Bouncing Around Europe in Our Own Airbus at MegaDo
How do you make a hundred aviation geeks, including one lucky TPG reader who won a contest, really happy? First, take them on a guided tour behind the scenes at Amsterdam's mighty Schiphol airport. Then, one-up that awesomeness by gving them their own airliner for a day and taking them to more airports, for more exclusive looks at how commercial aviation really works.
That's right, we had a commercial jet all to ourselves. A Czech Airlines Airbus A319 to be exact, in special SkyTeam livery — this year's MegaDo, the AvGeek meeting we're attending, is organized jointly with the SkyTeam alliance. The airline had chartered it to us for one day, with crew and all. The A319 is a workhorse that North American flyers will find on a lot of short- to medium-range routes on Delta, American, United, Spirit and Air Canada. Having one at your disposal is something else.
Our 134-seater, private-ish A319 would take us from a hazy Amsterdam to Prague (PRG), then Palma de Mallorca (PMI), and finally Barcelona (BCN). Three countries, one day, a lot of avgeekery.
Our (Chartered) Chariot
My seat for the full day's flights, 18F, was positioned right between two windows—providing excellent vantage points. That's the first rule of flying as an AvGeek: You don't need just any window seat, you need a good window seat.
All of the seats had a small box of orange juice, a nice touch, and a 95th anniversary paper flap over the headrest, commemorating 95 years of Czech Airlines. In fact, Czech, founded in 1923, is the fifth-oldest airline still in operation. Our Amsterdam host, KLM, is the oldest of them all, from 1919. Just 16 years after the Wright brothers took to the air!
MegaDo sold two kinds of tickets to the event: Business and Economy class. Business class passengers were—you guessed it—seated up front in the business class section of the airplane. Of course, as we know, business class on European narrowbodies flying within the continent is usually pretty uninspiring, with regular economy class seats but with the middle blocked off. The same was true on this flight.
Charters are prone to the same delays as any other flight, too. If the plane has an issue, you wait to get it resolved. And so, for about an hour after we boarded, we sat patiently at the gate as our pilots worked to resolve the illuminated light that indicated an issue. As we sat, Schiphol buzzed around us—and a bird even perched itself atop of a KLM 737's vertical stabilizer as the sun rose behind it.
Our flight to Prague would be about an hour and 20 minutes. About halfway through, we got breakfast. That's right—an actual breakfast on a short intra-Europe hop, in economy. Of course this was a special flight, but that was just incredible, bringing me back to a time seemingly long ago.
And later in the day, on our flight from Prague to Palma de Mallorca, we got another meal service—and this time it was truly a hot meal. Plus it was quite tasty, too. We even got real metal cutlery and ceramic coffee cups.
The Czech Airlines cabin crew were top-notch. Since the day started so early, our Czech flight and cabin crew on the first AMS - PRG leg swapped out for a different crew for the remainder of the day.
Once they ate, folks were up and about.
I've had the pleasure of taking one other special charter flight like this before, and probably the coolest thing about it is the liveliness of the cabin. Charters are totally unique in this way. If you're familiar with the New York City subway system, consider the difference of the "vibe" on Monday morning versus Saturday afternoon.
The weather was just perfect everywhere we flew into. There was some rain in Palma right before we arrived, and right before we were about to depart again, and besides that we had mostly clear skies for the duration of the three flights.
These optimal flying conditions gave us some spectacular views, like this one of Innsbruck, an Austrian city tucked away in a valley in the Alps. Innsbruck airport (INN) is (in)famous in the aviation world for its difficult approach that requires tight turns. On this gorgeous day, I got quite the view.
And maybe coolest of all: when we hopped the plane at each of our destinations, we just left our bags at our seat, something that, unless you're flying in your own jet, you never, ever get to do.
Inside a Catering Center: The "Sky Kitchen"
Our first stop for the day was at the Prague catering facility, located airside at Prague International Airport (PRG). We pulled up to a remote gate, and deboarded via airstairs on a beautiful, clear fall day. Baggage handlers, unaware that we’d be getting back on this exact airplane in just a few hours, quickly took bags off the jet. To their surprise, they were instructed to put all the bags back on.
The catering facility, the “Sky Kitchen,” is owned by Dubai-based Dnata, a large provider of airport ground services whose logo you'll see at many airports around the world. Protected by hairnets and special coveralls, we got a look at how airplane meals are prepared.
At Prague, our guide explained, the Sky Kitchen uses an assembly-line kind of process to prepare 5 million meals each year. The customers range from home-based Czech Airlines to China's Hainan Airlines, and from Emirates’ mighty A380 going to Dubai to American Airlines 767s crossing the Atlantic to Philadelphia.
Each room serves a different specific function. There’s a hot kitchen, a cold kitchen, a halal kitchen for Muslim meals, a bakery, “free rooms” (for magazines and newspapers), cleaning rooms, loading rooms and others, each stocked with branded items, carts and items specific to each airline customer.
And this is done, by hand, to exact specifications. Indeed, in one of the packing rooms, workers weigh each finished food to match exactly what the instructions say—weight is very, very important on airplanes. They also use a book to ensure it looks just as the airline wants it to.
I got a closer look at said book… for an airline that I previously had never heard of: Air Travel Service, a Czech holiday-charter operator.
Everything needs to be incredibly organized, well marked and—of course—clean. This might vary from one airline to another, so special attention must be paid to make sure when a passengers asks for, say, a lemon, the cabin crew know exactly where to find it.
Food is prepared 24-36 hours before each flight. They freeze what needs to be frozen using liquid nitrogen, which maintains the quality of the food better than traditional freezing.
Briskly, we finished the tour and enjoyed some samples—they were delicious! (Maybe airline food does taste better on the ground.) Soon, we were back on the plane and on to our next destination, Palma de Mallorca.
Air Europa's Heavy Maintenance Center
On Day 1, we visited one of KLM’s maintenance hangars, where engineers performed “light” checks on 787s widebodies and 737s narrowbodies, like cleaning, seat repairs and the like. For Day 2, though, we got a chance to check out a “heavy” maintenance hangar belonging to Air Europa, on the beautiful Spanish island of Mallorca.
Some two hours and 10 minutes after we departed Prague, we touched down in Palma, the Mediterranean island’s largest city, and once again we deboarded via airstairs—this time right beside the hangar we’d be visiting instead of the passenger terminal.
Opened in 2006, this 9,000-square meter hangar, about 100.000 square feet, is used to conduct heavy maintenance on jets—often referred to as C- or D-checks. Air Europa is the primary user of the facility, but, equipped with tooling to work on 737s, A320, A330s and Embraer E-Jets, it's open to other airlines that can send work here if the price is right.
For our visit, there were two aircraft: an A330 and an Embraer E-195, both in Air Europa’s newest livery.
These heavy checks take months to complete. 250 people work here seven days per week.
Maintenance on the A330 that we were lucky to see will take some 35,000 man/hours of work over roughly two months to complete, as engineers remove just about everything—engines, seats, overhead bins, doors, fuel caps, speed brakes… the list goes on.
The E-195, on the other hand, takes a little less time, about 45 days.
Every 6-8 years, aircraft undergo these kinds of super-detailed checks to ensure all parts are working well, and the ones that show wear are replaced. Below, you can see a General Electric CF6 engine — the pointy thing on the left is its exhaust cone — removed from the wing.
Air Europa names some its aircraft; the one we saw was the David Bisbal (he is a Spanish singer. And he's very much alive—being dead is apparently not a requirement for getting your name on the side of an airplane, but being famous helps.)
To accommodate its new 787s, the airline is now completing work on a similar kind of facility in Madrid. It was pretty awesome to get so close these behemoths. As always, the scale of modern airliners is often lost at busy airports. When you’re right there next to it, you can really appreciate it.
Back on the (Fancy) Bus
Before we knew it, we were boarding our private A319 for the final time. And the weather remained absolutely perfect—cool and calm after a quick storm. We took off barely 10 minutes after we pulled up to board, and we had one final speedy drink service (the flight is only 40 minutes). To make sure everybody got something, some of the folks from SkyTeam who had joined us helped the Czech Airlines crew. Anoher thing you don't see on your everyday flights.
We're glad we helped one of our readers, Miami-based Dee Diaz, take part in this unique experience, and we are grateful to the MegaDo and SkyTeam organizers, the pilots, the crews, the maintenance managers, bus drivers and everybody else who made this year's event happen. The group continued on for one more day, focusing on hotel loyalty and touring some properties in Barcelona, and I headed home. Until next year, when we'll take another reader with us on this amazing AvGeek experience!
All photos by the author