TRIP REPORT: Air Serbia's “ghost flight” from London

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Written by Stan from London

Flying the "Ghost Flight": LHR-BEG in Business Class

Flight date: October 2019
Flight number: JU 389 (LHR-BEG) a.k.a. “Ghost Flight”
Aircraft: Airbus A320 A6-EIC

Seeing as the extra second daily flight between London Heathrow and Belgrade will only exist until the end of the IATA summer flying schedule (end October 2019), I was quite keen to be one of the few passengers to take this rather unusual flight, a by-product of the scarcity of takeoff & landing slots at London’s Heathrow airport. As many readers here will know, another of Etihad’s (EY) investments that formed part of the Etihad Alliance Partners was Jet Airways of India. After struggling with a series of challenges over the years, they finally succumbed to competitive pressures and declared bankruptcy at the start of the season. At some point over the course of Etihad’s involvement, EY would have assumed control of Jet’s 3 daily Heathrow slot pairs and presumably leased them back, in much the same way they did and continue to do with Alitalia’s LHR slots. The slot rules at Heathrow (and other slot constrained/coordinated airports in the EU) are subject to a ‘use it or lose it’ principal whereby you need to operate 80% of the frequencies for which you have slots. EY managed to scramble aircraft to operate an additional double daily LHR-Abu Dhabi and came to some kind of agreement with Air Serbia to operate a daily LHR-BEG flight with Etihad aircraft and crew, but with distribution of seats via Air Serbia and with an Air Serbia (JU) flight number. Speculation for how they came to this agreement has been subject to much discussion and debate on this forum!

As for the flight itself, it’s a 20:25 departure from Heathrow T4, with a scheduled arrival time of 00:40 into BEG. Ideal if one wants to have full use of the business day in London before flying to Belgrade. My last meeting was on The Mall in London and it finished early (16:15), so I walked 4-5 minutes to Green Park underground station and took the Piccadilly Line directly to Heathrow T4 which took just over 45 minutes. As I knew that Air Serbia’s check-in desks would likely not open until 2 hours before departure, I checked in online with my mobile phone on the journey to the airport itself and was assigned seat 2A in business class, of which Etihad have 12 seats in a 2-2 configuration in rows 1-3. This allowed me to go through security (Fast Track – took about 1 minute) and into the Etihad lounge, which was renamed to “The House” at some point earlier in 2019. There have been a few changes to it, but it hasn’t changed much since my last visit in 2018 and it is still an excellent lounge. Having not eaten since breakfast, I ordered the soup of the day (broccoli and pea) and the Za’atar spiced chicken. There was also a selection of cooked items and a salad on the buffet style counter top photographed. The lounge was nearly empty at this time as the next Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi (EY 26) wasn’t departing until 21:20 so few of those passengers had checked in as yet.



The Etihad lounge also has a very well stocked bar, with an excellent selection of wines and other beverages available as well as a nice cheese and cracker board.


The inbound flight from Belgrade lands just after 18:00 and therefore has a long layover, due to the fact that that slot was timed for a widebody Jet Airways flight to/from Delhi with longer turnaround times then required for a narrowbody A320 operation from Belgrade. I left the lounge at 20:20 for the short (~1 minute) walk to gate 19, the gate that seems to always be used for Air Serbia flights.



After turning the corner, there was literally not a single passenger waiting to board the aircraft! It was about 22/23 minutes before departure. When I got to the gate, I asked on the load for the flight and the total passenger count was 20, on a 132 passenger a/c.


Unfortunately due to it being dark and the reflection of light from the window, I wasn’t able to get a picture of the non-descript white tailed EY A320.

Upon entering the plane, friendly and attentive EY crew greeted me and I took the chance to photograph the business class seat, as well as the economy section of the plane. There were 4 pax in business class and 16 in economy. It turned out I was the second last passenger to board, with one more economy class pax who had clearly been running to the gate the last onboard the aircraft at about 20:35.



Upon sitting down, I noticed to my disappointment that the personal entertainment system had been covered up (or removed?), so there was literally no IFE at all in business class as no on-board WI-FI system or app like Air Serbia has (when it works that is!). The seats are very comfortable and familiar to anyone who has flown with Etihad on their narrowbody a/c.



Shortly after taking my seat, the flight crew came by with a selection of Serbian language newspapers, so I helped myself to the tabloid Blic – always an entertaining read (even if it’s mostly pictures!)


Food and drink menu’s were also distributed, with a decent selection available. I went for the drumsticks. The food options are some way off what they used to be at the beginning of the Air Serbia “experiment” in 2013-2015/6 when they essentially scaled back their business class product - both the hard product (seats and IFE) and soft product (catering). We pushed back from gate 19 almost exactly on time and taxied across runway 9R to the line-up for runway 27R. It was a short wait and we were airborne just about 21:00.







The flight itself was uneventful and after the dinner service, I had a couple of rakija to wash it all down prior to the captain coming onto the PA to announce our descent into BEG (~00:05) and we pulled into gate A7 at 00:25.


Part of the reason that the flight has such a low load factor is clearly connected with the fact that it doesn’t time well with connections from North America (which all arrive before about 12:00/13:00 into LHR) and the fact that the arrival into BEG doesn’t connect only any other flights departing before the next morning (ie. 5/6 hours later). On the walk from gate A7 towards passport control, we walked past the last departure (Aeroflot to Moscow SVO). Passport control took 30 seconds and as I only had hand luggage I was in the arrivals hall and into a taxi by 00:40 (scheduled arrival time!).

All in all, this flight exists for one purpose only - to baby sit Etihad’s slots - and serves close to zero commercial value to anyone (regardless of the details of this loss making arrangement). That said, as a passenger it was almost like being in a private jet!


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Comments

  1. interesting read must say

    i hope they pay AS for this babysitting ...
    almost spilled my coffee over the keyboard when i saw the blic.

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  2. I think the flight is a hit or miss. I flew from LHR about a week ago and we were 63 passengers.

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  3. Great report Stan :) Regarding flight entertainment, aren't Etihad's PTV's in business class in the arm rest? Regardless I don't think they turn them on on this flight.

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  4. Good report. The quality/quantity of food served has certainly gone down compared to the early years but at least it's not as bad as last year when they gave passengers a cardboard box to eat out of.

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    Replies
    1. I recently had a flight with JU in business class and it is actually quite decent product. There could be some minor adjustments, but I think that overall product is comparable with better ones for intra-Europe flight.

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  5. Whoa! I was on the LHR-BEG 20:35 flight couple of weeks earlier, but on Friday and the load factor was pretty good as i remember. Probably high 80s, percentage-wise

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    Replies
    1. I can see the Friday flight being popular with those from the London catchment going to Belgrade for a (long) weekend break...

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  6. Nice report. From passenger perspective this is great, fast boarding, no fuss on the plane, you can relax, sleep....

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  7. Great report Stan! Especially I love the part when you are detoxing with rakijas <3 Good choice especially after that toxic tabloid trash you had! Enjoy your stay in Serbia cheers!

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  8. I travel regularly between Belgrade and London. The situation as it stands is ridiculous. Air Serbia's prices seem to start at £200 for a return ticket with hand luggage only. Budget offering at a full service price. Wizz Air offers 3-4 flights a week...departing at the crack of dawn, meaning leaving for the dismal Luton Airport in the middle of the night. I (and several people I know) have travelled many times to Timisoara or Budapest to get a ticket for the date that I want at a reasonable price (in some periods Air Serbia's prices were up to £450 return). The situation on this route is ripe for some other company to clean up, simply by offering daily flights, at a reasonable time of day, at a reasonable price.

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    1. Well you simply can't compare JU's BEG-LHR to LTN-TSR as costs are completely incomparable. Yes, JU is not cheap but neither is LHR. Wizz Air on the other hand isn't particularly cheap either, especially in summer. They are the one you should be angry at. Anyway, A321 from Luton has become the norm so I guess people don't mind it.

      Maybe you should fly on LH via MUC/FRA.

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    2. Agreed that the situation is (and has been) crazy for a long time now. I now travel less than I'd like to just because of Air Serbia's nutty pricing, and their website is also the poorest functioning, badly designed and buggy thing I've ever had the displeasure to try and use. 'Srpska posla', as they say here. Before they changed the flight times, I had quite a good relationship with Wizzair, having learnt to deal with that creeping horror that comes when one exits the main doors in Luton. I see some ultra-cheap tickets coming up more frequently (like literally 10 pounds one way), but how on earth does one get to Luton Airport for 4:30am? You have to sleep there, or have some poor sod give you a lift.
      The only way forward, as I've seen it, is to try and combine the wizzair flights BEG-LTN with one coming back from LHR (or poss, occasionally, LCY). This way you can maybe do it all in for 120gbp, 140gbp. Best way to start is to use the 'ticket combiner' tool on momondo to try and get a feel for what's working.

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    3. TSR was always the much cheaper option to fly from and to London. 60 squid return is really worth the journey.
      Even SKP has much cheaper flights to Luton compared to BEG.
      Vinci must work seriously on London...

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    4. Well SKP is not very profitable for TAV so I guess taxes are lower there than in Belgrade. At the end of the day, JU to LHR and W6 to LTN are constantly full, I guess people are willing to pay. As long as visas are in place nothing will change.

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    5. Btw I just checked and in November average one-way fare for SKP-LTN is around 8.061 MKD which is €131. I wouldn't call that cheap. They have two weekly in November.

      BEG-LTN on the other hand is operate three times per week and average ticket in November is 9.834 RSD which is €83.

      As for JU in November, well, I see a lot of one-way ticket for 12.000 which is €100. So cheap tickets can be found, you just need to book in advance. However a difference of some €20 compared to Luton is a rip off (by Wizz).

      And by the way, Wizz Air is generally ripping people off. I saw €400 tickets without luggage to freaking BVA!

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  9. I've done that, also with Swiss via Zurich. Regarding costs: you can fly to Sofia from Heathrow later this month for less than £90 return with BA. So clearly it's a lack of competition and not costs as such. People definitely aren't happy with Wizz Air, they just don't have any other option except Air Serbia, who charge whatever they want. The return tickets were £400+ earlier this year - for context, I've flown London-Shanghai, direct flights, for £375 return. More competition is needed. Until then, I can just stay envious of Sofia and its ~50 direct flights to London every week...

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    1. The market from Sofia is a thousand times bigger due to a million Bulgarians living in the UK. That's why so many airlines fly between the two countries.

      China is a bad example since Chinese airlines dump prices all around.

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    2. A million of Bulgarians xD xD LOL
      Dude, there are max 300,000 in UK. What about them Brits in the Elena province or those travelling to ski in winter and the coast in summer? Excuse us for your marvellous comment...

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    3. It was a figure of speech, chill out. You just proved my point, there are barely 40.000 Serbs in the UK so the amount of flights makes sense. As for Brits going skiing, that's seasonal, you know, snow falls in winter.

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    4. 1. There has been significant overspill for years (people going to Belgrade, but flying to Timisoara or Budapest instead, or flying via Zurich / Munich / Memmingen etc).

      2. There are currently only two direct options: Air Serbia (price-gouging) or Wizz Air (low quality offering). People would fly more often if there were a service comparable to that between most European capitals (reasonable price, reasonable quality, reasonable flight times). There is a lot of pent up demand.

      3. Why assume only Serbs fly on this route? There are also people from the UK (tourism, business etc), from eastern Slavonia etc And why do you assume that all Serbs need visas for the UK? There are hundreds of thousands of Serbs (if not a million+) with some other additional passport who don't need visas for the UK.

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    5. What you say might all be true but I guess the market is not large enough for other players to enter the market. Who knows, maybe at some point we get STN-INI on FR. ;)

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  10. I have flown this route and aircraft/time slot two times over the summer. Both loads were around 80% and I paid less than £100 one way the first time and only £68 the second which included a transfer flight to Podgorica early the next morning! I must be lucky - both were last minute bookings.

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  11. The policy of running ghost flights just not to lose rights over airport slots is outright insulting, at a time when the huge environmental impact of aviation is under public scrutiny.

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