Whenever I am going somewhere on vacation for a few days, I usually try to schedule a quick daytrip to some other destination in between in order to try out new airlines, which are not serving my home region. flybe, formerly known as British European and once operating as Jersey European, has turned itself into a low fares airline after long years of franchise operation for Air France, so I was curious about how the airline would fare in comparison with "original" low cost carriers like EasyJet, Germanwings and others.
flybe offered a very good deal for a daytrip to Exeter, a mid-sized town in the southwest of England, for just 82 Euro including all taxes and fees, so I did not hesitate one moment when I found this offer, and booked a trip.
Tuesday, August 2, 2005
Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG)
My flight was scheduled to depart from Aerogare 1, the original terminal, which was erected in the early Seventies. You would be hard pressed to find any positive comments by frequent travellers about this place, in fact, possibly the most fitting description would summarize this architectural “masterpiece” as a “dump”.
I arrived by shuttle bus from the nearby regional train station about two hours before departure. One of the many unusual features of the terminal is evident right upon arrival – unlike possibly every other airport in the world, the levels are sorted the other way around, i.e. the departure level is below the arrivals level. Talk about being unneccessarily difficult.
I went inside the dark and sinister looking raw concrete structure, located an information monitor and retrieved the check-in desk for my flight – it would be at row 18B this morning. After paving my way through masses of weary and anxious travellers, who were queueing up for some of the trans Atlantic flights, which would be leaving at roughly the same time as our short hop, I finally managed to find the two check-in desks dedicated to our flybe service. With only four passengers waiting at both desks, the registration process was over in a matter of minutes. I was assigned seat 14F.
Still having quite a lot of time to spare, I walked around the circular terminal hall (another unusual feature, which you will also see in the very last picture of this report) and pursued one of my many aviation related hobbies, i.e. hunting for timetables. Although my bounty was somewhat limited, at least it was rather exotic, because I scored a Pulkovo Aviation and Saudi Arabian Airlines timetable!
The landside part of Aérogare 1 is not the most pleasant place in the world with its dark, run down and crowded corridors, so I walked towards the central patio, checked the departure information once again and then passed the boarding pass control.
All flights at Aérogare 1 are departing and arriving at satellites, which can only be reached by way of long tunnels. And again, one an irregular oddity of this terminal is that once you have passed boarding pass control, an escalator takes up upstairs over a rather large and fairly sunny patio,…
…before you reach the outer ring of the central terminal building, where your ID is checked and customs controls are conducted. Afterwards, you select the corridor leading towards your assigned satellite terminal, and take a longish escalator ride through rather sinister looking corridors – places one would be more used to find in decrepit train stations than in a contemporary international airport terminal!
After a lengthy voyage through the “caverns”, I finally arrived in satellite 4, which was dedicated to our flight and an array of United Airlines services to Washington and Chicago. From an architectural standpoint, the furniting and layout of these satellite is rather fascinating – as you can see from the following picture, the décor looks like it has been teleported right out of the Seventies. One could almost expect to see an Air France B747-100 in old colors waiting at one of the gates!
Unfortunately, one of the less attractive aspects of this “time warp” is that one can see the age of the building at every corner, i.e. the seat covers are usually worn or damaged and the corners look like they only get “round cleaned”, if you know what I am trying to say.
After passing through security control, I walked around, trying to find our gate. Unusually (I think, you see what would be another good adjective describing this terminal!), there are no monitor at the various gates indicating your point of departure – would it have been too much too ask for Aeroports de Paris to install at least one TV set per departure lounge for the orientation of their customers?
The gate areas for the United flights filled up pretty fast, and some ground handling employees arrived to put of large wooden (!) billboards (yes, we are living in the digital ages, you know!) in front of the various gates, indicating the flight number and destination.
About thirty minutes before our scheduled off-block time, I finally spotted a flybe Bae-146 slowly taxying toward sour terminal through the morning mist (despite being summer, it had been unusually wet during the night) and finally positioning next to our building. Within a few minutes, the arriving passenegers had disembarked, and while the aircraft was being fed and watered by the ground crew for the return hop across the Channel, the gate agent commenced with the boarding process. First to go were two unaccompanied minors with their typical small transparent plastic bags around their necks containing all travel documents, then the rest of us were allowed to vacate the terminal, take the short stroll across the tarmac and board the waiting BAe.
The flight (CDG-EXT)
Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) - Exeter International Airport (EXT)
Flight number: BE 1502
Scheduled block time: 0945h - 1015h
Take-Off: 1009h (RWY 27L)
Touch-down: 1006h (RWY 26)
British Aerospace BAe 146-200
delivered: April 21, 1988
Seat 14F (Economy Class)
Photo © Jid Webb
After entering the cabin through the 1L door, I said "Good morning!" to the two friendly female flight attendants in bright red uniforms, who were welcoming passengers, and proceeded to my seat in the rear of the cabin. Since the Bae-146 features shoulder-mounted wings, it is advisable to either reserve seats at the very front or very rear of the cabin in order to have a view outside, otherwise the only scenery you will be able to "enjoy" would be a view of the inboard engine pod, which might become a bit tiresome after the first minute or two. I arrived at my seat in row 14, put my backpack into the smallish overhead bin and took my seat.
You could really tell that this was an Eighties' aircraft by small details in the cabin design - ranging from the rather dated looking layout of the overhead service unit (lights, air vents, flight attendant call) to the really tiny overhead bins, which are a far cry from the "widebody cabin design" experienced on contemporary aircraft designs. I would not complain though - after a lot of flying on the more and more generically looking Airbus and Boeing standard bodies, this was a welcome change to something more "exotic". And despite being "six abreast", the greyish leather seats were actually quite comfortable as long as no seat neighbor was sitting next to you, and the pitch was also satisfactory for a person of moderate size and height like me.
Cabin doors were closed five minutes later and an announcement from the flight deck informed the passengers about the slight delay this morning, which had been caused by ATC disruptions during the approach to CDG. In fact, the weather had been a little misty this morning, but nothing grave actually, so I wondered wether flybe's Bae's were not certified for landings under reduced minimum visibility like Cat 2 or CAT 3. A ten minute delay until off-block time would not have grave impact on our scheduled flight and arrival times however, since flybe has scheduled plenty of ground time into their CDG schedule. The net flying time would be about one hour, so there were another thirty minutes of ground time available in order to buffer out smaller delays like this one.
We were pushed back a few minutes afterwards, and slowly taxied towards the threshold of RWY27L through the murky morning mist. A steady flow of longhaul aircraft, chiefly Air France birds, was rushing past our left hand side on RWY27L while we were taxiing to the active runway, touching down after long flights from North and South America. Outbound, only a few other flights were preparing for the departure. A Bae-146 Air France's Irish affiliate CityJet prepared for takeoff in front of us, possibly going to some other British destination - quite ironical to see it next to us, because flybe used to be another franchise carrier of the French national carrier until only a few years ago.
The CityJet quad jet rumbled down the runway in front of us, and soon it was our turn to enter the active runway, and without any further delays, the engines were throttled up and we commenced our short and bumpy ride down the four kilometre stretch of concrete, which a few years ago was the last runway the fateful Concorde F-BTSC graced before her crash only a few seconds after lift-off.
Fortunately - and, to be honest, quite as expected - our takeoff ride was much less spectacular, and after lifting off into the morning haze, we cleared a few Parisian suburbs before continuing our steady ascent towards the west. The annunciator bell chimed when we passed 10.000 feet, also signalling the start of the onboard service program.
As already mentioned, flybe has transformed into a pure-bred low cost carrier, so while none of the cabin service was free, there was an extensive selection of small snacks and drinks available for sale. An information brochure in the seatback pocket showed a list of the available offerings.
On this lightly loaded flight - as it turned out, only 39 passengers had selected to book a seat on this segment - only very few sandwiches, sweets and beverages were sold despite the charming and continuous efforts of the all-female cabin crew in their bright red, and not "low-costish" looking uniform.
Meanwhile we had levelled off at our cruising altitude of 24.000 feet and were bumbling along at a mere 380 knots. The haze in the Paris area had given way to a lightly clouded sky, so many interesting landscapes were visible below us while we cruised along towards Devon. First we passed the Seine estuary near Le Havre, before continuing parallel to the "invasion beaches" of 1944, with the remnants of the artificial "Mulberry" port of Arromanches clearly visible below (unfortunately my picture didn't turn out that well, otherwise I would have loved to include it for you!). Our last view of the continent came at the very northern tip of Normany, where the city and harbor of Cherbourg greeted from below.
While flying over the English Channel, the second service run started, comprising the sale of duty free items. A catalogue was available in the seatback pockets, but again, the motivated sales effort was greeted by only very limited interest.
Our descent started while we were still a few miles away from the English coastline. Soon, the dark green meadows, small woods and hedges of southwest England became visible, and while were continuously loosing height during our line-up for Exeter's RWY 26, more and more of the trademark English countryside presented itself to the pleased eye of the passenger above - small villages, cottages and even a few mansions were nestled between the lush meadows and gently rolling hills of Devon. From this first impression, this country certainly seemed to be quite well adapted for even a longer stay than just a daytrip - a quite surprising new impression, which will surely influence future vacation decisions of mine.
Soon enough we gently soared across the runway threshold and touched down firmly on the rather short runway, using some heavy braking, full spoilers and reversers in order to vacate the runway closer to the terminal instead of travelling all the way down the runway to its other end.
Having the braking mission accomplished successfully, the wing was "cleaned up", and we slowly travelled past the diminutive terminal building and a pair of company Dash 8Q-400's, which were prepared for their flights to the Channel Islands and to Belfast. Our BAe came to a halt next to one of the Canadian propliners,…
…and after only a few more minutes of waiting time, the front 1L door was opened and we left the airplane into a bright and almost crystal clear sky, walking one last time past our mount, which had taken us across the Channel so faithfully.
After a short wait at immigration control (it was a weird feeling to sue the ID card after a long time of travels just within the Schengen countries), I was cleared to proceed to the landside, where I made my way straight towards the bus stop in order to spend a few hours in the scenic downtown of Exeter,
After spending some hours in the surprisingly scenic cathedral city of Exeter, I returned to the airport about two and a half hour before departure.
Exeter International Airport
For an airport of its size – AFAIK, last year’s figure was about 800.000 passengers per year – EXT proved to be surprisingly busy upon my return to the terminal about two hours before departure.
Besides several flybe services to domestic destinations, there was also an Air Malta A320 waiting for passengers to Heraklion, Crete and a flybe B737-300, which was prepared for the flight to Faro.
Earlier in the morning, while I was waiting for the bus to Exeter City, I had also watched the arrival of an Air Transat A310 from Toronto – not bad for such a provincial airport!
I spend most of the remaining time on the small visitor’s deck, which, despite its glass walls, offers a surprisingly good view over the apron acitivities and the adjacent runways. On the far end of the airport, several parked RJ-100 were visible in a variety of markings of their former owners. From what I remember, these were originally destined to go to flybe as a replacement for the BAe’s, but due to their bad technical condition, the management had revised this decision and instead became the launch customer for the EMB-195.
Spotting seems to be quite a popular past-time in this part of England, because even on this Tuesday afternoon, the terrace was jam-packed with meeters and greeters waving off their loved ones before their journey for the skies. Others were undoubtedly waiting for friends or family to arrive from business or leisure trips abroad.
Before passing though customs and security, I took one last picture of the fairly unimpressive looking terminal building… or dare I say: terminal hovel, and the landside access. Visible on the right hand side of the picture is the “arrivals zone”, which is actually just another small building plastered to the side of the terminal.
On my way to the airside, I had to stop at the customs checkpoint, where I expected to be waved through after a glimpse on my personal ID. Not so in the Great Britain of the post-7/7 era! A friendly, but nevertheless sincere gentleman in civilian clothes handed me a green form, asking me to fill it out.
Me (slightly irritated): “Err, excuse me sir, but I am a citizen of the European Union and we do not have to fill out visa-releated forms.”
Guy in civilian clothes: “This is a new regulation, which is compulsory to every person leaving British soil. We would kindly ask you to take this short effort and fill out the card.”
Sigh… what kind of choice did I have? Actually, while I can partly understand the motivation behind this, I was not very amused (to put it friendly) to be asked about my profession and the name and address of my employer! But since I didn’t want to risk to run in trouble during my next visit to the United Kingdom, I resignated and filled out this part of the information request, swallowing down my protest.
Passing customs control was just a formality after filling out the card and showing my ID. With no more than maybe thirty minutes to go, I wanted to explore the terminal a bit, but was slightly astonished to see that it basically just comprised two halls – a large one with a few bars and bistros plus a duty free store, where most of the passenegrs where waiting for the announcement of their boarding gates, and the actual gate area.
While usually the strategy of the British Airport Authority is to herd the cattle, err, passengers within the commercial areas by not announcing the gate information until the very last moment, this was a feeble attempt at an airport of the size of EXT, where all gates were easily recognizable once inside the small hall dedicated to the embarkation process.
Therefore, I settled down on a bank next to a large apron window, and spend the last few minutes until our BAe arrived.
Turnaround was completed in a very short period of time, and with only a slight delay, boarding our light load of passengers (ca. 35-45) started. We leisurely walked out of the terminal, strolled across the sun-drenched apron and entered the cabin of our “146” via the 1L door.
The flight (EXT-CDG)
Exeter International Airport (EXT) - Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Flight number: BE 1505
Scheduled block time: 1730h - 2000h
Take-off: 1750h (RWY 26)
Touch-down: 1947h (RWY 09R)
British Aerospace BAe 146-200
delivered: April 21, 1988
Seat 2F (Economy Class)
Photo © Justin Wood - Woof Photography
After greeting the two friendly female members of the cabin crew, who were waiting for us in the forward galley, I proceeded towards my seat, which would be on this segment right in front of the wings (2F). The cabin filled up very quickly – except for a few businesspeople, the majority of our pax load would be comprised of families and couples going to visit the city of lights.
Cabin was cleared in a matter of minutes, because we had already incurred a small delay from the previous leg, and we were off-block soon. Taxying towards the threshold of RWY 26 past the flybe hangars, I noticed a rather derelict looking BAe ATP in former Air Europa colors standing next to it – judging from the sorry state of this bird, it was only used as a cabin or maybe maintenance trainer. What a tragic end for another true British airliner before her time!
With little other traffic on this sunny afternoon going on, we proceeded right onto the runway, our four Lycoming engines spooled up and sluggishly, our “Jumbolino” started her run down the runway, passing a few of the stored RJ-100’s and also a Globespan B737, which seemed to be being prepared for delivery to her customer. Lifting up around two thirds down the runway, we steeply climbed out into the steel blue sky,…
… gear and most of the flaps was retracted, and then we were already right above the City of Exeter.
A few left hand turns later, the Devon coastline greeted us below, while we continued our ascent towards the Channel Islands.
After reaching our cruising altitude a few minutes later, it was only a matter of minutes until the aforementioned group of islands became visible below us – the Channel Islands are another important destination for flybe, and I had noticed at least two other flights going to Jersey and Guernsey during my stay on the EXT visitors deck.
The rest of the flight went by quickly and mirrored the service program already described on the outbound leg. Soon enough, over the continent near the City of Rouen, our descent was initiated and we commenced our long arrival back to Paris’ intercontinental gateway. The first suburbs became visible below, then we glided along the northern outskirts.
Visible right next us was Le Bourget Airport, site of the Aerosalon and one of the most interesting aviation museums in the world, the Musee de’l Air (in fact, if you look very closely, you can see a couple of the static exhibits on the following picture, including a static “Ariane” rocket).
Right as we crossed the threshold, the FedEx hub became visible, where activity was already commencing for another busy night of operations.
Then followed the Air France maintenance base with a static Concorde and an all-white Boeing 747-200B (see photo below).
With a noticeable thumb, we touched terra firm again, and with very little reverser action, our BAe slowed down to taxying speed and vacated the runway right next to Aérogare 1, which even from the outside just gives an impression of darkness – if there would be a terrestrial equivalent of George Lucas’ “Death Star”, this building would come very close to it in outward appearance.
A couple more minutes of maneuvering ensued, and then we were finally back where my journey had started about ten hours before – one of the aircraft stands next to Satellite 4.
Grabbing my backpack and walking out of the aircraft only took another minute or two, and then I was back in French soil, ready for the trip back to downtown Paris, where a picknick on the Champs de Mars next to the Eiffel Tower was already awaiting me.
flybe offers a very streamlined, but nevertheless classy product, which sets the airline positively apart from the "urban transport"-style cattle carriers like EasyJet or Ryanair. Although cabin service is no longer free, virtually every other service element along the travel chain still mirrors the former identity of the carrier as a "full frills" regional airline – a network of large hubs and small, conveniently located regional airports, comfortable cabin seating (despite being 6 abreast on a Bae), friendly and courteous staff both on the ground and in the air, and the availability of seat assignments upon check-in or if you book a full-fare ticket are welcome and much needed stress relievers from the hustle and bustle of the cattle call practised at many other low cost competitors.
Therefore I can fully recommend choosing flybe, even if it should cost a little more than flying Ryanair or EasyJet - you will certainly appreciate the relaxed travelling on board smaller regional airliners like the Dash-8 or Bae-146 and not having to worry about your seat assignment compared to the rather generic mass transit experience on "purebred low cost carriers".
Thanks for reading my report - questions, comments, or criticism is always appreciated.