Flying In the New Normal 4 – Teamwork in the Atlantic

In times like these, planning a trip can be really hard, but since I am located in Portugal I was thinking to myself, what fun can we have inside this country? My thoughts immediately went to the small archipelago of Islands located around 1500km from Portugal’s capital. Most people have heard of the volcanic archipelago called the Azores, but few have actually visited it. For me it was also the very first time setting foot on the islands, and what a treat it was. Welcome to Part IV of Travel Radar’s Flying in the New Normal series.

Azore's Dash8-Q400 - Which would be our bird for many of our journeys | (c) Aaron Vancoillie
Azore’s Dash8-Q400 – Which would be our bird for many of our journeys | (c) Aaron Vancoillie

The First Leg – Onwards to Terceira

Waking up early has never been my strongest point, so I made sure my first leg to the island of Terceira, was in the afternoon, with the flight from Terceira to Ponta Delgada later in the evening. Lisbon Airport during Covid times is always a treat to fly from; Any airport now for that matter. Very short security and check in queues. Although as an aviation enthusiast, you know deep down you want those queues to be as long as possible – a sign the industry is recovering.

For some reason I could not check in online so I had to go to the desk and get my boarding pass for the Lisbon to Terceira flight. (For the Terceira to Ponta Delgada flight I had to check in again at the destination.) Not that big of an issue for me and off to the gate I went.

Our first aircraft - A320 CS-TKK | (c) Aaron Vancoillie
Our first aircraft – A320 CS-TKK | (c) Aaron Vancoillie

When I arrived after a short walk from security I was surprised by the lack of people waiting. I was flying “Corvo”, in other words, CS-TKK, a 15 year old A320 with a capacity of 160 passengers. If I could guess not more than 30 people were flying to the island that day. The flight with the lowest occupation rate I have ever taken. That again puts you face to face with the struggle the aviation sector has to deal with. The boarding process started with a delay of around ten minutes, and it all went extremely smooth. A desinfectant wipe was given upon entry and we had to desinfect our hands. Even with the small delay we were off-block and taxiing right on time. The takeoff went smoothly, sadly without any views over Lisbon because of low hanging clouds. The pilots then put “Corvo” in a slight bank to the west, heading to our destination.

The flight itself was pretty uneventful | (c) Aaron Vancoillie
The flight itself was pretty uneventful | (c) Aaron Vancoillie

The flight itself was pretty uneventful to say the least. The only in-flight service was a bottle of water, which was pretty disappointing. So if you want a snack on board, take something with you. In terms of in-flight entertainment, no magazine, which is pretty self-explanatory why, so a laptop, phone or tablet is advised with everything downloaded since there is no WiFi available. I always recreate the aircraft I’m flying on in photoshop during the flight to keep myself busy, and get it signed by the pilots after the flight. The crew was really nice and you could see the smiles behind their masks. After one and a half hour the archipelago came into view. Well, only the mountains because it seems the thick cloudlayer laying over Lisbon had followed us all the way to the Azores. The A320 descended and made a 180° turn to land on runway 15 at Lajes Aerogare (TER), the airport on Terceira island. Our wheels touched the ground 20 minutes earlier than scheduled.

Upon touchdown, the reverse thrust activated, and a Pakistani C130 and two U.S Navy P.8 Poseidon aircraft (modified 737NG’s) came into view, resting on the gigantic military apron at Lajes. Sadly the windows of the A320 were scratched to the degree that pictures were nearly impossible. Come on Azores Airlines, you fly in one of the most beautiful areas of the world, but your passengers can’t take any pictures of that beautiful landscape because of the bad state of your windows.

And we sure did want to take photos! | (c) Aaron Vancoillie
And we sure did want to take photos! | (c) Aaron Vancoillie

Once the doors were opened we were quickly hurried into the terminal. ‘You can take pictures but move along’ I was told. My entrance form was scanned on my phone, which includes the negative covid test, and I was allowed into the Azores. Lajes Aerogare is a small but comfortable airport. I checked in for my next leg and when I came airside, I already saw my aircraft, which I did not know at the time, being pushed back for a leg to Horta. Suddenly an announcement came over the intercom. Flight delayed for around an hour. Can happen of course and I’ve had worse. Eventually our aircraft arrived back at Terceira for its next leg to Ponta Delgada with me on board. The bird I was flying that evening was CS-TRG christened “Santa Maria”, a Bombardier Dash8 Q400 flying for the carrier since its delivery completely new in 2010. We were pushed back and were quickly airborne. It was the very first time for me flying on a Dash8 and I was blown away during takeoff as to how much power these turboprops have. The seat was pretty comfortable for the 30 minute hop over to the main island São Miguel. We flew south of Ponta Delgada “João Paolo II” airport and then made a final turn towards runway 30. Touchdown was extremely smooth and after disembarking I was through the airport in no-time. Because this was a domestic flight I did not have to show my entry form/negative covid test. So if you dont want a big hassle at the Covid check, first fly to another smaller island and then take a short domestic flight to Ponta Delgada. After a full afternoon of flying finally off to my hotel where a soft bed was waiting for me.

We were lucky enough to visit the flight deck of the Q400 | (c) Aaron Vancoillie
We were lucky enough to visit the flight deck of the Q400 | (c) Aaron Vancoillie

Arriving in Ponta Delgada

Unfortunately I had not eaten since departure in Lisbon so I went to the hotel manager and asked if they still had something to eat. Even though the restaurant was closed they were more than happy to give me some delicious soup with a side of breads, which I gladly accepted. A good start to my stay on the islands. A fun thing was that the approach path of runway 30 at PDL goes straight over the city, including my hotel, but luckily the rooms were soundproof. That evening a friend of mine joined for the next day and flight back.

After waking up the next day we decided to go and have a walk around the airport with our trusty cameras. Ponta Delgada has a strange runway in the sense that the first half is on a huge artificial mound and the other cut into the mountain. Eventually we found a good spot on a hill overseeing the entire ramp. Aircraft came and went for the entire day, but traffic was of course slow during the pandemic and after spending around five hours there we had only seen 6 different airframes. The last day was also the most exciting one with almost the entire day filled with flying.

The beautiful Dash8-Q400 which would be our steed for the journey | (c) Aaron Vancoillie
The beautiful Dash8-Q400 which would be our steed for the journey | (c) Aaron Vancoillie

The Final Day – and Full of Flying

Our alarm went off at around 7am so we could be at the airport at 8am to jump on our flight to Horta. We arrived at the airport around half an hour before boarding, which was more than enough to clear security and have a coffee to brighten up the morning. Our aircraft was CS-TRD, another Dash8 Q400 delivered new to the carrier in 2010. Boarding started which was swift and clear. I love the fact that all boarding in the Azores happens with air-stairs. Not a single jetbridge to be found on either of the islands, so a lot of opportunities for photos! The crew welcomed us aboard and we took our seats. Because of Covid reasons you weren’t allowed to switch seats, which was made clear with several announcements. The engines were started in no-time and we were soon on our way to runway 30. After a turn on the threshold the Dash bolted forward and we were airborne quickly. It was a pleasure to see the scenery that I had missed out on the flight two days before. Descent was initiated for our quick stop at Terceira and we landed with tons of runway to spare. A couple of passengers boarded the aircraft and once they had taken their seats the Pratt & Whitney Canada turboprops were started once again for the even shorter hop to Horta (HOR). The flight took around 20 minutes and we touched down right on time. Sadly I was seated on the wrong side of the aircraft since I was not able to see the beautiful views of Mt. Pico, the highest mountain of Portugal, during final approach. The aircraft that was going to take us back to Lisbon was already waiting for our arrival.

We boarded Airbus A320 registration CS-TKK | (c) Aaron Vancoillie
We boarded Airbus A320 registration CS-TKK | (c) Aaron Vancoillie

Sadly it was the exact same airframe as the one I took from Lisbon to Terceira, an Airbus A320 registered CS-TKK. We exited the aircraft after having greeted the crew and entered the tiny terminal at Horta. The only food and drink options were two vending machines, not even a small bar or anything like that. When my small vending machine mishap was solved by the helpful ground staff boarding had already begun. Luckily our flight wasn’t even half occupied so the terminal was not that full, but I can’t image how packed the extremely small airside waiting area can be if the flight is fully booked.

Boarding was again nice and fast. At the bottom of the airstairs there was someone with hand sanitizer and upon entering the aircraft you received a small sanitizing The precious seats next to me were not occupied when the doors were closed which made the flight extra enjoyable. The CFM’s were quickly ignited and the jet taxied to the threshold. The pilots only had 5,200 ft to their disposal to get this jet into the sky. They kept the brakes on to the last second possible and we rotated well before the end of the runway. I was gutted when I realised my seat was again on the wrong side of the aircraft to see Mt Pico. Bad planning on my part I guess. Always book a seat on the right side of the plane when flying out of Horta. The aircraft passed the mountain below the height of its peak and climbed further to cruising altitude.

The stunning CFM engines of CS-TKK | (c) Aaron Vancoillie
The stunning CFM engines of CS-TKK | (c) Aaron Vancoillie

As on the first flight on the A320, I only received a small bottle of water as in flight service. This flight did not really differ that much from the one I had before. The same service, really friendly crew and pretty relaxing if I’m honest. Descent was initiated and we touched down at Lisbon Airport right on time. The Azores are an amazing undiscovered island group for a lot of Europeans, which makes it so unique. Mass tourism has not arrived yet, which I hope never will, so a lot of it’s features are still as they were a hundred years ago. Azores Airlines and SATA Air Acores are great extensions of this experience. It is an airline that not a lot of people know of but you can notice that their efforts of renewing their fleet with A320s and Dash 8s really had a good impact on the service. The crew always had smiles behind their masks and were happy to assist you in every way. So, if you have the chance of booking a holiday, maybe put the Azores as one of options because there is a reason it has the nickname “the Hawaii of the Atlantic”.

Aerogare Das Lajes Airport View

Some Context about Azores Airlines

SATA Air Açores acts as the main carrier in the Azores, providing vital air links between the nine different islands, using a fleet of six Dash8 aircraft, two Q200 series and 4 Q400’s. Azores Airlines, a subsidiary of SATA, uses the A320 series aircraft to connect the islands with Portugal, Western- Europe and North America. Toronto or Boston for example. The largest island, São Miguel, is home to the base of both SATA and Azores Airlines, but both of them have the same IATA (S4) and  ICAO (RZO) code.

Editorial Disclaimer: This trip fully complied with international, and local, COVID-19 travel restrictions. The Azores are open to any traveller who has performed a negative Covid-19 test, which includes even Portuguese citizens have to do. The author used the free-PCR testing service supplied by the airport prior to departure, and as such was cleared for entry without quarantine. Please check your local restrictions and requirements prior to travelling.

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