Midnight To The Mediterranean – Air Malta Economy

by Continental Club on June 2, 2011

To be honest it has got midlife crisis written all over it.

For in the past few months, Continental Club seems to have been reprising travels of yore with some regularity.

On this occasion then, our mind is cast back to the middle of a sultry 1981 night; a night further laden with excitement and expectation, as CC took to the skies for the very first time.

Destination: Malta. Airline: Air Malta. ETD: 02:00hrs.

In the thirty years that have passed since, much has changed in the world of commercial aviation. Fares have plummeted as fast as the frills have vanished from our ever-more-frequent flying. Airlines have come and gone, destinations have waxed and waned in popularity, high-speed rail has been touted as the future of shorthaul travel and soft, cuddly branding with Jackson Pollock-esque fuselage colour-schemes have become the norm.

Malta itself has, in the same time period, joined the European Union (2004), signed up to the Schengen Agreement (2007) and entered the Eurozone (2008).

And yet little Air Malta, flag carrier to this seventh most populous country in the world, seems to have remained an aviation constant; a barely changed livery, sporty nocturnal schedules and, almost unbelievably on the booking confirmation page of the carrier’s website, the words ‘Economy’ and ‘Meal’ included together under the flight information. Now that doesn’t happen very often any more.

However, if there’s one memory of that 1981 flight that overrides all others, it was in fact the catering. And, more specifically, the sausage. At no time before or since had something so monumentally awful been offered up to the CC tastebuds. The combination of the consistency of a rotten grape and the taste of an infantryman’s hosiery is one that has rendered itself unforgettable these long years past.

The question might therefore be: had the food changed as little as the colourscheme?

First though, online check-in: available from 23 hours prior to departure. Clearly, it was unlikely that an alarm call for 03:20 the previous day would be set but, at a more sociable 07:30, the system was given a whirl.

‘Reservation not found.’

Same at 08:30, and at 09:30. At 12:30, the Swissport-operated system finally deigned to enliven itself and seat 4F was selected, in the first available row of this economy-only flight. Natty boarding card duly printed too.

So then, to Manchester Airport T2 for flight KM3149 to Malta’s Luqa airport, ETD 02:20. At this hour of the night ‘T2’ could easily stand for ‘Twilight 2one’ as not a single solitary other flight, nor check-in desk is operating. No landside concessions are open. The Radisson SAS next door has got sick of passengers nursing coffees and has booted them out and into the void of the terminal.

That said, there are only 64 of us and at least the desks are opened a bit early. Our lovely laser-printed boarding cards are presented for bag-drop, and unceremoniously trashed to be replaced with traditional airport ones. Printers: 1. The environment: 0.

Unsurprisingly, there’s no queue at security, although it’s just as well as the whole system, a combination of Heathrow Terminal 5’s trays and rollers, combined with body scanners that may or may not have been operational; a wanded pat down and then a separate shoe scan either suggested bored staff, a clear and present danger or just the most inefficient system yet devised.

Airside, one duty free shop and one cafe were lit and serving. Security announcements echoed through the building, the bodies of 64 close-to-zombies absorbing few of the decibels.

Boarding is by way of jetty, but downstairs from the gate lounge. The crew, waiting at the door of the Airbus A319, could not have looked less pleased to see us. Neither the Purser, eyes bloodshot, nor his colleague seemed the slightest bit interested in verifying boarding passes, nor seat assignments nor, well, the presence of their own pulses, it seemed.

Doors closed, pushback came early and the overhead screens unfurled in preparation for the safety demonstration. Which, truth be told, looked like it had been filmed on Cine8 and copied a few times on to VHS. The crew paid no attention to whether anyone else was paying attention, other than a final cabin walkthrough and seatbelt check.

At which point, the Purser, who would normally have been expected to take his seat on the crew jumpseat at the front passenger door, harnessed and rear-facing in the best possible position to observe, assist and direct in case of emergency, came into the empty forward Club cabin, took seat 1C, reclined it and stayed there until after takeoff.

Pam Ann would be so proud.

Once airborne, the screens were lowered again to show the moving map, and the cabin service began. The much-anticipated meal was proffered, along with complimentary tea, coffee and soft drinks.

And, there it was, lurking behind the loft insulation egg and next to the 37 beans:

The sausage of 1981.

Seats are arranged three-three in Economy, with just a touch more legroom in Club but a removable table which clips down onto the middle seats of the latter, to provide a buffer between the aisle and window seats.

The colour scheme is broadly blue, grey and red, with blue leather seats looking a bit worn but otherwise reasonably comfortable and with passable recline.

Unfortunately, the relatively classy design is let down by some seriously tacky (and limp) advertising antimacassars flapping forlornly from each seat top.

The meal service included the bar run, followed by tea and coffee and then a further top-up run. The coffee was, by all accounts, a reasonable foil for the sausage; instant and all that would be expected from that, with the added horror of 1980s powdered-creamer.

In preparation for landing, the crew member who had been studying the backs of his eyelids for the past half hour rose from his reclination in 2A and checked our belts. The Club cabin wasn’t empty for long though, as the purser promptly re-assumed his position in 1C and cranked the backrest rearward.

Landing at Luqa, a former military base that struggles to disguise it, was almost half an hour early; though clearly not nearly early enough for our prostrate Purser who, with alacrity that eluded him throughout the flight from Manchester, leapt from his seat and had his jacket on whilst the reverse thrusters were still gunning on the runway. He bravely braced himself against the bulkhead, glaring over his shoulder towards the cockpit as if to silently berate the driver for having the temerity to attempt deceleration at any point before arrival at the apron. Perhaps our Purser had a milk round to do when he landed.

Disembarkation is by stairs for all; there are no air bridges at Luqa.

Immigration was thankfully deserted – unlike it had been thirty years ago when we’d been herded into a huge shed, behind the occupants of previously-arrived 707s and 737s, with lazily swirling fans doing little to move more than a wisp of air.

It’s a short walk along twisting corridors and down an escalator to the baggage hall, where the screens proudly proclaimed the imminent arrival of our trunks on belt three, whilst the handlers sent everything on to two instead as it was presumably ten yards less far for them to drive to reach.

This, from the airport recently ‘awarded’  ACI Europe Best Airport  2010: Up to 5 Million Passengers Category. The other winners, rising through the sizes, were Lyon Airport, Manchester Airport and Barcelona Airport. The uncharitable might speculate that no other contender airports in the respective categories had been inspected in 2010 given that none of the eventual winners are generally noted for outstanding operations…..

Once through Arrivals, it’s easy to spot your waiting driver – or to visit the taxi office to arrange a pre-paid and fixed-fare ride to your ultimate destination. And, outside, your first view of dawn in Malta is one that’s extraordinarily representative of an country that seems constantly in a state of reconstruction; dusty, chaotic, industrious, historic, civilised, proud, hideously ugly in part and splendidly beautiful in most.

Even the Air Malta tailfins lined up on the retreating apron seem to reflect something of those island paradoxes – a stylish counterpoint to the pages of each morning’s The Times of Malta, with its regular stories alluding to (if not actually reporting in full) the airline’s financial woes, the island government’s petitions to the EU for an approved state-supported restructuring, the tales of lamentable customer service and the tides of former passengers boarding Ryanair and easyJet’s services – not just to the UK but intra-Europe too.

Which seems such a shame, as this could be one of Europe’s great little airlines again, centred on an island which has been a transport crossroads and a bridgehead between continents and cultures for thousands of years.

Hopefully then, its troubles will prove not to be terminal, and a way can be found to bring an end to the current uncertainty. The bones of something good are there: it’s just a bit out of sync with the modern world it finds itself still flying in. Rumours of its death are much exaggerated.

In fact, it just has midlife crisis written all over it.

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2 comments

It’s easy to spot your waiting driver.

by morton blinds on December 6, 2011 at 9:07 PM. Reply #

[…] Midnight To The Mediterranean […]

by Air Malta Unveils New Livery | Continental Club Blog on August 1, 2012 at 11:40 AM. Reply #

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