This was really a nonsense trip in the truest sense- flying to Croatia to a sleepy airport on an almost deserted island in the middle of winter can hardly qualify for a rational booking behavior. However, since I had never been to Croatia before and have no forthcoming plans to visit this country, and because my girlfriend wanted to do her Christmas shopping in Cologne that Saturday, I opted for this quick dash down to the Adria to get away from the Christmas stress. As an additional bonus, the flights were scheduled to be operated by HLX’s wet-leased Fokker 100, so that would be another new airline-aircraft combination for me.
As it turned out, this short trip was much more impressive aviation-wise than I had anticipated…
Saturday, December 10, 2005
Having arrived at a tranquil Cologne-Bonn airport about 70 minutes before departure,…
I left my car in the central parking garage and went inside Terminal 2, which is a fairly new glass-and-steel-construction from the late 1990’s. Here, most of the non-Lufthansa, non-Germanwings and non-Star Alliance flights are processed, among them being Hapag-Lloyd Express’ services to all over Europe.
There was only a short queue at the HLX check-in counters, so I got my boarding pass in no time. HLX, in accordance with many other low cost carriers in Europe, does not issue seat assignments on most of their flights except those from and to Berlin, the Berlin exception coming from a contract the airline has signed with the German federal government to transport their federal employees between our new capital Berlin and the former West German capital Bonn.
I don’t really like non-seat assigning airlines and am trying my best to avoid flying with them, since I do not enjoy queueing up with an anxious horde of seldom-travellers in front of the gate an hour before departure only because I want to avoid sitting between two oversized and sweat-smelling hillbillies. However, since I anticipated little traffic on this niche route this morning, and was looking forward to using the chance to get Croatia from my “to visit” list , I had not hesitated to book HLX this time.
With another 60 minutes to go until take-off, I wondered what CGN has to offer in order to kill some time. Terminal 2 is an architectural show-case of late 90's airport design with an emphasis on glass and steel constructions, indirect and natural lighting, which gives the whole building a very airy and open ambiance. In coherence with recent trends, the amount of retailing spaces was notably larger in this terminal compared to the older one dating from the late 60's.
I purchased a few diecast scale models for my collection from a large books-/ souvenir shop in the old Terminal 1 and went to the airside of Terminal 2. There was no line in front of the four open security check positions, so this was another hassle-free step towards departure.
The airside of Terminal 2 had undergone quite a few changes since my last visit in 2004. The Cologne-Bonn airport management obviously also follows, like many of their airport competitors, the strategy to maximize non-aviation revenues in order to compensate for the aviation-related reductions in handling fees, so the number of retailing outlets, shops and fast food restaurants had almost doubled since my last visit.
After wandering around for a while – noticing little traffic except for a single Condor B757-300 being de-iced for its impending departure to the warmer climes of Las Palmas - I leisurely strolled towards the passport checkpoint in front of our boarding gate.
After presenting my travel document to the federal border guards, I was allowed inside the sterile portion of the boarding gate, where already another 60 or so co-travellers were waiting for departure. The mood was very relaxed and tranquil, unlike the stressed-out and buzzing atmosphere one can frequently find before the departure of low cost or charter flights – a nice and welcome change from the usual situation! Most of the other passengers were couples or single travellers, with hardly any families being apparent. Also, a few “business travellers” in their traditional formal attire were around – maybe they were flying home after some appointments in the Cologne area, because who would feel the urge to dress formally on a flight to a holiday region on a Saturday morning?
Boarding started about twenty-minutes before scheduled off-block time. I was wondering, where our Fokker would be waiting for us, because except for two Air Berlin B737, an Onur Air (or was it Freebird?) A320 and an LTU A320, the only HLX metal visible on the apron was a Boeing 737-700. After being herded onto the waiting bus, the driver put the “pedal to the metal” and the bus sluggishly started moving across the apron. And where was it taking us? Yes, you guessed it right – to the waiting Boeing! Arrrgh! Not again – this seems to have become the trend lately with my attempts to conquer new aircraft types or aircraft-airline-combinations. Last minute equipment changes are becoming an alarming trend with my travels – just like the Air France A318 or the Air Berlin F-100 before.
Anyway, with a slight sigh of disappointment boarded the jet via the front stairs, where a male and a female flight attendant were welcoming me and the following passengers.
The flight (CGN-PMI)
Cologne-Bonn Konrad Adenauer Airport (CGN ) – Rijeka Airport (RJK)
Flight number: X3 3400
Scheduled block time: 0940h – 1120h
Take-Off: 0953h (RWY 14L)
Touch-down: 1104h (RWY 32)
delivered: June 14, 1998
Photo © Radoslaw Idaszak
Boarding was conducted and completed in an efficient and orderly fashion, and the front and rear left doors were closed a few minutes early. I had secured seat 3A for myself, and noticed to my relief that the middle seat would remain empty for the flight, with the aisle seat being occupied by a middle-aged lady. With only 80 passengers on this flight, our Boeing was only about half-full.
The taxiing from our parking position in front of Terminal 2 to the threshold of RWY 14L under a bright winter sky was only a short one – in fact, is was way to short for the cabin crew to secure the cabin and perform the safety briefing! Therefore, for the first time ever in my travels, the Boeing entered the active runway and then had to wait for three or four more minutes, because the flight attendants had to hurriedly complete the safety briefing before!
Engines spooled up and with the characteristic roar of the CFM-56 powerplants, we thundered down the 4000-meter-runway, lifting up about halfway down the stretch of concrete…
… passing the still stored Bluewings A330-200’s to the right. Weren’t these Airbuses supposed to go to TAP Air Portugal as an interim measure until the ordered A350’s are due for delivery? In fact, precious little activity has been forthcoming on these birds in recent weeks, and it seems like the lease deal is still in jeopardy.
We climbed above the rolling hills of the Bergische Land, with the vegetation below covered in the frost of a clear, but cold December morning.
The scenery below was nothing short of breathtaking – while the sun was shining on the hill-tops below, the valleys were covered with a thick layer of mist.
We levelled off at a cruising altitude of 37.000 feet, and while our speed built up to Mach 0,78, cabin service was initiated while the LCD screens above every third seat row played some infomercials about the HLX network and ancillary services like hotels, car rentals and duty free offers.
Just like virtually every other low cost carrier in Europe, HLX is offering a buy-on-board service, which permits passengers to choose from a selection of hot and cold drinks and snacks. As you can see on the menu card, which is available for download on their website: http://www.hlx.com/downloads/HLX_Menuekarte.pdf, the prices are relatively moderate for an inflight product, so it was not much of a surprise that many passengers chose to purchase catering items from the two carts which were moving through the cabin from the front and rear galleys.
As our Boeing reached Bavaria, the snow borderline became visible below us, und about fifteen minutes later, after passing Nuremberg and Munich, the majestic sight of the snow-covered Alps unfolded below our eyes.
A second service run, this time featuring the sale of duty free items, ensued and soon afterwards, about twenty minutes from touchdown, descent was initiated. An announcement from the flight deck had informed us about possible turbulence during our final approach, but in retrospect, this assessment was probably a bit understated, because the turbulence, which was about to unleash its raw power on our fragile aluminium tube was the most ferocious one I have ever experienced in more than five hundred flights on commercial planes or as a glider pilot.
The bird was shaking, rattling, veering to the left and to the ride, wildly rolling under a tormenting “Bora”, the cold northerly winds, which ravage the Dalmatian coast in winter. It was impossible to hold the camera still for even a few seconds, because the next gust would surely smash the lense of the objective against the cabin window. Nevertheless I managed to produce the following, slightly blurred picture of the angrily boiling ocean below us – please keep in mind that we were still a few hundred meters high, so these waves must have been enormous!
Still shaking, buffeting and rolling along, with thrust nervously spooling up and down the engines, we passed Rijeka airport on our downwind leg…
... flaps and slats were fully lowered while we desperately trying to line up on the active runway 32 under a howling “Bora” only a few hundred meters over the barren island interior, then the gear came down as well..
… would we make it safely onto the ground ? Would we have to go around or, even worse, divert to another airport? The God of the storm winds must have had a compassionate moment during the last few moments of our flight – due to the ground effect, the wind became slightly lower, and while or nose pointed towards the wind in an almost thirty degree angle away from the runway centreline, Captain Zimmermann managed to smack our wheels firmly onto the concrete, pushing out spoilers and giving full reverse in order to keep us on the runway centreline.
We had made it! At the first attempt and in once piece! Everybody had been calm during the nerve-wrecking last minutes of the flight, but now the amassed pressure erupted in loud clapping and cheering throughout the cabin – I haven’t heard a cabin cheer and clap so load for at least fifteen or twenty years, but this aviatic masterpiece sure deserved some praise!
We vacated the runway next to the terminal building, which on the outside reminded me a lot of the old socialist architecture in the former German Democratic Republic – not much of a surprise, as Croatia had been part of the former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia for more than forty years until secession the early 1990’s.
Our Boeing came to a standstill next to the terminal building, and after a few failed attempts to secure the boarding stairs under the howling wind gusts had finally led to success, we were free to leave the aircraft. I snapped one last picture of the deserted cabin, thanked the tow flight attendants at the door for their patience and set my foot on Croatian soil for the first time.
At Rijeka Airport (RJK)
Clearing customs and immigration only took a minute or two and I was standing in the rather impressive (not!) arrivals area of the terminal. The bland and unfurnished arrivals areas was actually only a mid-sized room, not larger than a living room. Even more curiously, the automatic glass doors to the outside were blocked with bags filled with some unidentifiable material – were they out of order or was this an attempt to save some money (energy costs)?
Walking to the right, I entered the small and barren check-in area, turned right at the next corner and stood right in the middle of the airport “restaurant”, from where an apron view of our waiting aircraft was possible. The “restaurant” was just as desolate as the other terminal parts – some outdated 60ish tables and chairs, faded out tablecloths, all on a clean tile floor, which would be more fitting for an outdated train station restroom. It has to be noted, however, that the “restaurant”, just as any other parts of the terminal were spotlessly clean.
The total lack of style of this pot-socialist reality reminded me more of the airport of Pyongyang that of a aviation hub of a popular holiday region – but it had a certain obscure charm history-wise.
The landside reflected the socialist precast concrete slab building style just as well. After most of the passengers had been picked up by their meters/ greeters or boarded the two busses, which were waiting on the landside, the place was almost totally deserted once again. Only the information counter and the “restaurant” remained open all the time.
I wandered along the airport access road, then turned left into a small rural road, which led me to the VOR, situated on a small hill above the threshold of RWY 14. Here I managed to snap the departure of our D-AGES on her next segment to Hanover. With no more traffic scheduled for this day except our return flight to Cologne in a few hours, I left the “spotting position” and, after trying to get to the storm-cast coastline in vain, returned to the airport.
Two more hours of waiting ensued, during which I used the chance to relax a little with a good book and a stroll through the building in search of other curiosities like the flight information display, stemming from a pre-digital area. This display actually portrays all flight movements for this particular Saturday:
Outside, a tourist map of Croatia offered some additional orientation about this small south-east European country. Rijeka is actually close to the northern border, with the airport located on the adjacent island of Krk.
Check-in was opened exactly two hours before departure and was just as pre-digital as the flight display. After receiving the hand-written boarding pass, we had to wait another half hour before the airside part of the terminal was opened – but this delay was not much of a tragedy, because the airside space was rather limited anyway:
Our jet arrived back from HAJ about a quarter past three and parked at the same position like our inbound flight this morning. Not surprisingly, it was once again D-AGES.
After passing through security and customs, I took a rather abbreviated (for the lack of choices) stroll through the duty free “carport” (it was certainly not much larger than that), then settled down in front of the gate. Boarding commenced twenty minutes before departure, and soon I was again on board the plane, which had brought me to Croatia in the morning.
The flight (RJK-CGN)
Rijeka Airport (RJK) - Cologne-Bonn Adenauer Airport (CGN)
Flight number: X3 3401
Scheduled block time: 1555h – 1735h
Take-off: 1555h (RWY 14)
Touch-down: 1717h (RWY 14L)
delivered: June 14, 1998
Under the bright orange-red hue of the setting sun, we taxied away from the terminal and proceeded towards the threshold of RWY 14. The wind had still not subsided, so Captain Zimmermann elected to set the parking brakes after performing a 180-turn at the end of the runway, spooling up the engines to take-off power, and the releasing the brakes to minimize the take-off run.
We thundered off into the bright evening sky and were rocked around by the storm winds, while we made a long sweeping left hand turn towards the north over the Adria.
A few minutes later we had reached our cruising altitude and crossed the Alps, glowing in the evening sun. A nice gesture was the somewhat ironical address by the cockpit crew, especially emphasizing “… a special welcome to the four passenger this evening, which have already been on board this morning. After our interesting landing this morning, they are obviously showing special trust in our flying capabilities.” So I had not been the only geek on board today.
The service program was mirroring the one on the outbound leg, and our cruising altitude differed only slightly (FL340 this time), while speed accelerated to Mach 0,79. Routing was Rijeka – Venice – Innsbruck – Stuttgart- Frankfurt, before we initiated descent to Cologne. Seat load factor must have been around 60 percent again, from my estimation there were about 80 to 90 passengers on board.
We glided across the outskirts of Bonn and Cologne, passing the airport to the East, before starting a 180 degree turn towards the south over Leverkusen. In the background, mushroom clouds became visible in the west…
… no, these weren’t atomic bomb tests, just the exhaust plumes of the coal powerplants in the “Ville”, a mining area between Cologne and Aachen.
We touched down on RWY 14L way ahead of schedule, taxied back towards the apron in front of Terminal 2, passing the busy cargo apron with its plethora of UPS and DHL Boeings, Douglases and Airbuses and a Lufthansa ARJ entering the runway for the short hop to MUC.
A few minutes later, after coming to rest next to a company 737, doors were opened again, and we left our ride for the short bus transfer to the terminal.
HLX is offering a decent, although unremarkable product, my biggest gripe being the lack of seat assignments. Flying this airline is a hardly different from taking the regional train or urban transit – it is clean, punctual, reliable, offers basic comfort and takes you from A to B quickly and with the least amount of hassle. It can be recommended – however, if the flight with a “full service” airline costs only a few Euros more, it is advisable to take up this offer in order to avoid the boarding scrum.
Aviation-wise the landing in RJK was the most thrilling one I have ever experienced – and for these thrills alone, it was very well worth paying forty Euros for such a nonsense trip.
Thanks for reading my report! Questions, comments, or criticism are always appreciated.