DEAR ETIHAD AND KLM … ALL I NEED IS SOME AIR TO BREATHE!

Now I must be honest, the return economy airfare of $1,136.00 Perth to Amsterdam was so ridiculously cheap, I have no right to comment about anything; on the other hand, it is an advertised service and the airlines involved have already sent me emails asking for comment.

I purchased the ticket from Air France in February this year and flew to Amsterdam on Tuesday 17th July. The first leg from Perth to Abu Dhabi was flown by Etihad and the second leg (Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam) was with KLM. Both airlines used Airbus A330s.

Although I’d been able to book my preferred seat with Etihad at the same time I booked and paid for the flight, there was no way I could book a preferred seat with KLM, which seemed strange, as Etihad was the code share airline, whereas KLM and Air France are the same company. The message on the KLM site was that I could book a seat 30hrs before the flight, however that also proved impossible, so in spite of completing onine boarding there was no choice other than to stand in the queue at the airport.

The very pleasant and helpful lady at the counter dealt with it, however I had to accept the window seat allocated on the KLM flight, there was no apparent way to change to my favourite ailse seat.

Compliments to the Perth border / customs – (God knows what they are called these days under the Turnbull / Dutton regime) – passage was thorough, but polite and quick. The finished departure lounge area is excellent, you can buy a drink, or a snack and there are now toilets everywhere. Time to board.

If you’re travelling on an Arab airline, you know the plane will be the latest, in perfect condition and the seat will have USB and 240v power, plus a large screen, as indeed did our aircraft. After a lengthy period of post operation non activity, I’ve put on a bit (read too much!) weight, but I was surprised to find that doing up the seatbelt was a struggle. The seats are excellent, comfortable, even for a wide bum bloke like me, legroom is also fine, athough I’m only average (175cm) height; however, if the person in front puts their seatback down, you’re stuffed, the only thing you can do is turn and apologise to the person behind, saying you have no choice but to do the same. I think if the airlines are going to cram people in like sardines, the time has come to axe seat recliners.

Worse was to come. I have no trouble doing long distance (10hr+) flights; however I am claustrophobic, and the first thing I do when I’m in my seat, is adjust the overhead air vent on to my head / face, that fresh forced air is a pyschological game saver for me. Unfortunately, the A330 has no personal air vents and to make matters worse, Etihad runs their cabin temperatures very warm, it must be 2c-3c warmer than other airlinines I’ve travelled on. When the meal had finished and the person in front had laid their seat back, I felt closed in, hot and trapped. In the finish, I spent the majority of the flight standing up at the back reading a book, only returning to my seat for turbulence and to relieve my aching legs.

The service on the flight was great and the cabin crew were really lovely – sometimes on Middle Eastern airlines, there is a reluctance to serve alcohol and service of anything can be slow; I always buy water to bring on board, as it can be up to an hour into a flight before you’re served anything (in economy); but this flght was superb. However, the heat and lack of air vents, combined with the curse of the reclining seat, meant I hated the flight and couldn’t wait for it to end.

It didn’t get any better when we landed at Abu Dhabi. No terminal for us, we exited out on to the tarmac, queueing in midnight 36c heat for buses to take us to the terminal; but at least there was air conditioning, not so in the terminal.

It seems in Abu Dhabi, they either haven’t got around to installing air conditioning in their terminal, or it might have broken down – but it was as hot as the desert and there are no automatic trains to transfer passengers across considerable distances, all in ridiculously high temperatures.

When I finally reached the gate for the next flight (KLM), I found utter chaos – the flight had started boarding, there was no orderly queue, rather half a dozen haphazard lines of people trying to pass through a two passport controller bottleneck and if anything, it was even hotter!

Of course it was, the doors to the outside of the terminal were wide open! Even when a bus filled up and left, the doors remained open waiting for the next bus. Eventually the bus pulled up beside the aircraft, but there we waited in the heat, as something was sorted out on board the aircraft.

Finally, we were welcomed on board the KLM Airbus A330, into fresh cool air, leaving behind the nightmare that was Abu Dhabi airport. For a major international airport, all I can say is they must be joking, it’s the worst I’ve ever had the misfortune to find myself in.

Sliding into my window seat, I was pleasantly surprised to find there was quite a bit of arm room between the seat and the window and although the aircraft didn’t have personal air vents either, there did seem to be some sort of airflow, coming down from the back of the overhead lockers, down past the window. I lent into it.

Compared to the Etihad A330, the KLM A330 was positively austere – no charging ports, a very small entertainment screen and the remote control tucked into the side of the armrest – I couldn’t help but think we’d gone back a generation in cabin design. But hey, the crew were friendly, the seatbelts were a lot longer than the Etihad belts and my fellow passenger, a Norwegian sailor, was a lot of fun, the flight was only about seven hours, it should be OK.

The crew came around within minutes of take off, asking what we wanted to drink, very friendly, great people. All good, until the kid in front suddenly lent her seat back. The wine went everywhere. I thanked the Gods I was wearing dark jeans. My Norwegian mate and I discussed murder, he suggested a time honoured Viking method – apparently you wound the criminal, then place them in a cage with crabs. I stared ahead at the kid!

Shortley afterwards, the cabin crew came round with our meals. I looked at our steward and shrugged, pointing at the seat in front of me which was almost hitting my forehead. He nodded and talked to the parent and kid, up went the seat. He also gave us both more wine and told us to let him know if we needed more. We grinned.

Somehow, the kid refrained from laying back her seat while we ate and waited for the tray collection, but within seconds of her tray being collected, bang! I hadn’t opened the wine, I also hadn’t finished my coffee. Yes, coffee all over my jeans. “I give up,” I said to my sailor mate, “I’m going down the back for a while.”

One of the cabin crew asked me if everything was OK; I explained that the laid back seat, the lack of air and the wine and coffee spillages meant I felt more comfortable standing down the back. She smiled ruefully and poured me a wine.

Full marks to the KLM cabin crew and I must say, it’s really good to see airlines like KLM, employing a mix of young and older staff. The Middle Eastern airlines appear very much fixated on pretty young things (male and female).

I tried sitting down a couple of times, but claustrophobia (no room, or air) got to me each time and within 30 minutes or so and back to the back I went.

Landing on a beautiful, clear, warm summer’s morning in Amsterdam is soul pleasing and while in the last couple of years, Schipol has been a nightmare with all the renovations completed, they’ve got it right, it’s a pleasure to pass through and it’s airconditioned!

Less than an hour after landing, I was on the train out of the airport, heading for Germany, thinking just how comfortable and civilised long distance train travel is; compared to long distance air travel, it was a relief to get off both aircraft to the sanctuary of the train.

That’s a pity and of course, you can overcome most of the issues I’ve written of; flying Premium Economy or Business, it is true that you get what you pay for. When push comes to shove, Etihad had the better equipped cabin, however both crews were great, the food on both was very good, but the lack of air vents is a killer for me. In future I will only fly with airlines that have personal air vents and I do think all airlines should stop Economy seats from being able to be laid back. Most of all, I wish I didn’t have to go through the airport at Abu Dhabi again, the return journey will certainly be my last.
Greg Ross

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