THURSDAY 28 AUGUST 2008.
BRISTOL INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT BRS – ROME CIAMPINO AIRPORT CIA.
EASYJET FLIGHT U2 6183
G-EZDI (C/N 3537)
7th flight of 2008
2nd flight on A319 and 1st on this plane
3rd flight on U2
Photo © Kevin M Bates
Photo © Kevin M Bates
As I searched the Internet for the best flight and hotel deals to Rome, I compared the prices of flights from various airports. By far the cheapest flights were with FR from STN but my experience of April this year of driving nearly four hours and 200km to get there was still fresh (a report on that trip is forthcoming). Indeed while the cost difference seems substantial on first glance, when one accounts for the time, petrol and all that involved in such a journey the real saving is minimal, if at all. If public transport were used the journey would be even longer and more expensive.
As usual, there is no direct flight from CWL to Rome – the only route available is with KL via AMS to FCO. This is generally a more expensive option but the relatively late time of my booking meant that the fare was reasonably competitive. The main drawback – apart from the risk of my luggage not making the connection – was the very long overall duration of the journeys – 6-7 hrs each way. BRS fares much better with U2 offering a daily service to CIA alongside which KL, AF and others offer indirect services via their hubs to FCO. London was quickly ruled out – the cheapest flights on offer were with BA from LGW but again the hassle of the long drive (or coach ride) was a significant demerit. Services with AZ and BA from LHR were horribly expensive – additionally some of the AZ services entailed a connection in LIN in at least one direction.
In the end I decided that it made no sense taking an indirect flight from anywhere other than CWL as the extra transport cost would negate any savings. The U2 option from BRS ultimately shone as the best option and hence I booked it. I also purchased the Speedy Boarding Plus option and subsequently a pass to the BRS Airport Executive Lounge.
As is usual with me when travelling, the morning of my flight, 28 August, was a bit of a scramble as I tried to get everything together prior to driving to BRS. After doubly checking everything I finally left home at 1100HR and headed onto the M4 and across the Second Severn Crossing into England. I then took the M49 to the M5 and then the combination of A-roads – some with a 30 mph speed limit and cameras – to BRS. As I negotiated the moderately heavy traffic on this late Thursday morning I thought about things. BRS needs a high-speed access route! This tangled and tortuous route certainly does not help the airport’s attractiveness to users – although given the huge level of Welsh traffic that uses the airport the journey must be considered a minor irritation.
The weather was very cloudy as I arrived at BRS at 1215HR. I parked my car and gathered my suitcase and backpack and walked over to the terminal building to the EasyJet counters. Now U2 is easily the largest operator at BRS, a status it inherited from Go back in 2002. As such it operates a large number of counters there. Nonetheless, the Speedy Boarding Plus counter was there but unmanned and there was no line at all so I was able to walk right up to one of the regular counters and get checked in right away! By 1225HR I was thus ready to go. Five minutes later I went over to clear security and was through in five minutes – though interestingly one of the officers tested my cologne (which was of regulation size in the requisite clear plastic bag). It was fine and so off I went to the Executive Lounge, which took a bit of looking for.
I got to the lounge at 1245HR. The BRS departure lounge has 2 levels with most of the shops and the gates on the lower level with restaurants and the Executive Lounge on the upper level. Once I got into the lounge – which mind you took longer than even flight check-in – I had a seat by the window and looked at the planes coming and going. I took several pictures whilst having a cup of peppermint tea and a snack, followed by some orange juice – I was not yet in the mood for alcohol. The BRS tarmac was full of U2 A319s along with a Thomas Cook A320-200 on its way to Zakynthos and two FCA 757-200s, one of which was on a delayed flight to Dalaman and the other to Sharm al Sheikh (SSH). I stayed in the lunge until 1315HR, by which time the departures monitor in there had stated that there were five minutes left before boarding. I then went downstairs towards gate 4.
BRS has several gates but no jetbridges so that passengers board planes via stairs. Some ramp spots are close enough to the terminal to permit passengers to walk to their planes while in other cases shuttle buses are used. The trouble is that the gates areas are directly on the departure lounge and so when flights are called – or even before that – the lines of passengers snake right across the lounge, causing considerable congestion. Indeed, as I went to gate 4 for my flight, there was a long queue at gate 5 for the SSH flight. I saw a work colleague of mine in that line and went over to say a brief hello before she boarded the bus with her boyfriend. In the meantime the line for the CIA flight started to grow but I did not push myself into it – because after all I had the Speedy Boarding Plus!
The flight, U2 6183, was finally called at 1325HR, the original time of departure from BRS. The Speedy Boarding Plus group along with passengers with children were invited to board first so I was one of the first through the gate. The plane, G-EZDI (C/N 3537), was parked a short distance away. Even so, the dull weather and some delays meant that virtually all the passengers were processed prior to the pathway to the plane being opened – and in the meantime several busloads of passengers for SSH left from the nearby gate. The gate was finally opened at 1340HR and I headed for the rear of the plane – both fore and aft exits were in use. I took seat 11F, a starboard window seat at the 2nd over-wing emergency exit at 1343HR. Later on a couple travelling to Rome to join a cruise took the other two seats next to me and so I chatted with them throughout the flight.
U2’s A319s are outfitted in a 1-class seating configuration and, in consequence, they are fitted with two over-wing exits on each side rather than the one found on standard A319s. This low-cost configuration has since been adopted by several other carriers. The seats were done in grey fabric and were quite comfortable. There were accents of orange on the seats and the cabin but overall it was not gaudy – i.e. quite unlike FR. The safety cards are located in seat pockets which are made of netting – on FR the safety cards are pasted onto the seats in front as a deterrent to people taking them! (They are, after all, quite expensive to produce.) As a whole the plane looked very clean and the atmosphere on board very professional.
The purser welcomed the passengers on board at 1346HR and was followed three minutes later by the Captain, who apologised for the delay to the flight which was caused by a delay in departing PMI. Now in the summer, that is not hard to imagine, since PMI is one of Europe’s busiest airports during high season. The Captain also outlined the route, which would take the plane over France and Switzerland on the way to Italy.
The plane was almost full when the doors were closed and the pushback took place at 1354HR. At that very moment an FR flight, using 737-8AS EI-DYN (C/N 36576/2637), landed and parked to starboard of my plane. An Eastern Airways flight also arrived on the westerly runway, 27. Soon afterwards the Baby Bus made its way to the threshold of runway 27 and turned for take-off, its CFM 56 plants issuing a high-pitched scream as the plane raced along the runway for departure. The plane rotated at 1400HR and immediately the rolling Somerset countryside was visible, as was the Bristol Channel and beyond it Wales (Cymru). The plane then made a right turn and headed to the east; as it did so I could see sister ship G-EZAI (C/N 2735), which departed immediately after my flight, soar towards the clouds on its way to TLS.
Five minutes after take-off the Fasten Seat Belts sign was switched off. Immediately afterwards the flight crew came around with scratch cards for sale – there were very few takers though. The drink and snack service then started at 1425HR – I bought an orange juice as the trolley made its slow way along the aisle. More importantly, though, I perused the pages of the in-flight shopping guide. I saw, among the many times available for sale, a model of the A319 in U2 colours. I decided that, as this was a limited edition model, I would not procrastinate and would buy it as soon as the trolley came around.
At 1446HR (or 1546HR CEST, the time I use onwards from here), the duty-free trolley came around. Several passengers bought items from it but of course my mind was riveted on the A319. As the trolley passed I asked and, good news! The item was available. I thus bought the A319 which now sits beside me on its stand as I write this (I need the models to give inspiration while writing these reports, after all).
Shortly after this the Captain came on and gave our position as being over Paris. While I could not see the Eiffel Tower or any other landmarks the twisting Seine was clearly visible. The route then took the plane over the countryside of France and over the Alps into Switzerland. The mighty mountains retained snow caps even in mid-summer and so one was left to imagine what the scenery must be like in winter after a good fall of snow – truly a skier’s paradise.
The flight itself was very smooth with no major turbulence events to speak of. At about 1620HR, while passing over northern Italy, the drinks trolley came around but I left it untroubled. Twenty minutes later a charity collection was taken – this time around I pitched in. Around this time the plane began its descent to CIA. The Fasten Seat Belts sign came on at 1655HR. The plane’s descent carried it over central Rome and landmarks such as the Colosseum and the Vatican were clearly visible – spotting them was simplified by the fact I had been there earlier in 2008.
The plane landed on Runway 15 at CIA at 1711HR. Several FR planes were present as was U2 A319-111 HB-JZH (C/N 2230) – incidentally I would encounter this Swiss-registered A319 on my return trip as well. After the plane parked up at stand the passengers disembarked and piled into a bus which took us to the terminal. I got off at 1722HR and into the said bus. The immigration and baggage reclaim were very quick and I was out of the terminal at 1735HR and in the hot Roman sunshine.
I decided to be a little more adventurous this time compared to April and decided to use the train into central Rome. This meant catching a bus to Ciampino station, which was in the centre of the district of the same name. I remembered the long queues for the Terravision coach the first time around and the waiting involved. This time around, though, the Terravision coach had no queues whatsoever and a coach actually left for Termini with several empty seats as I waited for the local bus to come. Oh well, that’s the fun of travelling indeed! I soon got the bus and then the train at the station – altogether taking about 45 minutes to the centre. I then got the Metro to my hotel and got there at 1900HR, in good time to change and get ready for dinner out in the Eternal City.
TUESDAY 2 SEPTEMBER 2008.
ROME CIAMPINO AIRPORT CIA – BRISTOL INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT BRS.
EASYJET FLIGHT U2 6184
G-EZIJ (C/N 2477)
8th flight of 2008
3rd flight on A319 and 1st on this plane
4th flight on U2
Photo © Gareth Harvey
Photo © Spotnap
After five days in the gloriously spectacular Italian capital, which included my friend’s beautiful wedding and some fine shopping, it was time to head back to the UK. On the day of my departure I did a little shopping in the morning and had a last pizza which was fantastic. I then returned to my hotel by Metro and collected my bags. In a reversal of my outward journey I took the metro back to Termini station then caught a train to Ciampino station, this route generally tending to be just as quick as - and cheaper than - taking the several branded coaches that run between Termini and the airport. The trouble with this route this time around was a final bus connection is needed from the station to the airport and so when I arrived at the station at 1515HR I found out that there was no onward bus for 35 minutes! I thus took a taxi for the remaining few kilometres to the terminal and arrived in ten minutes. I noticed an old Yakovlev Yak-40 plane parked next to a hangar by the perimeter fence looking most forlorn.
Rome’s CIA is relatively small and is easily dominated by FR and U2, the only other regular airline serving it being Wizz. There are thus a large number of counters dedicated to FR and a smaller number for U2. I approached the U2 counters and made my way towards Desk 10, the Speedy Plus counter. There was no line whatsoever and so I was sorted at 1525HR. That said, there was no line at the regular counters either – it would have been just as fast whichever one I had used!
I then roamed the small airport while drinking the remaining bottled beverages I had which of course could not be taken through Security. The terminal features a few shops including a newsagent and a few eating places and the somewhat cramped building makes it feel very crowded even though, in absolute terms, it was not overwhelmingly busy that afternoon. That said, some of the FR counters had very long lines indeed.
Once I finished the drinks I went through the security check quite smoothly then went to the departure lounge. The lounge features a smattering of duty-free shops but from experience none of these shops is located on the extra-Schengen area of the terminal. As such at 1620HR I went into the biggest shop and had a browse, eventually buying some chocolate. With a lot of time to kill thereafter I wandered around to the domestic gates where there were several people seated for a number of FR flights, many of which were domestic with a few being intra-Schengen. With little to see though I exited the Schengen common space and went over to the other side of the lounge from where my flight would be called.
This part of the lounge was quite busy too with several flights scheduled to leave, including several FR flights and 2 from U2, namely one to GVA and my own. (Of course pretty soon GVA flights will depart from the other side of the terminal as Switzerland enters Schengen on 5 December 2008.) The terminal here has many seats but very limited views of the ramp action. While the planes do taxi past the windows they park on a section of ramp out of view from this area. The first of the several planes to pass by was FR bird EI-DPK (C/N 33610/2183) at 1634HR and two minutes later U2 A319-111 HB-JZH (C/N 2230) arrived from GVA. EI-DPV, another FR 737-8AS (C/N 35551/2236), took off at 1643HR and at about that time the GVA flight was called. Now that’s a quick turn-around!
My flight was scheduled to board from Gate 2 and already a large crowd had gathered there. G-EZIJ (C/N 2477), the A319 operating my flight, landed at 1652HR and parked up. Soon afterwards the flight was called and the large crowd gathered around the gate area. The first of two buses pulled up outside the gate. Initially passengers with children and those with special needs were called, followed by the passengers with Speedy Boarding tickets – the latter group ultimately reflected a large proportion of passengers on the flight. I got onboard at 1707HR. The boarding was quite slow, however and so I, along with the other passengers, waited in the bus which was now quite hot with the Roman sunshine pouring in. Shortly afterwards the second bus arrived for the other passengers. That second bus rapidly became very full.
Two female passengers destined for the second bus, on observing how crowded it was, tried to cut across to my bus but an alert agent spotted them and told them that they had to use the correct (second) bus. While they did board that bus they were glancing around at the vehicle I was in and, perhaps realizing that mine was the bus which would head to the plane first, jumped off their vehicle and ran over to my bus, where they passed me and tried to hide behind other passengers. To no avail; the agent, whose back had been turned at the moment they ran across, had actually observed them and ordered them to go back across with a strong telling-off. Very stern indeed – but then the guy would have seen it all before on many occasions.
My bus eventually left the stand at 1719HR and was followed closely by the other vehicle. It soon lined up by the A319. I boarded from the rear and took seat 10F, a starboard window at the emergency exit. While boarding another FR plane, EI-DCB (C/N 33560/1447), arrived; EI-DCY (33570/1637) was at the stand too.
The Purser greeted passengers onboard at 1737HR and one minute later the Captain spoke, detailing the two hour and fifteen minute flight to BRS which would be at 38 000 ft or 11 600m. A greeting in Italian followed at 1739HR. Three minutes later the plane was pushed back for departure – the safety briefing was read at this time. The plane’s engines were then started but were only set at idle, nothing more. In the meantime things were happening on the ramp as EI-DHH (C/N 33817/1677) arrived at 1752HR with EI-DCB leaving two minutes later. The minutes stretched by as the plane remained motionless and many of us aboard were a bit startled to see a tug appear at 1757HR. What was happening? Was the flight not going to go off or what? At this point there was no communication from the crew.
I began to wonder whether this was going to be the 3rd time I have had a flight delayed due to technical difficulties. The first time something of the sort happened to me was back in 1995 when flying on a LI Dash 8 100 from BGI to POS – the passengers including myself had boarded and the engines were started when suddenly they were stopped and we were escorted back to the terminal. The pilot then commented on hydraulic problems and we had to wait two hours for another Dash 8 to arrive from SLU – it would turn out to be the same plane I had flown to BGI on 5 days earlier. The next time it happened was in 2002 when flying from POS to TAB on Tobago Express, again on a Dash 8 but this time a 300 series craft. Again the engines were powered up only for them to be stopped soon afterwards. The hydraulics system was again the culprit and the passengers were accommodated on the next hourly flight on a plane which returned from TAB.
The tug went away at 1803HR and the plane powered up for departure, the Captain apologising for the delay, which had been caused by a minor technical problem which had been resolved. The plane taxied out at 1806HR after EI-DAK (C/N 33717/1310), the latest in the never-ending FR stream at CIA, landed. The plane taxied to the threshold of Runway 15 and sped for take-off, leaving the ground at 1809HR and making a right turn towards the UK.
The flight travelled along the west coast of Italy, whose outstanding natural beauty unfolded beneath. Inside, the flight crew started serving drinks and snacks at 1820HR. The service was however very slow and so it was 1845HR when I purchased a drink and pack of crisps. By the time the drink service was done the plane had passed the coastline of Italy and was heading towards the Alps. A charity donation was taken, starting at 1915HR – I duly contributed.
At 1922HR an announcement came over – the EasyJet Employee of The Month was onboard! He was duly congratulated by the passengers and the rest of the cabin crew. He then started the duty free sales. This is an aspect of U2 that I really like – the fun that the crew have doing their duty and the jovial atmosphere encouraged on board. It really adds an element to U2 flights that, I must say, is quite lacking on FR. I did not partake of the duty free – neither, it appeared, did many of the other passengers.
At 1947HR, as the plane was over France, the Captain came over and announced that there would be 45 minutes further to BRS. The plane was at peak cruising altitude of 11 600m at this point. Pretty soon the plane passed over the English Channel and the coast of Kent appeared at 1959HR (1859HR in the UK, the time used from here onwards). The Thames Estuary passed by then after six minutes, the city of London and many landmarks, such as Big Ben, the London Eye (Millennium Wheel), the Dome and LHR itself were clearly visible. A final passage of the drinks trolley took place at this time but I bought nothing.
The plane’s route took it past Reading and then Swindon and Bath before approaching Bristol itself. It then turned to line up with Runway 27 and landed on it at 1930HR BST. BRS was very wet and cloudy, a complete contrast to sunny Rome. As the plane slowed on the runway, sister ship G-EZIZ (C/N 2646) was visible taxiing to stand. Once my plane was at stand, though, there was a further delay to disembarkation. The Captain explained that due to security issues domestic and international flights could not offload at the same time at BRS so we had to wait for the passengers from the other flight (EDI) to pass first. Wow I thought, this was unusual – especially for a busy airport like BRS! Did they not have separate channels to ensure that passengers could be appropriately segregated?
I was one of the last passengers off the plane at about 1940HR and passed through immigration, the first time that I had passed through a UK immigration facility since the UK Border Agency came into existence and their blue paint-scheme and notices were everywhere. This new look is in keeping with a new mandate to ensure more rigorous entry procedures. Once I was through I retrieved my suitcase quickly and then made my way out to the car park and got started on the hour-long drive back to Cardiff at 2015HR. My Roman adventure was thus fully over at 2115HR.
Hence here are my overall impressions of the trip. U2 was as always an enjoyable airline to fly with. They really have an attitude of having fun while working and that makes a positive impression for passengers. Yes, what UK residents would have seen on the Airline series several years ago is very true even today! The fact that they have such a comprehensive array of flights from nearby BRS makes then an attractive option for European travel. The Speedy Boarding Plus was worth it insofar as ensuring the chance to get the extra-legroom seats (as I am tall). That said, the first check-in at BRS, where all the desks were deserted and so I could have used any one straight away, was a small let-down.
BRS is a small facility and thus walking distances are short. That said it is very cramped and the long lines of passengers sprawling across the departures lounge give the place an unkempt appearance. They really need to expand the terminal so as to separate the gate areas a bit from the shops – something that even CWL has. That said BRS has a much wider range of services and facilities than CWL which is unfortunately giving the impression of being little more than a package holiday airport. To think that the only way to Rome from CWL was a connection in AMS (though KL did offer competitive fares) says volumes. While I do enjoy flying from CWL its limited choice of flights is becoming its undoing. For its part, BRS needs to improve road access – the twisty, narrow road through the suburbs of Bristol is prone to heavy traffic at times and is a major limiting factor to the airport’s appeal. The lounge was very good and comfortable but due to limited time I did not get to stay there very long.
I have never been to Rome’s main airport, Fiumicino (FCO) and so I cannot compare it to CIA. About CIA, though, it is very small and cramped – somewhat more so than BRS – and the facilities on offer are even more limited. On the plus side, though, its links with the city are very good with 2 coach lines operating directly to Termini station plus local buses linking it to the Ciampino train station (which I took) and to the Anagnina Metro terminus. It is simply good for getting to and fro but does not offer an extraordinary experience.
All the same, this was a great trip and hopefully I will fly on EasyJet again soon. Arrivederci...