As I continue to experience many different international business and first class products around the world, I’ll continue to document them, as I’ve do many times over the years. It’s been a while since I’ve written a review, however, as I’ve spent most of the last year and a half flying internationally on Continental Airlines since they completed their BusinessFirst flat bed retrofit on all of their 777 and 757 international flights. Nonetheless, there are times where Continental can’t get me to where I’m going and I have to try a different carrier. This was recently the case on my latest trip to Sao Paulo from my home base in New York City. Not surprisingly, Continental’s EWR-GRU (Sao Paulo) flights were sold out in BusinessFirst, which is not at all unusual – there simply aren’t enough direct flight between these two markets to keep up with the demand, particularly as Brazil continues to solidify its place in the world as a global business power. Rather than connecting and extending my travel time, however, I decided to try TAM’s First Class service between JFK and GRU, which currently runs twice a day.
If you are not familiar with TAM, it is Brazil and Latin America’s largest airline, headquartered in Sao Paulo and linking Brazil to about 70 international and domestic destinations. The JFK-GRU flights are run on Airbus A330s using a 3 cabin (First/Business/Economy) configuration. The flying time in both directions is just less than ten hours, which is offered as a morning departure from JFK (arriving at 10:30pm in GRU), as well as an a evening overnight flight (arriving in GRU at 6:40am). The return from GRU to JFK departs at either 8:45am or 10:30pm. So, on either leg, you have your choice of spending the day on the plane or sleeping overnight. Given Sao Paulo’s advantage of being only an hour ahead of NYC, the overnight flight is quite handy when you’re doing business, as you can sacrifice little personal time in the air, while arriving in Sao Paulo or NYC fresh and without the slightest bit of jetlag.
Now, onto the flight experience…
The first thing I must stress is that TAM’s emphasis is on the highest quality of service for it’s First Class passengers. In fact, I would say that the level of personal service rivals any of the other carries that I have flows – and I should note that I’ve flown First Class suites for, both, Emirates and Singapore Airlines, which are among the best.
The only real complaint I have starts at the beginning of my journey, when I was picked up by TAM’s complimentary chauffeured limo service. It appears that TAM outsources their limo service in NYC to a Portuguese or Brazilian-owned car service, which resulted in a voice mail being left for me in Portuguese on the day prior to the flight. I guess, with a last name like “Uriarte”, they may have assumed that I could speak Portuguese, but that certainly isn’t the case. This resulted in me having to call the car service three times before finally speaking to someone who could confirm my pickup time. In the future, the airline should try to inform the car service of the nationality of the passenger to avoid such hassles. It’s a minor detail, but it would save some trouble. Nonetheless, the car was on time and I was whisked off to the airport – or so I thought. As my car reached the Holland Tunnel, the driver fell into queue with the massive line of cars that were waiting to pay to the toll, while every other black car and limo flew threw the toll using the EZ-Pass automated toll system that most of us who live and work in the area rely heavily on. I confirmed with the driver that the limo company does NOT use EZ-Pass and we would have to wait in the cash lines to pay, which took approximately 20 minutes. This was particularly annoying and a wast of my time. TAM passengers who are going to JFK over any river crossing that requires a toll should keep this in mind.
Upon arriving at JFK, I was greeted directly at the curb by a TAM representative, which was a nice touch. They immediately took my passport and luggage at the curb and brought me to their dedicated First Class checkin desk. The checkin from curb to printing of the boarding pass took less than five minutes. The gentleman who met me at my car then escorted me through the terminal to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, which is TAM’s partner airline lounge at JFK. He told me that he would return 40 minutes prior to departure to escort me through security. (I won’t review the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK – there are plenty of reviews out there. Overall, however, it’s an enjoyable full-service lounge with full meals and showers for those who need it.) Forty minutes before the flight was to depart, the TAM representative returned to retrieve myself and two other First Class passengers. He proceeded to escort us through Fast Pass security (no waiting in line required) and then directly to the gate. At the gate, we waited briefly, and then were escorted onto the plane about ten minutes prior to all other passengers – even pre-boarding and Business Class passengers. All in all, this level of personal attention was tremendous and made the pre-flight experience completely stress free.
On board, the First Class cabin is one of the smallest sized premium cabins that I’ve flown in, with just four First Class “suites’ in a 1-2-1 configuration. You can see a the full views of the cabin from front to back and side to side here:
The seats themselves are extremely wide and comfortable and I don’t believe my iPhone photos do them justice. For a 6 foot, 3 inch-tall, 225 pound guy like me, with extra-broad shoulders, I’ve even been cramped in some of the largest First and Business Class seats. This wasn’t the case with the TAM First Class product. Both length and width are very generous and I had not felt cramped at anytime during both of my overnight flights. As you can see, the seat offers lots of room to relax:
The newest versions of the suite are outfitted with a massive 27-inch LCD television:
The IFE system is filled with a variety of American, Brazilian and Portuguese entertainment. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed with the variety of American programs, but a 10-hour overnight flight meant that I wasn’t going to be watching many movies, anyway. The seat offeres several multi-national power ports (no international or EmPower adapter required), as well as USB charging ports for your phones and iPods. Overall, stowage at the actual seat is surprisingly limited, particularly compared with other First Class products, but I didn’t find this to be too big of a deal.
The seat reclines into a full lie-flat bed, which has a custom-fitted sheet, comfortable duvet and two pillows (yes, TWO – I don’t think I’ve seen this before and I quite welcome it!). The flight attendants happily and quickly make your bed in just a minute or two while you are off changing into your TAM-provided pajamas. Cabin lighting uses warm, colorful LED lights, which is wonderfully relaxing. In addition, an amenity kit is given, although in quite a different fashion then I’ve ever seen in the past: The cabin crew comes to your seat with an “amenity trolley”, which allows you to choose exactly what you’d like in your kit. At first, I was surprised at the cheap-looking zip-up pastic pouches that were provided as part of the kit, particularly given some of the lavish kits that I’ve seen from other carriers (such as Emirate’s First Class leather dopp kit). However, I later realized that the bags were TSA-approved toiletry bags, which could be re-used for future flights. This was quite a nice and practical touch, particularly for frequent travelers, like myself.
The service portion of the flight was excellent, particularly as there are two crew members dedicated to the cabin (2:1 passenger-to-cabin crew ratio!). There are few nice touches and some nice attention to detail. To begin, they provide pre-flight fresh food as you are sipping your cocktail and waiting to take off:
This is quite a nice change to the typical warm nuts. They also feature some really nice, unique cups and stemware, as well as premium cocktails and champagnes prior to liftoff:
In addition, the china and cutlery that is used is full size, just like you’d use at home. I am often amazed at the miniature-sized plates that are used by most airlines, where food is crammed onto the plate, overflowing onto your tray every time you try to cut your chicken with your miniature knife and fork. That’s not the case here.
The menu that is provided has a number of great choices and the physical menu itself is a beautifully-printed book, which is more along the lines of an in-flight magazine. The wine selection is varied and top-notch, feature wines from Portugal, United States, France and Australia:
This evening’s dinner selection:
The food itself was well-prepared and was reasonable in size – just enough for what I needed before retiring on my overnight flight:
Upon arrival in GRU, our flight was positioned away from the terminal, which meant that we would need to take a bus to the terminal – always my worst nightmare after arriving from a long, overnight flight! However, to my surprise, First Class passengers where whisked off the plane with a local representative and escorted to a private van. The van took us to a door that led directly to passport control. I left the van and was successfully through passport control in a matter of thirty seconds – probably minutes before the bus containing the rest of our fellow passengers even left the tarmac! Again, this is a level of service that is, indeed, top-notch.
On the Return Flight: GRU to JFK
My return flight departed Sao Paulo at around 10:30pm, but I arrived at the airport at 6:30 due my meeting ending a bit early. I had been up at 5am that morning and was quite exhausted, so I was really looking forward to getting to the lounge as soon as possible, changing out of my suit and taking a shower before departing. I checked into TAM’s dedicated First Class checkin area, which, again, only took two minutes before I was on my way to security. I inquired about shower facilities to the lady at the checkin counter and she confirmed that there were showers in the dedicated First Class lounge. After passing through security, I made my way to the lounge and was greeted by a representative who knew that I wanted a shower (the check-in representative downstairs had called ahead and notified her). The lounge rep also asked if I preferred to board the flight prior to everyone else boarding, or last minute, right before takeoff (I chose the former – another nice touch on TAM’s part). The shower was excellent, although the shower room was quite cramped, particularly since I was opening my suitcase. The First Class loung itself was small, but had more than enough room for the passengers that were there. There was a selection of light bites and ultra-premium liquors (Jonny Walker Blue, Chivas 18, etc.).
Unfortunately, at a time when I was quite exhausted, there weren’t really any truly comfortable seats to lounge in – they should really re-evaluate the seating in that facility. Nonetheless, a quick cat nap and we were ready to go. A representative came to find me and escorted me to the gate and, again, allowed me to board ahead of any other passengers.
The return flight itself was pretty much the same as the inbound flight – comfortable and smooth. However, I was surprised to see that I was apparently on an older A330, as it had a significantly smaller television:
This was a bit comical, given that the First Class suite is so large that it makes you fee like you are miles away from the screen. Otherwise, the seat and all other aspects of the hard product were exactly the same. Thankfully, I was about to go right to sleep, so I didn’t need to use the screen at all, but I’d suspect that it’s a real eye strainer if you’re stuck watching it on a 10-hour flight. TAM should really look into retrofitting the 27-inch LCD on all of their aircraft.
Side note: You can see just how big the seat is. In the above photo, I am comfortably stretched-out with plenty of room to spare. Remember: I’m 6 feet, 3 inches tall…
Upon arriving at JFK, First Class passengers were allowed to exit the plane first. As a bit of a game, I looked at my watch and started timing how quickly I could be off the plan and into my TAM-provided chauffeured car, particularly since I didn’t have any checked luggage (I am also enrolled in the US State Department’s Global Entry program so I do not have to wait in line at passport control. Instead, I scan my passport at a kiosk and just go.). As suspected, I was out of customs in record speed – just 5 minutes from jetway to the main terminal! I figured that I’d be ready to head home, until I hit another snag with the same TAM-contracted car service that brought me to the airport: When I left customs, my driver was still 20 minutes away. I had asked one of the other drivers to call the car service office for me and he explained that they were not expecting our flight to come in 15 minutes early, so the driver was running behind. This, of course, was infuriating, particularly after an overnight flight. One would suspect that the airline-provided car service would be checking arrival times more carefully. So there I sat, next to my bag, waiting 20 minutes for my car to arrive. So much for being the first passenger off the plane!
All in all, I find the TAM’s First Class service to be excellent and I would, without a doubt, choose to fly it again. The quality of their hard product is very good. While it may not be at the super-luxury level of Emirate’s First Class Suite or Singapore Airlines A380 suites, the seat offers generous space and is extremely comfortable. The 27-inch LCD screen – should you not be stuck on an older plane! – is gorgeous. Most importantly, a big guy like myself can get a great night’s sleep in these seats.
While flying to Sao Paulo, you will probably find better wine and, maybe, a bit better food in Lufthansa, Emirates and Singapore’s first class services, but the service aspect of the TAM experience is best-in-the-industry. Every detail is taken to ensure warm and attentive personal service. TAM makes you feel like a VIP and takes all the stress out of pre-boarding and post-flight activities. The staff is friendly, polished and knows how to handle just about any customer request – kudos to TAM and whatever training programs they have in place. The combination of good training, coupled with the overall warm and welcoming Brazilian attitude really makes you feel special.
Now if they can only work out the issues with their chauffeured car service… 🙂