Egypt Air Trip Report JFK-Cairo-Bombay

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Last August, I flew the outbound segment of the super cheap Egypt Air promotional fare in Business Class from BOM to JFK with a connection in CAI.

I flew in from DEL on Air India, arriving at 9:30pm, giving myself enough time to make the 2:30am departure from BOM to CAI. Air India, along with Jet Airways and Vistara, arrives at the international terminal (T2) so unlike the pre new Terminal 2 days, there is no need for the shuttle bus to connect from the domestic to international terminal anymore, unless you are flying the LCCs.

The very helpful staff at BOM directed me on how to get to the check in area, which was easy to access— without having to leave the terminal. There are CISF personnel who will check your travel documents inside the terminal itself before you get on the elevator that takes you to the check-in hall.

That night, Egypt Air counters were in Check-in Area ‘E’. I am not sure whether they switch these around or if they are consistently in the same location. ‘E’ is almost on the opposite end from where the elevator to the check-in hall takes you.

As I said earlier, I had given myself enough time to make the connection, in case something went wrong. Well, everything went smooth as could be, and by the time I arrived at the check in counters, after having lolled and loitered about a bit, Egypt Air were still setting up. It was a little before 10:30. People had already started lining up at the Economy counter, as they set up flowers and the red carpet at the Business class line. I was told it would be “five minutes” till they were ready. I took a walk around the area and admired this rather beautiful new terminal. I went to check the immigration and security area and was a tad disappointed not to see a dedicated Business class line.

By the time, I went back, way over five minutes later, they still hadn’t started the check-in process. Two gents were waiting patiently in the business class line. They began the process around 10:50. While the Y line moved rather quick, the two J passengers, who were traveling together took some time. I am not sure what the problem was but it took a few people to sort it out for them. My check-in, however, was a breeze, but I was again subjected to that invasive line of questioning that I had to go through at DEL for my domestic flight. I was asked if I lived in the US or in India; How often I came to India; Where in India did I live. When they were done, I asked if this was some sort of a new procedure and the young lady at the counter told me with, what I’d call, an apologetic expression, that it was. Might be that it is specific only to India though, since I have flown domestic US since then, and not gone through this at either JFK or LAX.

At check-in the agent wanted me to be absolutely certain that I did not have any battery packs in my checked-in luggage. She was surprised that I wasn’t carrying a laptop or even an ipad. Thankfully, I had a friend traveling on KLM the same night, who very kindly consented to take my laptop with him. I am not sure if I’d have risked checking it in. In a few months, when I take my return flight, I’ll have to figure that issue out. These were still early days of the electronics ban, so I had been reading mixed things about carrying headphones. Mine are big and take a battery but aren’t wireless. I wanted to carry them because I hadn’t read the best things about the headphones MS provided. I was told, after two agents consulted between themselves, that headphones should be ok. It didn’t come with any level of certainty, but my headphones are old and I was ready to sacrifice them for the experience of what may come in Cairo.

Much to my pleasant surprise, at the end of the check-in process, I was directed to head to a completely different area for immigration and security. The Business Class security is a single counter in a concealed area that has a separate approach than the regular security area. There were, perhaps three, maybe four people ahead of me. There was, however, only one counter and I imagine it gets crowded later in the night, when a larger number of flights depart. For me, however, security and immigration were a breeze.

Bombay’s new Terminal 2 is beautiful. It is adorned with art. Walls have murals, and some have facades reminiscent of traditional Indian architecture. It reminds the five star hotel lobbies one is used to seeing in India. The boarding gates have plants (not sure if they were real though) and the lighting is muted. Quite spectacular!

I was sent to the GVK lounge, and I have to say, this may have been the best part of the experience! The lounge is extremely well put together. It wasn’t crowded. The staff was friendly. The drinks, while not super premium, were flowing. There was a buffet with a variety of cuisines. The standout experience, however, was the free 15 minute foot massage in the spa though! Towards the end of my stay there, they had me fill out a feedback survey, where I gave them my glowing reviews.

My boarding was to start at 2:05 a.m., but when I left the lounge at exactly 2:05, they were already looking for me. There was a change of gate that I had spotted on the monitor, and I was still trying to figure which way to go, when I was met with an airport staff who asked me my seat number. How he figured that I was an Egypt Air passenger, I have no idea. I told him my seat number and he tells me that I was the last passenger left to board. It was a five minute walk to the gate and I was indeed the last person on the airplane.

Business class had nine people on board. Not sure how many were in the back or whether it was full or not. This flight was on a 737-800. This 737 Business class cabin was classier than what I had expected, being used to similar ones on mainline domestic US F. The seat was quite roomy, and I had ample leg room. Being in an empty cabin helped. A tiny piece of chocolate in a wrapper that said “85 EgyptAir” was waiting on my armrest. The pre-departure drinks were juices and water. MS is a dry airline, so no alcohol was served.

Most of the cabin was already asleep by the time we took off. An amenity kit— a little gray pouch with not much more than eye-shades and socks, was provided. It wasn’t much so I didn’t bother collecting it. I was the only one who asked for a meal. A rather large plate of chicken and rice was brought to my seat. There was a salmon and shrimp appetizer, rolls and salad and it was all brought in one tray. I only ate the appetizer and some chicken from the rice, as it wasn’t that great. Then I slept. The pillows were comfortable and the blankets on this segment were a dark blue with large gold stars on it. The headphones, as expected, were well below the norm for business class on major carriers. The IFE screen was small, but I didn’t need to use it.

The flight was uneventful. If there was a morning meal service, I don’t know, as I slept through it.

We arrived in CAI exactly on schedule. The airplane didn’t park at a gate and there were busses parked on the tarmac to receive us. The nine business class passengers got our own full size bus.

CAIRO-NEW YORK (JFK)

The area we arrived in on the bus was rather small, yet confusing. Since I had my boarding pass, I could go straight through to another security check, but this was a very small, roped off, area and unless you asked you couldn’t find it, if you were a first timer at CAI. After this security check— traveling without a computer is a breeze!— I took an elevator to a level above which is where the lounges and the departure gates are. At that early hour, it was around 6:30 in the morning, the airport was rather quiet, as compared to some of the European airports I have been through. The lounge was easy to find and was only about a five minute walk to the gate where I was to fly MS 985 to JFK from.

The gentleman at the entrance to the lounge stamped my boarding pass with a “Used Lounge (C)”. I wondered if it was because they didn’t want passengers going from lounge to lounge. I should have asked, but didn’t. The lounge was average, but comfortable. The wifi was about good enough to stream an episode or two of Narcos to my phone. I was still worried about my headphones, and was prepared to give them up, but wanted to get full use of them prior to that. As the crowds increased— it was filled to capacity by the time I was ready to leave— the wifi connectivity was compromised. Fair enough. Sadly, the bathrooms were a bit messy, at least the time that I needed to use them.

They had laid out breakfast which included pastries, scrambled eggs (quite good with cilantro and such), preserves etc. and also mini hot dogs in blanket. Juices and other non-alcoholic beverages were also available for your pleasure.

Boarding for CAI-JFK was to begin at 9:05 am. I left the lounge around 9:00. The gate was straight down at the end of the hall. You have to cross secondary security in order to reach the boarding area. Thankfully, no one pointed out my rather large, albeit battery less headphones. Here, I think I should mention that at least on the day that I was traveling, there were no arrangements to gate check your laptop or camera as, I had read, Emirates and Etihad were doing. There were no crowds at the gate, as they had already started boarding.

I was greeted by two very friendly FAs as I entered the airplane. A plush pillow and a blanket— light blue with white stripes— was waiting for me on my business class flat bed seat. The gentleman across the aisle was using his wireless Bose headphones, so I guess they are exempt from the ban.

Pre-departure beverages, again, were non-alcoholic. Guava juice was my favorite. The amenity kit was the same as the previous flight, and not noteworthy . When I took my seat, the cabin was pretty empty, but by the time we were ready to leave, Business class was full. My window seat was in the forward cabin of Biz. Another smaller cabin is towards the back. We left the gate about twenty minutes behind official departure time. Taxiing in Cairo provides very interesting views of the desert.

Once in the air, I checked my seat. As expected, it was flat but angled slightly. Very comfortable in ordinary course, but an absolute treat for the money I paid for it. The IFE was adequate, while nowhere close to what one has come to expect from international J, both in terms of screen size and content. I managed to watch some TV shows and parts of a movie with meals. The first of which was breakfast. That had me stumped for a moment, since the menu had the lunch options appear on the first page and breakfast on the second. I attributed it to an operational issue initially. Only later did the slap-my-forehead realization occur that the menu was designed to be in Arabic and hence read the opposite way than English does.

What was odd however, was that my breakfast entree wasn’t what was described in the menu. The crepes stuffed with cheese and spinach and mushroom on the side, that I had expected turned out to be sweet crepes with cheese and dates. The FA did mention that the crepes were sweet, so I have no complaints there. Plus, they weren’t bad at all! The meal was adequate, if not a show stopper.

Post breakfast, the lights were dimmed to a deep blue with little stars on the ceiling. I hadn’t had the best sleep on the previous flight, so I stretched out while watching a pretty bad Bollywood comedy. I was glad to be able to use my own headphones, since the ones provided by the airline were not quite up to mark.

Lunch was great! I had the Shish Tawook— grilled chicken stuffed with sausage meat. Once more, the description on the menu was different than the sides that were actually served, but the meal was quite delectable. Lunch was followed by fruit, and then a cart with dessert was brought around. I had the chocolate cake. The other option was Cheesecake. The cake wasn’t that great.

Interestingly, an example of customer service came up during lunch. The lady next to me in the aisle seat didn’t quite care for the meal she had ordered. The FA was very accommodating and changed her meal to something else. I thought it was a nice, fit for premium cabin, gesture.

The flat bed was as comfortable as can be, and I had a decent sleep through the flight.

The CAI-JFK flight was well over 12 hours, and my entire journey from DEL to BOM to CAI to JFK from door to door was almost 34 hours. We landed a few minutes behind schedule at JFK.

I was one of the first out of the airplane and the first to hit the Global Entry kiosks. Luggage arrived, all well and proper and I was out quickly enough.

Tired as I was, I’d say I had a rather comfortable journey. The price tag made it all the better, of course. I enjoyed their service and the seat that allowed me to sleep well and emerge relatively unscathed from a full day and a half of traveling across the planet. Now, if only, they used equipment with a more comfortable seat between BOM- CAI, this trip would have been ideal.

The miles for the flights posted within a day or two to my Aeroplan account.

(c) Nitin Madan 2018

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Better than Cubans? A Case for Non Cuban Cigars

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Romeo in the winter. New Delhi 2013

Romeo in the winter. New Delhi 2013

Spring in New York City is a celebration. The trees that lay barren during the long winter begin to bear tiny white leaves; late afternoons aren’t as dark as they used to be; tables are easier to get during lunch, but then the joke’s on you, because all the fun folk are eating outdoors, sipping iced coffee. I could go on but a million better writers than me have already written about New York’s romance with spring.

As someone who divides his time between India and New York, I always make it a point to be in New York for April’s cherry blossom. While the morning is crisp, the day warms up by the afternoon enough to get a barbeque going with good friends, a beverage of choice, and most significantly, cigars. This past weekend, the bbq season began with a fantastic Alec Bradley Prensado, Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the year for 2011. A cigar like that is not only an experience in itself, it also has the ability to enhance the enjoyment of your drink as well as bring out subtle flavors of food.

What spring is to New York, winter is to Northern India. Cigars are relatively harder to come by, although decidedly easier now than a few years ago. Aficionados and enthusiasts are bringing home cigars from trips abroad. Lounges and bars have become available to enjoy a stick paired with malts, cognacs and wines. What is still lacking though is access to knowledge. Or if I may, a nuanced perspective. A broad understanding may be enough to begin with, but to allow your interest to turn into enthusiasm or passion, you need to delve somewhat deeper.

Cigars for many is an acquired taste. Being a non- (cigarette) smoker, I didn’t take to cigars like, say, I, in my wholesome Punjabi way, may have taken to Aaloo paratha. It was my passion for wine that led me to a cigar pairing event in New York where began my love story with cigars. A basic introduction that evening, opened doors to further knowledge, greater exposure and the ability to enjoy cigars to their fullest. In India, while I have enjoyed my smokes thoroughly in some spectacular locations, I have found even professionals somewhat misinformed.

So, for starters, I’d like to bust at least one myth. Cuban cigars are not the last word in cigar making. This is a common misconception and not unique to India.

In fact, it is now argued with some merit that Cuban cigars may actually be inferior to a variety of other cigars that come from other places, made with tobaccos from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Cameroon and most significantly, Nicaragua. It isn’t rare to find particular products to be associated with certain countries. For instance, a definite credibility is attached to a wine from France, or a malt whiskey from Scotland, even while wines and whiskeys of increasingly better qualities are being produced all over the world. Cigars are pretty much the same in that regard.

Don’t get me wrong, I will not pass on a Cuban Cohiba just as I wouldn’t decline a Burgundy Grand Cru or a 18 year old Macallans, but that doesn’t mean that Joseph Phelps makes inferior wine in Napa or that an 18 year old Yamazaki Single Malt from Japan is any lesser in taste and enjoyment. Or that a non- Cuban Partagas is in any way inferior to its Cuban cousin.

Cuban cigars have a stellar reputation with good reason. But since 1960 after the socialist revolution in Cuba, the United States, which is one of the world’s largest premium cigar market placed an embargo on economic relations with its southern neighbor. Losing this huge market for their product took its toll on the Cuban cigar industry. Add to that, all the privately held cigar manufacturers in Cuba were taken over by the government, under one company named Cubatabaco.

Predictably, under the socialist regime, the Cuban cigar industry has suffered to some extent. Quality control has been a major concern for buyers of Cuban cigars. While the tobacco itself is impeccable, it is the actual cigar making that has been compromised. European buyers, including those who supply to major airport duty free shops have had to create systems and relationships in place that maintain strict standards. Consequently, due to reasons of quality, supply has been reduced, thus driving up prices on high end Cubans! Which brings us to another issue. Fakes.

The demand for premium Cuban cigars far outweighs their supply, a gap that is made whole with counterfeits. While aficionados can detect the difference even from the bands around the cigar, less experienced smokers find it hard to discern and thus remain devoid of the true Cuban stogie experience.

The erstwhile owners of the most famous Cuban cigar companies, prior to 1960, went on to recreate the same brands they owned in Cuba, in neighboring islands with similar climate and topography. They started to grow tobacco from Cuban seeds smuggled out of the country, and began making cigars under the same names that they owned in Cuba. In other words, while the Cuban government continued to manufacture Romeo Y Julietta, Montecristo, H. Upmann and other well established cigar names with exclusively Cuban grown tobacco, the original creators and owners of these brands, while in exile, created the same brands, totally unrelated to their Cuban namesakes and captured the high end Cigar market in the United States.

Today, the Dominican and American based cigar makers use tobaccos from various parts of the world to create the smoothest, perfect blends for a variety of tastes. In fact, more than three-fourths of 2012 top 25 cigars, as ranked by Cigar Aficionado magazine, are non-Cubans, including Flor de Las Antillas, the no. 1 cigar of the year, which is rolled entirely of Nicaraguan tobacco.

There is a whole universe of cigars to be explored outside of the Cubans. So if I may twist King Edward VII’s words, my advice to my fellow enthusiasts would be, “Gentlemen (and Ladies! Cant forget the ladies!), you may smoke (them all).

(C) Nitin Madan 2013

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