Trip Report July 15th - August 6th 2000
Well, this is a long report because it deals with 7 separate flights in a three week time period. I was heading over to Russia for my Òonce every two yearÓ vacation. I hate to use the word vacation as anyone who has spent time over there will attest it is more like an adventure.
Flight 1 July 15, 2000
The car picked me up in northern New Jersey at 1:40pm, about 10 minutes late due to the poor weather. I have to say I was upset more that it was raining than at the late pickup. The flight did not leave JFK until 6:35pm so I had plenty of time.
The drive was uneventful and we finally got to Terminal 4 at JFK. The last time I flew out of JFK I flew out of the great Terminal 1. I thought T4 would be like T1, but no. T4 was undergoing major work. The walk from bag check in ( a joint desk dealing with Sabena ,Swissair, and a few others) to the waiting area was very long and winding. Well, after checking in and getting rid of my suitcase I and my 2 pieces of carry on luggage headed upstairs to see where we could get a good view of the area. When I first got up there I could not find anyplace to see AC. I finally went though security along with a large group going to Accra on Ghana Airways ( IÕll try to post a shot of their DC-10). The security lady decided to poke into my carry on bag, but only for a minute. I finally made my way through more of the alleys and up a non working escalator to the gates. Finally, glass! The first AC I saw, down here at the very and was a nice looking 747-400 of South African (ZS-SAX). As I walked along towards my gate I also saw a 767 of Malev, a few big Deltas, the great looking Ghana Airways DC-10, another DC-10 that belonged to Bangladesh, an Aer Lingus A330, an finally two A330Õs of Swissair, the airline IÕd be flying tonight. I was VERY happy to see the A330Õs as the flight I was taking, SR 101, was usually a MD-11. I have nothing against the MD-11, but I wanted to fly the A330 and for some reason on this day that is what was scheduled. There were two of them next to each other. Ours was QC ( usually goes to Boston), and looked great. Next to the other SR A330 was a Sabena A330 that was leaving about an hour before us. Now that I knew where our gate was, and that we would be in an A330, I could wander around.
I walked down to the very end of the walkway where you could see AC that were not getting ready for a flight in the next few hours. The biggest boy there was a Pakistan PIA 747-200 with its doors open. Behind him was an EL-AL 747-200 and a MD-11 of Varig. After looking at them for a bit I decided to head back to my gate. On the way back I watched as a 747-400 of Air India rolled in, just having landed. I also watched as the Ghana Airways flight headed to takeoff. I also watched an Olympic A340 roll by. I have to say JFK is the best for spotting.
As my flight got closer to boarding I sat near my gate and watched AC take off over us (the best being a Royal Air Maroc 747). I watched the South African 744 roll by to go to its gate from where it was being worked on and watched a TAP A310 come in to park after landing. But, finally it was time to board. I stood up as I was at the end of the AC (33A) and grabbed my 2 pieces of carry on luggage. Just as I was doing that the guy at the gate mentioned that under no circumstances would more than one carry on be allowed as it was a packed flight. I walked up and just told him that my small bag came out of my larger one and that if he wished I could jam it back in for the walk to the AC. He said it was OK and I headed out and down the ramp. I was immediately impressed when I walked into the Swissair A330. Very clean and new looking. The blue interior was very nice too, but I was really taken by the individual video screens. I also really liked the bottle of water in each seat back. I put my big bag in the overhead and my camera bag under the seat and sat down. OK, the seats are a bit narrower than I thought they would be, but no big deal.
The rain was again picking up outside as more and more people entered the AC. I was praying for the seat next to me to be left open, but it was not to be. A skinny older lady sat down. We would not speak the entire flight but she seemed nice and did not bother me at all. The Captain finally announced we would be heading out but that we were 10th in line. We taxied out and got out place in line. I was OK as I could see the AC taking off. A British Airways 747-400, Virgin 747-400, another British Airways, but this time a 767 ( where was it going?), and some others. When it was finally our turn to go I could see the long line behind us including an Air France 747-400, a Turkish A340, and a Finnair MD-11.
Take off was long and smooth and we were soon above the clouds and rain. It took me about 15 minutes to figure out the color button system of the SR A330 video system, but after I had I kept the moving map on for most of the flight.
About 30 minutes into the flight we were given a snack and drink. I had a Coke, while the snack were these surprisingly good little bread sticks. I looked through the guide but could not find any good movies. I kept the moving map on and got out my paperback. I have to say that I was happy to see that each seat had its own bottle of water in the seat back. Good idea. Do other airlines do that?
About an hour into the flight, when we were near the US / Canadian border on the Atlantic coast, it was meal time. The choice was chicken or mushroom and cheese pasta. I decided on the pasta It came with roll, small salad, and small desert. About halfway through the dinner another attendant came though with a basket of hot rolls 9 nice touch). I took another and finished my dinner. By this point I was pretty impressed with Swissair. The flight cruised at 39000 feet.
After dinner I visited the roomy and clean restroom. There was a large group of children on the plane and they were running around at this point and really were starting to disturb the people in the front row of the middle section. When the mother or aunt or whatever came to get them there was a bit of a tiff between her and a few of the passengers sitting in the first row of the middle section. CanÕt say I blame them, as these kids were totally unsupervised.
After getting back to my seat I got my book out again and looked out at the dark Canadian coast. I closed the shade as the lights dimmed and prepared for the long middle hours of the flight. I watched an episode of Friends and an episode of Frasier. I tried watching an episode of this British comedy but just could not get into it. After the TV episodes were over I read by the light of the moving map. I did not turn on the overhead lamp as it was just too bright and I did not want to disturb the other passengers. In ECN, if we are a bit considerate of each other, we can make long haul flights a bit better. Anyway, I read for a bit and kept myself awake. About an hour before landing in Zurich we were served a breakfast of croissant, butter, yogurt, and OJ. While we were eating I looked out my window and saw a DC-10-30 shadowing, and passing, us. I got out my mini binoculars and saw it was CO, out of Newark. Faster yes, but I bet less comfortable. We landed in Zurich about 10 minutes late, and saw that Continental DC-10-30 right ahead of us!
Zurich AP was nice, but very busy as it was about 8am. I went to gate 62 to get my connection flight to St.Petersburg, Russia. I watched mostly SR flights come in and go out, but did see a neat Sri Lankan A330 come in. I waited there but then heard that gate 62 would be a flight to Warsaw and the St.Pete flight would be down at gate 40. I headed down there and waited on a long line to go through the metal detector. When we finally got to our gate we were sandwiched! The flight next to us on the left was going to Paris and the flight to our right, to Madrid, were all leaving around the same time. The area was packed! We finally got out boarding passes and went out to our bus. It was overcast but not raining. We drove way out to our A320 and boarded. The inside was nice, with dark blue leather chairs. I was in seat 31 A, next to an older Swiss couple. We had to wait for two late passengers and as a result of this the pilot came on and told us we missed our window. We would have to sit and wait for 30 to 40 minutes. When we finally rolled to take off position we had to wait behind two other SR AC. The first, an MD-11, took off with no problem. The second, another A320 like ours, went about 1/4 down the runway and then just stopped. It sat for bout 3 minutes and then taxied off the runway. Never saw that before. DonÕt know what happened.
Take off was smooth and we were up and over the cloud cover in a few minutes. We headed north, over Germany. About 30 minutes into the flight we had gotten well north of Switzerland. I spent 80% of this flight looking out the window and was rewarded. Somewhere over Germany I was looking out and whoosh, right over us about 5000ft I would guess, heading west, went an EL AL 747-400. It was making contrails and was gone a fast as it appeared. It was really neat to see! We were given a small chicken lunch, with bread, a salad, and a Toblerone for dessert. I had my 5th Coke of the day just trying to stay awake.
The flight took us over the German coast, the island of Rugen, an then up over the Baltic. We could see Sweden out on our left. We turned east and headed over Estonia. We landed in St.Petersburg about 30 minutes late. I was very surprised to see how busy the airport was. Last time I was there Pulkovo was almost dead ( back in 1998). Now I saw an Air France flight, as well as BA and KLM, disembark with us. An Austrian Air flight was taxiing out to take off. This was nice, but it meant getting through customs and passport control would take awhile. I was able to get a good position, but it still took about an hour to go through. There was going to be a near riot as I left. The line was out the back door of Pulkovo and to more flights had landed. Glad I got out when I did.
After a week in St.Petersburg it was time to head to the south, towards the Black Sea and the Crimea.
We got up at 4am to head to the domestic Pulkovo airport ( we had arrived from Zurich at the international Pulkovo AP). It was nicer than I had thought it would be and they had a separate gate at the far end that only deals with flights to Moscow. Due to scheduling problems we had to fly to Moscow before we flew to the Crimea. Anyway, we went into the empty terminal at about 5:50am and sat own to relax a bit. There was another flight going to Moscow, a Pulkovo Airlines flight, that was leaving 10 minutes before us. We were taking Aeroflot at 7:10am. After about an hour of waiting we got in line to check our baggage. The line went pretty fast and then we got on the second line, for passport check and security inspection. This line went quickly too and we were soon in the basement area of the AP waiting for the bus to come. All the AC I saw here at Pulkovo were Russian made, mostly Tu-134s and Tu-154s. We waited for about 20 minutes and our Russian bus pulled up and we loaded aboard. It took two loads, but I was in the first. We drove over to the rear of the tarmac to our Aeroflot Tu-154 and walked up the stairs. I was in seat 15F, the right side window. The AC had a dull grey - green interior with somewhat cramped seats. However, the two seats next to me were empty so I had three to myself. Takeoff was on time, and rather smooth, if a bit noisy. About 15 minutes into the flight were were given a breakfast of OJ and rolls with butter ( the flight crew was all male; sort of odd). Not bad, if a bit small. The flight to Moscow lasted only about an hour, and it seemed as soon as we were up, we were coming back down. Landing at Shermetyevo 1 was smooth and we were soon taxiing to our parking spot. We disembarked on to the tarmac and a bus came to drive us over to the arrival building. The bus was very crowded, but the drive was only about 500 feet. It would have been quicker to walk. Anyway, inside we immediately went to baggage claim as they could not transfer our bags directly. This is because we were switching from a domestic to an international flight. In the baggage area our belt was finishing up luggage from a flight that had arrived from Samara. After about 20 minutes our luggage started to roll out and we grabbed it and loaded in on a cart. This was necessary as we had to now walk 1/4 of a mile outside to the next terminal where they handle a few international flights, mostly to the former Soviet republics. Our flight, to Simferopol, was to leave at 2pm. Since there was some time I went into the basement to use the restroom. First, it stank! Second you had to pay to use it, and third, you had to buy toilet paper. Well, after a quick in an out I was happy to get back upstairs. We filled out our declaration forms and headed through the Russian customs check. Our luggage went through the metal detectors and we were all OK until the last member of our group got stopped. A souvenir coin collection he bought lit up the metal detector and the customs guys went though his bag. After this delay we got on line for passport control, went though that relatively quickly, and then waited in a small room with travelers for another flight, going to Dushanbe. After about half an hour in this room we went though another metal detector and the bus waiting room. I had seat 18F, but was not all that excited as it would be another Tu-154 flight. Well, we loaded up on to the bus and it took us out to the AC. I was really shocked when we got off not at a Tu-154, but at a great vintage Il-62! Wow, I was really excited to fly in this great old AC to the Crimea. The AC was clean and looked great inside, with a blue interior. The seats were comfortable and the airline attendants all looked smart and well dressed. After loading we taxied for takeoff. The takeoff was smooth, but the engines put out a very high pitch that was quite painful for about a minute. Once we were up and flying it was quieter. The flight was to be 1 hour and 50 minutes. About 20 minutes into the flight were were given an Aeroflot lunch of bread, meats, and cheese. I made a little sandwich and had a 7-UP ( warm, but OK). I really just wanted to sit and enjoy the flight on the Il-62. The other group members could not see why I was so excited about this AC, so I tried, I think in vain, to explain it to them. The flight went well and we headed south to the Ukraine. We looped over the Black Sea a bit and came in to approach Simferopol International Airport. As were were approaching we saw a Mig-23 take off from a local air base. Landing was smooth and we disembarked at SIF, to yet another waiting bus. The bus took us to the customs check and we waited as every one had their Passports and Visas checked. As we were an American group heading to Yalta and Sevastopol we had an Intourist guide waiting for us who got us though the check ahead of the now angry Ukrainians and Russians.In fact we had to get a security guard to keep back a few angry Ukrainian travelers. I can't say I blame them. We then picked up our luggage, went through Ukrainian customs and headed to our private bus to Yalta and our week in the Crimea.
After a week in the hot and picturesque Crimea ( Naval Day in Sevastopol was the real highlight) we drove back to Simferopol for the 2pm flight to Moscow. Again we lucked out and our flight was an Il-62 to Moscow ( just a note; instead of window shades that totally block all light, the Il-62 has shades that filter the light, like sunglasses). Customs in Ukraine was not too bad as we had our local Intourist agent who walked us through all the customs procedures. The flight back to Moscow was as smooth as the flight down, with a repetition of the lunch service. The AC was not the one we took down as this one had a red interior. I had seat 23F, window, and enjoyed the flight as we flew over Rostov and Kharkov, on the way to Moscow. Landing was smooth, an we again went through Russian customs on our way to our bus.
The trip was over after a week in Moscow and it was time to head back to NYC-JFK. The flight was to leave Shermetyevo - 2 at 4pm, so I left the Cosmos Hotel in Moscow at 1pm. The drive to the airport was fine and I got there about 1:40pm. I went to the Ôbig boardÕ to see where IÕd be boarding. The flight was not up yet and I had to wait about 0 minutes before it was listed as gate 5. As soon as it was listed a large group of us who were waiting headed over to the left side of the terminal to go through custom. The customs officer just waved us all through and we got on line for desk 3. The line was dead. It took over an hour to get up to the desk to check in. Some ECN customers from the back of the line decided just to go to the Business Class line The SR people checked them in and we, the people who stayed in the proper line, got a little angry at this as we were still waiting. After this line there was yet another. This was the Passport check. Each booth had about 40 people in line ( there were two other flights, Sabena and Air France, leaving around the same time from the same area) and was manned by tired and haggard looking young woman. One of these girls had to leave the booth to get a new stamp and started yelling at the passengers who asked here where she was going. We finally got through this line after a 45 minute wait and headed to gate 5. The wait there was only about 20 minutes. I bought a Coke ( $3!!!) and had a small snack I brought with me. We then got in line and loaded aboard our A320. I was seat 31A, next to a woman and her son going to Paris. While sitting I could watch other ACÕs land. I saw a BA 757, a 737-500 of CSA ( which I see is now just Czech Airlines; what does the S in CSA now stand for?), a Lufthansa 737, and a few Russian flights.
Take off was delayed by about an hour, a concern as I had a connection to catch in Zurich. Shermetyevo-1 and -2 share ONE runway, for both landings and take offs. Its crazy. We sat as one plane from S-1 would take off, then an AC would land, then a S-2 would take off, then an AC would land, then the entire things starts all over again. I watched an SAS flight take off as well as an Austrian Air flight and a few big Aeroflot flights. Behind us were a Sabena flight and an Air France flight. Finally it was our turn to take off. It went smoothly and we headed west, over Belorussia. We were served a nice chicken lunch about 30 minutes into the 3 hour flight. After finishing up I decided to just look at the Belorussian countryside as we crossed into Poland. As I was looking out the left of the AC , below and to the left a A340 of Cathay Pacific flew right by! It was close enough for me to read the titles on the AC. It was making contrails as it went by and was visible for maybe 2 seconds. It was really neat to see ( I guess coming out of Amsterdam and going to Hong Kong). I also saw, at a distance, what I think was an SAS AC heading north. We headed south across Prague and into Germany. I was happy as we came in towards Zurich as my connection was to leave in 25 minutes to NYC. Just then the pilot came on and announced that we would be circling for awhile as Zurich AP was busy! Now the pressure was on. The only entertainment as we went around and around was to see who was with us. I saw a MD-11 of Swissair, an a 757 of BA also going round and round. Finally we were allowed to descend into the clouds and rain of Zurich. We touched down at 6:17pm, and the connection was to leave at 6:25pm. We made our way to the gate, 86 from memory, and I quickly rushed to get off the A320. I literally ran down to gate 73 to see our A330 still there. I went up to check in. I was told I lost my seat, which was to be 40A and was now in 25K. I asked if it was a window, and after being told it was, got on the weird Swiss passport control line. After that I ran on the AC and took my seat. It was the last in the section, so there was no seat behind me.I sat next to an Albanian woman who did not seem to like to fly as she spent the entire 8 hours just holding on to her armrests. The rain was really coming down and we were delayed until 6:45pm. We finally took off and headed above the clouds and off across France. We were given a snack of those same ( good though) bread sticks and I had a Coke. About an hour into the flight dinner was served. I had the Rissoto, with bread, salad, and a Toblerone that I took home. I used the nice Swissair bathroom, and then came back to relax a bit before watching Erin Brokovich on the personal entertainment system. The two rubes in front of me seem not to have ever flown before. They put their seats back while we were still climbing and kept going around the AC, looking in bathrooms, up at the Business Class seats, etc. They were real pains. The flight crossed south of Paris and I saw a Lufthansa AC heading southeast. We crossed over the channel and then over the southern half of Ireland. The flight was in ÒlightÓ the entire time, so it was not tough to stay awake. We came down the coast of Canada and the USA, crossing Maine, and then Mass. before crossing over Long Island and then banking back in towards JFK. We were given a breakfast about 2 hours before landing but I skipped it so I canÕt tell you what it was. Landing was a bit bumpy as it seemed the right side came down well before the left. We pulled into our gate and quickly disembarked. I could only see one other AC, a MD-11 of Varig, in the darkness. We had a long walk to get the baggage area after going through passport control and then had to wait as the belt kept stopping. After finally getting my to bags I followed as everyone got run quickly through USA customs. I get pulled over so to speak and get the 3rd degree as to where I was born, what I was doing in Russia, etc. I had my suitcase opened and the customs guy looked for a false bottom. After not finding it he let me go after about a 5 minute delay. I took a long walk to the arrivals area where the car was waiting. Now I know why I only do a trek like this every 2 years! Sorry if this was too long, but I hope it was generally OK.