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To Liberia with Brussels Airlines (SN)

To Liberia with Brussels Airlines (SN)

Old May 20, 07, 7:11 am
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To Liberia with Brussels Airlines (SN)

This is my fourth visit to Liberia after the end of the second civil war in 2003 and my first since September 2005. Having previously travelled on a combination of obscure carriers such as Ghana Airways (now defunct), Air Ivoire and Astraeus, this time I chose Brussels Airlines (previously SN Brussels, previously Sabena) from Brussels, an airline and airport I had never used before. The main reason for avoiding Brussels Airlines in the past is the pricing, I paid some 1,600 Euro for my coach class ticket, while other destinations with more competition in West Africa, such as Dakar or Accra, are in the 800 Euro league. However, my employer was not fuzzy this time and I had my paper ticket (the first on an European airline in a while) two weeks before departure. The flight would start with a feeder from Frankfurt on Lufthansa (Brussels Airlines has no flights on Suday morning), hence the paper ticket, and I took the ICE train from Siegburg/Bonn to Frankfurt airport on the evening before departure, staying at the fairly nice NH Airport Hotel in Kelsterbach.

06 June 07 LH 4570 Frankfurt - Brussels 0715 - 0810 Seat 6F

After a quick, but very welcome, complimentary 'early bird' breakfast of coffee, juice and a croissant, I took the 0600 airport shuttle to Terminal 1. The elite check-in was deserted at this early hour and the LH agent happily checked my luggage all the way to Monrovia, but was unable to print the boarding pass for the flight from Brussels. After passing security (a small wait of maybe 10 minutes), I went to the LH Business Class lounge near Gate A26. As I've switched my FF loyalty to Skyteam a while ago, I don't use Lufthansa much anymore and I was pleasantly surprised about the food offerings in the lounge. Breakfast items included a number of cereals, bread and fruit, and compare very favorably to what I'm used to from KL or AF lounges these days. Plus, the view from the lounge to the apron was very nice, the newspaper racks were well stocked (another grievance I have with regard to the KL lounges in AMS is the lack of decent English papers), and I used the T-Mobile hotspot to send an overdue report to the office. The lounge was quite busy on this early morning, mostly with long-distance passengers connecting to European flights, so while it was comfortable enough on a Sunday, it might get crowded on weekday.

Boarding at gate A24 was fairly chaotic, this flight was carrying a lot of transit passengers to Brussels Airlines' African network and many of them were not frequent fliers. LH had only one gate agent and while a self-boarding gate was available, my paper ticket prevented me from using it. I think the plane was a B737 with a fairly full load, but the middle seat next to me remained blissfully empty. I've never worked out whether this was pure luck or a fringe benefit of my FTL (*A Silver) status, but I was quite happy anyway. After a long taxi and quick take off, we were offered a snack service consisting in my case of coffee, orange juice and a small piece of waffle. I wonder what happened to the more substantial sandwitches they used to offer on short European flights, but then again I had a nice breakfast in the lounge. The rest of the flight was spent reading through the surprisingly informative inflight magazine (a special edition celebrating 10 years of *A) and looking out of the window.

Arrival in Brussels was on time and we taxied to the midfield terminal which seems to accommodate most of the short-haul services. While I travel to Brussel quite often, the convenient rail link from Cologne means that I had never been to the airport before. My flight to Monrovia left from the main terminal, so I went through the underground passage, cleared passport control and another long security line, before arriving in the concourse. All the while I had been looking for a transit desk, but those in the midfield terminal were not staffed and it took me a while to locate tiny SN customer service desk in the main concourse. Despite the fact that SN is the Belgian national carrier and BRU is it's only hub, it's presence is much less felt than that of competing network carriers at their main stations. With a long distance network covering some 14 African destinations (most of them quite obscure) and some 40 European destinations (quite a few through codeshares), SN is quite clearly a niche carrier. As I have no lounge privileges on the airline (bummer, one gets used to those things), I spent the next two hours waiting at a coffee bar. I also noted that retail offerings were very limited in BRU, at least airside, I could not even find a newspaper shop after security.
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Old May 20, 07, 7:48 am
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Monrovia-bound..

06 June 07 SN 235 Brussels - Monrovia 1040 - 1750 A330 Seat 42G

For the Africa network, SN operates a long distance fleet of some four A330 operating in a two class layout. Unfortunately, I failed to take any pictures, but I promise to do that on the return flight. Today's flight would be operating via Dakar in Senegal and the plane was fairly full. Gambling on an empty seat next to me, I had chosen an aisle seat in the center block, as the 2-4-2 configuration meant that window seats would probably have a seat neighbor. After the business class passengers had boarded, coach passengers followed in a long line. Newspapers were available at the airplane door.

The interior of the plane was decorated in SN's trademark blue, which I actually find quite stylish. Seat pitch was ok by coach standards and the seat next to me actually remained empty as I had hoped it would. After a quick taxi were on our way to West Africa. The one thing I did not like about the experience was the inflight entertainment (or rather the lack thereof). SN offers the movies via the old-fashioned ceilling-mounted monitors. While this obviously does not compare favorably with the dozens of video-on-demand offering on board of KL and AF on similar routes, I also found the program very poor. During seven hours of total flying time, the showed a grand total of one movie and that was some comedy mostly geared at children. They also had the usual 10-12 channels of audio entertainment, but I opted for my iPod instead.

The inflight service consisted of drinks and nuts, followed by lunch about two hours into the flight. There were only two options (beef or fish) available, but when the cart reached me they were down to beef. So beef goulash it was, served in a surprisingly spicy gravy together with (I think) veggetables and potatoes. In addition there was a limp green salad and forgettable white bread rolls. While the main dish was actually quite good by coach standards, bread and salad were not and no dessert was on the tray. I had some nice South African wine with the meal. After clearing the lunch tray, the flight attendants brought out vanilla ice cream and offered a team/coffee service, as well as liquors. Before arrival in Dakar, where most passengers disembarked, there was another drinks service. On the short, 1.5 hours sector from Dakar to Monrovia there was another drinks service and a cheese sandwitch, probably catered in Senegal.

Arrival in Monrovia was some 30 minutes early and by the time I had passed the somewhat chaotic passport control area, my luggage was alread there and I was out in the African sun a few minutes later. In summary, I think that SN offers a decent enough coach product. Service was warm and friendly, even though I would have appreciated a more substantial snack before arrival. The beers (Stella Artois) and wines on board were decent for coach. Inflight entertainment was a major minus in my book. For niche markets such as Monrovia, I would certainly fly SN again to avoid connections on dubious West African carriers, but I would certainly prefer AF/KL to other African markets.

The next installment will feature various UN charter flights on MIL-8 helicopters and Dash-7 props.
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Old May 20, 07, 8:20 am
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Nice TR, would love to see pics.

How did you gain access to the biz lounge? Can you do this as a Star Alliance Silver on an Economy Class ticket or did I miss something.
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Old May 20, 07, 8:43 am
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LH Business Class Lounge

Originally Posted by TrayflowInUK View Post
Nice TR, would love to see pics.

How did you gain access to the biz lounge? Can you do this as a Star Alliance Silver on an Economy Class ticket or did I miss something.
Frequent Traveller (FTL) is LH's own *A Silver card and allows you access to their own business class lounges and a few third-party lounges. I will try to take pictures on the flight back.
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Old May 20, 07, 4:01 pm
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I'd be interesting in pics too.

Monrovia is a real rough place I heard...
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Old May 20, 07, 4:45 pm
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Monrovia to Harper, on a UN helicopter

Liberia's capital Monrovia has actually two airports: There is Roberts Field, some 60 kilometer from the city, which is served by Brussels Airline's three times weekly service to Europe, as well as by Slok Air (based in Banjul, Gambia) and Bellview Airlines (based in Lagos, Nigeria), both serving the West African coastal hopper service to Freetown, Accra and beyond. Skyteam is represented by Kenya Airways, serving Nairobi via Abidjan. And there is also Liberia's very own Wesua Air Transport (WAT), providing very unreliable services to Abidjan on ageing Russian turboprop. The airport is also served by numerous charter flights operating on behalf of the United Nations.

Monrovia's second airport - Spriggs Payne - is much closer to the city center. In 2005, it was served by the Humanitarian Air Service, a passenger service operated by the World Food Programme (WFP) with Let 410 aircraft, the charter plane operating for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and, of course, by the UN's own substantial domestic aviation operation. WFP was even flying internationally to Freetwon and Abidjan from Spriggs and the airport boasted immigration and customs facilities. In 2007, it seems the airport is only used by the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL).

UNMIL is operating a network of domestic flights serving both their own staff as well as humanitarian workers and Liberian public servants. In addition, both the helicopters and the single Dash-7 carry cargo as well. However, as UN staff enjoys priority on these services, travelling with UNMIL can be hit and miss, people have been known to get stranded for days. I secured a booking for UN 160, operating from Monrovia to Harper with intermediate stops. When I made it to the airport, I found out that as a non-UN staff member I only had a standby reservation and that the flight was quite a bit overbooked. After clearing security, we entered the tiny terminal area. While my own reservation cleared, my colleague had to stay behind for another day. Having received a yellow plastic boarding pass, I entered the departure area. Spriggs Payne does not boast any concessions, nor are there any FF lounges. Entertainment was provided by a monitor which, rather than showing departures and arrivals, was frozen on a classic "Helicopter blades are cutting edge technology" travel advisory, featuring a big red blood stain.

14 May 07 UN 160 Monrovia - Harper 0900 - 1330 Open Seating

After the UNMIL aviation official gave us a stern warning not to smoke on board of our helicopter, we walked across the tarmac to our MI-8 bird. Operated by some Russian company on behalf of the United Nations, it would be our noisy home for the next 3.5 hours. Seating was on a bench which went along the wall, facing cargo and checked luggage, which was tied down in the middle. As the helicopter was full with twenty passengers, it felt not much different from the average bush taxi. Most of the passengers were local UN workers, with the odd Liberian government employee thrown in for good measure. After our boarding pass had been collected, the Russian co-pilot gave us another safety briefing and disappeared into the cockpit. Inflight entertainment was provided by my iPod (the noise-chancelling headset came in very handy) and a week-old copy of Newsweek, inflight service consisted of my very own bottle of Liberian mineral water. Liberian safety regulations still allow the transport of fluids in one's hand luggage, it seems. After 1.5 hours we stopped at Greenville for refueling, then 30 minutes later on in Barckleyville until we finally arrived in Harper, on the border to Cote d'Ivoire. Luggage delivery was swift and soon enough I was on my way to town.

Last edited by Arnur; May 26, 07 at 2:18 pm
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Old May 21, 07, 8:06 am
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Originally Posted by civicmon View Post
I'd be interesting in pics too.

Monrovia is a real rough place I heard...
It seems I'm too stupid to link my pictures to FT, but I'll keep trying. These days, life in Monrovia is very difficult for many Liberians. There is, for example, no public water supply and the vast majority of people are relying on generators (or candles) for electricity. However, the life of the many expatriates working for the UN or for the multitude of humanitarian organizations is quite different. Liberia has beautiful, isolated beaches and Monrovia boasts now a number of fancy (and pricy) restaurants, some of which are offering wireless internet and Sushi counters.
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Old May 21, 07, 9:06 am
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REally compelling trip report, Arnur. May I ask what you do and who you work for?

After envisioning a 3.5 hour chopper flight on a bench, I will try not to complain so much about RJs.
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Old May 21, 07, 4:07 pm
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Originally Posted by Ginger K View Post
REally compelling trip report, Arnur. May I ask what you do and who you work for?

After envisioning a 3.5 hour chopper flight on a bench, I will try not to complain so much about RJs.
Indeed, an RJ is downright luxurious compared with those birds. I have just returned from Harper, this time on a DHC-7 operated by Canadian Voyageur Airways on behalf of the United Nations. Much more pleasant than the helicopters and a new plane for me. However, tomorrow morning it is back to the helicopters and onwards to Vonjama, Lofa County. I'm doing an evaluation of the European contribution to the Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) program here in Liberia.

Now, if somebody could explain to a stupid social scientist like me how to link pictures to this report..
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Old May 23, 07, 11:55 pm
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Another very interesting report. I'm looking forward to read the next parts.
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Old May 24, 07, 1:37 am
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Great report. Really looking forward to see the pics!
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Old May 25, 07, 4:53 pm
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On a wing and a prayer in the African skies

You must know all those apocryphal stories about airline passengers looking out of the window noticing that the jet engine is on fire. Well, today's experience on United Nations 164, a MI-8 helicopter operated by Russian UTair on behalf of the UNMIL, came about as close as I hope I will ever get to that experience.

Having spent a few enjoyable days romping around the rolling green hills of Lofa County in a battered 4x4, eating bad Pakistani food thanks to Pakbat (also responsible for somewhat 'dry' evenings as Pakbat does not indulge in alcohol) and cursing the broken DSTv receiver (a victim of a recent thunderstorm) at the UNHCR guest house, I was somewhat keen to leave Voinjama for the relative luxuries of Monrovia. Now, flying as a non-UN staff member on the UNMIL shuttles is definitively a perk (saving one eight backbreaking hours on the road), and a free one at that, but it is not the most dependable way to travel. You see, they will gladly take your reservation (after you have signed a form waiving all your legal claims, something I though pretty funny until today), but you will not know whether you actually travel until well after check-in. Basically, all UN staff has transportation priority, while the unwashed masses of humanitarian sector (read: us) struggle about space on the standbye list. Today, MOVCON had, on the basis of a complex formula involving the position of the stars, the birth date of the UN secretary general and the scores of Liberian soccer league, created a passenger manifest with some 40 names. I was ranked number 26, unfortunately a MI-8 helicopter only takes some 22 passengers..

However, as this is Africa and rules are usually flexible, I showed up at Voinjama's basic airfield at 1400 waiting for the arrival of the big bird from Foya City. The friendly Pakistani Air Liaison Officer informed me in broken English that check-in would start after the helicopter had arrived. As Voinjama sadly lacks either a terminal, or any luggage handling facilities, we patiently waited in the African sun until the arrival of the shuttle and then proceeded to load our own luggage, reasoning that we were less likely to be kicked off the bus if we were already belted down in the belly of the machine. Clearly confused by the mismatch between the helicopters capacity and his long passenger manifest, the Pakistani officer looked at the pilots for assistance. Those of you who frequently travel in Africa will be aware of the Taxi Brousse (or Bush Taxi), the predominant form of public transport here. Usually this involves an old minibus operating at twice the legal capacity along the continent's untarred highways. Old and uncomfortable, you ride jammed in among your peers and carry your own (and your neighbor's) luggage on your lap, while commercial cargo and live animals are transported on the roof. Let me say that I felt reminded on this experience today on UN 164, when the unflappable Russian pilot suggested to depart when full, leaving those unfortunate souls behind who arrived as numbers 23 and beyond..

This is what we did, and soon enough we were in the air. Happily listening to my iPod (those noise cancelling earphones are handy on a chopper), I was looking forward to a pleasant flight down to Monrovia. About one hour into the flight, the cockpit door opened and the flight engineer (yes, they still have those) came out. While I was still wondering what this was all about (the MI-8 does not have a lavatory nor a galley, ruling out the usual reasons for the crew to leave the cockpit), he walked to my porthole, opened it (yes, you can do that on a MI-8) and put his head out. Looking at the rotor, I noticed that he was frowning. After he returned to the cockpit without further comment, we iniated a rather rapid descent, landing a few minutes later in Tubmanburg. Here, the crew asked us to leave the helicopter, while they would radio for a new bird from Monrovia. Once outside, we noticed that bad weather was closing in rapidly (it's the start of the rainy season here in Liberia) and we were calculating our chance that a chopper would make it out here and back in time. Meanwhile, the crew conferred in Russian and then the flight engineer climed up to the rotor and started working on them. Some ten minutes later, they called us to board again.

We started when the rain had already began and flew through the dark clouds to Monrovia, where we arrived some 25 minutes later. Clearly, Russian ingenuity and the crew's desire to get back to Spriggs Payne (Tubmanburg is also run by the Pakistanis and therefore 'dry') had prevailed. On the tarmac in Spriggs the weekend had already begun with a barbecue of the chopper boys, and all of us were happy to be back in one piece.
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Old May 26, 07, 6:03 pm
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Pictures

Here are some pictures from my flights in Liberia and Sierra Leone

http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/
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Old May 27, 07, 3:03 am
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Thanks a lot for this TR, it was really interesting. Nice to see the pics too!
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Old May 27, 07, 12:23 pm
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Thanks for providing some good sunday evening entertainment...

Trip reports involving african domestic travel are always inspiring reading.

I recall a flight in Nigeria from Kano to Lagos back in 1998. The routing was supposed to be non-stop, but because there was a fuel shortage in Kano airport the flight had to make a stop in Kaduna. It was pretty hot in Kaduna this day but the cabin crew were nice enough to dismantle the emergency exit window (we were flying some old russian airplane).

Then an old jetfuel tanker pulled up and the negotiation started between the egyptian pilot and the driver of the tanker. They apparently negotiated the price for the fuel and after reaching an agreement they started fueling the plane. At this time the pilot now pulled out a bag of money and started couting the hundreds of thousands Naira for the payment. The money was paid to the driver who counted the stacks, nodded and headed off in his truck. Off we were and arrived a good hour later in Lagos airport...
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