SQ 375 DXB-SIN Y B777-200 seat 59D

I hate airport transfer desks: they’re always full of people with bizarre problems flying on bizarre itineraries that made my half-paper, half-electronic SQ-SV mutant combo look normal. This time around, a Chinese guy with a dodgy ticket, a very lost-looking Somali housewife and a pair of Pakistani mullahs had to be disposed of before the frazzled Filipino agent got around to processing me, and even my ticket took a couple of phone calls to sort out.

But eventually I had a boarding pass in hand and I set off to check out the Star Alliance Lounge, which based on the amount of LH propaganda lying around probably used to be Lufthansa’s. For an airport the size of Dubai, it was rather ridiculously small, with seating for maybe 40 and most of all of those taken even on this offpeak weekday afternoon. The full bar looked pretty good and they had rather spotty free wifi, but food offerings were limited to a few miniature sandwich-type things, chips and peanuts and the selection of newspapers was heavily Germanic (LH again?).

Back on the bird, which was coming in from Moscow and hence full of Russians knocking back vodka like it was going out of style. Somewhat to my surprise this turned out to be one of SQ’s regional models with no AVOD, and I understood why the people stuck on this thing for 12 hours were intent on getting liquored up. I’d forgetten to online checkin back in Saudi, so I’d ended up with an inner aisle seat way in the back of the bus, but the middle seat was empty and I could stretch out a little.

We took off on schedule and within minutes were back inside that crazy tail wind: I could feel the plane jittering a little as it was pushed forward and the airshow speedometer showed an amazing ground speed of 1138 km/h! Alas, once out of the Gulf the wind slowed down and meal service started. As I honestly can’t remember what I ate, I’m pretty sure it was airplane food, but part of the blame has to lie on Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, an utterly brainless Hindi comedy of the type that makes three hours on a plane fly past. A bit of laptop hacking later a simple breakfast rolled around (choice of muffin or danish with tea or coffee), and before I knew the plane was starting its descent, with a good half hour shaved off the scheduled flight time of 7:15.

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SV 554 RUH-DXB Y B777-200 seat 54L

Precisely the same flight as last time, only in the opposite direction, and the difference was night and day. Then, it was night and I sat in the aisle — now, it was day and I had a window seat, with amazing views out into the endless sand dunes below, a vast, endless expanse of reddish sand with occasional dunes and solitary roads. Dotted here and there, seemingly entirely at random, were perfect circles of lush green: farms in the middle of the desert, one of Saudi Arabia’s more harebrained attempts at diversification. (At one point, Saudi authorities had to issue a fatwa to declare the practice of feeding livestock with Saudi grain un-Islamic: at the time, all local production was bought by the government at around 8x the world price and sold for half it.)

The plane, too, seemed in slightly better shape, with a functional Airview program and two operational cameras. Lunch rolled around with much the same formula as last time, only this time with a rather tasty beef stew. Regrettably, I was foiled in my attempt to purchase two decks of Saudi Arabian Airlines playing cards, which would have been just the thing for a rousing game of strip poker on the weekend. Sigh.

The route from Riyadh to Dubai doesn’t follow the shortest route: instead, it heads a bit northeast, flying directly over Damman, before turning southeast and flying around Bahrain and Qatar, both visible in the distance, from the north. There was a fearsome tail wind of nearly 200 km/h pushing us along, but the time thus gained was lost at Dubai — we flew across the city and into the desert for a while before U-turning back and touching down on schedule.

SV 559 DXB-RUH Y B777-200 seat 40C

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I stepped inside the door of my first Saudi Arabian Airlines plane, and I’m not quite sure if it matched those fuzzy expectations. A B777 is still a B777, even though this one was a little faded and scruffy on the edges. One of the stewards was equipped with a closely-cropped head combined with the long, scraggly beard of a devout Muslim, but there were also stewardesses flitted about, with dark blue veils hiding the hair but not the faces.

We pushed back on schedule and, after a monotone male baritone read out an invocation starting with a dual Allahu Akbar (which passed the taxiing time nicely, I might add), we bounced off into the sky. Meal service followed, with a bit of confusion as there was a special meal for seat 40C despite me not requesting one; on declining, I was offered the usual “chicken or beef”, and picked chicken. This got me a rather dry pilaf-type rice dish with chicken chunks, a lettuce and tomato salad, an industry-standard warm bread bun (there must be a giant factory somewhere that makes these for every single airline on the planet) and a cube of strawberry cake (probably from the aforementioned factory as well).

Seat pitch was pretty decent (36″?), although the layout was a weird 2-5-2 and, this being a two-hour flight, I had a little time to look around. Despite the claims of the inflight entertainment mag, there was no airshow flight route map, only a rather less exciting arrow pointing the direction towards Mecca (qiblah). The plane was supposed to be equipped with two cameras, but only the forward-pointing one worked, and it too was switched off. The first five channels were, predictably, “The Holy Quran”, “Islamic Programming” (Arabic and English versions) and “Your Guide to the Hajj” (Arabic/English), but the rest was devoted to Hollywood fare, including “Rush Hour 3”, which I’d watched on SQ. No on-demand options though, just looping videos, so I didn’t have the chance to check out how Saudi censors had treated the scene where the cop duo checks out the backstage of a Parisian burlesque show… so I stuck to the qiblah-o-rama, which allowed interesting mental gyrations as I tried to estimate the plane’s heading and direction in reference to not our destination, but a city some 500 km to the southeast. Fun for the whole Islamic family!

Try as I might, an aisle seat over the wing didn’t allow me to see much scenery as we descended. After a smooth touchdown into scraggly desert scenery, we rolled up to one of the gates of the still remarkably futuristic-looking King Khalid International Airport. What awaited me inside?

SQ494 SIN-DXB Y B777-300 seat 35H

The flight started off ominously: on all seat-back and cabin screens was a freeze frame from the SQ safety video, showing a little girl with an orange oxygen mask on her face and the caption: “Take care of yourself before attending to others.” Kiasu or what?

That aside, it was another day, another SQ 777 — SQ is the world’s biggest operator of the 777 and unsurprisingly it’s also by an overwhelming majority the most common plane I fly. Fortunately life is made marginally more interesting by the fact that SQ has no less than four variants of this. The pedestrian B777-200 is the workhorse of the regional fleet, with neither on-demand entertainment nor decent business seating. B777-300s like this are a step up, with decent entertainment but still no near-flat seats; it’s only the B777-200ER that introduces the Spacebed in biz, and the still rare B777-300ER (aka “77W” in SQ-ese), which I’ve yet to fly, was SQ’s star until the A380 crashed the party.

But today, something a little out of the ordinary happened. We taxied out from the gate and lined up for our turn to take off… and waited, and waited, and waited some more. Eventually the captain came online: an indicator light for a punctured tire was lit. We taxied back to a safer position, waited for the mechanics to show up, and they eventually confirmed that, yes, a tire was indeed punctured. Nearly two hours after pushback, we arrived back the same gate we’d left from. They guessed 45 minutes to replace the tire, so I headed back to the lounge (T2 this time) for a quick bite and laptop recharge.

After barely 10 minutes in the lounge, it was time to try again, and this time we were off for real. I’d finished my first movie (an enjoyable if brainless Egyptian criminals-fall-in-love romp) by the time dinner rolled around. No Arabic catering here either, I’d had the same ayam rendang (chicken in dry curry) umpteen times before, but I’ve had worse.

And the flight continued. The lights went dark, I played with my laptop a bit, tried to sleep a bit, watched the barely entertaining Rush Hour 3, had a fairly bizarre “refreshment” of a croissant stuffed with salsa, tuna and yoghurt, had the lights go off again, and come back on only 30 minutes before landing. Soon we crossed over the northern tip of the UAE, flew past Dubai, executed a U-turn and came down for a landing, the Palm Jumeirah visible in the distance and the insane lit-up spike of Burj Dubai looking like a computer rendering error in the night-time sky.

Unexpectedly Arabic: al-Episode أ

Ending up in Greece in the first place was a bit of a surprise to say the least, but consulting threw me another curveball at 8:30 on Wednesday morning. As I’d already finished what I set out to do, how about going to Abu Dhabi instead — today? Well, umm, err, why not?

So I spent the morning trying to figure out how to get there, booking flights and hotels and packing up and checking out two nights ahead of schedule. There were no sensible flight connections from Athens to Abu Dhabi, but I could take a direct flight to Dubai in the evening and cover the remaining 170 km by taxi. The travel agent offered a choice between Olympic, one of Europe’s worst airlines, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for years with Greece flouting EU rules to subsidize it while unable to find a buyer; and Emirates, one of the world’s best airlines, with enough awards and devoted passengers to make Singapore Airlines quake. It didn’t take too long to decide. (And the Olympic flight, with a Kuwait stopover, would’ve taken longer.)

I took the train out to the airport (“next stop: Pallini”), checked in for my flight, gasped when I saw yet another passport queue of Olympic proportions but was relieved to find it fast-moving, and once through embarked on my perennial pre-flight entertainment ritual of “Find the Power Socket”. After my iPod was juiced up, they started boarding and, smiled in by Emirates stewardesses wearing as much makeup as the Singapore Girls but topped off with pillbox hats and poofy token veils, I navigated to my seat in this B777-300ER. (Incidentally, Emirates’ business class seats look absolutely amazing, but that’ll have to wait for another day.)

First impression: people flying Emirates don’t have just Louis Vuitton handbags, but Louis Vuitton luggage. Second impression: pretty tight seat pitch. Not unusually bad, but by no means generous, and reclining the seat makes it slide forward, reducing the pitch even more. The seat lottery had given me an end aisle, next to the toilets (d’oh), but with nobody behind. This was an advantage, because Emirates’ “ice” entertainment system uses a touchscreen, which means people poking at your headrest when they want to change the channel. (Well, the controller does have a dinky joypad as a substitute, but it’s, well, dinky.) That’s pretty much it as far as negatives go, as the system is otherwise amazing: 500 (!) channels of movies, TV programs and audio, with a nice big screen and a very responsive, high-res interface that slaughters poor old KrisWorld. The handset is in the seat in front, not by your side, which makes it oh so much easier to tweak volumes and channels, and stops you from pressing the wrong buttons by accident to boot. The only downside was that the selection loaded was so un-edgy it hurt: not a single movie I was particularly interested in seeing, no comedy that would qualify as even mildly racy, not even a single DJ mix. Well, at least they had “Best of Ayumi Hamasaki” and the latest by the Chemical Brothers — and there’s another feature that just sold me onto EK for my next long-haul flight: free power sockets for every other seat, even in economy!

Getting permission to leave Elefterios Venizelos took a while, but once in flight dinner, somewhat oddly called “lunch” despite being served at 7 PM, was served. This was pretty impressive: we were handed menus, and while this reduced to “lamb or fish?” when the service actually came around, the actual meal was a cut above the usual: a little plate of Greek mezze, a Greek salad (yay, feta!), and “Perch cooked in spetsiota sauce” which was, well, white fish in tomato sauce. It all looked great though, because — and I know this will sound stupid, but it’s true — the containers were all jauntily sail-shaped or triangular instead of square. Of such small touches is pizzazz made. Dessert was a honey-soaked pastry, the only Arabic-feeling thing on the menu (although the menu claimed that it, too, was Greek) and an on-your-pillow-in-good-hotels piece of chocolate. I was little disappointed/surprised not to have an Arab meal option, but it was still pretty impressive to have a menu so localized for a single destination, and overall it was definitely among the best economy meals I’ve had anywhere.

Dubai Airport is a giant construction site, and we were treated to a long bus journey from the plane with not one, but two stops: one for transiting passengers, the second for those terminating their journey in Dubai. Alas, midnight is peak hour at DXB and there was another long passport queue waiting, but at least this time I’d had the foresight to visit the loo first and 45 minutes passed fairly painlessly. My bag was waiting in the pile next to the conveyor belt, I grabbed a sliver of dirham from an ATM and headed to the taxi queue for my onward journey.

The next 150 km were almost hallucinatory. First lengthwise through the even more fast construction site of Dubai itself, past the towering spire of Burj Dubai, the billowing sail of the Burj al-Arab, the Chinese temples of the Ibn Battuta Mall, and kilometer after kilometer after kilometer of the elevated Dubai Metro track. Eventually, though, the buildings petered out and it was just a ten-lane highway slicing through the desert. An eerie tan light as the streetlamps were filtered through the sandy air, an occasional roar from the left lane as Emiratis speeded past in their tinted-window SUVs at 250 km/h, and at almost every intersection the bulbous, cephalopod figure of an oversized mosque, floodlit green and topped with red lights in the minarets staring out into the desert like eyes. Warning signs posted by the side of the road proclaimed: “Beware of road surprises”.

There are three Hiltons in Abu Dhabi, and the second one my driver took me to was the right one. (Later it turned out that, locationwise, I should’ve booked the first one after all.) After an effortless checkin, I crashed into an opulently huge bed at 3 AM, wondering what awaited me next morning.