TRIP REPORT: Air Serbia, Sofia - Tivat via Belgrade

Written by Tom Eskey

“Hurry up and wait”
This was the phrase of the day as a mixture of delays and sleepy airport personnel (possibly) made what should have been a couple of short, stress-free flights transform into a mad dash (in flip flops!) and a late homecoming.
I had spent the weekend squatting, doing burpees, and muscle-ups at the CrossFit Level 1 Certificate Course in Sofia, Bulgaria. Having sufficient material from the course to write a review of it for my website, it was now time to head home.

Originally, I had planned to spend a little bit more time in Sofia after the course. My return flight wasn’t to depart until late in the afternoon on Monday. However, I missed my wife and dogs, and wanted to get home ASAP. Thankfully, the economy comfort ticket I had booked was fully refundable. I cancelled it and swapped it for two, separate Air Serbia tickets (Sofia to Belgrade and Belgrade to Tivat).

Why did I book two separate tickets? Well, booking them as one would have cost about 50 euros more than booking them separately! I wouldn’t be checking a bag and with roughly an hour-and-a-half layover in Belgrade, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need any type of “connection protection” to kick in. As I confirmed my booking, my only real concerns were the 5:10 AM departure time and the painful experience of having to verbalize my request for such an early wakeup call to the hotel’s front desk.
(Pro Tip: Always set your own alarm. The front desk never called me and my own alarm saved me!)
I dragged myself out of my hotel and into my taxi at exactly 3:38. As expected, the streets of Sofia were empty and we reached Sofia International Airport in only 13 minutes. Even at such an early time, I was surprised to find a rather large crowd of people assembled outside the airport and even more people already milling about inside.

Thankfully, with a boarding pass in hand (the front desk had actually gotten around to printing these out for me), I made my way past the check-in desks and to the nearly empty pre-security check point. Almost on cue, my “home”-printed boarding pass was rejected and I was directed to the Air Serbia desk. I knew the internal dialogue I was now experiencing (“why do these airports allow you to check-in online, but still make you go to the check-in desk”) was futile, but I couldn’t be the only one wondering!
I got to the desk where I received a new boarding pass for my first flight (my seat number had magically changed, though). I was then asked to show my carry-on bag for the expert assessment of the three, cell phone-engrossed agents at the desk.

“Is this why I had to come to the desk? Why could I check-in and get my boarding pass online?”
“It’s small plane,” one replied in a tone equal parts indifferent and dictatorial, the agent equally annoyed to be having the conversation and ecstatic for the opportunity to exert some authority.
“We need to check…it probably won’t fit.”
I explained that my bag had in fact fit on my previous two “small plane” flights on Air Serbia only days before. With a dubious look, they gave the okay and with airport-printed boarding pass in hand, I made my second attempt at joining the security line.
After having my passport and boarding pass checked by the initial agent, I took the escalator up to the second floor where the real security line was waiting for me. I was again surprised to come across a rather lengthy line as the first flight wasn’t set to depart for over an hour. However, the airport personnel quickly opened a second line and I was through within 5 minutes.
Immediately after leaving the security screening, I proceeded to passport control. Unlike during my arrival in Bulgaria a few days prior, none of the agent-less, electronic passport readers were functioning. I flashed my passport to the tired-looking border guard and was on my way.
I came across a sign directing me back and down a nearby escalator to access the Swissport Aspire Lounge. Confirming with some airport personnel that this was in fact the way (the escalator appeared to lead out of the airport), I made my way down and around to the find cozily-nestled oasis.

I showed my Priority Pass membership card to one of the two lounge attendants working at this early hour and assessed the largely empty lounge (I was joined by a small family and a couple of solo travelers).

At 4:15 AM, the sky appeared to be the limit in regard to drink selection (I guess it was almost “Five o’clock somewhere…”, after all) although food options were somewhat sparse and unappealing.

I was quite impressed with the multitude of rather large storage lockers and was surprised to find such an extensive “Smoking Lounge” which was already occupied by a cigar-loving gentleman.

I would have preferred some more food options, but overall, I found the lounge to be comfortable and perfectly adequate for a brief respite during my early journey.
Without much to do, I figured I would head to Gate B3 at 4:35…shortly after boarding was slated to begin. I made my way back up the escalator past the Duty-Free area, a few gates and eating areas, and back down another escalator. As expected, we’d be bussing from the lower level to our waiting ATR-72 that morning.

As I walked up to B3, boarding was just getting underway. Taking a seat to observe my fellow passengers race to be first on the bus (why?), I noticed that roughly every third passenger was being subjected to additional scrutiny. Looking closer, I confirmed that the gate agent, who was one of the agents at the check-in desk, was visually assessing each passenger’s carry-on baggage. The scrutinized passengers were going through the process of having their bags gate checked.

Of course, my mind immediately flashed back to the not-too-distant past and my required trip to the check-in desk…solely to prevent this type of issue.
(Thankfully, after close to 4 years of living in Montenegro, I’m accustomed to dealing with completely illogical processes)
The overly burdensome baggage inspections resulted in the boarding process taking close to 20 minutes. The 60 or so of us then embarked on the short bus ride to the aircraft. Boarding was seamless and I was happy to have an empty seat next to me as well as decently spacious legroom to accommodate my “massive” 5’7”/173cm frame.

Boarding was deemed “complete” at 5:02, although after a few minutes of sitting in almost complete silence, it became obvious that we wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.
The captain came on and gave the standard “we think it will be 10 minutes of delay” with the eerie silence of the early morning consuming the aircraft once again.
(Question to the readers: have you ever experienced a time on Air Serbia where the “10-minute time domain”, in any context (10 minutes until departure, until landing, delay etc.) was accurate? I feel like this is some company-wide phrase they’re required to say!)
With a healthy 90-minute lay-over in Belgrade, I wasn’t too concerned as the minutes began to waste away. The two flight attendants on board were doing their best to answer passenger questions and when my turn came, one explained to me that we were “waiting on some documents.”
I asked if the person who presumably needed to provide these documents was likely sleeping at this early hour. The combination of her smile, feeble attempt at suppressing a chuckle, and slightly shrugged shoulders led me to believe that there was roughly an 85 percent chance that she agreed with my theory.
Meanwhile, the 6:00 Lufthansa flight to movement was beginning to move around a bit.

After another 20 minutes of waiting, another passenger began discussing the situation with the same flight attendant. He was a local and I wanted to get his input so I walked back and asked him what he knew.
“I love my country and love where I live, but I hate this airport,” he said. “I fly a lot and this is the third time in the last 2 months that they have been ‘waiting for documents’.”
I went back to my seat and watched for any activity on the apron. The Lufthansa flight had just left. I began to heavily scrutinize every set of headlights on the apron, hoping that each was the one carrying the oh-so precious documents.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait much longer. At 6:12, the long-awaited courier/savior arrived! Climbing onto the plane, he handed one of the flight attendants the documents and gave a short, but heart-felt apology on behalf of the airport for the lengthy delay.
(Just kidding about that whole apology part. In reality, he handed off the documents and made such a quick departure that I’m surprised I was able to get a non-blurry image of his Flash-like exit!)

Due to the almost 70 minute-long delay, I was now starting to face a bit of a time crisis. I figured that “reliable” Air Serbia would be reliably delayed and, worst case scenario, would simply catch one of the many later flights from Belgrade to Tivat. However, not knowing if my separate ticket purchases would entitle me to some type of compensation, I was slightly nervous.
At 6:17, we finally began moving, making a relatively quick taxi before going wheel’s up at 6:23. The sun was just beginning to rise and it was making out to be an extremely beautiful day throughout the Eastern Balkans.

Given the delay and the relatively short flight time, meal service got started at 6:34, just after we hit cruising altitude. As expected, the standard Air Serbia-“branded” water and (2!) Noblice cookies were on the menu.

After the rather eventful non-event from earlier, most of the passengers seemed content to catch up on the sleep they had inevitably given up in order to make the flight. The silence within the plane combined with the slowly-rising sun made for a rather tranquil flight.

The pilot came on at 6:51 to announce that our descent had started and came back on again at 7:06 announcing that we had 10 minutes to go until arrival. With my personal Air Serbia company policy in mind, I wasn’t holding my breathe for a 7:16 touchdown…
…and, at 6:23 AM (we gained an hour once we entered Serbia), JU127 touched down in Belgrade!

We taxied to the far reaches of the apron and everyone was off the plane pretty quickly. I knew I was going to need some kind of delay to make my 6:45 flight, but I figured the faster we moved, the better my chances would be.
The bus started moving and after the painstakingly slow journey to the terminal, I was the first one off the bus at 6:40. I ran up the stairs and was greeted by a Nikola Tesla airport worker holding a door open, nodding his head as I gasped “transit…yeah?”
I raced through the door and found the big board, equal parts ecstatic to see that flight JU186 to Tivat was just now boarding and melancholy that the A320 would be found way out at Gate C7.
Over the next 4 minutes, my fellow airport goers were serenaded by the clomp-clomp-clomp of my sandaled feet as I sprinted from Gate A to C, the noise and image undoubtedly further solidifying obvious cultural stereotypes.
Since “LAST CALL” was not displayed yet, I didn’t think I was in too much danger of missing my flight, but I didn’t want to take any chances (plus, the dramatics of the situation were kinda giving me an adrenaline rush).
Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of this gambit. However, if you can imagine one of those “What my friends think I do”, “What I think I do”, “What I actually do” types of memes, you can get an idea of how I thought I looked during it and how I looked to the rest of the (unwilling) onlookers.
Coming down the “home stretch”, my valiant charge was rewarded with a predictably anti-climactic resolution.
I was greeted by a gate-load of my fellow passengers.

At least I wouldn’t have to work out once I got home!
Moments after arriving, the gate agents announced that those seated near the back of the aircraft were now invited to board. I made myself comfortable, knowing that it would be quite awhile before my single digit seat (4D) was called.
Boarding proceeded rather quickly and as I waited, I struck up a conversation with a nice woman from El Salvador who happened to be traveling to Tivat (she worked on one of the cruise ships docked in Kotor).
When our turns came to board, my new amiga Latina headed onto the plane while I, predictably, experienced “trouble at the border”. Once again, my non-airport-printed boarding pass was apparently the culprit. I was asked to stand aside while the entirety of the remaining passengers (save for one young, Turkish couple) disappeared down the flight bridge.
After a quick phone call, a couple of confused exchanges between agents and a long, sustained admonishing gaze (because, ya know, I just love waiting at the gate desk for annoyed Air Serbia agents to fix problems I didn’t create), I heard that oh so sweet “affirmative” beep and saw the accompanying green light. I was handed a new boarding pass and headed down the flight bridge and to my seat.

One of the unsung advantages of being one of the last people on the plane is that once you’re on, you almost immediately get to hear those magic words:
“Boarding Completed”
This was the case on my flight. Moments after taking my seat, everything seemed primed to continue onward to Tivat.
However, as you might expect, things just couldn’t be that simple. Instead, from my front-of-the-plane seat, I got to observe a ground crew member venturing back and forth between the cockpit and back down the flight bridge. His frustrated facial expressions didn’t instill much confidence in me that we would be on our way with any sense of urgency.
Eventually, the pilot came on, announcing that the airport was currently experiencing a “traffic jam” and that there would be a bit of a delay. Interestingly enough, his failure to provide a definitive-sounding, yet completely inaccurate timeframe for our departure (the words deset minuta never escaped his mouth) invalidated my earlier theory.
In the meantime, the almost completely full plane, which seemed to be a combination of Serbian families excited for a late-season weekend on the seaside and Russians of all persuasions, silently accepted our collective fate.

To the pilot’s credit, he continued to provide updates on the situation and his fatherly tone was a welcome departure from the faceless and monotone demeanor of the majority of his fellow pilots.
After almost 40 minutes of silent contemplation (albeit, somewhat comfortable meditation in the more heavily-padded seat on the A320) the ground crew member made a triumphant final exit from the plane. A moment later, the pilot confirmed that we would monetarily be pushing back.
At exactly 7:40, our original arrival time at Tivat, we began moving and after all things considered, a fast taxi, we were up wheels up at 7:44.
Meal service started at 7:57 and, unlike my previous flights, a Provereni Probiotic was served up as an appetizer to the standard Air Serbia-labeled bottled water and Noblice cookies. I generally have a positive view of supplements, but am always somewhat confused as to why they push probiotics so hard on Air Serbia flights. We’re flying to Tivat, not Cancun!

Paid service started shortly after, but from my vantage point, I couldn’t tell if there were any takers. In what felt like only moments later, the pilot came on, discussing the flight path, speed, and weather conditions in Tivat. He also announced that the descent would begin in…10 minutes (ha!) The flight time was scheduled for 55 minutes so it certainly seemed as though he was trying to “catch up” a bit.
Unlike the beautiful weather I had left behind in Sofia, Tivat was experiencing it’s third or fourth rainy day of the summer. It wasn’t pouring, but would still prove to be a slightly wet hike off the plane, across the apron, and into the immigration area (Tivat doesn’t bus passengers).

The weather didn’t clear as we descended on Tivat Airport, although at 8:32, the pilot orchestrated a smooth landing. After an extremely short taxi (which is all that the airport is really capable of), we pulled to within roughly 100 meters of the entrance to the immigration area of the facility.
Whenever I fly into Tivat without checked luggage, A320…ATR-72…doesn’t matter, I cough up the few extra euros to sit near the front of the plane. Doing so significantly reduces your waiting time at passport control as there are oftentimes only 2 or 3 agents working, none of whom know a speed faster than “snail’s pace” when it comes to scanning and stamping passports.
However, when planes with two exits land at Tivat, they often open both doors, effectively negating part of the advantage one has when booking a seat up front.

Regardless, I would estimate that my 4D seat selection saved me ~20 minutes of (additional) misery that day.
After a short walk past the baggage reclamation area, customs, and the small rental car area, I was greeted by roughly 30 men from the official Tivat welcome committee AKA one of the more annoying taxi-hawking bands out there.

Whenever one gets close and (repeatedly) yells “taxi?!” in my face, I always like to reply, “ need a taxi? I don’t think I know any taxi drivers” The confusion and genuine annoyance at me for “wasting their (precious) time” never really gets old.
Between waking up at a not-so-nice time in order to sit on the Sofia Airport apron for an hour and setting a new (weighted) 400-meter dash record at Nikola Tesla Airport so I could be the last to board (and to wait around for an additional 40 minutes), I was pretty happy to finally make it home. Two things you can always count on with incompetent airport employees and Air Serbia are cortisol spikes and adrenaline dumps.
Maybe they’re on to something with those probiotics after all!

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