Before I begin my trip report, I would like to apologize for the low quality of the photos. I consider buying a new digical camera (my current camera dates back from 2001, with 2.1 Mpixels, shame on me), but I decided to show you some photos (reduced in quality and size) in order to illustrate the report.
This summer (July 5th - August 12th), I had the chance to visit Algeria, making a full tour of the country, from the beaches and cities of the North, to the charming oasises of the Sahara desert. This was a trip I had prepared for one year, reading books, meeting Algerians, watching algerian press, ... Once in Algeria, I was helped by the fact that my wife (whose parents are Algerian) speaks fluent Arabic, allowing us to make friends very easily. As this is an aviation forum, I'll concentrate on the 'aeronautical' part of the trip, but I'll finish my introduction with this summary of how I perceived Algeria : very scenic and varied landscapes, the most friendly and welcoming people, but sadly, a country with a very poor population (despite important oil and gas resources), incomplete infrastructures, and, most of all, a total lack of organization (in spite of this, I must say that I enjoyed the trip very much).
Although there are direct flights linking Belgium and Algeria (Air Algerie, twice weekly to Oran and twice weekly to Algiers), I decided to fly Air France from Paris (Orly) instead, for some reasons : the price was cheaper, I had never flown from Paris before, and the travel agencies in Belgium were unable to confirm the timetable and the availability of AH flights long before the departure (which was not acceptable for the organization of our trip, as we had to arrange accommodation, car rental and many more details by phone). Actually, the cheapest option would have been Alitalia BRU-FCO-ALG-MXP-BRU, but at the time, I had a fear that Alitalia could be bankrupt before the summer...
So I booked (online) two return tickets on Air France (ORY-ALG-ORY) in March, as well as two (very cheap) tickets on Air Algerie for an excursion in the Sahara desert, near the oasis of Ghardaia (ALG-GHA-ALG). For some strange reasons, I was able to book those domestic flights online on a Belgian website (Airstop), easily and long before (March), while it was impossible for international AH flights. I received paper tickets by post some days later.
Air France flight AF3538
From Paris / Orly Ouest (ORY)
To Algiers / Houari Boumediene (ALG)
Scheduled / actual departure : 7h35 / 8h15
Scheduled / actual arrival : 8h45 / 9h15
Aircraft : Airbus A320-214 F-GKXD (MSN 1873, delivered in 2002)
Load factor : 100 %.
Photo © F.mehdi
In order to be 'fresh' and on time for our flight, we had decided to spend the night before at the Ibis hotel Paris Orly (the hotel is well linked to the terminals by a frequent, free shuttle bus operated by ADP, the Paris airports authority). In order to visit CDG airport, and to give the Air France CDG-Orly bus link (Les Cars Air France) a try, we took a Thalys high speed train from Brussels to CDG airport. After a short spotting there, we took the AF bus to Orly. To my surprise, I found that CDG airport was not as badly organized as some members of this forum sometimes write, I had no difficulty to find the bus stop, and so we arrived at Orly after a 1h30 ride (in Paris traffic jams).
On July 6th, we were in front of the check-in desks at 6h00. The airport was crowded but we made our way easily to the desk for flight 3538 to Algiers. Flights to Algeria seem to have a specific security procedure (I noticed the same for Air Algerie flights at Orly-Sud), only passengers with a valid ticket are allowed in the check-in queue (which is isolated with barriers). We had no trouble passing the security checks (the same as for other flights) and after a short wait, we boarded the aircraft. The crew explained that there would be a small delay, due to the lengthy loading of freight. We took off 40 mins late from runway 08, after a short taxi. The routing of the flight was (approximately) : Paris - Clermont Ferrand - near Perpignan - Palma de Mallorca - Algiers. The weather was cloudy until we reached the coast of the Mediterranean sea, but from there the sky became clear and we enjoyed great views (Majorca island, PMI airport, low altitude flying over Algiers 'downtown' on approach to ALG, ...). At some point during the flight, we were served a simple but correct breakfast.
Above Mallorca island, PMI airport visible near the coast line.
Cabrera island, immediately south of Mallorca.
First view of Algeria, the coast west of Algiers (near Pointe Pescade).
Algiers western suburbs (Bologhine)
Algiers downtown. On the right is the Casbah (UNESCO world heritage). The big building on the center is the Aurassi 5 star hotel. Below is Algiers harbour.
Algiers downtown near Hussein Dey.
After landing at ALG, we had to wait a while because the stairs weren't ready. I spent the time watching the airport by the window : there were 4 or 6 armed guards around our aircraft. Not far from us was a Qatar Airways A300-600, and behind it, some Air Algerie 737s (600s and 800s), one A330-300 and one 767 preparing for departure. We then were bussed to the terminal building (dark with yellow ceiling, looking very old fashioned), where we had to make a small queue for passport and visa control. The luggages were already on the carrousel when we finally passed the control. There were many police officers in the terminal, some armed, which gives a safe feeling (in my opinion).
Waiting for the stairs to come. The international terminal is just left of the control tower. QR AB6 and two AH B73Gs visible.
Security procedures are quite impressive at Algiers airport in general, and for foreign carriers in particular. This was one of the conditions for the Air France come-back in 2003 (the unions, in particular, wanted strong guarantees regarding security). On December 24th, 1994, the airline had put an end on its long established Paris-Algiers line, after the hijacking of one of its Airbus A300, ending in Marseille in a bloodshed in which terrorists were killed. Now that the times are much better in Algeria (despite what western foreign offices write), some airlines are slowly coming back (such as British AW, Alitalia and Lufthansa).
Algiers airport is named after Houari Boumediene, president of Algeria between 1965 and 1978.
My impressions about Air France : a very good surprise. The aircraft itself was OK (nothing less or more than other major airlines I've flown), the breakfast was 'normal', but the crew (cabin + flight deck) was the most friendly and attentive I've ever seen. They were always smiling, they made their best to satisfy the passengers, and they gave LOTS of interesting information during the flight : expected weather, flight routing including real time information on what could be seen out of the windows, appologies and reasons of delays, etc... I don't know if we were just lucky or if it is normal practice at AF, but I seriously consider sending them a letter to express our satisfaction.
Air Algerie flight AH6470
From Algiers / Houari Boumediene (ALG)
To Ghardaia / Mufdi Zakaria (Noumerat) (GHA)
Scheduled / actual departure : 7h00 / 7h00
Scheduled / actual arrival : 8h40 / 8h25
Aircraft : ATR 72-500 7T-VUI
Load factor : 60% (estimated)
Photo © F.mehdi
After a nice taxi ride across Algiers, we arrived at Houari Boumediene airport at 5h30. There are lots of policemen around the airport, and sometimes they let the taxi drop you just in front of the terminal, sometimes they don't, for 'security reasons', forcing the passengers to walk with their luggage to the terminal. This time we were lucky (the taxi driver told us that this is frequent early in the morning, when the place isn't too crowded) as we could get very close to the door of the terminal. Before we were out of the taxi, a young man took our luggage and put them on a trolley for us, then brought them at the entrance of the terminal. The problem is that we hadn't asked him, and we had no more money to give him, which made him quite angry. After this little argument, we entered the building (the domestic terminal is 300 meters away from the international one, and far less crowded), after passing an X-ray and metal check at the door (yes, at the door of the terminal). Air Algerie is the only airline flying domestically in Algeria, apart from some small carriers operating mainly ad-hoc flights for oil exploitation (Air Express Algeria and Tassili Airlines). There were 3 check-in desks open, all for Air Algerie, not for a specific flight but for all AH flights (as far as I remember, there were flights to Constantine, Setif, Bejaia and Jijel scheduled for early morning). We then passed police control (we had to fill a so called 'boarding card', a document with informations about administrative data, job, familly, ..., which must be given to the police officer at the police control). After a short wait in a rather small and old 'boarding lounge' (there are something like 5 of them in the terminal), we were allowed to enter a bus (after boarding passes and passports control... again) which dropped us in front of the aircraft (ATR-72 7T-VUI), parked at a remote stand, beside 1 or 2 other ATR's and a government business jet (BAe 125 I think). Before boarding the aircraft, every passenger had to identify his luggage, then undergo a physical search and a search of cabin baggage. Again, there were some armed guards around the aircraft.
The interior of the Air Algerie ATR doesn't look too bad, although very basic (grey seats in fake leather) and, at some places, a bit dirty. We were assigned seats 6A/B, but we requested to move to 5A/B because of a recline problem with 6B (during the flight, we found out that the tray tables on 5A/B could not be fully open, which was quite bad when we received the breakfast). Normally, the seats are assigned, but we soon found out that only a few passengers respect the assignation. All announcements, including the pre-flight safety briefing, were made in Arabic (Algerian dialect) and French, but never in English. At the end of the briefing, the crew advised us to read the safety card 'which can be found on the back of the seat in front of you', but there were actually only 3 or 4 safety cards in the entire aircraft ! We had begun our taxi during the safety briefing, then the captain suddenly came on the PA saying (in French) 'nobody upright now, immediate take off'. And although the F/As (2 males) were still upright, the take off roll began (runway 27) !
The flight itself was smooth, but the views weren't too good because of the haze. We were served breakfast (simple but OK) far into the flight. We were still eating when the descent began. When the crew came to take the trays back, we were already very low, so they had to hurry (they even let some trays fall and had no time to pick them up from floor !). When they finished, we were flying above the runway threshold, so they had to sit in the first free seats they saw (thus not in the normal F/A jumpseat). The landing was smooth. We were the only aircraft on the airport, so we didn't have to wait before getting out of the plane (a good part of the passengers stayed on the plane, as it was continuing to Illizi (VVZ) in the Sahara desert).
After arrival at GHA. The apron is empty.
The terminal building at Ghardaia airport is VERY small, but cute nonetheless. Its size is appropriate for the low number of flights (one or two daily, the destinations served are limited to Algiers, Adrar, Djanet, Illizi and Tamanrasset, with a mix of ATR-72s and B737-NGs). In contrast to Algiers, there weren't any controls to leave the airport (only one policeman is present, but he does not execute any controls). There is one very small baggage reclaim belt in the arrivals room (there is a small cafeteria in a separate building). Outside, four taxis were waiting, but there is also a bus line to go to the 'city' centre.
My opinion : pleasant on-time flight in a rather basic aircraft, to a nice exotic place in the Sahara (definitely worth a visit). But as always in Algeria, lack of organization (no safety cards, F/As upright in the cabin during take off and landing, ...).
Ghardaia airport is named after Mufdi Zakaria, composer of the algerian national anthem.
Air Algerie flight AH6201
From Ghardaia / Mufdi Zakaria (Noumerat) (GHA)
To Algiers / Houari Boumediene (ALG)
Scheduled / actual departure : 17h40 / 17h40
Scheduled / actual arrival : 19h00 / 18h55
Aircraft : ATR 72-500 7T-VUN
Load factor : 26%
Photo © F.mehdi
We took a taxi from Ghardaia, where we had a very nice stay, to Noumerat airport (20 kilometers, under a scorching sun !). Once there, we went in the departures room, divided in a check-in area (one counter) and two departure 'lounges'. The whole place is very quiet, there is an X-ray machine and a metal detector, and only one small desks with a policeman for police control (I must say that that guy was particularly friendly and polite). The departure lounge is equipped with a fresh drinking water fountain (free) and toilets (but the door of the ladies part could not be locked...). It was funny to observe some small birds flying in the terminal, where they had established their nest ! From the windows, there is a limited view of the apron, which was empty. After a short wait, we saw ATR-72 7T-VUN arriving from Algiers (on time). Soon after, the boarding process began (of course, there is no bus, the passengers walk to the plane, and again, are requested to identify their luggage before they are loaded in the hold). I asked a guard if I could take a photo but he refused. After a small discussion, he finally accepted, but while I was taking the photo, another guard came to tell me that it was prohibited. After another discussion, his colleague contacted him with his radio to explain that he had allowed me to do so. Just before entering the plane, there was still a physical search as well as a cabin luggage search.
7T-VUN just before boarding under a scorching sun.
The guards near the door are those conducting the searches.
On board the plane (quite empty, with only 18 pax), there were no assigned seats (unlike on the first leg), so we took 13C/D, just after the wings. The interior looked exactly like on 7T-VUI (almost no safety cards, ...). This time, after the safety briefing (Algerian-Arabic and French), the F/As (1 male, 1 female) had ample time to go to their jumpseats because the taxi took a while, as we had to backtrack the runway. We made a powerful take off (runway 18) and this time, I was treated with good views of the desert (at least until some point where the sky became cloudy and the air turbulent). Inflight, we received a soft drink but no meal (just after boarding, we received a choice of local newspapers, in French and Arabic, for free).
On board 7T-VUN before departure. Some passengers wear the traditional tuareg 'chechia' (hat).
Just airborne. The Sahara desert looks infinite.
Flying over the Sahara as we gain altitude.
Natural gas (or oil ?) exploitation complex on the road between Ghardaia and Ouargla. A private airfield is visible. The site can be seen on Google Earth, at N32°34'22'' E3°53'40''.
Before turning left to align with ALG runway 23, we cross the shoreline near Boumerdes (east of Algiers).
Domestic apron (with ATRs) in the foreground, stored 727s and 737s in the background.
There is a better quality picture on A.net showing almost exactly the same view :
Photo © Konstantin von Wedelstaedt
Parking near 7T-VUI.
While approaching Algiers, we encountered some good turbulence, but with good views of the coastline east of the city (Boumerdes, Ain Taya, Bordj el Kiffan, ...). We made a good landing on runway 23, then during taxi, I could spot the maintenance and storage area with lots of derelict aircrafts (including AH Fokker 27, B737-200s, B727s, ...). We parked just close to ATR-72 7T-VUI, which had brought us to GHA 2 days before, and were quickly bussed to the empty domestic terminal (fitted with two baggage caroussels, but only one seems to be operating, as suggested by the dust on the other one). After a quick hand luggage scan and police control, we had to wait... more than one hour (!!) for the luggage to arrive (we were the only domestic arrival at that time). No reasons were given, so some passengers began to speculate about the cargo hold door not opening, but I couldn't verify it by myself. I rather think the international terminal was so overloaded that no one was available to handle the domestic flights...
Domestic arrivals of the evening : Air Algerie from Ghardaia, Annaba, In Amenas, Oran, Tamanrasset and Djanet, Adrar.
My opinion : with the exception of the delay in baggage delivery, again a pleasant flight from an unusual airport. Service was rather basic but I didn't care on such a short domestic flight. Maybe I was slowly getting used to algerian service standards...
Air France flight AF3539
From Algiers / Houari Boumediene (ALG)
To Paris / Orly Ouest (ORY)
Scheduled / actual departure : 10h45 / 11h45
Scheduled / actual arrival : 13h55 / 14h40
Aircraft : Airbus A320-211 F-GHQM (MSN 237, delivered in 1991 to Air Inter)
Load factor : 95 % (estimated)
Photo © F.mehdi
After a night at the 'Hotel de l'Aeroport' (airport hotel) in Dar El Beida, 1 km away from Algiers airport, we took a taxi around 8h00 to the airport. Again this time, police let the taxi drive until near the terminal door (the international terminal, this time). And there the fun began (probably the worst mess I've ever witnessed...). We were at the airport 2h30 before our scheduled departure, which turned out to be too short. At first, there was a long, messy queue to enter into the terminal building itself. In order to be allowed into the terminal, one must present a valid ticket and passport, then go through a baggage scanning machine and metal detector. I think this is a safe practice, but the process is particularly slow, because the queues are anarchic (temperature is high and everyone wants to gain some places in the queue) and there are too few scanning machines (between 1 and 3, depending on available staff). The airport is way too small to accomodate the rush of algerian immigrants (mainly from France) visiting their families during the summer.
This picture gives a very good impression of the international terminal (landside) and the queue of passengers waiting to enter :
Photo © F.mehdi
Once into the crowded check-in area (with some souvenir shops, bars and a library), we found an impressive mess at Air Algerie check-in counters. Fortunately enough, Air France has a separate check-in area, much less crowded and better organized (so have most foreign airlines, such as Alitalia, Aigle Azur or BA). After the quick check-in, we proceeded to police control, but after a small queue, the (friendly) officer instructed us to make our travel documents 'checked' at a separate desk. So we had to make a (long) queue at that other desk, only for a policeman to stamp our boarding passes (!), then make a queue (again) at the police control. We thought the hardest was behind us, but then began a long, MESSY (!) queue of about 1h30 (!) for border control. There were 12 open desks, but the process is incredibly slow nonetheless, the officer carefully checking (and stamping) everyone's passports and visas. We finally passed the control at 11h15, 30 minutes after our scheduled departure time (but some passengers in the queue had their flight at 9h30 !). Just after border control, an Air France officer was waiting for AF passengers (flights to Paris Orly and Marseilles), asking them to run to boarding rooms. After another hand luggage scanning and metal detector, we entered the boarding area which was a real mess (overcrowded, with wrong flight indications). An officer checked our passports and boarding cards (and stamped them again) before we were finally bussed to our aircraft. Before boarding, we still had to recognize our checked luggage on the apron, then pass through a special 'physical and luggage search' bus. At 11h30, we (finally !) took our seats (19A/B) and fastened our belts.
Through the bus window : Air Algerie B738, B763 and A330.
Waiting for departure. The AH B767 will take off just before us, to Lyons (France).
Leaving the international apron, where lots of AH planes can be seen. At the right (back) is an Aigle Azur A321.
Again this time, we had a very pleasant cabin (and flight deck) crew, who apologized for the delay ('due to boarding procedures'...) and struggled to get everyone correctly seated (there were many babies on board). On the apron were some Air Algerie B737-NGs, one A330 and one 767, an Aigle Azur A321, Alitalia MD-80 and another Air France A320 bound to Marseilles). There was also a white A310 with Air Algerie titles, two ATR-72s on the domestic apron, and lots of stored aircrafts in the distance (old Air Algerie 737s and 727s, along with some others). We made a short taxi and took off from runway 05, after an Air Algerie B767.
From left to right : domestic terminal, AH hangars and stored aircrafts, and domestic apron (with ATRs).
Lining on the runway. On the left is the new terminal construction site.
The bay of Algiers, near Bordj el Kiffan.
Leaving Algeria above Ain Taya.
We had a very good flight, with good views of Algerian coast, Menorca island, and southern and central France (the sky became cloudy near Paris). Soon after derparture, we received a cold, tasty meal (prawns with oriental sauce, a cheese and herbs pie, and dessert, plus unlimited free beverages). We landed on Orly runway 26 after a slightly turbulent approach, and after a small and fast queue at immigration, reclaimed our luggage and took the Thalys train to Belgium (via CDG, again).
The oil harbour of 'Fos-sur-Mer, near Marseilles. On the right, Istres airbase is clearly visible (where the A380 made some of its tests).
My opinion : again a very pleasant service from Air France. But what a mess at Algiers airport ! (A new terminal is in construction for a long time, but I have no information regarding the opening date).
I hope you enjoyed reading the report. Feel free to give your opinions and/or ask any questions you like.