Needing to get from Spain to Romania this summer, I couldn't have asked for a better opportunity to log my first - and almost definitely last - A310 flight. Tarom, Romania's national airline, is one of only a few passenger operators left of this type, notably alongside SATA Azores and Air Transat. Soon after booking my flight, Tarom announced the retirement of their two A310-300 frames in October 2016 and so I decided now was the perfect time to contribute my own short homage to the stubby pocket rocket and the fantastic experience I was lucky enough to receive on board.
Tarom operates the A310 sporadically to a number of destinations including Amsterdam, Vienna, Tel Aviv and Dubai, however by far their most consistent service is to Madrid. I can't say I know why the Spanish capital warrants a widebody multiple times a week, plus fares are often quite high relative to the competition. Tarom does, however, still provide full service in Economy, serving a hot meal on European flights and including a checked bag in all fares up until very recently.
The flight was booked as part of a BCN-MAD-OTP Economy ticket, connecting overnight in Madrid from Air Europa's A330-200 evening Barcelona service. There were other direct options from Spain to Bucharest, however these are mainly on LCCs such as Vueling or Blue Air. I decided that two legs on intra-European widebodies was good value vs the alternatives, especially considering one would be the A310.
Disembarking EC-JQQ the evening before
I was able to check-in online through the Tarom website 36 hours before departure. The website is rudimentary but functional, and gave me the option to select seats 22A and 22B for my girlfriend and I. Advance seat selection isn't offered yet but I was able to enter my Flying Blue number and collect points on this Skyteam airline. After a short night at the BeLive Diana Hotel, we made our way to Madrid Barajas T4 on the complimentary shuttle bus (reserved the night before) at 10am. The Tarom check-in desks were still deserted and we quickly checked a bag and were given our boarding passes, complete with the correct seat reservations.
I checked FR24 to see the inbound flight was on-time and, to my relief, an A310 as scheduled. Today's flight would be operated by YR-LCA; 24 years young and aptly named "Transilvania" (my final destination was the city of Brasov). Tarom use the satellite terminal at T4 due to Romania not being part of the Schengen area, so it was a quick ride on the underground train over to where the bulk of Iberia and co's long haul flights depart from. The immigration queues were quite long as the midday bank of departures neared but we were through in under 20 minutes thanks to the shortcuts on the elevators.
T4 was a pleasure to travel from, as always, if not just for the stunning work of architecture that it is. The satellite terminal mirrors the sleek design and airiness of its counterpart on the other side of the airport. Food and drink options are plentiful albeit pricey, so safe in the knowledge we'd be fed on the flight we opted for a Starbucks coffee and cookie. Windows provided limited views of the activity outside but it wasn't long before YR-LCA was spotted resting up at gate S46.
There she is!
Movements on the apron consisted mainly of Iberia A346s heading to both North and South America. In amongst the crowd were an Air Nostrum CRJ, Evelop A333 and Air China A332 operating their PEK-MAD-GRU service.
YR-LCA in all her glory
With Air China's A332 in the background
Boarding time came and went despite the on-time arrival. Eventually boarding was called at the original departure time, prompting a stampede typical of the Iberian peninsula. This is where an amazing flying experience became a truly unforgettable one - upon reaching the gate agent, our boarding passes were scanned and prompted a frantic beeping from the machine. Having seen the person ahead of us in the queue get re-issued a Business Class boarding card, my heart skipped a beat imagining the same lay in store for us. But what are chances of two, status-less, low fare-paying Economy pax getting the bump? Turns out they were 100%! Startled, I was handed two boarding passes for seats 3E and 3F. The agent smiled, "En Business. Mejor, ¿no?"
Walking down the jetbridge was a daze. Not only was I logging this classic aeroplane, but doing so on my first ever flight in J. As somone who funds their travel solely out of their own, shallow pocket, this was truly an item being ticked off my bucket list.
No turning left on entering the aircraft thanks to the A310's stumpy length, however we were greeted with a step back in time. The first 3 rows of the aircraft form a mini-cabin in which the J seating is located: 20 old school recliner seats in a 2-3-2 layout. Think First Class of the 1970/80s and you won't be far off. The seats were big, wide and soft with immense legroom and an extendable legrest. A small pillow was also provided with each seat.
My seat - 3F
The cabin clearly showed its age with many features serving as throwbacks to a bygone era, such as CRT monitor TVs on the ceiling, ancient overhead storage compartments, harsh lighting and obviously no AVOD or power sources.
Despite this I couldn't have been happier. A few other pax had been upgraded due to a 100% load in Y, bringing the J cabin to about half-full. Boarding was completed and pre-departure beverages were offered. I'm sure we were the only ones in the cabin to choose the champagne!
Drinks with a view
The antique TV monitors weren't working so it was down to the crew to perform a manual safety demonstration. All was well, they were halfway through and then -POW-. The cabin went dark, the air vents turned off and the hum of the APU whirred down to nothing. The looks of confusion from the passengers were only matched by the looks of "here we go again" from the FAs! The captain soon came over the PA to confirm that the aircraft had suffered a power failure and we'd lost our takeoff slot as a result. Further groans came from the cabin as he explained we'd have to wait 50 minutes for the next one. More time in the pointy end of this classic plane wasn't necessarily a bad thing in my book, although I did start to get a little worried as the power shut down again just moments after restarting. A cancellation and/or replacement aircraft would be too much to take after getting this far.
The view an hour later
Water was given out multiple times in both J and Y as the cabin heated up under the midday sun. The outdated air conditioning struggled with the intensity of Madrid in July and it did get uncomfortably warm inside on a few occasions. We were finally pushed back at 13:45, 90 minutes after scheduled departure time.
Pushback at last
Luckily it was a short taxi to runway 36R followed by the absolute joy of hearing those ancient PWs spool up. I'd never heard engines scream quite like they did! We blasted into the clear Spanish skies at 13:55.
It was a perfect day for flying with the parched earth of the Spanish interior rolling by beneath us. Drinks service began 20 minutes after departure. I chose a beer which was served with a glass of water and packet of peanuts. Disappointingly they didn't offer any Romanian beers, but rather bottles of Peroni.
After a relaxing drink as we crossed the Spanish coast over Barcelona, it was lunch time. There was no menu to choose from so the crew quickly distributed the day's only option: baked salmon in lemon juice with green beans, roast potatoes and grilled tomatoes. The main meal was accompanied by 2 bread rolls, a tub of olives in hummus, a small selection of cheeses and a fruit crumble cake as dessert. Another drink was also served with the food. The salmon was served in chinaware and the cutlery was real metal, so apart from the side dishes in plastic tubs it had a fairly premium feel.
My only gripe with the meal was that there was only the one choice. I'm not a huge fan of fish and my girlfriend can't stand it, so I was surprised to see nothing in terms of even a vegetarian J option. Luckily I was hungry enough for both salmon steaks which were actually very good. The food was quite greasy but apart from that I can't fault it at all, a really solid offering from Tarom on an intra-European flight.
There was a coffee and tea service after the main meal had been cleared away. The coffee was very strong despite plenty of milk being added - something I'd quickly get used to in Romania.
No seatback IFE here
Interestingly the cabin lights were dimmed once the beverage service had concluded, something I don't remember experiencing before during the day. Many people made the most of the seats' impressive recline as the flight continued smoothly across the Mediterranean.
Crossing the Italian mainland coast
The bathroom was clean but messy, and didn't extend any premium feel from the cabin. Perhaps people just weren't bothered about roses and designer hand soaps in the 80s?
With a flight time of about 3 hours, there was plenty of time to sit back, relax and imagine jetsetting from Eastern Europe to New York or Bangkok in this vintage cabin.
We made landfall again over the Croatian coastline. Luckily the weather remained clear, giving fantastic views of the many islands down below.
Unfortunately this didn't last and the ground became obscured by thick cloud as we flew over Bosnia. The terrain below wasn't seen again until we began our descent into Bucharest.
The flat plains of southern Romania sprawled underneath us as we passed down through the cloud layer.
Bucharest appears in the distance
A mesmerising landscape of fields and villages accompanied us right until the suburbs of the capital came into view as our old Airbus lined up for finals once more.
At 17:59 local time - one hour and nine minutes behind schedule - we touched down on runway 08R.
After a brisk 5 minute taxi we pulled into our gate alongside a bright Wizzair A320. Business class passengers were invited to disembark first, and disappointingly I was denied a cockpit visit on the way out. It added to the disappointment that this fantastic flight was over and that I was stepping off an A310 for (almost certainly) the last time.
Noisy (and cheaper) neighbours
Goodbye, old girl
We exited the jetbridge into Bucharest's new international terminal to make our way through passport control. It was a relatively smooth process despite the summer crowds and we were soon at baggage reclaim. This is where the Tarom experience took one final, big hit. In spite of the "bags incoming" sign being illuminated, we were left waiting an unacceptable 50 minutes for ours. The aircraft was visible parked just a few hundred feet away!
Bucharest Otopeni was a confusing and outdated experience once through to arrivals. Taking a taxi meant queuing for some machines which issued you a ticket and the number of the cab you should look out for - a nice idea if it wasn't for the fact only one of the three machines was working and took about 3 attempts for it to do what it was supposed to. All in all a chaotic end to an otherwise pleasant journey that will live long in my memory.
Here's to you A310 - the skies will be a duller and (sadly) quieter place without you!
Madrid - MAD
Bucharest - OTP
It's safe to say that were it not for my interest in aviation and unexpected upgrade, this flight would've been a frustrating affair. For a regular passenger, the delay out of Madrid and outdated cabin would've annoyed me before even taking off. A hot meal sets Tarom apart from many of its competitors and I really hope they continue to provide it during this time of relentless cutbacks in airline service across the world. It's worth noting that even since taking this flight, Tarom have joined many others in making their basic fares carry-on only. It's a shame their fleet won't feature any proper J seating now the A310s are gone, however service in the air was good and definitely one of their strong points. It was disappointing not to see the cockpit but otherwise the crew were pleasant and professional.
Madrid T4 was a pleasure as always, it's a shame that experience couldn't be mirrored on the other end. Baggage reclaim was an absolute farce. There's no excuses for taking that long in a medium-sized airport such as Bucharest. I'm keen to try it as a departing passenger but until then it'll be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
If anyone can shed any light on a) why the A310 was used on the Madrid route, b) what Tarom intend to replace it with, and c) how two status-less pax managed to score an upgrade, then I'd greatly appreciate your input! Thanks for reading and I hope you've enjoyed your "flight".
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