Confusing Mix of Old and New: A Review of Air Moldova on the A321 From Chisinau to London Stansted
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We love reviewing the latest and greatest products from airlines that are household names here at TPG UK, like Emirates, Etihad and Qatar. At the same time, we equally love obscure airlines even we know little about.
Recently searching for a way to return back to London from Istanbul (IST), we found direct options from the regular suspects like Turkish Airlines (who I had flown out with), British Airways and Pegasus. Another affordable option was on little-known Air Moldova via their hub in Chisinau, Moldova (KIV). The airline flies to a number of European destinations with a fleet of only eight narrow-body aircraft, from Embraer 190s up to Airbus A321s.
The fares were reasonable and gave me the option of stopping over for a few days in a country I would otherwise never get the chance to visit, so I jumped at the chance for a little adventure.
Although Air Moldova does have its own loyalty program, Air Moldova Club, I had never flown them before so didn’t have any miles to use. They are also not a transfer partner of the likes of Membership Rewards, nor do they partner with other programs who are.
Not to worry, one-way revenue fares from Chisinau, Moldova, to London Stansted (STN) were only around £110 booked just a few days in advance, which was reasonable, considering this was one of their longest routes.
I selected a hand-luggage-only fare, as I only had my backpack with me.
Taxis were inexpensive in Chisinau, so I took one from my hotel in the city to the airport for around £5. On the drive in, I was greeted with a vintage Air Moldova aircraft at the entrance.
Chisinau Airport is a beautiful, small airport. It has been expanded and refurbished by a private investment firm over the last few years and is everything you want from an airport terminal: spotless, efficient, well-laid-out and enjoyable to use.
The longest queue I saw in the check-in area was for the luggage-wrapping service (pictured below).
Air Moldova had separate check-in desks for each flight. The only other airline I have seen do this at their hub is Philippine Airlines in Manila (MNL). It’s an inefficient process, as presumably there are times where there are huge queues for some flights that have only one or two check-in agents while adjacent desks have staff sitting there doing nothing.
On a Saturday morning, there were no real queues for any destinations, and I quickly found the correct desks for my London Stansted flight.
I could have checked in online, as I had no luggage to check, but I wanted to go through the full Air Moldova experience for this review, so I elected to check in at the airport. This proved to be a mistake: The friendly check-in agent insisted she weigh my hand luggage and would only allow 8 kilograms to be taken on board. I was halfway through a 10-day trip, so my hand luggage was packed with both personal items and the sort of tech gear TPG reviewers have to take to do these reviews properly.
The luggage belt showed a whopping 13.5 kilograms of hand luggage, which the agent insisted I had to check in — and pay for, as my fare was for hand luggage only. I cursed myself for not checking in online. On my previous flight on Air Moldova a few days before from Istanbul, I had checked in online and taken the exact same bag on board and no one raised an eyebrow.
Lesson learned: If you think your hand luggage may be overweight, then check in online!
Like most things in Moldova, the checked baggage charge was not excessive, at around £9.50. I asked about the possibility of an exit-row seat and was pointed toward a price list requiring payment of 30 euros (about £25). Given the fare was only around €130 (£115) in total, I didn’t see the value in paying the extra amount.
I was offered a window or aisle seat and chose a window seat in Row 6.
Navigating quickly through the efficient and well-designed immigration and security area, I was straight into a standard duty-free maze.
What was unusual about this airport was that although it was easy to use, its small size meant the gate areas appeared already at complete capacity. The duty-free checkout almost joined up with the boarding queues.
As airlines like Wizz continue to grow in the region, there’s little room for this airport to increase the number of flights, and I suspect this terminal will need to be expanded fairly soon.
I followed signs to the only lounge at the airport, which was hidden away upstairs between the upmarket airport restaurants. This was the lounge Air Moldova used for its business-class passengers, as well as other airlines who have a premium cabin, like Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines.
While I didn’t have access on account of my economy ticket, the lounge also accepted Priority Pass, which I am a member of as a result of my Platinum Card from American Express. The lounge was tiny, about the size of my living room, and had a maximum capacity of about 15 people, but was nicely furnished and had great views of the airport and that beautiful aircraft welcoming visitors.
The sole staff member gave me a warm welcome. I got the impression the lounge received so few visitors that she was happy to have something to do. There was a small but well-presented and actually appetising range of food and drinks.
As I was deciding what to eat, the staff member raced over and explained what each option was enthusiastically.
I chose a chicken Caesar salad, which was fresh and delicious to me after several days of carb-heavy Moldovan food. This was easily one of the best Priority Pass lounges I have been to in Europe.
The flight was scheduled to depart at 12:30pm, so boarding commenced around 12pm on the ground floor.
Although the terminal had an excellent design, the same didn’t extend to the tarmac. Not only were there no aerobridges, all aircraft had to be reached by bus despite there being plenty of space to park the aircraft close to the terminal.
This began a truly hopeless boarding process. As one of the first to board, I stepped onto the bus parked at our gate around 12:05pm.
With an Airbus A321 operating the service, the bus quickly filled up. Once that was full after 10 minutes, a second bus arrived to take additional passengers. But our bus remained at the terminal. Once the second bus was full, 10 minutes later, a third bus pulled up to collect the rest of the passengers. Our bus still remained at the terminal.
At 12:30pm, when the flight was due to depart, all three buses in tandem finally drove all of about 80 metres to the waiting aircraft. Rather than all three buses parking midway between the front and rear aerobridges, one bus stopped in front of the plane right next to the front steps, while the second and third parked almost behind the plane right next to the rear steps. With over 100 passengers on the tarmac heading to different doors from different locations, chaos ensued and the delay extended. This was one of the most inefficient boarding processes I had ever witnessed.
I could not wrap my head around why a bus wouldn’t drive to the plane as soon as it was full to assist a smooth boarding process. (The inbound flight was not delayed, and boarding started on time.)
We ended up departing Chisinau almost 30 minutes late and landed at Stansted 19 minutes late.
Cabin and Seat
Once I was on board, the Airbus A321 felt new and fresh and was equipped with modern standard slimline Recaro seats — the same as you see on the likes of Lufthansa and Iberia. I was surprised upon researching the registration number that the aircraft was more than 20 years old — its refurbishment must have been done recently.
While not particularly comfortable, the seats were an extremely effective way to maximise capacity in this aircraft. I was lucky enough to have two empty seats next to me, and the overall load of the flight was 50%, which allowed plenty of room for me to stretch out during the flight. The pitch was a standard 30 inches.
After takeoff, a curtain was drawn behind the front two rows. Air Moldova does sell business class, but like my previous flight, there were no takers. What was frustrating was that this closed off the front lavatory for all passengers, with crew refusing to allow anyone to use it, leaving only two bathrooms for the entire plane.
Amenities and IFE
There were no seatback TVs, no power points, no music channels, no headphones and no Wi-Fi. The seatback in front of me simply featured an advertisement for flights to Nice, France. There were also no pillows or blankets, although I did see the crew provide a pillow from an overhead bin for a passenger who was unwell.
There was at least an inflight magazine to peruse, but this had more information about Air Moldova destinations than Moldova itself.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
I knew Air Moldova was full-service in that they provided food and drinks, so I was excited to see what this would look like on one of their longest routes. They wheeled a packed food cart up the aisle, and I could hear the crew offering passengers in front of me beef, chicken or “vegetable.” Hoping for perhaps a local meat stew, I asked for beef.
I was handed what I imagine might have been given to schoolchildren in Soviet times.
A couple of pieces of cured lunch meat, some cheese, a couple of cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices and a lettuce garnish. While the crew insisted it was beef, it was certainly the most pork-tasting beef I have ever eaten.
The cheese had absolutely no flavour, and while the meal was dated with the date of my flight, I imagine if it was served in a few months time it would taste exactly the same. The roll was dense, stale and tasteless.
The highlight of the entire meal was finding a small amount of jam in the middle of the dry, carb-heavy cake.
The salad I ate in the Priority Pass lounge a few hours earlier was significantly better.
And the plastic.
Oh my days, the plastic! I was horrified to see there was more single-use plastic than food on the plate. Even the plain roll was wrapped in plastic.
I know that while the move against single-use plastic in the UK is a relatively recent thing, the European Union is banning single-use plastic next year. I expect Air Moldova will simply stop providing free food from that date, not because they want to but because it will too difficult for them to deliver a plastic-free experience. (Though not a member of the EU, Moldova has deep economic ties with the union.) I watched the cabin crew collect each tray, hoping there might be some recycling separation. No such luck: All waste went into the same bin, and I highly doubted someone sifted through it all afterward for recycling purposes.
Wine appeared to be the only alcohol available. Moldova is famous for its wine, so I tried a glass of red, which I enjoyed.
After lunch I made a poor man’s business-class bed across my three seats and managed to have a solid hourlong nap. I stretched my legs to the back of the plane after that and was surprised to see that, of the 12 exit-row seats of the Airbus A321, only two were occupied.
While it is common for a carrier to charge extra for these seats though they may be empty when boarding is complete, most airlines will move other passengers into these seats to assist in case of an emergency. It did make me wonder what would happen to these exit doors in an emergency!
A decent service offering from the majority of the crew on this flight.
With a lightly loaded plane, the crew were not rushed off their feet and provided good service. Most of the crew were friendly and intrigued by my accent — I don’t think they receive many Australians in Chisinau! I liked how they handed out sweets during the boarding process. This was one of the throwbacks to flying in years gone by that made their current product interesting but confusing.
The purser, however, failed to crack a smile the entire flight, and when I tried to take a quick photo of the empty cabin at the end of the flight, without any passengers or crew members, she became actively hostile, making up rules as she went along and ordering me off the plane.
Flying Air Moldova was an interesting although confusing and frankly frustrating mix of old and new, low cost and full service. On one hand it is rare to receive a meal on an intra-European flight these days, their aircraft was new and modern, and the beautiful little Chisinau Airport terminal was an absolute joy to use.
On the other hand, the meal served was “vintage” at best, and the amount of single-use plastic dumped straight into a bin afterward cannot survive in this era of increased European conscientiousness. I was excited at the prospect of a meal, but when it arrived it was barely worth eating. I was really impressed with how beautiful the Chisinau terminal was but could not understand why the bus boarding system was so hopeless.
Still, in a world of Ryanair and Wizz Air with their bare-bones experiences, I enjoyed flying an unusual airline like Air Moldova and would fly them again.
All photos by the author.
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