Thursday, 26 July 2012

Highlights of KM614

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The 426 mile long air route between Malta and Rome is a highly lucrative sector with Air Malta, Alitalia and Easyjet offering multiple daily flights using A320 series aircraft. Alitalia was not considered as the fares were at least twice of what Air Malta and Easyjet were offering on this short regional flight and it was an inconvenient early afternoon departure from Malta. After much deliberation, we decided to pay about 10 Euros extra for Air Malta as it offered a later departure from Malta which allowed us to further optimise our time during the day.

Booking

The reservation for this sector was done on Air Malta's user-friendly website for a one-way flight to Rome. Unlike what we had managed to get for our inbound flight from Paris, there were unfortunately no substantial savings to be had when booking a return trip ticket for this sector. It came as no surprise when our booking was unsuccessful and we figured that a call to Citibank was all that was required to unblock the transaction. However, what followed was a very frustrating two weeks of e-mail exchanges to the customer care centre of Air Malta and repeated calls to Citibank regarding this issue. The bank had insisted that payment had been made to the vendor while the customer service officer refused to reply to my e-mails until one of us decided to drop a note on their Facebook wall!

It was eventually settled when Air Malta provided irrefutable proof about the non-payment and Citibank's concurrence before we attempted to re-book the tickets. Thankfully, the second attempt was successful and the fares remained constant (except that the EUR-SGD exchange rate had crept up slightly during the two weeks).

Getting to the Airport

After a quick detour to get a group photo in front of St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, we hauled our luggage from the hotel to a minibus which we had arranged earlier in the morning for the 5km journey to the airport. We had initially contemplated taking service 8 from the City Gate Bus Terminal to the airport, but the abundance of high floored buses in the form of Bedfords and AEC Swifts that were deployed on the route meant that there would be a certain amount of difficulty in storing our luggage on board the bus. Moreover, we had an unpleasant experience in getting off a fully packed AEC Swift on service 8 on the fourth day as navigating through the maze of luggage in the aisle required a fair amount of dexterity. This is now history as the new bus operator, Arriva Malta, had deployed low floor Citaro G articulated buses on the route. However, given that these buses were known to spontaneously burst into flames when they were operating in London (and hence acquired the unfortunate nickname "chariots of fire"), it remained to be seen how these buses would cope with the stifling summer heat in Malta!

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JGY 093 Peugeot Elite parked outside British Hotel.
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After a quick 20 minute ride, we were dropped off in front of the main terminal building at Malta Luqa (pronounced as Loo-ah) airport. The current terminal building was completed in March 1992 and replaced the 35 year old single storey structure which now served as a cargo terminal. It is interesting to note that the airport’s name is now a misnomer since the current terminal building and runway is closer to Gudja instead of Luqa.
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Check-In

The departure hall was deserted and a single check-in counter was open for our flight to Rome-Fiumicino. We were quickly checked in by a surly middle aged male check-in agent who seemed clearly disinterested and was keener on resuming his conversation with his female colleague who was manning the adjacent counter for the Munich flight. We had no issues checking in our luggage although we had exceeded the allowable baggage allowance of 20kg as some of us had earlier decided to ‘export’ a copious amount of Kinnie as a unique Maltese souvenir. Thankfully, we had given a proper Air Malta boarding pass for this sector but not all of us were given our baggage receipts. Our flight is also code-shared with Italy’s second largest domestic carrier, Meridiana as IG9214.
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Heading over to the Air Malta customer service counter at the back of the departure hall, some of us also decided to purchase an Air Malta A319 model which was on sale for 15 Euros each. I was delighted that in true Maltese fashion, we were given an obsolete B737-300 model instead of the A319 model that was displayed on the counter.

Air Malta’s inflight magazine ‘Skylife’, Air Malta 1:200 B737-300 aircraft model produced by Lupa Models of Netherlands, Air Malta Boarding Pass (clockwise from left)
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We noted from the flight board that our flight was delayed by half an hour, and thus decided to look for dinner options as only a snack would be served on board the short flight. The airport terminal building does not have a proper viewing mall but a restaurant located on the third floor offers decent view of the apron and the runway. However, it is backlit for most of the day and any aviation enthusiast should instead plan on taking a twenty minute walk from the terminal building to the excellent spotter’s platform which is located across the runway.
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We decided to seek other food options and proceeded to the Arrival Hall on the ground floor and was greeted with an elaborately decorated food court. Patrons had the choice of KFC, an Italian pizzeria, a fusion outlet which served Turkish and Asian cuisine as well as a British style pub to choose from. The bulk of us decided to indulge in fast food and was surprised to find that KFC only served the original fried chicken in Malta (we had expected a variant of crispy/spicy chicken to be available) and it was also presented in a paper bag instead of a cardboard tray elsewhere.
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The security check was quick and an escalator brought us to the second floor of the airport terminal building where an excellent view of the check-in concourse could be had. The layout of the rectangular terminal is functional, but otherwise unremarkable.
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All passengers were then channelled through a massive duty free shop before they could enter the transit area. Rows of traditional Maltese delicacies and racks of Kinnie and whisky arranged in an inviting manner tempted visitors to part with the last of their remaining Euros before they board their flight back home or for other destinations.
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Transit area. Non-schengen departures are handled in a separate section of the terminal where passengers are directed to undergo additional immigration formalities before boarding the aircraft. Giant Playmobil figurines can also be found in tourist offices around Malta and in the airport – one wonders what special relationship the prominent German toy manufacturer had with the Maltese authorities apart from Malta being one of the few places in the world with a specialized ‘Funstore’ to distribute these plastic toys.
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However, there are limited views of the apron and runway from the transit area as much of the view had been obscured by tall blast fences. In addition, the full length windows and doors were highly tinted to block out the intense Mediterranean sun.

The Flight

Boarding was called at 1815hrs and passengers were directed to walk on the ramp to the parked aircraft after cursory check of their travel documents.
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Airbus A319 9H-AEG ‘Mdina’ would be operating our flight to Rome this evening.
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Passengers were allowed to freely take photographs on the ramp as long as they stay within the marked boundaries. Rather than to prevent passengers from taking photos, the security officers were present instead to ensure the safety of passengers. It was simply a perfect arrangement from the enthusiast perspective!
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A last look at the distinctive terminal building of Malta International Airport.
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We were greeted by the friendly crew at the entrance and were offered a copy of The Malta Times at the doorway. Shortly after, boarding was completed and the crew apologized on the PA system for the flight delay and attributed it to the late arrival of the aircraft from its previous flight. The flying time was estimated to be 1hr 5mins with a cruise altitude of 28,000ft. Instead of pushing back, there was ample clearance for the narrowbody to start up her engines while parked at the stand and immediately execute an acute turn to taxi out towards the runway.

The airport authorities had tried in vain to increase the handling capacity of the airport by proposing to build a parallel taxiway to the runway, but had been met with fierce resistance from the residents of Gudja as it would inevitably involve the demolition of the local parish church. Aircraft would thus have to backtrack on the runway before executing a U-turn at the end when runway 31 is in operation. The local parish church situated along Triq Hal Far can be seen to the left of the photo.
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Anxious to make up for the delay, the crew commenced a powerful and satisfyingly short take-off roll and rotated steeply before the observation platform located midway along the 3,544m long asphalt runway. It would be certain that any enthusiast present would be able to obtain an excellent photo of our aircraft climbing out with the airport’s distinctive terminal building in the background. We had however, had to contend with aircraft making torturously long takeoff rolls during our spotting session at the platform.

Soon after the dizzying climbout, the northern region of Malta with the capital city of Valletta and the districts of Sliema and the Three Cities was in clear view from the right side of the aircraft.
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Following which, a steep right turn was executed to align the aircraft towards the north in the direction of the European subcontinent. It was way too soon that we had our last view of this fantastic and mesmerizing Mediterranean island where we had thoroughly enjoyed our past five days in. It would be certain to say that we would miss Malta, and fondly recount our experiences for a long time to come.
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We decided to try our luck asking for playing cards and postcards but it came as no surprise that these items had also became the victim of the airline’s aggressive cost-cutting exercise that are required to survive in these trying times. The overhead screens were also deployed to screen the Airshow channel throughout the flight, and the aircraft soon levelled out at a cruise altitude of 36,000ft over Sicily. Sicily is an active volcanic region and red ochre hills share the landscape amidst imposing volcanic cones in this geographically unique region. Red ochre had been mined since the prehistoric times and was regularly mined and shipped over to Malta then. The pigments played an important role in the Neolithic culture of Malta where they were used for ceremonial purposes and the creation of mystic subterranean drawings.
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The snack service commenced soon after and passengers were handed a neatly pre-packaged snack tray which consists of a marble cake, chicken sandwich with mayonnaise and a cup of mineral water. In addition, we had also made the correct decision of ordering a cup of Kinnie with ice in it this time around to avoid drinking an unchilled bitter concoction of cough syrup and carbonated water as we had on the inbound flight.
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The aircraft made a quick crossing of the Tyrrhenian Sea and soon overflew the western coast of Italy to follow a track parallel to the Pennine Mountains that run through the centre of the Italian peninsula.
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The crew started to begin their approach into Rome-Fiumicino Airport and executed a U-turn north of the airport. After the clear air of Switzerland and Malta, the amount of pollution in Rome was immediately evident as we descended into the thick layer of brown smog and was constantly buffeted by the low storm clouds as well.
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Rome-Fiumicino Airport is also known as Leonardo da Vinci Airport after the famed polymath who had also conceptualized a series of bizarre flying machines apart from producing a number of renowned paintings during his illustrious lifetime. The airport lies in the close proximity to the Tyrrhenian coast and the coastline could be seen throughout the final approach into runway 16R.
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The passengers were treated to an exceptionally smooth touchdown on a cloudy evening (see video below) and taxied past the newly constructed Pier C which primarily handled non-schengen long haul flights. The lengthy post-landing announcements were made in Maltese, Italian and English as views of Alitalia’s flagship B777-200ERs and Air China's A330-200 flashed past the windows.


Flightradar24.com is a very useful website which shows near-real time position of aircraft movements by receiving information from the ADS-B transponders on the aircraft. Users can also search up to 16 days of archived flight information, as we had done to retrieve the plot of our flight upon our return to Singapore.
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Schengen and regional flights were handled at Pier D of Terminal 3 at Rome-Fiumicino and soon came into view after a short taxi from the runway.
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Meridiana MD-82 EI-CRE was found parked at the remote stands. I would certainly wish to fly one of these unique ‘Mad-Dogs’ in the near future before they are retired from passenger service!
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We came to a complete stop at stand 505 (Gate D05) besides an Air Berlin B737-800 (D-ABBF) at 1958hrs and only 13 minutes behind the scheduled arrival time.
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Being seated directly above the aft cargo door, we had the unnerving experience of watching our luggage being brutally manhandled from the belt loader onto the luggage cart – this certainly makes one wonder why luggage handles and wheels are broken ever so often!
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As we had no further plans for the evening, we decided to be the last passengers to disembark from the aircraft to obtain a proper photo of the cabin. Needless to mention, the friendly Maltese crew obliged with our request to take a photo of the aircraft interior!
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It was a long walk from our gate to the baggage reclaim hall as we paused briefly to admire a scale model of the newly installed baggage handling system. Upon reaching the crammed hall, it was to our disgust that we discovered that our flight was
allocated one of the furthest belts. This meant that we had to backtrack across the busy and chaotic hall after we had collected our baggage as there was only one exit into the Arrival Hall. The only saving grace was that our baggage was already on the carousel when we had arrived and the bottles of Kinnie had survived the flight unscathed.
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From Rome-Fiumicino to Rome-Termini

Rome-Fiumicino Airport lies 35km to the west of the city and passengers have a number of options to get to the Eternal City from the airport. The cheapest option would be to take the local suburban train FR1 from the adjacent Trenitalia station but it involved a change to the metro line at Piramide Ostiense or Tuscolana. The next option would be a 65 minute ride on one of the several airport buses to Rome Terminii station.

The most convenient option however, was to take the direct Leonardo express from the airport to Rome Terminii station at a cost of 14 Euro for a single trip ticket. We decided to take the last option as we had our Eurail pass (a decision that would later cause a fair amount of frustration later during the trip) and only one of us had to purchase the single trip ticket.

The well marked signs from the arrival hall soon led us to a covered linkway and we were conveyed up a series of escalators to the expansive Trenitalia station concourse.
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Passengers are expected to validate their tickets at the validating machines located along the platform before boarding the train. Failure to do so would incur a hefty 100 Euro fine if one is caught by a ticket inspector during random ticket checks!
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The Leonardo Express runs every 30 minutes, and is guaranteed to operate even in the event of a railway strike. Although the service charges premium first class fare for the 35 minute journey, the antiquated UIC-X carriages are configured in a second class 2-2 layout instead and are hauled by a E464 series electric locomotive.
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The utilitarian interior of the UIC-X carriages are simply furnished with blue vinyl seats. The lack of an adequate storage space also meant that it could be a hassle walking through the narrow aisle with large pieces of luggage blocking the way.
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Being the main train station serving the capital of the country, the huge scale of Roma-Terminii can be daunting to first time visitors as platforms were staggered in order to maximise the amount of space available. Unfortunately, this meant that the Leonardo Express is designated one of the furthest platform from the main entrance of the station with the nearer platforms being allocated to the long distance cross country train services. Thus, we had to navigate a subterranean maze of tunnels and stairs before we were able to reach our hotel which is conveniently located opposite the station.

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