Welcome to my eighteenth trip report! I recently moved from Washington, DC to Brussels and was feeling the itch to explore corners of the Continent that I had yet to visit. When my girl was assigned a ten-day stint at her employer’s European headquarters in Madrid, I jumped at the opportunity to head south for the weekend. Given that her airfare from Brussels, the hotel, and a per diem food allowance were paid by her company, we effectively had the chance to spend a weekend in Madrid for just the cost of my plane ticket. What a deal! I searched for the cheapest ticket I could find that matched my requirement of a Friday evening departure and a Sunday evening return; Iberia offered the best fare at €170, but the times were not ideal. However, Brussels Airlines (SN), via Orbitz.com, offered a roundtrip with ideal times for about €190. Not only would SN be a new airline for me, but I would also earn a few UA miles with this Star Alliance member. I made the booking two weeks ahead of departure and began the countdown to my Spanish getaway.
Date: August 20, 2010
Flight #: SN 3729
Aircraft Type: Airbus A319-113
Aircraft Registration: OO-SSP / Serial Number 644 / Manufactured 1996
Scheduled Departure: 17:40 CEST
Actual Takeoff: 18:31 CEST
Scheduled Arrival: 20:15 CEST
Actual Landing: 20:41 CEST
Flight Time: 2:10
Distance: 818 miles (1,316 km)
Load: Economy = 40%, Business = 100%
My Logbook: 1st flight on Brussels Airlines / 20th flight on the A319 / 263rd airline flight overall
On the day of departure, my French class ended at 13:00 and I went directly to my apartment in Etterbeek to grab my bag. Although my flight would not leave for another four-and-a-half hours, I did a quick turnaround at home and left right away for the airport. I took the metro to the Schuman stop and connected to the B12 bus to the airport. Unfortunately, there was a bad car accident next to NATO headquarters and the ensuing traffic jam added another twenty minutes to the bus ride. Still, I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare and proceeded to Brussels Airlines’ “b.light economy” check-in counter. There was no wait at all and the very friendly agent quickly printed my boarding pass and checked my bag. I proceeded straight to security, where the wait-time was also minimal, and was soon airside amidst the shops and restaurants of BRU’s Pier A. I grabbed a burger at Quick and then continued to the gates for some spotting; I was looking forward to seeing some liveries and types I was not used to seeing in the U.S. BRU is not ideal for photography given that one cannot get the camera directly up against the windows, but nonetheless I grabbed some photos of the aircraft in action that day.
Jetairfly (TUI Airlines Belgium) 737-800:
Brussels Airlines Avro RJ with a Freebird A321 rotating on RWY 25R in the background:
Lufthansa 737 arriving from Frankfurt:
SAS A321 bound for Copenhagen:
Thomas Cook A320 with a cartoon scheme:
Austrian Arrows (Tyrolean Airways) Fokker 100 pushing back for Vienna:
At 16:30 I received an e-mail from Orbitz via the iPhone informing me that my flight was delayed twenty minutes, until 18:00. I walked over to the gate and, sure enough, the monitor had just been updated with the same information. I was impressed at timeliness of the notification from Orbitz; it was near-simultaneous to the update provided at the gate.
I spent the next hour watching the ramp action while walking laps up and down the length of the terminal; I’m never one to sit still at the airport.
At 17:45 my A319 finally arrived at the gate. The inbound passengers deplaned and by 18:05, the aircraft was ready for its new guests. Boarding was chaotic, with passengers swarming the gate from all sides. With a relatively light load, however, the process was fast. I took my seat in 22A, a window on the left side. The cabin appeared used, even dirty. The seat pitch was also poor; I imagine this seat would become quite uncomfortable on SN’s longer A319 flights such as BRU-TLV. The window was also in bad condition, with scratches and smears covering the whole surface. However, one nice feature was SN’s A319 safety card, which featured the tail number of that particular aircraft. I had been unable to see the number from the gate, so the safety card was a welcome source for that information. Also, I lucked out in that the two seats next to mine remained empty.
In the final stages of the boarding process, the Captain gave a welcome announcement (in English only) and apologized for the delay; he cited air traffic control issues with Maastricht Centre on the inbound flight from Catania. He also indicated a flight time of 1:55 to Madrid with smooth skies anticipated throughout the flight. The purser also offered his welcome, first in French, then Dutch, then English. Another flight attendant then made the announcement in Spanish.
By 18:20 the craft was sealed and we pushed from the gate. The engines spooled to life while the tug positioned us tail-west, nose-east. We then made the quick taxi to RWY 25R.
There was no queue for departure and we took to the runway immediately. At 18:31 we were wheels up, climbing away from the airport and over the adjacent town of Diegem.
Several minutes after takeoff we banked left and I glimpsed the Atomium, Brussels’ famous steel landmark and site of the World’s Fair in 1958.
We continued our climb to the west-southwest, eventually reaching the upper flight levels near Paris. The Captain made an announcement and pointed out the city on the left-hand side; of course, I already knew it was Paris because I had just spied CDG airport a moment before.
A half-hour after liftoff, the beverage service started. The two young, female flight attendants working the b.light cabin were average—certainly polite but seemingly disinterested. Of course, nothing was free in this lower class, not even water; the buy-on-board card offered a selection hot and cold beverages, as well as snacks, most of which cost between €3.00 and €6.00. I selected a Grimbergen blond beer for €3.50 and paid by credit card. Coming from the U.S., paying for an in-flight beer was no big deal for me; when compared to other many other European flag carriers, however, the b.light buy-on-board program resembled that of a low-cost carrier in my opinion. On the plus side, it was nice that Brussels Airlines provided a taste of Belgium by offering local Grimbergen beer.
I passed the time sipping my beer and reading some good aviation literature, all while streaking through the skies above France. It does not get much better than that!
An hour after takeoff I spied the Atlantic coast of France. Thanks to Google Earth, I later found out we passed near the seaside city of Les Sables d’Olonne. It looks nice down there!
As the coast slipped away, I decided to stretch my legs and use the restroom. In this instance I was not impressed with Brussels Airlines at all. The lavatory was in poor shape, somewhat dirty, and lacking proper soap and paper towels. The soap dispenser looked as though it had broken off and was replaced by a nasty bar of soap next to the sink. I used the bar anyway and dried my hands on my jeans.
Before long, we crossed “feet dry” over northern Spain. The terrain below was quite interesting—much drier than in France and with beautiful hills and ridges resembling giant brush strokes across the land.
At 20:07, the Captain announced we had reached our top-of-descent point and that we would be on the ground in 35 minutes. He indicated the weather in Madrid was beautiful, with clear skies and 33* C (91* F).
While descending toward Madrid, I spied the Valle de los Caidos, or “Valley of the Fallen,” with its giant cross. This controversial landmark is a monument to those who perished in the Spanish Civil War.
We continued our descent, eventually passing west of Madrid before making a sweeping left turn around the southern suburbs of the city. Getafe Air Base, home to the EADS-CASA assembly line, passed just off the left wing.
The beautiful light of the Spanish evening brought out the earth’s many tones of tan and brown; meanwhile, we traced a giant arc to the east, then northeast, and finally to the north toward the airport.
Before long, the flaps of the A319 began their incremental descent, too, and we stabilized on final approach.
We hit the asphalt of runway 33L with a small jolt at 20:41, some two hours and ten minutes after lifting off from Brussels. Following a short taxi, we arrived at the gate at 20:45.
Given the light load, de-boarding was quick. Once in the terminal, I snapped a final shot of the grey Airbus that had delivered me to Spain.
I proceeded to the baggage claim, where my bag arrived within five minutes. I found my way to the underground Metro station and after a quick and easy 25-minute ride, I met my girl at her hotel near the Plaza de Espana.
Of course, while aviation is the focus of this forum, a trip report should not include only the flying—especially when visiting a city as beautiful as Madrid. Below are a few photos of the two days we spent in the Spanish capital.
The Royal Palace of Madrid:
I love this! Café con Leche:
Near the Plaza de Espana, close to our hotel:
My visit passed quickly and soon it was time to return to Brussels.
Date: August 22, 2010
Flight #: SN 3728
Aircraft Type: Boeing 737-36N (Winglets)
Aircraft Registration: OO-VEX / Serial Number 28670 / Manufactured 1997
Scheduled Departure: 17:30 CEST
Scheduled Arrival: 19:55 CEST
Actual Takeoff: 18:16 CEST
Actual Landing: 20:12 CEST
Flight Time: 1:56
Distance: 818 miles (1,316 km)
Load: Economy = 50%, Business = 75%
My Logbook: 2nd flight on Brussels Airlines / 9th flight on 733 / 264th airline flight overall
I left the hotel at 15:00 and took the Metro to the airport, where I arrived at Terminal 2 around 15:30. I found Barajas Airport, at least Terminal 2, to be extremely easy to use; it is well-designed, spacious and clean. I quickly made my way from the underground station to check-in desk.
There was no line at the Brussels Airlines counter and within two minutes, my bag was tagged and I had a boarding pass in hand. On the down side, the agent was not particularly friendly; he completed the whole process without speaking so much as a word. Never mind—the job was complete and I was quickly on my way. There was also no line at security and five minutes after checking in I was airside in the secure zone. With about two hours until my flight, there was time for some spotting.
Spanair MadDog in Star Alliance livery:
An A320 visiting from Switzerland:
Swiftair MD-83 with an Air Europa 767-300ER blasting off in the background:
Nice to see this Ryanair 737-800 at a regular, major airport like MAD.
And finally, a couple of highlights. First of all, I saw this Ilyushin IL-96 of Cubana beginning the long flight to Havana. This was my first-ever sighting of a Cubana aircraft!
Even more unique (at least for MAD) was this Delta A319 sitting on a remote stand; after all, Madrid is a long, long way from its usual route network. I started a thread in the Civil Aviation forum on A.Net and learned from several members that this was the Team USA basketball charter, which made fuel stops in Goose Bay and Keflavik during the Atlantic crossing. My thread somehow disappeared from the forum a day after I posted it (thanks for the technological glitches, A.Net...). A new thread about this aircraft was started a couple weeks later, after it had been spotted Istanbul:
Here are some photos of the aircraft sitting on the ramp at MAD.
After an hour of spotting, I had seen most of the sights offered by Madrid’s Terminal 2. It was time to have a beer and relax. I grabbed a San Miguel and found a quiet section of the cafeteria next to the window.
Around 17:00 I headed to Gate D62, as boarding was scheduled to commence in fifteen minutes. However, the inbound aircraft had yet to arrive and a new departure time of 18:00 was listed on the screen. The aircraft finally pulled in at 17:20; I was expecting at 737-400 according to the itinerary and was surprised to see a 737-300 instead. No matter, as I was just happy to be on 737 classic instead of the A319 that brought me to Madrid two days earlier. These older 737s are becoming rare in the U.S., and I always embrace the chance to fly one before they’re gone. In my opinion, this bird looks quite nice with the blended winglets.
Boarding began at 17:35 and was again rather chaotic. I took my seat at 22F near the rear of the aircraft and fortunately, I again had all three seats to myself. As on the A319, the legroom was tight; this cabin also appeared worn, though not quite as dirty.
Unlike the safety card for the A319, the 737 card was common to both the -300 and -400 models and did not feature the tail number of this particular aircraft.
The purser made a welcome announcement, first in French, then Dutch, then English, then Spanish. He indicated an expected flight time of 1:55. While the final passengers boarded, the fuel pumpers finished loading our kerosene.
We pushed back at 17:55 and began a long taxi to RWY 15L on the far side of Terminal 4. We passed right by the Delta A319 charter.
During taxi, the Captain also made a welcome announcement in English, followed by French and then Dutch. He confirmed the flight time of 1:55 and said the weather in Brussels was pleasant—sunny and 24* C (75* F). And, similar to my flight two days before, the Captain apologized for the delay and cited air traffic congestion near Madrid. We also passed the Iberia graveyard. As others have mentioned on A.Net, perhaps this scene is not the best publicity for Iberia?
At 18:16, we took to RWY15L, and while still rolling, the engines revved to high power.
The takeoff roll was long, but once in the air, the climb-out felt steep and powerful.
Ten minutes after takeoff, we began a left turn to the northeast and picked up the course for Brussels.
The wings then leveled and we continued northbound over the hills and mountains of northern Spain.
The clouds soon began to look ominous, however, and we entered some moderate chop before being enveloped by the high overcast.
We finally exited the clouds and the ride became smoother. The Captain made another announcement and provided some good information about the flight. He indicated our route would take us to the west of Bordeaux, then to Paris, and finally to Brussels with an estimated touchdown time of 20:15. He also mentioned the temperature outside the aircraft was -52* C and that our speed was 800 km per hour at a cruising altitude of 36,000 feet (11,000 meters). Given that we were flying an easterly heading, I am not sure if maintained this typically westbound (even-numbered) flight level for the duration of the flight. Again, this announcement was in French, Dutch and English.
The flight attendants then started the cabin service, which unfortunately was rather poor. Instead of asking each passenger in b.light if he or she cared to make a purchase, the attendants quickly made one run with the cart from front to back, expecting passengers to shout out an order. I happened to be looking down at the moment they passed my seat and therefore missed my chance to order a beverage. Later on, when the purser happened to be walking to the back of the aircraft to chat with the flight attendants who were relaxing in the last row, I stopped him and said I had wanted to buy a Grimbergen but did not get the chance. He seemed annoyed by my request, but nonetheless sent one of the attendants to get me one. I paid the €3.50 in cash. In general, the cabin crew on this flight seemed disinterested and not particularly friendly.
I cracked open the Grimbergen, but because of the earlier turbulence I got a rather foamy pour. No matter, the bubbles settled in a few minutes and of course it still tasted nice.
As we began our descent over northern France, the solid cloud layer beneath us broke apart, revealing views of the ground.
Meanwhile, the cabin crew played a recorded message, first in English and then in French, with information useful for passengers connecting in Brussels.
As we continued downward, I caught a glimpse of this 747 crossing beneath us. I could not quite make out the livery—perhaps Air France?
We slowly descended upon another cloud layer, which gave a feeling of skimming the waves on a boat. The evening light was soft and the sky was smooth as we sliced through the tops of the cloud puffs.
Before long, the runways of BRU appeared off the right wing and I knew we were on the downwind leg for a landing on one of the RWYs25.
Sure enough, we soon began a 180-degree right turn for final approach and dropped lower and lower over the Flanders fields east of the airport.
The ride was silky-smooth as we began a gradual flare over RWY25L.
The wheels hit the runway at 20:12, an hour and fifty-six minutes after leaving Madrid.
We exited the runway to the right and taxied quickly to Pier A, where we parked on stand 143.
As an appropriate conclusion to my trip to Spain, we pulled in next to this Iberia A320.
Once inside the terminal, I grabbed a final shot of the 737, just in from Madrid.
I made the long walk to the baggage claim, where my bag arrived about ten minutes after I did. After that, I headed to the bus stand and caught the next ride to Schuman, followed by the Metro to my apartment in Etterbeek. I was home within 45 minutes of leaving the airport—not bad for a Sunday evening with public transit.
All things considered, I had a great trip to Madrid and enjoyed my flights on Brussels Airlines. However, I mostly enjoyed the flights because, well, I love flying. For those who care less about aviation and more about the product, I would argue that Brussels Airlines falls short—at least with its b.light service within Europe. The flight attendants were average at best and poor at worst; both flights were delayed (though not severely so). In-flight entertainment was non-existent and the cabins were worn and even dirty. For a national flag carrier, Brussels Airlines is a step below other examples such as Air France, KLM, and Lufthansa. Aside from checking my bag for free and having the opportunity to select my seat 24 hours before the flight, I found very little that distinguishes SN’s b.light product from the likes of Ryanair. I will continue to fly Brussels Airlines when convenient and if the price is right; otherwise, I do not foresee developing any sense of loyalty to Brussels’ hometown airline.
Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed this report. Comments, questions and criticisms are most welcome and greatly appreciated!
BrusselsSouth From Belgium, joined Aug 2001, 609 posts, RR: 5 Reply 7, posted (3 years 2 months 3 weeks 2 days 6 hours ago) and read 9571 times:
Thank you for this nice report with very good photos.
I used to fly relatively often with SN, I was a member of their Privilege FF program until it was taken over by Miles & More.
I'm sorry that you had a below average experience with them. I've always found them to be a very nice little airline (granted, I flew more on their "b.flex" economy+ product, but my "b.light" flights were good too). I've always had friendly crews but I guess you may have been unlucky (or me lucky...).
The "b.light" product was introduced to cope with aggressive LCC arrival on the Belgian market (specifically FR at CRL) and is basically a LCC product with a no-frills, buy-on-board service and non-flexible fares. It has made it possible for SN to offer some really cheap tickets on key Euro-routes (I don't say that they're always cheap). To me, their crew (and assigned seats) was where the difference with LCCs lied.
Granted, their Euro fleet is aging and some cabins (especially on the 737) are worn out.
American 767 From United States of America, joined May 1999, 3505 posts, RR: 13 Reply 8, posted (3 years 2 months 3 weeks 2 days 5 hours ago) and read 9546 times:
Nice report !!! I enjoyed reading it and looking at the pictures. I felt I was traveling with you on that trip.
Quoting BZNPilot (Thread starter): I do not foresee developing any sense of loyalty to Brussels’ hometown airline.
Me neither, even though Brussels is my hometown. I have nothing against Brussels Airlines, in my whole life I have taken three trips with them and I enjoyed all three of them, they have good in flight service, but I would rather look for a One World airline if possible. In this case I would not have hesitated to choose IB over SN. I don't fly Star Alliance airlines unless I am obliged to do so.
Anyway, if you are interested in Brussels Airlines, I wrote an article about them in my blog, so I invite you and everybody else to check it out:
robffm2 From Germany, joined Dec 2006, 1106 posts, RR: 0 Reply 9, posted (3 years 2 months 3 weeks 1 day 20 hours ago) and read 9401 times:
Nice trip report and thanks for sharing your experience with SN. Never flew them as Brussels Airlines, only as Sabena in the past. At that time it was great, e.g. on the short hop from BRU to FRA I remember we had hot meals and red wine in economy! Times have changed....
Madrid is a great city for a weekend getaway. Lot's of flights, good price, great connection to the city centre (cheap and fast)!
Quoting BZNPilot (Thread starter): And finally, a couple of highlights. First of all, I saw this Ilyushin IL-96 of Cubana beginning the long flight to Havana. This was my first-ever sighting of a Cubana aircraft!
Wow. I don't think I've ever seen one. Very cool!!
Thanks for commenting! Glad you liked the report and photos.
Quoting BrusselsSouth (Reply 7): I'm sorry that you had a below average experience with them. I've always found them to be a very nice little airline (granted, I flew more on their "b.flex" economy+ product, but my "b.light" flights were good too). I've always had friendly crews but I guess you may have been unlucky (or me lucky...).
Yeah, think their b.flex product is very good from what I have heard. I guess I had the cheaper experience partly because I paid the cheaper fare After all, you get what you pay for.
Quoting BrusselsSouth (Reply 7): Forum member Abrelosojos has ranked their premium long-haul product at the very top of its (long) list of reviews in this report : Brussels Air SN 352: 18/JAN/10: FIH-DLA-BRU: J Cab (by abrelosojos Mar 7 2010 in Trip Reports)
Yes, I saw that report at the top of his list and maybe that's one reason why I was expecting more. But of course, I know that comparing long-haul premium service to inter-Europe in economy class is like comparing apples to oranges. Anyway, it seems that SN does have an excellent product in some areas of its operations.
Quoting BrusselsSouth (Reply 7): The "b.light" product was introduced to cope with aggressive LCC arrival on the Belgian market (specifically FR at CRL) and is basically a LCC product with a no-frills, buy-on-board service and non-flexible fares. It has made it possible for SN to offer some really cheap tickets on key Euro-routes (I don't say that they're always cheap). To me, their crew (and assigned seats) was where the difference with LCCs lied.
The assigned seats perk is definitely nice.
Quoting BrusselsSouth (Reply 7): Welcome to Belgium then ! (Why would anyone want to relocate to Belgium is a bit beyond me, but that's another story )
Thanks! I guess the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence DC was getting old and Brussels is great so far. Thanks again for reading and for your comments. Look forward to reading more of your reports in the future, too.
Quoting American 767 (Reply 8): Nice report !!! I enjoyed reading it and looking at the pictures. I felt I was traveling with you on that trip.
Thanks for the comments!
Quoting American 767 (Reply 8): Anyway, if you are interested in Brussels Airlines, I wrote an article about them in my blog, so I invite you and everybody else to check it out:
Very interesting, nice historical information about the airline. Thank you very much for sharing the link.
Quoting robffm2 (Reply 9): Nice trip report and thanks for sharing your experience with SN.
Quoting robffm2 (Reply 9): on the short hop from BRU to FRA I remember we had hot meals and red wine in economy! Times have changed....
Ahh yes, different times for sure. Amazing that they had the time to heat up meals during that short flight.
Quoting Transpac787 (Reply 10): Loved reading the TR - especially the pics of beer haha. That's a 'hobby' of mine, always trying the local variety of beers in foreign territory, haha.
Thanks, glad you liked the report. Sounds like we have the same hobby
Indeed, they are tough to find and they are gradually being phased out in favor of A320 and 738 mostly, especially in the United States. But in Europe, there are still a lot of 400's flying, besides SN there is KLM, BA, CSA, Turkish, LOT and Ukraine International still flying those. I'm not sure Olympic still flies them. And also in South Africa there is Comair, a BA franchise, who flies the 400 on domestic flights out of JNB.
gabrielchew From United Kingdom, joined Aug 2005, 2800 posts, RR: 15 Reply 13, posted (3 years 2 months 2 weeks 1 day 15 hours ago) and read 8524 times:
Thanks for the report - haven't seem much about the new SN. The b.light service looks very poor. I have price compared them a few times just on the London - BRU route, and they are always far more expensive the the Eurostar, BD or BA, and, it seems, offer far less service. I flew with them way back in 2002 on a Virgin Express codeshare BRU-LHR and they were really good - shame things have changed.
BZNPilot From Belgium, joined Feb 2006, 261 posts, RR: 1 Reply 15, posted (3 years 2 months 1 week 5 days 4 hours ago) and read 7885 times:
Hi American 767,
Quoting American 767 (Reply 12): Indeed, they are tough to find and they are gradually being phased out in favor of A320 and 738 mostly, especially in the United States. But in Europe, there are still a lot of 400's flying, besides SN there is KLM, BA, CSA, Turkish, LOT and Ukraine International still flying those.
Yup, it looks like if you want to find a 734 in the States, AS is really the only good bet...but even then, it looks like most of their 734 service these days is in Alaska itself. Indeed, Olympic appears to have a fairly sizeable fleet in Europe, too.
Tomskii From Belgium, joined May 2011, 461 posts, RR: 0 Reply 18, posted (2 years 5 months 1 week 2 days 12 hours ago) and read 5656 times:
Loved it. I have been on a 733 (one without winglets) from SN as well coming back from VIE. As I'm a member of Vatsim I arranged something for one of our events at Brussels Airlines HQ. While we visited their HQ for the place they would like to provide us I complained about the small legroom on the 733.
Tony Capiot, as the gentlemen is called told me those are old planes that date from the Virgin Express merge with SN. Sabena used to sell business class on the first 10 rows and thus have waaay more legroom. Behind rows 1-10 you have the Virgin Express seat pitching witch is waay to small as you could experience yourself. That's why SN want's to get rid of them.
Ahh, Vatsim! I have a good friend who has been urging me for two years to join the Vatsim community, but I am a traditional flight-simmer, I guess one could say, and have yet to do so. I know I'm missing out, though.
Quoting Tomskii (Reply 18): Virgin Express merge with SN. Sabena used to sell business class on the first 10 rows and thus have waaay more legroom. Behind rows 1-10 you have the Virgin Express seat pitching witch is waay to small
Interesting. Thanks for sharing that bit of background info.