TRIP REPORT: Croatia Airlines, Milan - Split

Written by Vlad

Date: 01.06.2023.
Aircraft: Dash 8-Q400 (9A-CQF)
Flight: OU 395 (MXP-SPU)
Seat: 04A
On the first day of June, which is traditionally considered the start of the summer season in Dalmatia, I had the opportunity to fly from Milan Malpensa (MXP) to Split (SPU) onboard Croatia Airlines (OU). This seasonal route is also operated by EasyJet, which tends to be cheaper and uses a jet (as the name implies). I had to fly on this specific date, however, so OU was the only choice for a direct flight. I didn’t mind, since being based in Milan means that I don’t get to fly OU that often anymore, and I generally prefer flying with Star Alliance carriers anyway since I get to use the benefits of my Gold status. I had bought my ticket in early April (so a bit less than two months in advance) and paid a hefty €252 for a one-way flight without luggage – it’s obvious that seasonal flights from SPU are a major cash cow for the airline.
I’m lucky to live close to the Porta Garibaldi train station in Milan, so it usually takes me less than an hour from home to the airport terminal with the Malpensa Express train, despite the distance of more than 40km. This time was no exception, so I arrived at the airport around 11.45 for my 13.25 flight. I had been able to check in online the day before through the OU app (and select a seat free of charge, which is appreciated), so I skipped the check-in counter entirely and went directly to security. This is where I had the first unpleasant surprise of the trip – despite flying to MXP since the last summer season, OU is the only Star Alliance carrier that hasn’t bothered to sign the contract with the airport authorities to enable their business class and Star Alliance Gold customers to use the security fast track or one of the contract lounges. That means that I had to go back and join the regular line at security, which thankfully wasn’t too long. On the other hand, since Croatia joined Schengen this year, OU flights now depart from A gates (Schengen) rather than B gates (non-Schengen), which means that business class and Star Alliance Gold passengers get access to the Lufthansa lounge. Sadly, I didn’t have time to take any photos of the latter due to a couple of calls I had to take, but there are plenty of reviews online; in any case, they carry hot food, homemade sweets, excellent coffee and decent enough Italian wine, placing them among the better airport lounges in Europe. Around 30 minutes before the departure time, I headed for the gate.

Since the flight was operated by a turboprop, we got assigned a bus gate in the bowels of MXP. The passengers seemed to consist roughly of 40% Americans, 40% Italians (many of them heading to Medjugorje) and 20% various other nationalities, including a few Croats. Boarding started around 20 minutes before the flight. No priority boarding was announced, which made some business class passengers visibly surprised, even though in the case of bus boarding it doesn’t make much of a difference anyway. After another 10-or-so minutes of waiting in the gate area (an annoying, but standard feature of MXP), all passengers boarded the single bus sent to pick us up and headed for the aircraft. That exposed another flaw of OU ground operations at this airport – it seems that none of the passengers had been made aware by the check-in or gate staff that larger pieces of hand luggage don’t fit inside the Dash, so it fell upon the cabin crew to explain it to passengers; some even had to repack in front of the aircraft, which created an unseemly crowd and caused a departure delay of around 20 minutes. Kudos to the cabin crew that remained polite and professional throughout the process.

I was fortunately one of the first to board because I had correctly calculated where the bus doors would open relative to the aircraft (an OCD of mine), so I settled in and took my seat 04A. I was pleasantly surprised by the comfort of the seat – being 1.90m tall, I don’t often feel like I have plenty of legroom/kneeroom on regional aircraft, but it was definitely the case here. The only annoying bit was the canal running along the floor of the aircraft, preventing me from comfortably resting my left foot, but it’s manageable on shorter flights, and I didn’t want to give up the window view for more seating comfort anyway. Business class consisted of three rows and was completely full, whereas Economy had no more than a few empty seats left. Interestingly enough, OU doesn’t seem to do seat blocking for status passengers in Economy (unlike Lufthansa Group airlines), so I ended up with someone sitting next to me.

I passed the time while waiting for takeoff by browsing the inflight menu and magazine. I liked the fact that the menu was extensive and heavily focused on domestic Croatian products, but drinks felt really overpriced (I don’t think I’ve even seen a can of Coke going for 4€ – even Swiss is cheaper).
The inflight magazine was a visual treat as usual, highlighting some of the numerous natural wonders that Croatia boasts. On the other hand, I couldn’t help laughing when I saw the introduction by CEO Jasmin Bajic, as comments from our fellow blog enthusiast Pozdrav iz Rijeke instantly came to my mind. Jasmin himself didn’t help much, choosing to dedicate fully 1/3 of the introductive part to a new OU partnership with a private medical facility in Zagreb (adding it to OU’s ever-expanding list of fringe benefits), and boasting about the handful of routes introduced this summer, neglecting to mention that most of them were one-weekly.

Inflight service, which consisted of a bag of crackers and a cup of water, started soon after, followed by inflight shopping. The crew was all smiles and polite throughout the flight. At one point I also realised that I was pleasantly surprised by how quiet the cabin was at cruising altitude, considering that I was sitting practically next to the propeller.

The flight took a beautiful route, with a panoramic view of the pre-Alps and Venice, then touching the southern point of Istria before turning southeast over most of the Croatian archipelago. We were blessed with nice weather, and the relatively low altitude of the Dash meant that we could enjoy some spectacular views, as seen from this photo of Sibenik. The screenshot of the route was taken in the Flighty app, which I warmly recommend to frequent travellers and aviation enthusiasts.

After approximately 90 minutes in the air, we touched down at SPU and reached our final parking position at 15.14, 9 minutes behind schedule. Disembarkation took a while because of the sheer amount of hand luggage that had to be taken out of the hold, but this was offset by the fact that we parked close to the terminal, so I whizzed through the baggage claim and out of the terminal in less than a minute. Grabbing an Uber was also very quick, although sadly the ride to Split was anything but – road construction that was supposed to be finished by the end of May is still very much ongoing, forcing drivers to take a circuitous route towards Trogir and creating huge bottlenecks around the airport, so the ride to the city centre ended up taking almost an hour.
Overall, this flight did little to change my impression of OU – the onboard experience was decent, i.e. up to par of what the vast majority of European legacy airlines offer as the current experience in Economy. The price I paid for the flight was very high, but this is a factor of supply & demand and has little to do with product quality as such. Where OU really disappoints is the ground experience at outstations; the airline seems to be really proud to be part of Star Alliance, so it boggles the mind that, after more than a year of operating the route at a high-yield airport such as MXP, no one at the OU HQ bothered to ensure the correct treatment of premium passengers, align services with their Star Alliance partners or give basic instructions to their handling agent on priority boarding and hand luggage restrictions. These may be lost on the casual seasonal traveller that flights from SPU seem to be targeting, but it reflects poorly on the airline in the eyes of premium passengers that any service provider, especially one hailing from an increasingly high-yield tourist country, should aim to please.

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