Published in August 2015 issue
It would be a trip to remember: a photo safari in Tanzania, on the legendary Serengeti plains, just south of the equator on the eastern coast of Africa. My assignment was to capture compelling images of the big cats—lions, leopards, and cheetahs—and African birds for a future article.
By K.D Leperi
For much of the journey, I rode KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) and found that, while the luggage handling gave me headaches on my return, the booking prices were a good deal, and the inflight service and award-winning food were quite good.
Since booking can sometimes get confusing with the differences in time zones and in actual days, I opted to use a travel agent so that she could choose my economy seats and relieve me of the need to do simple math. Later, I would ask her to upgrade me to Economy Comfort (EC) on my KLM return flight from Kilimanjaro (JRO) to Amsterdam (AMS), the longest leg of my journey. The price was $130.24—quite a bargain as the euro continues to tumble against the US dollar.
I started in Albuquerque (ABQ) and connected with a Delta 747 flight from Atlanta (ATL) to AMS, where I arrived in the early morning. I had about three hours before KLM flight KL 569, an Airbus A330-200, was to leave from AMS to JRO. I took advantage of the hour of free WiFi available at Schiphol, not knowing whether I would get any coverage once in Tanzania.
As I boarded the aircraft, several complimentary newspapers were available, including the International New York Times. Once inside the airplane and after locating my seat, I found the overhead storage to be ample, though a tad too high for access by height-challenged individuals like me. I asked a tall passenger for assistance, and he willingly obliged.
FASHIONABLE FLIGHT ATTENDANTS
The Flight Attendants (FA) were stylishly decked out in powder blue uniforms that quintessentially remind you of the Dutch Delft blue-and-white tiles. It is an iconic look that definitely helps with KLM’s product and service world recognition and branding. Created by Dutch designer Mart Visser and introduced in 2010, they are the first new uniforms for the airline in over 20 years. That day, the women were sporting a slim powder blue skirt with matching vest and a white short-sleeved shirt accented with a scarf tied around the neck.
We rolled down the taxiway for takeoff about 15 minutes behind our scheduled 10:15 departure. Our journey would be of 6,907km (4,292 miles). Later in the flight, the pilot spoke over the PA system to inform that it is KLM policy to always have two people in the cockpit (this was right on the heels of the March 25 incident involving the Germanwings Airbus A320 that was deliberately crashed in the French Alps, killing all 150 on board).
Once we were airborne and above 10,000 feet, the FAs handed out headsets (an upgraded version over those in Economy) and eye masks.
ALL ABOUT THE SEATS
The Airbus A330-200 seats a total of 332 passengers. World Business Class (WBC) offers 30 seats, while EC has 39 and Economy 175. The seating configuration throughout economy is two-four-two. My EC seat, 10A, offered extra legroom, thanks to the bulkhead partition separating the cabin from WBC. The only downside was that I was sitting in a window seat that was missing a window.
The EC seats on the A330-200 each present a 35”pitch, versus the 31” found in regular Economy. Width is 17.5”, the same in both steerage classes.
Unfortunately, the economy seats in A, D, F, G and J have limited foot space due to the underseat being blocked with video equipment.
The entertainment system consists of a screen in the back of the seat in front of you. In my case, I had a rather smallish screen that lifted from the armrest. However, the interactive remote is on the left side of each seat—making it difficult to reach because of the tight fit on the waist. Once you maneuver into a side position, you can eject the remote by pushing on a button, thus extending it, as it is connected by a cable. This setup is awkward and outdated.
The movie selection was also dated, and I therefore decided to forgo the movie options and merely listen to background music, hoping I might get some shut-eye. The classical music selection definitely helped.
AIRLINE FOOD WITH A DUTCH ACCENT
KLM has an excellent reputation for food that is not only abundant but also tasty. Recently, 550 travelers and bloggers were selected by Skyscanner to test the various airline food offerings. KLM was voted the best inflight catering airline in Europe for long-haul flights.
Only 25 minutes into the flight, we were served a snack of smoked almonds and a choice of drinks. The alcoholic beverage choices included wine, beer, spirits, cognac and liqueurs.
After about an hour, lavender-scented and moistened hot towels were offered to all passengers before the meal. The meal choices were either Chicken Biryani or Pennette Arrabbiata with bell pepper sauce and cheese. I chose the latter, a vegetarian alternative, and found it to be quite tasty. Each entrée choice included an Oriental cucumber salad, Beemster cheese and crackers, a roll and butter, and lime mousse with berries. The cutlery included a dental pick—a nice detail. All meals and snacks featured Delft paper placemats in attractive Dutch patterns of blue and white.
A snacking service was available between meal service and featured tidbits in the gallery throughout the flight. Included were savory or sweet biscuits and chocolate or candy. About halfway through the flight, a movie snack of ice cream and water was served. After that, most passengers fell asleep.
A light hot meal called “Bella Italia” was served prior to arrival and included a Caprese salad of tomato and cheese, and a Margherita pizza with tomato and basil, and finished with a delightful tiramisu—the Italian coffee-flavored dessert. Hot rolls and premium gourmet Dutch cheese were included. My take on the pizza was that, while the ingredients were tasty, the fact that it had been microwaved caused it to stick to the box, making it difficult to cut into slices.
The FAs were responsive and efficient, with a carefully spaced and timed service designed to meet most passenger needs. They were professional and courteous, but with the aloofness that characterizes many northern countries. Their name tags did not show names but rather their titles, such as Senior Purser. My feeling was that this contributed to some of the distance—an artificial barrier, you might say.
As we approached Kilimanjaro, with its namesake peak on the right side of the aircraft, it was too late and dark to see the shy mountain. Even during the day, the mountain is often enveloped in cloud cover.
Once inside the airport terminal, it was apparent that we were the only aircraft arriving at that hour. The terminal appeared small and rustic, so I was expecting an inordinate wait time for being processed through immigration. But I was proved wrong; as I had acquired my Tanzania visa prior to my flight, I was able to go directly to the dedicated line, where they processed me and took my righthand imprint. This is where you must relinquish two forms that require essentially the same information. The whole operation took about 10 minutes, as I was one of the first to deplane.
I located my luggage and was met by my photo guide. Since one of the individuals in our party was told that her luggage was still in AMS, I passed the time by accessing the free WiFi while she filed a report.
Arusha is the major city by JRO and is known for natural wonders that include Mount Kilimanjaro and the Ngorongoro Crater—a world heritage site—as well as being the starting point of many safaris headed to the Serengeti.
My time in Tanzania, and in particular on the migratory plains of the Serengeti, was one of those bucket-list, life-altering experiences. After a two-week safari, where I experienced many ‘up close and personal’ encounters with the likes of elephants, lions, cheetahs, zebras, giraffes, hippos and East African birds, I found myself wanting to stay under African skies rather than head back home.
RETURN FLIGHT: KL 531
It was time to return. The check-in process at JRO involved dropping off luggage at the KLM desk and filling out a yellow form which was collected prior to security, whichy consisted of old-style metal gates that were easily sensitized by anyone with metal implants, such as knee or hip replacements. That was my case, and I was selected to endure the infamous pat-down procedure.
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PRE-BOARDING THE AIRBUS A330-200
KLM’s boarding procedure is highly visible, with signs that spell out the color codes and priorities. Security issues colored dots that denote your boarding sequence. Blue is for wheelchairs, SkyPriority, and families with children. Next is red for the rear section, followed by green for the middle. Yellow dots are for the front of the plane. My EC ticket sported a yellow dot.
Economy Comfort is designated by blue nubby seats with orange cloth headrests. My travel agent had confirmed seat 14H prior to leaving the US and had said that I needed to prepay for EC. I had given her my credit card information to seal the deal for a premium of $130.24.
However, when I looked at my ticket, I noticed that the system had assigned me 24B, a seat that was not EC, and that someone was already seated in 14H. Confused and wondering about the premium I had pre-paid, I brought the matter to the attention of the FAs. They were preoccupied with serving WBC, so it was only moments before the seatbelt sign turned on that they informed me that I was re-assigned to seat 11B for the hour-long flight to Dar es Salaam (DAR). The seat next to me was empty, so I was happy with the temporary resolution.
I reached into the seat-back pocket to review the airplane configuration and emergency exits, but the placard was missing. I looked in the pocket of 11A and the placard was missing there as well. As this is a critical component and required on all airlines, I reported it to an attendant. She merely retrieved a placard from another seatback and gave it to me.
Takeoff was smooth and the flight was short. After landing in DAR, we were told to stay on the plane during the brief layover while the plane was being refueled and vacuumed. I was instructed to retake my original seat at 24B. That was when I heard the speaker announce that the crew was deplaning and a new one was coming on board. I decided that it was time to find my email and show the local station manager that I was confirmed for EC. His response was arrogant and curt. He demanded a receipt and would not accept my travel agent confirmation. Clearly there is a glitch with the connectivity of KLM and Delta regarding upgrades. Eventually— and despite much insistence on my part—I was reseated in Economy and was offered a choice of either 16A or 16B. Settling in, I looked for the safety card but, much to my surprise, there was again no placard in either seat back.
The FAs on the leg from DAR to AMS were extremely professional and courteous. Apparently, they had been briefed about my displeasure about my paid EC seat being given away, and they went out of their way to make sure that my needs were met. For that, I was most appreciative.
The actual flight time to AMS was eight hours and 50 minutes, including that one-hour vacuuming and cleaning stop in DAR. We had left JRO at 20:40, too dark for any sightings of Mount Kilimanjaro. Known as the mountain in the clouds or the shy mountain, it is not unusual to never see its mountaintop despite visiting Tanzania several times.
Once again, the TV was in the back of the seat. The Quick Menu allows you to select flight tracking, movies, TV, or music. The Main Menu gives you options for entertainment, kids, flight tracking, info, apps, and in touch.
OVERALL KLM EXPERIENCE
Unfortunately, and besides the airline system giving away my prepaid EC seat on my return leg from JRO to AMS, I experienced several other hiccups with my KLM flights. My checked in baggage went missing in Atlanta, my gateway airport for US immigration and customs. The luggage was nowhere to be found on the baggage carousel. It eventually took five days before it was delivered to me in Albuquerque. On the other hand, I was quite surprised to find all the contents in place with nothing compromised despite the amount of time it had remained exposed to public access.
I also remain disturbed by the lack of safety placards in four different seat backs, in particular the one flight attendant’s response of just pulling a placard from another seat back to give to me. However, the food on my flights long-haul segments was tasty and plentiful, and the service was stellar.