Published in June 2015 issue

By Christopher Varady

During a buying spree across Europe, one of Etihad Airways’ (EY) investments salvaged the struggling JAT Yugoslav Airlines, transforming it into Air Serbia (JU). By the time it first flew in October 2013, the re-branded Air Serbia took to the skies with a new name and livery, and plenty of press hype to go with it. Airways recently booked a business class flight to the Middle East to find out whether the airline’s new product lived up to the initial hype and expectations.

Purchasing the ticket directly on the Air Serbia website was efficient and simple, with no more than a few easy steps needed to complete the process. I appreciated that, for each route, the website showed prices for a full week before and after my choice of date, allowing me to modify my schedule to save money. On the day I bought my ticket, the website featured a news story about the airline reporting its first full year of operations with a net profit of €2.7 million. Can high service standards and profits actually co-exist in Europe?

CHECK-IN

Commonly known as Rinas International Airport, Tirana’s Mother Theresa International (TIA) is Albania’s only commercial terminal. Originally built in 1957, an international consortium constructed a new passenger terminal in 2007. The result is a compact, miniature, but surprisingly uncrowded airport, efficient and easy to use. No one was in line at the check-in desk, so I was able to walk directly up to the agent and receive my boarding pass in less than a minute. I similarly passed through the security and immigration checks without anyone else in line.

TIA’s business lounge had been completely renovated since my last trip, and the result is a calming environment with trees, plants, and a natural color palette, offering travelers a peaceful and classy loft above the main terminal area. While the airport itself is small enough to make passengers feel relaxed, the ambience of the business lounge, along with the overall quality of service, puts them further at ease.

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BOARDING

The boarding announcement was made only 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time. At Gate 4, again only a handful of customers were in line for the flight to Belgrade, and the waiting time took no more than a minute or so.

All flights in TIA are boarded through buses, even though the walking distance to the plane is often shorter than the walk between the gates in most international airports. We took the bus for a short 100 meters (330 feet) ride and boarded the aircraft. Known as the land of the eagles, TIA has the country’s famed mountains as a backdrop and almost mentally prepares one for flight. Boarding was completed in a matter of just moments as the Airbus A319 was only about half full. Normally, Air Serbia uses its ATR72s on the Tirana-Belgrade route, whose capacity is more appropriate to the economics of the route, but I was pleased nevertheless to fly a jet on today’s flight.


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FLIGHT

One does not have high expectations for a 45-minute segment; however, Air Serbia began to impress me right away. The aircraft’s business class cabin had only two rows, but the large, gray seats were inviting and the cabin was surprisingly intimate. One of the two flight attendants serving the eight-seat cabin brought each passenger a hot towel even before the forward boarding door had been closed. We taxied to the runway and held for a moment to allow an Adria Airways (JP) Airbus A320 to land.

Our take-off roll was quick, ascending southward and then making a 180-degree turn north. Before the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign was switched off, two flight attendants quickly brought out a tray of canapés and offered beverages. Cheese, salami, and three types of mini-sandwiches were served—tasty snacks in just the perfect quantity for the short flight. By the time I had finished the snack, we had already begun our descent.

Transit in Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport (BEL) was easy. It was only a short walking distance from the C4 gate, where we had arrived, to the business lounge. The lounge itself is small and without windows, as it occupies an area removed from the building’s exterior walls. While tastefully decorated and spacious, it is neither unique nor remarkable in any way. The catering was, in fact, less appealing than it had been in Tirana, with cold cuts and cheeses on display, besides the typical range of alcoholic beverages, but not much else. I settled in to the oversized leather chairs for my seven-hour layover with plenty of work to do to while away the time. In fact, I immediately felt that the airport itself was a weak point in Air Serbia’s effort to sell itself as a five-star airline: while the shops and cafés have been refurbished, the airport building itself is a bit dark and crowded, lacking any features to make passengers feel relaxed or calm.

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BOARDING TO BEIRUT

By the time my Beirut flight was boarding, at 23:00, most of the airport had already closed for the night, nearly all flights having departed, and only one café was still open. Each gate has its own security check, so I passed through the formalities before taking a seat in the boarding area.

When the flight was called, I was the first in line and walked straight to the aircraft. The purser welcomed me aboard, and informed that I was the only passenger in business class for the flight, so I could choose any seat. After settling into seat 2A, I observed the purser checking the boarding passes of the other passengers and directing them to find their seats. I appreciated that she was welcoming to all passengers, taking the time to direct them personally.

The two-and-half-hour trip to Beirut is one of the longer flights in Air Serbia’s network (the longest is a nonstop to Abu Dhabi, where passengers are fed into Etihad’s worldwide network). Even before our pushback, the two flight attendants serving business class had stopped by my seat several times. They had offered me a blanket, taken my jacket, brought me the menu, and taken my meal order.

Immediately after takeoff, the purser asked me whether I would have liked to eat at the beginning or at the end of the flight, to make best use of the flight time for a nap. I elected at eat at the beginning and chose the chicken option, which was served on one tray. For starter, there was smoked beef served with cherry tomatoes and saffron potato, on a green bean salad. The main course was chicken medallions filled with spinach and served with a yellow pepper and sage risotto. It came with a sesame-coated mozzarella ball and pesto sauce.

After taking my tray, the flight attendant asked whether I would have liked her to keep the lights on or turn them off. After I had settled in for a nap, she went aft to help her colleagues in economy class, but I noticed her passing through business class every 20 minutes or so to check on me.

ARRIVAL

Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International (BEY) is entirely nondescript, but quite efficient. After swiftly passing through immigration, I quickly collected my luggage and was out of the terminal no more than 20 minutes after leaving the aircraft. Living close to the city center, it took me one hour from disembarking to get home.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS

At its launch in 2013, many were skeptical about a five-star airline product’s chances to really work in Europe. Was Etihad just throwing money around? Or could it be a positive force to bring quality back to the skies of Europe? If its investment in Air Serbia is an indication, it has been a resounding success.

Firstly, the business class large seats were comfortable. With most European airlines opting for one-class seating layouts (just leaving the middle seat empty in business class), Air Serbia’s configuration is welcoming and delivers value for money. However, the airline can claim that the real reason behind its success lies in its staff. Any frequent traveler will agree that an attentive and caring staff is the most important part of a flight. While all the touches of a top-notch airline—from food to other amenities—were present in the Air Serbia product, the attentiveness of the flight attendants was certainly on a par with that found in the likes of Etihad. In the current European shorthaul market, Air Serbia is in a class entirely to itself.