Saturday, April 19, 2008

TAP Air Portugal - mediocrity in flying

Flying airlines in Europe is rarely a great experience. You can be grateful if you get there, your luggage turns up and it is within 20 minutes of the scheduled arrival time. So I don’t expect much. I’ve flown on quite a few airlines in Europe, some in business, some in economy, but my latest venture has been on TAP Air Portugal. It is an experience that is a good reminder of how much mediocrity can be built in air travel, and it isn’t one of the dreaded Low Cost Carriers.

The flight from Heathrow to Lisbon is meant to be about 2.5 hours. I’ll leave aside the horrors of Heathrow Terminal 2 which are BAA’s responsibility. The claustrophobic checkin, dire arrivals area, dated décor, security without “fast track” and overcrowded two tier departures lounge will all not be missed when Terminal 2 is closed and razed by the end of the year. At least travellers to Europe on non British airlines can be glad of that. For now the only thing of interest at Terminal 2 is to briefly note the 1960s era architecture as you look upwards, and contemplate the bizarre corridors and layout of it all. If BA can recover from the incompetence of Terminal 5 it would truly give the airlines flying from Terminal 2 a run for their money, for now though at least you know flying to and from Terminal 2 should mean your luggage arrives.

TAP’s handling at Heathrow is undertaken by a living (barely) lesson on how not to run an airline - Alitalia. Alitalia is a shadow of the self seen in 1960s films, it is a union crippled national joke. It is a lazy, inefficient, uninterested airline, and its staff at Heathrow largely live up to that reputation.

Having arrived just over two hours in advance of the flight, the resentful check-in attendant said “well the flight will be checked in when it appears on the display ok?”. How dare I ask. Should’ve gone BA I wondered. 3 minutes later Princess Alitalia decided to open check-in. Fortunately, as the queue had suddenly appeared with a hoard of teenagers, I found the Star Alliance Gold checkin, hidden away past a row of pillars – so instead of tolerating 20 in front, there was 1, and Mr Alitalia was actually polite, so off goes my luggage.

Well that’s Alitalia. Following the hell of Terminal 2 security and some meandering through the terminal itself, I lead myself to TAP’s next proxy at Heathrow – Lufthansa. Alitalia actually has not a bad lounge at Terminal 2, but Lufthansa operates the lounge for Star Alliance carriers there. I’m no stranger to the Lufthansa lounge, so I expected little. OK, it’s a place to sit, but the staff at the front desk clearly are in the “you’re not flying Lufthansa you schwein” school. When asked about the (late) TAP flight she simply parroted what was on the board – unwilling to find out more, but willing to make you feel small for asking a stupid question. Those who claim continental Europe achieves wondrous standards for transport service have clearly flown little with European airlines.

The Lufthansa lounge at Heathrow is only worth visiting because Terminal 2 itself is so dire. I don’t know what is most notable, whether it is the claustrophobia from cramming too much ugly furniture into a small space, the vile Lufthansa green and gold décor on the furnishings (including the arrangement whereby the chairs beside the window face inwards, so we are all happily facing each other in lines – so efficient ja!) or the paucity of anything edible that isn’t about saturated fat and sugar in vast quantities. We don’t all want to become Sergeant Schultz do we now?

It is small, so when a couple of Lufthansa flights are delayed, finding a seat that isn’t beside Frau Drowninparfum or Herr Ciggystinken becomes tricky. When you have sat down and have a few hours to spare, what do you get offered? Bearing in mind this lounge is entirely for international flights, you get biscuits, nuts, chips, mini croissants stuffed with bland cheese and ham, but at least there were crème eggs – handily located high enough so that brats can’t steal them. Lufthansa and its partners advertise flying long haul from Heathrow, via European airports – nothing about this lounge should inspire any premium travellers, it is almost as if the lounge is grudgingly provided.

So the boarding time is reached, except the departure board says nothing. Then it says “will board 3”. Now given all the other flights on the departure board say either “delayed until xxxx” or “boarding gate xxx” or “go to gate xxx”, this cryptic comment means nothing. One of the lessons you learn at Heathrow is that “go to gate x” is essentially for the lumpen proletariat who rarely fly, because they need ages to navigate through the airport, find the gate and be organised. It reduces the risk that the late, stupid or naïve will hold things up.

Of course, if you follow that instruction, you’ll easily spend over half an hour sitting in a holding pen with backpackers, elderly people and families with children doing nothing useful. That’s why the right time to go to the gate is when it says “boarding” and given the lounge was 2 minutes from the gate ut made sense. However, Alitalia (doing the ground handling) couldn’t provide decent information at all.

The plane was late, it parked outside the lounge in fact, so I waited until I could see luggage being loaded to meander down to the gate where the Alitalia staff couldn’t answer when boarding would commence. No information. However we could all sit in the holding pen like good little inconveniences. Then the TAP man came from the plane and made some incomprehensible announcement. When asked again when boarding would commence, Alitalia staff (who got roasted by a couple of frustrated passengers) said they didn’t know and clearly didn’t care. They were very Berlusconi. When asked why information wasn’t provided, they apologised for the lateness – Alitalia = ears closed, not listening, not caring. It’s more important to look frustrated, pretty and be inert.

So then families with children board. This is supposed to make life easier, except that children in their early teens turn up and get let on board- premium passengers don’t. Hey, who cares about those who keep the airline afloat – but finally I get allowed to board.

Although being an Airbus A320, TAP has different seats depending on your luck. The outbound flight had cheap dire seating with what felt like an iron rod where lumbar support should be, and cushions of about two-three inches thickness with very little padding. This is in economy class mind you, although business class outbound also had 6 abreast seating – but with the middle seat blocked out. That’s what you get for double the price, a bit of width and presumably better food, or presumably edible food rather than the creation of a retarded village idiot.

The flight itself is reasonable without event. A half interesting inflight magazine and the inflight video (the ubiquitous European gag show which needs no audio) were mild distractions from the ergonomic hell of the seats. However the food was undoubtedly the worst I’ve had on a flight for many years.

We were all thrown ham and pineapple rolls – inexplicably heated in infrared ovens. Now the idea of a roll filled with something tasty is acceptable for economy class flying in Europe. BA dishes out prepackaged sandwiches that are tolerable, and plenty of airlines dish out nothing in economy class for free (KLM, BMI, SAS, Aer Lingus) which frankly I’d prefer instead of getting it so so wrong.

The result was a startling contrast between hard crust and soggy chyme, with hot drying pineapple and stringy fatty ham. A starving dog would have sniffed and given up. The saving grace is the small fruit salad which was edible, but that’s it. Yes some juice, wine and coffee are all available, give credit for the drinks trolley, but TAP food is scum class extraordinaire.

Arrival at Lisbon is another experience, and naturally the airline that has Lisbon as its hub doesn’t park at the terminal, it parks a good half mile away and buses everyone to the terminal. Even after that it takes 15 minutes of waiting for the luggage (although priority luggage works) and that’s it. Lisbon airport is quite pleasant, so the departure was rather stress free.

TAP check in was a breeze at Lisbon with no queue at all, and security itself had a short queue. However I was rather perplexed as to why nobody bothered when I walked through the scanner and it went off. The terminal airside is relatively spacious and pleasant, but TAP’s lounge is itself a pleasant haven. With free internet terminals, a range of cold snacks (including delicious warm custard tarts), and large selection of drinks, there is adequate comfortable seating and a couple of large screen TVs to allow for time to chill before the flight. The main let down is no bathroom, but at least TAP has done something good – even the front desk staff were helpful (as most Portuguese are).

Then it all gets let down. Boarding is a nightmare, with another bussing experience but not enough buses available at once. So for 10 minutes we spend queuing back along a stairwell waiting for a bus. Finally on board everything was much the same as before, except the seats were soft leather and tolerable this time. At the Heathrow the luggage came relatively quickly (for Heathrow).

Overall TAP is a mediocre European airline. I’d avoid it long haul economy class like the plague, and really it was tolerable partly due to having Star Alliance Gold lounge access. The main lesson though is to eat before the flight, pay to do so, you’ll regret it otherwise.
(Photo courtesy:

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