The good thing about travelling on a Saturday lunchtime – at least out of the main holiday season – is that the airport is relatively empty, so check in and security much less painful. This is particularly true when you have the benefit, as we did, of an airline loyalty program Gold Card – in our case Flying Blue Gold. I gained it in my days working in Amsterdam and commuting there weekly for a couple of years. I’ve used none of the Skyteam Alliance member airlines since I finished there nearly two years ago, and the membership will be downgraded to Silver at the end of this month. So we got in just in time…….
Alitalia is a member of the alliance, so we went straight to the front of the Priority queue at check in, and were dealt with swiftly and efficiently. A minor problem: for the Rome – Paris leg we were seated at opposite ends of the plane and as the flight was full and operated by another airline (where have I heard that before?) we couldn’t make a change. Try at the gate.
So off we went, to Priority lane security. It was deserted….not a soul in line. The staff were playing cards or something – not working, anyway. We cleared it in two minutes – it would have been quicker but this Traveller and security check veteran forgot to take his belt off or empty all the loose change from his jeans pockets. Oops…..
On to the Lounge – in this case, Skyteam use the Fantazja lounge by Gate 36. And very nice it was too. I’ve been using the LOT Business Lounge every week for the past 5 months or so, and it’s too small – on Monday mornings it’s jampacked by about 6:20, and the seats and tables are all packed in too close for comfort. The coffee machines have a habit of breaking down, the food is no better than average and there is no view from the windows except of people dashing off late for their Non-Schengen flights.
By contrast, the Fantazja is a good bit bigger, and has some decent views of the outside front forecourts and exit roads so at least there is ample natural light. The food and drink selection is better both in variety and quality, and there is better seating space – both more of it and more comfortable. The toilets are better and there is a separate quiet area if you want a bit of peace and a doze. All in all it’s a much better bet. We had a very pleasant hour and a half sampling the menu, and headed for the gate.
We got there late – our normal practice when travelling together. In mitigation, the Departure Boards in the Lounge had not been kept up to date (I had been watching them) and there had not been any Got To Gate status displayed. I asked about this at the reception desk and was told boarding would start “in a few minutes.” By the time we got there, after a quick washroom visit, boarding was nearly finished. We were among the last half a dozen passengers to join the human traffic jam on the jetwalk. I expected a lack of space for our case in the luggage bins and was pleasantly surprised to find plenty of room.
The flight was ok. Alitalia belied its acronym by departing and subsequently landing not late but on time. The plane was old and shabby, but the seats comfortable enough with reasonable leg room. The cabin crew, all male, average age around 40 I should think, and with ill-fitting uniform waistcoats, were efficient but the fare poor. Our meal for a 2 hours plus flight was a small bag of chocolate chip cookies, each about the size of my thumb-nail and perhaps 20 to the packet, coffee and/or a soft drink. I will be generous and suggest that the cost-cutting exercise the airline went through to secure its survival a couple of years ago affected the catering particularly badly. In any case, we were pleased we had eaten well in the Lounge before boarding, and looked forward to sampling Italian cuisine in the Fumicino airport Air France lounge.
The sun was shining in Rome and it was delightfully warm – a pleasant surprise given that early last week there was a fair amount of snow in southern Italy. We had a bus ride into the terminal and set off in search of the Air France lounge. It was nowhere near our scheduled departure gate, and people I asked for directions looked at me blankly, whether through a language issue or out of ignorance. At the third attempt, an off-duty waiter in a Mercedes Benz lounge area directed us – 10 minutes walk to a different set of gates, back the way we had come.
We found it and were given a friendly welcome. It was a small affair, certainly smaller than Warsaw’s Fantazja, and there was not a lot of spare seating. But we found somewhere overlooking the tarmac and settled in for a two hour transit. Now then – where is that Italian food?
Truth to say, it was very disappointing. There was a small selection of bite sized salami rolls, some fresh fruit, a dish of grated Italian cheese and dishes of cold pasta and salads. Plenty of wines but no beer that I could find, plus a coffee machine. We loaded up with pasta and rolls, sat down and ate. We were not impressed. But the wine we chose, an Italian semi-dry white, was palatable at least. Considering the lounge is operating in Rome, on behalf of a French airline and its partners, no slouches when it comes to fine and healthy dining, I would have expected much much better.
We headed off to the gate, to try and re-arrange our seats to be together for the two hour flight back up to Paris. Our plane arrived from there at the same time as me, but before the gate staff. I waited patiently for a good 10 minutes before they arrived, a man and woman wearing the dull and unglamorous Alitalia uniform. (That was another surprise: both Italy and France have good reputations for their fashion industries, but their airline uniforms are lacking both style and colour.)
I explained the seating issue. The lady was apologetic but couldn’t help. I asked about an upgrade. She confirmed Business Class, too, was fully booked. I pointed out that we were catching this flight only because Air France had messed about with our booking and felt that, so far, the airline had been less than sympathetic or helpful. At least she had the good grace to look embarrassed as she apologised again. We sighed, and joined the end of the (short) Priority queue. A few minutes later, her male colleague came over and offered us a seat change – apparently a couple were “not likely” to be able to make the flight, so we were offered their seats – close to the back, aisle and centre (so not the best) but together. We accepted the offer, and he produced new boarding cards.
The plane was full of Chinese tourists who absolutely reeked of sweat and stale tobacco, and we were surrounded by them. There was also a party of noisy teenagers returning to Paris from what I presumed to be a school trip, so we gave up all thought of having a sleep on the plane. We settled in, turned the air blowers on full, and pointed them over our shoulders to dispel the worst of the stench. And off we went – a little late.
Air France provided us with a newer plane than their Italian partners, a younger and more smartly turned out cabin crew and a bit more in the way of in-flight catering. A choice of beef and cream cheese or vegetarian rolls. Wine, beer, soft drinks and coffee. It was fine, but left me hankering after the good old pre-global recession and RyanAir days when even short-haul routes like this provided a choice of hot meals and didn’t charge for them (as so many carriers, including flag carriers like LOT, do nowadays).
The flight was good, and the pilot pointed out landmarks as we passed over them – Corsica was one, Mont Blanc, its snow covered peak jutting out of cloud cover, another, but we didn’t see them well because of our seats. But the sunset out of the window was lovely. We made up the time and arrived on schedule. I felt better about the airline – but not much. It was 8:00 p.m. and dark, and we should have been there for about 5 hours, and wandering the streets of Montmartre by now.
And we still had to get a train to Gare du Nord and find the hotel…...