Travelling amid a pandemic from the US to Skopje

TRIP REPORT | INDEX


Written by Teodor Parolo Tasevski

Trip: Phoenix-Atlanta-Amsterdam-Sofia / Delta & Bulgaria Air / First Class
Trip Taken: 5 June 2020


After spending close to 3 months stuck in the United States, I decided it was time to return home to Skopje, pandemic or not. Since both airports in Macedonia have been closed since March, I booked a flight through Atlanta and Paris to Sofia, and arranged for a taxi to the Macedonian border. After arriving in Atlanta, I found that the flight to Paris had been delayed for over 2 hours, meaning that I’d certainly miss my connection to Sofia. The gate agent then rebooked me on another Delta flight to Amsterdam for the next day, and gave me a voucher for a free hotel room at the Crowne Plaza.


Phoenix (PHX)- Atlanta (ATL)
June 5 2020
6:30AM - 1:03PM
Delta A321
First Class

Sky Harbor was, as expected, not very busy at 5 in the morning in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. I arrived at the airport approximately 1.5 hours before departure, in order to allow for any issues that might arise at check in. When I presented my Macedonian passport to the agent, she had to make a few phone calls to verify my eligibility for travel to Bulgaria. It was resolved in about 20 minutes, and I was on my way. Waiting at the security line was almost non-existent, and I was airside in no time. Wearing a mask was mandatory inside the airport building, as well as on all flights.

The interior of the brand-new Terminal 3

The A321 we flew to Atlanta is one of the most recent additions to Delta’s fleet

Although I’m not exactly a fan of US air carriers, I must say that Delta is among the most decent ones available. Compared to American Airlines and United, they are better in both hard and soft products, and even flying with them in economy class gives a more “premium” feel, one that is reflected in the prices, of course.

Boarding was conducted according to rows, starting from the back and moving progressively toward the front, with first class passengers invited to board at their leisure.




LF in first class was exactly 50%, with every passenger having a vacant seat next to theirs. The crew wore masks at all times and distributed wet wipes shortly after boarding.

Delta Connection E75 bound for LAX

Air traffic was light that morning, and I was able to see a bunch of aircraft grounded in PHX due to the pandemic.

These AA birds don’t seem like they’ve been anywhere in a while!

Taxi was short, and we had a timely departure.

Take-off view of Phoenix

Arizona’s arid landscape

Meal service in first class consisted of a pre-packaged box of snacks. The attendant offered three options, one with meat, one vegetarian, and one lighter version. They didn’t offer any drinks apart from the water bottles that had been placed on the armrests prior to boarding.

My modest breakfast

The snack box was tastier than I expected, and I managed to finish it all. Of course, this would not be considered acceptable for first class service under normal circumstances, but all things considered, it was understandable.

The flight was generally comfortable, but I felt that the cabin was pretty cold. When I asked the attendant for a blanket, he said that they are no longer distributing them due to Covid.
We started our descent into ATL less than 3 hours after departure.

Pre-landing view

Landing was smooth, and taxi to the gate only took a few minutes. I’ve never been to ATL before, so I was excited to visit the world’s busiest airport.

Atlanta is Delta’s largest hub

Upon disembarking, I was surprised to find out that the domestic terminal was quite busier than I expected. It didn’t quite feel like a normal time, but there still was a good deal of traffic. I found the scene encouraging with regard to the hope that air travel will recover quickly. Masks were apparently not mandatory at ATL as many passengers and staff weren’t wearing one.

Since my next flight was international, I hopped on the “Skytrain” to the F-terminal, which handles most of Delta’s intercontinental flights.

The scene I encountered once I got off the skytrain at the F-gates was radically different to the one at the domestic terminal. Since there were only a few flights scheduled out of there for the entire afternoon (Paris, Amsterdam, and Seoul if I recall), the large terminal seemed almost abandoned.



After buying some books and magazines in one of the shops, I decided to try Delta’s business lounge. It was, as expected, not busy at all, with a few Europe-bound passengers scattered around. The buffet had a sad offering of stale looking pre-packaged sandwiches, so I skipped eating altogether, and just ordered a coke from the bar.

An hour or two later, I started heading to the gate for what was supposed to be my flight to CDG.

Our faulty A330

When I arrived at the gate, the agents announced that there was going to be a delay of around 30 minutes. Since they said this quite early, and I was counting on a shorter than scheduled flight to Paris, I initially wasn’t worried. Then, as almost an hour went by, and they showed no signs of boarding, the gate agents finally announced that there had been a technical issue with the aircraft, and that we were going to move to another gate so they could prepare a different plane. At this point, the delay was going to be around 2 hours, so I joined a long queue at the counter to inquire about my connection status. After my turn finally came, the gate agent (who was very helpful by the way) apologized and quickly rebooked me on a new flight to Sofia via Amsterdam the next day. He gave me a voucher for a free stay at the nearby Crowne Plaza for the night. My luggage stayed at the airport, and I grabbed a taxi for the short ride to the hotel. What I found ironic about the whole situation was that with everything that could have gone wrong with the virus, this delay had been caused by a completely unrelated, technical issue!


Atlanta (ATL)- Amsterdam (AMS)
June 6 2020
5:35 PM- 8:00 AM+1
Delta A330-300
Delta One

The next morning, I decided to get to the airport early (around 1PM) since there was no point going into the city, and there wasn’t anything to do at the hotel. I took the free shuttle, since there were only two other passengers staying at the hotel, so there wouldn’t really be any risk.

When I went to get my new boarding passes, the check-in procedure involved the same round of phone calls and document verification as in PHX, which took roughly 15 minutes.

Check-in area at ATL

The security line was pretty long, with no priority lane. Most of the passengers were, once again, domestic-bound.

After another ride on the “Skytrain”, I again went to the lounge, where the same puzzled receptionist welcomed me for the second time. The food offering was the same, so I decided to only go for a drink instead.

Our AMS bound A330-300

This flight was on time, and boarding went very smoothly. Distancing wasn’t very strictly observed, and there was some congestion inside the jet-bridge.




The Delta One product was a reverse herringbone configuration, which was on par with many first class products (such as that on Kuwait Airways A330 for example). Even though I was seated in the middle section, the fact that the neighbouring seat was vacant gave me more than enough privacy. The airplane did show some signs of aging, but it was still a solid offering overall.
The crew once again distributed wet wipes, and we took off a mere few minutes behind schedule.

What I found positively surprising was that Delta offered the traditional full meals, albeit served on a tray all at the same time, rather than the snack box I was anticipating. They took our orders prior to departure, and had the food ready quickly after reaching cruising altitude.

My short rib dinner. The meal was very tasty

Perhaps the only glitch I could notice in the catering service were the cheap plastic cups in which the wine was served. Turkish does better in Economy class!

The rest of the flight was uneventful, but I was [not-so] surprised to find that every passenger got a pre-packaged set of a blanket and pillow, when the flight attendant on the previous flight told me they don’t offer them anymore because of the virus. Seems like someone’s looking for excuses to cut costs.

After a few movies and some reading, we started our descent into rainy Amsterdam.
We landed roughly on time, and taxi to the gate took around 15 minutes. I’ve never been to AMS before so I was excited to see yet another new airport. The jet-bridge discharged us directly into the transit zone, so there was no need for the security check.




AMS seemed quite a bit busier than ATL, although surely not what it’d look like during normal times. Most of the shops and restaurants were open, and masks were apparently optional. One thing I noticed was that the queue for passport control to enter the Schengen area was very long, extending to the duty free area due to the mandatory distancing. Thankfully, Bulgaria still isn’t in part of Schengen, so my flight was from the international terminal.

Since I had about an hour to kill before going to the gate, I decided to give the KLM business lounge a go. I wasn’t sure if I was eligible because my flight was on Bulgaria Air, but the lounge attendant genuinely didn’t care- they weren’t exactly busy.

Entrance to the lounge

I apologize for not taking any photos of the lounge. It was quite ordinary with what were supposed to be apron views, but they were blocked.

After spending about an hour over there, I started heading to the gate.


Amsterdam (AMS)- Sofia (SOF)
June 7 2020
10:15 AM- 1:55 PM
Bulgaria Air A320
Business Class

It took me about 20 minutes to walk to the gate, as it was in some far-away corner of the terminal. There was a delay of the inbound flight from Sofia, and even though the airplane still wasn’t present at the gate, there was already a large queue of people waiting to get in! I’ve found that this is almost always the case with flights to the Balkans, why- I have no idea. It appeared to be a full load for the flight to Sofia that morning, and because the gate area was very small, the concept of distancing was non-existent.

We waited in the cramped area for about 30 minutes, during which several passengers started getting upset because of the delay. The gate agent seemed particularly un-interested and responded to everyone with “How should I know, I’m not from the airline!”

When boarding finally started, they had to move quickly, so people were basically on top of one another.




As I predicted, LF in economy class was close to 100% (photo was taken when I first sat down). Business class was euro-style, with the only customary curtain distinguishing the two cabins. The A320 definitely showed signs of wear-and-tear, and the seats were especially hard and uncomfortable. Legroom was horrible, in fact I could classify Pegasus and Wizz Air as premium airlines when compared to Bulgaria Air’s legroom.

Pushback at AMS

Take-off was smooth, and the flight was generally uneventful, lasting a little more than 2 hours. I’m not usually one to complain, but I have to say that Bulgaria Air’s business product is a total scam. Not only is there absolutely no difference in the hard product between business and economy, but also no difference in service whatsoever. There was a small bottle of water on each seat when we boarded, and this was literally all we got for the two hour flight! They could have at least offered crackers or juice, as almost any European or US airline would do in economy class!

We landed in Sofia a few minutes ahead of schedule. Taxi was short, and I was surprised to see that we parked at a remote stand. Every time I’ve flown in and out of SOF, we’d always get a jet-bridge, so this was definitely something new.

When I got off the plane, there were two buses outside. One was the regular passenger bus, while the other was a mini-bus with VIP written on it. I knew that there was no way they’d provide a separate bus for business class passengers, and when I tried asking the guy outside, he replied “No business class- this VIP”.

Disembarking in SOF

I’m guessing this one is here for maintenance

The bus accommodated about half of the entire passenger load, so once again no distancing was possible. When we got off at the terminal, airport staff first collected the health forms that everyone completed in the plane, and we then proceeded to immigration. The first thing that the lady at the counter asked when she saw my Macedonian passport was: “Imate li Blgarski dokumenti”- i.e. “Do you have Bulgarian documents”. Those familiar with Macedonia know that many of our citizens have Bulgarian citizenship. When I convinced her I didn’t, she had to make sure that my arrival was announced by the Macedonian consulate, as Bulgaria’s borders are currently closed to Macedonians. Since I took care of everything before departing, there was no problem and I was quickly on my way to the border.

Final Verdict: 5/10. This trip was unlike any other I’ve ever taken, so it was pretty hard to rate. If we take the virus out of the picture, I would have rated it as much worse, but with the huge consequences posed by the virus, it makes sense to be understanding. Delta’s hard product was solid, and their soft product was as consistent as possible all things considered. The only problem I had with them was the delay, and the subpar hotel they offered. Bulgaria Air was bad on all counts, and I wouldn’t fly them again unless absolutely necessary. All in all, I’m happy that I (finally) got home without catching coronavirus.


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Comments

  1. Anonymous09:06

    Wow amazing report. I'm glad cyou finally managed to make it back home, even with all the issues along the way.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous09:10

    Fantastic report. Travel certainly won't be the same anymore.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous09:16

      It really won't, won't it?

      Delete
  3. Anonymous09:15

    Delta first looks vpretty good eventhough it's a US carrier and the current situation.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous09:21

    Oh dear Bulgaria Air

    ReplyDelete
  5. Prepelica09:31

    Thank you for this great report.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Anonymous09:51

    Thanks for the report, was interesting to read how flying works in these times but ...

    Lol whining because of the lack of a sandwich in times of a pandemic. :D
    I will spare the word starting with pathe...

    Maybe you should read the article from today about Turkish:
    "...the carrier’s award-winning catering will not be provided, with all travellers, in both business and economy class, to receive a bottle of water."

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous09:51

    Actually this very good report shows that all the actions done by airlines to "fight the virus" were nothing but obvious measures to cut the costs. And nothing but that.

    At the places where some measures must be applied (especially at the airports) nobody actually cares because nobody has financial interest to do it.

    Avoiding to provide a meal or blanket will "help to fight the virus" but boarding the plane with no social distance is no problem.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Anonymous11:52

    Great read. Really enjoyed it.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Nice and detailed report. It seems that DL have indeed improved a lot. But the situation wasn't like this 10 years ago. In the US, one of the best airlines still remain Alaska, JetBlue, Allegiant.
    UA has a quite notorious reputation. Especially one of the viral videos showing how a passenger has been literally dragged off the floor and kicked out of the plane because of overbooking:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrDWY6C1178

    As for FB, I agree their business service is herrendous but what surprised me most is you haven't been provided with catering as it is free for everybody even wine and beer are offered.
    You also flew with their A320 which is an all economy 180 seater used on busier routes and it's almost 15 years old. Definitely not the youngest.

    ReplyDelete
  10. With so many planes grounded I would have expected Delta to use something newer.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Anonymous21:52

    Shouldn't the title be US to Sofia?

    ReplyDelete

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