This report covers the return leg of a 24-hour jaunt to Belgium which resulted in me flying neither of the routes I'd originally booked.
Fresh from a cancelled VLM flight from Birmingham to Antwerp the previous day ("resolved" by being re-booked on their evening LCY-ANR flight), my way home started at Antwerp Centraal station in the mid-afternoon. At this point I was still fully intending to fly back to Birmingham onboard Brussels Airlines flight 2047 and checking out the elusive Sukhoi Superjet in the process. CityJet have operated a number of routes on SN's behalf with the Russian regional jet for a while now, so with one-way fares starting at £35 it was a great chance to log an unusual type on a short, convenient sector.
Some shots from the inbound farce
However, my rotten luck when flying specifically to log new types was about to strike again. The previous day had seen 2 of 3 Brussels Airlines daily flights to BHX cancelled without an obvious reason. Furthermore, that day's early morning BRU-BHX flight came up as flown by an Embraer 145 on FR24. All of these were originally scheduled to be flown by the Sukhoi, so my thoughts immediately went to maintenance issues.
Descending through the depths of Antwerp Centraal, where trains to BRU depart from the lowest platforms
The amount of cancellations and downgauging to BHX in recent days had me worrying for what would become of my flight. Sure enough, a quick check of FR24 on the train now listed the Birmingham flight as operated by an A319. Yawn. My most flown type to date, and one that I'd already logged with Brussels Airlines in the past. What a kick in the teeth.
Brussels Zaventem (BRU)
The short 30-minute train from Antwerp soon dropped me off at Brussels Zaventem railway station. Since initially booking the trip, my final destination for the day had now changed from the Birmingham area to South Wales. This left me with a further 3-4 hours of train travel to tackle after the potentially delayed/overbooked/cancelled flight to BHX, and a likely arrival time well after 10pm. This, as well as the prospect of another flight on the Borebus 319, got me thinking back to my options when I first booked my return leg to the UK.
With the near-certainty of the BHX flight being overbooked after the succession of cancelled flights, I decided to try my luck and enquire about availability on the 16:50 bmi Regional flight to Bristol. Not only would I avoid the A319, I'd also land considerably closer to my final destination and cut hours off my onward journey time. Brussels Airlines codeshare with bmi Regional on this flight, so I proceeded to their departure hall customer service desk and the friendly ground agent confirmed my suspicions; an overbooked BHX flight, and a spare seat on the BRS one. Result!
My information was quickly transferred over to the new flight and I was instructed to check-in at the unmarked BM desk (a lone lane squeezed between the TK and SN desks). Again, a very friendly agent with excellent English saw to my needs and even made a phone call to confirm my request for a window seat. Boarding pass in hand, I was free to clear security and head airside. Big credit to the BRU and SN ground staff who handled everything very efficiently and with a smile.
Security at BRU was understandably thorough, yet straightforward and quite fast for the time of day (it was around 4pm by this point). The BRS flight, as all UK flights, departs from the non-Schengen concourse requiring a passport check. This concourse is considerably darker and less spacious-feeling than the intra-EU one I used in 2016. However, the windows that did look out at the apron served up some nice views of Beasts from the East awaiting their return journeys to Asia.
ANA and Hainan Dreamliners plus a stereotype-embracing SN A320
Boarding was scheduled for 16:20 which left me with just enough time for one more Leffe at a predictably overpriced airport bar. No sign of our aircraft from the concourse suggested a bus gate, and this was confirmed at 16:20 when boarding was called through B89.
bmi Regional BRU-BRS
Most pax had already boarded the bus by the time I reached the gate. I was beeped through and the bus proceeded to drive us a few miles into the Belgian countryside and eventually to our awaiting plane: 20-year old G-CKAF, an Embraer 145 in service with BM since May 2017.
Today's jungle jet
bmi Regional - what's left of the original once-mighty, intercontinental British Midland International - has a fleet of 16 of these birds in addition to 4 of the marginally smaller Embraer 135s. Though not much of an exotic sight for those accustomed to regional air travel in the US, the tiny T-tail jet has become quite the rare sight in European skies. I for one was much happier boarding this Brazilian beauty than my scheduled A319, although I do understand how they would lose their appeal on longer flights or when travelling with larger carry-on luggage.
I was welcomed aboard my a solitary FA and located my seat on the double side of the 1-2 seating arrangement.
Looking back from seat 4F
There's no two ways about it - the cabin is tiny. The tall businessman types that largely composed the load for today's flights were grumbling and laughing in equal measure as they shuffled down the narrow aisle and hunched into their seats. I was pinned into 4F by a fellow so tall this 1-hour flight must've felt like eternity. The legroom was adequate, with the seatback pocket containing the standard safety card and inflight magazine.
This particular plane had 49 seats in an all-Y configuration, which made for a speedy boarding process with all large carry-ons being gate checked. The door was closed at 16:42 and a manual safety demonstration was quickly performed before the engines came to life at 16:49. Impressively punctual - although this shouldn't come as a surprise on an airline now so heavily geared towards business markets. No pushback needed from this remote stand and we began the long roll across aprons and taxiways towards runway 25R.
There was a brief pause while an Easyjet A319 took off ahead of us, then it was the turn of our pointy missile to line up and make a comically short take-off roll on BRU's longest runway. Sitting this far away from the rear-mounted engines made for an incredibly quiet liftoff at 16:58.
A freshly painted (?) Level A330-200 spotted below
We made a quick turn to the right after wheels up and aligned nicely towards the southern UK. Bear in mind that any photos featuring the Embraer's wing took some serious neck straining from this far forward!
Most of the pax were either already asleep by this point or making conversation with their colleagues. The flightpath took us just south of Antwerp where my stint in Belgium commenced the previous day and out towards the coastline, passing Bruges and Ostend airport right before leaving the Belgian coastline behind. Much like the UK, this part of Europe had been experiencing one of the hottest and driest summers in recent memory, reflected in the browns and yellows of the countryside below.
The actual window view looking ahead from 4F
As we left mainland Europe behind us, the sole FA began the inflight service. BM describe their onboard service as "complimentary drinks and snacks", which is another step above their codeshare partner SN who offer a bare-bones service in Y with buy-on-board only. I chose a coffee and glass of water, although it looked like wine and beer was offered too as well as soft drinks and juice.
Once the drinks service was complete (many pax declined the offer), the FA went through the cabin with small Belgian chocolates from the reputable chocolatier Neuhaus.
While I think it's stretching things to classify this as a "snack", I still appreciated the gesture in comparison to what I'd have received on my original flight, i.e. nothing. I'd be interested to know if they serve anything more substantial on longer flights or those that coincide with mealtimes.
With the onboard service complete, we crossed the English coastline at 17:24 and with it a large layer of cloud very uncharacteristic of the British summer so far. Unfortunately this cloud layer would be all there was to see until we broke through on final approach to BRS.
More like the British summertime we all know and love
I flicked through the in-flight magazine but wasn't struck by much, aside from an interesting article by the CEO on the complexities of replacing the aging E145/135 fleet with so few obvious alternatives. Most of the content was targeted at BM's bread-and-butter market of business travellers, with the occasional few paragraphs on one of their European city destinations.
Their route map certainly makes for interesting viewing, with such oddball intra-EU and domestic routes as STN-LDY, BRI-BGY, RLG-STR and ABZ-EBJ, with hubs in Bristol, Brussels and Munich. After the collapse of the original BMI, bmi Regional seem to have done a good job placing themselves on niche routes between secondary cities in Europe and serving as a codesharing with the likes of SN and LH to destinations that couldn't sustain their mainline services. I understand they're also quite active in the holiday and private charter sector as well.
The cabin was somewhat outdated and gave away the aircraft's age, but on the sort of flights BM operate I doubt this is of much concern to their customers. Tickets are typically pricier than flights of a similar duration/distance in Europe - the standard fare I found on BRU-BRS was around £80 - but I believe they their business-oriented approach will continue to serve them well.
After a brief alignment above the LHR approach path far below, we started descent into BRS at 17:39. There was precious little to see until breaking through the low-lying layer of cloud, when the parched English countryside came into view. It looked more like an approach into Barajas than Bristol!
And it was all yellow…
We lined up for final approach from the East, taking us south of the city of Bristol and providing distant views of the Welsh hills, Severn River and Clifton Suspension bridge. Again, being sat so far from the engines made for a surreally quiet landing experience.
At 16:51 local time - 9 minutes ahead of schedule - we made a surprisingly hard landing on runway 27 and concluded a flight time of just 53 minutes.
Bristol Airport (BRS)
This was followed by a quick exit of the runway and speedy taxi past the main terminal at Bristol, which was mainly populated by a pair of TUI and Thomas Cook holiday charters as well as Easyjet and Ryanair aircraft ready to tackle the brunt of school summer holiday traffic. A KLM E190 followed shortly behind us, serving as another useful connection to the rest of the world from Western England's main air gateway. At 16:54 we were on stand alongside a company E145 and E135 at bmi's remote gates at the eastern end of the airport.
The door was opened almost immediately after engines off, and we were free to disembark impressively quickly. The FA said goodbye and it was down the little E-jet's stairs and into the country air and the awaiting bus.
Adeus, pequeno amigo
There was a brief pause while pax who had to gate-check their roller bags waited to collect them by the aircraft, but even this was done smoothly and efficiently. The bus soon pulled away from G-CKAF, and I was left hoping it wouldn't be my last ride on one of these quirky little T-tails.
The short ride to the terminal and non-existent queues at immigration meant I was landside in time to catch the A1 bus to Temple Meads station at 17:05. Incredible timing, soured only by the sickening £8 fare for the 30-minute ride into town. I'm sure you could fly Ryanair from BRS for less than the bus you'll use to get to the airport…
One final glimpse of G-CKAF from the bus
Brussels - BRU
Bristol - BRS
I wouldn't hesitate to use bmi Regional again, especially as an alternative to Brussels Airlines. They provide an efficient, streamlined experience from gate to gate and have the edge over competition with perks such as FF miles on certain programmes, complimentary onboard service and a free 23kg checked luggage allowance, which I didn't take advantage of. Their fleet isn't getting any younger but personally I enjoyed flying the ever-rarer E145, even if I didn't score one of the solo seats on the left-hand side on this occasion.
My customer service experience at BRU was the highlight of this little trip, as the staff made the best of a bad situation for everybody and did so with a smile on their faces. Big props to them. I can't really comment on BRS but any airport that takes up less than 10 minutes of my time gets my approval. The extortionate airport bus takes away from the positive experience although that's not necessarily the airport's fault.
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