FIRST IMPRESSIONS RAF Northolt is located around six miles north of Heathrow on the A40, and is used by Club 328 (a charter company) for flights to Geneva and Istanbul, among others. I was travelling with the company as part of their concierge partnership with PrivatSea (see page 40), and arrived at Northolt at 0800 for my 0845 flight, although theoretically passengers can check in as little as 20 minutes before departure.
As I was departing from an RAF airbase, I was required to submit my passport number in advance of the flight, and at the entrance to the base there was a checkpoint to verify these details. From here, our car was allowed through to the airbase car park, where I entered the reception area, which is decorated with black and white pictures of past events at the airbase, including visits by various members of the royal family. Check-in consisted of presenting my passport at reception, with no weighing of my luggage or questions about sharp objects. I was then shown through to the lounge area, equipped with self-service refreshments and a selection of magazines, to await the arrival of the aircraft from Southampton International Airport, where Club 328 is based.
BOARDING When our flight was ready to board I was invited to take my luggage through to the security check, which worked in exactly the same way as it would in any other airport, albeit on a smaller scale and without the long queues or duty free shops on the other side. I noticed that the trays for depositing metallic items and coats in were branded with the BAA logo, and when I asked if the airbase had any connection with the company, the staff member replied that the trays had been "borrowed" from another airport. Once through security, we walked the short distance to the aircraft where we were invited to board by the captain and stewardess. This being a military base, the photographer accompanying us on the trip was not allowed to take any pictures that would include shots of the runway or airport buildings.
THE AIRCRAFT I was travelling in a Dornier 328 PropJet, a 12-seater twin propeller plane with a cruising speed and altitude of 385mph and 31,000ft respectively, and a maximum range of 1,400 nautical miles. Club 328 has a total of seven aircraft in its fleet (this will rise to 12 by the end of 2006), ranging from a six-seater Hawker 800, capable of 500mph and 2,400 nautical miles, to a "SpaceJet" which takes up to 15 passengers (460mph/1,900 nautical miles). The aircraft is split into three sections with four comfortable leather seats in each, with the galley at the front of the plane and the toilet at the back.
THE FLIGHT Eleven of the 12 seats were taken for our two-hour flight to Nice, which was lucky as one of the seatbelts wasn't working. Take-off was delayed by a few minutes due to another aircraft taking off from Luton on the same routing. When we did leave, the small size of the aircraft really gave an idea of how fast we were travelling as we left the ground.
As soon as she was allowed, the stewardess began taking orders for drinks; all beverages, including champagne, are complimentary on Club 328 flights. Food, however, must be booked in advance with the company before you fly. In our case, fresh fruit and croissants arrived on Wedgwood crockery with metal cutlery. This being an executive jet, the normal rules regarding entering the cockpit did not apply, so we took turns in having a look around and talking to the captain during the flight.
The in-flight entertainment system had not been loaded up with content for our flight but, usually, individual LCD screens (as well as a 14-inch screen in the centre of the plane) show videos, and passengers have the option of taking along their own. There is also a multi-CD player with individual headphones, individual PC ports, and a printer/scanner housed in a cabinet in the middle section of the plane.
ARRIVAL We arrived in Nice on schedule, and were driven by car to the private arrivals area, where we quickly passed through security.
While the journey out was remarkably smooth, it is worth noting that the return leg was lengthened by around 45 minutes due to bad weather just outside Nice, which for safety reasons forced us to fly in the opposite direction for some time in order to avoid the storm. This resulted in some pretty turbulent conditions on the way home, causing me to spill an entire glass of orange juice on myself. Thankfully, being on a smaller aircraft meant we had access to the hold from the cabin, so I was able to find my luggage and change mid-flight.
VERDICT On a short-haul journey like this, any time lost because of a slower cruising speed is made up by the reduced time spent in the airport at either end. The aircraft was comfortable, and there is a greater sense of privacy and personal service on an aircraft of this size. An added advantage is that some of the smaller airbases (Northolt included) do not charge for car parking unlike the high fees at airports such as Heathrow.
PRICE An ad-hoc charter of the Dornier 328 from Northolt to Nice costs £11,500. Club 328 also runs a SkyClub programme enabling regular users to buy blocks of hours for use with certain planes within its fleet. For instance 10 hours starts at £30,000 for a light jet (six people) rising to £56,000 for a jet carrying up to 15 passengers.
CONTACT Club 328 Executive Jet Services, Hangar 2, Southampton International Airport, Hampshire, SO18 2HG; tel +44 (0)2380 629 800; club328.com.