I wanted to visit Macedonia, since she was one of only four European countries I hadn´t visited yet (the others being Ukraine, Moldova and Iceland).
So, upon realising that Salonica in Northern Greece is only about 50 kilometres from the border I waited for germanwings´ next "Crazy Night" to book a cheap flight to SKG.
Thursday, November 27, 2003:
Stuttgart (Echterdingen [soon Theodor Heuss?]) - Thessaloniki/Salonica (Mikra Makedonia)
1400-1715 (scheduled)/1744-2104 (actual)
Airbus A319-112, D-AKNI "Johannes Gutenberg", delivered May 5, 1999:
Photo © Herbert Ade-Thurow
Because I´m really a chicken when it comes to tickets in "fly or die" fare classes, I arrived at STR (via rail) at 11, three hours prior to departure. First thing I noticed at the departures screen was "4U 2980 to Saloniki expected 1600". Wow, great way to start my short trip. I then scanned the arrivals board and found that the inbound 4U from LIS, scheduled for 13something was indicated with an ETA of 1550. A quick calulation led me to realise that the plane had not even left LIS yet; plus a ground time of a mere ten minutes seemed to be just a TINY bit optimistic.
Having concluded that that our delay was bound to grow to 3 hours plus, I consulted my OAG and found an OA flight STR-SKG leaving at 1310. With that information and my prior calculations on hand I headed to the 4U office in terminal 4 and asked whether it was possibly to be rebooked onto OA.
The ladies there played dumb: the flight will positively leave at 1600 or maybe even earlier, we don´t care whether you´ll miss your train connexion to Macedonia, no there´s no risk the flight will be cancelled due to curfew or the crew becoming illegal. They basically made clear "we´re low cost and you suck". Not that I´d realistically expected anything else; but I have to say I´m not at all satisfied how the whole affair was handled (I´ll elaborate a bit in my overall conclusion).
Anyway, I proceded to the check-in counter to queue (can´t really call it "queuing" since it was just me) and waited until 1200. And waited, and waited. Hey guys, even when the departure is delayed, check-in opens at 1200, ja? At 1215 it finally happened, I got boarding pass 001 after being asked twice "You really don´t want to check any baggage?". I answered "yes". What I didn´t say was "I sure as hell won´t wait at the baggage claim when the plane is delayed as much as it is. If you have a problem with my three pieces of handluggage, you have to go come and wrestle them from my dead cold fingers."
At least I got a food voucher nominally worth 5 EUR. Why I´m writing "nominally"? Well, I spent it at the airport restaurant with a nice view on the apron, got me a piece of cake and an orange juice: considering I had to pay another 1 EUR cash, the true purchasing power of that voucher was more in the 2.50 EUR region
From there, I spotted D-AHOI, a former HX Jumbolino now with EW
Photo © Robert Schönherr Jr.
Photo © Peter Unmuth - VAP
which is now all white
Photo © Michael Nikel
presumably being readied for the atrocious new "Lufthansa Regional" coulours:
Photo © Kai-jens Meyer
Photo © Konstantin von Wedelstaedt
Boarding was set for 1600, and when I leisurely strolled to the gate shortly after that, of course no 4U staff was visible. But then, it was highly improbable we´d be boarding an airplane that was probably somewhere over central France at that time: the ETA for the LIS flight had meanwhile been changed to 1630.
That flight finally landed at 1645. In the meantime, the 4U staff had arrived at 1615, promising boarding would start "in 10 or 15 minutes". I guess now is the appropriate time to tell you a bit about the mix of passengers who were by now waiting at the gate: 91 including three infants, no biz travellers, 80-90% (ethnic) Greeks, most of the short-tempered, hot-headed and growing more and more pissed-off. Before you ask, yes it was funny to quietly sit there and watch the near-tumultuous scenes...
In the end we got to enter the "Johannes Gutenberg" at 1715 and departed at 1744, or three hours 45 minutes late.
The crew explained (partly in the apology via the PA, partly to me upon asking in the galley) the delay´s cause as follows: the night rotation to Istanbul´s Asian airport SAW, leaving STR 22ish and arriving back 6ish had been diverted to IST (=Europe), resulting in the pax being bussed from SAW to IST. Presto, you´re running 3 hours late.
The flight itself was normal. Some comments on the routing, which led us meticulously around Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbia-Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia: STR, Munich, Triest, Split, Adriatic Sea, Corfu, Northern Greece, SKG.
Friday, November 28, 2003:
Today was the day of my side trip to Macedonia. There are to trains daily from Salonica to Macedonia, one going in the morning to "Lublijana" and one in the evening to Belgrade. Consequently, the returns are in the evening and morning, respectively. I opted for the morning (0800) departure/evening (2200)arrival. Pondering whether to spend the day at Gevgelija, the first Macedonian village just behind the border or at Skopje, the capital, located another two hours to the North, I went for the former: I thought if the return train doesn´t run as scheduled, it´s easier to get back from Gevgelija than from Skopje. How right I was...
There´s just nothing at Gevgelija; if you´re interested, check out
Having arrived at 0900, even walking very slowly, I had basically seen eveything by 1100. OK, change money, buy stamps, write postcards (the world needs to know my landmark visit to country number 50 ) - another hour. So, seven hours to kill at Gevgelija´s lovely train station. Well. Thankfully I had anticipated exactly that scenario and packed enough reading material. However, once you´ve waited for seven hours at the train station in the middle of Macedonian nowhere, you don´t care that much about your ICE running half an hour late in Germany...
At 1800, I asked whether my train was running on time. The horrid answer: no, it´s not. The engine is broken, the train is stranded somewhere in Serbia with no spare parts in sight, five to six hours delay, minimum.
Aaaaaargh! Stranded! No way I´d spend the night at that station! Only solution (-> no busses, no way to walk back to the next Greek village [Idoumeni] and take a bus from there): Taxi. I was really lucky:
- I found a taxi driver whose brother-in-law had a visa for Greece and whose cousin´s friend had a car with insurance for Greece.
- Despite being chauffeured around the darker corners of Gevgelija (from brother to cousin to whatever etc...), I did not end up with my throat cut (except financially) and my body thrown into the Vardar river.
- I could convince the Greek immigration officer was passport was not forged, despite my name containing a letter "which I haven´t seen before and which doesn´t exist" ( ß ).
- I arrived at Salonica despite my chauffeur having an apparent seath wish and driving like an idiot through 75 kilometres of torrential rain.
Saturday, November 29, 2003:
Thessaloniki/Salonica (Mikra Makedonia) - Stuttgart (Echterdingen)
1745-1920 (scheduled)/1917-2042 (actual)
Airbus A319-112, D-AKNH, delivered March 9, 1998:
Photo © Michael Van Bosch
Arrived at SKG three hours to departure, only to be told about another delay, this time "only" 1.5 hours.
Received the boarding pass, first time (for me) out of Germany 4U used only the reusable plastic boarding passes: both at Istanbul and at CDG they use normal ones. So, same procedure as every flight, I had to find some place to photocopy the card to keep my log complete.
Also, there is a Caravelle at SKG, grown over by plants and left at a field just outside the airport perimeter to rot. Could it be this one?
Photo © Elliott Kefalas
Despite being able to go right next to it, no markings or anything were visible ( - and the pics I took are certainly no airliners.net quality).
When the plane for my return flight arrived, I was quite surprised: it was D-AKNH. No big deal you say? Sure. But: in May, I flew CGN-CDG-CDG (shameless plug: http://www.airliners.net/discussions/trip_reports/read.main/33075/ )with 4U, a/c were NI and NH. Now, I flew STR-SKG-STR, with - NI and NH! Funny coincidence...
Again the flight itself was just normal for the 106 pax (including two infants). The routing avoided ex-Yugoslavia again, but was completely different: SKG, Sofia, left turn over the Danube, another left turn over the South Carpathian Mountains, Arad, Budapest, Salzburg, Munich, STR. Got a great view of Munich (Budapest was unfortunately only visible from the right side, and I was sitting left), I believe I was able to make out the Olympic Stadium. Also, just before Salzburg we overflew three lakes, which, upon checking my atlas, might have been the Lakes Traun, Atter and Mond.
I´m considering never to fly 4U again. Three out of six flights I took with them were delayed, two of them substantially.
You say I can´t blame them about the fog at Istanbul? Maybe I can: could it be that IST (from which 4U switched to SAW for cost reasons) is better equipped to handle rough weather? Don´t know, but obviously the plane could land at IST when it could at SAW. Makes you wonder.
Plus, when you have delay-prone airports or flights, adjust the a/c´s rotation appropriately. It´s not acceptable an aircraft starts the day at 0600 with a 3 hour delay backlog.
The handling of the delay and subsequent treatment of the passengers affected was unprofessional:
- They knew about the delay in the night before. They could (and should) have contacted the passengers of the following LIS and SKG flights.
- Additionally, with a delay that massive, and with so much time to re-adjust, alternative transportation should have been arranged: get a back-up plane (be it from LH or EW or wherever) and/or rebook passengers to other airlines. It´s fine to hide behind the shield "low cost" when it comes to on-board service, seat pitch and the like, but in this field a low-cost airline should act just like a normal airline. (Apparently the EU shares this my view.)
- Passengers already waiting at the airport should be continuously kept informed about the current delay status - which has not happened in this case.
I´m going to write a letter to 4U consumer relations about these points, depending on the answer I´ll consider 4U for future trips, or not.
So, that´s it, thanks for reading my report. I´m afraid it has become a little larger than I originally had intended. And that even without any "exotic" airline, -craft or -port being involved
As always, please don´t hesitate to come forward with questions, suggestions, criticism, praise etc...