Route: Lyon-Gran Canaria
Heading to the island of Gran Canaria for a week of winter sunshine, I picked up a good one-way deal from Vueling, the low-cost carrier that’s part of the IAG family alongside British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus and LEVEL: 49.99€ for the ticket, plus 15€ for a checked bag.
For the price, it’s hard to beat.
Seat and Amenities
Yes, Vueling’s new seats resemble ironing boards. But they’re very spacious ironing boards, and even my 6 foot 3-inch frame had more than adequate legroom even at 29” pitch. That’s something that feels miraculous to say, but the engineering of modern slimline seating means that if airlines are going to pitch seats at 29” then at least we can be less uncomfortable with it.
I believe these are the Recaro SL3510 models that I’d previously seen on easyJet, but they seemed markedly narrower — or, rather, the aisle seemed markedly wider.
Since the early days of the A320 family some airlines chose narrower seats and wider aisles on the relatively wider A320 fuselage, and it seems that unless I’m mistaken Vueling has done the same here.
Regardless of the width, the flight was still pretty comfortable given that I had the entire row to myself, but with three people in the row it would have been a bit cramped on either side.
The seats are also “pre-reclined”, which is of course airline speak for “don’t recline”, but I found the angle at which they come installed to be pretty comfortable, to the extent that I got a couple of hours of sleep on the flight.
Customer service on board
If Ryanair is cheap and nasty and easyJet is cheap and cheerful, Vueling’s brand is cheap and… disinterested, perhaps? I’ve never experienced an enthusiastic, smiling Vueling crew, although they’ve never been actively unpleasant, and this time was the same.
The crew passed through with the trolleys a couple of times, but on this mostly empty evening flight, we were pretty much left alone, which is rather how I like it.
Of all the Euro-LCCs, I find Vueling’s menu to be one of the most boring and uninspired. Where easyJet has on-brand-orange Aperol Spritzes, Vueling has… a few interchangeable sandwiches and the usual long-life shelf-stable ham or hummus boxes. The one nice option on the menu is their ginger lemonade, but it was out of stock at the end of the day.
For an airline from the home of tapas to have just the same old same old, it’s not great, and the price for water is truly insane: 2.10€ for 33cl. Forewarned, I bought a couple of litre bottles in the terminal but was disappointed to see nowhere to refill reusable bottles (or a bottle you happen to have bought for the flight but drunk during the wait).
Inflight Internet was supposed to be available on this flight — indeed, it was marked as such on the side of the aircraft — but the system was either not working or Vueling doesn’t turn it on for flights over water. Given the amount of the route over France and Spain, however, it seems unlikely that the latter was the issue.
Instead, I settled down with some downloaded Netflix on my iPad before falling asleep for a couple of hours. With the four-hour flight, I was grateful to have USB sockets underneath the seat to plug into and would have been even more grateful if I’d been using my phone rather than a tablet to watch movies. (Why these sockets under the seat rather than somewhere visible, though, on brand new seats, remains beyond me.)
One benefit of a night flight from Lyon is that the checkin and security processes were entirely queueless, although the post-security T2 shopping area was pretty quiet and with not a lot of amenities, especially for food. Pick up a sandwich from the Paul in arrivals or bring snacks from home.
Aircraft: Boeing 777
Living in Europe but adoring Japan, one of the most delightful ways to get there is on All Nippon Airways (ANA) in first class. Using 120,000 Virgin Atlantic miles (perhaps the best use of this points currency) I booked a return from Frankfurt to Tokyo Haneda, and was highly anticipating the trip.
Seat and Amenities
ANA’s first-class seat is spacious and private, although this is the older product that lacks doors — but this isn’t its key flaw. Rather, the fact that the window side of the seat blocks three of the four windows from view is the problem, and it’s a very annoying one when there’s both a lunchtime sunset and arrival sunrise with Mount Fuji in the pinkening morning sky to enjoy.
That, combined with the poor passenger experience departing from Frankfurt (on which more shortly), were the only things that stopped this flight from being perfect.
Notably, the bedding is excellent, with mattress padding, duvet and sheeting that the crew were only too happy to set up on the empty seat opposite as a separate bed.
A very pleasant dark blue suitcase-style amenity kit was filled with the usual goodies, including posh creams from The Ginza, but ANA also passes around a large basket with extra items including face masks (useful for keeping your mouth and nasal passages hydrated), lip balm, refreshing leg sheets (which are magical: see if you can grab a couple for when you have Museum Foot) and other items.
Slippers were, as one might expect from a Japanese airline, available, but were only one smaller size, which very much did not fit my size EU 48 feet. If you, too, have shoes the size of small watercraft, do as I do and bring a pair of (flipflops/thongs/jandals/insert your own national word here) for the plane.
ANA’s cabins are kept absolutely roasting, so I didn’t avail myself of the pajamas or zippy jumper available — rather, I brought my own shorts and polo to sleep in, and was very comfortable as a result.
Customer service on board
Omotenashi is a Japanese word that’s difficult to translate: it’s a sort of welcoming hospitality that anticipates needs, and it’s what makes Japanese airlines, from the cheapest low-cost to first class on ANA and JAL, so excellent.
It was well in evidence on this flight, with the crew remembering how I took my water (sparkling, light ice, no lemon), explaining about the different sakes, all the way down to presenting the bed with flowers and the signature ANA room fragrance on the side table.
The catering on this flight was more than a pleasure — it was a true joy. After the just-before-noon takeoff, lunch was served, with an option of either a Japanese or Western-style meal.
Choosing the Japanese meal, it proceeded in the kaiseki multiple-course style, which works very well indeed on the aircraft, and every morsel was absolutely delicious.
I enjoyed a cross-tasting of Krug NV and Billecart-Salmon 2008 vintage Champagne with the savory amuse-gueules: the Krug is, as engineered, consistently outstanding, but the Billecart was delightfully biscuity and actually ended up working better with the food.
With the first three kaiseki courses, I enjoyed working my way through the three sakes on the list, in the order recommended by the flight attendant, and selected my favorite with the larger final course.
Naturally, with the 21-year-old Hibiki — consistently voted the world’s best blended whisky — on board, I had to have a glass, and the flight attendant insisted I enjoy it with some petit fours from the Western menu.
Before landing, I selected a variety of the Japanese snack options instead of breakfast: the satsuma-age fishcakes were delicious, and I asked the crew to add the pork katsu on top of the curry for a hearty meal that carried me the morning until lunchtime.
Surprisingly for what’s actually a fairly old product at this point, the screen was high-def, bright, and came with very good Sony noise-canceling headphones.
ANA invests in bespoke tourism content for its IFE, and it’s delightful in a uniquely Japanese way. The current set is called Selectravel, with two foreign visitors taking alternate trips through a particular province each episode.
Wifi is the very old and slow L-band, but first-class passengers are offered 100MB for free. While service dropped out for a few hours in the middle of the flight, I was surprised that social media, email and messaging actually worked relatively well: perhaps because the pricing-to-speed ratio is so poor that nobody else was on the system.
Even ANA can’t do much with the Frankfurt airport experience, with the ever-unpleasant security line, miserable airport ambiance and unimpressive Lufthansa Senator lounges well below first-class standard in any other major airport anywhere outside perhaps the United States, and even the American carriers are pulling their socks up. This is not a flight you want to be particularly early for out of Frankfurt.
Cabin: Royal First Class
Aircraft: Boeing 747-400
Whenever you book Thai Airways, you take your chances on the airline deciding to swap out the aircraft from underneath you. It’s usually pretty good about operating its Tokyo Haneda-Bangkok Suvarnabhumi flights with its 747-400s, though, and so I redeemed a very modest amount of United frequent flyer miles to fly it on the overnight redeye, which leaves Tokyo at 0020 and arrives in Bangkok at 0710.
Seat and Amenities
Nine seats fit into the nose, with six next to the windows, two in a pair at the rear of the cabin and a single “Captain Kirk” seat in the middle, 2E.
Thanks to some heavy gardening of my reservation I managed to move up from row 2 to 1K, both for the pleasure of sitting in the far nose and because there’s less disturbance coming past you: nobody, not even the pilots, unless there’s someone hiding in the linen closet.
The seat is fine: it’s an older style first-class seat with some privacy elements, but crucially isn’t a suite. There are some seats where that’s okay, and the privacy designed into the seat doesn’t make you feel like you’re on show. This seat, though, isn’t one of those, at least in row 1. Given that the nose narrows, the seats are almost pointing together, so there’s an awkward “hello, how are you” nod that could have been fixed by the application of some shrouding.
In seat mode, it was very comfortable and highly adjustable, as you’d expect from first class, and in bed more it was pleasantly spacious even for my 1m 90cm form. I got a good few hours’ sleep on this overnight redeye.
Amenities came in a Porsche Design hard-case and were from Payot. I didn’t care for the scent, but I can’t fault the range of products on offer, from a facial mist to an eau de toilette.
Customer service on board
Thai is one of those airlines renowned for its service and hospitality, and that was in evidence on this flight, even though it was a redeye where the crew were in “serve swiftly, put the cabin to bed for those who want to sleep” mode. They were uniformly delightful, and proactive in the cabin without being obtrusive. Sterling stuff.
Interestingly, this 747 had what I’ve always thought of as the “KLM galley” configuration: the space between doors 1 and 2 on the starboard side of the aircraft is entirely given over to a galley parallel to the aircraft, rather than the more usual galleys between doors or at the front and back of the aircraft.
Crews love it for the amount of workspace, and anecdotally passengers benefit from a speedier meal service.
I’d preselected fabulous minced pork with Thai basil, which was really delicious, very Thai in flavor profiles, and spicy enough to get my sinuses working (a plus in these older, dry-air aircraft).
The preselection process could use work, though: it’s basically calling up the airline and having them send you a PDF file with the names of dishes, and you taking pot luck with the names.
And, look, you fill me full of Dom Pérignon for a couple of hours, and wake me up with delicious fresh orange juice and several pots of tea, and it’s full food & beverage marks from me.
Let’s be clear: nobody books a flight on an old 747 for the IFE selection. I certainly didn’t, and I couldn’t find a single thing I wanted to watch on the elderly, clunky system and its low-res screen.
Despite an iPad full of content, the best IFE was gazing out the window at a thunderstorm en route. That’s something you can’t watch anywhere else.
The seat was OK, the food and wine excellent, the IFE very meh, and the crew brilliant. But the X-factor was the Queen of the Skies, and particularly the nose cabin. There’s nothing else quite like it: fly it while you still can.
Aircraft: Airbus A220-300
As part of its ongoing efforts to move flights from its principal Frankfurt hub to the less congested hub of Munich — which also offers substantially better passenger experience — Lufthansa has boosted capacity on existing routes through the use of seasonal wetleasing.
Munich-Lyon is one such route, with an airBaltic Airbus A220-300 (né Bombardier C Series CS300) and Air Dolomiti Embraer E195 replacing the (generally awful) Bombardier CRJ-900 on some flights, and roughly doubling capacity. Hey, those A380s that Lufthansa moved to MUC aren’t going to fill themselves…
Seat and Amenities
The A220 in airBaltic configuration offers 145 economy seats, with no neighbor for any passenger in Eurobusiness. As a result, my seat on the “two” side of the 2-3 configuration had no neighbor and direct aisle access. Some seats at the front, like the one adjacent to mine, are blocked off with little tables.
After the CRJ — heck, after any other airliner — the wide, modern seats on the A220 are a real pleasure. Aisle and window seats are a full 18 inches, while the middle seat (blocked in business) is 19 inches. This is especially comfortable with generous seat pitch, although I snagged the front row where I was delighted with the amount of legroom available.
Following a long overnight flight from Los Angeles, I was able to get myself comfortable for a few brief mini-naps on this hour-long flight: a couple of pillows were the only amenity I needed. (And, in fairness, the only amenity on offer. I was glad I’d popped the amenity kit from the previous long haul flight into my bag.)
I did, however, appreciate the individual air nozzles, which are no longer a given on modern airliners, and the very sizeable lavatory ahead of door 1L: not only is it nice for this tall passenger not to have to stoop, but it’s also practical for passengers with reduced mobility. And the big bins onboard are a huge advantage and a big improvement over the CRJ.
Customer service on board
The friendly, efficient Latvian crew on board did their job just as well as Lufthansa’s own crew, and indeed the service rhythm on this flight — scheduled at 1h20m but under an hour in length — was driven by the Lufthansa standard.
For such a short flight, the meal popped out very quickly and the crewmember dedicated to business class passed through regularly for refills.
Lufthansa’s standard extended to the catering as well: this was very much the basic Lufthansa Eurobusiness meal.
Disappointingly, the meal on this flight was identical to the one on my outbound a week earlier. I’m not sure if this was a mixup or just bad choices by the caterers, but in any case, it was boring poached chicken, boring courgette slices and a weird sort of melon salsa-salad thing that leached its juices across the plate. Not great.
I did like the special Oktoberfest chocolate, though — that was a nice touch.
There’s no inflight entertainment on these aircraft, although the little overhead screens with the moving map are a plus.
Instead, I’m happy to gaze out the massive windows of the A220, especially when flying alongside the northern range of the Alps and over Lake Geneva. Truly, on a clear day in a window seat I don’t mind that there’s no IFE, but always pack a podcast or two with you.
Arriving ahead of blocked time is a pleasure, but the idle and feckless ground handlers at Lyon, Aviapartner, couldn’t be bothered to get staff to the remote gate to operate the hand-pushed stairs and buses in a timely fashion. As ever, this sort of laziness leaves a bad taste in the passenger experience mouth.
Lufthansa provided this flight as part of a trip to include its FlyingLab event. As ever, editorial consideration was given.
Aircraft: Airbus A320
When traveling from Europe to London, passengers have an increasing number of airline and airport combinations — some of which are very much not in “London” at all. But the reference point is still British Airways, and as the only London-based carrier offering European business class, it has a monopoly on offering premium connections through its Heathrow hub and thus to many destinations for the oneworld alliance.
When BA flew me from Lyon to London for a media event, it struck me as the perfect time to look at some of the recent soft product changes around food, as well as the hard product addition of inflight connectivity to the deal.
Seat and Amenities
On most of its European fleet, British Airways uses the old Collins Aerospace Pinnacle seat up front. It’s at least one and a half generations behind the state of the art, and to my mind the least comfortable of all the Eurobusiness seats operated by any competing carrier on a 737 or A320, largely because BA pitches it at a miserly 30 inches. That would be fine for a modern Recaro or Acro slimline, but for the substantially less space-saving Pinnacle it’s unacceptably tight.
The one visible difference to the rest of the market is the little central table separating the aisle and window seats. I don’t care for it: on other airlines you can pop your briefcase or handbag neatly in the seat during the flight, whereas the table inevitably means that the seat underneath is stickily uncleaned.
The one positive about Pinnacle: the literature pocket is good for hanging an iPad off in order to provide yourself some inflight entertainment, but this is by no means unique and other airlines now offer proper device holders.
While I’m informed that some of the BA European fleet have at-seat power, that wasn’t the case on this flight.
Customer service on board
Boarding was, as usual, atrocious at my home airport of Lyon, thanks to the ever-feckless Aviapartner ground staff that BA chooses to use.
Despite 35° heat passengers (including elderly travelers and people with disabilities) were kept in the un-airconditioned glass-walled jetway for five minutes before the aircraft was ready for boarding, which is simply unacceptable.
The BA crew were deeply apologetic and the lead crewmember apologized as we boarded, highlighting that he had told the ground handler not to stack passengers on the airbridge but they’d done so anyway. One does have to wonder how British Airways selects and manages this kind of ground handler contract.
A hot towel service passed around after boarding was welcome, although given the heat a cold towel service would have been preferable: I wasn’t the only one flapping the towel cool before using it.
Overall, the crew was friendly and personable, passing through the cabin regularly for refills.
After takeoff, the crew came through swiftly and efficiently, offering both the meal and drinks on this late afternoon flight at the same time, but run individually into the cabin. This is the British Airways standard but I feel like a quick drinks run before the meal would be preferable. Indeed, on my return flight the service was via trolley and, while less elegant, it was at least twice as efficient.
Choices today were a quinoa salad with feta or a chicken salad with hummus. I chose the latter and it was remarkably good: in the last year or so BA has upgraded its catering with the help of Do & Co. Perhaps the salad starter and salad main could use some strategic thought, but every bite was delicious and the little salted caramel chocolate pot to finish was delicious.
British Airways’ European Champagne is Castelnau, which is truly awful. The airline should give up and pick a Cava or Prosecco if they’re not going to buy a decent Champagne.
After one glass I gave up and moved on to tea, which was strong and milky, just the way I like it, and the cabin crew remembered how I took it when I asked for refills.
The only use of the inflight entertainment screens was for British Airways’ godawful safety video, the prime purpose of which seems to be cracking a har-har-hilarious joke about Oscar-winner Olivia Colman being the tea lady. I’ve been subjected it so many times that I can feel my blood pressure rising as soon as it starts to play.
Wifi is available: it’s the new EAN air-to-ground system that should be good but I know from previous flights is limited by BA to a deeply unimpressive 0.9 Mbps for the first paltry 50MB in each hour and then 0.6 Mbps for the rest.
It’s very much not worth the A$12.50 for ‘streaming’ service (which is questionable advertising from a marketing point of view) given the very limited amount of cruise time above 10,000 feet on a flight like this — the only point when the system is switched on.
If you happen to have some BA Avios points left over, you can spend 2430 of them (or about thirty Australian dollars) for a half-bottle of Pannier Champagne from the economy class menu. It’s a lot better than the gutrot Castelnau.