Belavia (B2) Flight 863 - Minsk (MSQ) to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Embraer 195, Economy Class, Seat 27A
As an avowed aviation geek, flying a new airline can be almost as exhilarating as visiting a new destination for me. Is that a little weird?
But it's the truth, and I'm not ashamed to admit that the moments before I step on a new airline give rise to a tingle up my spine that is usually reserved for my fiance, Chris Evans, a new passport stamp, or a really good piece of fried chicken. My recent trip to Belarus, famously called Europe's last dictatorship, offered me the opportunity for thrills on two ends - a brand new country to explore and the opportunity to fly on an airline that is a bit of a rarity for most travelers.
Using a $300 ticket from Chicago to Paris as a jumping off point, I had already booked a ticket onward to Armenia to do a bit of exploring in the Caucasus region. From Armenia I didn't have much of a plan and cheap flights weren't looking great to anywhere other than Dubai, which I'm not a huge fan of (LINK) but ended up building into my trip out of necessity. I was hoping to use my ticket to Dubai as a jumping off point to a quick hop into Kuwait or Bahrain when I heard news that made my ears perk up - the Belarusian government was going to relax visa requirements for visitors from 80 countries if they met a specific set of entry requirements.
I'll be writing a quick post about my experience entering Belarus later, but saving myself the frustration of the visa application process plus the visa fee normally associated with a trip to Belarus was appealing, not to mention I've been super fascinated by former Soviet republics after my trip to Georgia and Ukraine last year. I looked into the cost of getting to Belarus from Armenia and wouldn't you know it? Cheap as hell. Booked it, canceled my flight to Dubai (yay refundable tickets on FlyDubai!), and then looked at options from Minsk to Paris for my flights home.
There was only one direct option on that route - Belarus' national carrier Belavia. And wouldn't you know it - it was the cheapest at only $98. Belarus was an amazing trip and I'll get into why in other posts, but for now, let's focus on the flight with Belavia.....!
Flights into and out of Minsk are now consolidated into a single airport - Minsk National, which is a 30/40 minute drive out of the city center depending on traffic. As Belavia is headquartered at Minsk National and the largest carrier there, I needed to check the monitors to determine which counters to use to check in for my flight to Paris. it's easie to find the one off airlines with only one flight departing, but Belavia has tons of flihts checking in at once and they utilize individual desks for each destination. There's a huge monitor displaying flight information in the middle of the check-in lobby but there are also smaller screens with rotating lists of flights playing in other areas. Information is displayed in Russian as well as English.
Belavia states check-in for flights opens 2 hours before and closes 40 minutes prior to departure, though when I arrived at about 1 hour 50 minutes to departure there was a significant queue of people already waiting and despite having two agents sitting behind their desks, nothing was happening. After about five minutes of standing in line the queue started moving and check in was happening. The agents seemed to spend a variable amount of time with each passenger, ranging from less than a minute to five minutes at a time, though I couldn't figure out what was causing the longer check-in times. I waited about 15 minutes before I was at the counter and I happened to be processed in about a minute. Lucky me!
I should note that Belavia does offer online check-in 24 hours prior to departure, which I took advantage of in order to select my seat. I still wanted to get a real boarding pass on Belavia stock and of course check my luggage to Paris, hence the wait in line. Ticket in hand and luggage passed off, it was onward to immigration and security!
Security is handled at individual entry ways throughout the terminal, marked A through F. I was told at check-in that I was to proceed to the B doors to get through security. The process here was a bit odd, and sadly I don't have photos to explain it since photography in government/public owned facilities is frowned upon in Belarus and I was playing it safe since this was a security checkpoint. I managed three days in Belarus without a single official yelling at me about photography and I wanted to keep my streak alive.
I'll do my best to describe it though .... you queue up at the entry point and move through the line. The entry point has sliding electronic doors that separate the queue from the actual check point. The door is controlled by someone on the opposite side and is only opened when they are prepared to process a passenger through. So you stand in line until you make it to the front of the queue where you will stand in front of a closed door for a few minutes while the person in front of you is sent through the screening. Once they're ready for you, an agent on the other side hits a button to open the door and you step through where they will then close the door behind you, cutting you off from the queue. It's not really all that difficult to understanding what's going on , but it's the only airport I've ever been to where this type of process was used. Unique to me at least.
The process itself was pretty straight forward. Once through the door you hand your boarding pass and passport to someone at a desk. They look over the documents and then you do the normal liquids & electronics hokey pokey before passing through a metal detector. Once through, repack and walk down the corridor till you get the immigration queue. Lines were long at a handful of desks but much shorter at others. Word of advice for Belarus - observe what everyone is doing and go with the flow. As a general rule I found that posted signage was almost never followed. Example - upon my entrance into Belarus foreign visitors were avoiding desks with signs above them that read "Diplomat/Airline Crew Only" though the local Belarusians were queuing up in front of them with no qualms. I stuck with the locals and was through the process much quicker than anyone else on my flight. Same for my exit - I hopped in line with local Belarusians at a desk that had a closed sign hanging above it that foreigners were avoiding and was through in less than 2 minutes.
Risky perhaps but generally on the road I find it helpful to observe what the locals are doing and just go with that.
I still had about an hour to pass before boarding would start for my flight and decided to make my way to the Business Lounge at Minsk National. Getting there is pretty easy as the airport's international airside area is pretty much just a long hallway featuring what seemed like an endless duty free shopping area along one side and scattered seating and boarding gates along the other. The lounge was located on the 2nd floor and is accessed by going up a set of stairs near the tobacco and liquor sales section of the duty free by Gate 3.
The Business Lounge is the only lounge in the airport in the international departure's area so premium cabin passengers from just about every airline are given invitations to access the lounge, though I accessed it through my Priority Pass membership.
Let me just start by saying that this was a decent lounge though a very odd one at the same time. I'm 70% sure that it's actually low key sponsored by Heineken since everything inside the lounge was decorated in shades of green and white, plus several items inside flat out had Heineken logos on them. Can I also say that I kind of love that the sign keeps a lower case "L" when spelling "lounge", as if they're trying to telegraph to you ahead of time not to get your expectations too high.
I walked through the entrance "gate" (which reminded me of the finish line arch in Mario Kart) and found a desk on the right hand side, though nobody was manning it when I arrived. Honestly, other than a handful of customers the lounge appeared essentially abandoned. I was traveling on a Saturday though, which generally I don't find to be very busy at most airports. After standing at the desk for about two minutes awkwardly shuffling my feet someone appeared out of the back and took my credentials before inviting me to enjoy the lounge.
Minsk airport has free wifi for passengers but the lounge offers its own separate connection with instructions on how to get online at each table. Unfortunately the process for getting online with the lounge's wifi connection requires you to have a functioning cell phone, which I didn't. So I just kept using the airport's free service.
As I mentioned, the lounge was fairly empty, which you can see in these pics. Shaped like an L, the shorter leg of the "L" was filled with islands of seating around small low tables.
At the end of the small leg was a weird astroturf "cabana" area which I feel is best described as a tacky hotel pool bar without the pool. Lounge chairs, day beds with canopies, and potted palms. I have no idea what the concept was here but honestly it was kind of ... fun? Too bad no one was around to actually use it.
Down the long arm of the leg was a bit more seating as well as the food spread and bar.
If you're a fan of endless booze while enjoying a lounge, I have bad news for you - the Minsk Business Lounge charges for alcohol. There's a menu on top of the bar and they have a fairly decent selection of booze from what I could see behind the counter. I don't drink alcohol at all so take my observation with a big grain of salt.
There was a fairly standard selection of snacks and beverages available for free though. Unfortunately I didn't get as many pictures here as I wanted as I was asked by one of the staff members to stop photographing the food after a few snaps, and I'm not really one to ruffle feathers. Especially in Belarus. There goes my record on picture taking though.
Here is what I did capture .....
There were side by side coolers with sodas, various parfaits and yogurts, as well a few pretty sizable jugs of yogurt drink.
Mixed nuts, salted crackers, and a basket of paprika flavored chips.
Dark bread rolls and fresh fruit.
A entire cooler filled with sparkling and still water, including a creepy reflection of yours truly.
And of course a Heineken cooler filled with .... not Heineken.
No pictured were a coffee machine, and a few of the hot items on offer including pancakes, waffles, mini-sandwiches, sausages, eggs, and a tray of hot pickles which I found truly revolting. I'm pretty open in the culinary sense, but I will say that if I ever found my own religion the religious text would feature a minimum of one chapter outlining how evil pickles are. Heating them up is just unholy.
Overall a pretty basic affair but it was amazingly quiet and calm since it was almost empty. I made myself a modest plate of food and snagged a bottle of still water and some granola bars to stash into my backpack for the road. Lounged around checking emails and social media for about 20 minutes before I called it a morning and headed down as boarding would soon be starting.
I like to gaze out the window at airports and watch the airplanes take off, taxi, and generally stare at various airline liveries. Sadly Minsk has white, gauzy curtains hanging throughout the terminal blocking out the tarmac views. So no pictures of Belavia birds sitting in the springtime sun this time around.
While check in started late, Belavia started the boarding process for our flight to Paris right on time. No boarding zones, no priority access lanes - just an announcement that boarding was starting and a queue of people forming to present their boarding passes and passports before being given the okay to get on the plane.
I definitely saw some Belavia flights at Minsk using the jet bridge but the majority used buses to ferry passengers out to their planes waiting on the tarmac, and our flight to Paris today was one of those. We headed down the stairs where I followed a man with a cute, colorful Dakine backpack that I made a mental note to research and purchased on Amazon the same day and I found waiting on my doorstep when I arrived back in Chicago two days later.
Once down the stairs on the left was a small minivan that was designated for the business class cabin. The red people mover to the right was for the remainder of the passengers. We had a full flight today and about half of the plane was filled with giant men and women who were heading home to various corners of the globe after competing in the International Federation of Muay Thai Amateurs World Championships. This included what I assume is the entire French contingent, whom were quite honestly some of the worst airline co-passengers I've had in a long time with constant throwing of paper at one another, shouting, and complete disregard for following flight crew instructions to sit down, buckle their seatbelts, and put their seat backs upright.
Sadly once on the people mover the windows weren't ideal for snapping pictures either, so again my attempts for plane spotting was thwarted. Once we were sufficiently loaded up the engines rumbled to life and we made our way out to the Embraer 195 which would be taking us all the way to Paris today.
As people began to file off the bus a few people were immediately scolded by ground staff for attempting to take photos of the plane, so again I kept my phone lowered and skipped taking pictures on the ground. Once I started up the stairs to the regional jet I raised my camera again and no one seemed to have any issues from that point forward.
I was greeted at the door by a stern, serious flight attendant who simply nodded at each passenger as they boarded the flight. Honestly - I was sort of expecting that. Belavia and Belarus in general have a reputation as being stuck in the Soviet era of service and self-image, though overall I found that to not be the case for both entities.
I wasn't sitting in business class today (or ever lately, womp womp) but they featured bigger recliner style seats in a 2-1 configuration. Loads looked light in business class though at no time during the online check in nor during the standard check in did an offer to upgrade for a fee show up. I'm assuming one could do that by simply asking,though whether a fee would be charged or a full upfare I have no idea.
In economy class the seats were laid out in a simple 2-2 configuration of rather drab grey leather seats with equally uncolorful grey leather head covers.
Overhead bin space was decent and being an intra-Europe flight people had packed pretty lightly and there really wasn't a mad scramble to get room in the bins.
Despite being drab the seats themselves were just fine and on par with just about every economy class seat intra-Europe I've flown. Nothing fancy, but also nothing with any noticeable negative over other options.
Leg room was sufficient for the 3 hour jaunt to Paris, and to be honest by the time we were descending for landing I felt just fine and probably could have comfortably done another hour or two in the seat. A sturdy mesh pocket was on the back of the seat in front of me which I was able to tuck my bottle of water into though it didn't have much give after that and it would have been a stretch to try to put any type of additional electronic like a Kindle or laptop into it.
The tray table folded down from the seat in front and was a standard surface area to work with, though the relative tightness of the space between seats and the possibility of the passenger in front of your reclining means I wouldn't count on being able to work on a laptop in flight, though magazines and e-readers should be just fine.
A bit of on board drama - I had selected a window seat during online check in and of course I kept it when my boarding pass was issued at the check in desk. Once on board I found a woman sitting in my seat who tried to explain to me in broken English and full Russian why she thought it would be a great idea for me to take the aisle seat. Generally I'm a bit of a hard ass when it comes to seat poaching - I'm open to discussing a seat switch if you talk to me about it but if you just straight up sit in my damn seat without asking then I turn into King Leonidas from 300 and I will hold the goddamn line till my dying breath. But I was feeling particularly generous on this flight since I doubted I'd get any particularly interesting photos upon take off from Minsk or upon descent into Paris. I took the aisle seat but snapped the above picture.
Fifteen minutes later during taxi for take off we passed right by the Belarusian President's state plane. Instantly regretted giving up my seat.
During the taxi the stern and serious flight attendant that greeted me with a nod as we entered the aircraft made her way down the aisle with a big wicker basket and an even bigger smile and passed out hard citrus candies. The stern look was out the window, all smiles from here on out!
Take off was swift and gentle, and overall we had a very smooth trip into Paris with only a little bit of chop upon descent.
After take off I browsed through the contents of the seat back pocket, which was simply a safety card for the Embraer 195 and also Belavia's in-flight magazine "On Air", which came with a note on the front that it contained English language content. I slipped this into my backpack a little later in the flight as one of my travel quirks is that I collect in-flight magazines from every airline I've flown.
The in-flight service didn't start immediately like it does on many airlines, but after about 45 minutes the flight attendants made their way down the aisle with the trolleys and started to serve beverages and meals.
It's not uncommon to be on an airline and see branding for another airline due to equipment sales, planes purchases, and catering issues, but I thought it was a bit funny just how big and blatant the Ukraine International Airlines branding was on the trolleys used on this Belavia flight. Gigantic, almost like a billboard.
Meals were delivered first, and I do mean that - a meal. Despite most airlines doing away with free food all together or simply serving a beverage with a small snack, Belavia still provided a hot meal on our flight. The meals were delivered first with a male flight attendant making a beeline down the aisle and dropping off a paper box along with a aluminum tin of hot food - no choices today, you get what you get.
Inside the paper box was a bread roll, spreadable butter, and a hazelnut wafer bar. Also a plastic set of utensils, napkins, sugar, toothpick, and salt and pepper.
The hot meal, I admit, I couldn't quite figure out what it was when I first took off the lid. A bit of poking around with my fork allowed me to determine that it was some sort of omelette/frittata with mushrooms, carrots, and potato chunks. Not the most common ingredients to throw into some eggs, and honestly not all that appealing to me, though I did eat it and found it to be no different in flavor than most other airline meals. Breakfast is particularly difficult to do well in economy class (and even premium cabins, IMHO) on a plane, so I give them a bit of leeway here. I simply couldn't get the carrots down though, so those remained in the tin. I did eat all the potato, mushroom, and egg portion though.