How does one get to Rwanda, anyways? This is probably not a question many North Americans have asked themselves. But it is one I heard a lot recently, when I had an unprecedented opportunity to travel to the East African country of Rwanda. This was an incredibly unique experience in many ways, and the flights involved were no exception. For this trip, I flew from Toronto to Kigali (Rwanda’s capital city), via Amsterdam on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. This is one of only a handful of options for that particular trip, the others being Brussels and Turkish Airlines. So, this February, I found myself at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, ready to embark on one of the longest series of flights I’ve ever taken.
LONG LIVE THE QUEEN OF THE SKIES — HEADING TO RWANDA
The first leg of my journey was KLM flight 692, from Toronto to Amsterdam, flown by one of KLM’s most venerable aircraft: a Boeing 747-400, PH-BFN, City of Nairobi. Not only was this my first time on KLM, it represented an increasingly rare chance to fly on a 747-400. This chance was even more fortuitous in hindsight since KLM has now retired all of the 747s in its fleet due to the coronavirus downturn in traffic. Nowadays, a lot of airlines’ 747-400s are starting to look a bit shabby, their liveries worn down by decades of service. Not so with KLM, which had decked out its 747s in a new livery, with a decal celebrating KLM’s 100th anniversary to boot. In fact, the whole trip I don’t think I saw a single aircraft in KLM’s fleet that didn’t have the 100th anniversary logo, which is definitely a nice touch.
Sadly, upon boarding it was clear that the 747’s interior was showing its age. Reaching my economy seat, I immediately noticed the entertainment system was rather dated, lacking touchscreens or a modern interface. The selection of movies and TV shows was rather limited too, and the inflight map was also very bare bones. The bathrooms were cramped, with doors that jammed easily. There were no electric outlets in the seats (probably the biggest downside for someone trying to keep their devices charged over a long journey).
Nonetheless, everything was clean and well-maintained, and for only a 6 hour red-eye flight, none of these were a dealbreaker. I must also note that despite the poor movie/TV selection, the system did have one of the best selections of music I’ve seen (or heard) on any airline. There were also privacy protectors on each screen, which frankly I think should be used more often.
The flight was made better by solid service from KLM’s crew. Soon after reaching cruising altitude, flight attendants brought bottled water and hand wipes to every passenger. The food was also surprisingly good. I expect basically nothing from economy food, but both meals served during the flight would rank among the best economy food that I’ve had. I do wish the meal started sooner though, as it didn’t begin until nearly two hours into the flight, and I was trying to maximize my sleep. That said, never having flown this route before I’m not sure what would be typical of other transatlantic flights.
Ultimately, the time of the 747-400 is coming to an end, and it no longer represents the best passenger experience (paxex) out there. But as an avgeek, I can’t say I was too hung up on that. After all, this journey was my first (and now only) chance to experience a KLM 747, and it was a good start to my trip.
FLYING TO KIGALI ON AN AIRBUS A330
After a few hours on the ground in Amsterdam, I was off again, on KLM flight 539 to Kigali. This flight was flown by an Airbus A330-200, PH-AOM, Piazza San Marco – Venezia. It was a newer aircraft than the 747, and it showed. The entertainment system was newer, with slightly better selection (though navigation was still through a clunky remote, and a two prong headphone adapter was still required). There was mood lighting, and USB outlets at the seat. It was also very, very blue.
The flight was largely uneventful, but consistent with the KLM standard of food and service set on the previous flight. Nearing Kigali, we were treated to a beautiful (and fast) equatorial sunset. As the aircraft descended, I was struck by how dark the approach was, with Kigali having far fewer lights than I’ve come to expect from most cities.
Disembarking at Kigali was an experience very unlike what I was unaccustomed to. The airport there doesn’t have any jet bridges, so airstairs were wheeled up to the aircraft from which disembarking passengers descended. Standing on the ramp of an active, and quite small airport, next to an aircraft as large as an A330, was certainly an unusual experience to have as a passenger. It also gave a clear view of the rest of KGL’s main apron, also occupied by two RwandAir Q400s, two additional RwandAir 737 NGs, and a Kenyan Airways Embraer 190.
After a few minutes, buses showed up to take the arriving passengers to the terminal. Inside, the terminal was clean, orderly and seemingly typical of a small airport. Interestingly, Rwandan public health officials wearing full protective equipment were screening for coronavirus, asking a series of questions to every arrival. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but in hindsight this seems an ominous precursor to the chaos that right now has upended global aviation.
TO EUROPE BY ENTEBBE
After a whirlwind 10 days in Rwanda, it became time to return to Toronto. My return was operated by KLM again, but with slightly different routing. KLM flight 539 actually terminates in Entebbe, before returning to Amsterdam as flight 535.
While Kigali has a small airport, make sure to leave lots of time before departing. Even to reach the terminal, I had to pass through multiple security checkpoints. By the time I reached my gate I had gone through about five different checks. Past customs, there is is a small waiting area, with a duty free liquor store and coffee shop. Beyond this, you have to go through one more layer of security screening before reaching a small waiting area at the gate. I don’t know if this latter stage was deliberately modeled after Singapore’s Changi airport, but it reminded me of the process used there (albeit much smaller). No part of this really changed my impression of KGL as an airport. It’s small, and somewhat limited in terms of amenities. But it’s also clean and orderly, with polite staff. And as long as you a lot yourself enough time, you shouldn’t have any problems.
Once again, boarding via airstairs was an unusual (and exciting) process. My flight back to Amsterdam was operated by an A330-300, PH-AKB, Piazza Navona – Roma. As I was boarding, a 747-400F of cargo airline Magma Aviation roared into the sky seemingly less than 150 feet from where I stood. Being so close to the action in this way is something I’ve seen at few other airports that I’ve visited.
The first leg of the flight was a short, 30 minute hop to the Ugandan airport of Entebbe. There, those passengers heading for Uganda disembarked, and a cleaning crew furiously worked to turn over the aircraft. I’ve never been on an aircraft while it was being cleaned before, and the result was a little chaotic but it was clear that the cleaners were well practiced, and the stop over gave a much needed chance to stretch my legs. I was worried about the aircraft would become unbearably hot on the ground, yet perhaps because it was past sunset this wasn’t an issue. Unfortunately, the darkness meant I also wasn’t able to see much of Entebbe as an airport, beyond a glimpse of the terminal and some Ugandan Airways CRJ parked nearby.
In around an hour we were once again a full aircraft on its way to Amsterdam. The rest of the flight was consistent with my previous ones. The food was again impressive (by economy standards) and the movie selection was much improved on this leg. It also marked the first appearance of KLM’s famed stroopwafels! While I had the misfortune of being in a middle seat, it being a redeye this wasn’t too trying — I was so tired I ended up sleeping most of the flight, and it seemed to be over in no time.
EVERYBODY LOVES SCHIPHOL AIRPORT
Arriving in Amsterdam around 5 AM local time, my next flight didn’t leave until 1 PM – a layover of about 8 hours. What does one do in Schiphol for that long? I originally considered going into the city, yet day of I never really felt up to it. Instead, this layover became a prime opportunity to put Schiphol to the test. I’d seen plenty of rave reviews of Schiphol’s paxex before. Would it meet expectations?
It certainly did. The first thing that became obvious was Schiphol’s amazing range of food options, from McDonalds to choices that you’d more likely find in a downtown core than an airport – Italian street food, smoothie bars and a sushi bar, just to name a few. And even though it was early in the morning, everything was open. There was comfortable and attractive seating, and lots of it. There were stores offering everything you’d expect to find in an airport. Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has a small branch airside with genuine paintings from its collection. There’s even a small library and public piano. I did not, unfortunately, have a chance to visit Schipol’s Panorama Terrace, the existence of which I’ve only learned of after the fact. Still, I’d say that Schiphol does undoubtedly live up to its name.
RETURN TO TORONTO ON A KLM 747-400
With all these things to do, the eight hour layover didn’t seem like very long at all, and I soon boarded another aged 747-400, PH-BFH, City of Hong Kong for flight 691 back to Toronto. After a brief delay on the ground due to high winds, I was on the final leg of my journey. It would be an uneventful 6 hours back to Toronto. Thinking back, its strange to think that this was almost certainly my last time on a KLM 747. Will it also end up being my last time flying a 747-400? Any 747? Only time will tell.
Over the course of this trip, I spent nearly 30 hours in KLM economy, over four different flights. My verdict? Despite an aged fleet, KLM is still a great airline. Their soft product is impressive, with good service and quality food. The fact that their hub is such an impressive airport is an awesome bonus. As for Rwanda, it’s an incredible place that I cannot recommend visiting more highly.
Quick Video: Plane Spotting on the New York JFK AirTrain