London Heathrow (LHR) – Tbilisi (TBS)
bmi Business Class – March 2011
Tbilisi has been on my “to do” list for a while, ever since bmi took over the BMED routes. I did plan a trip in Autumn 2008 but a small matter of a Russian invasion meant plans had to be put on ice. Since then I’ve been trying to get friends/family/anyone to head there for a weekend but not much interest.
Then on the last Friday of February bmi had something very rare, a sale with fares that were actually low! There were lots of tempting destinations such as Amman for £160 return but when I saw Tbilisi for £209 return I had to go for it. I canvassed volunteers but there was no interest so I was off on my own (which I don’t mind). Opodo give £35 off if you use your Amex card to buy the flight so after their £4.50 booking fee and £5 something credit card fee I was off to Tbilisi for the grand total of £184 all in.
Keeping my fingers crossed that the weather would be ok in March and knowing that there was plenty of business class upgrade availability, I booked for the 19-21 March. Bmi allows Diamond Club Gold members 4 upgrades per year which can be applied within a week of departure so long as the business class award booking class (I) is available (and if not to supposedly waitlist for an upgrade). This system has come in for a lot of criticism from frequent bmi flyers as I class can be scarce on some routes even when the business cabin is half empty. However at exactly T-1 week I called the bmi call centre and successfully requested the upgrade on my outbound sector and then a few days later did the same for the return. I then went to Lufthansa.co.uk to assign my seats (for some reason the bmi website can’t do this!) So now I was all set for a bargain business class trip to Tbilisi, for less than the taxes alone would cost or a business class trip (these upgrades do not attract the higher rate of APD for flights departing the UK which explains how this is possible).
My day started (as is usual for these trips) with a ride on the 140 bus from Harrow to Heathrow Central. On arrival at LHR
I had to stop by the premium check in area to collect my boarding pass as I’d had some printer troubles after checking in online. Unfortunately the check in experience was a complete disgrace. On entering the premium check in area there was nobody to be seen from bmi. I therefore tried to collect my boarding pass from one of the machines but it just told me I was already checked in and should see an agent. Well I was trying to find one! I stood there for a while looking around and nobody showed. I then went around to the other side where there were 2 staffed bmi check in desks but were checking in for an Aegean and Tranaero flight respectively (bit with no passengers waiting). I asked one of the agents if someone could check me in for a bmi flight. I was told where the economy class check in was and then finally asked if I was flying business class. The gentleman then told me he couldn’t check me in and sent me over to his colleague on the Transaero desk. She couldn’t check me in either. The two then had a shouting match between them over who should check me in and in the end decided that neither of them could. Either of them could have jumped on the bmi premium check in desk in between them but neither did. The lady then disappeared to try to find someone. During this time the guy shouted over to me that he would like to help but he was not allowed by Aegean to leave his desk even though he knew it was simple to do so and there were no Aegean customers to check in (it was quite simple for the lady to leave her Transaero desk though!) So I took a seat and waited for the lady to return, pondering how bmi allowed their premium check in desks to be unstaffed when they have many more flights than Aegean or Transaero. After 5 minutes the lady returned and indicated it was ok for her to check me in (yay!) I asked her how busy the flight was and she indicated there were quite a few empty seats and blocked the seat next to me and then issued my boarding pass. Now as I had arrived 2.5 hours before the flight I wasn’t too inconvenienced by the delayed check in but bmi advertise a 30 minute check in service for business class passengers ex LHR
but if that would have been 30 minutes before my flight I would have missed it. bmi definitely need to sort themselves out in this regard.
Security was quick and I was soon airside. As is usual when travelling from T1 my first port of call is the Great British Lounge which is nice and airy, light, has decent food and great views of the runway. I parked myself on one of the loungers facing the runway, grabbed a few drinks and snacks and took in the view. There was a large fire in the distance which made for some interesting photos.
The new Airbus A321NSEO (New Steam Engine Option)
About 50 minutes before the flight I quickly headed over to the dull Star Alliance lounge to get some more (different) food and then headed to gate 2 for the flight.
Departure time (scheduled): 13:20
Departure time (actual): 13:40
Aircraft: G-MEDN (A321-231)
Seat: 4A (Business class)
I arrived at the gate 30 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time to find that the aircraft operating today’s flight was G-MEDN, the second newest A321 in the bmi fleet and one that has AVOD at all seats which was good, although this aircraft had yet to receive the new interior of brown leather seats, instead having the old BMED interior. The gate area wasn’t too busy suggesting a pretty quiet flight today. At around 13:00 boarding was called starting with children and those requiring extra time to board, then business class and Star Alliance gold customers. I was one of the first to board but finding the aircraft was pretty tricky as once passed the boarding pass check there were lots of closed doors, none resembling the entry to an air bridge. I eventually found the right way and boarded.
G-MEDN business Cabin
I was welcomed onboard and quickly found my seat. As the aircraft began to fill it was clear that it wouldn’t be very busy and the seat next to me indeed remained free. Total load in business was 10 out of 31 seats (32%). During boarding a choice of Champagne, orange juice or water was offered (I had orange) as was a selection of newspapers by the two crew looking after the business section. After boarding was complete headphones were distributed long with the amenity kit consisting of socks, eyeshade, toothbrush and earplugs, together with a Miller Harris gift box containing lip balm and moisturiser. Not bad for a day flight. Menus were then distributed.
Departure time came and went and the captain then came on to announce that we were almost ready to go but were waiting for the loaders to finish loading the bags and cargo, commenting that because it was a nice sunny day too many of them probably stayed at home to sit in the garden! We eventually pushed back 20 minutes late. From pushback to take off was only around 10 minutes which is pretty good going at LHR
and meant we effectively took off on time (you usually have to factor in 30 minutes pushback to lift off at LHR
Overview of LHR
We took off to the west and did a 180 turn east offering good views of the airport. Shortly after take off a drinks service was offered from a trolley and meal orders were taken. There were 3 main course options, one of which was vegetarian (other airlines please take note!) I opted for that which was Gnocchi with butternut squash, sage and spinach.
At this point I managed to wrestle my TV
screen to the correct position and decided to watch “Morning Glory” which was ok. I planned to use the neighbouring seat’s screen to show the moving map but that screen did not work. Bmi mid-haul entertainment really is poor in this regard. While my movies worked some of the games didn’t and past experiences of the bmi mid-haul fleet have been very similar with equipment not working.
The meal was served around 1 hour after take off along with another drinks service. Bmi mid-haul food comes in for criticism but I thought it was ok and I’ve had worse on airlines with a much better culinary reputation.
After the meal I finished watching the movie and just relaxed. As it went dark the mood lighting kicked in which was good (only the newest 2 or 3 bmi A321s have this I think).
One thing stopping me from relaxing though were the two Scottish passengers sitting in front of me who were clearly oil workers. They were having a very load conversation which started as soon as they sat down at Heathrow and didn’t end until they (thankfully) left in Baku. Fuelled by drink this conversation got louder and louder and then started to include the F word in every sentence turning the air very blue. However even though this was causing something of a disturbance in the cabin and one passenger even politely asked them to turn the volume down and cut out the swearing, the crew did nothing except keep on topping their glasses with wine which made the situation worse. To be fair to the crew they probably didn’t know what a disturbance was being caused as they were nowhere to be seen for most of the flight, only coming out when the offenders wanted more wine. I counted at least 12 glasses each and I think the crew really should have stopped serving them but instead they seemed happy to keep topping them up. I guess oil money is the only thing bmi have going for them at the moment so best not to annoy the passengers the oil companies are sending their way. It is worth noting that no further general drink service was offered which I thought was bad (but I suppose you could request drinks if you wanted one).
At around 22:00 local time we flew over Tbilisi where we would be heading back to a couple of hours later and at 22:30 the crew started to prepare the cabin for arrival in Baku. Landing at 23:00 was a very noisy affair as full reverse thrust was used to slow the aircraft and after a quick taxi we parked at the gate. Passengers continuing to Tbilisi remain on board at Baku. Lots of people got off and I overheard that the load for the next sector was only 25+1 in economy and 3 in business (bmi has no traffic rights to load passengers in GYD destined for TBS). During the stop we first had to identify our bags before we could leave our seats and were told not to fasten seat belts or use the toilets during refuelling. The stop in GYD was very short and we were back in the air at 23:35.
Map after leaving GYD
With the cabin now nice and quiet the next sector was quite pleasant. Only a drink service is offered on this sector (together with some “wing nuts”). This flight lasted only 55 minutes and we landed in TBS at 00:30, 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Immigration was a breeze and literally 5 minutes after parking on stand I was in the arrival area (I didn’t have any checked baggage).
As I was early my pre-arranged car to take me to the Radisson Blu in central Tbilisi was not there yet but after 5 minutes waiting a gentlemen with my name on a piece of paper showed up, escorted me to the Mercedes S class and I was in the hotel just after 01:00. Result!
Tbilisi is a great city to wander around, very attractive and safe with plenty to occupy a day or two. The weather was indeed very sunny and 17 degrees C . Looks like I picked the perfect time to visit. As EU citizens (and those of many other western countries) don’t need a visa to visit Georgia and you don’t have to pay anything at the airport either unlike Turkey and other countries in the region, Tbilisi makes a great long weekend, particularly if you can get it for a good price like I did. Another good option is to redeem bmi miles here as it is treated as Europe by bmi and only requires 12,000 miles for a redemption here and if you are a gold member you get business class for the economy mileage. Here are some photos of Tbilisi:
Radisson Blu hotel room
I left the hotel at 07:30 for my 09:55 flight back to London having again arranged a car through the hotel. This time the car waiting for me was a very old Mercedes which had seen better days. The driver appeared very anxious to get me to the airport on time and planted his foot to the floor as soon as we were on “George Bush Street” (it even has a grinning photo of the man at the start of the road!) As such I arrived at the airport earlier than anticipated at around 07:50. However the check in desk was open. I had checked in online already but you can’t print your own boarding pass when departing TBS so had to go to the desk at the airport to collect it. There was no such repeat of the LHR
shenanigans and I was impressed to find that I didn’t even have to go to the check in desk at all as my boarding pass had been pre-printed and it was handed to me by the gentleman doing the passport check. So after whizzing through immigration I was in the lounge by 07:55.
Check in desks
Bmi uses the one and only business lounge at TBS the TAV “Prime class” lounge. Which was small but had a reasonable drinks selection, although the food selection was just Middle Eastern type snacks which didn’t appeal to me, especially after a large breakfast at the Radisson. There is an “outside” terrace to the lounge which is basically just an area of the main terminal outside the lounge although strangely this is also the smoking area (yet I didn’t notice any other smoking areas in the terminal, but then I wasn’t looking). There isn’t much to do in the terminal at TBS so I stayed in the lounge until the gate opened.
Prime Class Lounge
Departure time (scheduled): 09:55
Departure time (actual): 09:55
Aircraft: G-MEDF (A321-231)
Seat: 3F (Business class)
Security is performed at the gate and after a few minutes of queuing I was into the gate area. I was interested to see which aircraft would be flying me to London as I wanted to try out one of the aircraft with the new leather seat covers (currently G-MEDF
/G/J of the A321s). I couldn’t see from the gate area but as I headed down the jetway I didn’t need to as the strong whiff of cow hide filled the area (it was in fact G-MEDF
the oldest bmi A321) born in 2002.
ready for boarding at a very murky TBS
The crew were the same as those on the outbound and I was immediately recognised and greeted with a warm smile and a friendly comment about my short trip.
The new cabin certainly looks better than the blue cloth seats, looking very clean and fresh. As well as the seats the side panels have either been deep cleaned or replaced as they looked new. However nothing has really changed, it is still the same seat. This means I have the same problem as always. The seats in the older A321s are not particularly comfortable compared with the newer ones like used on the outbound flight. The new brown cow covers make no difference to that. Roll on next year and the rumoured Swiss business class seats. Still it beats economy and I was happy to feel the new Yarwood leather on my own hind.
Cabin view during boarding
Cabin from the rear taken in flight
Close up of the seats
As usual a pre-flight drink was offered but no headsets or amenity kit for the first sector (in fact the personal IFE remained off for the flight to Baku). When loading was completed there were 7 in business class with the seat next to me remaining empty (I expected this to change once we got to GYD).
We pushed back bang on time and taxied the full length of the runway before doing a 180 and taking off. Due to the extremely poor visibility there were no photos of Tbilisi unfortunately. The flight was a quick 55 minutes and uneventful with a drinks service being offered. The weather in Baku was only marginally better than Tbilisi which meant no great window views on landing either BUT I did take one:
Landing was again a bumpy, noisy affair (I think they really need to do some runway resurfacing at GYD!) One interesting point, I noticed we had a “follow me” car in front of us which was a Lada! Some interesting aircraft noted during taxi as you would expect in Baku with a couple of IL76s on the ramp and aircraft from countries I probably wouldn’t know how to pronounce! We arrived at the gate 15 minutes early at 10:55.
View of GYD terminal
Again the washrooms were out of service during the stop and we were instructed to keep our seatbelts unfastened as we would be refuelling. During the stop the aircraft is catered for the flight to LHR
. This took around 15 minutes and after this we were offered another pre-flight drink and amenity kits were distributed.
Shortly afterwards the Baku passengers started trickling onboard. I was surprised how few took a seat in the business cabin and by the time boarding was completed only a further 6 business passengers had joined us and my neighbouring seat remained free again. In contrast to the outbound flight TBS actually provided more business pax than GYD this time. During the stop I was also watching the bags being loaded and noticed that around 75% were connecting to another flight. Of the connecting bags I saw more than 50% were connecting to IAD
which was surprising as well as a lot going to ABZ
which was not.
Once loaded and the doors were closed the cabin was sprayed (3 times) and we pushed back 5 minutes early. After a very short taxi we were airborne from runway 34 by the scheduled departure time of 11:55. The service was the same as the outbound flight so I won’t go into too much detail other than to say that the food was again pretty good. I had the vegetarian mezze for starters which was delicious followed the by cannelloni which was ok and the chocolate cheesecake for desert which was also ok.
The entertainment on this flight was not AVOD but was played on a loop. Screens in business class were quite small but at least they had PTVs unlike economy. As is customary with bmi IFE something wasn’t working properly and this time it was the headphone socket for my seat which basically was missing! I therefore had to use the screen and socket from the neighbouring seat and used my screen to display the flight map. It’s a shame that when refreshing the cabin bmi didn’t sort out these problems which have been going on for such a long time. I eventually watched the movie Fair Game.
My screen set up!
As for the rest of the flight it was pretty uneventful. A second drinks service was offered this time which was welcome. After a couple of loops we landed at LHR
at 13:25, 40 minutes ahead of schedule. 20 minutes after wheels down I was already on the 140 bus back home. Sometimes LHR
Approach over London
A big plane
The bmi business class service on mid-haul routes is not perfect and there are things that could definitely be improved such as the LHR
check in, IFE that works, more regular drink service and perhaps more in the way of snacks. However it has to be compared against the competition on the routes it serves. The seats don’t match up to SQ
but they don’t have to. Compared with LH
flying to TBS with a Euro-style business cabin bmi is streets ahead, they just need to iron out a few creases in the service. Overall a good trip for a bargain price.
Other Trip Reports
Here are a few other trip reports I have posted previously:
Micronesia Island Hopper CO957 “A Micronesian Odyssey” – The Island Hopper (by ManchesterMAN Nov 20 2009 in Trip Reports)
Swiss First to Santiago Swiss First Class ZRH-SCL (+AC Biz SCL-EZE) Pics (by ManchesterMAN Mar 29 2008 in Trip Reports)
F Class EZE-LHR: 5 Airlines Via SCL/GRU/CGH/SDU/MUC F/C/Y (by ManchesterMAN Mar 30 2008 in Trip Reports)