Regional intercontinental flying in Spain Air Nostrum business class
Over consecutive days I flew in and out of Melilla, one of the Spanish exclaves on the Moroccan north coast (the other exclave, Ceuta, I visited earlier). First a short hop from Malaga to Melilla then onto Manilla where I would be connecting to a LAN Chile flight to Frankfurt on their Dreamliner. Both flights on regional oneworld carrier Air Nostrum are are intercontinental yet Spanish domestic sectors. Although paying cash for business class on regional routes in Europe would normally be stupid, the incredibly good value and status earning possibility was too hard to pass up. Air Nostrum operate a fairly simple service with a few quirks that make business class not so bad after all. So here’s a quick review of flying ‘intercontinentally’ in Spain.
At the Airport
In Malaga they operate from the newest terminal, like in Madrid, as part of the Iberia airline group. Malaga attracts a lot of ‘tourist’ airlines, particularly low cost flights to/from the UK. While other airlines had long snaking queues without order, Air Nostrum had some lanes setup but no passengers in sight. It did help I was just that bit early that day, just beating the queues for breakfast at the hotel, airport and lounge. Priority security is offered for being in business and oneworld emerald however I picked the three empty regular security lanes over the fast track one with four people in line. Iberia does not operate a lounge in Malaga, instead offering the generic AENA Sala VIP Europa, which seems to be used by everyone. Although quite large it is up to a good standard, which I have described in a separate post.
Boarding by gate but have to walk from the aerobridge.
In Melilla it is truly a regional airport, with only a few gates, single security etc. the airport only handles turboprops. Definitely no lounge, no secret room. Check-in was smooth, although arriving an hour before the first flight of the day it was still not opened. Staff did make sure the priority lane was only used by those entitled. For both flights there were only 20-30 pax on the flight and I was the only one in business class.
Flights are operated with ATR 72-600s which are quite standard 2×2 arrangements. There are also CRJs in the fleet. In the past month I have had several flights on this aircraft with Royal Air Maroc, Malindo and Garuda Indonesia. They are pretty much all the same however Air Nostrum has one major point of difference which is numbering the seats backward.
Now this is quite old fashioned but makes a lot of sense when you appreciate you board exclusively from the back (front door is freight/baggage) and the engines (and noise!) are at the front. In a bygone era first class was at the back and it surprises me that more don’t do this on the ATR. Seats however are, like everyone else, completely standard. 1A/C don’t recline at all, row 2 is preferable but also the rear row on the starboard side. Like most euro business products, the cabin is adjustable, they can extend business class to multiple rows depending on load. For the first sector there were two rows, to Madrid three rows. Several passengers in suits asked whether they could sit in row two but were politely directed to their seats. In both flights the light load left most seated toward the back, presumably for trim/balancing reasons.
Both flights taken had breakfast offered. In economy it was buy onboard. Malaga to Melilla is quite a short sector so was happy to see the full tray offered. There was a choice of water or juice and coffee, green or black tea. Sweet or sweeter bakery item offered. To Madrid also a choice of bread and either fruit or a wrap that looked ok. Chose the fruit, ended up with fruit with a side of fruit… all good.
Flights were punctual and perfectly comfortable for the short flight times. Realistically there is absolutely no reason to fly business class, it is just a complementary small meal and lounge access at larger airports if you do not have access with airline status. Arriving into/out of Melilla is what I can best imagine the old Hong Kong Kai Tak airport was like. Even in a lightly loaded turboprop the runway feels short, the approach had a rather sharp turn, moments before landing with some low altitude manoeuvres.
So although these flights hold interest as technically intercontinental they are typical regional flights to an airport incapable of handling much more than the average turboprop. Air Nostrum provide an unsurprising product for a regional carrier or affiliate. As mentioned it is near impossible to recommend travelling in business class as it is merely the added snack and lounge access (if not complementary) unless part of an international itinerary. Of course in this case there were special circumstances…
Booking (and why did I)
Below is boring and maybe a little technical. To some the booking of these flights and the subsequent LAN connection and their great value is more of an interest. These flights came about when trying to book from Malaga (or ideally Gibraltar) up to Germany and/or Scandinavia. All the options I was looking at were typical last minute European prices, 200+ euros for anything decent and some questionable connections on some days close to 100. That was before I stumbled upon connections through Madrid utilising the LAN Chile tag flight. Although tag flights are often interesting and worthwhile and I had known about this one for eons, it had never been possible to fit it in. Well in this case it was perfect, from 120 Euros there were business class fares plated on LAN paper from Spain to Germany (and also works in the reverse direction). This includes connections to Portugal or as far as the Canary Islands. Connections out of Madrid were on a range of carriers including Iberia (oneworld) and their regional subsidiaries or competitors including Air Europa (Sky Team). Since I’m still slowly crediting flights to Qantas to hit lifetime gold, this fare was perfect as intra-European flights hadn’t been affected by their program changes. Ideally when crediting to Qantas or to a lesser extent British Airways having multiple sectors credits a greater status earn. So being able to fly indirect would be preferable. Well these fares again appeared to be perfect. They are mileage based (MPM) so you can route as you wish (within the available flights on the permitted airlines) as long as it remains under the distance allowed, which is a fixed percentage above the direct distance between origin and destination. So booking from Malaga to Frankfurt via Madrid allowed me to backtrack down to Melilla but stay within the fare rules, adding the extra flight with just the additional few euros of surcharges. The fare also allows unlimited stopovers so in theory one could also stay in Melilla and Madrid for extended periods with some added departure taxes. This can complicate the booking process a little, in my case I made use of a ~23 hour transit, departing Melilla a little earlier than I arrived the prior day so to avoid paying the extra for the stopover. Originally however I had considered a 40 minute connection in Melilla but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the place. Booking these sort of things is always challenging. You usually start by searching in ITA Matrix and tools built upon it e.g. Google Flights, Hip Munk. In theory the latter can provide purchase links to travel agents and on Flyertalk there are tools/scripts to do similar direct from Matrix. However in this case none of them worked, mostly resulting in errors. Frustratingly Orbitz displayed the exact flights desired with just a regular airfare search but only in economy. The end result was to do it the old fashion way, using a multi-city booking through any online travel agent. The trick is to figure the city pairs to enter, it is usually where you wish to force the connection, in this case Melilla. So I booked Malaga to Melilla and Melilla to Frankfurt (as Madrid is the most logic connection for that pair). With a bit more forceful trying eventually was able to book it. All up a good status earning set of flights particularly toward the Qantas program which I’m slowly marching toward lifetime gold status with (and will also cease crediting toward it). For most programs which are mileage based the benefits would otherwise be limited except for the actual travel of such interesting routing.