Reported by Enrique Perrella • Airways Magazine, June 2018
During my two-week vacation in Europe, our final destination was St. Petersburg, Russia. To get there the common European legacy carriers offered a myriad of flight and aircraft options via the typical hubs in Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or London that were too unappealing to my craving appetite.
Wishing to fly something different, exciting—and also cheap—I came across with an option that was hard to let go.
The award-winning Latvian low-cost carrier, airBaltic, offered the most attractive itinerary from Geneva (GVA) to St. Petersburg (LED), through a quick 40-minute connection at the airline’s base in Riga (RIX).
The selling point: having the opportunity to ride the Bombardier CSeries CS300 on the longest leg (GVA-RIX), and the Q400 on the flight to LED.
Booking the trip
airBaltic offers its customers numerous booking options: from the very basic fare to what they call Business Class.
Looking at the fare structures, I found that the ‘Premium Economy’ package would allow us to carry one checked bag (20kg) plus one carry-on (8kg), and also choose a seat in the front section of the aircraft. For that, the price was €167 total, versus a slightly cheaper €107 on the ‘Basic Economy’ fare.
The airline’s website is extremely friendly and easy to use. They display fare details in a very straightforward way, allowing one to purchase a ticket in less than five minutes.
I was not only able to book my two tickets rapidly but was also given the option to “finance” it via two equal payments at no extra cost.
airBaltic allows passengers to make two installments on its ticket payments and will send you reminders when the second payment is due. I found this to be incredibly clever, as it allows passengers to book their tickets, block the price, and pay the rest at a later date. I used that option and, frankly, appreciated it.
Another feature they offer is the ‘Refund in case of illness’ insurance. For only €5.99, sick passengers may get a full refund.
The booking process also shows a very pleasant seat map of both the CS300 and Q400 planes. The airline seems to be very proud of being a CSeries operator, as it advertises it through the entire booking process.
Once seats had been selected, airBaltic offers a myriad of in-flight meal choices.
The airline claims that if you pre-order a meal, it will be of much better quality than those offered on board. Prices for cold or hot pre-ordered meals range from €5 up to €15.
However, given that I was traveling by car before getting to GVA, I decided to skip this part and hope that whatever was going to be offered onboard was good enough to eat.
The day before our trip started, I received a notification from the airline inviting us to check-in via our smartphone. The process was equally friendly and seamless, downloading the digital boarding pass to my iPhone’s Passbook.
Given that I had three bags to check, I was able to purchase an additional bag slot for €33 on the airline’s website. This extra bag’s tag was immediately added to my digital boarding pass.
Geneva Airport: Not what I expected
We arrived at GVA three hours before our flight’s scheduled departure time of 19:00.
airBaltic’s check-in desks are located in Terminal 1 with all other major carriers. Thankfully, the airline chose this location instead of the low-cost Terminal 2, where airlines like easyJet and Ryanair are located.
airBaltic’s check-in agents belong to handling company data. The friendly lady who checked our luggage didn’t pay much attention to the bag’s weight, as most of her focus was on reviewing whether we had the necessary permits to enter Russia.
Once the bag tags were printed, the lady handed two printed boarding passes to both of us. We were then invited to go through security and wait until a gate was assigned.
Geneva’s terminals are small, cramped, and dated. This is not a friendly airport as its halls are terribly narrow, its ventilation is limited, and the overall feeling is stressful and uneasy.
Shops are confined one next to the other, and there’s not much sitting space available. Overall, a very disappointing airport that falls short of the usually high Swiss standards.
Thankfully, airBaltic lived up to its ‘most on-time airline in the world’ reputation, and the CS300 arrived 40 minutes before our SDT.
Boarding was called 20 minutes later, and, with much excitement, we walked down the jetway to hop on the 1.4 –year-old Bombardier CS300.
As we reached the L1 door, the first impression we had were the big CSeries titles printed on the floor. Immediately later, a broad, tall ceiling opens up, unveiling a spacious cabin with ultra large windows and light blue mood lighting.
The aircraft’s scent was still quite new, though the plane had been flying for a good 17 months already.
The CSeries features a very convenient seating layout of 2-3. Bombardier claims that the middle seat on the 3-side section is the widest in the industry, as well as the aisle, which, indeed, felt much broader than in any other plane I’d been on.
We reached our seats on the left side of the fourth row. Our two seats were spacious and had a very airy feeling to them, thanks to the large window the CSeries offers its passengers.
The slim-line seat is basic. No power ports, in-flight entertainment, or any particular feature other than a slight recline are available.
Each seat offers a generous 33” of pitch, and 18” of width. Even though airBaltic considers itself a true LCC, I must note that I’ve flown on legacy carriers (namely, Iberia and British Airways), where my knees end up hurting because they are hitting the front seat for a constant three hours of flying time. Here, on airBaltic, I was very comfortable.
Focusing on details, I noticed the passenger service units offer the typical light and air conditioning controls, as well as a neat, super-high-resolution mini-screen—the most attractive feature in this simplistic cabin.
The airBaltic safety video was played through the small screens, and it didn’t occur to me until I posted a quick 10-second video on Twitter, that the screens are too small for subtitles to be read efficiently. A fellow Twitter user complained about this, and I do believe he’s right.
Doors were closed three minutes ahead of SDT, and immediately after that, our plane pushed back from the gate.
At 19:02, we began a quick roll to the runway, lining up with the runway at precisely 19:06.
Roar, Pratt & Whitney!
Here comes the most exciting part of the CSeries experience: the engine’s roar.
This regional jet comes equipped with two massive Pratt & Whitney PW1500G, measuring 73 inches (1.85m) in diameter.
The engines are so large, that I could stand inside it and still have three centimeters of gap until my head hits the top of the engine’s cowling. This little plane looks like a mini Boeing 777 on steroids.
I then noticed this similarity with Boeing’s finest plane is not only visual but also audible. As the Captain of the flight spooled up the engines, a vibrant roar could be felt about the cabin, then thrusting up to max power, which translated into a soft hum that powered us down the runway in a steady, strong motion.
The CSeries lifts off the ground gracefully. My companion, who isn’t a seasoned traveler, commented, “it’s so silent! I could whisper while we take off and you could hear me!”
And true it was. The plane is indeed a silent, smooth marvel.
We climbed to 36,000ft on our way to Northeastern Europe, clearing some dense, wet clouds that covered the Geneva region.
As we reached cruising altitude, in-flight service began.
Two friendly, young flight attendants brought a cart offering drinks and snacks. At the time, it was almost 20:00, so we decided to order a few of the items displayed in the menu, and hoped for the best.
For €30 we ordered Latvian Lager Beer and a Coca-Cola as beverages; a Spanish Ham, Manchego Cheese, Olive platter; a Sweet & Sour Chicken and Rice plate; and a Fried Chicken Panini. The combo came with a three-pack of Ferrero-Rocher chocolates and a cup of coffee or tea.
Overall, the Spanish Ham platter was of excellent quality, though we found it a bit smaller than what the picture on the menu advertised. Secondly, the Sweet & Sour Chicken disappointed because three tiny pieces of chicken were floating around a broth of sticky sauce. And the Chicken Panini was of average quality.
Flavors, however, were all delicious.
As our flight progressed towards Eastern Europe, I went to explore the cabin and see, for myself, how wide the aisle really is.
To my surprise, I was able to walk from the front of the plane to the back with the flight attendants serving passengers in the rear section of the cabin. I was able to squeeze through the left side of the cart without effort—something Bombardier vividly advertised its CSeries could do.
When I got to the rear galley, I was impressed at the lavatory’s size. I was able to stretch my legs with the door closed, and even raise my knees without touching the walls. This lavatory is much bigger than several Business Class ones I’ve been on before.
The dark, intense blue mood lighted cabin was very comforting to the eye. The silent hum coming out of the engines made the overall flying experience a very calming one.
Arriving, Connecting, Sleeping
With a little less than 25 minutes of flying time, our Captain announced that we’d be landing in Riga three minutes ahead of schedule. The plane began its descent, and we approached, silently, Latvia’s main airport.
One thing I noticed during final approach is how smooth the fly-by-wire ailerons move. The aircraft was brought down over the runway with incredible ease, and once we touched down, a mighty reverse thrust roar invaded the cabin, making it a whole lot more exciting than any other regional plane I’ve flown before.
We reached the gate on-time, and with only 35 minutes to connect, I disembarked and walked to a gate that, according to the map, was 11 minutes away from my current position.
Our next flight was on the airline’s prolific Q400, which has become the backbone of the airline’s short-haul operation.
The second flight departed—and arrived—on time. Given the late night departure of 23:40, however, I fell asleep as soon as I hopped on the Q400, waking up seconds before touching down in freezing St. Petersburg.
My companion told me there was only a quick beverage service. Gladly, I didn’t miss much.
As we arrived at baggage claim, all bags were delivered despite the super short connecting time in Riga. I was impressed.
I would fly airBaltic and its fantastic Bombardier planes many times in the future. The only setback is that they don’t belong to an airline alliance and I take my mileage programs very dearly.
I understand that part of their success is to remain unique and not mingle with other carriers that can take away the efficiency that has made them so prolific. However, for frequent flyers like myself, earning miles is a perk that brings too many benefits.
But, for the point-to-point occasional traveler, looking to get from A to B on-time, served by young, enthusiastic flight attendants, on state-of-the-art airliners, and a very cool experience, airBaltic is the way to go.
Lastly, the one negative point I came across on both flights was the lack of in-flight entertainment.
airBaltic flies its CSeries planes from Riga to Abu Dhabi. That’s a six-hour journey with nothing more than their in-flight magazine available for passengers to devour.
WiFi would solve this problem. But for me, TV screens on every seat are irreplaceable. Think about that, airBaltic.
Other than that, this airline made me smile. And I can’t wait to fly them again.