This trip came completely out of the blue - organised at the very last minute in order to be able to meet some key customers in the Indian Ocean. We have a Travel Office who do our bookings but I figure what's the point of having access to a hugely powerful GDS if not to book wierd and whimsical journeys, and luckily, the itinerary we had in mind meant we had to fly some quite odd routings just to get where we wanted to go (woohoo !) - so I submitted our itinerary request and hoped for the best
There were some squeaks of horror at the projected cost of the trip, but when we pointed out quite reasonably that the itinerary we had selected was absolutely the only possible way to attend both planned meetings, the squeaks subsided (mostly, although I know I shall probably suffer eternal damnation and endless trips to Outer Mongolia as punishment for this particular trip !)
The first leg was excellent - Nice-Malpensa-Nossi Be-Antananarivo. We had lucked out, in that the Air Madagascar flight direct flight from Paris to TNR was cancelled the day we had to travel, so we got to go via Milan, on the 1x weekly MD flight that stops in Nossi Be to drop off people going on diving holidays off the reefs of Northern Madagascar. Normally I hate travellling via MXP, but I leapt at this particular option. MXP is such a tip, it may only have been built 10 years ago, but it looks like a relic of 70's Soviet-era architecture, manned by people with the work-ethic of a 3-toed sloth who make Lenin's corpse look hyperactive.
^ 23May06 AZ339 Alitalia Express ATR72-500 I-ATLR NCE MXP
Checked in at NCE T1 quite early - I feigned ignorance and used the Business Class desk, the queue at the other one was way too long, and I hate queueing. I met m'learned colleague Gilles (the account manager who'd decided we needed to go on the trip, so he is in my good books forever) and we went through, pausing only to collect my CAPS points (CAPS is Nice Cote d'Azur's Frequent Flyer program, if you get 1000 points you get a gold card which lets you bypass the security queue - it's quite cool, you scan your fingerprint and use a gate at the front of the queue - meeyarvellous !).
Boarding was from the bus gates downstairs, we boarded (apparently) on time, but when the bus got out to the stand, we had to wait onboard for quarter of an hour while the cleaners arrived, chatted to the crew, stood around and then left. Meanwhile, despite the fact that half the passengers had hand-luggage to be check at the aircraft, the ground crew had closed the forward cargo door. We watched from the bus as the locked down the cargo netting, muttering to ourselves "Errmm, what about this lot then", then they closed the door and started getting ready to leave. Finally the idle ground crew person turned up, and let us off the bus, which had been getting hot and sweaty. Had to laugh at the rampers jaws dropping when they saw about 50 rollaboards accumulating at the bottom of the steps to be loaded in the hold - hehe !
Got onboard, I had a window seat just behind the wing, with an empty seat next to me. We waited a while while the loaders reopened the hold and loaded the hold baggage, they closed up the aircraft, and we waited some more. After 15 minutes of this, with no aircon and no news, the captain came on and announced that owing to weather in the Milan area, MXP was using a single runway for landings and take-offs and so we had to wait in NCE for 40 minutes before we could leave. Hmmmm - we only had an hour between flights at MXP, this would make our connection kind of tight. After another 5 minutes the captain started the starboard engine to run the air conditioning, and it got a lot better.
We took off to the northeast, over the Promenade, turned out over the sea then turned left and followed the coast as far as Genoa, then turned inland. Flight time was about 45 minutes, with drink service. Landed towards the south (I think) and taxied out to the remote stands near the hangars - longish wait for the bus, slightly panicking now as we only had 15 minutes before our flight was due to leave. As we drove into the terminal we could see the MD aircraft at its gate, with a catering truck still up to the forward door.
^ 23May06 MD055 Air Madagascar B767-300 5R-MFF MXP NOS TNR
The bus took us to the other end of the ugly MXP terminal - Gilles and I both charged off to check which gate our flight was leaving from on the displays, didn't bother with the appallingly slow and innefficient transfer desk, just went straight up, through passport control and security and ran to the gate (A14 I think it was). Got there, the gate was still closed, with no sign of boarding. Found the gate CSA (who turned out to be the MD Station Manager) and asked him if we could check in. He had to phone down to the office to get us checked-in (not sure why, he had a terminal right at the gate) and then gave us our boarding cards. We'd pre-seated ourselves in Amadeus (MD being a system user) and so we knew what seats to expect, but we didn't get them (unsurprisingly, probably didn't make it as far as ARCO (AZ's DCS system used at MXP by just about everybody), and if they did who knows what ARCO did with them !) - so we pointed this out, politely - 2A and 3K please (we both like window seats). He had to faff about a good deal to get us moved, but eventually we got 2K and 3K, so all happy.
The flight was delayed by 45 minutes because the incoming aircraft had been delayed by the weather, so we hung about at the gate (no lounge for MD at MXP, with only one flight a week). We waited for the herd to clear at boarding and went on pretty much last. Business Class cabin was quite small, 4 rows of seats 2x2x2 with very decent pitch, the purser and the lady FA greeted us and took us to our seats, got us settled and brought us drinks. We left about an hour late, took off to the south and headed straight down the spine of Italy.
Service on board was absolutely impeccable, the crew were friendly, helpful and pleasant, never leaving a glass empty, whisking away plates as soon as you were done, nothing was too much trouble. I had excellent seafood salad, a disappointing pasta/cream dish (very watery) and a very tasty fruit tart for desert, then settled down to work on presentation material for the meeting on Wednesday.
The aircraft was ex-Air Canada and had AC's old Business Class seats, but with the PTV's removed and (for some reason) the lumbar adjustment disabled. Very comfortable though, with good recline, I went to sleep around midnight, and woke up at around 5:30 for breakfast (croissants, fruit, yoghurt, excellent coffee and very sweet orange juice). As the sun rose, we crossed the coast of Tanzania and passed the Comores, then started our descent for Nossi Be.
As we approached the coast of Madagascar, we crossed over some of the out-lying islands, very green with pale brown beaches, and shallow reefs scattered between them - we curved in from the north west and touched down right on the end of the very short runway - the pilot slammed on every brake, cranked up the reverse thrust as soon as the main wheels settled and hauled the bird to a halt with his bare hands just about, and we trundled up to the other end of the runway to turn round and taxi back to the single turn-off straight onto the tiny apron. The terminal building at NOS is small but neat looking, if a bit basic. The 767 towered over it, the end of the wing higher than the roofline.
^ 24May06 MD055 towering over the terminal at Nossi Be
About 120 pax disembarked from forward and rear doors, and formed a disorderly herd at what appeared to be a single immigration desk. Immigration formalities take a very long time in Madagascar, and involve buying stamps and having about 8 people peer at your passport, stamp it and sign it. I expect the people at the back probably only cleared immigration in time to get on their flight home a week later
I asked if I could go down and wander on the tarmac but the purser said no, and there were a bunch of policemen standing round at the bottom so I stood at the top of the steps. It was about 7:00 am but already warm and very muggy - thick green forest surrounds the airport, with a few houses scattered along the perimeter fence, and the runway has been extended out to the shallow mangrove-lined bay. Lots of ground crew busy on the ground, they don't get much apart from Twin Otters up at NOS, so the 767 is an occasion !
We were on the ground about an hour, nobody boarded in NOS apart from an MD ground crew member who presumably was hitching a lift to Tana, who sat down at the front and went to sleep. We taxied out to the opposite end of the runway where we'd turned round after landing, the captain wound up the engines with his feet firmly on the brakes, and we launched like a Viper off Battlestar Galactica - I've never felt a 767 move like that ! We blew off the runway about 100m from the end and went up almost vertically (it felt like it, anyway), turning south east round the top of the island, with the town of Nossi Be down to our right.
^ 24May06 MD055 taking of from Nossi Be
We had drinks and a snack on the 1 hour and a bit leg to TNR - not much to see on the way down, bare brown and eroded hills and rivers, very little forest or agriculture.
We landed at Antananarivo from the north, didn't really see much of the city. The runway is long and wide and slopes gently downhill, but has only one exit point halfway down, directly onto the apron, so we had to turn round at the end of the runway and taxi all the way back up.
We disembarked down the forward steps, said goodbye to the crew, who'd been brilliant the whole way and went into the pleasant terminal - built in a local architectural style, almost Polynesian, with high pointed roof peaks and hardwood columns. I was first in line for immigration, bought my stamps, handed over my passport and form and waited 10 minutes while various people signed and stamped it. I only had hand luggage so wandered out past customs, they just asked where I'd come from and didn't bother checking inside my bag. Once outside an enterprising taxi-driver latched onto me and wouldn't leave me alone, despite having to wait another 20 minutes for Gilles, whose passport was too full for any more stamps, so he had to wait while an administrative executive decision was made to let him have the stamp on a loose piece of paper.
TNR airport arrivals area is small but neat, a little old but clean and tidy, a few craft shops and a couple of banks. We changed money and took the adhesive taxi driver's cab into town...
Continued tomorrow (it's late) - TNR-MRU-DXB-SEZ (going the long way round !).
[Edited 2006-07-04 23:01:32]
[Edited 2006-07-04 23:04:49]