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TPG Contributor J. Keith van Straaten traveled to Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt in December. While many direct international flights to Sharm El Sheikh have been suspended since the terror attack last October, EgyptAir continues to fly domestically with several flights per day. Here’s his take on flying in economy on EgyptAir’s A330 during a Thursday morning commute from Cairo (CAI) to Sharm El Sheikh (SSH). All photos are by the writer unless noted.
My jaunt to Sharm El Sheikh was the last piece in a complex Africa itinerary that involved seven different airlines and a mix of cash and award miles. I booked this leg fairly late into my planning, so any round-trip flights that would have cost around $98 had already doubled to $197. I found the flights I wanted on the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel site and redeemed 15,760 points for the fare. The Points Guy values Chase Ultimate Rewards points at 2.1 cents— meaning I had to spend $330.96 worth of points for a ticket valued at $197 — but I didn’t want to spend more cash on this trip, so the points redemption was worth it for me.
Like many airports in Africa, a full security screening was required before I could access the check-in counter. And even though I had a mobile boarding pass on my phone, I was sent to the EgyptAir office to get a printout of my itinerary before I could be screened. That printout was turned in at the counter and I was issued a traditional card stock boarding pass. The check-in procedure was a breeze — I went through the line and was on my way in six minutes — but it still wasn’t clear why I’d had to get new documents printed and why there was no “Bag Drop” counter as was promised on the online check-in.
I was able to check one bag with no fee (more than you can say for other domestic flights on Star Alliance carriers), and unlike a previous EgyptAir flight I’d taken, neither my checked bag nor carry-on was weighed or measured.
Lounge and Terminal
An EgyptAir Business Class lounge is located in the domestic terminal, but since I was flying economy and don’t have Star Alliance Gold Status, I was unable to use it. My PriorityPass app said there was a first-class lounge in the same terminal, but that was located in a different zone, far from my gate.
Otherwise, the terminal had very limited services with just one coffee stand and one stand for juices and pre-made sandwiches. The second security screening was just before the gate, but offered nothing beyond it for the traveler except seating and restrooms. Head’s up: There is no Wi-Fi available in the airport without having mobile cell data to activate an emailed link.
At the Gate
After passing through security, there’s nothing to do at the gate but sit and wait — soon enough, every seat at the gate was filled. Announcements were made in both Arabic and English. My boarding pass said the boarding time for the 10:30am flight was 9:45am, but 9:45am came and went with no announcement. At 9:53am, people started filing out of the waiting area and onto buses. No announcement was made until a final call announcement at 9:55am. My boarding pass said I was seated in Zone B, but no zones were announced or used during the entire boarding process.
Despite not adhering to the promised times and zones, boarding proceeded quickly onto the waiting buses. As soon as a bus was filled, it left and more buses were already waiting to take passengers on the five-minute ride to the plane. Inside the aircraft, very few people had baggage to put in the overhead bins — I guess that’s what happens when you let people check a bag for free! — which meant passengers moved quickly to their seats, a relief since the cabin was rather warm and there were no air vents to open. The blasting of new wave light jazz music helped to keep everyone calm.
The last passenger boarded and the stair car pulled away at 10:28am. The scheduled departure was 10:30am. The engines came on at 10:33am, we pulled away from the gate at 10:35am and were on the runway at 10:43am with wheels up at 10:45am.
Seats and Amenities
The A330 was configured with a 2-4-2 seating arrangement with footrests at each seat.
Underseat storage was limited by the placement of metal boxes, presumably to hold in-seat entertainment equipment. Oddly enough there was no in-seat entertainment — with the exception of the audio programs with controls on the armrest. Also on the armrest: A working ashtray, which I don’t recall seeing in years.
The seats did not seem to be well maintained. In the seat pocket, my neighbor had a magazine and safety card while I had only an air sickness bag — maybe we were supposed to share? Two rows up from me, a passenger notifies a flight attendant that his seat will not return from the reclined position. The attendant tells him it’s OK.
While the seat itself was nothing special, the tray table may have been the nicest I’ve ever had: A full 2-3 inches of clearance above my knees about 1 inch thick and with sturdy support from its articulating arms. Really, it was astonishing. You could have played Jenga on it.
Five attendants (two men and three women) serviced the flight. Cockpit announcements were in both Arabic and English. The safety video was in Arabic with sign language — perhaps they’re expecting more deaf Egyptian passengers than hearing foreigners?
Before the safety video, the monitors showed Arabic writing over photos of mosques while a recording of an Arabic incantation played. I found out later this is a Muslim travel prayer.
Food and Beverage
Beverage service began 15 minutes after takeoff. I asked for a Diet Coke and was offered the only diet soda they had, 7 Up Free, in a cup with no ice. Two minutes later, the captain announced our approach into Sharm El Sheikh and four minutes after, my cup was collected. Six minutes for 7 Up.
Wheels were down in Sharm El Sheikh at 11:23am. Shortly thereafter, most passengers (including children) were up and walking around while we taxied. The seat belt light was on but no one was admonished — this situation proved common in flights I took throughout Africa.
Our scheduled arrival was 11:30am. The door opened at 11:34am and two minutes later the first buses left for the terminal. By 11:45am, the last passenger was off and 90 seconds later we were at the door to the Arrivals Hall.
Bottom Line/Overall Experience
It’s hard to know how much of the variances from my usual flight experience is attributed to differences of corporate culture or regional culture. Either way, nothing was so different that it made me feel unsafe. On a longer flight, I might have griped about not having the dignity of gate amenities, a more structured boarding process or ice. But for an hour in the sky, this was a perfectly acceptable trip that I’d be glad to take again — especially booking earlier for half the price.
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