Flying an airline for the first time is almost as exciting as the holiday itself. Unusual I admit, but it's one of those things that gets the jet-fuelled veins of an aviation enthusiast like me racing.
With the thrust of the jet engines, magnificent high-altitude views and welcoming in-flight service, what's not to love, right?
While this isn't meant to diminish from the beauty and excitement of the destination itself, it makes sense that the act of getting there should be every bit as pleasurable.
For this trip, the destination was the Solomon Islands. Known for its palm tree lined beaches, quaint sea-side villages and crystal-clear, coral-filled waters, I was eager to get the trip started. But first I had to get from Brisbane to the country’s bustling capital city, Honiara.
With four weekly services between Brisbane and Honiara, Solomon Airlines’ direct Airbus A320 flight takes just under three hours, making the islands the perfect destination for a weekend trip or short get-away. And with hundreds of gorgeous islands to choose from, the airline has an extensive domestic network on which to get around.
There’s good news for Qantas Frequent Flyer members too. Solomon Airlines is now a code-share partner with the Flying Kangaroo, and as it turned out, my flight to Honiara was the inaugural code-share service.
I found this tiny Pacific carrier a joy to fly with. It certainly offered the perfect incentive to visit the beautiful island nation.
Airline: Solomon Airlines (IE)
Aircraft: Airbus A320
Routing: Brisbane to Honiara (HIR)
Class of Service: Business Class
Seat Number: 3D
With a 10am departure to Honiara, I made it to the airport bright and early, queueing up in the short line at 7.30am – plenty of time, or so I thought, to drop off my bag, get through immigration and check out the many new shopping and dining options at Brisbane International.
With the minutes ticking away, the line barely moved. It seemed that the check-in agents were having difficulties dealing with passenger issues from excess luggage to ticket problems.
Each agent it seemed, was referring passengers to the Solomon Airlines service desk to sort out various check-in related issues, only to have each guest return a second time to the main check-in desk for final bag drop off and processing.
Needless to say, the back and forth turned what should've been a 20-minute check-in process into a 90-minute struggle.
Wait time aside, the check-in staff were friendly, apologetic and highly professional, and to my delight, I was upgraded to Business Class. Being well within the free checked baggage allowance of 40 kilograms (Economy has a 30-kilogram free allowance), my bag was given a priority tag before being whisked down the conveyor belt.
Presenting me with my boarding pass with seat assignment 3D, the agent wished me a pleasant journey as I made my way to customs and immigration.
Having just enough time to grab some duty-free and wonder around the newly renovated departure area, the flight boarded right on time at 9.30am.
Receiving a warm welcome aboard from the cabin supervisor I found my seat – an extra-wide arm chair on the aisle, decked out in burgundy leather with four-way adjustable head rest, lumbar control and recline features, and a small centre arm-rest table.
Settling in for the journey, I was immediately offered a pre-departure beverage and a moist towel. There were 16 Business Class seats in a 2x2 configuration. All but one was occupied.
The cabin was clean and inviting, however the airline’s sole A320 is now over 20 years old, and the cabin does look dated. Nevertheless, it was attractive, clean and comfortable.
According to a source at the airline, the aircraft will be receiving an updated cabin in early 2016 and will soon sport the airline’s stylish new colour scheme on the exterior.
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Pushing back from the gate on schedule at 10am, the pilot made a pleasant announcement with the standard flight information – weather, altitude, routing, flight time – before taxiing out for take-off.
The cabin crew were soon out of their seats and taking meal and drink orders. There were two hot main options and I chose the delicious chicken with gnocchi in pesto sauce. Delivered about 45 minutes after departure, the meal tray came with a bread role and small fruit cake.
The complimentary wine and drinks were served in glassware while the side plate for bread and the dish for the main meal were ceramic. For me, the only let down was the paper napkin, plastic cutlery and plastic tea cup, but a small fault in what was otherwise an exceptional service.
The flight attendants seemed rather reserved and quiet and were not overly chatty, but they were attentive throughout, performed their duties professionally and always had that famous island smile.
The service was not rushed and proceeded at a leisurely but steady pace. Frequent passes were made through the cabin for top ups of wine, tea and coffee.
My number one indicator of the efficiency of a cabin crew is how quickly they clear the meal trays and other rubbish after the service. This crew passed with flying colours! They monitored the cabin and instantly cleared unwanted items when appropriate.
The A320 is equipped with TV screens for movie entertainment. The shared screens are placed above the aisle and spaced approximately five or six rows apart.
The movie for our flight was the 2014 blockbuster X Men – Days of Future Past. Being over a year old, the movie didn’t seem to garner much interest from fellow passengers. (Judging by the return flight’s showing of 2008’s Marley and Me, guests shouldn’t expect to see the latest blockbusters on Solomon Airlines).
Realistically though, the entertainment, or lack thereof, was of little consequence to me. What the airline lacked in entertainment, it made up for in food and service amenities.
However, I did find the airline’s in-flight magazine to be entertaining. The glossy 54-page publication offered some interesting reading on the airline, the Solomon Islands and its history, and many points of interest.
A very small player in the Pacific, Solomon Airlines isn’t well known, but with four weekly services from Brisbane and one weekly flight from Sydney, they clearly have the edge when travelling to Honiara.
The standard for international business class might not always measure up when compared to the bigger industry players, but with tasty meals, good wine and friendly staff there are some clear highlights.
I was in Economy for the return flight to Brisbane where I experienced one of the best short-haul international services in years – a free baggage allowance of 30 kilograms, good leg room (for someone like me who is 6 feet, 2 inches tall), delicious meals (two choices) and complimentary beer and wine. Even the wonderfully pleasant cabin crew seemed to enjoy the service they were offering.
Based on this, I would give Solomon Airlines high marks. They are definitely a worthy competitor on the Australia to Honiara routes.
The writer was hosted by Solomon Islands Visitor’s Bureau and Solomon Airlines