One piece of advice I always recommend to someone catching a flight:
“Check the airport’s departures page!”
Do this not and you risk waiting for hours at a cramped gate in the lower floor of a rather “minimalist” airport.
Thankfully, I avoided this fate on my recent trip from Ljubljana to Belgrade (and onwards to Sofia), even if I was unable to avoid a host of additional stress along the way.
I had spent a couple of extremely busy days in the Slovene capital and was preparing for the second portion of my short trip. Thankfully, the short time I spent in the city appears to have been the “sweet spot” between periods of extremely heavy rain to include disastrous flooding (which began on the day of my departure). Please keep these still-suffering people in your thoughts.
I would be attending the CrossFit Level 1 Certificate Course being held in Sofia and writing about my experience for my website. There was a chance that this course was going to be cancelled on short notice, so I opted for an “Economy Comfort” class ticket with Air Serbia. This not only afforded me the opportunity for a refund, but also included free seat selection throughout most of the cabin and a checked bag.
My final tally was just over 210 euros (which was roughly 50 euros more than the standard economy ticket price at the time). The route appeared to be simple enough; a short, mid-morning flight from Ljubljana to Belgrade, a couple of hours of layover, and another short, early afternoon flight to Sofia.
However, Air Serbia’s track record this summer didn’t exactly instill massive confidence that this journey would be so “simple”. There was a degree of additional pressure, as well. This was the only Belgrade-Sofia flight that afternoon. If I missed it, the next Air Serbia flight to Sofia wasn’t until late the next morning, well after my course would have started (and, per the terms of the course, invalidating my attendance).
On the evening before my departure, I took a quick glance at the Ljubljana Airport’s departures page to see if there were any early adjustments made to my flight. My schedule in the morning was going to be a bit tight and a short delay would actually be somewhat welcomed.
To my (complete lack of) surprise, my 9:50 AM flight had already been pushed back to 11:30 AM.
Being that this flight was scheduled to last (all together) 65 minutes, the connection in Belgrade would be considerably tighter for my 1:30 PM flight. I’ve certainly made it through on tighter connections (a recent Budapest – Belgrade – Tivat flight was marketed and sold with a 40-minute connection), but I wasn’t confident that this would be this flight’s only delay.
At this point, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, so I checked Google Flights and Air Serbia’s pages to investigate the delay. To my (complete lack of) surprise, no delay was indicated. Checking my inbox…nothing from Air Serbia.
Wanting to get ahead of any potential problems (and to get some clarification on what was going on), I gave Air Serbia a call to see what my options were. After relatively little talking and a relatively long time on hold, the agent confirmed that there was in fact a delay and offered to move me to that night’s flight from Ljubljana to Belgrade, although my hotel bill and other expenses would be on me. She wasn’t personally confident that I’d make my flight, but noted that “the system says you will”. I decided to obey the almighty artificial intelligence overlord and stick to the original plan.
I woke up early and checked the airport page once again. Same delay, but no additional changes. Checking the Air Serbia page, I was shocked (for real this time) to find that a ticket was still being sold with the original departure time!
I doubt anyone woke up in Ljubljana that morning and thought “hey, I wanna go to Belgrade in 4 hours; I’m gonna buy a ticket!” but it still seemed a bit ridiculous. Checking my inbox again…still nothing from Air Serbia.
I went about my morning and decided to head to the airport slightly earlier than I normally would. Flood warnings were already going into effect and I wanted to make sure I was all set before things started to get (really) bad.
Unfortunately, I was too late and ended up having to take a detour to Jože Pučnik Airport. Thankfully, the skies cleared, albeit only temporarily, as I made my way to this charming little facility, seemingly nestled among the cornfields.
Stepping out of my car in the rental return lot, I experienced a very slight taste of what the locals would soon be dealing with as my foot plunged into pooled water. I dropped my key at the rental car company window and made the ~200-meter hike to the departures area.
Of course, I was greeted with this information on the big board.
The noose had tightened.
I made my way to the empty check-in desk (I would find out why it was so empty soon enough) the agent informed me there wasn’t anything he could do from the airport. He directed me to his colleague who immediately called an Air Serbia office in Belgrade to see what could be done.
As fate would have it, three other people on the LJU-BEG flight were continuing to Sofia. As the four of us constituted roughly 7 percent of the total passengers, I was given rather strong reassurance from the airport agent that the pilot would wait for us…so long as the delay did not stretch too much longer. Resigned to the situation, I took my boarding passes and made my way upstairs and through the completely empty security screening area.
As a side note, in fairness to Tivat Airport, which I mercilessly reviewed last week, Ljubljana’s airport doesn’t even offer an online check-in option when flying with Air Serbia.
After finishing up my security screening, I immediately passed through a combined Duty Free/Café area.
The creatively named “Business Lounge” is located directly adjacent to the Duty-Free area and, due to its décor and coloring, is almost camouflaged in its surroundings.
I was able to with my Priority Pass membership and stepped into the almost empty parlor.
As small as this lounge is, I appreciate its proximity to the gates, making take-off viewings from the indoor and outdoor areas a regular novelty.
While the selection of food and drink isn’t extensive, I’m a sucker for the giant pretzels, making sure to snag one (or three) every time I step in.
After the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt (also delayed) started boarding, the few remaining lounge-goers cleared out and I was alone for the next 10 minutes. At 11:40 I decided to make the short walk to the “B” gates (reserved for non-Schengen flights).
I passed through security and making my way down to the lower level (we would be bussing to an ATR-72) just as boarding started.
At this point, it was 11:50 and the rain had started to pick up a bit. I figured we might touch down with 5 or so minutes before the flight to Sofia was set to depart. In the meantime, I boarded the bus with a diverse array (I saw U.S., Slovene, Spanish, Serbian, and Australian passports in hand) of sour-faced travelers from Europe and beyond.
Noticing a couple of ”ESPANA PASAPORTES”, I inquired (in immaculate Spanish) when they had been informed by Air Serbia of the initial delay. For some odd reason, these people couldn’t understand my perfect, 2 semesters of university-level Spanish with one man finally stating “hey, man…you can just speak English to me.”
With wounded pride, but not defeated I inquired in English and was informed that no notification had ever been received. They had been waiting at the airport since just before 8 AM.
As we exited the bus, the agent from the front desk was standing next to the plane, crouched under an umbrella. She motioned for me to get out of line and to come talk to her. I was excited, expecting some new, insider information.
“Think positive!” she said, looking up to the sky. “Just think positive.”
I have to admit, I was expecting a little bit more concrete information, but her enthusiasm and demeanor certainly had a calming effect…even if the skies weren’t looking too pretty.
Things were looking up, though as this ATR-72s was one of the newer varieties. At 11:55 boarding was completed and moments before our 12:00 pull back, the turboprop’s Pratt and Whitneys started to whine. After a somewhat agonizingly slow taxi, we were wheels up at 12:09.
I can’t complain about my seat (13C) and at 173cm/5’7” the legroom was adequate for a short flight.
As expected, we had to fight through some light turbulence for the first 10 minutes of the flight. After another short lull in the action, meal service began at 12:25. As expected, the friendly Air Serbian crew only had the standard small bottle of water and Noblice cookie to offer (I actually got two cookies. They must have enjoyed last week’s post!)
At 12:40, the paid service began, although of the ~60 people on the flight, there was only one taker. By the time the paid service ended, the weather had cleared considerably, suggesting that the weather in Belgrade would be significantly nicer than it had been in Ljubljana.
After a short, uneventful flight, the captain came on just after 1:00, announcing that our descent had started. At 1:18 we touched down in hot, sunny Belgrade, almost 1 hour and 10 minutes after going wheel’s up.
After a short taxi, we quickly exited the plane and stepped onto the waiting bus.
I immediately started asking “Sofia? Sofia?” to the other passengers, being directed to a Slovenian couple who were in the same predicament as me. Their situation was slightly more dire, though; they hadn’t been issued their Belgrade-Sofia boarding passes in Ljubljana and they were adamant that they were simply going to muscle their way to the gate and ask for them there.
I have to admit, I admired their resolve, but in practical terms, I wasn’t sure how well their plan would work out. This was due to the fact that the previous 4 or 5 times I had transited through Belgrade, I had experience 3 completely different sets of protocol in relation to how and where transit passengers were directed through the airport.
I have been directed to the main security area, to a side, seemingly “transit-only” security area, and also through a door leading directly to the gates, bypassing security altogether.
Thankfully, today, the third option would be the one in practice.
After racing off the bus and upstairs, a Belgrade Airport worker was loudly calling out “Transit!” as a few of the other passengers from the Ljubljana flight gathered around him. After allowing us to assemble for a few moments, he simply opened the door, directing us to “look at the board” for updates on our flights.
My new Slovene friends and I raced through the terminal to the closest big board located at the edge of “Teslin Trg”, ready to continue our mad dash to, presumably, the distant C-gates (where ATR-72 flights usually disembark from).
…but instead, we collectively caught our breaths; the flight had been delayed until 2:30! Thank you for being consistently delayed, Air Serbia!
Double and triple-checking what we were reading, we joyfully went on our respective ways, agreeing to meet at Gate C10E in roughly 40 minutes (when boarding was likely to commence). I made the short walk to the nearby Air Serbia lounge, happy to be able to snap a few pictures for the EXYUAviation blog!
As I approached the lounge, I noticed a large sign standing a meter in front of the entrance. It proclaimed the lounge to be “full” at the moment while stating that only guests holding Air Serbia business class tickets would be permitted. As I did not in fact have a business class ticket, I figured I would try my luck with my lowly economy comfort seat.
I wasn’t confident as a couple who had entered just ahead of me were quickly shooed off, the cold, unrelenting gaze of the Air Serbia gatekeeper telling me all I needed to know.
“Economy Com…comfort?” I stammered, timidly holding up my boarding pass in this hallowed hall dedicated to Serbia’s premier airline.
“Oh, yes,” the agent replied, snatching my pass and immediately scanning it. She handed it back and nodded to the noticeably less-than-full-looking lounge.
I took a step towards the main area before backtracking and inquiring about my ticket.
“Oh…you paid extra for that seat so you get lounge access.”
Glancing at the laminated sheet, this proved to be the law of the land!
And Priority Pass or other membership programs?
“Yes, those are okay, too. Everything except LoungeKey.”
Noted…and, about the possibility of 100 people hiding in the lounge (the obvious reason why the sign outside claimed that it was “full”)?
“Oh, yes…that was before; I forgot to put it away.”
(I’ll kill the suspense…when I left 30 minutes later, the sign was, predictably, still standing outside….but you probably already knew that.)
I’ve visited the Air Serbia lounge a number of times and find it to be quite inviting. However, I think part of this affinity is due to my constantly comparing it to my visits to the airport’s general “Business Lounge” in years past. The Air Serbia lounge is certainly newer and nicer than it’s older brother around the corner, but in absolute terms, is rather small and quite pedestrian.
My suspicions were revealed to be partially correct; there were only 12-15 people spread out throughout the lounge, although nobody appeared to be hiding in the bathrooms (the men’s bathroom at least. I had no data on the occupancy rate of the women’s bathroom at that time).
As expected, flights across the Air Serbia network seemed to be delayed across the board, making me doubtful that my flight to Sofia would actually depart at 2:30. Regardless, I dutifully began my ~8-minute journey to the far-reaching C Gates when boarding was announced,
I find myself in Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport on at least a bi-monthly basis. Even with this frequency, I still manage to find completely new additions and updates every time I walk through the facility.
What’s more, the renders of the additional renovations and updates imply a very interesting and almost dystopian future for the airport and for Belgrade’s population as a whole. Apparently, the airport’s future clientele will be largely populated by clones of members from early 2000’s pop-punk bands.
Also, the future parking lot shows a dearth of the high-performance luxury vehicles that comprise a large portion (the majority?) of the local streets. I’m not sure what the airport planners have in mind to make the local population give up their beloved BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes, but the passengers seem contented enough.
Ending my journey with a short ride down the escalator, I took a seat among the completely stationary crowd. Making myself comfortable (because, who really cares if you’re the last one on the bus?) I counted another 5 minutes before the bus started boarding at 2:15.
For some reason, every time I am boarding via these lower gates, it seems like there is a problem with every fifth person’s boarding pass. The boarding process, which should take less than 5 minutes for a 72-person flight, drags out to 10 or 15 minutes.
Sneaking into the line just as the final passengers stepped aboard the bus, I scanned my boarding pass and joined the tightly-packed group of passengers. We ended up waiting on the bus for another 30 minutes as the gate agents made calls and inquiries for a missing passenger. Due to my earlier experience, I was more patient than usual and was slightly bummed when the passenger in question, who appeared to show up at the last moment, had the doors figuratively (and literally) shut in her face.
When we finally got going, we retraced my earlier bus route, finally disembarking and then assembling a very organized line (at least as far as regional standards go) to board the aircraft. I took my seat (13C) and was almost immediately joined by my French-speaking seat mate. He was gracious enough to allow me to snap some pictures over him during our ascent and landing.
Although boarding was rather quick and we began taxiing at 3:10, our 3:14 wheel’s up was still almost forty-five minutes later than the updated departure time.
The airplane was an exact replica of the one from my earlier flight with similar legroom (although there was not a pouch to hold books, e-reader, etc.) and the same “meal” of water and that ohh-so-tired Noblice cookie (which I declined).
Meal service started at 3:26 with paid service starting (and almost immediately ending since there were no takers) at 3:35. A short time later (3:50) the pilot came on to inform us that our descent had begun.
The warm, sunny weather from Belgrade followed us throughout our short journey and into Sofia. I had never been to Bulgaria before and was surprised by how far the city seemed to extend, being visible throughout almost the entire descent.
Our 53-minute flight ended at 5:07 (we “lost” an hour in the time change) and made a short taxi to the outskirts of the apron.
We disembarked from the aircraft as quickly as we had boarded and in less than 5 minutes, our bus was making its short journey to the entrance of the immigration area.
I was surprised to find multiple (functioning!) electronic passport readers for EU citizens which myself, and roughly half of the other passengers immediately bolted for.
After a short walk through customs and the baggage area, I entered the landside concourse, immediately spying an international bank ATM as well as the Yellow Taxi stand. After loading up on Bulgarian lev and expressing my interest with the Yellow Taxi workers, I was in the back of a cab on my way to the city center at exactly 5:25.
My hotel (Hilton Sofia) was not in the absolute center, but was close enough. The drive, on a Friday afternoon took just under 20 minutes and cost 25 lev (without tip).
After a rather stressful morning, the final leg to Sofia (flight, airport experience, and taxi ride) was as relaxing as it could be. However, the day could have been significantly more frustrating had I not checked the Ljubljana Airport departure page the night before.
Air Serbia’s flights seem to be delayed a lot of the time in recent months. This is annoying, but I can live with this. However, not informing passengers of a wide range of necessary items (Ex. known changes to departure times, lounge occupancy, etc.) when it could easily due so is just plain inconsiderate. Hopefully this type of “operational attitude” changes at some point…I’m not sure the clones will stand for it!
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