Wired for sound
October 3, 2017
Journey: London Heathrow to Los Angeles, USA • American Airlines • Business Class
PRE-DEPARTURE: Although I had been unable to complete online check-in, all the necessary admin was quick and easy to achieve at the Terminal 3 desk, where I was greeted by friendly check-in staff and directed to the Flagship First lounge via fastrack security lane. The lounge offered plenty of seats with quiet zones, a computer zone and TV area. Cooked breakfast options and continental fresh fruit and pastries were attractively presented.
THE SEAT: The flight was late boarding so staff, while friendly, were somewhat preoccupied with their last minute duties as passengers settled in. My rear facing pod style seat was a centre aisle seat with touch-screen controls which worked well for the recline to fully flat, connecting with the separate footrest. There was plenty of good stowage spaces for both large and small items to be organized around the seat, plus double plug sockets for electrical items.
THE SERVICE: The Bose noise-cancelling headset, duvet and pillow and Cole Haan amenity kit were all already on my seat on arrival. The headset was probably the best I have ever used and made viewing the inflight entertainment a pleasure, as well as dramatically cutting out noise while dozing. The stylish grey lightly quilted duvet and white pillow were soft, cotton and of an ideal weight. The amenity kit included CO Bigelow lip balm and body lotion, dental kit, pen and socks. Efficient staff served a welcome drink, warm nuts and a hot towel to set the mood for their full service.
THE CATERING OFFER: The meal service began with a salad – caprese or gem wedge salad. I chose the latter with roasted squash, dried cranberries, black sesame, and tahini dressing which was excellent. Main plates included Angus striploin, pork chop, truffle or ricotta stuffed ravioli. I chose the monkfish which came with king crab fried rice, black bean sauce and edamame – it was a large restaurant-size portion and tasted great, served with South African Sauvignon Blanc or French Chardonnay. Dessert options were ice cream sundae, cheese plate or caramalized orange cake. I chose the latter which was light and full of flavour. Inflight snacks were available in the galley and a light second service meal was served before landing. I chose the barbecue beef cheese toastie which worked surprisingly well. A Pots n Co chocolate and salted caramel pudding completed the service.
THE VERDICT: Despite a late departure, the flight made good time and arrived on schedule. The seat was comfortable and roomy and made for a productive and convenient working environment as well as allowing for some good rest. I generally ignore IFE as headsets rarely give me an audio quality I can tolerate for long. These were an exception and gave excellent sound quality through two films as well as cutting noise comfortably while sleeping. The food offer was great and staff were efficient and friendly once their initial rush was over.
Right royal service
August 9, 2017
Journey: London Heathrow to Bangkok, Thailand • Thai Airways • Royal Silk Business Class
PRE-DEPARTURE: Check-in was at Terminal 2’s A Zone. Thai uses the desks furthest to the far left of the all. Three hours before the flight, both Business (Royal Silk) desks were vacant and I was the sole passenger. I was welcomed with a smile and shown the way to the business lounger) a 15-minute walk underneath the runway to the gates). It’s a 15-minute (brisk) the B Gates and Star Alliance partner United Airlines lounge. Although moderately busy, there were plenty of empty stools, chairs and couches and I found a long table with plenty of power points. The food stations are housed in a three-quarter circular space near the entrance and served a wide and diverse range of dishes that included sandwiches, chicken curry, spicy noodles, beef stroganoff, spinach cannelloni, salads, cheeses and more. A long central bar was manned by two barmen who handed me a full cocktail menu.
THE SEAT: Royal Silk Business is made up of 42 seats in rows 11-22, with the seats arranged in a 1X2X1 configuration. I was in 12D. The two middle seats both enjoy aisle aces and there is a wide arm rest/table divider between the two middle seats, which creates a comfortable ‘private space’. First impressions were of a wide seat (20 inches). The lie-flat option was easy to operate and seemed to come without any of the ‘lumps and the bumps’ of some other business ‘beds’. I tried the lumbar support and massage features and quickly utilised the foot and leg rests. I also enjoyed the oversized fold-out table. The only slight ‘negative’ was the rather clunky seat belts – theme park ride-style – that fitted over the shoulders and were extremely restrictive. But as it was a mostly smooth and turbulence-free flight, this was barely a factor. The amenity bag, with its designer toiletries, was oversized and generous.
THE SERVICE: The smiles started as I boarded the plane and were never far away during the duration of the flight – a precursor of what I was to find in the ‘Land of Smiles’. As soon as I took my seat I was offered a hot towel (on a silver platter), Champagne (Verve Clique) and water.
THE CATERING OFFER: For both lunch and dinner we were offered a choice of ‘Western’ or Thai meals, the latter designed to impress and tease your palate as to the culinary treats to come in Thailand itself. These included Thai ‘mixed chicken’ with mushrooms and lime chili dressing and minced pork in tofu soup. I skipped lunch – served about 23.00 – but enjoyed a tasty starter of herb-salmon rillettes with pickled apple puree and then, for the main, roasted cod with balsamic sauce followed by a generous and delicious plate of English cheeses and fruits. Dinner was excellent: a starter of sumac-dusted salmon with grapefruit couscous and cauliflower and a main course of cod with slow-cooked fennel, spinach, white beans and rocket salad. The Kiwi wines were top-drawer.
THE VERDICT: An extremely comfortable way to pass almost 11 hours. The seat was spacious and its functionality easy to negotiate; the AVOD inflight entertainment was modern and varied and the service struck the right balance between caring attentiveness and allowing time and space to enjoy the premium facilities and the in-flight bells and whistles. Note: Thai operates a ‘Dreamliner’ A380 on the overnight return flight to Heathrow that leaves Bangkok at -01.20.
Hopes fulfiled with ANZ
August 1, 2017
Journey: London Heathrow to Los Angeles • Air New Zealand • Business Premier Class
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: A helper approached me at a self-check-in kiosk, identified my name on an upgrade list and then accompanied me to Star Alliance counters 27/28/29 – which usually means good news for those looking to turn left onboard rather than right. My bag and golf clubs were dispatched efficiently and I was directed to the Priority Lane at security.
PRE-DEPARTURE: It’s a 15-minute (brisk) walk to the B Gates and Star Alliance partner Singapore Airlines’ Silverkris lounge. Although busy, there was a variety of stools, chairs and couches fitted with a power outlet and USB port. The food stations were plentiful, with options including soup, pastas, ravioli, chicken curry, wraps, samosas and a cold sandwich selection. There was an ice cream fridge and a bar manned by two staff adept at shaking up cocktails.
THE SEAT: The flight was operated by a Boeing 777-300 and I was in 5B, which was as comfortable as it sounds. On the aisle of a 1-2-1 configuration, it felt extremely spacious, with lots of creative storage spaces. The reading light was perfectly placed and the TV screen slid back beyond the dinner tray. The seatbelt was positioned to make it easy (and comfortable) to buckle up once the seat had reclined into a lie-fl at position.
THE SERVICE: This was spot on from the moment I boarded. The staff were both informative and engaging and were happy catering to my every request. I was welcomed aboard with a glass of Champagne and a friendly explanation as to how to use my inflight entertainment system and the various buttons that turned the seat into a vibrating massage option or a lie-flat bed. When it was time to sleep a crew member laid out my bed, with its down duvet and pillow.
THE CATERING OFFER: Dinner was excellent: a starter of sumac-dusted salmon with grapefruit couscous and cauliflower and a main course of cod with slow-cooked fennel, spinach, white beans and rocket salad. The Kiwi wines were top-drawer.
THE VERDICT: Outstanding. What you hope, anticipate and expect a Business class flight to be – and then some.
Finding its feet
July 4, 2017
Journey: Helsinki to Singapore • Finnair • Class: Business
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Finnair is nothing if not predictable, which in most cases is a good thing because what we want on long hauls is a stress-free experience. Finnair’s recent investment in the A350 and a new-style business class delivers a good all-round product. Departure was on time, just before midnight, after a short wait in the stark but comfortable lounge.
THE SEAT: The arrangement on the new A350 is a 1-2-1 configuration in a forward-facing herring-bone set up. The feet are somewhat cramped when the lie-flat is engaged so if you’re a size 12 or over you will notice it.
THE EXPERIENCE: No drinks are offered prior to take off, which was strange and I seem to recall that it happened before, but crew are welcoming (mostly Singaporean) and efficient. There is ample space and lots of cubby holes for ‘stuff’. Bose headsets are provided and the usual Mari Mekko amenities. The duvet is OK.
THE CATERING OFFER: There has been a change of ownership at Finnair Catering and I can only assume that they are still finding their feet. Finnair Catering was always a stand-out quality affair but this trip was lacking a little. The light snacks after take off were average – the asparagus soup with salad was good. The main meal on this flight is the breakfast before landing. I opted for the spinach pancake which was served with more spinach! My fellow passenger opted for the strudel which was a little raw on the pastry and in a sea of vanilla sauce so she swapped it for the medley of spinach. The lingonberry smoothie was excellent.
THE VERDICT: The Business Class fare to Asia is very competitively priced – which is a good thing as the overall experience isn’t quite on par with some competitors. However, they have mastered the art of the super-short connection in Helsinki. The A350’s new Business Class is a well thought out product and worth it.
A nice surprise
May 16, 2017
Journey: Paris to Los Angeles • Air Tahiti Nui • Class: Business
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: The plane I boarded in Paris was a white label stand-in due to technical difficulties so the cabin I experienced was not the usual. However, it was possibly this that ensured I received an upgrade to the airline’s Poerava, or Business Class, so I won’t quibble over the details. Suffice to say that the cabin crew seemed unfazed by the strange aircraft and were warm and welcoming.
THE EXPERIENCE: The crew did their best to create the Air Tahiti Nui experience in a strange cabin, passing out warm towels and fresh flowers (a typical greeting in French Polynesia) as well as headphones in a smart hard case (although sadly these didn’t work with the plane’s strange IFE system) and amenity kits. The kit was made in a natural-looking raffia fabric with a leather trim featuring a palm print on the bottom. The contents (a Pier Auge co-branded lip balm, mini Colgate toothpaste, tooth brush, socks earplugs and eyeshade) was disappointingly bland, cheap-looking and didn’t really continue the tropical theme. The palm leaf pillow gave the bland plane a Tahitian feel and the blanket was a soft-feeling quilt.
THE CATERING OFFER: The food was abundant! The main service included a mise en bouche of fois gras canapés (which I didn’t eat for ethical reasons) and prawns; a starter of smoked duck breast, more prawn (a different seafood would have been nice) and a lovely mango and citrus salad with warm and crusty bread; the main I went for was a Chinese-style fatty sautéed beef with bland-tasting vegetables and basmati rice – I wished I went for my neighbour’s incredible-looking pan fried lobster with coconut sauce and mashed potatoes. The desert was a tasty selection of raspberry sorbet, mango panna cotta and a rich chocolate torte. The second service included an unusual but fresh-tasting fruity chicken salad and a very rich and creamy, but delicious, tomato risotto. The selection of wines and Champagnes was impressive and I enjoyed a Kir Royale as an aperitif.
THE VERDICT: Service was with a smile and food was mostly very good but the amenities could do with an update to make them more luxurious and in-theme.
Cheap but not so cheerful
May 16, 2017
Journey: London Luton to Amsterdam • Airline: Air Vueling •
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: London Luton seems like the airport that time forgot. Bag drop was in a cold, dimly lit terminal for my Vueling flight at 07.50 and was a fairly soulless affair. I had pre-booked parking for the day which was more expensive than LHR and also an additional £3 for “Priority” security which was adjacent to the regular except for the fact that between the checking person and the x-ray machine you could help yourself to a free newspaper and bottle of water.
PRE-DEPARTURE: I was early so had an hour at least airside where there was no where to sit as it was so crowded. The walk from terminal to gate was like walking the corridors of a Victorian boarding school and once at the gate we had to stand for 30 minutes in a queue. The plane was late and as boarding began we were processed and sent outside for the uncovered walk to the aircraft – which wasn’t ready. We were held for 10 minutes in the cold on the tarmac before finally boarding.
THE CATERING OFFER: Sat in 5D just behind the “priority” seats which were configured identically, the A320 looked tired and the interior was in serious need of refurbishment. The crew announcements were in Spanish and English but I couldn’t understand either. Vueling offers a buy-on-board selection not dissimilar to the new BA range, both being IAG airlines. The crew were polite and well presented but clearly under staffed. The offerings did not seem to identify breakfast as a different meal from others so virtually no-one ordered anything.
THE EXPERIENCE: I’d like to report that the return flight was better – but it wasn’t. With only one person processing passengers aboard in Amsterdam it took a full 40 minutes to board a full flight that would have left almost on time had there been more people to process it. As it was we left 1 hour late. Arrival back in Luton was like chaotic, dark and miserable.
THE VERDICT: I discovered that apparently £110m is being spent on upgrades at the airport so there is some hope there for the future – the sooner the better I say. Vueling promises very little and delivers on that but it is safe, and on this occasion significantly cheaper than BA or KLM which were both fully booked out or insanely expensive on the day I needed. I am beginning to understand why.
Space and comfort on route to Canada
May 16, 2017
Journey: Heathrow to Calgary • Airline: Air Canada • Class: Premium Economy
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: A warm friendly welcome from a crew full of smiles, made a great first impression as I boarded the bright, spotlessly clean and apparently relatively new Dreamliner. The smart charcoal and red seating and carpets was set in a cabin that felt roomy thanks to the sculpted overhead bins, which gave plenty of head room, and the good lighting.
THE EXPERIENCE: The Premium Economy cabin was configured in three rows 2-3-2 and there was a good sense of space and comfort. The wider, reclining seats, extra leg room and footrest added to personal comfort and the IFE selection included 25 films, games and moving map. A simple no frills amenity pack included socks, eye mask, earplugs and toothbrush, and the washrooms were large and bright. Every passenger received a bottle of water in their seat on arrival, plus regular rounds with top ups were made throughout the flight.
THE CATERING OFFER: Welcome drinks of orange juice or water were swiftly followed by menu delivery and hot towels shortly after take off. The options were the classic chicken or pasta and I chose the chicken which was great – stuffed with Parmesan and leak and served on Maderia infused farro with cherry tomatoes and asparagus. A fresh roll and butter was set alongside a salad with l’Olivier balsamic dressing and copious amounts of shaved Parmesan and sun dried tomatoes. Dessert was a lemon tart and a French Colombard grenache blanc wine was served to compliment it all. Snacks of ice cream and pretzels were served mid flight and a second service snack of Monty’s pastry in chicken or roasted veg was served prior to landing.
THE VERDICT: Premium Economy offers good leg room and comfort and the general spaciousness of the Dreamliner cabin sets the mood for an upbeat and comfortable journey. The staff were efficient and attentive throughout. The wide seat with adjustable back and foot rest add comforts for those who want to sleep; while there was plenty of elbow room and laptop space – plus power easily accessible – for those working on route. In short a very enjoyable flight, efficiently operated.
March 28, 2017
Journey: Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Bangkok, Thailand • Airline: Thai Smile Air • Class: Economy
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: On a short hop between the tourist hotspot of Siem Reap – made popular by the impressive Angkor Wat temple complex – and Bangkok my expectations were relatively low but check-in staff were helpful in ensuring my bags were checked through to my final destination, London, patient and efficient.
PRE-DEPARTURE: Siem Reap is a great little airport, very clean – I even saw someone dusting with a feather duster – and well staffed for the efficient processing of passenger needs. A pleasant wait in the terminal was passed browsing smart shops and visiting a Costa Coffee. A smiley cabin crew greeted us with an apparently genuine welcome onboard.
THE EXPERIENCE: I walked pass the early leather seats, reserved for Thai Smile Plus passengers, and found my Economy seat on this Airbus A320-200 offered plenty of leg room, a slight recline, integral coat hook and gadget store. The airline is a wholly-owned subsidary of Thai Airways and this seemed a relatively new aircraft, smartly trimmed in distinctive purple and orange branding.
THE CATERING OFFER: The flight was scheduled to take an hour and five minutes so I wasn’t really anticipating much more than a light snack but in fact as soon as we took off, the staff jumped into action, delivering cute draw-string checkered bags which caused a ripple of unexpected excitement through the cabin. Inside, a Smile Meal Set was housed within a wood effect box which included water, fruit and tea cup plus Cabin Snack by Alfredo – a hot cheese and tomato-filled long roll with the flavours of a mini calzone. Drinks service was quick and efficient.
THE VERDICT: Great. Nothing beats an unexpected gift and the draw-string bag style of the meal delivery got the whole cabin talking and gave the meal a sense of theatre and the excitement of a picnic. Staff were friendly and efficient, food items tasted good and presentation really stood out from the crowd. Good job!
Night flight to Tokyo
March 8, 2017
Journey: London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda • Airline: All Nippon Airways • Class: Business
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Despite never having flown with ANA my expectations were high – I looked forward to the famously polite Japanese hospitality and some interesting and beautifully presented food. The only down-side was the long approach to the gate which seemed to mock my weary body by taking an apparently zig-zag route.
PRE-DEPARTURE: ANA’s Star Alliance membership meant I got to use the United Lounge which is conveniently just opposite ANA’s gate at T2. The lounge has a big bar looking onto the tarmac and seating areas varying from high tables to arm chairs and dining tables. There was a magazine room with a great collection of reading materials, a soft drinks station and a buffet, which, at 6pm, was serving salads, snacks and a selection of cheeses.
THE EXPERIENCE: ANA’s staggered seats are very private and all have aisle access – although if you are looking to talk to your neighbour you’ll have to sit forward on your seat. Seat controls let you go straight from upright to flat or play with the tracking, recline and lumbar support yourself to find the perfect fit. A generous side table was brilliant for laying out my laptop and many magazines and books and had a small spotlight for night time. There is a USB charge point under the TV screen.
The sleep set included the impressive mini mattress – Nishikawa Sangyo’s Air Cyclone®, which was customised for the ANA. The pad is full of a springy, almost boned structure, which is very comfortable to lie on, although it’s not full length so I wondered how much it would help a tall person! The duvet, made by the same company, comes folded into a useful extra pillow and unfolds to a light but cosy and silky-feeling cover.
A pillow and slippers are also provided along with a Neal’s Yard-branded amenity kit containing eye mask, ear plugs, tooth brush and paste, ‘Bee Lovely’ hand cream, white tea facial mist and shea nut and orange organic lip balm.
The IFE comes from Skychannel, which has a fairly average choice of movies, videos, news, audio and games and entertainment guide). The noise cancelling headphones were a bit screechy at times.
THE CATERING OFFER: Orders were taken for drinks fairly promptly and I was enjoying a chilled glass of Matahiwi Estate sauvignon blanc when the amuse bouche arrived – a bean and anchovy tartlette with sautéed prawn and cherry tomatoes.
After this I opted for the Japanese menu and received a beautifully-presented set of dishes for the starter which included a selection of sashimi (seared kombu kelp-cured flounder with ponzu gelée for those in the know), soy-simmered vegetables and dressed clam and shitake mushroom with sesame paste.
The deep-fried grouper main course belied its name by tasting incredibly light and wholesome and was smothered in a tasty vegetable-based sauce – on the side was steamed rice and miso. The desert trolley came with four options: fruit, cheese, lemon cheesecake and a lovely chocolate orange cake.
A menu of light dishes are available at any time after the main service and I tried the Donburi N7 – a dish created by London-based chef Piero Leone. I wasn’t hungry after the big dinner but if I had been this would have been the highlight! Incredibly light and fresh and packed with perfectly-cooked seafood. Other options from the light menu included a ham and cheese baguette and udon noodles with dried sea lettuce.
Breakfast was a rich omelette with a smoked cheese sauce and the usual yogurt, fruit and bread. A Japanese option was also available.
THE VERDICT: ANA’s Business product is very well thought out and comfortable. The staff were absolutely brilliant and very helpful. Not all the cabin crew’s English was up to conversation which strayed too far from the basics of service but I did ask lots of difficult questions about ingredients on the menu and the staff went out of the way to answer them.
Just one of those days?!
February 14, 2017
Journey: Dubai – London • Airline: Emirates • Class: Business
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: We all have days when just nothing you do seems to go right. It seems that this flight was, for Emirates at least, one of those days. Joining the flight in DXB from a flight from KUL we had a pleasant two hours in the lounge prior to boarding.
PRE-DEPARTURE: Usually EK A380 flights to LHR board directly from the lounge – in this case we were required to walk 15 minutes to a more distant gate. Departure was supposed to be at 4.15, but we spent almost an hour at the gate and waiting in line to take off due to runway restrictions at DXB.
THE EXPERIENCE: By comparison to the previous KUL-DXB and the outbound LHR-DXB where the food was excellent, this catering was poor. The crew knew they were struggling and were very apologetic and as helpful as they could be. Whether the problems were the result of a badly cramped galley, difficult menu or very busy flight I can’t say. I have flown this route many times and generally the service is excellent. One major plus for EK is the brilliant limo service to and from arrival and departure airports.
THE CATERING OFFER:The flight was full and it was clear the crew were struggling with service as it took 90 minutes before a drink and nuts arrived. The menu looked good offering mushroom soup, Arabic mezze or smoked halibut followed by venison with potato cake, braised cabbage and cranberry gravy, stir fried prawns, chicken baharat or chicken schnitzel sandwich. I chose the soup and venison. The soup arrived a full 30 minutes after the drink and was barely luke warm. It was then a full 45 minutes before my venison dish arrived – again, luke warm. The meat was totally overcooked and the rest of the ingredients were lost in a mushy soup. The potato had completely disintegrated and the cabbage and carrots were washing all around the plate. Not good at all. By the time dessert was offered I had had enough of the clutter so I skipped it.
THE VERDICT: EK lounges in Dubai are good – although can get crowded at peak periods. The food ex DXB struggles to match the quality of that from outstations. The crew were experienced and very capable, but clearly couldn’t cope. Obviously, this was just one of those days!
Fast food in Asia
January 24, 2017
Journey: Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok • Airline: Malaysian Airlines • Class: Economy
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Having taken a few flights on MH recently, I was keen to try this flight as the regional concept for catering has undergone some radical changes in recent months. With a reduction of crew in the economy cabin from three to two on all 737s it would be interesting to see how this service was working.
PRE-DEPARTURE: For those fortunate to have access to the Regional Lounge in the A/B terminals at KLIA, it’s a real treat. A smallish but excellent lounge with full-service dining and buffet on supply. Very easy and fast access to adjoining gates ensured we easily boarded (on time) a brand-new looking 737-800 and pushed back ahead of schedule at around 6pm.
THE EXPERIENCE: At the arrival gate bang on schedule. Crew were pleasant and chatty – but in this case they had the time as the load was fairly light.
THE CATERING OFFER:With a tad under two hours, the crew are tasked with serving a drinks, a hot meal and post-service drinks. On a full flight this is going to be a challenge but the food service has been eased by use of a complete all-in-one box trayset which included the hot meal inserted into it. These are faster to distribute and a lot faster to clear. My only concern was the amount of disposables used. The entire concept is disposable. No part of the service equipment is rotable other than the carts and the trays within them.
The food itself was acceptable with two choices of hot meal. I took the Asian choice of sweet and sour chicken with rice, pak choi and carrot. It was tasty and a sufficient portion size. The presentation was OK. The box included a water cuplet, a pack of peanuts and a cookie. For a dinner service, a small dessert pot might have been nicer.
No wines are offered on any regional flights on MAS since 2017 in either J or Y class but the choice of juices and soft drinks was acceptable.
THE VERDICT: The service concept for a hot meal service on a two crew cabin works although I reckon on a full flight there would be little time for any chit-chat with crew. It’s a far cry from the days of full tray sets with cutlery and china and a glass of vino in economy but when compared to what’s happened in Europe on flights of similar duration it’s still better to be in Asia!
Image: Wikipedia.org, Malaysian Airlines, Boeing 727 800
Sitting comfortably with Thai
November 16, 2016
Journey: London Heathrow to Bangkok • Airline: Thai international Airways • Class: Economy
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Departure through Terminal 2 was a pleasure, with check in, security and waiting all calm and well organised. There was quite a walk to the gate but staff were all friendly and efficient and boarding went smoothly.
THE EXPERIENCE: My seat in Economy was surrounded by plenty of empty ones which only helped accentuate the open feel of the spacious, bright and airy A380-800 cabin. Thai’s distinctive pink and purple interior branding is certainly bright and colourful and the smiley welcome made a good first impression.The seat back monitor had adjustable tilt for a more comfortable viewing position and could be operated by touch screen or a remote stowed in the seat back. It also featured USB charging point, coat hook and spilt fold out table so you could have a half or full table available. No amenity kits were given, just headphones, pillow and blanket. Wifi was available and inflight shopping could be done via the screen.
THE CATERING OFFER: I had my first gin and tonic within 20 minutes and lunch within an hour. A tasty Thai green curry and the best Economy bread roll I’ve ever been served as for once it was served from a basket and had been warmed, not the usual bullet hard dough balls that have spent way too long in the chill chain. A simple touch reminiscent of past Business flights. Nice. The alternative option was cod with pesto. Breakfast options included omelette with chicken sausage, hash browns and spinach, or French toast with pistachio and apple. Service was quick and efficient but minimal during the bulk of the flight, although water and juice was available if you wandered up to the galley yourself.
THE VERDICT: The A380 was noticeably quieter and the ride seemed smoother. The service was good and in a world where everyone seems to have a complaint and be a scathing critic, it just seems right for once to give credit where credit is due. I was surprised not to receive any amenity kit of a flight over 12 hours and mid-flight service was minimal but overall the meal was good and the environment felt comfortable.
Satay joy on Malaysian Airlines
November 16, 2016
Journey: Kuala Lumpur – Jakarta • Airline: Malaysian Airlines • Class: Business
FIRST IMPRESSIONS : Malaysian Airlines has had more than its fair share of woes over the past 24 months and is going through some major re-structuring. That, in addition to having to compete with three of Asia’s top airlines SQ, CX and TG has meant it has to pull out all the stops. Kuala Lumpur airport is still looking modern and clean and the access to the plane was fast and easy with a welcoming crew.
PRE-DEPARTURE: The airline has its own regional lounge located very close to the gates. It was spacious and airy and provided some excellent food including a noodle bar where freshly-prepared dishes could be ordered. Wifi worked really well in here too. We had to keep an eye on the departures board though because gate changes and pre-board announcements were not made. Once aboard the B737-600 a pre-flight drink of water, apple, orange or guava juice was served.
THE CATERING OFFER: A menu was distributed and the choice was chicken satay or baked fish with tomato. I chose the satay which is a staple on Malaysian flights out of KL and it was excellent. I usually avoid desserts but a small taste of the apricot cheesecake lured me into eating most of it. It was really good. Don’t bother asking for a glass of wine or bubbly on this flight – none is uplifted. According to Malaysian it’s due to “customer feedback”. My guess is that it also has something to do with the restructuring and cost. A mug of aromatic green tea rounded off the meal which was ideal for the two hour 10 minute flight to Jakarta.
THE EXPERIENCE: The aircraft was apparently a leased one which accounted for the tired interior. Malaysian’s new 737 Business seats are a little more comfortable. But this was OK. The crew were as you would expect – very pleasant and efficient. The only issues I have with the airline are usually around the website and booking procedures which, if you want flexibility and changes made, are notoriously tricky. The flight experience itself was excellent.
THE VERDICT: Malaysian will come through its current difficulties and hopefully continue on to give local competitors a run for their money. Based on the experience of this fight – and the return, they still have a good product.
The long haul with Singapore
November 16, 2016
Journey: London Heathrow – Singapore return • Airline: Singapore Airlines • Class: Economy
FIRST IMPRESSIONS : It was a friendly welcome. Our jackets were whisked away and hung up despite being in Economy.
PRE-DEPARTURE: We sat upstairs in the exit row, eight seats across, very spacious and airy. Headphones, a blanket and cotton pillow on the seat. We were given flimsy zip-up amenity kits containing socks and a toothbrush.
THE CATERING OFFER: Drinks were served, one side served Bombay Sapphire gin and the other Beefeater, one accompanied with a big can of tonic, the other small, no lemon. Lunch was served, the staff were in a rush and there was very little eye contact. I chose beef pastrami as a starter, which was difficult to eat; it would have helped if the pieces had been cut smaller. The lettuce was crisp. The potatoes in the salad were only just cooked. Main course was chicken, which was mainly notable for the flavoursome al dente vegetables, courgettes, potatoes and carrots. Pudding was a large tub (120 mls) of salted caramel ice cream from Salcombe Dairy, which lived up to their slogan: scrumptious, sophisticated, simply superb. It was delicious but frozen solid. There was also Croxton Manor mild cheddar and Delser crackers.
Full breakfast was served and the poached eggs were how I like them, soft and runny.
THE CATERING OFFER SINGAPORE – HEATHROW:Travelled upstairs again. Long overnight bumpy flight home. Supper was served with wine. Asked for gin and tonic, which arrived late, with the meal. No lemon again. Starter was coleslaw salad with Bay scallops. The main course was fish or chicken. The chicken was in big lumps, with skin attached. The vegetables were way overcooked, and the fried rice was OK. Breakfast choice of eggs ran out and one of us had to have pork noodles, which was a bit heavy and greasy, with large chunks of meat. The poached eggs on offer were overcooked and hard. They did not bother to clear away the tray. Had to ask for a refill of tea. Not a single smile all flight. Not the service I had expected from Singapore Airlines.
THE EXPERIENCE SINGAPORE – HEATHROW: Staff seemed stressed, did not offer juice or water on this long overnight flight, and did not put out trays to help yourselves. They were quite grumpy when you went aft to ask for water.
THE TECH: IFE was extensive with 296 movies, 576 TV shows, 864 music CDs and 6 radio channels. Wifi was available, at a cost, through SITAONAIR, and you could send text messages and use data roaming on your phone. IFE was basically the same on the way back.
Seeking perfection with British Airways
November 1, 2016
Journey: London Heathrow T5 – Gothenburg • Airline: British Airways • Class: Economy
FIRST IMPRESSIONS I decided to try the Pod parking as I was on an early flight, and it could not have been easier, number plate recognition, driver-less pods that arrive every couple of minutes and deposit you in Terminal 5 within five minutes. The Terminal itself was bright and airy and was very quiet. As I had checked in online already I was able to go straight to bag drop which had no queue. Greeted with a friendly smile despite the early hour!
PRE-DEPARTURE: Security took just 10 minutes. Airside the terminal was busy and as I did not have lounge access and it was a struggle to find a seat in the Starbucks outlet but plenty of seating elsewhere. Too early for me to contemplate the other dining options but chains such as Wagamama and Giraffe were offering a breakfast menu plus there was a choice of two bars and or the indulgent Caviar House.
THE CATERING OFFER: The chance to buy M&S products on BA can’t come soon enough for me! The current offering was a too cold croissant spread with soft cheese and tomato which not only looked unappetising but tasted equally bland. Coffee was good and hot but served in the smallest cup possible although you could go for additional complimentary drinks from the galley during the flight.
THE EXPERIENCE: The safety announcements were a piped message played in association with a video dropped down from the ceiling and some crew demonstrations. High quality leather interior and acceptable legroom for the short 1.40 minute flight, extra legroom seats on exits were available to purchase plus complimentary newspapers available to all passengers. The cabin crew was welcoming and very polite and the bonus of this flight was that it was less than half full so two of us shared a row of three seats leading to one of the most tranquil short haul flights I have ever taken.
THE TECH: There was no inflight entertainment or seat back TV and just a map showing flight progress and time/duration to destination on the communal screen.
THE VERDICT: BA delivered a smooth and pleasant experience and will be perfect once you can buy food onboard this short haul flights. A note to self though for future late evening return flights from Gothenburg – all airside restaurants stop serving hot food at 8pm so our plan to have a relaxed meal before our return flight turned into a pre-packaged sandwich and a Toblerone!
Online distractions with United
October 15, 2016
Journey: London Heathrow-Chicago • Airline: United • Class: Economy Plus
FIRST IMPRESSIONS Terminal Two (The Queen’s Terminal) was spookily quiet when I checked in at 6.00 for the 7.45 flight. I was met by a friendly smile and the uplifting news that I had been upgraded to Economy Plus as onboard the 767-300, both the Economy and Economy Plus sections were half-full, at best.
PRE-DEPARTURE: The United Club lounge was tranquil, with staff almost outnumbering passengers so early in the morning. The lounge, all glass and filtered milky sunshine, was very spacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows giving views of the runway. A large buffet station offered all the pre-requisites of a continental and full English breakfast. There were plenty of work stations, USB ports and phone-charging points and enough daily newspapers to service a small village.
THE CATERING OFFER: Breakfast and drinks were served as soon as we reached altitude. The micro-blitzed scrambled egg, soggy hash brown cubes and undercooked sausages were rather disappointing, and the fruit dish and bread roll the usual standard fare that is mostly par for Economy. There is little reason to upgrade to Economy Plus based on the catering. I had a bloody Mary, and was impressed that United serves Tito’s handmade vodka, from an award-winning Austin, Texas, craft distillery. Spirits cost $7.99, although beers, standard wines and all non-alcoholic drinks are free. A chicken sandwich was served an hour from landing.
THE EXPERIENCE: The safety announcements involved a piped message played in association with a video on the small seat-back screens – but unhelpfully, the visual element wasn’t working until half-way through. Legroom was generous and when I asked for a newspaper, this was duly delivered via the First cabin. Flying never seems quite so arduous when you are surrounded by empty seats. The load was so low that there was not the usual scramble for open seats to use as a ‘bed’ – it was a case of pick your own row.
THE TECH: IFE was on small, seat-back screens, showing eight, anything-but-recent movies on a loop (Finding Nemo, anyone?). However – and here’s the cool bit – you could connect to United’s inflight WiFi network for the $16.99 for the duration of the flight. Not only can you access emails, websites, etc, but at www.unitedwifi.com you can dip into an extensive collection of free movies and TV shows on your own laptop or mobile (you first must install a browser plug-in or the United app for Apple or Android devices). However, the seats had no USB or charging ports, so I was thankful my laptop was fully charged.
THE VERDICT: Crossing the Atlantic whilst connected to wifi certainly helps pass the time but seeing your email inbox filling up as you pass over Greenland is perhaps not the most relaxing way to spend an eight- hours-and-15-minutes flight. It was a fairly turbulent flight, most of the way across, but the IFE options,– once I had paid for them, helped distract me. Throughout, the air temperature remained close to frigid and I reached for an onboard blanket for the first time in many years. The crew were attentive and friendly throughout – we were offered so many bottles of water I started to wonder if there was an impending drought I was unaware of!
The Virgin experience
October 5, 2016
Journey: London Heathrow-Chicago • Airline: Virgin Atlantic • Class: Economy
FIRST IMPRESSIONS I had booked with Delta but this service was operated by its partner Virgin Atlantic. The check-in was in Terminal 3 which has been refurbished since I was last there and gave a smart first impression although sadly the luggage dispatch belt broke down so check in was very slow.
PRE-DEPARTURE: Pre-boarding I was offered free magazines which was a nice touch although they weighed a ton, especially ‘The World of Interiors’ and got me wondering about the sustainability and necessities of onboard magazines. The inflight magazine, once onboard, was heavy too and included ads for duty free cigarettes – I was amazed this is still allowed!
THE HOSPITALITY: First came the drink service with pretzels, and fairly efficiently afterwards came lunch. The tabbouleh salad looked good but had no dressing so was very dry. The chicken teriyaki was delicious and a regular top up of drinks was available. The tea service comprised a large sandwich, cheese & pickle, accompanied by a Virgin-red box filled with three other Virgin-red packets, Tyrell’s crisps, chocolate caramel Smoothy bar by The Grown Up Chocolate Company and Mile High Mints. Looked appealing and very on brand but seemed to be a lot of packaging.
THE EXPERIENCE: The flight was operated by an Airbus A330-300
aircraft which was spacious and comfortable, and the staff offered a very friendly service. Important announcements were made regarding the risks of the Samsung 7 to make sure they were turned off for the entire journey. The onboard entertainment system offered a wide range of films and audio content although the touchscreen in the back of the seat was very heavy looking. There were no amenity kits given out, just headphones and a charity money envelope.
THE VERDICT: I was a little surprised to be travelling Virgin, having booked Delta but the aircraft was bright and comfy and the staff were great. The meal offering wasn’t perfect but was certainly adequate. Thought had clearly gone into the snacks and the chicken teriyaki was great.
September 4, 2016
Journey: London Heathrow-Helsinki • Airline: Finnair • Class: Business
FIRST IMPRESSIONS Finnair is nothing if not predictable. When things are going right – which is almost always – everything from the cleanliness of the plane to the crew announcements and the on time rrival in Helsinki is unchanged over the many years I have taken this route.
PRE-DEPARTURE: The check-ins at T3 are always free both in Economy and Business so I wonder sometimes where everyone has gone – but make no mistake, this was a packed fight.
Check-in is handled by Menzies – quite efficiently although my major peeve is that Finnair is unable to interline bags through to connecting flights that are NOT Finnair. We were going LHR-HEL-SIN on AY and to Penang on SQ. Coming back, SQ never fails to interline the bags PEN-SIN-HEL-LHR so I wonder why it can’t be done the other way. If I find out, you’ll be the first to know.
Armed with the boarding pass, you have the choice of numerous OneWorld lounges airside to pick. BA’s Galleries is usually the best choice.
THE HOSPITALITY: Aboard the A320 that looks like it is fresh from the factory, the flight was fine. The food has improved a lot on this sector from the last couple of experiences. An excellent Reindeer meatballs with a beetroot sauce, garlic mash and cabbage was served. A small Gravelax canapé was the hors d’oeuvres and some sort of chocolaty mousse as dessert. The bubbly is OK, but the red wine on offer is a better accompaniment to the dish. Crew are friendly, efficient, experienced, but not what you might call engaging in the way you might get on Southwest! I think by late August many are probably starting to feel the toll of the midnight sun.
A swift tailwind shortened the flight to just over two hours which was good because seat room is an issue. I wonder why some European airlines think it is OK to just leave the middle seat free and use that as justification for inflated J-class fares. In the US, the seats are bigger and – more importantly, the legroom is much better in the front cabin.
Despite a delayed departure from LHR we arrived back on time for a swift 45 min transit onto the HEL-SIN flight, bags and all. Very efficient.
THE EXPERIENCE: Finnair was always a good choice for a lower cost J Class flight to Asia. The connections work and the fares were cheaper although they are starting to become on par with some competitors. The A340 onward 10 hours to Singapore I have left out of this report – I slept though most of it!
THE VERDICT: If they could have sent the bags to the final destination saving us the need to clear immigration and customs and schlepp them to another check in within 90 mins, it would have been perfect.
September 4, 2016
Journey: Barcelona to London Gatwick • Airline: Monarch
FIRST IMPRESSIONS Accessing Barcelona Airport by Metro from the city was easy but seemed to take forever with a lot of walking to find the right platforms. I was glad only to have hand luggage! Check-in was quick and easy with no queuing although there was no option to use a mobile phone boarding card so attempts to check-in online failed as I had no access to a printer.
PRE-DEPARTURE: Confusingly, the shopping area comes before passport control so it is easy to get distracted whilst waiting for your gate number and then discover you have to queue to get through! Boarding was slow due to a systems failure but once onboard staff were friendly, seats were comfy and while there was no inflight entertainment system, passengers’ own devices could be accommodated on the seat backs for DIY viewing options.
THE HOSPITALITY: There was no complimentary catering but an extensive buy-on-board menu that was being well-received by many passengers. Meal deal and drink offers included hot and cold sandwiches, paninis, bagels and sub rolls.
Snack box options included a Cheese Ploughman’s option with Branson pickle and Tyrells crisps; a Feel Good Snack Box with houmous and wholegrain crackers and a fruit and nut bar; and a Feast of Treats selection with olives, crackers and spread, plus Joe&Sephs popcorn and a Street Food snack mix.
Wine and prosecco offers were also available targeting those keen to keep the holiday mood going.
THE VERDICT: My flight was a bit too early in the day for the advertised hot meal Penne Pomodori or Thai Chicken Curry options to be in much demand, although the English breakfast omlette, sausage, bacon and beans might have been more appealing to some. However, althought service was quick and efficient, strong winds and turbulence definitely dampened demand across the range and showed sales success is not all about crew service or an appetizing selection!
A buy-on-board bonanza with Flybe
September 13, 2016
Journey: London City Airport to Edinburgh • Airline: Flybe
FIRST IMPRESSIONS London City Airport is a small but perfectly formed airport in the heart of London’s docklands. Pre-departure processes were quick and easy, and transition from the Docklands Light Railway into the terminal was seamless and stress free. Friendly checking staff issued boarding cards and identified bag drop and while security was as thorough as any in a large international airport it was efficient enough.
THE EXPERIENCE: The Flybe domestic fleet is largely turbo prop driven and the journey was aboard a 78-seat Bombardier Q400. Two abreast seating and the propeller roar gave the trip a sense of adventure although the tight turn in the climb and early turbulence left some longing for a bigger aircraft! Flying time was just over an hour so the lack of any inflight entertainment other than the old school inflight magazine wasn’t a problem and the leather look seating was comfortable enough.
THE CATERING OFFER: There was no complimentary catering but an impressive buy-on-board menu was delivered promptly by the cheery crew. Twinnings tea or Kenco coffee with a Pick ‘n’ Mix Pastry Basket and the breakfast croissant were popular on our early morning take-off with Mornflake porridge with golden syrup, Flyfit peach and passion fruit yoghurt and muffins also available.
The meat and cheese tapas platter complete with olives and served in a wine, beer or spirit combo looked great for those looking for a change from the sandwiches; and for those needing hot choices there was a range of Ainsley Harriot cuppa soups.
Snackers did not go hungry either with brands such as Pringles, McVitie’s, Bonne Maman, Jacobs and Kellogg’s alongside a snack box combo including both cheese and savoury snacks and fruit snack and museli bar.
New in the mix was a branded Krispy Kreme doughnut option cutely served in a box styled like a suitcase, and a Nutella & go! dip and breadstick option.
THE VERDICT: Flybe claims its Cafe Fly has the biggest and broadest buy-on-board menu range in the market and it certainly offered plenty of choice. The airline carries 60% of all passengers on UK domestic flights each day and as its average flight time is just 53 minutes, it doesn’t have a lot of time to lay on the hospitality. With clean and comfy aircraft and an efficiently delivered buy-on-board menu, the friendly crew made the most of the time and offer they had available.
An Air Canada masterclass in Business
September 13, 2016
Journey: Heathrow to Ottawa • Airline: Air Canada
FIRST IMPRESSIONS Operated out of Terminal 2, check-in was busy but swift and staff were around to help make the self-service check-ins do their stuff correctly. The B767-300 operating my flight appeared to be brand spanking new and my seat, 7F, in Business was immaculate.
THE EXPERIENCE: The pod-like seats are configured in three single rows with each pod angled diagonally to the aisles. Mine was a centre seat and was roomy and well designed. There was adequate, easily accessible storage space, a magazine rack, reading and overhead lighting, plus a coat hook. The table was a good wide size but a little tricky to open once the seat was reclined. The labelling of the seven-seat button controls was confusing, but the functions all worked smoothly to convert the seat to a good flat bed. The crisp white linen duvet and pillow added to the comfort. A good size TV stowed efficiently and offered a fair range of entertainment options.
THE CATERING OFFER: This was something of a service master class! The crew were friendly, engaging, efficient and helpful but best of all they actually seemed to be enjoying their job. My seafood starter and salmon fillet were excellent, and there was a choice of cheeses, ice cream or fresh fruit for dessert. Snacks were available throughout the flight and a light meal of sandwiches and scones was served 90 minutes prior to arrival. There were two Canadian wines among the choices.
THE VERDICT: Possibly one of the best flights I’ve had for a long time. The combination of a fresh and efficiently functioning cabin and good comfy seat with top-class customer service showed just how it can be done. Pretty impressive given that there was just one vacant seat in the cabin.
No-brainer choices with Dragonair Business
September 13, 2016
Journey: Penang to Shanghai via Hong Kong • Airline: Dragonair • Class: Business
FIRST IMPRESSIONS Penang is a great little airport. Recently upgraded with all new departure and arrival areas, my “second home” local is so much simpler to navigate than the leviathan that is LHR. Although a CX flight, my flight was operated by Dragonair but the check-in is all Cathay branded. I was through check-in, immigration and security for an 8am flight in less than 10 minutes.
PRE DEPARTURE: CX has its own lounge at Penang which One World qualifying flyers can use if flying on a OW flight. No windows so idea if it’s day or night but it’s a quiet get-away from the concourse which is always busy this time of day. There was a rather limited buffet of items but local stuff including some mee goreng and chicken curry.
THE CATERING OFFER: PEN-HKG: Breakfast is served on this three-hour flight up to HKG in an A330. I took the western choice of the standard rubberized omelette tomato, sausage (frankfurter) and beans. Good size portion, hot, and served quickly by a superb and friendly crew. Plenty of bubbles for those that want it and the juices are freshly squeezed. HKG-PVG. I skipped this service as I had eaten in the lounge in HKG. Coincidentally, the aircraft used to fly HKG-PVG was the same one I had arrived on.
THE TRANSIT: If you are fortunate to have access to The Pier F/C Lounge as a One World Emerald, do it. You won’t find finer food and service anywhere in the airport or possibly Hong Kong! One and a half hours transit was just enough to pop into The Pier for a superb lunch of baked smoked salmon with garlic mash on kale and a balsamic sauce.
THE EXPERIENCE: Cathay Pacific and its subsidiaries have that matured experienced feel. The crew are faultless and the product was, as always, well thought out and well executed. Dragonair JC seats don’t go fully flat but are comfy enough for a decent snooze. The IFE worked well and was simpler to use than many other airlines.
THE VERDICT: HKG is still an ideal transit point for Asia although the security can be a bottleneck if you hit it at the wrong time. CX/Dragonair delivered a great product for a reasonable price. My choices from PEN to Shanghai were either this or MAS via KUL or China Airlines via Canton or SQ via SIN. Even if I was not a slave to OneWorld, this choice was a no-brainer.
To sleep or to eat with British Airways
September 13, 2016
Journey: New York to London Heathrow • Airline: British Airways
FIRST IMPRESSIONS Newark is not the most stylish airport and there was a lot of work going on at the time of my trip, but having checked in online, the baggage drop was efficient with a friendly personal escort on hand to usher me through the process and direct me to security and the lounge.
PRE DEPARTURE: The lounge was an oasis of calm and style with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the runway, several snacks and drinks bars and a sit-down dining room where many of my travel companions were opting for full pre-boarding dining, which for a night flight is clearly an increasingly appealing option.
THE CATERING OFFER: I decided to wait and once onboard the friendly crew welcomed me with a glass of Champagne, and magazines, amenities and pyjamas quickly followed. The crew were attentive and the menu choice extensive. I took the salmon starter and seabass, supplemented by a duck amuse bouche and the mango and chocolate dessert, all beautifully presented.
THE EXPERIENCE: The pod-style seat on this Boeing 777 ensured good privacy and was very roomy with possibly the largest TV screen I’ve seen onboard. The IFE choice was immense with easy, intuitive selection via remote control or touchscreen. The sound quality was excellent through the noise cancelling headsets. Two USB charging ports were useful for my phone and laptop. The footrest connected to the full lie-flat seat to create a roomy bed, easily adjusted with a simple twist switch and once the crew had laid out my seat liner, crisp linen pillow and duvet sleep came easy. Breakfast options were also available, I opted for tea in a china teapot and fresh fruit.
THE VERDICT: An extremely comfortable and effortless way to cross the Atlantic but I have to say the fact that many fellow travellers bedded down immediately and slept the entire flight, having dined in the lounge at Newark, did somehow take away any sense of glamour once associated with the First experience. No matter how special the crew try to make you feel, elegant dining is a challenge when all around are pyjama-clad snoring lumps!