A little background first… In January of 2002 I was nominated by my school to attend an event taking place in the summer called the Global Young Leaders Conference, held in Washington, D.C. and New York City. My parents, though sick at the thought of me, an Arab-American teenager, travelling alone to the US after Sept. 11, were fully supportive and managed to muster up some excitement. Transportation to and from the US was to be organized by me, the “delegate”, and, already shelling out more than $2500 for “tuition”, a good bargain was of utmost importance. That’s where SWISS came in, offering a once-in-a-lifetime fare of AED 4000 (~$1086) return, excluding airport taxes. But in order to arrive in Washington, D.C. on the 28th (as per instructions of the conference’s organizers), I had to fly from Dubai, since SWISS provided a daily service from there, as opposed to 3 times weekly in Abu Dhabi (AUH). No problem for me, though—a new airport for me to check out! After the conference I planned on visiting some family friends in Jacksonville, Florida. I found some great fares on Expedia.com, eventually settling on Delta. Since you can’t purchase tickets from Expedia if you’re not a US resident, I had those friends buy it and send it to me.
It took forever for the 27th of July to arrive, but finally, it did.
Saturday, July 27th, 2002
Flight: Swiss International Air Lines LX243
Dubai DXB – Zurich ZRH
>Aircraft: Airbus A330-200; HB-IQ? (most likely –IQB or –IQH)
Departure Time: 01.50
Arrival Time: 06.25
Class: Economy Seat: 31K
Significance: first time out of DXB; first time on A330; first time on SWISS; first time to ZRH
Photo © Chris Waser
Photo © Chris Waser
My family and I arrived at Dubai International Airport at around 23.30, after an hour and a half drive from Abu Dhabi. After loading my luggage unto a cart, it took us about 10 minutes to figure out how to reach the terminal from the parking lot, which was at a lower level than the terminal. Glad to have finally found the terminal, we were met by hoards and hoards of people as we entered. It was frightening, to say the least. Hundreds and hundreds of people of every nationality imaginable were squeezed into a relatively tight space. Nighttime is DXB’s busiest time (as well as in most Gulf airports, including AUH), since it is when all Europe-bound flights depart.
Soon it was time for me to pass through initial security and check-in. After my mother’s inevitable crying and many “Take care of yourself”s, and my father’s rather lengthy briefing on how to take care of my possessions, I bade my family farewell and finally passed through security to begin what would be the biggest adventure of my life.
Upon entering the check-in area, I walked around several times searching for the SWISS check-in desk, but in vain. Finally, I asked a check-in agent sitting at an empty desk and was informed that the SWISS desk would open in 20 minutes. Great. Frustrated, I went and sat down on one of the seats and waited. I passed the time playing on my mobile (or cell phone, for our North American friends ) and watching the hustle and bustle that was going on around me. It was very busy (read: chaotic), with many airlines checking-in passengers, including KLM to AMS. Anyway, 20 minutes later there was still no sign of a SWISS ticket agent. It wasn’t until after 15 minutes that a woman sat at the desk and finally began accepting passengers. I was the first one in line, and the ticket agent apologized profusely for the delay. She was quite efficient and very quick in processing my details, checking me and my luggage all the way to Washington/Dulles. All was running smoothly until it came time for seat assignment. I had joined the (now deceased) QualiFlyer Frequent Flyer Program especially for this trip, and had informed them that my preferred seat was a window one; I was looking forward to see if this would actually result in my having a window seat, or if it was all a big scam. But I digress. I asked the agent, just in case, for a window seat, but was met by a “Sorry, all window seats are taken”, and was assigned seat 30D for the DXB-ZRH sector (but, on the upside, was assigned 23K for ZRH-IAD). Grudgingly I took my boarding passes. So much for frequent flier preferences.
A few minutes later I found myself past security and on my way to the terminal, which, if anybody’s flown from DXB knows, takes forEVER. It’s just one travelator after another! After what seemed like hours I was finally in the heart of the Sheikh Rashid Terminal. It was magnificent. It was opulent. It was HUGE. There was so much to explore, so, not wasting any time, I grabbed my stuff and ventured into the mammoth that is Dubai Airport Duty Free. It was great, and I ended up buying two Schabak models: an Emirates B777-300 and a Swissair A330-200.
DXB is a veritable spotter’s paradise. There was a multitude of airlines and aircraft represented here, and the few I managed to see included: many, many Emirates B777s and A330s; a Vietnam Airlines B767 bound for Paris; 2 Royal Brunei B767s—one to London/LHR and the other to FRA; an Air France B777 for Paris/CDG; a Kuwait Airways A310 (I think) to Kuwait; a couple of Gulf Air planes; a KLM B767 to AMS; and a BA B777 to London/LHR… There were far more than I could possibly see or remember.
At around 01.10 boarding commenced, with First and Business class pax given priority, followed by families and seniors. Economy boarding was by rows, beginning from the back of the cabin to the front. As I slowly, but steadily, progressed towards the plane’s door, I admired the aircraft that would transport me to Zurich. It was absolutely gorgeous and pristine in full SWISS livery. I was greeted with a courteous “hello” by a smiling flight attendant, and shown where my seat was. As I walked down the plane toward my seat, I noticed how bright and airy the cabins were. I also noticed how full Business class was—about 75%-80%. Business class looked quite disappointing, though, as the seats didn’t seem to me to be anything special—just an enlarged version of the economy seat with extra legroom. On the way to my seat, I passed by a couple of flight attendants, all of whom, without exception, smiled at me and welcomed me on board. To tell you the truth, I am not used to such friendliness on a plane, since the other airlines I regularly fly on are EgyptAir and Gulf Air (pre-Hogan era). These attendants were actually nice to me! Genuinely nice. That makes a more difference than you can ever imagine.
The Economy cabin was 100% full—not one empty seat. I stowed my messenger bag in the overhead compartments, and then walked up to an FA with my suit carrier in hand to ask her if she could hang it for me somewhere. She told me that the only space available was in First class or Business class, and that, normally, economy pax weren’t allowed or something like that. Nevertheless, she told me to wait in my seat and said she would come back after the door was closed and all premium passengers had boarded. Before you knew it, she came back and took the carrier from me. I thanked her profusely. My opinion on SWISS just kept improving as time went on.
Now that everything was taken care of, I took some time to discover my seat and its surroundings. The seat itself, with its attractive blue cloth cover, is quite comfortable for an economy seat, and is equipped with adjustable lumbar support and head rests with adjustable ears. There’s a lovely PTV in the seatback in front of me; it said ‘Welcome’ in English and the 4 official languages of Switzerland: German, French, Italian, and Romansch. So far I was impressed. What was even more impressive was the 500ml bottle of Vittel water present in the pouch in front of me. What a brilliant idea! I get really thirsty on planes and that bottle would come in handy.
But then there was the seat pitch and width. I’m a…
The captain personally welcomed us on board in English, German, and French, respectively (followed by a recorded welcome message in Arabic) as the plane began its pushback. The safety on board video was played right after. It’s computer-animated and surprisingly life-like. The video ended just as we reached the end of the runway. The plane stopped for about half-a-minute as the excitement inside of me began to grow. Taking-off is my favorite part of the entire flying experience, and this particular one was one of the best I’ve had so far. The noise from the powerful Pratt & Whitney engines increased gradually but surely as the plane accelerated down the runway. Before I knew it, the plane lifted off the ground, flying into the night. I could see the twinkling lights of Dubai beneath me as the plane ascended. I secretly waved goodbye to the land of the Emirates. I was finally on my way.
Photo © Adrian Raths
Photo © PixAir
Soon after take-off, the ‘Fasten Your Seatbelt’ sign was switched off, and, as usual, half of the cabinjumped out of their seats and headed straight for the lavatories. The captain came on the PA system and welcomed us again on board the flight. He informed us of our flight path, expected flight time, and that the IFE was to be activated shortly. He repeated this in English, German, and French, as he did everything for the remainder of the flight. Meanwhile, FA’s began the drink service. There was quite a selection of different beverages available, ranging from beers to wines, juices, and soft drinks. I asked for apple juice from the friendly, SMILING FA. It came in a really simple and chic SWISS plastic cup, along with a bag of Swiss Mix. I had no idea what it was, so I ripped it open to taste it. It was so good! It’s a salty mixture of pretzels and different flavored dry biscuits, something like trail mix, I suppose. But it was absolutely delicious! Totally unexpected! I promptly finished the entire packet, washing it down with the refreshingly cool apple juice.
The FA’s collected the garbage later, after which they began preparing to serve our “light meal”. After about 30 minutes, the meal service began. The tray comprised of a plate of cold cuts, cheese, and vegetable slices, and some sort of cake. It was presented in the trademark SWISS minimalist, chic fashion, with white plastic dinnerware, beautiful METAL cutlery (with ‘SWISS’ and the logo engraved on it), and the most gorgeous little wine/juice glass—made of real glass. The snack itself may sound very little, but it really was delicious, and surprisingly filling. The best part of the meal, though, had to be the bread rolls. To call them delicious would be the understatement of the century! They were delightfully warm (not too hot!), fluffy, and they literally melted in your mouth! The FA’s walked up and down the aisle several times, offering more of these delicious rolls to whoever wanted. And I swear to you: almost every single person took at least took another one! Clearly, catering is serious business at SWISS.
During the meal I had the opportunity to explore the IFE. Now the last time I had experienced a PTV was in 1997 on American Airlines flight from JFK-LHR, so I was excited (to say the least) at the chance of being able to control my own entertainment. SWISS’s IFE on the A330, though probably incomparable to the likes of SQ’s KrisWorld, or Emirates’s IFE, is wholly enjoyable. It encompasses a multitude of video channels and 16 audio channels. The video channels offer up to 6 movies simultaneously, including new blockbusters, classic gems, and kids’ movies. There’s also a short features channel, and, of course, the all-important airshow channel. The movies can be heard in different languages, including French, Italian, and German.
In addition to the video channels, there are video games available. These are really fun and really help pass the time. The best game by far is Who Wants to be a Millionaire? It’s loads of fun, but you do have to know your English history (which I don’t). Nevertheless, I somehow managed to reach £125, 000 Other games include HangMan, Magma Zone (really fun), Solitaire, and Chess.
The choice of audio is quite impressive, with 16 channels to choose from. There’s everything from Arabic, to Pop, to Soul, to Indian. There’s a fantastic channel, called SWISS 1, that plays the most amazing mix of chillout music—very cool, very relaxing, very Swiss! (One of the songs featured was Eple, by Röyksopp—I think it should be the official theme song of SWISS!) A great feature is the ability to watch the airshow while listening to the audio channel of your choice.
By the time my tray had been cleared, I had watched episodes of Friends, Will & Grace (you gotta love Jack ), and Everybody Loves Raymond, and began watching Monsters Inc. Soon the lights were dimmed, and most of the passengers slowly drifted into sleep. I have never been able to sleep on planes—I’m always too excited to do that! My neighbor, whom I mentioned earlier, decided to go to sleep. That’s when things went downhill for the next 4 hours of the flight… Finding a comfortable sleeping position is, of course, essential, and it’s definitely hard to sleep upright in a cramped space (which is another reason why I don’t sleep on planes).
After the movie finished, I switched to the flight show, tuned into the Modality channel (jazz), covered myself with the complimentary blanket, adjusted my headrest’s ears, and just closed my eyes. If I can’t sleep, I should at least try to relax! The blanket is blue, like the seat covers, and is pure synthetic material, which gets irritating after a while. But it does warm you up, which I suppose is its most important purpose. The pillows were a joke, like most airline pillows, so I didn’t bother using one. The headrest was actually useful—the ears gave some support, and you could move the headrest up or down, adjusting it to your height.
I remained in that position for about an hour or so. And then my legs went numb. I tried to ignore it for a while, but it just got worse and I couldn’t take it any longer; plus I was worried about DVT (thankfully, though, I took a couple of aspirins before boarding the flight). The in-flight magazine, SWISS Magazine, has a section devoted to in-seat exercises to stimulate circulation that I found very helpful and, surprisingly, they worked!
Speaking of the in-flight magazine… SWISS Magazineisn’t too bad. It’s nicely presented, with clear graphics and a nice, simple design. Most featured articles are both in German and English. A particularly interesting editorial is a city guide, where every month a SWISS destination is highlighted using photos. For the July issue, it was Montreal. Other than that, it isn’t terribly interesting, but it’s fine, nevertheless.
About 2 hours out of Zurich, the unmistakable smell of freshly brewed coffee pervaded the cabin. The cabin was slowly flooded with the early morning light as passengers were waking up and opening their windows. I decided that it was time for me to visit the lavatory, taking advantage of the fact that my neighbor had finally woken up. Not many people were awake yet, so I didn’t have to wait long to get in. The toilet wasn’t anything special, just a standard airliner lavatory. It wasn’t very big, but it was bright and clean.
After I had freshened up, I exited the lavatory to discover that they had begun serving breakfast. I hurried to my seat and soon enough I was served breakfast by a cheerful attendant. It consisted of a cold cheese, mini-baguette sandwich, a bowl of chilled raspberry yogurt, and a banana, along with butter and (I think) Camembert cheese. Again, rolls and croissants were offered, as well as the most delicious airline coffee I have had to date. FA’s walked around the cabin offering seconds of the rolls/croissants/coffee/tea to whoever wanted. This meal was delicious, filling, and energizing. Well done, SWISS!
Trays were cleared as we began our descent into Zurich-Kloten. Looking out of my window, I could see the gorgeous terrain of central Europe pass under us as we approached our destination. I had my PTV tuned to the airshow, which had began posting connection information, a feature I thought was very clever and useful. Flights up to 4 hours later were shown, most of which were European flights. My IAD flight, scheduled for 12.30, was not shown.
30 minutes out of ZRH, the captain switched on the ‘Fasten Your Seatbelt’ sign and, before long, we touched down at Zurich-Kloten International. The views of the dense, vivid green forests as we landed were mind-boggling! The captain came on again and gave us the usual details (time, temperature, etc.), and then thanked us for flying SWISS. The A330 ultimately came to a complete stop at Terminal A gate. As I disembarked, I thanked the captain and purser, who were seeing off passengers at the door, for a fantastic flight. They smiled, thanked me, and said they hoped to see me again on SWISS. I walked down the jetway smiling; my first SWISS flight had finished and it was fabulous. Six hours later, I would be on my second.
If you don’t care to know about my experience in ZRH, but would rather read about my next flight, please disregard this section.
Photo © Florian Kondziela
Photo © Juan Rodriguez
ZRH was not what I expected it to be. For one thing, it looked and felt very dated—very Seventies. Terminal A was undergoing renovations, which didn’t help at all, adding to the overall chaos and noise. It was terribly hot, though the ancient A/C’s were working at their full power. The sorry excuse for a duty-free/waiting area in the bottom level is totally unacceptable—there were tons of passengers waiting for their early morning flights, as well as connecting passengers, waiting there, and since all seats were occupied they were relegated to sitting on the floor. There isn’t very much seating throughout the terminal, and I had to walk forever around the terminal, lugging my heavy, heavy hand luggage, before I found a seat somewhere around gates A50-something. From there I managed to spot a couple of “exotic” planes/airlines (well to me, anyway!), including an AA B777, CO B777, MAS B777, South African B747, and of course dozens of SWISS widebodies and regionals.
I must note one thing though, which is kind of embarrassing. In case you don’t know, ZRH has 2 terminals, A & B. I didn’t know that. Hence, my disappointment in ZRH at that time. Later I was to visit Terminal B, though I was not terribly impressed by it either.
The patch of sunshine through this dark cloud came when, in boredom, I was flipping through an LX timetable that I found. In it was mentioned the Allegra Lounge, an arrivals lounge exclusively for all SWISS passengers and QualiFlyer members. First/Business passengers and Elite QualiFlyer members were admitted free, while economy passenger could pay $20 to get in. After some initial confusion I finally found my way to the lounge, which is located post-immigration. The friendly lady welcomed me and asked me if I wanted to use the shower facilities. I practically hugged her! She gave me a set of towels and showed me the way to the showers, which are located immediately to the left of the main entrance. The shower room was very clean and well stocked, with shampoo, soap, toothpaste and toothbrush, as well as body lotion and cologne/perfume. The shower was absolutely divine and much needed, especially with the 9-hour flight ahead of me!
After I finished, I walked to the main lounge area and checked out the facilities. It’s not very big, but is quite comfortable and stylishly furnished, with black leather seats and sofas. There are 2 workstations equipped for computers, though there weren’t any actually there. There also are 2 ‘Relaxation zones’—2 curtained cubicles, each housing a comfortable recliner and a blanket. Ingenious idea. The lounge has a self-service bar area, with an impressive collection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Food-wise, there wasn’t much to choose from…just some fruit and croissant. There’s a small collection of Swiss and international newspapers available. There were only 3 persons in the lounge, including myself, so I took advantage of the quiet atmosphere and just chilled, making some phone calls to my family. All in all, the Allegra Lounge is a fantastic facility offered by SWISS.
An hour before my flight was announced, I left the lounge and headed to the ‘Duty-Free’ shops to check them out. Most of the shops carry up-market Swiss and European brands, like Bally and Etienne Aigner; one shop sells Swiss souvenirs which, whilst screaming out “BUY ME!”, are priced way above my price range. The only reasonable shop is the official ZRH Duty Free Shop; it offers a huge selection of alcohol, Swiss chocolate, perfumes, and other miscellaneous items.
At 11.25 the gate of my IAD flight appeared on the information screens—gate A60-something (A62 stands out in my mind). I followed the signs to the gate, arriving there to be met with a security point. I was surprised at this, but later found out that all US-bound flights departed from the gates located after this checkpoint, explaining its presence. I was a bit worried about what would happen to me--being a 17-year-old Arab, travelling alone from the Middle East to the capital of the United States! I was asked to take my shoes off (my first time ever!), as were all other passengers. but other than everything went smoothly.
As an American passport holder I was required to fill out some forms. After that I found a nice seat at the gate lounge with a great view of the apron and sat down and waited. At this point I couldn’t help but let out a sigh of relief—so far, everything had gone exceptionally smoothly.
About 20 minutes later, though, my name, along with another Arab passenger’s, was called on the PA and we were asked to head to the gate agent. This took me completely by surprise, and I couldn’t help getting anxious. As I walked to the gate agent’s desk, I noticed some “looks” coming from the other passengers waiting in the lounge. They weren’t very friendly, to say the least. I was greeted by a cheerful and strikingly beautiful woman. When I asked her why I had been summoned, she said that there was a “problem with my passport.” She took my passport, went through it, typed something on her computer, and then returned my passport with a smile and a “thank you.” I returned to my seat, ignoring the passengers’ looks as much as I could.
After what seemed like ages, we were asked to board…
Zurich-Kloten ZRH - Washington/Dulles IAD
>Aircraft: Airbus A330-200; HB-IQ? (probably –IQH)
Departure Time: 12.25
Arrival Time: 15.45
Class: Economy Seat: 23K
Significance: First time to IAD; first time across Atlantic from airport other than LHR; first time I sleep on a plane
Photo © Florian Kondziela
Boarding was conducted in an orderly fashion, and I was one of the first to board the plane. I was again welcomed on board by a friendly, young flight attendant, and was shown where my seat was. This time, my seat was in the first Economy class cabin—a small one made up of 4 rows. I quickly stowed away my handbag and asked a nearby attendant if she could hang my suit carrier somewhere. She accepted it immediately and walked off into the Business Class cabin, where she hung it in some compartment. I took my seat, made myself comfortable, and just sat there watching the steady influx of passengers—eventually the entire Economy class was filled up, with the exception of the seat next to mine. I was ecstatic at the thought of an empty seat next to me for the next 9.5 hours! I should’ve known better, though (I’m rarely that lucky), because surely enough, at the last minute a girl about my age walked up and claimed the seat. Darn! At least she was easy on the eyes
Before long the door was shut and we were pushed back. During the taxi I was able to spot a couple of planes (mostly SWISS) up close, which was pretty cool. The A330 soon reached the beginning of the runway and, without waiting, the engines roared to their full potential as we raced down the runway, before finally lifting off into the clear blue Zurich sky.
The “Fasten Your Seatbelt” indicator was switched off once we reached proper altitude, and the cabin suddenly came to life as people unbuckled their belts and FAs prepared for the drinks service. The crew on this flight was as brilliant as that of LX 234, if not better. They carried out their duties in an efficient yet friendly manner. The attendant responsible for the right side of the plane (my side) was a middle-aged woman who had a great sense of humor—she was really nice. I asked for apple juice again, and got with it the delicious bag of Swiss Mix. I was exceptionally hungry by then so had no problem in devouring those delicious treats. A half-hour later the garbage was cleared and the crew prepared for the lunch service.
Being at the front of the cabin, I was one of the first served. The choices today were either chicken or pasta; I chose the pasta. The tray, like the one on my previous flight, was well presented, with the signature chic SWISS style. The most noticeable difference was the plastic knife, as opposed to a metal one on the previous flight. The meal included a fresh green salad (with a packet of dressing), the main dish, some sort of cake for dessert, and, of course, butter and cheese. The FA came around with a basket of those delicious bread rolls and even offered seconds to whoever wanted. The pasta dish was essentially penne pasta covered in a tomato/herb sauce. It was hot and—despite its simplicity—was one of the best pasta dishes I have ever tasted. The salad was fresh, the rolls were warm, and the cake was moist and sweet. In all, it was a fantastic, filling meal. The trays were collected an hour or so after lunch was initially served.
At that point I was overwhelmingly tired—I had been awake for almost 20 consecutive hours. But as I never actually slept on planes, I had no hope whatsoever of catching up on my sleep. Nevertheless, I closed my window, wrapped myself with a blanket, made myself as comfortable as those nasty seats would allow me, and closed my eyes. The next thing I knew, I woke up 4 hours later to a completely silent cabin. I had actually slept! This was an unprecedented event, and I celebrated by going to the bathroom. It was clean and actually smelled wonderful. Back at my seat, I was told by my neighbor that I had missed an ice cream service. Dammit! And it was Mövenpick, too—my favorite! Oh well...
The next few hours were uneventful. I noticed that the FAs had disappeared—there was not one sign of them for those couple of hours. That was okay, I suppose, since most of the pax were asleep, anyway. A couple of hours out of IAD, a snack was offered, consisting of a drink of our choice, a sandwich (ham or cheese), and cookies. I wasn’t very hungry but I took a cheese sandwich anyway for later. The cookies were average, and I washed them down with some coke. I ended up eating the sandwich a few days later, and even after being in a fridge for 4 days it was delicious (for a cheese sandwich, anyway).
US Immigration forms were distributed after the remainders of the snacks were cleared, and soon we were preparing for arrival at IAD. I got really excited at this point, and spent the last half-hour of the flight just looking out the window, taking in the scenery that passed underneath us, on what was a bright summer day. Landing at Dulles was smooth and well done. I was surprised when all of a sudden we stopped at what seemed like the middle of the apron. Then I realized that we were parked at a remote stand, and were to be transported to the terminal by means of the famous IAD Mobile Lounges—I couldn’t wait! Disembarking was relatively quick and smooth. The captain and a flight attendant were seeing off the passengers, smiling and saying “good bye”. I entered the Mobile Lounge, which was totally the opposite of what I expected—it was an actual lounge, with like 50 or so seats to accommodate the passengers. The vehicle itself is odd, and it can apparently be driven from both ends. After the door was closed the lounge was lowered and then we began our trip to the main terminal. It was quite fun, really, as we passed many aircraft that were moving around the airport (lots of UA planes). When we reached the terminal, the lounge elevated itself and we entered the terminal. At immigration, a lady was directing all Americans to a separate line, while other nationalities had to use a separate line. I was expecting hell at immigration but was met with the complete opposite: a friendly, old man greeted me warmly, had a quick look at my passport, and in 2 minutes flat I was at baggage claim.
The baggage claim area at IAD leaves much to be desired. It was showing its age and was teeming with suitcases (an Austrian Airlines flight had arrived a few minutes before my flight). It was hot and smelled funny. It took some time for our bags to come out; fortunately mine was one of the first out. I promptly put my bags on a cart and tried to find carousel 10, where I was supposed to meet a representative of the GYLC. After asking around I finally found it. As promised, the rep greeted me and I was taken to a bus. My 12-day adventure had begun.
Stay tuned for Part II, where I recount my trip back to AUH!