time, as the "business" of marrying Westerners to get legal documents is well and alive in Morocco), and how he heard on the company radio that a fellow driver had just been attacked.
I'm used to the early morning rush at CRL, with no less than 8 based aircraft departures (7 Ryanair / 1 JetairFly), but I found that particular morning relatively quiet... Flying Ryanair, we had to check-in online before going to the airport, but with hold luggage, we still had to use the regular check-in desk to drop off our bags. There was absolutely no queue in front of the counter, and as the agent was a friend of my wife, we had a small chat with him, during which he explained that its morning shift at the airport started at 4am, when they open check-in for all the early morning flights, and ended at 11am.
It was mentioned on the Ryanair website that passengers travelling on non-EU passports (as was the case of my wife) had to get their documents checked at a so-called "Ryanair documents check desk" before check-in. That's the reason we went to the airport relatively early as I'm not familiar with the procedure, but we found no such desk once there, and were allowed to check in without any special "document check". However, the check-in agent stamped our boarding passes with a "visa check", something that had never happened to me before at CRL.
Passing boarding pass control and security was a real breeze, I don't remember having seen the security checkpoint with so few passengers, but it must have been that particular day, because annual passengers numbers at CRL are beating record after record. At CRL, passengers first pass through a boarding pass check before entering the security control area (where there are usually 4 X-ray machines in operation). I must say that this security check is usually quite thorough. After security, passengers enter the main departure hall, with a couple of shops and overpriced food and drinks. The gates area is adjacent to this hall, but a couple of gates, used for non-Schengen flights, are separated by a passport control point. There is only one (again, overpriced) food/drinks shop beyond that point.
All in all, Charleroi is small, modern and efficient airport, aimed at low cost carriers. As such, no perks are to be expected and some places look cheap (like the bare concrete arrival corridors), but it gets the job done at a far lower price than Brussels airport, the other belgian gateway (both airports cannot be compared, size-wise). Ryanair is the clear dominant operator here, but a handful other airlines are also present, such as Wizzair, JetairFly, Jet4You and Air Arabia Maroc, along with summer charters, occasional corporate shuttles and a good number of GA / training flights. The current terminal (north-east of the runway) opened in 2008 (I was onboard the last flight arriving at the old terminal, and also on the first flight departing the new one ) and was designed to accomodate 3 million annual passengers, but this figure is already exceeded and plans are underway to extend the terminal, runway and car parks.
Our flight to Fès was due to depart from one of those non-Schengen gates (gate 11). The gate seating area was a bit on the small side, meaning that quite a few passengers had to wait standing up, including us... The usual CRL "cattle" boarding procedure then began. The very few "priority" passengers were called first, then the rest of us, the "Other Q" as the Ryanair boarding pass says. To make the boarding process as quick as possible (and guarantee the famous Ryanair 20 minutes turnaround), it is usual to check passengers boarding pass and passport early, and make them wait in a cold, bare-concrete staircase, sometimes when the inbound passengers are still disembarking.
Today, the wait was no more than a few minutes, and we soon were walking in the freezing morning air towards EI-DPZ, parked beside a JetairFly 737 bound to Monastir via Djerba. I took a couple of photos while, as usual, fellow passengers were trying hard to be the first on board (I'm always amazed at the sight of passengers litterally running along the aircraft to reach the rear stairs among the first).
My wife adding some smiling into an otherwise unsmiling crowd.
The stats :
- Boeing 737-8AS(WL), EI-DPZ, CN33616, LN2376, first flight 12-SEP-07
- Flight FR8081, STD 06:45, STA 09:05, on time (all times local)
- My 104th flight overall, 54th on the 737, 34th on the 737-800, 38th on Ryanair
We made our way to the first free group of 3 seats through passengers blocking the aisle and flight attendants telling them not to do so. My wife took 15D, we seated our son into 15E, and I took 15F beside the frozen window through which the blue JetairFly 737 was barely visible. As a result of the cold winter night the aircraft had slept through, it was quite cold inside the cabin.
Clearly, passengers had done their very best to pack as much as possible in bags having exactly the maximum allowable dimension for cabin bags, so after a lot of vain fighting, the cabin crew had to ask the last passengers to leave their luggage at the front door for them to be put in the hold (the bags, not the pax). The whole boarding process was a mess compared to my previous week Dublin flight, but it was still surprisingly orderly, and we left our stand with a reasonable 5 minutes delay.
The usual safety demo was conducted in English, with a recorded french version following while the crew was making a last cabin check, before turning off the cabin lights in preparation for take-off.
"Cabin crew, seats for departure, please"
The sound of the voice indicated that at least one person in the flight deck was female... not that it matters, anyway, it's just that, by chance, one of the pilots on our return flight was also female... During the short taxi to runway 25, the non-female member of the flight deck welcomed us on board and explained us that, because of strong headwinds, they were expecting a slow ground speed and a relatively long flight time of 3 hours and 15 minutes... which, if correct, would still bring us to Fès spot on time.
It had been a long time since I was in an FR 738 that applied take-off power with brakes on. I guess the reason could have been the relatively short CRL runway combined with a possibly heavy take-off weight, anyway, it was a nice sensation when brakes were released.
After a long take-off roll, we finally entered the greatest place in the world : the skies. The rising sun made for a great background during our initial turns towards Paris.
Soon after departure, the cabin crew started their buy-on-board service, begining with the customary, but still funny, "smokeless cigarettes" sale, once again without success. The drink service was much more successful, with a good number of passengers (including myself) buying coffee and the like.
Sipping my coffee, I took a look out of the window and saw a large city under scattered clouds. I couldn't resist and switched my GPS receiver on, to discover that we were almost vertical to CDG. Unfortunately, the airport was hidden behind clouds, but LBG was visible, along with some areas of Paris.
The crew was now trying to convince us that they would make us millionaires by selling us lottery scratch cards... again without much success. I took a look around me to get an idea of the load factor, and guestimated it in the 80-90% range, which isn't bad at all. An overwhelming majority of passengers were belgian-moroccans (Belgium has a large moroccan diaspora) taking advantage of the low-season fares to visit their families back in Morocco, with a handful of tourists like us.
The flight went on uneventful, rythmed by the regular drink sales, food sales, duty free sales, etc... Food sales were not that successful, maybe because there was no halal offering on a 80%+ muslim flight... Among my 38 flights with Ryanair, I've encountered all kinds of flights attendants, but I must say that the ones on this flight were really nice, smiling and friendly. We began our mediterranean crossing above Almeria (Spain), where the sky under us began to become more and more cloudy.
Soon after we had reached the moroccan coast line, the ground became completely hidden behind clouds, and we started our descent towards Fès. The flight attendants distributed "disembarking cards", that must be filled before entering Morocco.
As we approached our destination, the clouds became less dense, and I was surprised to see how green Morocco was (in the winter, at least). The final approach was beautiful, above deep green fields with the city of Fès shining in the sun, and snow capped mountains in the background.
Arriving in Fès
We made a smooth touchdown on runway 27 followed by a *very* hard braking, probably in order to exit the runway without having to backtrack. Passengers clapped after they heard the typical Ryanair "cavalry charge" annoucement of "another on-time flight bla bla..." and realized they were still alive after the braking. We parked in front of the small (but modern) terminal and were welcomed into Morocco by a bright shining sun. Along with a parked business jet, we were the only visible aircraft on the airport.
I was surprised to see the relaxed attitude towards photography (I had expected some reluctance, like in neighbouring Algeria) and took advantage of it. We were directed towards a passport control hall (again, small but modern and clean). It was too small to accomodate everyone, so the last of us had to queue outside (I wonder how they do when it rains ?).
The queue outside of the terminal
The border agents were friendly enough, but the control took forever as they thorougly checked and stamped every passport (not unlike Algeria...), and we were the last ones in the queue.
Finally, we were allowed into Morocco, reclaimed our cases (there are two belts) while another Ryanair flight was arriving from Seville (Spain) and ours was departing back to Charleroi, and met our driver who was waiting for us on the street in front of the terminal.
The terminal building is small but pleasant, the same hall is used for check-in and arrivals, with a couple of car rental agencies and bars. It is clearly not designed to accomodate many flights at once, but, according to a taxi driver in Fès, plans are underway to expand it (the guy told us that there's even a model of the project, but I had no time to look for it).
Three Belgians in Morocco
We had a very enjoyable stay in Morocco (it was my first time there). We visited Fès which is generally considered as the spiritual capital of the country. Fès has a modern part, but is mostly known for its fascinating old medina, which is part of Unesco's world heritage list. Walking into the small streets of the medina, outside of touristic routes, among donkeys, local people and typical arab shops is quite an experience. We also made an excursion through Atlas mountains to Bhallil, Sefrou and Ifrane.
Almond trees on the road to Bhallil
My son picking flowers along the road
The meter may be old, but it works (and, considering it's Morocco, it better does !)
In Fès, we stayed in an old traditional moroccan house (Riad Ghita) inside the medina, which was really beautiful and had a family atmosphere. Actually, we were considered as part of the family and were free to go where we wanted inside the house,including the kitchen where they cooked excellent typical dishes every evening. A rooftop terrace offered great views of the medina, like those :
Our whole moroccan experience was made easier by the fact that my wife is fluent in moroccan Arabic (I can also speak, although I'm not fluent). This allowed us to talk to people and even to be invited in some houses (oh... and to bargain in shops and taxis...).
After our stay in Fès, we rent a car (at the airport...) and drove to Rabat, the capital city of Morocco, on a fresh new highway (on which we encountered a heavy thunderstorm).
We ate delicious tagines along the road.
Rabat is not the biggest city of Morocco (that title goes to Casablanca, the economic capital), but it has a pleasant atmosphere, and some nice sights such as the Oudayas medina, the royal palace, the Hassan tower or the Mohammed V mausoleum. The city center is modern by moroccan standards, with large avenues, lots of administrative buildings and a good restaurant scene (again, by local standards). There are some beaches in the vicinity, although I didn't find them to be really good.
Caught ya !
Rabat also has an old medina, more accessible than the one in Fès but also less impressive, and that's where we were staying, again in a ryad (Riad Kaala). The building has been bought by french people who refurbished it (it took them three years) to turn it into a luxury heaven with all modern amenities, while at the same time preserving its moroccan cachet in their architectural and materials choices.
Going to Casablanca
After a nice breakfast in our ryad, we took our rental car and followed the coastal road towards Casablanca. Although there is a (toll) highway linking both cities, we chose to use the smaller road to get closer to the moroccan life. Traffic was extremely light, making the experience more relaxing, but intermittent rain made the sea landscape a little dull.
Passed by this Caravelle front fuselage section by chance, in Mohammadia (between Rabat and Casablanca). It is apparently used by a tourism school for training.
Around and into Casablanca however, traffic became very dense and disorderly. We had planned to see the famous Hassan II mosque which is the second largest mosque in the world after the one in Mekkah, however the pace of traffic made us decide against it. Instead, we chose to leave the chaotic city center and go to a restaurant in a nice and modern (by local standards) place along the sea, from which it should be easier to access the airport after our meal.
Casablanca Mohammed V airport
We arrived at the airport around 13:50 for our 15:20 flight. Casablanca's Mohammed V airport has 3 terminals, one of which (Terminal 1) being closed for renovation. Most flights, including ours, depart from Terminal 2, with terminal 3 handling Royal Air Maroc flights to Algiers, Bologna, Frankfurt, Montreal, Milan-Malpensa, New York-JFK, Rome and Turin. All flights arrive at terminal 2.
With 6.4 million passengers in 2009, it is the busiest airport in Morocco, and the 6th busiest in Africa. Road signage around the terminals and car parks is good, as is signage inside the terminals. We left our car in the rental car park and walked to Terminal 2 under the rain. I went to the Budget counter to finish paperwork for the car and noticed there are quite a few rental car agencies available, both international and local.
We then made our way to the check-in area located upstairs, using escalators because all lifts were out of order. The check-in hall is vast and very decent, with a huge flight information display directing passengers to their respective check-in counters. We had to queue for a while to be checked in, and I noticed that a Jet4You flight was leaving for Charleroi just 10 minutes after our Air Arabia Maroc flight. The Casablanca - Charleroi route is served daily by Jet4You, and 5x weekly by Air Arabia Maroc, while Royal Air Maroc serves the Casablanca - Brussels (BRU) route 11x weekly.
In the queue, we met a young moroccan man whose mother was travelling alone to Belgium to meet one of her sons who had emigrated there. As it was the first time she took a plane, and as she only spoke and understood moroccan Arabic, he asked us whether we'd accept to take care of her until she met her son at Charleroi. As my wife is fluent in Arabic, we agreed, and helped the "hadja" through all the checks and hassle.
After checking in, we had to fill the same "boarding form" as on the inbound leg, then proceed to boarding pass check. After that, a customs officer randomly picked me and asked me a few questions about the cash I had, but without checking my wallet or bag (fortunately, because I said I had nothing, being unsure about the currency import/export laws). That was followed by a passport control (again, the control took a long time, but with many lanes open, we didn't have to queue for too long). Finally, a security check where the officer wanted to have a closer look at my camera battery. I must say that most of the agents I interacted with were quite friendly (maybe it helps to greet and thank them in Arabic...).
When we entered the gates area (which was pleasant) we had no time to check out the shops or bars, because our flight was already called for boarding. I tried to snap a picture of our aircraft (the gates area offers reasonably good views of the apron) but failed miserably because there was too much rain on the windows :
After our boarding pass check, we had to wait a couple of minutes in the jetway as they only let a few passengers at a time into the aircraft, probably to limit aisle congestion. Unlike Ryanair and EasyJet, Air Arabia has an assigned seat policy, which is far more pleasant from a passenger perspective (at least in my opinion).
Airliners.net first : on board Air Arabia Maroc !
The stats :
- Airbus A320-214, CN-NMC, MSN3246, first flight 12-SEP-07 (same day as the FR 738
- Flight 3O113, STD 15:20, STA 19:30, on time (all times local)
- My 105th flight overall, 18th on the A320 family, 6th on the A320, 1st on Air Arabia Maroc
We were greeted on board by strongly made-up flight attendants.
At first glance, the cabin looked good and the seats comfortable (for a LCC, that is). Looking deeper, however, I noticed that quite a few things were either dirty of worn out (such as my armrest and seat cover). The seats themselves were reasonably comfortable and reminded me (in their design and comfort) of the Iberia A320 seats.
When door was closed, I noticed that the load factor was quite light (I'd estimate something like 50%, maybe less), most passengers being Moroccans. The lead flight attendant came on the PA to say something I did not understand in Arabic, then shouted (litterally) "Allah Akbar" 3 times before reciting a muslim prayer.
After this religious introduction, she welcomed us all on board, in moroccan Arabic, French (very good) and English (not so good). We were parked near an EasyJet A319 and an Emirates A340-300 ready to depart.
The crew made a manual safety demo while we were taxiing to runway 17L, past a couple of Royal Air Maroc 738's and Regional Air Lines ATR's).
My window was too wet to allow good photography, however I took a couple of shots of parked aircraft, and of an AF A320 landing and the aforementioned EK 343 taking off to Dubai. From the runway threshold, I spotted some Royal Air Maroc aircraft in front of what looked like a maintenance hangar, including a 757-200 and 747-400.
The spanish captain welcomed us on board, warned us of possible turbulence during the flight, and gave us a few words about our route : Tangiers, Gibraltar, Bilbao, Paris, and on to Charleroi.
Our take off from runway 17L was followed by a left turn during which I could see the entire airport, but had a difficult time taking photos because of the clouds, rain, and light turbulence. I even tried to make a video, but the camera would keep focusing on the window itself instead of the outside, maybe because of the water on the window.
Again, I noticed how green Morocco is at this time of the year, but I also spotted a few flooded areas. Flooding due to heavy rain seems to have been a problem this year in Morocco.
Soon after take-off, drop-down LCD screens were deployed from the overhead panels and showed the begining of a cartoon, then advertisement for most of the flight.
The atmosphere inside the cabin remained relaxed throughout the cruise. The flight attendants were professional without being friendly, not many smiles and, as I mentioned earlier, flashy make-up (as far as I could guess, they all seemed to be moroccan). We ordered some food and drinks and to my surprise, they did not accept moroccan dirhams (the local currency)... only euros ! Pricing was like on your typical LCC, that is, expensive for the average Moroccan.
Nothing more to add about the flight. I paid a visit to the loo which was a bit dirty, but not more than on many other airlines. The sun was setting when we started our descent to Charleroi. The captain announced a temperature at destination 2 degrees (celsius) below zero, a drastic change from the 22°C we had in Morocco.
We landed on CRL runway 07, a relatively rare thing in itself (90 % of my landings at CRL are on runway 25), and braked with almost no use of thrust reversers, which is equally rare. We disembarked in the freezing evening air, guiding our elderly woman through corridors towards passport control.
CRL terminal, airside
While we were queuing for passport check, in a very quiet hall, our son decided it was an appropriate time to shout :
- son (shouting) "Mommy, is that the police ?"
- mom (quietly) "Yes, it is"
- son (shouting even louder) : "Oh no ! I don't like the police !"
- mom (even quietlier) : "Shhht ! Why don't like it ?"
- son (even louder) : "Because the police is naughty !"
A general laughter followed into the entire hall, fortunately the officer did not take it the wrong way... We passed the control without problems, got our bags on the carrousel, met the son of the woman who thanked us, and were driven back home by my father.
Thank you for reading, feel free to comment or ask questions about the flights, airports, and/or Morocco.
Some of my other reports
Canada : 9 Flights W/ LH/US/WS/AC/BD Lots Of Pics! (by BrusselsSouth May 7 2009 in Trip Reports)
Algeria With Iberia (BRU-MAD-ALG Rtn) Lots Of Pics (by BrusselsSouth Apr 20 2009 in Trip Reports)
Central Europe BRU-PRG-KSC-BTS-BUD-BRU (100 Pics!) (by BrusselsSouth Sep 3 2008 in Trip Reports)
BA BRU-LHR-JFK-EWR-LHR-BRU (Pics/Vids/go-around) (by BrusselsSouth May 7 2008 in Trip Reports)
One Day Around Europe : 5 Flts / 5 Airlines (pics) (by BrusselsSouth Mar 15 2008 in Trip Reports)
Brussels Airlines B.flex To Warsaw (Pics+Vids) (by BrusselsSouth Aug 27 2007 in Trip Reports)
Air France And Air Algerie To Algeria, W/pics. (by BrusselsSouth Aug 19 2005 in Trip Reports)
BA/AA BRU-LHR-ORD And Back (with BA Cancellation) (by BrusselsSouth Aug 27 2004 in Trip Reports)
Honeymoon With SN Brussels, Iberia And Binter (by BrusselsSouth Jun 29 2004 in Trip Reports)
[Edited 2010-03-13 09:49:46 by diamond]