Air Vanuatu (NF021)
Brisbane (BNE) to Port Vila (VLI)
Date: Friday August 24th
ETD: 19:00 [Actual 19:15]
ETA: 20:30 [Actual 20:19]
Seat: 11A (Economy)
A/C type: B737-800 (winglets)
Vanuatu has been on my list of archaeological destinations for some time now. My aim for this trip was quite specific: to check out their National Museum. Because of study commitments in Brisbane, the only time for a quick trip was on weekends. Having never flown that tiny Pacific nation’s flag carrier before, I wanted to make it an all Air Vanuatu (NF) affair. However, I was obliged to book the return leg on Virgin Australia (DJ).
Since the outbound Air Vanuatu flight was codeshare with QANTAS, I made my booking through their website to boost my QFF points balance. The online experience was marred by the exorbitant $30 credit card booking fee. Moreover, I was not able to select my seat (understandable, given that it was not QF operated) and it was some time before the confirmation email and ticket came through.
By contrast, Virgin Australia’s online booking experience was a model of efficiency. The $7.00 credit card fee being more reasonable in comparison and I was able to choose my seat (later upgraded). Like magic, the confirmation email and ticket was also received instantaneously. Ultimately, my itinerary looked like this: BNE – VLI on Air Vanuatu at 7:00PM on Friday August 24th and VLI – BNE on Virgin Australia at 3:05PM on Sunday August 26th. Having done with the airlines, I made a reservation with Holiday Inn Resort, Port Vila. Whilst I had enough points from Priority Club Rewards for reward nights, I decided to forgo this option and pay in full for the accommodation. Those points might be better saved for somewhere like Kandooma in the Maldives….
The day of departure – Friday – is my busiest day at university: up to a full nine hours of practising archaeological excavation techniques in the field, followed by tedious sorting and analysis of material in the laboratory to generate data. I was glad to take off early for home to shower and quickly pack. Did I feel guilty about leaving my team huddled over microscopes while I sauntered off to a tropical paradise? Not really. But having put in extra laboratory hours, I’m sure no one would complain about my Houdini-like disappearance.
Brisbane International Airport is still my favourite in Australia. It’s not huge, but its efficient transport links, clean and modern look, varied eating and shopping options and ease of navigation from check-in through to departure gate makes other major Australian airports look positively decrepit. I arrived by cab at 5:00PM, well before my early evening departure. At the time, Brisbane is not busy, with just a few scattered flights up till midnight. Flying time to Vanuatu was scheduled at two hours and thirty minutes. Shorter than the three hours it takes me to fly home to Papua New Guinea. Recalling how I endured my worst ever red-eye flight to Bangkok via Singapore just three weeks before, I thanked my lucky stars that Vanuatu was just a short hop away. Check in for NF was manned by just two QANTAS staff, but the wait only took ten minutes with about eight people in queue. Not wanting to linger ‘landside’ any further, I made my way down to security and immigration and was soon airside.
Up till today, I had accessed the QANTAS Club lounge on my Air Niugini (PX) Executive Club card, which also gave reciprocal access to QANTAS in their Papua New Guinea lounges. But today I would be using my newly acquired QANTAS Club/Frequent Flyer card. From past experience, the mezzanine level lounge is usually busy. Not even sure if it was still open, I headed up to have a look. It was open, and I was waved through. All the prized seats overlooking the departure gates were taken, but there were plenty of others to choose from, so I settled near the food and drinks area. Compared to the mornings, the food in the late afternoon/evening is fine – not exactly overflowing – but good enough. The hot selection today included mini mince pies and a spicy Moroccan pumpkin soup. In addition, there was a small cheese selection and the ever present salad bar with cold cuts. Not feeling particularly hungry, I settled for an English Breakfast tea and relaxed.
Forty minutes before scheduled departure, I headed down to Gate 84 to await boarding. It was soon obvious that this would not be a full flight; as only a smattering of passengers were there. In the end, the loading for economy was perhaps 40%. Business was 50%. The passenger mix seemed to be mostly tourists (family groups), returning expats and a few Ni-Vanuatu going home. On the tarmac, my aircraft was being prepped, but since the light had already faded, it was impossible to get a good shot. Boarding time came and went and still nothing happened. None of the passengers seemed bothered though. Finally, at 6:50PM – ten minutes before scheduled departure – a general boarding call was made.
At the aircraft door, I was warmly greeted by a FA who directed me down to my assigned seat - 11A. This B738 has been NF’s flagship since 2008. After almost five years the interior appears clean and well maintained. Despite this, the blue leather seats (reminiscent of LCC Virgin Blue before it became upmarket Virgin Australia) made it look far older than it was. Seat pitch was standard 30”, but for some reason it felt less. But unlike Virgin Blue’s firm seat, this one was comfortable and legroom was good for my 176cm height. This would be a comfortable flight for me, as I knew that I would have a row all to myself. There were no pillows on the seats but some were in the lockers, so I took one after stowing my bag away.
With all passengers boarded and doors closed, the captain came on to dispense with the usual pleasantries and informed us that despite our late imminent departure, we would still be arriving early into Port Vila tonight. After pushback and a relatively quick taxi we finally lined up on the runway and took flight at 19:15. Having settled in after about fifteen minutes, I checked out the entertainment options for this short trip. The inflight magazine Island Spirit offered a tantalizing preview of Vanuatu’s delights with the latter half of the magazine being solely in French. Other than that, IFE options were limited to overhead drop-down screens showing mini documentaries on Vanuatu and an episode of Gruen Transfer on loop (Australian readers will be familiar with this programme). The music selection was not overly huge, but was adequate for such a short flight.
While I was still flicking through Island Spirit, the cabin crew swung smartly into action with a pre-dinner drinks service. I settled for a Coke (bottled in Fiji). And instead of the industry standard peanuts, passengers were served packets of ‘Lapita Café’ cassava chips. These resemble potato chips but are a more exotic and better alternative – crispy and lightly salted, with an almond-like sweet aftertaste. With such a light load, the cabin crew quickly cleaned up after the drinks service to prepare for dinner.
|Fiji Coke and cassava chips|
There were no printed menus to peruse, but tonight the choice would be braised chicken in mushroom sauce with fragrant rice and steamed vegetables or shepherd’s pie. Everyone within earshot selected chicken and so did I. The accompanying salad was a simple affair of diced carrot, cucumber slices and lettuce, and was livened only with balsamic vinaigrette. The vegetables were lightly steamed and still ‘al dente’, although sadly lacking in taste. Fortunately, the chicken breast (with skin left on) was nicely done to perfection. But what really made the difference was the delicious thick mushroom sauce which brought the dish together. No further seasoning was required for this tasty chicken dish which went perfectly with fragrant rice.
I was also impressed that the fresh bread rolls were warmed through before being served. Made a pleasant change from the ubiquitous plastic-wrapped cold rolls seen in most other economy cabins. Not being a fan of chocolate cake, I left dessert untouched and settled for a cup of tea to round off dinner. It was weaker than what I prefer but that did not detract from this nice meal.
As the cabin crew cleared away the dinner service the captain announced that with a good tailwind behind us, we should be landing at 20:10 and disembark five minutes after that. So with some forty minutes left, I began to while away the time by filling in the arrival form and listening to my iPod. I must have lost track of time because before long we began descending towards the main island of Efate. One of the things I dislike about night arrivals is that you never get a good view – it’s especially frustrating when it’s a new location. Nevertheless, the sparse twinkling lights of Port Vila came into view and I knew we’d be landing very soon.
The captain made his approach announcement and the cabin crew did a final round to ensure we were buckled in. Coming in low over the sea, we made a final turn to straighten up with the runway and touched down smoothly at 20:19 local time at Bauerfield International Airport.
|Obligatory legroom shot|
In summary, Air Vanuatu’s product is a decent offering on what are relatively short inter-Pacific runs, with the Australian and New Zealand routes being the longest. The leather seats are old looking, but comfortable with decent legroom for average height passengers. IFE is limited, with no prospect of PTV’s in the foreseeable future given the short routes. The cabin crew are attentive and friendly in that typically shy Melanesian way. Catering was nice with the highlights being the unexpected cassava chips, warm rolls and delicious chicken breast. As for timeliness, who could possible complain about leaving late when you arrive early?
|On the tarmac at Bauerfield, Port Vila|
I hope you enjoyed reading my first trip report. I look forward to giving you further trip reports from the Pacific and Southeast Asia as I continue my archaeological training. And yes, I will remember to take more cabin interior shots next time!