Quick Update: Briefly Featured in a CNN article regarding “The Longest Flight in the World”

Earlier this week, I was briefly featured in a CNN article about the demise of Singapore Airlines flights 21 and 22, often referred to as “the longest flights in the world”.  Coincidentally, that’s also the name of the article, which is accessible here:

http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/19/travel/worlds-longest-flight/

One of my most visited blog posts over the past four years is my review of this flight, titled “Singapore Airlines All Business Class and the Longest Flight in the World”:

https://chrisjur.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/singapore-airlines-all-business-class-and-the-longest-flight-on-earth/

Funny enough, I’ll actually be flying SQ21 in early November, which will be my last leg on this very special, storied flight.

Quick Review: United Airlines International First Class Suites Service (Now United GlobalFirst)

Note as of January 2014:  This review was originally written before the full integration of products after the United/Continental merger.   This service is now known as “United GlobalFirst”, which, as of this time, is served out of the pre-merger United SFO, LA, Chicago and Washington hubs.   The hard service (seats, entertainment, etc.) has not changed since that time, but the menu an on-board service has been updated (slightly for the better, IMO).

Unlike some of my comprehensive reviews of Business and First Class airline travel, this one will be relatively quick.   Quite frankly, there isn’t too much to write home about, anyway.

For this installment, I take a look at United’s latest international first class product, marketed as the United First Class Suites.  It’s important to point out that this is the international first class services from the pre-merger United Airlines – this is NOT a review of (pre-United merger) Continental Airlines’s BusinessFirst service (you can read my review of the upgraded Continental BusinessFirst seat here, if you’d like.   It should be noted that the new United Airlines will maintain a mix of two-cabin and three-cabin services, including the seats that I review today, as well as the new-ish Continental BusinessFirst product and the fairly-new United International Business product.

This review happens to be my first experience in United First Class on an international route.  Despite that fact that I live a few miles from the “new” United’s hub at Newark, I actually have limited experience flying United over the years.  This is, in fact, only my third premium class trip on United and, to date, I have to say that I’m not overly impressed.

My route on this trip was from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport (PVG) to Los Angeles International (LAX).   The PVG-LAX route was flown on a Boeing 777-200, configured in three classes.  The first class cabin seats a total of 8 people in a two-row, 1-2-1 configuration. The adjacent business class configuration on this flight seats 40 people in a bizarre 2-4-2 forward facing/read-racing configuration – pretty much guaranteeing annoying bathroom break disturbances for every single business class passenger throughout the flight.

The single star in this service is, without a doubt, the First Class Suite.  It is a very large, comfortable seat that provides ample room for storage, making for a comfortable flight, whether sleeping, eating of lounging.

No, it’s not the most luxurious looking suite on the market today, but it is comfortable.   Each seat is slightly angled, which helps a bit with privacy issues if you’re sitting in the middle aisle – as you can see, there are no dividers between the seat next to you.   One small annoyance is the addition of a shoulder seat belt (in addition to a lap belt) in this configuration.  The shoulder belt can be uncomfortable, to say the least.

In this suite, stowage is no challenge, as there are a number of different compartments to place all of your goodies, including a huge bin located on the aisle side of the seat:

The console next to the seat provides seat controls, headphone jacks, USB charger connects, a power port and a remote control:

Legroom is quite large, even for all 6 foot 4 inches of me, although the television is relatively small compared to some of the other comparable first class products on the market (Emirates, Singapore, TAM, etc.):

My 11.5 hour flight to LAX departed at 8:25pm, so I certainly did get a chance to catch some sleep and have to say that I’ve slept as good as I ever had on a long-haul flight.  It is certainly a comfortable space.

Unfortunately, however, the service was less than first-class.  I found the food to be mediocre, at best, the selection to be limited and the preparation to be less-than-spectacular.  Don’t get me wrong, the quality of food beats anything in Economy any day, but for a $12,000 ticket, I typically expect more.  The service include:

…a sloppily presented tomato soup:

An overcooked steak:

A miniature appetizer:

A poorly-presented and tasteless pasta:

Again – I’m not expecting Michelin three star-quality food, but, at a minimum, you would think that United’s First Class service would match Continental’s BusinessFirst Serve, which is a pure business-class product.  Excellent First Class seat aside, it does not.  In fact, I find that Continental’s transcontinental domestic first class service often provides better meals.

Flight crew service on the trip was friendly and just attentive enough.  I didn’t see them much at all after dinner, but they were there in an instant when I needed something.

Upon arrival at LAX, I was greeted with further disappointment:  While United does maintain a very comfortable dedicated First Class Lounge, there are no showers in any United Club facilities.  Thankfully, however, the First Class Lounge offered a variety of food, beverages and super-friendly staff.

The Quick Conclusion

All in all, the flight was comfortable and it got me across the Pacific without much incident. But the large seat aside, I find it difficult to pay the premium for United’s First Class versus, say, Continental’s BusinessFirst service.  I have subsequently encountered several times where seats on the direct PVG-EWR Continental route had no BusinessFirst availability and, instead of choosing United First Class, chose to add another few hours to my trip by flying Emirates back home via Dubai.

Review: TAM Airlines First Class, JFK to Sao Paulo

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!

Summary

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…  🙂

United’s (ex Continental) New BusinessFirst Lie-Flat Seats – Initial Review

Update:  November 2012 – As of early 2011, United has completed the retrofit of all pre-merger-Continental 777 and 757 international flights with these new seats.  These seats are also featured in the 787 Dreamliner, which took first flight in November 2012.  In addition, some pre-Merger-Continental 767s are being retrofitted to include these seats.  Please note that these seats differ from the pre-merger-United Business Class and United International First Class (now known as “Global First”) seats, which are offered on some original United Airlines planes.  United is continuing to standardize their product line as the Continental/United merger standardization continues, but, for now, it appears that these BusinessFirst seats are here to stay for the long term.  On a separate note, I’ve now flown in these seats for over 300,000 miles and am still very happy with them, even as my typical flight has shifted over the last year from short NYC/London hops to mostly 14-hour NYC to Shanghai/Beijing/Hong Kong routes.  My original post follows:

Over the years, I’ve written many articles about airline seating and service, from the now-defunct (and once-great) Eos Airlines (review here) to the equally-defunct, but less-great, Silverjet (review here), to the spectacular Singapore All-business class service from Newark to Singapore (review here) that makes up the longest flight on earth.    I’ve done many reviews of the international business and first-class services of Singapore, British Airways, Silverjet, EOS, Emirates, Delta, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Northwest and Air France.   But it’s this review that I am most excited about, since I’ve finally gotten to fly in the new lie-flat BusinessFirst seats on Continental Airlines – my home airline.

Above:  a photo of the new cabin

Continental unveiled the new seats in 2008 and, while most of their international BusinessFirst customer are excited about them, one should not really hold their breathe too hard waiting to fly in one.  The system-wide roll-out on existing 757 and 777 models will not be fully completed until 2012 (future 787 models will be installed with these seats at the factory).   As of this writing, there is exactly one plane installed with these seats:  the Boeing 777-200ER, ship #13.   It was my lucky day, however, when I found out that I would be flying this baby back from London on my last flight of 2009 (flight #68 of 68 YTD for me, Continental Airlines Flight #29; December 17, 2009;  London Heathrow Airport to Newark Liberty International Airport).

I should preface this by saying that I have avoided Continental for overseas flights for most of the last two years, unless I really had to.  I love the airline, but their lack of true flat seats has turned me off, particularly when I could earn miles on a number of partner airlines and get where I needed to get easily out of EWR or JFK.  As for Elite Qualification Miles (EQMs), I really didn’t care since I still always flew enough on Continental domestically, to Canada and to Latin America to earn Platinum Status every year.   Some times I would even suck it up and bank miles to my United account (particularly with flights on Singapore Airlines), prior to Continental’s leap into the Star Alliance.    My most frequent international trip over the past ten years has been New York to London, where I have lived or worked for much of that time.   For those journeys, Virgin has always suited me well and, although Upper Class can be a bit cramped for a tall guy like me, the seats are flat and the Clubhouse on the Heathrow side is superb.  But enough about me…I’m here to talk about this:

Note:  You can click on any of the photos in this post to see a larger version.

To begin, the layout on the 777 is comprised of 11 rows in a two-aisle, 2-2-2 configuration.  The BusinessFirst section is segmented into two parts, with a service galley in the middle.  This leaves two bulkhead rows in BusinessFirst.  The last row of the first section and the first (bulkhead) row of the second section, perhaps, being the noisiest with the service galley between them.  The last row of the second section is directly in front of the main cabin, which, for my flight, was pretty quite until the screaming baby in the bulkhead woke up two hours before landing.   I do not believe any modifications needed to be made to the main cabin in order to accommodate the new BusinessFirst seats, but I could be wrong.    I was seated in Seat 11E, near the back.

[Digression:  While talking to my FA friend about these seats, he told me that the 777 has a crew bunk space above the main cabin, which is accessed through a secret stairway halfway down the rows.  I thought he was joking with me, but it is, indeed, true.  Why didn’t I know about this?!!?  Check out this YouTube video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RX7wg-tWEo]

First Impressions

The first thing that went through my mind was, “Uh-oh, this looks narrow!”, particularly since I have very wide shoulders (size 46 jacket here).    The second thing that went through my mind was, “Uh-oh, this doesn’t look like enough legroom.”, which is my second concern given that I am 6 foot, 3 inches in height.   Looks can be deceiving, however, and my concerns were alleviated after a few minutes of relaxing in the seat.   The narrowness of the seat cushion gives the perception that your shoulders may be cramped, however, they have done a very good job at giving a lot of clearance on both sides of the seat cushion.   I did not feel cramped in the slightest bit and the seat was far less claustrophobic than those offered in most other lie-flat business class seats.

As for legroom, it is actually superb.  Although your feet must be tucked into a space about half the width of the seat, there is ample enough room.  I would venture to say that the “footrest” situation is just as comfortable as Singapore’s Business Class, whose massively-wide seats still require you to sleep diagonally and jam your feet into a smaller corner.

The overall legroom is excellent and was very comfortable for my long legs.   My feet were not pushed up into the seat in front of me.

In general, it is a comfortable seat to just sit in, without having to make many crazy adjustments.

Stowage

They have done a good job building in plenty of places to keep your stuff.   There is a small shelf below the front video monitor, which happily held a magazine and my Bose headphone case:

There is also a large bin next to your head, which held several newspapers, my headphones, a bottle of water, etc.  This is also where the power outlet, headphone jack and USB charger port are placed:

You can also store items on and below the “ottoman”  where you rest your feet.

There is one fatal flaw, however:  The front shelf, the bin and the ottoman are all marked as “No Stowage” zones!    The flight crew did not enforce this during takeoff or landing – remember, they are all new to these seats, as well – however, the reason for the no stowage regulation was apparent during takeoff.  On the immediate thrust to takeoff, everything went flying from the shelf and the ottomans fairly forcefully.   If you put a laptop on the shelf during takeoff, it would have certainly gone smashing to the floor.  Here you can see my neighbor with tons of stuff stacked up pre-flight:

Most of this was on the floor after takeoff.

If the FA’s decide to enforce the “no stowage” rule in these spaces, this will now severely limit your storage space during takeoff and landing.  You are essentially left with two small pockets that barely hold a magazine and the space under your ottoman (Warning:  things slide from this space during takeoff, as well).   This isn’t too big of a deal, but just an inconvenience if you have to “unpack” from the overhead after you are first able to leave your seat.  I am serious in saying that you would not even be able to store a medium size book in the magazine pouches if you needed to…

IFE, Electronics and Seat Controls and Seat Configuration

Seat controls are located in the center armrest and are very easy to use.   You can independently control the seat recline, lumbar and footrest portions of the seat.  There is also one touch access to bring you to fully-upright or full lie-flat configuration:

Your tray is located under the seat controls and it is, by far, the easiest tray to remove and stow on any seat that I’ve ever flown.  It folds out into full or half-width positions.

The side, interior of the seat has the remote control for the IFE system and a magazine pouch:

This is easy to access and easy to use, but the placement can be inconvenient.  I hit the remote control several times when shuffling in my seat, pausing or stopping my movie.  (Please refrain from any jokes about excess Christmas cookie consumption…)

As noted earlier, there is a storage bin next to your head.  This also includes a multi-national power-plug (no adapter required), a USB port for charing phones, iPods, etc. and your three prong headphone jack.    This is actually a pretty good design  for phone charging and movie watching because you can simply stash your charging phones in the bin and the headphone cord does not get tangled in your legs or body when you shift.  For working on your laptop, however, your power cord must travel from your head to the back of your laptop on the tray in front of you.  This can be a bit awkward, but not too bad.

The screen is sufficiently large and bright, although not as crisp as those on Singapore, Emirates, BA or others.   The IFE itself is pretty much what you’ve always had with the Continental 777 AVOD system, with one exception:   You can plug your iPod into the system and watch your own movies on your seat’s screen.   This is a great feature, but Continental doesn’t have it right, yet.  First, it requires a proprietary cable which hooks into a jack next to the monitor:

That’s all fine, but Continental wants you to buy this cable.  There is a note on the IFE system card which says that the cables are available for sale as part of the in-flight duty free service.    This is poor, particularly since Singapore will lend these cables to passengers for free.   In addition, when I asked a FA about it, they didn’t know what I was talking about and returned to tell me that “I had to bring my own cable for it to work.”, which is, obviously, not the case.   Even if they have offered to sell me the cable, when was the next time I would fly in one of these seats, particularly since this is the only plane in the sky with them installed???   For 2010 and most of 2011, they may wish to consider offering these cables for free.

Sleeping

This is all well and good, but there’s only one question that really matters:  Can you sleep in it?

I am very, very happy to answer that question with a glorious “YES”!

I am a notoriously bad sleeper on planes, regardless of how good the seat is.  The only time I have ever slept for more than 5 hours on a plane has been when I flew in Emirate’s First Class Suites on a flight that left Dubai at 2am.   I did not have high expectations for this seat.   Part of the problem is that I’m just a bad sleeper.  The other part of the problem is that I am a big guy.   For all the single ladies out there, my measurements are:    46 chest, 34 waist, 34 inseam, 6 foot 3 inches in height, 220 lbs. weight.

The challenge is to comfortably fit this:

into this:

I can, without a doubt, say that this is a comfortable seat to sleep in.  Even though my flight left at 10:30 in the morning, a late night out in London, coupled with a 6:45 wake-up call meant that I was very tired.  I easily slept 3 1/2 hours in this seat without any problems.  I would have no problem doing a long-haul in this seat.  The sleeping comfort is far superior to Emirates, Qantas, BA and Virgin, in my opinion – all of which leave you bent in a weird position or give you very little shoulder room.

OK, so Singapore’s Business Class has it beat.  But c’mon, they use a 1-2-1 configuration in their 777 cabin.  That’s a little unfair 😉

Another nice thing about this seat is that it converts to a bed very easily.  There is no need to get up and flip the seat down to make your bed.  Simply hold the “bed” button down for 10 seconds and you are ready to snooze.  The portions of the seat also move independently of each other, so it is easy to find a configuration that suits you.   You are not limited to any awkward configurations due to the seat’s movement limitations.

I should also mention that there are seat control buttons just next to your ear, which are handy when you are laying down and want to bring the seat back upright.

Privacy

When seated upright, privacy is not the greatest.  Continental has chosen to use a very small partition to separate the seats as opposed to, say, a full fold-down partition, such as those in BA’s ClubWorld.  When sleeping, there is no issue, but some may find your neighbor a bit too close for comfort.

Of course, if you are in a window seat and your neighbor is laying down, you will have to step over him to get to the bathroom.  You can weigh this against the fact that the window seats are probably the most private seats on the plane.

Other Notes and Conclusions

First, let me say that Continental is clearly proud of these seats.  When we were first seated, the International Concierge came to each of us and asked us what we thought about the seats and pointed out a number of the features to passengers.    Later in the flight, the Flight Service Coordinator made a pass down each aisle asking how we found the seats.  I can say that most of the passengers on that flight were really delighted that they got to experience them.  I almost feel like it was a waste “using” this special plane on the short hop from London to Newark!  One suggestion I would make to Continental is to ask passengers for feedback on the seats just before the flight is about to land, collect the feedback and send it back to HQ.  Although there is not much they can probably do regarding the design of the seats at this point, I’m sure it would be helpful to know things like how none of the crew knew how to find an iPod cable, etc.  (BTW, please don’t take my story about the iPod cable as a knock on the crew.  I understand that they are new to these seats as well.  The crew we had on this flight was fantastic.)

In conclusion, let me say this is a very good seat.  I was extremely nervous about the quality of this new product since I know that I will have to live with these seats for many years to come.  There is no doubt that these seats will make Continental more competitive in the long-haul market.  This is an excellent product.

Is it as good as Singapore’s business class seat?  No, it is not.   Is it better than Virgin, Emirates, BA and Qantas?  In my opinion, it is, indeed.  Is it better than anything else that isn’t a true lie-flat?  Without a doubt.

Well done, Continental.

Singapore Airlines All-Business Class and The Longest Flight on Earth

Note:  Since I first published this review, I have traveled on these flights many times and the service experience is still excellent.   Sadly, however, Singapore Airlines has announced that this direct EWR-SIN service will end some time in 2013, doing away with the current longest flight in the world.

It’s been nearly three years since I first wrote a number of articles about the ill-fated EOS Airlines and Silverjet, the once high-flying all-business-class airlines that jetted daily between New York City and London, and, believe it or not, I still get thousands of hits on those entries each month. These various articles prompted many comments from fellow EOS fliers, a number of references in other online articles and even a few comments from the old EOS executive team. Airline enthusiasts have even emailed me, asking if I had any sorts of “memorabilia” from EOS, the 48-passenger 757 airline that provided tremendous service  (For the record, after 10 round-trip flights, all I have is a few amenity kits and a copy of their magazine).

Here’s reminder of the EOS seat, which I’ve previously published.

Eos Airlines Seating (NYC to London)

If you fast forward a few years, all the old hoopla might surpirse you, given that a number of mainline airlines have introduced comparable levels of international business class service.  British Airways, for example, continue to run OpenSkies/L’Avion, while they also just started an all-business class service from New York to London City Airport on the miniature Airbus A318. Singapore and Emirates have introduced first-class “suites” which, despite having a hefty price, provide the massive personal space that EOS used to give you.  There is no doubt that the highest levels of business and first class service will continue to be pushed as airlines continue to revamp their products.

I recently had the opportunity to experience Singapore Airlines flights SQ21 and SQ22, which have some pretty interesting designations: These are the longest scheduled commercial non-stop flights on earth and they are both services in an all-business-class configuration. Given the historical interest in this topic, I figured that I should, once again, recap my experiences.

SQ21 flies from Newark Liberty International Airport (in New Jersey – a New York City area airport) to Singapore’s beautiful Changi International Airport, while SQ22 handles the return leg of the journey. Scheduled at 18 1/2 hours and 18 hours 15 minutes of flying time, respectively, they are the longest non-stop scheduled flights today.   Take boarding, taxi and landing time into configuration and you’re sitting in the same seat for nearly 20 hours each leg.  The flights are run on a specially-configured Airbus A340-500 (A345) with 100 seats in an all-business class configuration. The flight was originally offered in a three class configuration – offering First, Business and “Executive Economy” services – until being retrofitted with SA’s massive, signature business class seats throughout the plane.

On board, the configuration is an impressive 1-2-1 layout, which gives you a sense of the massive size of these seats.  For comparison’s sake, Emirates their 777 buisiness class in a 2-3-2 configuration on an airpline which is only 1 foot wider in the cabin (19.3ft width on the 777, 18.3ft width on the A345).  When Singapore says that they have the “widest business class seats in the sky”, they aren’t joking.  And for the arm and leg charged for a round-trip ticket, they shouldn’t be.

I am a tall guy with very wide shoulders and my width easily spills over into any adjacent economy seat when I fly.   The massive width of these seats is very welcoming to me, particularly on a 19-hour flight.  The pictures, I believe, do not give the amount of personal space enough justice but, believe me, it’s impressive.  The width and legroom allow for enough space to comfortably lounge while you are watching a movie or having a snack.   The seats then flip down into a 6’3″ fully-flat bed, which does require you to sleep on an angle if you are tall (I didn’t have a problem with it).

Views of the A345 cabin and the extra-wide business class seat:

This video will probably give you a better sense of the cabin:

So what the hell do you do on a 19-hour flight?   Work.  Eat.  Sleep.  Watch lots of movies and TV.  Luckily Singapore provides quality services in each of these categories.   The meals are first-class, and I do not mean that figuratively.  They truly provide the quality of service that you would expect from first class international service on most other airlines.  While there are scheduled meal services throughout the flight – three full meals served, as you might expect – you are welcome to dine at any time off of their extensive menu of meals and snacks.

The in-flight entertainment system contains hundreds of movies, television shows and  music albums.  The latest revision of the system also includes an iPod plug-in, which allows you to play any movies stored on your iPod directly on the personal 20-something-inch LCD television at your seat.  I watched an entire season of Mad Men between all of my flights, which I just downloaded from the iTunes store the evening prior.  There are also standard RCA A/V ports, USB charging ports and power sockets at each seat.

Pictures of the available A/V connections and the wide-screen LCD at every seat:


In-flight service is superb, but SA has always had the reputation of having the best service in the industry. The famous “Singapore Girls” are very good at what they do.

Service at the airport will vary depending on location.   Since Singapore does not operate a lounge at Newark, they rely on the SAS Lounge in Terminal B, which is not particularly elegant or exciting.   Food options are limited, space is cramped and it can appear a bit worn at times.   On the Singapore side, however, the Business Class Lounge in SA’s new Terminal 3 is among the best that I’ve ever been in – probably only surpassed by the Emirates First Class Lounge in Dubai.  Gleaming marble, wonderful, comfortable seating, excellent full meals, a full selection of Macs and PCs, and newspapers and magazines from around the world.

Pictures from the business class lounge at Singapore Changi Airport:

Singapore’s spotless new terminal at Changi Airport:

All in all, Singapore does a phenomenal job at making you feel comfortable during this killer flight.  It should be noted, however, that the flight sceduling means that the overall experience for each leg can be very different.   The EWR-SIN leg leaves at 11:30 in the evening, so you can easily waste half of the flights away snoozing in your super-wide sleeper seat.  The SIN-EWR return, however, departed Changi at 10:30 am, which means that you could be sitting awake at 10:00pm Singapore time and realize that you still have nearly 6 hours left to fly after already having flown 12 hours!

And, unfortunately, the tiny LCD screen on your seat’s remote control is always more than happy to remind you of just how much time you have left in the air:

Postscript #1:   I also flew Singapore’s business class, round-trip, on a 777 from SIN to Sydney.  The seats, configuration and level of service is comparable, although the A345 in-flight entertainment system is slightly updated and includes the iPod connection, while the 777 does not.

Postscript #2:  As a frame of reference, at the time of this writing, I have flown international business class on Singapore, Continental, British Airways, Silverjet, EOS, Emirates, Delta, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Northwest and Air France.

The Final Word on Eos, Silverjet, Maxjet and Every Other Business-Class Airline That Tried to Weather the Storm

And then there were none.

I’ve probably spent too much time writing about the ups and downs of the now-defunct Eos Airlines, which I consider to be the best airline to ever operate – at least in my flying lifetime (Refer to my detailed Eos Review, my one year update, and my notes on their demise). But the ultra-luxurious all-business-class airline with only 48 seats was certainly worthy of writing about.

Eos Airlines Seating (NYC to London)
[That, some of you may recall, was the Eos seat…]

Eos was the grandest of the all-business airlines that tried their best to make it on their own, until high operating costs, mostly driven by the soaring price of fuel, forced the planes grounded. First went MaxJet. Then, Eos closed up shop, leaving me stranded in London while holding one of their return tickets. Silverjet was nice enough to honor my flight home at a discounted rate, but soon experienced their own demise weeks later.

Left all on its own was L’Avion, the final of the independent all-business-class airlines. Their Newark-to-Paris 757 service operates a couple of times a day and, for the most part, the reviews have been positive (I have never flown them myself). I am sure that they could see the writing on the wall, however, and, regardless of what they actually sold it for, it was probably a good move to accept British Airway’s bid to acquire them just a few weeks ago.

After I flew Silverjet home from London following Eos’ bankruptcy, I was all set to write a detailed review of the airline, but they went under before I could get back to my keyboard. All I can say is that, as a passenger, you could tell that things were looking pretty bad in its final days. My flight back from Luton was mostly empty, appeared understaffed and the food was just poor. I have actually had better quality food in economy class on other international airlines.

The dessert that came with my dinner was Jello. I kid you not. Jello. ‘Nuf said. (Just in case Bill Cosby is reading this, I have absolutely nothing against Jello – in fact, I love it. However, for a $2300 one-way ticket, I would have expected something a bit more, um, substantial.)

Just for those of you with morbid curiosity, however, I figure that I will post a couple of pics for the archives.

The seats were of ugly, brown “bucket” variety, which are similar to those offered in Qantas’ Business Class (They call it the Qantas Skybed). They do recline flat to 180 degrees, but force you to lie on a slight angle, which I always find uncomfortable. To be fair, this is just fine for the short 7-hour-ish hop from London, but could be a real strain on the back if you were enduring a 20-something hour flight from New York to Sydney!

The End of Silverjet

The seat did have an annoying, protruding built-in “shelf”. I really found this thing to be in the way and it couldn’t be moved or adjusted in any way:

The End of Silverjet

It did have all of the pretty controls you would expect, however:

The End of Silverjet

For entertainment, you were given a personal video player, similar to what Eos offered. If I recall, the selection was quite poor, however. Eos and Virgin offered much higher-quality programming.

The End of Silverjet

To be fair, comparing Silverjet to Eos isn’t, well, fair. They are of two completely separate classes. And, although I would fly Silverjet over coach any day, their service was not up to par with most other airlines’ international business class services. Their best feature was, by far, their private air terminal at Luton, which allowed you to bypass the main terminal and the long security lines (although, you then had to take a bus to the awaiting plane on the tarmac, which was a bit annoying, particularly in the rain).

My late, ex-business partner, Lewis Kurfist, used to be an executive for Gulf & Western (then owners of Paramont Pictures) and he used to tell me about his experiences on the ultra-luxurious MGM Grand Airlines, which operated between New York City and Los Angeles back in 1987 (at that time, a $1000 one way ticket would get you on a 727 outfitted with only 33 seats). It didn’t survive and, perhaps, in the case of these modern airlines, we should have learned something from history. After seeing the MGM Grand commercials on TV as a youngin’, I had always dreamed of a time when flying was luxious, civilized and a bit glamourous. These airlines did their best to come close and I was lucky enough to experience them. Unfortunately, at least for now, it’s back flying with the big boys…

Update: Why Eos Airlines is the best airline operating today

Just a quick follow-up to my April 2007 post reviewing Eos Airlines’ great service.

If you have not read the full review, you can find the original blog entry here.

[Above: The new Eos logo, reflecting their new branding…]

Believe it or not, it is my most popular blog entry on the entire site. Since I first posted this a year ago, it has been viewed over 145,000 times and I have received many emails about it from people all over the world.

Since I originally posted this in April 2007, I have continued to fly Eos a number of times. I should also note that I have continued to fly Silverjet and Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class, as well. All of these airlines provide excellent service, but Eos still remains my favorite and is, by far, the most, ummm, luxurious, of these carriers. My choice of carrier, however, is usually dictated by price. If you are flexible enough to plan your trip 30 days in advance, Virgin usually offers some excellent “Z Class” fares several times a year, which are the cheapest you can usually find for this class of service. Eos, however, remains very competitive and I should note that I recently flew them for $987 each way.

In the last year, a few things have changed since my original review:

  • Starting May 5, 2008, Eos will start flying from Newark Liberty Int’l Airport (EWR) to Stansted. This is far more convenient for many of the execs who live in the Jersey and NY State suburbs. For me, this helps save a significant amount of time, since traffic to JFK is miserable. I suspect a number of those traveling from many points in Manhattan will also choose EWR, since it is often quicker to get to EWR by car when compared to JFK. Eos will also begin service from JFK to Dubai later this yea
  • Last summer, Eos completely re-furbished their Stansted lounge. It is now significantly more comfortable and the food selection is far greater. Service in the new lounge is excellent.
  • The food on board is still excellent, however, they have made a recent change to the format. Instead of offering a larger appetizer to start the meal, they are now serving passed hors d’oeuvre. Their concept here is that people no longer want a very large, belly-stuffing meal while on board and this new format gives you the choice to “graze” as you wish. Some of the appetizers are very tasty, while others I could do without, but, overall, I think this is a good move. The size and frequency of the service still fills you much more than you probably need to be filled! We need to keep in mind that the NY-London flight is less than 7 hours, so the two meals you get on board are more than enough.
  • They have started their own magazine, called Eos Class. This is a nice quality publication and is very different from any other in-flight magazine.
  • Eos has hired something called a “Chief Lifestyle Officer”. I’m not sure what this guy does, but it sounds like a job that I’d like. How can I apply?

Overall, the quality of service remains superb. I really hope this airline survives. With the demise of MaxJet late last year, as well as the more recent demise of 3 US domestic airlines, the US airline industry continues to be unstable. This is a quality operation, however, and I hope its niche has allowed to be fiscally successful.

Again, if you have not read the full review, you can find the original blog entry here.