Unlike the journalists who attended the inauguration event and who got airside where the speeches would take place by a short circuit, I was a passenger and I took the regular passenger route: check-in (although I had only hand baggage and an electronic boarding pass which proved useless), ticket control, baggage and body scan, and finally passport control. What is striking in Charleroi is that all this is done in a very relaxed way: you can laugh and joke with the civil servants doing their tasks. Don’t try that in Brussels: you would be arrested! I had received a fast track voucher, as most Air Belgium passengers, but that lane was actually slower than the regular passengers.
After the inaugural ceremony in the presence of Belgian Federal and Regional Ministers and VIPs (reported earlier), it was time to board for the inaugural flight. After a last check of the tickets, all passengers (around 100) were invited in the Air Belgium lounge for a last drink with some food.
Soon enough, boarding started. The press and the photographers were still on the tarmac to record the event.
Air Belgium Flight KF851
From/to Brussels South Charleroi – Hong Kong (CRL-HKG)
Aircraft: Airbus A340-300 OO-ABB
STD 14:10, actual 14:09 from gate 25 (GMT+2)
STA 07:40+1, actual 07:50 (GMT+8)
Total time: scheduled 11 hr 30 minutes, actual 11 hr 41 min
Seat: 24A (window above the wing), changed from 22D during web check-in
Warm welcome on board. The steward assigned to my section was Chinese and spoke English and Mandarin. Immediately a stewardess came along with glasses of orange juice and water. Quite surprisingly, Air Belgium’s CEO Niky Terzakis boarded the economy section and was sitting two rows behind me.
The captain announced an on-time departure and a flight of eleven and a half hour.
Pushback on-time. As the taxiway does not go all the way to the threshold of runway 07, the plane had to make a U-turn on the runway itself, which slows operations a little bit (a Ryanair 738 was waiting to get on the runway as well and was held by a yellow airport safety car).
Take-off from runway 07. After reaching the cruising altitude of FL350, the cabin crew distributed earphones, pillows and blankets (all with the AB logo), and came along with hot towels. Afterwards, everyone also received a bag (named “Best Hairline Ever” with the AB logo) with amenities: earplugs, toothpaste and toothbrush, comb, eyeshades and socks.
Although I was sitting in the Economy section, a business menu was offered to all passengers. A delicious one, with a choice of dishes. I selected the first starter and the first main course, and ice cream as dessert. It must be highlighted that most products were proudly presented as Belgian, including the wines and the liqueurs. Being called Air Belgium is not without reason. Every dish was served without haste, giving time to appreciate the savours.
After crossing the Urals, the aircraft climbed at FL370. The sun was setting under the horizon, and although it was only 19:00 Belgian time, most of the business and premium passengers extended their seat into the flat bed position and settled for a nap. Not so in Economy: people kept chatting, writing reports (like me), interviewing the Chairman and the CEO of Air Belgium, watching a film on the IFE, and so one.
It was during that night that the inaugural cake was presented to the CEO for him to cut.
Eventually, the lights were switched off and I also took a nap of one or two hours. I woke up when the sun was rising. Meanwhile, we were over China and the aircraft had climbed to FL391 (not 390. A special Chinese unit?), not without abrupt changes of direction (from 90° full East to 180° full South): are there areas to avoid over China? Niky Terzakis told me that many areas are under the control of the military and must absolutely be avoided.
A gigantesque breakfast was then served, comprising two hot mini-omelettes, yoghurt, muesli, fruit, bread rolls, croissants, chocolate rolls, Galler chocolate, Destrooper biscuits, marmalade, cheese and meat.
When this was finished, we were at less than one hour from Hong Kong and the expected arrival time on the moving map had not changed since our departure: 07.46 LT.
The “fasten seat belt” and “switch off your electronic devices” signs were lit and the descent to Hong Kong airport started. After flying over the sea, the aircraft landed on runway 07L and docked next to an ANA “Air Japan” Boeing 767.
After a smooth disembarkation and a swift immigration process, we were welcomed landside by the Consul General of Belgium in Hong Kong, Ms Michèle Deneffe.
This was the end of a very nice trip.
Hong Kong, 7 June 2018
Text and pictures © André Orban