Hi Fellow A.Netters,
Welcome to my eighteenth trip report! I recently moved from Washington, DC to Brussels and was feeling the itch to explore corners of the Continent that I had yet to visit. When my girl was assigned a ten-day stint at her employer’s European headquarters in Madrid, I jumped at the opportunity to head south for the weekend. Given that her airfare from Brussels, the hotel, and a per diem food allowance were paid by her company, we effectively had the chance to spend a weekend in Madrid for just the cost of my plane ticket. What a deal! I searched for the cheapest ticket I could find that matched my requirement of a Friday evening departure and a Sunday evening return; Iberia offered the best fare at €170, but the times were not ideal. However, Brussels Airlines (SN), via Orbitz.com, offered a roundtrip with ideal times for about €190. Not only would SN be a new airline for me, but I would also earn a few UA miles with this Star Alliance member. I made the booking two weeks ahead of departure and began the countdown to my Spanish getaway.
Date: August 20, 2010
Flight #: SN 3729
Aircraft Type: Airbus A319-113
Aircraft Registration: OO-SSP / Serial Number 644 / Manufactured 1996
Scheduled Departure: 17:40 CEST
Actual Takeoff: 18:31 CEST
Scheduled Arrival: 20:15 CEST
Actual Landing: 20:41 CEST
Flight Time: 2:10
Distance: 818 miles (1,316 km)
Load: Economy = 40%, Business = 100%
My Logbook: 1st flight on Brussels Airlines / 20th flight on the A319 / 263rd airline flight overall
On the day of departure, my French class ended at 13:00 and I went directly to my apartment in Etterbeek to grab my bag. Although my flight would not leave for another four-and-a-half hours, I did a quick turnaround at home and left right away for the airport. I took the metro to the Schuman stop and connected to the B12 bus to the airport. Unfortunately, there was a bad car accident next to NATO headquarters and the ensuing traffic jam added another twenty minutes to the bus ride. Still, I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare and proceeded to Brussels Airlines’ “b.light economy” check-in counter. There was no wait at all and the very friendly agent quickly printed my boarding pass and checked my bag. I proceeded straight to security, where the wait-time was also minimal, and was soon airside amidst the shops and restaurants of BRU’s Pier A. I grabbed a burger at Quick and then continued to the gates for some spotting; I was looking forward to seeing some liveries and types I was not used to seeing in the U.S. BRU is not ideal for photography given that one cannot get the camera directly up against the windows, but nonetheless I grabbed some photos of the aircraft in action that day.
Jetairfly (TUI Airlines Belgium) 737-800:
Brussels Airlines Avro RJ with a Freebird A321 rotating on RWY 25R in the background:
Lufthansa 737 arriving from Frankfurt:
SAS A321 bound for Copenhagen:
Thomas Cook A320 with a cartoon scheme:
Austrian Arrows (Tyrolean Airways) Fokker 100 pushing back for Vienna:
At 16:30 I received an e-mail from Orbitz via the iPhone informing me that my flight was delayed twenty minutes, until 18:00. I walked over to the gate and, sure enough, the monitor had just been updated with the same information. I was impressed at timeliness of the notification from Orbitz; it was near-simultaneous to the update provided at the gate.
I spent the next hour watching the ramp action while walking laps up and down the length of the terminal; I’m never one to sit still at the airport.
At 17:45 my A319 finally arrived at the gate. The inbound passengers deplaned and by 18:05, the aircraft was ready for its new guests. Boarding was chaotic, with passengers swarming the gate from all sides. With a relatively light load, however, the process was fast. I took my seat in 22A, a window on the left side. The cabin appeared used, even dirty. The seat pitch was also poor; I imagine this seat would become quite uncomfortable on SN’s longer A319 flights such as BRU-TLV. The window was also in bad condition, with scratches and smears covering the whole surface. However, one nice feature was SN’s A319 safety card, which featured the tail number of that particular aircraft. I had been unable to see the number from the gate, so the safety card was a welcome source for that information. Also, I lucked out in that the two seats next to mine remained empty.
In the final stages of the boarding process, the Captain gave a welcome announcement (in English only) and apologized for the delay; he cited air traffic control issues with Maastricht Centre on the inbound flight from Catania. He also indicated a flight time of 1:55 to Madrid with smooth skies anticipated throughout the flight. The purser also offered his welcome, first in French, then Dutch, then English. Another flight attendant then made the announcement in Spanish.
By 18:20 the craft was sealed and we pushed from the gate. The engines spooled to life while the tug positioned us tail-west, nose-east. We then made the quick taxi to RWY 25R.
There was no queue for departure and we took to the runway immediately. At 18:31 we were wheels up, climbing away from the airport and over the adjacent town of Diegem.
Several minutes after takeoff we banked left and I glimpsed the Atomium, Brussels’ famous steel landmark and site of the World’s Fair in 1958.
We continued our climb to the west-southwest, eventually reaching the upper flight levels near Paris. The Captain made an announcement and pointed out the city on the left-hand side; of course, I already knew it was Paris because I had just spied CDG airport a moment before.
A half-hour after liftoff, the beverage service started. The two young, female flight attendants working the b.light cabin were average—certainly polite but seemingly disinterested. Of course, nothing was free in this lower class, not even water; the buy-on-board card offered a selection hot and cold beverages, as well as snacks, most of which cost between €3.00 and €6.00. I selected a Grimbergen blond beer for €3.50 and paid by credit card. Coming from the U.S., paying for an in-flight beer was no big deal for me; when compared to other many other European flag carriers, however, the b.light buy-on-board program resembled that of a low-cost carrier in my opinion. On the plus side, it was nice that Brussels Airlines provided a taste of Belgium by offering local Grimbergen beer.
I passed the time sipping my beer and reading some good aviation literature, all while streaking through the skies above France. It does not get much better than that!
An hour after takeoff I spied the Atlantic coast of France. Thanks to Google Earth, I later found out we passed near the seaside city of Les Sables d’Olonne. It looks nice down there!
As the coast slipped away, I decided to stretch my legs and use the restroom. In this instance I was not impressed with Brussels Airlines at all. The lavatory was in poor shape, somewhat dirty, and lacking proper soap and paper towels. The soap dispenser looked as though it had broken off and was replaced by a nasty bar of soap next to the sink. I used the bar anyway and dried my hands on my jeans.
Before long, we crossed “feet dry” over northern Spain. The terrain below was quite interesting—much drier than in France and with beautiful hills and ridges resembling giant brush strokes across the land.
At 20:07, the Captain announced we had reached our top-of-descent point and that we would be on the ground in 35 minutes. He indicated the weather in Madrid was beautiful, with clear skies and 33* C (91* F).
While descending toward Madrid, I spied the Valle de los Caidos, or “Valley of the Fallen,” with its giant cross. This controversial landmark is a monument to those who perished in the Spanish Civil War.
We continued our descent, eventually passing west of Madrid before making a sweeping left turn around the southern suburbs of the city. Getafe Air Base, home to the EADS-CASA assembly line, passed just off the left wing.
The beautiful light of the Spanish evening brought out the earth’s many tones of tan and brown; meanwhile, we traced a giant arc to the east, then northeast, and finally to the north toward the airport.
Before long, the flaps of the A319 began their incremental descent, too, and we stabilized on final approach.
We hit the asphalt of runway 33L with a small jolt at 20:41, some two hours and ten minutes after lifting off from Brussels. Following a short taxi, we arrived at the gate at 20:45.
Given the light load, de-boarding was quick. Once in the terminal, I snapped a final shot of the grey Airbus that had delivered me to Spain.
I proceeded to the baggage claim, where my bag arrived within five minutes. I found my way to the underground Metro station and after a quick and easy 25-minute ride, I met my girl at her hotel near the Plaza de Espana.
Of course, while aviation is the focus of this forum, a trip report should not include only the flying—especially when visiting a city as beautiful as Madrid. Below are a few photos of the two days we spent in the Spanish capital.
The Royal Palace of Madrid:
I love this! Café con Leche:
Near the Plaza de Espana, close to our hotel:
My visit passed quickly and soon it was time to return to Brussels.
Date: August 22, 2010
Flight #: SN 3728
Aircraft Type: Boeing 737-36N (Winglets)
Aircraft Registration: OO-VEX / Serial Number 28670 / Manufactured 1997
Scheduled Departure: 17:30 CEST
Scheduled Arrival: 19:55 CEST
Actual Takeoff: 18:16 CEST
Actual Landing: 20:12 CEST
Flight Time: 1:56
Distance: 818 miles (1,316 km)
Load: Economy = 50%, Business = 75%
My Logbook: 2nd flight on Brussels Airlines / 9th flight on 733 / 264th airline flight overall
I left the hotel at 15:00 and took the Metro to the airport, where I arrived at Terminal 2 around 15:30. I found Barajas Airport, at least Terminal 2, to be extremely easy to use; it is well-designed, spacious and clean. I quickly made my way from the underground station to check-in desk.
There was no line at the Brussels Airlines counter and within two minutes, my bag was tagged and I had a boarding pass in hand. On the down side, the agent was not particularly friendly; he completed the whole process without speaking so much as a word. Never mind—the job was complete and I was quickly on my way. There was also no line at security and five minutes after checking in I was airside in the secure zone. With about two hours until my flight, there was time for some spotting.
Spanair MadDog in Star Alliance livery:
An A320 visiting from Switzerland:
Swiftair MD-83 with an Air Europa 767-300ER blasting off in the background:
Nice to see this Ryanair 737-800 at a regular, major airport like MAD.
And finally, a couple of highlights. First of all, I saw this Ilyushin IL-96 of Cubana beginning the long flight to Havana. This was my first-ever sighting of a Cubana aircraft!
Even more unique (at least for MAD) was this Delta A319 sitting on a remote stand; after all, Madrid is a long, long way from its usual route network. I started a thread in the Civil Aviation forum on A.Net and learned from several members that this was the Team USA basketball charter, which made fuel stops in Goose Bay and Keflavik during the Atlantic crossing. My thread somehow disappeared from the forum a day after I posted it (thanks for the technological glitches, A.Net...). A new thread about this aircraft was started a couple weeks later, after it had been spotted Istanbul:
DL A320 In IST! (with Photo) (by BoogyJay Sep 7 2010 in Civil Aviation)
Here are some photos of the aircraft sitting on the ramp at MAD.
After an hour of spotting, I had seen most of the sights offered by Madrid’s Terminal 2. It was time to have a beer and relax. I grabbed a San Miguel and found a quiet section of the cafeteria next to the window.
Around 17:00 I headed to Gate D62, as boarding was scheduled to commence in fifteen minutes. However, the inbound aircraft had yet to arrive and a new departure time of 18:00 was listed on the screen. The aircraft finally pulled in at 17:20; I was expecting at 737-400 according to the itinerary and was surprised to see a 737-300 instead. No matter, as I was just happy to be on 737 classic instead of the A319 that brought me to Madrid two days earlier. These older 737s are becoming rare in the U.S., and I always embrace the chance to fly one before they’re gone. In my opinion, this bird looks quite nice with the blended winglets.
Boarding began at 17:35 and was again rather chaotic. I took my seat at 22F near the rear of the aircraft and fortunately, I again had all three seats to myself. As on the A319, the legroom was tight; this cabin also appeared worn, though not quite as dirty.
Unlike the safety card for the A319, the 737 card was common to both the -300 and -400 models and did not feature the tail number of this particular aircraft.
The purser made a welcome announcement, first in French, then Dutch, then English, then Spanish. He indicated an expected flight time of 1:55. While the final passengers boarded, the fuel pumpers finished loading our kerosene.
We pushed back at 17:55 and began a long taxi to RWY 15L on the far side of Terminal 4. We passed right by the Delta A319 charter.
During taxi, the Captain also made a welcome announcement in English, followed by French and then Dutch. He confirmed the flight time of 1:55 and said the weather in Brussels was pleasant—sunny and 24* C (75* F). And, similar to my flight two days before, the Captain apologized for the delay and cited air traffic congestion near Madrid. We also passed the Iberia graveyard. As others have mentioned on A.Net, perhaps this scene is not the best publicity for Iberia?
At 18:16, we took to RWY15L, and while still rolling, the engines revved to high power.
The takeoff roll was long, but once in the air, the climb-out felt steep and powerful.
Ten minutes after takeoff, we began a left turn to the northeast and picked up the course for Brussels.
The wings then leveled and we continued northbound over the hills and mountains of northern Spain.
The clouds soon began to look ominous, however, and we entered some moderate chop before being enveloped by the high overcast.
We finally exited the clouds and the ride became smoother. The Captain made another announcement and provided some good information about the flight. He indicated our route would take us to the west of Bordeaux, then to Paris, and finally to Brussels with an estimated touchdown time of 20:15. He also mentioned the temperature outside the aircraft was -52* C and that our speed was 800 km per hour at a cruising altitude of 36,000 feet (11,000 meters). Given that we were flying an easterly heading, I am not sure if maintained this typically westbound (even-numbered) flight level for the duration of the flight. Again, this announcement was in French, Dutch and English.
The flight attendants then started the cabin service, which unfortunately was rather poor. Instead of asking each passenger in b.light if he or she cared to make a purchase, the attendants quickly made one run with the cart from front to back, expecting passengers to shout out an order. I happened to be looking down at the moment they passed my seat and therefore missed my chance to order a beverage. Later on, when the purser happened to be walking to the back of the aircraft to chat with the flight attendants who were relaxing in the last row, I stopped him and said I had wanted to buy a Grimbergen but did not get the chance. He seemed annoyed by my request, but nonetheless sent one of the attendants to get me one. I paid the €3.50 in cash. In general, the cabin crew on this flight seemed disinterested and not particularly friendly.
I cracked open the Grimbergen, but because of the earlier turbulence I got a rather foamy pour. No matter, the bubbles settled in a few minutes and of course it still tasted nice.
As we began our descent over northern France, the solid cloud layer beneath us broke apart, revealing views of the ground.
Meanwhile, the cabin crew played a recorded message, first in English and then in French, with information useful for passengers connecting in Brussels.
As we continued downward, I caught a glimpse of this 747 crossing beneath us. I could not quite make out the livery—perhaps Air France?
We slowly descended upon another cloud layer, which gave a feeling of skimming the waves on a boat. The evening light was soft and the sky was smooth as we sliced through the tops of the cloud puffs.
Before long, the runways of BRU appeared off the right wing and I knew we were on the downwind leg for a landing on one of the RWYs25.
Sure enough, we soon began a 180-degree right turn for final approach and dropped lower and lower over the Flanders fields east of the airport.
The ride was silky-smooth as we began a gradual flare over RWY25L.
The wheels hit the runway at 20:12, an hour and fifty-six minutes after leaving Madrid.
We exited the runway to the right and taxied quickly to Pier A, where we parked on stand 143.
As an appropriate conclusion to my trip to Spain, we pulled in next to this Iberia A320.
Once inside the terminal, I grabbed a final shot of the 737, just in from Madrid.
I made the long walk to the baggage claim, where my bag arrived about ten minutes after I did. After that, I headed to the bus stand and caught the next ride to Schuman, followed by the Metro to my apartment in Etterbeek. I was home within 45 minutes of leaving the airport—not bad for a Sunday evening with public transit.
All things considered, I had a great trip to Madrid and enjoyed my flights on Brussels Airlines. However, I mostly enjoyed the flights because, well, I love flying. For those who care less about aviation and more about the product, I would argue that Brussels Airlines falls short—at least with its b.light service within Europe. The flight attendants were average at best and poor at worst; both flights were delayed (though not severely so). In-flight entertainment was non-existent and the cabins were worn and even dirty. For a national flag carrier, Brussels Airlines is a step below other examples such as Air France, KLM, and Lufthansa. Aside from checking my bag for free and having the opportunity to select my seat 24 hours before the flight, I found very little that distinguishes SN’s b.light product from the likes of Ryanair. I will continue to fly Brussels Airlines when convenient and if the price is right; otherwise, I do not foresee developing any sense of loyalty to Brussels’ hometown airline.
Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed this report. Comments, questions and criticisms are most welcome and greatly appreciated!