October 1, 2009
My partner and I had decided to visit his brother’s family in Israel for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles. It is an early Fall holiday that is not too restrictive in terms of observance and offered a good time to visit with his relatives and other friends in Israel. It was my fifth trip to Israel and our first visit since the Spring of 2004.
In the past, we have always traveled through Europe, due to the price advantages of tickets from Washington, DC to Tel Aviv, our preference for European/international carriers on international flights, and the advantages of breaking up the flight with at least a few hours to walk around. Our previous itineraries had been as follows:
Washington Dulles (IAD
) - Paris Charles De Gaulle (CDG
) - Tel Aviv Ben Gurion (TLV
Air France Boeing 777-200ER/Airbus A320-200
Washington Dulles (IAD
) - London Heathrow (LHR
) - Tel Aviv Ben Gurion (TLV
British Airways Boeing 777-200ER/Boeing 767-300ER(RR)/Boeing 747-400
Washington Dulles (IAD
) - Amsterdam Schipol (AMS
) - Tel Aviv Ben Gurion (TLV
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Airbus A330-300/Boeing 737-900/Airbus A330-200
Washington Dulles (IAD
) - Paris Charles De Gaulle (CDG
) - Tel Aviv Ben Gurion (TLV
) -Amsterdam Schipol (AMS
) - Washington Dulles (IAD
Air France Boeing 777-200ER/Airbus A320-200, El Al Israel Airlines Boeing 757-200, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Airbus A330-200
The latter routing had included a seven-day stopover in Paris, where we stayed at my partner’s boss’s apartment and included a trip to the Loire Valley. We then flew on to enjoy a week in Israel. It was a multi-airline ticket that included my first flight on El Al and interconnection between international airlines.
When evaluating options for our trip this year, we initially looked at a British Airways itinerary. However, it offered a six-hour layover at Heathrow in both directions, not really long enough to go into the city, but long-enough to be grueling waiting at the airport. We noticed that US Airways was offering an itinerary through Philadelphia on what was obviously a new flight.
I was a bit wary as I understood the routing was brand new and would utilize a yet-to-be-delivered aircraft. I had this horror looking forward to a brand new Airbus aircraft only to be enduring a long flight on a Boeing 767-200ER or a rerouting on another carrier with bad seat assignments in the process because of a aircraft delivery delay. However, the ticket was much more reasonable, and the timing for the flights was much more preferable to, the BA
Ultimately, I was pleased to discover, through Airliners.net, that US Airways did begin to receive their five Airbus A330-200s ordered for 2009 in the weeks leading up to the launch of the Tel Aviv flights in July. They were apparently initially given trial runs on the PHL
to San Juan route for crew and pilot orientation. I had very much enjoyed my flights on KLM’s Airbus A330. However, I was not looking forward to the long-duration flight from Philadelphia. It would mark the first time I had flown to Israel non-stop from the United States.
From: Washington National Airport.
To: Philadelphia International Airport (PHL
Airline: US Airways Express
Aircraft: Embraer ERJ-175
Another benefit from our US Airways routing was the fact that we could leave from Washington National instead of Dulles. Although I enjoy the variety of international airlines/aircraft more at Dulles, it is wretched airport, with contemporary check-in and security facilities crammed in a beautifully-designed terminal set up for prop planes and jets in the 1960s.
National, by contrast, is a beautiful and functional airport with incredible views of the city that I now call my home town. Cesar Pelli’s great design still looks modern and elegant, although I have to admit the color scheme in the interior is beginning to look a bit dated with the yellow accents and colorings of the 1990s. Regardless, it is a great airport designed for airliner watching.
Check-in was very quick, although that is pretty much the norm at National. US Airways, like all the carriers, uses the automatic kiosks and the traffic at the airport has never really returned to its pre-9/11 peak. Security was not bad at all and we proceeded to the gate. I was nervous to notice that the flights to PHL
before and after our flight were significantly delayed. However, they were CRJs or prop flights, while ours was departing from a traditional gate.
Despite some confusion with our heavily accented German gate agent, who abandoned his gate post and was actually tracked down by the copilot who had come out to tell him that the crew was ready for boarding, we boarded at ten minutes until the scheduled departure. Push-back went smoothly and we started to taxi out to the gate, only to roll over to a holding position because a hold on arrivals into PHL
due to traffic.
At this point it was 6:15 pm. Our departure was scheduled at 5:59 pm and scheduled arrival was at 7:10 pm. Given that our flight was about a 20-25 minute duration, I had my strong suspicion that we were simply early for our slot departure from DCA
and that US Airways simply padded their schedules. As I suspected, the pilot switched the engines back on at 6:35 pm and we took off a couple of minutes later.
Our flight was very short with no cabin service, roughly on par in length with my inter-island lights on Hawaiian Air. We did not go higher than about 20,000 feet. As always, I love the Embraer ERJ-170/-175 series. The cabin is sleek, functional, and very comfortable, with a giant window and reasonable seat-pitch. I have almost no complaints about the aircraft. My only complaint was a constant vibration from below my seat, which felt like some type of fuel pump operating.
Our routing took us over the Chesapeake Bridge and northern Delaware into New Jersey before a slow descent from the West into PHL
. Not many interesting aircraft at PHL
to comment on. However, I did notice our A330-200 parked at the international terminal.
Transit in Philadelphia was reasonable pleasant. The older domestic terminals are hideous and cramped. However PHL
’s Terminal A is a brand-new facility, obvious built within the last decade with its sleek grey metal, stone and glass design. My only complaint was the distance entailed in traveling between the domestic and international areas. Even with the people-movers, it was quite a schlep.
We purchased some duty-free Woodford Reserve and chocolates for my partner’s brother and family and had a light meal at this european cafe. Not too bad food, although pricey.
From: Philadelphia International Airport
To: Ben Gurion International Airport Tel Aviv
Airline: US Airways
Flight No. 796,
Scheduled Depart/Arrive 9:00 PM
(Actual Flight Time, 10.38 hours)
Aircraft: Airbus A330-200 (RR Engines)
Seats: 26 G & H
The Tel Aviv flight waiting area was segregated from the rest of the international terminal by security panels (opaque glass), with a security ticket/boarding pass/passport check and another round of x-ray and metal detectors. Passengers were greeted by an obviously Israeli US Airways cabin crew member who was answering passenger questions and a Philadelphia airport security officer who checked passports and boarding passes. Both were overseen by an older bearded man from what was likely an Israeli security company. Bags were scanned with some hand searching.
I have always found it interesting how carriers treat security on the Israeli flights. British Airways and Air France, for instance, had no additional security for their Tel Aviv flights, which concerned me. However, they appeared to make the location of the Tel Aviv gate confusing (intentionally?) and bussed their passengers out to the jet. KLM, by contrast, had Israeli security personnel doing full-scale profiling interviews (just like at Tel Aviv), followed by a full round of bag checks and scans. US Airways was somewhere in the middle, with no interview, but full scans and inspections.
Most of the passengers in the waiting area and later on the flight were secular Israelis. We were arriving on Friday afternoon and, although we were scheduled to arrive well before the Sabbath, it appeared that religious travelers were avoiding the flight out of caution of any delays complicating their arrival. Our aircraft looked resplendent in the tarmac lights, shiny in new. According to the gate agent it was about a month old, not one of the newest A330-200s (one was delivered a couple of days before our flight) but still shiny and clean.
Boarding went smoothly and was well organized. Entry was through the second door and there was not a hint of grease or wear on the door mechanisms. And that nice clean smell of a new aircraft! US Airways has fitted their -200s with a rather dense configuration, 20 Envoy Seats (very plain and simple and probably not even competitive with El Al, but reportedly, to be refitted with a lie-flat design. However, the flight attendants I talked to seemed quite skeptical about this) and 238 coach seats. Northwest and KLM have fitted business class seats in the forward cabin and about a third of the second cabin, but US Airways only has its Envoy seats in the first cabin. The rest, both the second and third cabins, is all economy.
The seats are all blue leather, without adjustable headrests (disappointing), but have the larger, touch-screen IFE systems. There are no controls in the arm rests at all, with the FA
call-button and light controls being located on the IFE panel itself. Not too uncomfortable a seat pitch. The carpet is a dark grey with light grey accents, the wall panels a light grey and the cabin dividers have the US Airways red-white-grey color scheme motif. Compared with the domestic aircraft I’ve endured on US Airways (most of the time dingy, torn, and filthy), it was quite pleasant.
We were sitting in 26 GH
in the third cabin a few seats back from the wing’s trailing edge. On my flights on the KLM A330, we had always sat in the rear of the second cabin directly over the wing. My only other modern Airbus wide-body experience was on a Lufthansa A340-300, but I did not have a window seat. From our vantage point, the A330 wing appears quite large. Again, it was absolutely immaculate, with no grease streaks and every single mechanism brand spanking new.
Our departure was delayed a couple of minutes because of difficulties getting passengers seated and out of the bathrooms. I never understand why the FAs do not lock the bathrooms prior to taxiing as this would solve a lot of difficulties with passengers not following directions. Cabin announcements were made manually in English, with recordings (strangely a mix of male and female voices) for the Hebrew announcements. The flight attendants were split between aged American male and females, the one Israeli flight attendant, and one American male FA
who spoke Hebrew.
The crew rest for the FAs consisted of the outer two seats (on both sides of the cabin) of the first row of economy in the main cabin. Once we were airborne, the flight attendants pulled a curtain around both sets of seats. At one point, they had a curtain drawn aside at the end of the flight and it appeared that the seat cushions pulled out of the seats, allowing the flight attendants to lie fully flat on the floor in front of the seats. My understanding is that there is a flight crew crew rest consisting of proper bunks right behind the cockpit.
We pushed back and taxied on one engine to the runway, with the second engine starting up shortly before our takeoff roll. (Noticed a US Airways A330-300 departing to Manchester and a British Airways 767-300ER to Heathrow.) Take-off was to the Northeast with a routing directly over New York City, Connecticut and Massachusetts and then over the Atlantic. We were unfortunately on the wrong side of the aircraft to see Manhattan and only got a view of the Long Island coastline before we crossed over cloud cove. The rest of the flight was over broken clouds with a sky of stars.
We were served a full meal service about an hour of take-off. Choices were chicken or pasta, accompanied by a very small lettuce salad, a dinner role, and a small piece of chocolate cake. I had the pasta which was quite good, with a little dab of pesto on top. I have to say, the quality was very good for a US carrier (wine and other alcoholic drinks, of course, were not free), although I believe the quantities were smaller than what we would have gotten on British Airways or Air France.
There was then a coffee service and duty free. After that, however, the flight attendants disappeared behind their crew rest area. A couple of flight attendants stayed in the rear galley and would respond to call signals from seats or to drink requests if you went in the back. However, there was no pass through of waters, something that annoys me because how difficult (or costly) can that be.
The new IFE system is very sleek and provides AVOD, but is not fully loaded to its potential. US Airways has loaded its system with about 5-8 movies and a collection of TV
shows, but it clearly can hold more. It appears to be the same system as the KLM A330-200, which had an extensive list of new release and classic movies and TV
shows. Even the music selection was quite limited. I did enjoy watching State of Play and Angels & Demons and a few episodes of Big Love.
The cabin lights were turned off after the duty free service was completed. However, sleeping was not easy, given that the passengers right behind me were two high school age kids who talked incessantly for about four hours straight, including a period when a seat-mate from another area of the plane came and stood over them to chat. They proceeded to spill a bottle of wine on their seat tray, which required the flight attendant to be called and everyone around to be disturbed during the clean-up process.
Other comments about the cabin: I didn’t venture back to see the rear galley. However, US Airways nicely configured their aircraft with four mid-cabin bathrooms, including one handicapped facility. There was not a serious problems with lines, despite the long duration of the flight. Nice modern toilets with LED
lighting above the sink and nice color scheme. However, I do not like the position of the crew rest areas, as it makes it difficult for passengers waiting for the toilets to maneuver around each other.
The sun began coming up shortly before we hit the European coastline and I do not think that the cloud cover broke throughout the transatlantic crossing. Daybreak allowed me to view the immaculate wing (I’m disappointed that US Airways did not put their logo on the inner side of the winglet, although it is colored dark blue). Our routing took us south of the tip of Greenland and Iceland before we made landfall at the northern Scottish coast. We proceeded down through the UK and France, through Italy before veering towards Greece, Crete and then over the Mediterranean towards Israel.
About two hours before arrival, the FA
team awoke from their crew rest and bathroom breaks to turn on the cabin lights (the nice LEDs give a nice gradual effect that is far less jarring). There was a drink/coffee service followed by another full meal service, which was a pleasant surprise. I assumed breakfast would be the traditional US carrier European arrival banana and yogurt, or perhaps a muffin. However, US Airways offered a full-scale breakfast, with the choice of a cheese omelet or french toast, served with fruit, a roll and a breakfast cake.
After breakfast was cleared, I finished up watching Angels & Demons and then switched on the flight map (now called GPS in the new US Airways menu). Passengers continued to line up for the bathrooms. However, about 45 minutes out, the pilot came on the air to inform everyone that they would have to be in the seat 30 minutes before landing due to security requirements. I did not remember this procedure from my last flight in in 2004, but I may simply have forgotten. A similar requirement was in place for flights into and out of DCA
, but this was eliminated a couple of years ago.
As usual, we came into Israeli airspace from the West, reaching landfall slightly north of Tel Aviv. It’s always interesting how the approach to Israel is clear blue ocean and suddenly you hit land; there are no islands or other land masses before the coastline. The landing process is quite quick. Flaps were extended and almost immediately thereafter the landing gear went down (my experience is that normally flaps go down several minutes before the gear). We came in diagonally south of the airfield and then did a sharp left bank and descend until we were aligned with the runway. Rather dramatic (my last arrival, I swear, included a nauseating corkscrew landing.)
We came in over the old air terminal and Israel Aircraft Industries’ work area (lots of old 747s and 767s going through cargo conversions). Landing was quite smooth and I got a view of immaculate spoiler and flap mechanisms. It looked like a GeminiJet model wing, fantastic! As we approached Ben Gurion’s newer terminal (Terminal 3 I believe), I notice Swiss’s A340-300 arrival and Austrian Airlines 767-300ER with winglets. The El Al wing of the terminal had a couple of 737-800s, a 757-200, and a 777-200ER. Otherwise, no other US carriers.
Deplaning was slow as usual. However, I love the new Tel Aviv terminal, as incoming passengers get a grand view of the aircraft below and the departure lounges as they proceed to passport control and customs. The lines weren’t long, but we got behind a passenger with a French passport who was held up for at least half an hour. Not sure what the problem was, although I suspect he was a Palestinian living in Paris and, as is usually the case, is given more scrutiny. My partner and I are usually let through very quickly. I suspect they have us on file as being together and having visited family before.
Anyway, not much else to discuss. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised about the US Airways flight and service. The real test will be how well they maintain the cabin of their aircraft and if they keep the full meal service as a permanent practice on their Tel Aviv routing. The plane was immaculate, so no complaints there. It appeared they had a full load of passengers, but given it is a new routing I have no idea how well it is going for them.
One comment on US Airways cabin crew uniforms. They are almost indistinguishable from the passengers, only slight more formal than a casual outfit. I had trouble sometimes figuring out who was cabin crew and who was not. I would suspect that in an emergency situation, it would be confusing for passengers. Also, their uniforms are not very fashionable at all.