My favourite of my regular business journeys these days is the route between Manchester and Antwerp that's run by the lovely little airline VLM. If you are lucky enough to have access to Manchester Airport, London City or Frankfurt and you need to go to Antwerp, then you could be in for a treat. Because these are the airports from which the lovely little airline VLM flies.
VLM is in the process of metamorphosing and combining with another lovely little airline and will soon be known as City Jet. Both are part of the KLM-Air France group and both are focused on serving business travelers.
When I first started traveling for business, flying around all over the place was still quite good fun. You got fed, you got free booze, if the airline lost your luggage they paid compensation, you amassed zillions of air-miles and if you missed a flight the airlines would go to extreme lengths to find clever ways to get you to your destination. But over the years the fun got squished and the stress increased. It can sometimes seem as if the airlines and airports are competing with the terrorists to induce ever more complex and unpleasant barriers to actually trying to enjoy yourself.
Turning up an hour before a flight used to be standard – increased security checks put paid to that and caused massive delays. Parking near the airport was standard - the greedy airports put paid to that one by whamming up the fees. Carrying your nail scissors or eyebrow tweezers soon became a crime and attempting to actually enjoy travel became more and more of a challenge. So why all this pre-amble of misery and depression? Simply because VLM offers the attention to detail that actually makes flying almost fun again.
How VLM get it right - at the Manchester End
VLM use terminal three which is the quietest of the three Manchester terminals. It's within easy walking distance of the Long Stay Car Park and since the plane holds only 50 or so passengers, you'll never find a long queue for check in. My morning flight is at 8.25 and so long as I'm in the terminal 50 minutes or more beforehand, I can be pretty confident of not needing to worry. I recently got stuck in a motorway closure and made it to the airport just 30 minutes before the flight was due to leave. No problem – they still let me through.
How VLM get it right - in the air
This little airline hasn't forgotten how to treat passengers as human beings. You get a pre-assigned seat - hoorah, no fighting for a space on the plane. The planes are Fokker 50s - small planes with just 4 seats across and about 13 rows. The seats are leather and you get one of those rare things that our budget airline friends have long abandoned - LEG ROOM! The crew are smartly dressed, although the flight attendants tend to be a bit bossy but they treat you nicely. A boiled sweet before take off - how twee! A cheese or ham roll and a drink on the short flight and best of all a nice square of Belgian chocolate after your drink. Yum! When did you last get chocolate on EasyJet?
How VLM get it right - at the Antwerp End
Antwerp is a really tiddly little airport. I believe they have just 10 flights a day - to London City, Manchester and Frankfurt. There are no gates to park up at - the plane just taxis up to within about 40m of the arrivals and lets you off. They have loads of umbrellas on standby so that if it rains someone will rush out and lend you one so you don't get wet on your short walk to passport control. As there are never more than 50 passengers arriving, the passport line is always short and with such a short distance and so few bags, you never wait more than a minute or two to get your bag. It's entirely realistic to be out of the airport within 5 minutes of landing. The only thing to watch out for is that once the taxis have gone, that's it - there won't be any more so don't hang on and hope - you'll need to go and find someone to call you another if they run out especially on the evening flights.
Check in at Antwerp is open until just 15 minutes before the flight is due to leave. Check in, drop your bag and you can be sitting in the departure lounge five minutes later. You might have to wake up the security guys to get them to check your hand-luggage because it's fair to say they aren't over-worked. But whatever you do, don't turn up 2 hours before your flight because there's absolutely nothing to do. Since none of the destinations are covered by duty free, there's very little to buy in the shop. You can buy alcohol but since the shop is on the landside rather than airside, you'll have to shop BEFORE you check in so your booze can go in your bag. It's all very weird.
Whilst sitting around Antwerp airport it's not unusual to see tiny little private jets standing around waiting for the fantastically wealthy diamond traders that trade in Antwerp. These are the only planes that can succeed in making a Fokker 50 look like a Jumbo Jet by comparison. Whilst I've only once been lucky enough to have the 'private jet' experience (and I got a little over-excited and I'm sure I went wheeeeeeeeee on both take off and landing) flying VLM is the closest I can get without breaking the bank.