What's it like to be on an inaugural flight? EasyJet's first ever flight To Varna...
EasyJet's first flight arrives from Gatwick and is given a 'water salute' by two of the airport's fire engines. Photo easyJet
What is an inaugural flight? An inaugural flight is the first flight for an airline to a new destination, or the first flight an airline makes using a completely new aircraft type that it doesn't currently have in its fleet, or it can be the first ever flight of a particular new type of plane.
An airline's first ever flight to a destination: e.g. easyJet from Gatwick to Varna. Being on an inaugural flight is not a thing that you would plan for of course - or even notice until you got onto the plane - but you might accidentally find yourself on one. And this is what happened to around 180 passengers who flew with easyJet from London Gatwick to Varna in Bulgaria 6th of June 2017. And I tagged along as part of a small press and PR group that was also on the flight.
A captain, a Bulgarian flag and an easyJet A320. Photo easyJet
Before we got under way, the captain stood on the passenger side of the cockpit door and made a cheery address about it being the first flight, and what to expect on landing. I don't mean the thud of the undercarriage locking in the down position or the roar of the thrust reversers pushing air backwards to act as a brake, but instead the surreal prospect of being flanked by fire engines and sprayed at close range with around 3,000 litres of water from their cannon.
Cheerleading in easyJet's colours (that's pantone orange 021c and white) at Varna Airport. Photo My Bathroom Wall
As the whole point of the fire truck and cannon are for emergencies, it's not the sort of thing you'd normally be wanting to see outside the window of your plane. In fact though, this is a harmless tradition that always happens to inaugural flights called a 'water salute'. Perhaps it harks back to the days when ocean liners were sprayed with water jets on entering or leaving ports, but the tradition of soaking first flights is well-established in the aviation industry.
Big wigs from the airport and the city stand for a photocall by the steps of the plane. Photo My Bathroom Wall
The buzz of the welcome arch over, the plane taxied to its parking space as normal, and instead of the trudge or short bus ride to the arrivals area, we disembarked into an energetic melee of people and activity that had more the air of a village fete. Cue orange and white balloons tied to the steps, a troop of dancing girls, and loud music from portable speakers. Everyone was given a blue kiss-me-quick Panama hat bearing the slogan, 'I love Varna airport', and a family booked on the first returning flight to Gatwick received a return ticket to a city of their choice on the easyJet European network of 130 cities.
Balloons, banner, and a berk in a 'I love Varna' hat. Photo My Bathroom Wall
While the rest of the passengers trooped hapilly through immigration and customs - most still wearing their blue Panama hats - the official welcoming comittee walked into the departure lounge. Here we were greeted by more balloons, a large three-tier wedding style cake (complete with taxi and telephone box motifs), cup cakes, cocktails, and speeches.
Cocktails, cake, and more cake, in the departure lounge welcoming ceremony. Photos My Bathroom Wall
I've been on several inaugural flights, and usually on landing - except for the traditiona water salute - it's just a case of getting off the plane and through immigration as normal. Not in Bulgaria though, where Varna Airport and EasyJet laid on by far the best welcoming ceremony that I've yet to experience.
The second type of inaugural flights is where an airline uses a new aircraft type on a route: e.g. the Ethiopian Airlines Airbus A350. The airline has been flying to London for decades, so it wasn't a new route, but the airline was celebrating when its first passenger flight using a new type of plane. For example, I flew on the inaugural flight of the Ethiopian Airlines Airbus A350 from Heathrow to its capital city and hub airport of Addis Ababa, in August 2016. All passengers received gifts on boarding the plane in London then on board the crew served a celebratory cake and bubbly.
I wrote this piece for the Telegraph to accompany news of the flight: Five reasons to visit Ethiopia - on the world's newest passenger plane
The crew with cake and champagne, and the A350 at Heathrow. Photos My Bathroom Wall and Ethiopian Airlines
The first passenger flight of a new aircraft type: e.g. ANA's first Dreamliner flight. There is another excuse for razzmatazz when a new plane type makes its first or last passenger flight. Boeing's 787 Dreamliner is a revolutionary aircraft that first flew passengers commercially on the 26th of October 2011 - it was operated by launch customer All Nippon Airways of Japan (ANA), it flew from Tokyo to Hong Kong, and I was invited on board to write a piece for the Sunday Times.
The 787 landed in Hong Kong and was met by a Chinese Dragon and a mob of media. Photo My Bathroom Wall
This flight was rather special in that the aircraft represented a big leap forward in terms of fuel efficiency and quietness, thanks to the use of so much composite materials. There was a huge press conference at Tokyo airport, then a saki ceremony at the boarding gate. On board though there were more journalists, cameramen and Boeing reps than 'real' passengers.
In order to gather some of the passengers thoughts on the experience I asked one big-haired woman how she was enjoying the first flight of the 787. She choked up and said "it's like when your first child leaves home, so I am feeling rather emotional to be honest". Before she became any more upset, I asked for her name and where she was from all the same. It turned out she was from the Boeing plant in Seattle, where the aeroplane is made - and had been working on the project for six years, so I let her off.
One more thing...the water cannon salute takes place hundreds of times a year without incident, but this wasn't the case on the 30th of March 2015 when a Virgin Atlantic A330 was about to leave on it's inaugural flight from Manchester to Atlanta. On this occasion the hapless fire engine crew accidentally performed a 'water salute' with foam. Used to put out fires, the foam made a pretty good job of putting out the engines too, and clogged the sensitive turbine blades with gunk. The 252 passengers on board were initially delayed for five hours and then had their flight cancelled.
Virgin's A330 flight was delayed and then cancelled after a foam party style mishap at Manchester Airpo
Easyjet's Gatwick-Varna route is operated thrice weekly throughout the summer season with one-way fares from £12.99, and a new summer season twice-weekly flights from Berlin Schoenefeld start on the 28th of June. See easyJet, Varna Airport, Visit Varna, and Visit Bulgaria
Anna Aero pushes the aviation niche envelope to its limits by celebrating new airline routes through an Arch of Triumph of the week section, and even with pictures of the best new route cakes - in Cake of the week.