by Luigi Vallero
PHOTOS: LUIGI VALLERO
Airline: Air Malta
Sectors: Malta-Luqa (IATA: MLA/ICAO: LMML) to Rome [Roma]-Fiumicino (FCO/LIRF), via Reggio Calabria (REG/LICR)
Aircraft: Boeing 737-300
I had booked this trip through the airmalta.com website two weeks before departure, at the reasonable rate of €107 ($140) including all taxes. On the day of departure I woke at 0345 for an 0555 departure, but the almost total absence of traffic at that time meant I was able to get to Luqa Airport within 15 minutes of leaving my hotel room in downtown Valletta.
Check-in took a matter of seconds as no other passengers were queuing, and I was issued my boarding pass by a courteous Italian-speaking Maltese lady. The early hour meant that security and passport control were also very quick, and I was in the airport’s comfortable waiting area, which was just stirring into life, by 0455.
Flight KM612 is Air Malta’s first departure of the day, linking the island state daily with FCO. This two-leg service enables the Maltese carrier to tap into the Italian domestic market, as the REG-FCO sector is open to local traffic and marketed as a code-share operation with Air One (Airways, July 2003).
Boarding of the fewer-than 90 passengers began at 0538, and we were quickly bused across the tarmac to our Boeing 737-300, sitting in company with four newer Air Malta Airbus A319s.
A formal welcome onboard was provided by a male cabin attendant; local newspapers were available upon entering in the galley area. The two-class cabin, in shades of light gray and blue, looked a bit old-fashioned but was very well maintained.
Clear announcements were made in Maltese, Italian, and English. Still in complete darkness at 0602—seven minutes later than STD—we were off blocks and heading toward the holding point of MLA’s longest runway for a northwesterly departure. Lifting off at 0608, and after an immediate turn to the northeast, we quickly overflew a still-sleeping Valletta.
Top of climb on this relatively short sector (MLA–REG is 166mi/267km) was reached after eight minutes, and we were over the southern Sicilian coastline three minutes later, with the first rays of dawn starting to appear over the horizon. Refreshments were offered: orange juice or water and apple-sultana bars—adequate for an early morning flight.
Before leaving Sicily, in the vicinity of Catania, the captain delivered a perfect tri-lingual announcement indicating an expected arrival time in REG within 20 minutes, and anticipating that passengers in transit to FCO would have to wait onboard for 45 minutes. Almost immediately afterward the letdown began, through mostly cloudy skies. The Calabrian coastline appeared as fast-rising, hilly land to the right of the aircraft. But the final part of the flight was the highlight of this sector, as the approach to REG requires considerable skill, the airport being located in a populated area surrounded by hills and mountains. Following the rising terrain with our path still almost at a right angle to the runway, the very final part of the landing required a curved, Kai Tak, Hong Kong-style approach (Airways, Jul/Aug 1994), to which marginal weather conditions tend to add some excitement. Strong braking action was required immediately after the wheels touched, and by 0647 we had reached the parking stand in front of the small terminal where two Alitalia McDonnell Douglas MD-80s (the morning departures to Milano and FCO) were beginning to board.
Approximately 25 passengers disembarked at REG, while the cabin crewmembers carefully checked the transit passengers by name, and verified that disembarking passengers had left nothing in the overhead bins.
Boarding of the 40 FCO-bound passengers was completed by 0715, and 18 minutes later we were on our way, taking off at 0738.
As soon as we had reached cruise altitude, cabin service started and passengers were offered a ham-and-cheese sandwich, with orange juice or water. Although a nice touch, the fact that almost nobody around me partook of the snack suggested that sandwiches were not appropriate for that time of day; a continental breakfast with hot drinks would probably have been preferable.
The flight continued mostly overland and in partly cloudy weather, with multilingual announcements from the cockpit keeping passengers informed. After a long approach, we landed at 0834, reaching our remote stand at 0845, ten minutes later than STA.
The experience was generally good, especially taking into account the fare paid. On both sectors Air Malta provided reliable, old-fashioned service with a communicative captain, although the flight attendants could have been less formal and the in-flight catering more apt.
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