Wednesday, December 23, 2009

(No.70) To Europe a different way

What is the 'best' way ( the easiest/cheapest/most pleasant) to fly to Europe from Canada, specifically from Toronto? Many travellers have a favourite airline and route to Europe based on one or more factors, often including how much they shudder at the prospect of landing at Heathrow or Charles DeGaulle.

Pat and I had done trans-Atlantic flights more than a dozen times with various airlines, landing in London (Heathrow), Edinburgh, Paris (DeGaulle), Amsterdam and Vienna. We recently used an airline new to us: Jet Airways, a large Indian airline that flies from Toronto to Brussels Belgium on its way to Mumbai and Delhi in India.

Jet Airways has done little or no advertising in Toronto's newspaper travel sections and has a low profile. We found its prices to be very competitive. From Brussels one can get a direct flight to almost any significant European destination using Brussels Airlines with which Jet Airways has a relationship which (while not a code share) permits the checking of luggage through from Toronto to a final European destination via a Brussels Airlines flight (in our case it was to Malaga Spain).

Jet does not issue boarding passes at its Toronto check -in for use in Brussels on a connecting flight with Brussels Airlines but one can go online with Brussels to pick a seat and print a boarding pass within 24 hours of the connecting flight out of Brussels airport.

Jet Airways was using an Airbus 330-220 on our flight from Toronto with 2 seat configurations on each side of the 4 seat middle row. We were favourably impressed with this airline, specifically the seat and leg space for economy passengers, the promptness and quality of the cabin staff, passenger service and food. Even the passenger noise in the cabin (which of course the airline can't calibrate) seemed noticeably quieter than what one has come to expect on such fully booked flights. Jet Airways was markedly superior to Air Canada measured by all our indices although other longtime AC passengers may regard our compliment as damning with faint praise given the point of comparison.

Brussels airport is large and its Concourse A is new, pleasant, spacious and, for passengers waiting for a flight, a very pleasant contrast with Heathrow and DeGaulle. Brussels Airlines flies mainly to European and African destinations and seems well organized and efficient. However be warned: this airline gives away nothing to passengers, not even a glass of water. For example: a cup of instant coffee costs 2 Euros on the plane.

Overall we thought that Jet Airways and Brussels Airlines are both a pleasant contrast with current North American flights and service by many if not most North American-based airlines. Moreover our flights actually left on time and arrived early.

On our flights from Toronto to Malaga Spain via Brussels we experienced only two negatives worth mentioning:

1. In Brussels airport, in order to get from Concourse B where we disembarked to Concourse A where we boarded our connecting flight, we had to clear EU Passport Control. This took over an hour (fortunately we had left lots of connection time for our flight out of Brussels). This delay was caused by a mob of several hundred people, well-behaved but a mob nonetheless, which backed up at Passport Control waiting for processing and trying to figure out where specific lines might be forming (there were none indicated beyond a few feet back from the EU booths). A herd of cats would have been better organized than this aspect of the Brussels airport. Advice: to be on the safe side leave a minimum of 2 hours for any flight connection in Brussels.

2. Jet Airways had overbooked its flight out of Toronto and when we attempted to check in for our flight (and we did so quite early) we were redirected without explanation to a Jet agent whose assignment apparently was to try to persuade passengers like us with confirmed and reserved seats to fly to their destinations with a different airline(s) and/or even a different route and/or flight time(s). We declined although by the time the agent conceded defeat in persuading us to give up our seats the incentive offered to us to do so had gradually increased from meal vouchers to $250 each.

But these are minor points on a trip involving 10 hours flying time with an airline change at a second airport. Bottom line: the flights and the travel experience were better than average, the flights were on time and no luggage was lost. In these days of commercial flying as an endurance test one cannot really ask for much more than that.

Henceforth we will consider Jet Airways (with a Brussels Airlines connection if needed) for any flight to Europe as well as Brussels airport as a more appealing European entry point than Heathrow or DeGaulle.

Alastair Rickard