When planning my Christmas trip home to Los Angeles from Dubai, I gave a lot of thought as to which airline to fly with. Since my company was paying for the ticket, I entertained the possibility of defecting from my usual British Airways if I could get premium status with another alliance. I found out that a return trip to LAX
from Dubai on Lufthansa would get me over 30,000 miles and thus the silver-level equivalent on Star Alliance. Tempting though it was, I decided to go ahead with British Airways as I usually do – I value consistency over adventure, and at the back of my mind thought that I may end up close to getting the 1,500 tier points needed to upgrade me to Gold from Silver on BA
Logged on to BA
.com and selected the 3am BA
106 departure out of Dubai on 12th December, connecting in London and transferring to BA
279 to Los Angeles at 10am. Unfortunately, BA
have decided to go with 3 772s a day to Dubai instead of 1 744, 1 772 and 1 763 as they did last winter. Not sure why, but in either case I was slightly disappointed as I find the Upper Deck Club World cabin on the 744 much more pleasant than the dormitory style layout on the 772. Plus, the 772 hasn’t been retrofitted with the New Club World yet. Oh well, tough luck!
Before taking my flight from Dubai though, there was the small matter of getting out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I typically spend 5 days a week working for a client. In order to give myself enough time to pack when I got back to Dubai, I selected a 2pm departure out of Riyadh on Saudi Arabian Airlines on the 11th of December.
I’ve been travelling back and forth between the UAE and Saudi for the last 9 months, so I am no stranger to travelling in the Kingdom. I have also taken about 40 flights on Saudi Arabian Airlines this year, but don’t think I’ve ever written a trip report since I never seem to have the time to do so. In addition, I typically don’t carry a camera around with me anymore since photography is something of a taboo in the Kingdom of Humanity (which is how the Saudi Press Agency referred to their country in OPEC media during the conference last month).
With that background, here is the report:
11th December, 2007
Saudi Arabian Airlines
Riyadh (RUH) – Dubai (DXB)
Departure time: 14:10 scheduled, 14:25 actual
Arrival time: 16:50 scheduled, 17:00 actual
Aircraft: Boeing 747-468, HZ-AIW
Cabin: Economy, seat 44D
I began counting the days before arriving home about 2 weeks ahead of my trip. It was not surprising, therefore, that when I was woken up by room service at 6:15am on the morning of 11th December, that I found myself with a refreshing surge of energy despite having only slept 4 hours the night before.
As is usual for Wednesday mornings, I have breakfast, check out of the hotel, go to the office and then go to the airport. Today was no different, though I was particularly pleased to be leaving because I knew I wouldn’t be back for a month!
Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport is north of the city and about 30 minutes from my office. I arrived at 12:30 for a 14:10 flight. There are four terminals – one for domestic flights, one for international flights on Saudia, one for international flights on foreign airlines, and a fourth whose purpose I am not 100% sure of (I think it is a private aviation terminal, though Al Khayala fly out of there). Since I was flying on Saudia, I went to Terminal 2.
As with most airports in the Middle East, you have to have your bag scanned before reaching the check in the area. Riyadh Airport today was about 3-4 times as busy as I ever seen it at that time of the day. There were Saudia flights going out to Amman, Damascus, Casablanca, Dubai and Cairo all around the same time. On top of this, the checkin staff are not particularly expedious and there is a fair bit of cutting in line, so it took me about 30 minutes to get checked in. I asked the agent for an aisle seat in the middle of the cabin and he gave me 44D.
Even though Saudia recently migrated to electronic tickets for international flights (literally about 3 months ago), the checkin agents still don’t really know what to do if you just show up with your passport. It typically helps to at least have your eticket number.
I’ll never fully understand how seating is allocated on Saudia. They try to block off certain groups of seats so that women don’t have to sit next to men and for families to sit together, but they often don’t quite get it right and on a number of occasions I have been asked to move so that a lady doesn’t have to sit next to a man.
After checkin, you go through immigration. This usually takes a little bit of time, because just about everyone in Saudi Arabia has to have either a visa or an iqama (residence permit) with the exception of GCC nationals. So by the time the passport agent finds your visa, makes sure that it is valid, and stamps it, it takes some time.
As an aside, applying for a Saudi visa is a fairly cumbersome process. The application is fairly detailed and they ask for your religion and your sect. They typically do not issue tourist visas, so the other options are either business visas or hajj/umra visas. I was on a 3-month business visa, and in order to obtain it, I had to provide an invitation letter from my sponsor in Saudi Arabia, a no-objection from my sponsor in Dubai, and I also had to sign a document saying that I would not X, Y, Z while in Saudi Arabia else punishable by DEATH (and death was capitalised). Interestingly enough, the instructions I received with my visa application said that Saudi Arabia does not issue visas to the following three groups of people:
1. Israeli passport holders
2. People with Israeli stamps in their passports
3. Jewish people
You have to appreciate the transparency, but since none of the above three applied to me, I got my visa with minimal hassle. I believe that up until recently, Saudi Arabia issues different coloured visas or residence permits, green for Muslims and red/brown for non-Muslims. I don’t exactly know why that is, but I believe it is for the police to quickly verify your religion if you are trying to enter the holy places of Mecca and Medina. As far as I know, the visas are now the same colour for everyone (I have a colleague who is Muslim and his visa looks exactly the same as mine, other than the fact that his religion is stated as Islam).
Anyway, after immigration you have to go through a second round of security where typically you have to disrobe and put everything on the conveyor belt. They have separate lines for men and women, so you sometimes have to wait because a convoy of women have to go through before you.
Shopping at Riyadh Airport is extremely limited. In fact, I would say that it is worse than Jeddah and Dammam. There is effectively nothing you can buy except for a hamburger or a newspaper.
The terminals at Riyadh are somewhat circular in fashion and the design is very much early 1980s (the architecture reminds me of a honeycomb). Gate changes without an announcement are fairly typical. My flight today was departing from gate 25. One of Saudia’s four 747-400s was waiting for me at the gate, in this case it was HZ
-AIW, an aircraft I had already been on 4 times. Boarding commenced at 13:30 and as usual, there was no differentiation between First, Business and Economy class. The gate agent just tells you that he is ready, and then people flock to the door. Eventually there is an announcement made.
For the benefit of those interested in Saudia, I will try to recall some of the unique aspects of flying with SV
. The 747-400 has a three class configuration, with First Class situated in the nose and between doors 1 and 2. There is no divider between the first and second cabin, they are just grouped together. There is business class cabin upstairs as well as between doors 2 and 3. Economy is as of door 3 all the way to the back of the aircraft.
All the seats on Saudia have exactly the same design and fabric. The seats have an identical design, but differ in width, pitch and recline. First Class is slightly wider than business (2-2-2 configuration) and in turn, Business class is wider than Economy (2-3-2 configuration). Economy is configured 10-abreast.
Another interesting thing about Saudia is that they start Economy class at row 30 on all aircraft (even if there are only 4 aisles of First Class ahead of it). They also label the seats identically, i.e. 34L is a window on a 747 and it is also a window on an MD
At the back of the aircraft, they have removed a few rows of seats and installed a prayer room, which has a bulkhead wall on the front and back and curtains on either side. The room also has a screen which shows you the direction to Mecca. I have sometimes noticed people praying with a carpet, but I don’t know if that is already provided by Saudia.
The cabin crew typically consists of Saudi men, Arab women and South Asian women. Announcements are made in Arabic by the Saudi male F/As and typically begin with “al salam aleikom wa rahmat Allah wa barakato” which means “peace, God’s mercy and blessings be upon you” before starting the announcement. Indonesian or Filipino female F/As typically perform the English announcement where they say that the flight will take about 1 hour and 20 minutes and that we will be cruising at an altitude of 36,000 feet.
The safety video is played in Arabic with English subtitles. Following that, there is a pre-recorded announcement asking everyone to turn off their phones and then they play the traveller’s supplication in Arabic. The traveller’s supplication is a prayer that the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) used to say before commencing a journey. Many people typically repeat it as it is being played.
The female F/As cover their hair, but otherwise just wear a uniform and a sort of apron. There apparently has always been a bit of controversy regarding the employment of female F/As on board Saudia, with many people being of the feeling that women should not be allowed to work on aircraft. A Saudi man once told a colleague of mine that you can tell the nationality of the F/As very easily: “if she is pretty, she is Lebanese; if she is fat, she is Egyptian; if she smells, she is Syrian.” Not my words, but to be honest the only time I’ve actually chatted with a female F/A, she was Lebanese and NOT very good looking!
On the flight today, a Saudi man behind me kept on talking on his mobile until we started the takeoff roll, just before we lifted off, he said “Hey I gotta go the plane is taking off.” Imagine what would have happened to him if he was on another airline!
Takeoff from Riyadh is typically to the North of the city. Before takeoff, the pilot typically announces “Bismillah al rahman al rahim, flight attendants please take your seats for takeoff” which means “in the name of the most gracious and compassionate, cabin crew please take your seats for takeoff.”
I always find that there is an initial rush of power from the GE
CF6 engines when we begin the takeoff roll, but that the takeoff is much more leisurely than on 744s powered by the Rolls Royce RB211, where you can really feel the takeoff thrust.
The flight path from Riyadh to Dubai typically has us flying east over Dammam, entering Bahraini airspace just to the north of Bahrain, flying outside of Qatari airspace completely before approaching Dubai from the north, then turning 180 degrees to line up with runway 34 at Dubai international airport.
The meal service on SV
is always the same – the choices are beef or chicken. The chicken dish is always some sort of chicken with rice and the beef dish typically involves potatoes and carrots instead of rice. They are both fine, but are always the same. Of course, no alcohol is served aboard Saudi Arabian Airlines (nor for that matter can you get alcohol anywhere in Saudi Arabia, except for on the black market).
Despite the fact that all seats have PTVs, the entertainment system doesn’t always work and you are typically left the moving map display and the direction of Mecca. I have found that the entertainment systems occasionally work, but there are not many choices available. When it does work, there are a number of different programs, including “Hollywood films”, “Islamic Programs” and “Comedies”. Also worthy of note is that they have front and downwards cameras (though they are not typically very clear).
Upon landing in Dubai, no sooner has the aircraft left the runway than people get up and start pulling bags down from the overhead lockers. The F/As don’t bother saying anything because they know that no one will listen. It’s a short hop over from Riyadh to Dubai, but its always nice to fly on a 747-400 on such a short journey. If I was travelling in the US on a 1.5 hour flight, I’d probably be on a 737-300 or a CRJ!
At least for me, the first thing that grabs my attention when I get off a flight from Saudi Arabia is delight at seeing a woman, which is something that you don’t get to do in Riyadh, since they typically cover from head to toe in black gowns, only leaving their eyes open (and some even cover they eyes). Interestingly, a nice pair of legs is the first thing which attracts my attention when I get back to Dubai. I don’t really know why that is the case as I myself already have two legs. My other colleagues typically are drawn to breasts first.
Dubai Airport on this part afternoon was absolutely packed. I don’t know why, but I suspect it had something to do with Hajj season. There is a lot of walking to do from the planes to the arrivals area (about 15 minutes). All of the moving walkways were completely packed! There were obviously a lot of people at immigration, but fortunately I didn’t have to wait in line them. Dubai has an automated immigration system, which if you subscribe to it as I do you can go through an electronic gate using your card and fingerprint. A true life saver, because there is typically no line and it’s a question of 10 seconds go through it.
When I got out of the airport, I grabbed a cab and went to the office and home in order to pack. Despite having about 6 hours to get things done, I was still rushing around like a crazy person trying to sort out everything! Since the United Arab Emirates does not observe daylight savings, the time difference between the UK and the UAE is 4 hours during the winter as opposed to 3 hours during the summer, and this pushes back the departure of the flight from Dubai to 3am so that the plane lands in Heathrow after opening at 6am. I don’t know if they also push back the departure one hour forward from Heathrow.
12th December, 2007
Dubai (DXB) – London Heathrow (LHR)
Departure time: 02:50 scheduled, 03:30 actual
Arrival time: 06:40 scheduled, 06:40 actual
Aircraft: Boeing 777-236ER, G-VIIV
Cabin: Club World, seat 10B
Since the flight was at 3am, I left my house around 12:30 in the morning, drove to the office (avoiding Dubai’s infamous SALIK toll system because I didn’t have enough credit) and parked my car in the covered garage since I would be leaving it for a month. I called a cab and went to the airport.
Kerbside access at Dubai airport is extremely limited, and I dare say that I have never just been able to pull up and get off…no, there are always stacks of cars piled up on both sides. This is also the case at 1am, since Dubai Airport is exceptionally busy between midnight and 4am. Today was no different. Inside the terminal, you have to again go through security before reaching the checkin area. I think part of the intent here is to prevent non-travellers from accompanying their friends into the checkin area.
Though the security screening areas are walled off and separate for each checkin area, you can go through anyone of them. I typically just try to see which one has the shortest line and I go through one even if it not the airline I am flying with.
I eventually reached the BA
checkin desk and presented my passport and luggage. The checkin agent advised me that this was a very full flight and they were looking for volunteers to downgrade from Club World to World Traveller Plus, and that he was offering £200 if I was interested in doing so. I told him that I would be happy to be moved in the other direction without the £200 (i.e. to First) but he said it was full, so I just kept my Club World seat. I had selected 10B, a bulkhead forward facing aisle. The benefit of this seat was that there would be no row in front of me, and thus no one to climb over my legs to get to the aisle. I also asked him to issue a boarding pass for my flight to LAX
and check my bags through.
With checkin complete, I breezed through immigration using my e-gate card and after about 15 minutes of walking, got the departures area at Dubai. I stopped off by the duty free shop and bought a Prada eau de toilette for my mother and paid for it with Saudi Riyals that I would no longer be in need of.
I then went to the BA
lounge and hardly sat down before they called boarding. I quickly knocked off the Heineken and walked to the gate. The aircraft operating the route this evening was a GE
-90 powered Boeing777. Though obviously both versions of 777 will get you there, I prefer the Trent 800 powered ones over the GE
-90. I prefer the power delivery of the Trent and don’t really like the sound that the GE
-90 makes. Adding insult to injury, the exact aircraft that I was about to board was G-VIIV, which I had already been on three times before (each time between LHR
). To quote a very wise man (PH), “there is nothing worse than flying the same registration twice.”
As usual, the welcome on board was delightful. I think BA
has the second best welcome in the industry, second only to Middle East Airlines since clearly the flight attendant at the door of tonight’s BA
flight did not greet me with “Ahlan feek Monsieur Michel, ya ahla wa sahla” as they would have done on MEA
I took my seat (10B) and no sooner had I sat down than one of the F/As turned up offering me a glass of champagne, a paper, and asked to take my coat. Announcements were made in English and Arabic and the flight time would be 7 hours and 17 minutes (as per the announcement in English) and 7 hours 10 minutes (as per the announcement in Arabic). The crew also passed out a “Sleeper Service” menu, offering a light snack immediately after takeoff for those wanting to rest, followed by a full breakfast in the morning.
We had a fairly long taxi out to the runway and were soon airborne. I was so knackered that I didn’t even notice which runway we took off on. I immediately donned my ear plugs and eye mask, reclined the seat and went to sleep. I find that the forward facing seats in the old Club World are more comfortable than the window facing ones, since at full recline you can get your feet at the same level as your head, whereas you can’t really do this on the rearward facing seats (there is a slight recline).
I was so tired that I woke up with about 45 minutes left before landing. Unfortunately I had picked up a sore throat during the course of the previous 6 hours and I had about 3 rounds of tea to try to clear it away. It was still dark on approach to Heathrow, but it was a clear day and we had a good view of the city. We touched down on 27R and I got the feeling that the pilots had opted for an auto landing. By the time we taxied across the terminal 4 and parked, it was about 7am. Deplaning was very smooth, but the weather was freezing in London (-2C).
I soon found myself behind a 500 metre long line to get on the bus to Terminal 1. Despite the fact that there were so many people transferring terminals, the BAA staff managed to move the queue very quickly and I found myself on a bus within 15 minutes. We drove across to Terminals 1 and 2 and then had to go through security again there. I was very quickly reminded of why I hate transferring through London Heathrow. The security area was overcrowded with people trying to get through, others trying to knock off the liquids that they had brought with them, others taking off their belts and shoes, taking laptops out of their cases, etc. Damn the terrorists for everything they have done, including making us go through this charade every time we have to travel. Anyway, I must say that I have always found the BAA staff efficient and good humoured about the whole process.
Once in Terminal 1, I went to WH
Smiths to buy my dad a Private Eye (which he likes) and passed by World of Whiskies to pick up a bottle of Dewar’s White Label (also for my dad, but I would also partake). White Label in the US has a different taste to the one in the UK, so I always try to pick up a bottle at the airport before going to California.
I then proceeded to the lounge and had a hot cup of coffee to further soothe my throat. In the meantime, I made a couple of phone calls and I am proud to say that I woke up one friend who had overslept and was late to work. I told him to hurry up and get moving, and give me a ring while walking to the office if he had time. At least I got him up!
I notice that British Airways seems to have fallen out of love with Molton Brown. The washbags that they passed out in Club World were different to what I thought was the new Club World design (and not as nice in my opinion). The new brand is called something like “Elemis”. When I got to the lounge at T1, I went into the spa to have a shower and found that the shampoo and body wash were also Elemis (though they hadn’t yet changed the glass window outside the spa which still read Molton Brown).
Eventually, they called my flight to Los Angeles and I proceeded over to gate 52 to board.
12th December, 2007
London Heathrow (LHR) – Los Angeles (LAX)
Departure time: 10:10 scheduled, 10:20 actual
Arrival time: 13:10 scheduled, 13:07 actual
Aircraft: Boeing 747-436, G-CIVA
Cabin: Club World, seat 64K
279 on 12th December would be my 95th and last flight in 2007, and I was again slightly disappointed to find that the aircraft operating the service to Los Angeles was G-CIVA, which I had already flown on 8 times (that I know of). So it seemed that I wasn’t going to pick up any new registrations on this trip.
As I was approaching gate 52, the agents made an announcement that First and Club World passengers could board at the customer service desk on the left hand side of the gate, which is what I did. We boarded through door 2L and I walked up the stairs and took my seat, 64K. All BA
747-400s have been equipped with the new J class and this was my 3rd time travelling on it.
In my opinion, 64K is the best seat on the upper deck, and by extension in the Club World cabin on the 747-400. It is the most private because it faces the back wall, but it also features unobstructed aisle access, a great view of the wing, and you are the closest to the stairs (in fact I also selected 64K for the return journey in January). Again, no sooner had I sat down than an F/A came over to take my coat. I had another glass of champagne, and read the Economist while waiting for push back. I had a view of British Airways 747-436 G-BNLA
out the window, which I believe was the first 744 delivered to BA
and will also be first to leave the fleet. I must say that it seemed to be in need of a paintjob.
We soon taxied out, heading for runway 27L and got in line alongside a UA
777-200 in old colours and an Air France A319. A Cyprus Airways A330-200 bound for Larnaca followed us. It was a beautiful clear and crisp day. A BA
A321 inbound from Terminal 4 took off ahead of us, and then we lined up on 27L. I like taking off on 27L when I am sitting on the right hand side of the plane because it gives me a good view of T3
and the chance to spot the MEA
A330 in the event that it had already arrived from Beirut. No such luck today, we were either too early (which I suspect was the case) or MEA
was not flying to London that day.
The pilots gently advanced the throttles to get us going and then increased to takeoff power, putting a big smile on my face as the four Rolls Royce RB211s began producing that lovely buzz saw sound that we all know and love. After a powerful takeoff, we climbed out of Heathrow and turned northwest. Our routing would take us to the west of Scotland, south of Iceland, cutting through the middle of Greenland, over into Canada and then entering the US around Montana.
As soon as the fasten seatbelts signed were turned off, the cabin crew came around with washbags and menus. Today’s meal service offering was:
Loch Fyne smoked salmon with mustard dressing or Roast vegetable terrine with basil crème fraîche, with a fresh seasonal salad with vinaigrette dressing
Grilled filet of beef with asparagus, carrots and blue cheese gnocchi or Shaun Hill’s smoked haddock with prawn fish pie, or Penne pasta with cherry tomato sauce, or Cajun chicken salad with peppered pineapple and spicy tomato dressing
Apple and blackberry pie with custard
Cropwell Bishop Stilton and French Brie cheese
A selection of fruit
Though neither of the starters really appealed to me, even considering the French accentuations marks on the crème fraiche accompanying the vegetable terrine, I decided to go with the Salmon. For the main course, I wanted to avoid fish but didn’t fancy pasta or Cajun chicken, so I went for the beef, fully expecting that it wouldn’t be good since beef never is on board aircraft.
After the crew took our orders they passed out the plastic bag of nuts and a drink, and I asked for a glass of Black Label. I really wish BA
would do away with this plastic bag of nuts and bring back the china bowl as they used to do pre-September 11.
The meal service soon started, and I actually quite enjoyed the salmon. The beef arrived in about 1 cm of oil and was well overcooked, but I ate it anyway and had a glass of Spanish wine to accompany it which was good but dry. I also had about half of the apple pie for desert.
Following the meal service, I reclined the seat and went to sleep. Having just come off the old Club World I could tell that the new seat was a significant improvement over the old. The extra width and length is appreciated, though I still think that the rear-facing seats have a bit of a slant.
Nonetheless I slept for about 5 hours, waking up with about 3 hours left to go. Since I couldn’t get back to sleep, I decided to see what was on TV
. The entertainment system is AVOD features a number of games, but there was nothing which really appealed to me. Eventually I watched Disney’s Aladdin, which was interrupted by the system resynchronizing every 10 seconds. I also played junior hangman and unfortunately didn’t do very well.
About 1.5 hours before landing, the cabin crew came around with lunch, which consisted of two sandwiches and a fruit cake. One sandwich was cheese and pickle and the other was crayfish. They arrived wrapped in plastic on the plate and both were incredibly unappetising. I just had a bit of fruitcake and a coffee. I dare say that BA
ought to rethink their pre-landing snack strategy, walking around the cabin it seems that most people hadn’t eaten the sandwiches either. About 15 years ago I seem to remember that BA
used to do scones and cream before landing, even in Economy. Wonder why they took that away.
I got chatting with one of the F/As about Dubai after lunch, who also told me that BA
used to fly to Riyadh a few years ago. She said that the crew would have to wear hijabs when they got off the plane and would layover in a compound in Riyadh for a couple of days, mainly just sitting by the pool.
I was following the airshow as we approached LAX
and I was interested to see that we had made a very northern approach, entering the US over Idaho, cutting across California, flying over Fresno and then tracking the coastline. We flew right over Malibu and then made a left turn after Santa Monica, giving me a direct view of LAX
from the north. We were literally right next to LAX
, perhaps only a few miles away and I could even see the aircraft on the runways. We flew inland a few miles, before making a 180 degree turn to line up with airport, tracking the 110 freeway from Downtown LA
over to LAX
and came in for a very smooth landing on 24R.
The pilot welcomed us to LAX
, advised us of the time and weather, thanked us for choosing British Airways and wished everyone a Merry Christmas. It was truly refreshing to be wished a Merry Christmas by the pilot after having spent most of the year in Islamic countries which do not allow full freedom of religion. It was also refreshing to have an announcement made without making it in the name of God as would be typical onboard SV
We taxied over to the south side of the complex while our gate was still occupied by a Malaysia Airlines 747-400. It eventually got out of the way and we taxied in. Deplaning was from door 2L and the crew held back Club so that First could deplane (though that meant that World Traveller Plus was the first cabin off the aircraft). Within 20 minutes from parking, I was already through passport control and customs and went straight into the arms of my mum and dad waiting for me in the arrivals hall, who I hadn’t seen for months. And within 45 minutes, I was home for Christmas!
Thanks for reading! Any comments would be appreciated, and sorry for not having any photos.
PARIS, FRANCE...THE BEIRUT OF EUROPE.