Call it by choice or rather the lack of it, I found myself on Lao Airlines ATR72-500 (QV 314) for a short hop to Luang Prabang from Hanoi. This definitely is the rarest of airlines I have travelled so far. With a fleet of 11 aircraft (4 A320, 7 ATR), the airline serves 21 destinations.
Laos is a land locked country located in Indo-china and the population of the entire country is lesser than the population of the city I live in.
The airline has a website which is very basic but lets you book with USD, Lao Kip or SGD. While the website has an organization chart it lacks three basic things – Online check-in, Flight status and View booking. Our booking was done by Travel Agent.
At the airport
The Nội Bài International Airport is 45 minutes from Ha Noi city and most of the road is a six-lane express way. The airport has been newly renovated and has seen addition of new terminals. The second busiest airport in Vietnam, it shares its runway with an active Air force station of Vietnamese Air Force.
Some online sources mentioned that the check-in closes two hours to departure for Lao Airlines & we made our way to the airport very early and to the counters of Lao Airline, only to be told that we should come at 1600 hours, since they were accepting passengers for Vientiane. We decided to kill some time by visiting a restaurant which had good views of the apron. Apart from some fighter flying which kept us entertained, other sightings were the Vietnam Airlines B787s and A350s.
To occupy the table a little longer we ordered for Butter, Jam & Toast from the menu. Little did we know that it would be served separately!
We made our way to the counters at 1605 and the check-in was relatively quick. The staff glanced at our Indian passports and had to cross check if we are eligible for visa on arrival and issued the boarding card.
The immigration process was quick and so was the security. The new terminal is over a kilometer long with seating area on one side and retail, food & beverages on the other. Our boarding was from Gate#25 which was located on the ground floor.
We were bussed to the ATR72-500 waiting at remote bay between the domestic and international terminal.
Boarding continued well past departure time. Our seat on the 15th row was classified Business class but there was no difference in either the seats or the pitch.
Engines started 10 minutes past departure time and we taxied out to runway 11R for a hurried take off. There was a quick safety demonstration done by the crew.
The pilot announced on PA that we would take about an hour to reach our destination and we would cruise at FL150. This was followed by a quick round of service.
A Lao Airline branded meal box was handed out which contained a cold burger and a sweet. While the former was best avoided, the later was palatable. This was followed by a drinks run which included tea/coffee, cold drinks or beer.
The seat was a standard ATR seat in terms of comfort and the airline had an in-flight magazine which talked about its ties with China.
Two documents are handed out. First is the Visa on Arrival form and second an arrival & departure card. Not following the instructions of the crew is a worldwide phenomenon and despite repeated requests from the crew, a group from European Union and their leader kept on standing in the aisle to talk to fellow passengers.
We started descend about 15 minutes to arrival and landed on runway two-four, using the entire runway to come to a halt and making a fast turn towards the terminal. Pretty much to my expectation, the runway lights were turned off immediately after we left the taxiway and were near our bay. We were the last flight movement of the day at Luang Prabang.
Two busses were waiting for the passengers and we managed to get into the first one, standing close to the door. This helped exit fast and join the line or rather lead the line for Visa on Arrival. The immigration officers looked more than eager to head home as they hurried through our application, without reading it and sending us to the next window for the process. For reasons unknown to anybody, there is a one USD surcharge for the visa and the fees vary from country to country. Indian’s have to pay USD 40 (plus the surcharge). In no time we had the visa on our passport and two officers calling us frantically to stamp it and let us go towards the baggage belt, which was few steps away.
Luang Prabang is a small airport which sees a lot of connections these days with flights to Thailand, China, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore and Vietnam. But in the hurry to get the airport empty, the airline started dumping bags on both the baggage belts simultaneously with passengers frantically running from belt to belt to check for their baggage.
Currency exchange counters had closed for the day and the only counter open was a prepaid sim card one, which we took before we spotted the driver of our hotel booked vehicle. It was a 10 seater vehicle which had come to fetch both of us!
As we started from the airport, on the dimly lit streets and houses which made the town looked more like a village, we realized that customs also had left for the day before our flight landed!
While I have had the pleasure of flying airlines which have smaller fleet sizes, this is definitely the rarest airline I have flown so far.
The crew did their job well and we were fairly on-time. The ground handling at Hanoi was done by Vietnam Airlines and there was no staff to be seen at Luang Prabang. The aircraft was clean but the food was best to be left untouched.
A repeat flight? No reason to say no, but considering the rare places where the airline operates, it is probably going to be another airline as rare as this one, if I have to visit this region again.