Golden beaches surrounded by lush vegetation. The Seychelles are 88 islands of tropical paradise situated in the western part of the Indian Ocean, approximately midway between India and Madagascar.
With a population of around 100,000 scattered around the 36 inhabited islands, The Seychelles is considered to be smallest country in the world boasting a national airline. Created in 1978, Air Seychelles (HM) developed a quite impressive European, African and Asian network during the 1980s and 1990s, serving up to 15 destinations in 13 countries.
Things changed at the end of the first decade of the 2000s. As a consequence of the global economic crisis and high fuel prices, the once profitable carrier began to record losses.
In 2013, salvation arrived from Gulf carrier Etihad Airways (EY), who stepped in buying 40% of the stake. The first consequence of the partnership was the drastic cut of the network. All European destinations were put to an end, placing Abu Dhabi (AUH) as the mandatory stopover between the islands and the Old Continent.
But the French-speaking archipelago could not remain without a direct connection to Paris for long. The once daily service was resumed in July 2015 with three weekly flights operated by Airbus A330-200s. These were introduced to replace the ageing Boeing 767s used during the previous two decades on long-haul flights.
Besides the 45 million euro investment, the partnership with Etihad granted Air Seychelles other benefits, like access to its passengers to the Etihad’s Guest frequent flyer program (FFP) and to Etihad’s lounges around the world.
As the islands lay almost on the equator, the weather is hot year-round with only a little more rain during the northern hemisphere winter. To the European tourists they offer the additional comfort of a time zone that is just three hours forward when compared to CET.
Paris – Mahè
Flight HM 017
From Northern Italy, Paris Charles De Gaulle (CDG) is the easiest gateway. The journey time through the French capital to Mahè International airport (SEZ) is around twelve hours approximately, two hours less than the flight via Abu Dhabi.
Having collected enough miles with Etihad Guest, I decided to upgrade my CDG-SEZ flight to Pearl Class, so to arrive in better shape for my week-long holiday.
In the early afternoon of a foggy autumn day in Milan, I headed to Malpensa Airport (MXP) Terminal 2 to catch an EasyJet (U2) flight to Paris CDG. At the French hub U2’s flights dock at Terminal 2C, one of the four “original” buildings opened in the early 1970s. Despite being dated and undersized for today’s traffic, these four terminals (2 “A, “B, “C, and “D”) have been upgraded with French-style décor, beautiful shops, bars and restaurants, and offer a fairly good traveler experience.
After landing, I collected my luggage and I reached terminal 2B via an underground walkway, where HM’s check-in desks are located. I started to enjoy my Pearl Class experience by avoiding the long queue of economy class passengers. Being the only customer at the single business class desk, I was on my way to the Etihad lounge barely two minutes later, located at the upper floor of the terminal.
Like at any other airports in the world, mid-afternoon at CDG is a low-traffic hour. So, despite the upgraded security measures, security and passport controls were quick and stress-free.
EY’s lounge has everything an upper class passenger can ask for: a five-star restaurant for proper dining, a drink and snacks self-service bar, a fully furnished business center, Wi-Fi, two prayer rooms, and showers. As soon as I settled in one of the sofas of the beautifully decorated salon, a waiter passed by to ask if I wished something to eat or drink.
Being in France, I opted for a glass of champagne, helping myself with some cheese and patè at the buffet. To aviation enthusiasts, the lounge offers the additional benefit of a great view over the apron and the two southern runways. In the distance, you could even glimpse the Tour Eiffel.
Boarding was called half an hour before STD, when a lounge agent came to invite me to proceed to the gate. A five-minute walk took me to A43, where Air Seychelles’ Airbus A330-243 “Aldabra” (S7-ADB, a nine year-old former Jet Airways aircraft) was parked.
Boarding from door 2A, I was greeted by the purser, who escorted me into the cozy Pearl Class cabin and to my window seat, 2K. The thing that immediately shocked me was the enormous seat pitch distance. HM chose a 2+2+2 layout, which is a bit diminutive if compared to the 1+2+1 of many contemporary business classes.
But what you lose in seat width and privacy (particularly if you travel alone, which is not so common to a destination like the Seychelles), you gain in seat pitch: an impressive 82”. To give you an idea, if you wanted to take the inflight magazine or the safety instruction card in the seat pocket in front of you, you actually have to stand up and walk a couple of steps. The result is that the Pearl Class cabin accommodates only 18 passengers, which adds in exclusivity even when it’s sold out as it was on the day of my flight.
After settling down on my seat, one of the blue-dressed flight attendants came by with a welcome drink and a hot towel presented on a small wood tray. Enjoying the second glass of champagne of the day, I took a look at the elegant dinner menu. The selection of the day included smoke magret duck breast or creole marinated prawns as starters; grilled chicken breast with basmati rice, carrots and a spicy sauce or pan-seared salmon with potato and beetroot mash or linguini pasta with spicy tomato sauce topped with goat’s cheese and rocket as entrees; banana and passion fruit served with raspberry coulis and chocolate garnish or a seasonal fresh fruit salad for dessert.
As the FA came to my seat to take the order, I specified that I am allergic to garlic, and she suggested to me the duck breast and the grilled chicken as the garlic-free options. From the wine list, that included three whites and three reds with ample descriptions of each bottle, I selected a 2012-vintage “La Reserve Claret” Bordeaux. Taking advantage of the “dine on demand” formula offered in Pearl Class, I chose to have my dinner served at 19.30, approximately one hour after take-off.
The FA asked if I could also order my breakfast and I opted for the waffles served with pan-fried cinnamon banana, cooked red fruits, maple syrup and fresh cream discarding the herb scrambled eggs with smoked turkey, roasted potatoes and baked beans.
Door closing was followed by a procedure that is typical if you are traveling to remote islands (like the Seychelles or Maldives) or to Australia, the FAs passing all along the cabin with a disinfectant spray. After pushback, the two Rolls Royce Trent 772B engines were started at 18:05 and five minutes late we were slowly taxiing to the head of 26R, one of the two parallel runways situated on the southern side of CDG.
At 18:25 we lifted off for what the captain had previously described as a 9 hours 40 minute-long flight.
Waiting for the dinner, I had time to explore the seat. Notwithstanding the vast space in front of me, I noticed that the places to stow personal belongings were limited to a small compartment in front of the seat that could hold a pair of shoes only. Using the electric commands, I could control backrest inclination, lumbar support, height of the seat and position of the legrest. Or I could choose one of the pre-selected positions: “Upright” (for take offs, landings and dining), “Cradle” (good to rest or read), or “Bed”, the in full flat mode.
The “massage” function apparently didn’t work. On my left, at the height of my head, there was a personal reading light. The dining table was stowed in the right armrest, while a compartment in the left armrest had a set of noise-insulating headsets and a (very) small vanity kit containing socks, eye mask, ear plugs, toothpaste and a brush. A quite modest offering for business class (on the return flight I found out that it was the same kit offered in economy).
The 10.4” personal video screen came out from the front part of the left armrest. As soon as I switched it on, I realized that there wasn’t any airshow to follow the progress of the flight. Quite disappointing for any aviation enthusiast.
Little consolation I had inspecting the Inflight Entertainment System (IFE): the “movies on demand” were a little more than 30 titles and the music section was quite limited too. “Silhouette” inflight magazine, named after one of the islands of the archipelago and published three times a year, was very interesting with its beautiful photos and rich articles about nature and wildlife in the Seychelles.
Aside the usual airline, fleet and network information, it also contained a section with the maps of the major islands plus tourist hints.
Dinner was preceded by another glass of Charles De Cazanove Tradition Brut Tete De Cuvee glass of champagne (the third of my day) accompanied by a small dish of delicious French fries. After deploying the table, the FA covered it with a white linen.
The food, which was garlic-free as promised, was served in beautiful white bone china, the Bordeaux poured from the bottle into a long stem glass. The smoked duck, accompanied by a crispy salad, was very tasteful, the chicken incredibly tender and juicy, the fruit salad very well presented.
The more than satisfying dinner was closed by a service of tea and coffee, after which hot towels and bottles of mineral water were distributed. Cabin lights were dimmed, window shades closed. Having no particular interest for the IFE, I set the seat into the “Bed” position, wrapped myself in the soft azure duvet supplied to each passenger, and enjoyed a five hour-long sleep.
A little before 6.00 a.m. Seychelles time, an FA gently woke me up with a smile and the breakfast that I had ordered a few hours before. The waffles, accompanied by yogurt, toasted bread, croissants, marmalade, fruit salad and a cup of English breakfast tea were a delicious way of starting the day.
Outside, thick layers of clouds covered the Indian Ocean and the descent into SEZ was so bumpy that the cockpit crew switched on the “fasten seat belt sign” one hour before landing (so, no morning toilet trip!). Fifteen minutes before landing we overflew Bird island, the northernmost of the archipelago with its exclusive resort and the grass strip of the airport clearly visible in the light of the dawn. Final approach into SEZ is very spectacular if you are seated (as I was) on the right side of the plane because descent follows the conformation of Mahe island, a few hundred meters from its steep hills.
Landing, which occurred at 6:50, was like touching down on an aircraft carrier, the 9,800 ft (2,987 m) long – 13/31 orientated runway being built on reclaimed land over the coral reef. Having the airport no taxiway, we had to backtrack to the terminal, where we parked beside a fleet of three HM’s Twin Otters, ready to commute long-haul arriving passengers to Praslin and other resort islands.
At SEZ, airplanes are parked nose-in but there are no jet bridges so that arriving passengers enjoy a short walk to the tiny terminal building. The 80°F (26°C) at 7:00 a.m. were the best welcome into the Seychelles.
But before disembarking, and as an aviation enthusiast, I still had to know our route and altitude during the flight. Normally this information is supplied by airshow on the IFE, but this was not the case. So, I asked the purser if the pilots could provide me that info.
A couple of minutes later, the FO came to my seat with his laptop, showing the entire route of our flight: in the dark of the night we had crossed Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Albania, the Greek island of Crete, Egypt from Marsa Matrouh on the Mediterranean Sea to Abu Simbel and Sudan.
To minimize time overflying dangerous Somalia, we kept proceeding south until Addis Ababa before turning 45° left. Time spent over the Indian Ocean was about 90 minutes, and our initial altitude was 35,000 ft, then 37,000 reaching the top at 39,000 over Ethiopia. The total flight time was 9 hours 25 minutes.
Paris – Mahè
Flight HM 016
Seven days later I was back at Mahè International Airport. The main characteristic of SEZ is its check-in area outdoors. An arrangement that can be quite uncomfortable during the day with temperatures well over 90°F (32°C). But it’s exotic and charming at night, when most of the long-haul departures are scheduled, including my flight to Paris, HM016, scheduled for a 22:10 departure.
I showed up at the Economy class desks two hours before, to discover that the majority of passengers to Paris had already checked-in and the queue was limited to a dozen travelers.
After getting my boarding pass, I proceeded to security and passport controls, which were as quick and easy as the check-in. Having experienced the congestion during boarding at SEZ at peak hours in a stopover on my way to Mauritius a few years before, I paid 30 euros to access “Salon Vallee de Mai”, the lounge reserved to premium passengers leaving the Seychelles.
The money was well spent: in the interval between 21:30 and 22:30 three departures (HM’s to Paris and Mumbai plus Emirates to Dubai) were scheduled, and the main departure hall was overcrowded. Inside the “Salon” I found a calmed environment, comfortable seating, Wi-Fi, a buffet with hot and cold snacks and excellent French wines.
After taking a shower and changing to my winter clothes, I enjoyed a light dinner while inspecting the preparation of A330-243 “Aldabra” for the flight back to Paris through the ample windows of the lounge.
Twenty minutes before STD, boarding was called, and I separated myself from the Pearl Class passengers to join the economy class crowd. My seat, 9H, was on the right side of the plane. When I fly overnight, I prefer an aisle seat to stand up and go to the toilet or take a walk along the corridor, even if my seat companion falls asleep. HM’s economy cabin was in the 2+4+2 layout (for a total of 236 seats) typical of the A330s and A340s.
The Recaro seats, covered with dark blue upholstery, had a 32” pitch and proved to be one most comfortable I ever experienced in economy class on long haul flights in terms of shape, lumbar support and headrest. Each was provided with a vanity kit identical to the one offered in Pearl Class, a blue blanket, a pillow and a 9” touchscreen with the same IFE as in business class.
Again, there was no airshow, but during the flight, in the heart of the night, looking out of the window I distinguished the lights of Nile River valley amidst the darkness of the Sahara desert, meaning that we were following the same route flown on the CDG-SEZ leg.
Speaking on the PA to welcome passengers on board, the captain previewed a 10 hour 15 minute long flight at a maximum altitude of 41,000 feet. Pushback took place at 22.10, and four minutes later we moved on our own power for the very short taxi to the head of runway 13.
Lift off at 22:14 was followed by a prolonged left northwestern turn bound to Somalia. Cabin service started with the distribution of the dinner menus and a first round of drinks.
After the pineapple and sweetcorn salad, the entrées included three options instead of the usual two offered in most economy classes: steamed job fish with herb mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables and bonne femme sauce or sautéed chicken breast in a lemon, tomato and coriander sauce served with rice or Chinese vegetable noodles.
The dessert was a carrot cake served with vanilla sauce. I chose the fish, which came with too much sauce on it, while the vegetables were just fine. To drink I selected white wine, a sauvignon blanc, which was poured in a thick plastic, green-colored glass.
All the food on the tray was at the proper temperature, with the salad and the cake not too cold as it often happens. After dinner, passengers were left almost one hour with the trays on the tables, which is way too long at a time when you would like to relax and sleep.
Six hours later, and approximately two hours before landing, a delicious continental breakfast consisting of tea or coffee, fruit yogurt, plain croissant, butter and marmalade, and flaked almond muffin was served.
Descent into CDG was uneventful and at 5:50 CET we touched down on runway 26L, before docking at the “rotunda” added a few years ago to enlarge terminal 2A. Fifteen minutes later, baggage was on the carousel and after passport control I was on my way to terminal 2C for the easyjet flight to MXP.
Air Seychelles offers a consistent product both in business as in economy class. Service was attentive and warm, the FAs always approaching passengers with a smile. Food quality was excellent as was the offering of drinks. The business class layout of the A330s is particularly impressive: the enormous distance between the rows of seats is certainly more typical of a first class cabin than a business one. The only downturn is the IFE, quite inadequate for long sectors like SEZ-CGD-SEZ, particularly in Pearl Class.