[Trip report] Air Belgium Airbus A340 Rehearsal Flight

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On Saturday 21 April 2018, Air Belgium organized two rehearsal and training flights. These special flights were full-scale and validation test flights, not only for Air Belgium itself but also for Brussels South Charleroi Airport (CRL). Being a real ‘avgeek’, I really wanted to fly onboard on of these two rehearsal flights. Hence, I purchased a ticket for the first rehearsal flight. So fasten your seat belt, put the table in front of you in the upward position and enjoy this trip report.

A New Airline Is Born

In the summer of 2016, a couple of Belgian entrepreneurs – including former TNT Airways Managing Director Niky Terzakis –  decided to start a new airline, Air Belgium. The main purpose of the newly formed airline was to connect Belgium with Asia by offering services between Brussels Airport and some of China’s biggest cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

At the end of 2017 however, financial newspaper L’Echo announced that the airline had selected Brussels South Charleroi Airport as its main hub instead of Brussels Airport. This was confirmed by the airline in an official press release in January 2018. Some of the main reasons were the lower airport taxes and the startup of Cathay Pacific at Brussels Airport. Air Belgium also decided to begin operations in early 2018 by opening a four times weekly route between Charleroi and Hong Kong. It would operate two ex-Finnair Airbus A340 aircraft in a striking livery in the colors of the Belgian flag.

In the following months the airline continued its start up plans including the hiring of qualified staff such as pilots and cabin crew members as well as preparing its first two Airbus A340 aircraft for operations. On 13 March 2018 Air Belgium finally received its much needed AOC (Air Operator Certificate).

On Tuesday 3 April 2018, Air Belgium finally opened its ticket sales engine and the general public could begin to book seats on Air Belgium flights. The airline announced that its inaugural flight to Hong Kong would be on Monday 30 April 2018. On Wednesday 25 April 2018 however, Air Belgium announced that it had to delay its inaugural flight to Sunday 3 June 2018, mainly due to the fact that it had not yet received Russian overflight permits.

Rehearsal Flights

Before commencing flights between Charleroi and Hong Kong, Air Belgium and the airport needed to make sure that all their standard operating procedures were ready for real world operations. Therefore, as Air Belgium positioned its first Airbus A340 to Charleroi on Friday 13 April 2018, it also announced that it would operate a special one-off rehearsal flight. The flight would take off in CRL and all passengers would enjoy a standard inflight service during a three hour scenic flight over Europe. All proceeds would go to charity.

Ticket prices were announced as follows: 25 EUR for an economy class seat, 40 EUR for a premium class seat and 50 EUR for a business class seat. In less than two hours, all tickets were booked and the rehearsal flight was sold out. Fortunately, I was one of the happy few who managed to buy an economy class ticket. For this special rehearsal flight, the airline did not use its normal booking engine, but a third party application called Shopify. As a result, it was impossible to choose a seat or seat type during the booking process.

After my booking was completed, I immediately received a booking confirmation via e-mail. Two days before the rehearsal flight I would receive another e-mail with additional info and the request to bring a suitcase with other donations I would be willing to give away to Oxfam-Solidarity, such as clothes, books and toys.

E-mail with additional practical information on the rehearsal flight.

As demand for the rehearsal flight was much higher than the number of available seats, Air Belgium announced few hours later that it would operate a second rehearsal flight, also on Saturday 21 April 2018. Ticket sales would begin on Monday 16 April 2018. However, there appeared to be some operational difficulties to plan the second rehearsal flight as ticket sales for the second flight did only begin on Tuesday 17 April 2018. All tickets were sold out in less than five minutes.

Online Check-In

On Friday 20 April 2018 at 11:00 local time (i.e. exactly 24 hours before the planned departure time of the first rehearsal flight), I received an e-mail from Air Belgium where the airline invited its passengers to proceed with the online check-in. The e-mail also confirmed that the drop-off desk would open on Saturday 21 April 2018 at 08:00 local time. Check-in would close at 10:00 local time and boarding would begin at 10:05 local time.

Online check-in is open.

I clicked on the online check-in link in the e-mail and was able to perform my online check-in with just a few mouse clicks. Checking in online via the Air Belgium booking engine was not possible as this was special one-off flight. My pre-assigned seat for the rehearsal flight was seat 26A. I was very happy to have a window seat and did not need to change my seat, even though the system allowed this during the check-in process. I was told by few other passengers that the pre-assigned seat could not be changed.

After the online check-in process was completed, I sent my boarding pass to my e-mail address and also sent a digital boarding pass, which I added to my iOS Wallet application. I was now fully prepared for my first Air Belgium flight!

Digital boarding pass.

Air Belgium KF340 CRL-CRL (Air Belgium first rehearsal flight)

Date: Saturday 21 April 2018

Flight: KF340 CRL-CRL

Aircraft Type: Airbus A340-313

Registration: OO-ABB

Seat: 26A (Economy)

Scheduled / Effective Time of Departure: 11:00 / 11:20 (GMT+2)

Scheduled / Effective Time of Arrival: 14:00 / 14:45 (GMT+2)

Scheduled / Effective Block Time: 03 hr 00 min / 03 hr 25 min

Scheduled / Effective Flight Time: 03 hr 00 min / 03 hr 05 min.

Arrival & Check-In

I arrived at Brussels South Charleroi Airport at around 08:30 on the early morning of Saturday 21 April 2018. After a short walk from parking P1 and a first security check, I arrived at the airport’s terminal T1, where the Air Belgium rehearsal flight would depart.

As I entered the terminal, I noticed that Air Belgium had six check-in counters available for the rehearsal flight. Counters 2 and 3 were for Business Class and Premium Class passengers. Counters 4 and 5 were for Economy Class passengers and counters 6 and 7 were for passengers with drop off baggage.

Air Belgium check-in counters.

To my surprise, there were no real queues for check-in. There were also quite some members of the press in the terminal building and I saw a spokesperson of the airport giving an interview to RTL-TVI, one of Belgium’s biggest French-language television stations.

As previously stated, I was already checked in for this flight. As I was travelling with hand luggage only, I could immediately make my way to security. However, as this was a special flight and I had no idea if I would ever have the opportunity to fly Air Belgium again, I decided to go to one of the Economy Class counters and request a printed boarding pass. Fortunately, the check-in agent understood the situation and printed a boarding pass.

Boarding

After I received my boarding pass, I made my way to the security screening at the airport’s T1 terminal. I was pleasantly surprised to see almost nobody in front of me, so the screening was done in no time.

As I still had more than fifty minutes before boarding would begin, I decided to make a short stop at the Food Hall, one of the restaurants at the airport. I bought a ‘pain au chocolat’ and a 0,5 liter bottle of Coca-Cola. As I looked for a free table I noticed some other avgeeks enjoying a brief stop at the Food Hall. I joined their table and we had a nice chat about aviation and shared each other’s excitement of being able to board an Air Belgium aircraft soon.

Few moments before the planned boarding time, we made our way to T1’s gate 23, the assigned gate for today’s first Air Belgium rehearsal flight. As we arrived at gate 23, we could already see the aircraft that would operate both rehearsal flights: Air Belgium Airbus A330-313 OO-ABB. Its sister aircraft OO-ABA had been sub chartered and was operating a flight to Paramaribo on behalf of Surinam Airways.

Air Belgium Airbus A340-313 OO-ABB parked at position 67 in front of Gate 23.

There were quite some passengers who were enjoying the excitement at gate 23. Air Belgium even provided a Sharingbox mini photo booth where you could take a special Air Belgium picture which you could share afterwards with your friends and relatives via e-mail.

Sharingbox mini photo booth.

Around 10:10 a first boarding announcement was made. Passengers with seat row numbers between 26 and 56 were asked to prepare for boarding. As a result, the boarding queue started to increase really fast. However, no passenger was boarding and everybody had to wait. Eventually however, some passengers with press accreditation were allowed to go to the boarding counter and were allowed to proceed to the aircraft for some photos and video footage.

About half an hour later a second boarding announcement was made and now only passengers with seat row numbers between 46 and 56 were allowed to queue for boarding. However, due to the earlier announcement passengers with seat row numbers between 26 and 46 were also queueing for boarding, including me. I decided to keep queueing. As I came closer to the boarding counter, no new boarding announcements were made, but I decided that I would try to board and see what happens. When I presented my digital boarding card and my ID card, I heard the boarding agent asking his colleague if I should be asked to wait. Fortunately, the colleague did not really confirm, so I was allowed to go to the aircraft and board.

The aircraft was parked at parking position 67, which was just a two minute walk away from gate 23. Few moments later I reached the magnificent Airbus A340 parked on the apron of Charleroi. I noticed that Air Belgium CEO, Mr Niky Terzakis, was standing in front of the parked A340. I asked him for a quick photo but he kindly refused as there was already some delay on the boarding of the passengers. He did however say that there might be an opportunity after the flight (eventually I would indeed manage to get a photo of Mr Niky Terzakis and the Air Belgium A340 after landing).

At 10:40 I finally boarded the aircraft via the stairs at the back and I was kindly welcomed by the Air Belgium cabin crew members. I entered the Airbus A340 and made my way to my seat.

Many other passengers still had to board the aircraft. As a result, quite some seats in the economy class section of the aircraft were still empty so I decided to take some first photos of the cabin layout including seats, headrest covers and inflight entertainment (IFE) facilities.

Economy Class

Air Belgium’s Airbus A340-313 OO-ABB has a three-class cabin layout: Business Class, Premium Class and Economy Class. My seat for this rehearsal flight was seat 26A, a standard economy seat onboard the aircraft. It is a window seat offering a nice overview of the left wing of the Airbus A340.

The economy class layout has eight seats abreast in a 2-4-2 configuration. Each seat offers a pitch of 31” (78,7 cm) and a seat width of 18” (46 cm). It can recline up to 9 degrees and has an individual IFE screen. The adjustable headrest has 4 positions.

Welcome message on the IFE’s touch screen.

My first impression of my seat was quite positive. The seats were nice, clean and comfortable. For our flight the economy seats still had a blue finish, but this should be adapted soon. Being a rather tall person – 185 cm – I was not sure if I would have sufficient legroom in economy class, but I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. The seat pitch of 31” was fine for this rehearsal flight. I don’t know if it would be enjoyable for a twelve hour flight to Hong Kong. The inflight entertainment system however appeared to be a bit outdated when compared to current standards. I had some problems with the responsiveness of the individual touch screen. Sometimes there was a big delay between my touch on the screen and the action by the system, so there is still some room for improvement.

For this rehearsal flight, the choice of IFE appeared to be very limited. Next to the standard map display of the aircraft’s position and other flight parameters, one could only choose from 23 movies. It appeared to me that these movies had been selected mainly to appeal to Air Belgium’s Chinese customers, as I had never even heard of most of these movies. Definitely another thing to work on, especially if Air Belgium would like to attract more customers from all parts of the world, not only China.

The seat pocked in front of me had the standard content: An Air Belgium A340 safety card, a buy on board magazine and an air sickness bag.

Flight

 At 11:03 boarding appeared to have been completed and we were kindly welcomed over the PA by the flight crew of this first rehearsal flight: Air Belgium Fleet Manager Captain Brocart – also pilot in command for this flight – and his colleague Captain Antoine. During a short speech they informed all passengers that they were still waiting for some final documents. Our flight time would be 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Fifteen minutes later, we were ready to depart and the flight crew members asked the cabin crew members to set all doors to flight condition and crosscheck. Few moments later we were also kindly welcomed over the PA by the cabin crew members.

Even though all seats for today’s first rehearsal flight were sold in less than two hours, the seat next to my seat remained empty. This would mean I had some free space next to me, which would improve my available legroom. Unfortunately, one of the other passengers who was sitting in a middle seat noticed the empty seat and came to me, asking if the seat was available so he could make some window photos. Bummer…

At 11:20, pushback of our flight KF340 CRL-CRL began, and the four engines of our Airbus A340 were started. In the meantime, the cabin crew members also began their mandatory safety demo. Seven minutes later our pushback tractor was detached, the nose gear steering bypass pin was removed and shown to the flight crew members, and we started our short taxi to runway 25, the active runway for takeoff.

As we arrived at the active runway, we still had to hold short for a general aviation aircraft which was about to land. Few moments later, we were cleared to line up on runway 25. At 11:35, our flight was cleared for takeoff and the four thrust levers were advanced by the flight crew members. After a short takeoff roll on runway 25, our aircraft gently rotated and we took off on this historic Air Belgium flight.

Shortly after takeoff we banked left and turned towards the east. Our flaps were retracted and we climbed of Charleroi while enjoying some spectacular views. Ten minutes after takeoff, the cabin crew were already very busy and started to distribute headsets in our economy class.

Turning towards the east after takeoff.

As soon as we reached an altitude of 10.000 feet, I decided to unfasted my seat belt and make a short walk in the cabin, to get some more photos of the economy class as well as the business class section of the aircraft. I went to see some of my friends who were travelling in business class and were looking forward to a nice service for this rehearsal flight. As it was a special one-off flight, you could very well feel the relaxed atmosphere onboard the aircraft, except maybe for the cabin crew members who were already preparing the inflight meals.

After twenty-five minutes of flight time, it was time to go back to my seat and the cabin crew members started to distribute the warm meals to the passengers in economy class. I quickly sat down again in seat 26A and few moments later a very friendly cabin crew member gave me a stylish box with the message ‘A delicious meal specially made for you…Enjoy!’. The box also stated ‘local & healthy food’. I opened the box and it contained a piece of bread, some butter and a chocolate cake. Next to the food the box also contained the cutlery for my meal and a paper napkin. Soon afterwards, another cabin crew member took a standard warm meal out of his trolley and put it on my opened meal box. On the menu for today’s flight was coriander porc and noodles. I also got a free coca cola from a friendly cabin crew member.

As most economy passengers had received their warm meal, the cabin became a bit more quiet and most passengers began to eat. The warm meal tasted quite good. The only thing for improvement is that it was difficult to cut the vegetables with the provided plastic knife. Apart from that I really enjoyed my warm meal.

In the meantime, our Airbus had reached its cruising altitude of FL390. We were flying in an northeasterly direction and after flying over Bonn and then via Dortmund to Wolfsburg, we set course for Rostock near the Baltic Sea.

Economy Class.

After a very good lunch, I tried the inflight entertainment (IFE) once again, but due to the limited choice, I decided to check out the moving map display instead, to see where we were flying.

As our flight gradually progressed, I took another walk in the cabin and went up front to the business class section again to take some more pictures and have a chat with some passengers I knew. To my surprise, they had not received a warm meal yet. I also walked down to the back of the aircraft to check out this part of the economy class and to have another chat with some other friends flying onboard this special flight.

Nice view of the left wing while cruising over Europe.

At around 12:40, our Airbus was flying over the Danish island of Zealand (Sjælland), the country’s largest island (excluding Greenland). Fifteen minutes later were already flying over Jutland, the large Danish peninsula stretching northwards towards Scandinavia. As the weather was clear, we could enjoy some spectacular views while flying over Denmark.

Just before 13:00 CET, our Airbus made a left turn and we continued our flight in a southwesterly direction, back to The Netherlands and Belgium. In the meantime the economy class passengers had received a complimentary coffee, tea or some water.

As we continued our flight back towards Belgium, I noticed that some business class passengers had still not received their warm meal. Few moments later however, one of the spokespersons of Air Belgium kindly asked me to go back to my seat, as it was very difficult for the cabin crew members to do the full service with all passengers walking around. I fully agreed and went back to my seat to enjoy some more views of our scenic flight routing.

Air Belgium’s Business Class.

After taking some more photos of the views, I put on the map view again of my inflight entertainment system and noticed that we were making some turns. Indeed, it appeared that we had entered a holding pattern north of The Netherlands. A passenger sitting in the seat in front of me had also noticed this and asked me why we were doing this. I told him that it could be related to anything, but usually this has something to do with air traffic control management. Another reason could be that the cabin crew members were facing a bit of a delay in the business class service and Air Belgium requested to enter the holding so they could offer the entire service to their business class passengers before we reached or top of descent.

Fabulous views as we fly in a westerly direction.

As we were flying the holding pattern, some of the cabin crew members started to hand out some evaluation forms. I did not receive one, but the passenger next to me did receive a form and a pencil (which he had to return afterwards). We also received a nice flight certificate.

Flight certificate.

In total, we did fly three holding patterns. Forty-five minutes later, our Airbus A340 descended towards FL380 and we exited the holding pattern. We set course for The Netherlands and Belgium. The cabin crew announced that interested passengers could by an Air Belgium Airbus A340 aircraft model for the modest price of 15 euros. I was one of the many passengers who did buy one of those models. As we reached the Dutch coast, our Airbus A340 started a slow descent towards FL340. By the time we reached city of Amsterdam, we initiated our approach descent and the cabin was being prepared for landing.

During our flight to Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands, wind direction in Belgium had changed and the active runway for landing in Charleroi was no longer RWY 25 but RWY 07. We flew over Sint-Niklaas and Dendermonde and continued our descent into Charleroi while flying over Ninove, a town just west of Brussels.

At 14:35 our Airbus A340 was aligned with RWY 07 at Charleroi. The flaps were set and few moments later the landing gear was extended. Five minutes later, we made a smooth landing on RWY 07 and the passengers applauded. A nice gesture after a successful first rehearsal flight for Air Belgium.

The Airbus A340 exited the landing runway and made a short taxi to parking position 57. At 14:40 our aircraft came to a complete stop, the parking brake was set and the four engines were shut down.

The atmosphere onboard the aircraft was very enjoyable and pleasant. The passengers had a great flight and appreciated the excellent service by the Air Belgium cabin crew. It was not always easy for them as many passengers – including myself – explored the entire cabin during this three hour flight and blocked the aisles on quite a few occasions. Nevertheless, the cabin crew always remained calm and kept on smiling. A very professional crew, that’s for sure.

Air Belgium’s CEO Mr Niky Terzakis in front of OO-ABB after the first rehearsal flight.

Thank You

I am very glad I could enjoy this Air Belgium rehearsal flight and would like to show my deepest respect to everyone at Air Belgium who helped to organize this flight. Thank you very much for this amazing experience and for the excellent service. I wish Air Belgium all the best with their upcoming flights to Hong Kong and all the other plans they might have for the future.

21 April 2018

Photos: copyright (c) Ivan Coninx

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