This has got to be the strangest route anyone has taken to travel from Dublin to Birmingham: DUB-STN-PMI-BCN-PMI-BHX. Five airports, five airlines, five aircraft types, one day. It was 9th February 2004 and the purpose of the trip was to experience the 737-600 and 717 for the first time. As these aircraft aren’t too common in Europe the best place to experience them seemed to be Spain.
Flight: FR 202
Aircraft: EI-CON – 737-200
Load factor estimate: 80%
My day started at 0345 for one of the first flights of the day out of Dublin. Due to waiting 45 minutes for the supposedly regular bus service to the airport and then subsequent technical problems with the bus I made it to the airport at 0555 - five minutes prior to check-in closure. Anyone that has experience with Ryanair will tell you that they close check-in exactly 30 minutes before departure and they don’t bend the rules for anybody. So I sprinted off the bus all the way to the check-in desk and to my relief there was still a small queue. I had hoped to have time for some much needed coffee but that would have to wait as I had to make my way to the gate. Dublin is at its busiest at this time of the day and the security queues were pretty long but that’s nothing new for this airport. Once through security I made a beeline straight for gate A12.
All Ryanair flights go from the A gates at Dublin which is a pretty drab pier that smacks of lost cost flying. Aer Lingus flights to the UK (except Heathrow), Euromanx, Aer Arann, MyTravelLite, Loganair and FlyBE are some of the other users of these gates. When I got to the gate the flight had already boarded. There were several Ryanair aircraft grouped together in the gate area which created a bit of confusion when boarding. I’ve heard stories of passenger getting on the wrong Ryanair aircraft at Dublin and can believe it. Once again I would be travelling on a –200. I’m not a big fan of them but always seem to get stuck with them as Ryanair are adamant about not overnighting and basing –800’s in DUB. I was hoping however to get something a bit different like the Islandsflug –400 which is based in DUB. Of the 48 flights I have done all over Europe with Ryanair 45 have been on 737-200’s.
Once on board I managed to find a window seat on the back row but didn’t get to sit in it as someone else saw that I had seen this seat and did a u-turn and took it themselves. Oh well. I settled for an aisle seat around the middle of the aircraft and decided to try and achieve what for me is the impossible on an aircraft - sleep. Needless to say it didn’t work.
The aircraft pushed back on time and was airborne from runway 28 at 0635. The flight was quite full and a lot of the passengers were business travellers. The aircraft turned to the right shortly after take off and proceeded towards Liverpool by passing by over north Dublin. One thing I hate about Ryanair is the endless number of inflight announcements they make – drinks and snacks, perfumes, special offers, train tickets. It’s all money, money, money and the cabin crew are spurred on by the incentive of sales commission.
The flight went very smoothly in ideal weather conditions. After Liverpool we turned right and proceeded south towards the Birmingham area where we started our descent and then towards Stansted. After the anxiety experienced in reaching DUB the last thing I needed was further worry. So typically another glitch popped up. We started to circle north of Stansted and then were informed by the flight crew that STN was temporarily closed due to an emergency at the airport. I started to have visions of us diverting to Luton and then missing my onward flight to Palma. Thankfully after 15 minutes of circling the aircraft was cleared to proceed to STN as the runway had been reopened. 10 minutes later we landed, at about 0735. On the taxi to the gate a Falcon 900 could be seen surrounded by flashing lights just off the runway.
Stansted is an airport I used to like but from 1996 or so onward that changed as the airport has become more and more congested year-on-year as a result of huge growth in the low cost market. The airport is dominated by Ryanair and easyJet, and Air Berlin also have a significant presence. However on this particular day Stansted was nice and relaxed for a change. Then again I had just missed the early morning rush.
Flight: EZY 3211
Aircraft: G-EZYF – 737-300
Load factor estimate: 80%
There was no queue at all at the easyJet check-in desks so that didn’t take long. I proceeded airside and for once the Stansted security check was relatively quick. I finally got my caffeine in Pret a Manger which offers views of the apron between one of the satellite piers and the Ryanair pier. The newly constructed Ryanair pier at STN is similar to the two satellite piers at the airport except that it has no airbridges at all and it is accessible by foot from the terminal building whereas the other two piers must be accessed by an automatic train.
So I took the train to get to my gate for the PMI flight at about 0920. The terminal building at Stansted may not offer in the much of aircraft viewing but the gate areas are great. I took a seat at the gate for my flight but there was no sign of the easyJet aircraft until about 1000 due to it being delayed on its previous sectors to and from Amsterdam. My seat overlooked the cargo area where there was an NCA 747F and a Global Supply Systems 744F.
The flight looked as though it was going to be quite full judging by the number of people floating around the gate area. Boarding commenced at 1015 by boarding card number. I was in the second group and found a nice window seat towards the back. To my surprise an airbridge was used in boarding the aircraft, although the lights didn’t work in it so it was a bit dark!
The flight left the gate half an hour late at 1030. A short taxi to the runway was followed by a brief wait while a German Wings A320 landed from Cologne. We were then cleared to line up and take off heading straight out in a southerly direction before turning right and skirting around the busy airspace of north and west London. The English coast was crossed overhead Brighton and we then proceeded towards Le Havre in France. From there we routed over Chartres, Limoges and Toulouse where I had a great view of Blagnac airport and the Airbus factory. Shortly after this we crossed the snow-covered Pyrenees which looked beautiful. The weather was clear all the way so there were great views of everything. The next notable sighting was Barcelona which I would be heading to once I got to Palma. It was at this stage that the descent into PMI – the world’s busiest charter airport, commenced. The Mediterranean glistened in the February sunshine. We approached Palma, in the south of Mallorca, by passing over the north of the island and flying straight in. After landing we waited for a departing easyJet 737-700 to taxi in front of us in order for us to reach our gate.
If ever you wanted to get a bit of exercise then go to Palma airport! Especially if the moving walkways aren’t working. The airport is a maze of long halls and passageways and it must have been a 10-15 minute walk from the gate to the arrivals area. Palma is very much an airport designed to handle masses of tourists – it’s huge but it’s very basic. It’s also very spacious with wide marble corridors and high ceilings. Navigating the terminal isn’t too easy however as all the signs are in Spanish, Catalan (I think), German and English so things aren’t too clear from a distance.
Flight: UX 8238
Aircraft: EC-ING – 737-600
Load factor estimate: 50%
I had about two hours before my next flight and I went straight to the Air Europa ticket desk. I booked a restricted business class ticket for the flight to Barcelona but only because it was the cheapest option at the time. At €70 it was worth it anyway. I had an e-ticket for the flight but wasn’t sure whether I had to go straight to the check-in desk like most airlines or go to the ticket desk beforehand like Spanair, as the booking confirmation was all in Spanish – the Air Europa online booking facility could be better. Even with the help of various internet translation sites things weren’t any clearer. It turns out I could go straight to the check in desks so I joined the stagnant queues. Nobody seemed to be in any rush. After about 15-20 minutes I checked in. Thankfully the young lady at the desk spoke perfect English. I always feel ashamed travelling abroad and not being able to piece together a few words of the local language. After check-in I proceeded upstairs to the security check and departure gate. Another small hike was involved but not as bad as earlier.
I had another hour to kill before the flight left so I wandered around the terminal and saw 8 Air Berlin aircraft parked in a line which looked quite impressive. They can have up to 20 aircraft on the ground at a time in PMI so they don’t call themselves the ‘Mallorca Shuttle’ for nothing. I had originally planned to fly from STN to PMI with Air Berlin but as their website wouldn’t accept my credit card for some strange so easyJet got my money – and they were cheaper too!
As it was off-season the airport was not all that busy. In addition to the Air Berlin aircraft I also saw a bmibaby 737-300, Iberworld A320, Air Europa 737-400’s, Spanair MD-80’s and a number of Iberia Regional Dash 8’s. I have been to the airport twice in summer season and it’s a different story. On this particular day the majority of the gates were deserted.
To my delight/relief a 737-600 appeared at the gate for my flight to BCN. By boarding time I had been joined by mainly middle-aged locals and the noise level was incredible. Being northern European, in my early twenties and on my own I felt very much out of place.
The flight boarded and departed on time and my seat was the most comfortable I’ve experienced on an aircraft. On boarding a wide selection of newspapers were offered to all passengers. Unfortunately they were all in Spanish but hey it was a Spanish domestic flight so I can’t complain.
We took off out over the coast towards the south west and then turned right for Barcelona near the popular resorts of Magaluf and Palma Nova. It was another nice smooth flight with good in-flight service. We were offered food but I declined. Pre-flight drinks were also offered as well as sweets prior to landing. The approach to runway 25 at Barcelona was quite nice as most of the city could be seen on the right hand side, including the Olympic Stadium and the city’s busy port. After a short 30 minute flight we landed and taxied to our gate beside a SN Brussels Airlines A319 and an Alitalia MD80. I liked BCN the moment I arrived. The terminal was large but modern and bustling. Big windows allowed good views of the aircraft (mostly Iberia) during the longish walk to the arrivals area. Arriving passengers mix with departing
Passengers at BCN so on departure I went to experience the good views again.
Flight: JK 368
Aircraft: EC-HNZ - 717
Load factor estimate: 45%
Having passed from airside to landside I headed straight for the Spanair ticket desk to pick up my ticket. Why they don’t have regular e-tickets is beyond me. This was when I discovered how long the terminal at BCN really is. I arrived at one end and had to make my way to the other end to the Spanair desk. I was certainly shedding the pounds on this trip. Once again the agent spoke perfect English as did the check-in agent. It felt strange arriving from Palma and then almost immediately going to check-in for Palma! Check-in was very fast and efficient and with just under two hours to go to my flight I had plenty of time. I decided to make my way to the departure gates and watch the busy evening BCN traffic. It has to be said that the shops at BCN are also very good with a wide range of products and lots of nice local produce.
I walked from one end of the terminal to the other to view the various aircraft. At one end were the Iberia gates, then in the middle were gates mainly used by Spanair and Air Europa and then at the other end gates used by various airlines. During my time at BCN I saw a nice mix of traffic including a VIP A310, easyJet 737’s, an easyJet A319, Alitalia MD-80’s, Iberia A320’s, 757’s and MD-80’s, TAP A319, Air France A320, Air Europa 737’s, Lufthansa A319, Spanair MD-80’s, Jet2 737-300, Egypt Air A320, BA 767 and a Braathens 737-700 which had gone tech and was towed over to a remote stand. It’s refreshing to see an airport that can combine shopping facilities with large windows for aircraft viewing. So often the latter is sacrificed in order to provide the former.
The gate for the flight to Palma was located down a flight of stairs in the middle of the terminal. I knew straight away this meant being bussed to the aircraft. It was very quiet at the gate area and the only facilities were seats and toilets. Just after 1800 boarding of the first bus commenced. There didn’t seem to be many travelling. I was joined on the bus by a middle-aged Irish couple, two English women and a small Danish group - all on day trips from Mallorca. Out of nowehere then came a fair few people and even though the bus wasn’t full and all the passengers weren’t on board they decided to take us over to the aircraft. It turned out the aircraft was parked on a remote stand some distance from the gate. There was plenty to see on from the bus on the way to the aircraft including a Tunis Air 737-600, Lagun Air Saab 340, Regional Embraer 120, a white Metroliner and a GIR Jet Fokker 100. Again to my relief the aircraft for my flight turned out to be the one I had hoped – the 717. The 717 is even scarcer than the 737-600 in Europe with only AeBal/Spanair and Olympic operating the type.
The aircraft was boarded swiftly and I took my seat on the right hand side of the aircraft. The aircraft was in a 2-3 layout as you would expect. To my surprise about six rows of seats had been given over to business class. All but a few of these seats were empty on this particular flight. About 10 minutes after we had boarded the second and final bus arrived and the remaining passengers took their seats.
The Spanair 717’s are operated by AeBal but with a Spanair flight number and almost identical livery. The aircraft pushed back nearly 10 minutes early and taxied to Runway 20 for a straight out departure. On this particular day Runway 25 was being used for landings and Runway 20 for departures. Although the runways intersected the airport seemed to operate very efficiently. We didn’t have to wait too long at the threshold and were airborne at 1840 straight out over the Mediterranean in twilight. I hope to return to Barcelona in the near future to experience the city itself.
Due to the flight being so short there wasn’t much in the way of inflight service. I decided to close my eyes all the way to Palma as there was nothing to see outside so I was oblivious to what was going on in the cabin. About 20-25 minutes after leaving BCN I was back in PMI. Groundhog day. Once again we had arrived having approached the airport from the north of the island.
If I thought PMI was quiet earlier it was now a ghost town. It was almost eerie – a huge airport with empty gates and a dimly lit ramp. Once again an airbridge wasn’t used so we disembarked straight on to a bus which took us speedily to the deserted terminal building. This wasn’t the PMI I knew from my summer trips.
Flight: VZ 7032
Aircraft: G-SSAS - A320
Load factor estimate: 30%
Once landside (it was great having no baggage to reclaim after any of these flights) I decided to see if, on the off chance, the MyTravel Lite desk was open. Sure enough there was no activity at the desks but a group of Birmingham passengers had assembled already in anticipation of them opening. Due to my weary state I decided to just go and sit down. Why panic about getting a seat so early for this flight?
Just under two hours before departure the check-in desks opened and a surprisingly large queue of people had formed. For some reason only one queue had formed even though three desks were going to be in use. So after a couple of minutes of hesitation I and another couple broke away the main queue and went to one of the other desks. I know queuing is a national sport in England but it was time to take decisive action. Once we had formed this other queue it was amazing to see everyone else suddenly come to life and realise that there was more than one desk.
After another swift check-in I decided it was time to get something to eat as I hadn’t had a meal since Stansted – nearly 12 hours previously. I went upstairs landside in to the self-service restaurant which was large but was very limited in choice. Never had I craved a pizza so much. Time was going by very slowly now at this stage and I was beginning to feel more and more like a zombie. The airport was surreally quiet with just a handful of domestic flights and the Birmingham flight to go until breakfast time the following morning.
After sitting in the soulless eating area of the restaurant for as long as possible I decided to pass through security and make my way slowly to the gate. It turned out the flight was to depart from the same area I had arrived from Stansted so hiking boots were required again. By the time I got to the gate there was still about an hour or so to go to departure. The aircraft arrived shortly afterwards. Phew, the last thing I wanted now at this stage was a delayed flight! A large number of people disembarked the A320 and not long later boarding for the BHX flight commenced. I made sure I was near the front of the queue so I got a good seat. It turns out it wasn’t really necessary as there were plenty of empty seats. I ended up having a whole row near the back to myself. All the more elderly people on the flight had settled for seats near the front. As a result there were quite a few people sitting in the first third of the aircraft but hardly anybody near the back.
The aircraft was fully boarded at 2150 and pushed back on time at 2200. Needless to say there wasn’t much to see in the way of traffic at the airport. A quick taxi was followed by an immediate take off. As with the Air Europa flight earlier we headed south west initially and then proceeded to the Spanish coast around Barcelona.
I had flown MyTravelLite before, to Tenerife. I didn’t think they were anything special, just another run of the mill low cost carrier but with even less legroom. The inflight service consists of snacks and drinks at low cost carrier prices, just like Ryanair and easyJet. I also found the cabin crew to be a bit unprofessional. During the safety demo they were all giggling and sniggering, and they chatted very loudly and embarrassingly at the back of the aircraft. Even though there were only a few of us down the back didn’t mean we couldn’t hear anything! Oh well, at least they had a bit of life in them unlike the surly folks at Ryanair.
We more or less retraced the route we had taken from Stansted – up over the Pyrenees, over central and northern France and over the English Channel. We passed over the English coast slightly further west than earlier, then proceeded to head towards Coventry before landing on Runway 33 at BHX. It got quite turbulent over the south of England and this was the first bit of significant turbulence I had experienced all day. It was enough to keep me awake anyway having slept all the way over France. And there was me thinking I never sleep on aircraft.
Having landed a bit early at Birmingham in dry but chilly conditions we had to backtrack down the runway due to a number of the exits being closed at night to allow for airport construction work to be carried out. Through my bleary eyes I could see several BA CitiExpress RJ’s, Duo CRJ’s, FlyBE 146’s and Dash 8’s, a Lufthansa CityLine CRJ, and an Air 2000 757. Nothing exotic really.
Disembarkation was quick as I suppose everyone wanted to get home as quickly as possible. For once there was just a short walk to the arrivals area and just when I thought I was back in a country where I could speak English with no problems I realised I was in Birmingham. Only joking.
So would I do a trip like this again? Definitely. On every flight I was lucky to have a spare seat beside me, except on the Ryanair flight and all flights were very reasonably priced. But next time I’ll take out travel insurance just in case I miss a flight or get diverted as so easily could have happened on this trip. Thanks for reading and happy flying.