This is my first review for this website, so apologies if you think it contains too much waffle. Any feedback would be much appreciated.
Flight: MON 395
Route: Manchester (MAN) – Varadero (VRA) – Holguin (HOG)
Date: 20th July 2004
Departure time: 08:15
The six of us travelling together to Cuba arrived in Terminal 1 at about 5:45am, as we had intended, having made the short journey across from the Crowne Plaza Hotel on the courtesy bus. The queue appeared to be quite long, but it only took about 20 minutes from joining the queue to leaving the desk, which wasn’t too bad. There were three desks open for the 360 or so passengers, the Aviance staff fortunately having decided not to strike. Our check-in attendant didn’t seem particularly happy, but checked us in quickly and didn’t charge us for excess baggage, despite my Grandmother taking nearly double the 20kg allowance and the rest of us each being 1-3kg over. (Last year Air 2000 charged us £87.) We had pre-booked three exit-row extra legroom seats and Monarch had also told us they would request that the other three be sat in the row behind, although they couldn’t guarantee this if we were late checking in. I was delighted to find that they had pre-booked for us rows 8 and 9 seats ABC – the first and second rows of economy class adjacent to door L2. “Great”, I thought, “seats all together and two windows!” The agent also told us that the flight had not been allocated a gate yet, so we would have to keep an eye on the screens to find out where we were to go. We thanked him and left the desk.
We proceeded straight through Passport Control and into the departure lounge. This must have been the first time in about three years in which Mum’s not had a pair of nail scissors or tweezers confiscated - fortunately, this time, they were all in the hold luggage. While everyone else went off shopping, I sat with the bags and switched my scanner on and enjoyed listening to Ground Control and the Arrival Runway controller for an hour or so. After about 45 minutes and seeing a variety of aircraft land and depart (the largest being a Dragonair Cargo 747F and the smallest being an Atlantic ATR-42 on lease to BMI), we saw a Monarch A330-200 land. We assumed this would be our aircraft as Monarch didn’t have too many departing flights that morning and ours was the only long-haul. I watched it taxi past the FLS hangar, trying to see which one it was, and it turned out to be G-EOMA. It then disappeared round the back of the pier to the right, and not long after that the TV screens instructed us to proceed to Gate 26.
I am a big fan of Manchester Airport; the only part I don’t like, however, is the layout of some of the gate areas in Terminal One. Some are fine and have a lot of space and are easy to find; some, like 26, require you to walk down a flight of steps, underneath the walkway for arriving passengers, climb another flight of steps on the opposite side of the glass, and have nowhere near enough seating for a full A330-load of passengers. The area was crowded, hot and very uncomfortable, and you could sense the irritation from the tired passengers as boarding time came and went, and no announcement was forthcoming. An interesting observation made during this time was that a Ryanair 737-200, which had landed over an hour previously, was still parked at stand 205 at Terminal 2. I didn’t have a copy of Flight Check to see the arrival and departure times for that particular flight, but I can only assume there must have been some problem there, technical or otherwise, because turnaround times in excess of half an hour do not appear to be part of Ryanair’s business model. At 8:10, five minutes before our scheduled departure time, passengers began to board. Since we were sat in the exit row adjacent to the boarding door, we were some of the last passengers to board.
My first impressions of the Monarch A330 were pretty much as expected. The cabin was quite bright and the blue seats with yellow headrests looked quite colourful. Unfortunately, Monarch’s A330s, unlike those of Thomas Cook and MyTravel, don’t have PTVs – they still use the old-fashioned arrangement of dropping large CRT monitors from the centre of the cabin after take-off. The only screen I was able to see, therefore, was a very small one stuck up on the wall in front of us on the other side of the door. As well as being small, the area in between us and the screen frequently served as the queue for the toilets, with quite a lot of thoughtless passengers totally obstructing our view of the screen. My other problem with my seat was that, despite sitting in what had been sold to us as an extra-legroom seat (8A), the emergency slide built into the door almost completely obstructed the floor in front of me, forcing me to sit with my legs at an angle for the entire flight. This became a little painful after a while. Another minor problem for us was that row 9, we discovered, has no window on either side! It just has a blank wall panel. I’m sure there must be a good reason for Airbus designing it like this – in fact, I remember a similar topic being discussed in the Civil Aviation Forum, which I must go and look up - but all the same, it made for a fairly boring flight for my sister, who sat in 9A.
We finally pushed back from the gate at 8:45am. Takeoff was on 24L and was pretty smooth. Sitting just forward of the engine is the best place to be on take-off – as well as having a great view, the whine when the throttles go forward, and the subsequent growl of the Rolls-Royce engines at take-off and climb power, is pretty unbeatable as far as I’m concerned. Shortly after the North Wales coast came into view, we entered thick clouds which remained below us until we were over the Atlantic. During the climb, we had a good chat with the flight attendant sitting facing us – she was very friendly and informative. She also told us that the all the flight crew, including the Captain and First Officer, are put up in a hotel in Cuba for three nights before working the return Friday flight to Gatwick. Nice work if you can get it! All the cabin crew on this sector were efficient, courteous, polite and attentive – I would certainly rank them as one of the best crews I’ve flown with. Given the current security climate, I thought it would be inappropriate to request a flight deck visit, and I was sure that if I did, it would be politely refused. During the flight, two extra announcements had to be made to remind passengers that we were on a NON-SMOKING flight. Why are people so arrogant and selfish? Is it really not possible to last without a fag for a few hours?
We climbed up to FL370 to start with, but after crossing the west coast of Ireland had to descend back down to FL320 due to heavy traffic across the Atlantic. A few hours later, we climbed back to FL370, then 390, and eventually up to FL410 before descending into Varadero, which is the highest I’ve ever been! (FL390 was my previous highest in a Canada 3000 A330.)
The in-flight entertainment took a while to get going, but what was shown was generally good. Starsky and Hutch was a good choice for one of the feature films as it was entertaining for both adults and kids. Obviously the choice was not as great as on flights where PTVs are provided, but what was provided was good enough.
I must point out that the meals provided on this outbound leg were definitely the nicest meals I have ever had aboard an aircraft. The breakfast consisted of a delicious ham and cheese croissant, nice chocolate bun and a very good cup of tea; the afternoon meal was the expected chicken, vegetables and noisette potatoes accompanied by the usual cheese and crackers, but for some reason the quality of the main meal seemed much better than anything we’ve had before.
Nine hours after taking off, we began our descent into Varadero. The IFE screens were very informative, pointing out places of interest and indicating how far they were from us and in which direction. We passed directly over Nassau and over the Cayos at the north of Cuba, and after levelling off we flew past one airport, just below to our left. At first I thought this was Varadero and we were about to make a VERY sharp 180-degree turn to finals, but we kept going and about two minutes later flew parallel past another runway slightly further away. Shortly after it disappeared behind us, we began quite a steep left turn on to finals. Touchdown was very smooth, and we exited the runway and followed the yellow “Follow Me” vehicle to an airbridge-equipped stand.
After we had parked at the gate and the flight attendant at our door had handed over all the necessary paperwork, the passengers leaving the aircraft at Varadero began to disembark. Those of us travelling on to Holguin had to remain seated until they had all left, and then the flight attendants had to conduct a head count. Some slight confusion ensued, however, when the flight attendant, together with the Cuban despatcher at the door, contradicted the Purser’s instruction to remain seated, resulting in 8 passengers disembarking before they should have done. The Purser appeared quite frustrated, but rather than questioning his cabin crew, insinuated that it was the passengers’ fault that they had got off before they should have done. Once the head count had been completed, we disembarked and were given Transit boarding passes by the Cuban ground staff, and were allowed into the departure lounge with those waiting to board from Varadero for Manchester.
The terminal at Varadero is very bright, modern, and well air-conditioned, and is very welcoming to weary travellers from a long flight. We sat at a table and had a few refreshing drinks, and a few of us wandered round the small number of shops there. It was when I came back from there that I looked out of the terminal windows to our aircraft and noticed that a couple of Cuban engineers had the cowlings open on the no.1 engine. I took out my binoculars and watched them for about 45 minutes, during which time they appeared to be performing various maintenance procedures from unscrewing a cover and spraying something with what looked like WD-40, to filling up a reservoir in the engine, and eventually hitting something repeatedly with a large spanner. We had no idea what the problem was, but I didn’t really care as long as they made sure it was safe to fly. My dad was slightly more concerned, and sat worrying for the entire time we were in there until we took off again. We should have been on the ground for 90 minutes, but in the end took off half an hour late at 3:30pm local time. The boarding announcements at Varadero were not good – there was no pre-boarding announcement, just one in broken English for “Transit Passengers ONLY” to come forward for boarding. Of course, the herds of cattle (i.e. British holidaymakers) in the lounge charged forward into a disorderly queue regardless of their destination, and it became quite a challenge for the 100 or so of us going to Holguin to elbow our way past them to the front. Some people just do not listen.
The flight time to Holguin from Varadero was just under one hour. It was uneventful, although the Captain did warn us of a possible bumpy landing due to some storm activity around the Holguin area. We climbed all the way up to FL370 before descending, through some pretty thick clouds, down towards Holguin. Touching down at Holguin, our questions about the no.1 engine were answered – we heard the normal roar of the reverse thrust, but the pivot doors on the no.1 engine remained closed; only the reverser on the no.2 engine was operating. We assumed, therefore, that the problem they were trying to fix at Varadero concerned the reverse thrust, and obviously it is safe to fly without it working (so long as the pivot doors can’t become engaged in flight!)
A rather surly Cuban despatcher was waiting on the other side of the door when the flight attendant opened it – there were no smiles or friendly greetings like at Varadero. We were not allowed to disembark for a further three minutes or so while the cabin crew tried to find the correct paperwork. We had also been warned by our tour operator not to take photographs at the airport, but, during our walk to the terminal, I asked a security guard whether I may photograph the aircraft and he said “yes, of course”. Unfortunately, as I was in a hurry and I had a crowd of passengers in front of me, the photograph wasn’t great, and certainly not good enough to upload to a.net!
Flight: MON 394
Route: Holguin (HOG) – Manchester (MAN)
Date: 4th August 2004
Departure time: 17:45
Check-in at Holguin was fast and efficient, despite being warned by our tour representative that we could expect it to be anything but that. The airport itself is small there are very few movements per day, mainly domestic flights. An ATR-72 of AeroCarribean took off just as we arrived, but apart from that there were no arrivals and departures until our aircraft came in. The air conditioning in the terminal was not very good, particularly with the departure area facing directly into the sun. The large glass windows did offer a pretty good view across the airfield. An old Soviet military helicopter was parked up on the far side of the runway, and shortly after we sat down in the bar we saw what looked like a MiG-21 in blue and grey camouflage being towed along the far taxiway by a tractor.
Our aircraft landed about 40 minutes behind schedule due to a storm in Varadero just before it was due to depart from there. I was hoping we would have the same aircraft so we could see if the reverse thrust had been fixed, but it was G-SMAN, Monarch’s other A330, which arrived to take us home. I know the A330s are probably the most intensely-used aircraft in Monarch’s fleet, but surely they must be able to get them painted in the new livery soon – although it was bright and shiny, the old livery isn’t a patch on the new one, and I must say that the no.2 engine on this particular aircraft looked magnificent, sporting about 4 different shades of grey from back to front!
After start-up, we were required to backtrack the entire length of the runway which took a few minutes. During the taxi to the far end of the runway (the orientation of which I have forgotten,) we saw what looked like military huts and secluded aircraft parking areas between clumps of trees, and when we turned round at the end, were greeted by the sight of about 12 Cuban soldiers in motorbikes and sidecars, very close to the edge of the runway, getting a grandstand view of our takeoff! Shortly after the u-turn came the magnificent growl of the Trents, and we climbed out of Holguin and turned north towards the Bahamas.
Due to various ticketing arrangements between the three airports, row 9 behind our pre-booked extra legroom seats had already been taken by people boarding at Varadero. The check-in supervisor had been very apologetic and offered us 9 H,J,K or 10 A,B,C instead. We had immediately gone for row 10, because as well as it being more convenient, we had two windows for the return journey. I elected to sit in 10A for the journey home, and despite being over 6ft I didn’t find the legroom all that bad. Despite what some people say, it is certainly bearable and is much better than the 28” on short haul. I found that if I removed my shoes and placed them and my bag underneath my legs, I had enough room to stretch my legs underneath the seat in front, and it wasn’t too uncomfortable. Actually, I found the most uncomfortable aspect to be the curvature of the fuselage. For passengers sitting next to the windows on the A330, the fuselage curves upwards and inwards much more noticeably than on, for example, the 757. This made trying to find a comfortable sleeping position quite difficult, especially as I am reluctant to recline my seat. The complimentary blanket and pillow provided by Monarch, however, were very much appreciated.
The food served on the way home was, sadly, no where near as good as the food on the way out. The main course was quite hard and tasteless, and the cream inside the profiteroles for dessert tasted distinctly off. Not long after we finished eating, I started getting a bit of stomach ache and needed a trip to the lavatory, which brings me neatly on to my biggest complaint about the flight.
I’m not sure whether the type of toilets found on the Monarch A330s are common to all A330s, all Airbuses or even all commercial jets, but the ones we experienced on our flights, both outbound and inbound, were crap. They just don’t flush properly, regardless of how many times you press the button. I really don’t want to go into the gory details, but sufficient it is to say that if the toilets aren’t capable of flushing down a number two, then there should be adequate signage telling you not to go for one. As there wasn’t, and consequently I did, one of the four toilets adjacent to our row became pretty much unusable for the rest of the flight. Also, due to this happening and my resulting reluctance to use a different toilet in case the same happened again, I had to suffer the remaining five hours or so with painful stomach cramps.
We began our descent into Manchester just after crossing the west coast of Ireland. For a few minutes we had another aircraft flying alongside us to the left, which, when viewed through my binoculars, appeared to be a US Airways A330-300. Unfortunately, before we crossed the east coast, the layer of cloud cover below became too thick to see anything else, and it remained that way until on final approach. Flying through thick cloud, however, does give you a realistic impression of how fast you are actually flying.
We touched down smoothly on 06R, just as a Britannia 767-300 took off on 06L. Shortly after exiting the runway, a PIA 747-200 landed behind us. We crossed 06L and taxied to our stand at Terminal 1. Despite taking off 45 minutes late, we arrived at the gate only 10 minutes behind schedule.
Overall, my impressions of Monarch were good. The aircraft was generally clean, bright and comfortable despite one or two minor niggles, and the cabin staff were probably the best I have experienced on a charter flight. The only things I wish they could improve on are the IFE and the capability of the toilets – I am not attributing any blame to them for the food on the inbound leg, as I doubt there is a great choice of catering companies at Holguin, and the blame lies with the suppliers.
I have attached below a photograph of the no.1 engine on G-SMAN, taken from where I was sitting. If you look towards the bottom of the cowling, there is a little ‘exhaust’ that sticks out of the bottom of the engine. As we were taxiing at Holguin, white smoke or steam came out of this exhaust. Could anyone tell me what purpose this part serves? Sorry, due to uploading problems I'll have to add this at a later date... however, if anyone knows what I mean, could you let me know? Cheers.
Thank you for reading all this. Once again, sorry if I have waffled too much, and I hope you find this review useful.