It's no exaggeration to say that I fly a lot. I can't think of a European airline (including many that have gone out of business) that I haven't used at some time or another, most of them more often than I might like. So I was intrigued when I learned the only direct way to get from Brussels to Bremen was by using an airline called OLT.
OLT is an abbreviation for Ostfriesische Lufttransport - or East Friesian Air Transport. I had heard about them from many of my colleagues who all told me that flying OLT was 'a little bit special' and out of the ordinary. They were right.
~OLT - The Titchy Plane Company~
OLT started life in the 1950s as a sort of 'air taxi' service taking tourists and business people on flights to the Friesian Islands. For those not familiar with the Friesians, they are the little islands off the North Sea coast of Germany (and off the coast of Holland - those are the ones that give the name to the famous black and white cows - and off the Danish coast.) OLT did a bit of flying around with promotional banners hanging off the back, taking photographs for surveying and stuff like that. Over the decades they evolved into what is said to be the largest regional airline in Germany. The term 'large' is used with a slight sense of tongue in cheek because OLT is the king of titchy planes.
From their two 'hub' airports of Bremen and Heringsdorf/Usedom (a place of which I'll confess I had never heard) they fly to a small selection of European cities. From Bremen you can fly to Bristol, Brussels, Toulouse, Zurich, Nuremburg and Copenhagen. From Heringsdorf you can go to Koln, Frankfurt, Zurich and Munich. For these destinations they have a 'fleet' of 12 planes, a mix of Fokker 100, Saab 2000, Saab 340 and Fairchild Metroliner aircraft. Plane nuts will recognise that the unifying factor of all four is that they are little. But compared to these, the 'fleet' that serves the Friesian Islands is microscopic - they use two types of Cessnas, the Britten Norman Islander and the aptly named GA8 Airvan.
~Small is Beautiful~
I knew to expect a small plane. One of my colleagues has twice flown OLT and been the only person on board. He calls it his 'private jet' company. Another told me she'd been given a ticket for a seat in row 13 and got on to find that there were only 11 rows. So yes, I knew this wasn't going to be a big aircraft.
I had some problems with check in because I couldn't find the desk. Nobody turned up to take the bags until just over an hour before departure. Security screening was a nightmare and took about 25 minutes but this was never going to be a long boarding process so I wasn't worried about that. The plane was sure to be too small to use an air-bridge so we were loaded onto a bus and taken out to the plane.
As I stood on the bus looking at the plane I couldn't help but think that amongst all the little planes I'd ever been on this was the smallest scheduled flight plane that I'd ever seen. I have been on one smaller aircraft - a private jet in Brazil that was like a flying camper van - but this was only about twice as long. The Fairchild Metroliner is a funny looking plane with a long pointy nose. You can clearly see the pilot sitting in the cockpit, looking a bit squeezed in and the baggage is loaded into two spaces - one in the nose and the other tucked at the back by the tail. There's no need for one of those bag loading conveyor belt things - there's just a guy at the front and another at the back shoving everything in. When we arrived the plane was being fuelled by a man standing on a step ladder pumping aviation fuel into the wings. It was very weird.
I had become a bit freaked by seeing the cord that's used to close the back luggage bin was still hanging out the bottom of the plane so I stuck around to make sure it was tucked back in before I got on board. I deliberated over whether my normal sense of Britishness would mean I'd just shut up and get on or whether I'd hunt someone down and say "Did you know there's a toggle hanging out the back of your plane - would it be too much trouble to ask you to tuck it back in please?" Fortunately it got sorted just before I boarded up the tiny steps. I was the last to get one - too busy watching the toggle.
~Come Fly With Me, Let's Fly, Let's Fly Away~
What I hadn't realised was that it would be so cramped inside. You cannot walk down the plane but have to crouch over and shuffle down the aisle. There's no need to choose between window or aisle as there's only one seat on each side so every seat is both window and aisle. I was the last one to board and it was quite a squeeze getting down the aisle with my standard sized briefcase which barely fitted under the seat. No adult will get down this plane without bending double. A bag with an anaemic cheese roll and a bottle of water was sitting on my seat so I shoved it to one side and shuffled in to my seat. I had intended to take my coat off but once seated it seemed like that was going to only be possible if I elbowed half the passengers on the plane so I stayed put.
There's no stewardess to serve you food - hence the bag on the seat. If you are lucky and if you stay awake, unlike me, you might get a cup of coffee if the person sitting near the front decides to pass it round. The front seat has a 'Red Riding Hood visiting Grandma' wicker basket with a flask of coffee and some cups. There's also no toilet - or at least I didn't spot one and I can't figure how it could possibly have been fitted in. So as your mother would have advised 'Be sure to go before you go'. The seats are comfortable though slightly more reclined than most flights and I was fast asleep before we'd actually taken off. Despite only having a capacity of 18 passengers, everything felt quite cramped.
It's not a long flight - around 40 minutes or so - and we were on time both departing and arriving. With such a small number of passengers and so few bags to be sorted, the bags were already on the carousel by the time we stepped into the arrivals hall. There's seldom much of a delay at Bremen but this was even quicker than normal. Equally I've noticed when I'm hanging around at the airport waiting to fly home, OLT never seem to be delayed when they're departing either. There's a lot to be said for little planes.
~It's a Far From Budget Airline~
Flights with OLT are not cheap - I think my one way journey was about Euro250 booked less than a week in advance - but it went from where I wanted to leave to where I wanted to go without sending me half a country away in the wrong direction or charging me twice over for airport taxes. It's a rather egalitarian airline and from what I can make out there's no business class although more flexible fares will be more expensive. It is the only direct flight and saves 2 to 3 hours on the route by any other airline. The departure times on this particular route are excellent - early morning or mid evening means day trips are possible from both directions.
One note of caution for disabled travellers or those with mobility issues. I would guess that it's not the easiest of planes to get on or off but since I have no experience and nobody on my flight needed help, it would seem unfair to make assumptions about their capabilities. I would suggest to assume that it's similar to any other airline that doesn't use an airbridge but the very restricted luggage space might make storing wheelchairs problematic and if you use a stick, even getting down the aisle might prove tricky so best to make sure to tell the airline about any problems when you book.