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Over the last decade, TPG Contributor JT Genter has flown economy on 20 different carriers. As part of a multi-leg, round-the-world itinerary, he recently checked out the upstairs economy cabin in the newly reconfigured Lufthansa A380 — here’s his take on the experience.
Booking the Flight with Miles
After booking my outbound itinerary to China — which included a San Francisco to Beijing flight on an Air China 747-8 — I had just 35,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points left from my 70,000-point (now 50,000-point) Chase Ink Plus sign-up bonus to get back to the States.
I struggled to find any transpacific United Saver Award availability in early August, so I had to get creative. I patched together a transatlantic itinerary that included Beijing (PEK) to Frankfurt (FRA) on a Lufthansa A380 and Zurich (ZRH) to Toronto (YYZ) on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Having never flown either of these carriers or planes, I was excited to book this long way home!
I was able to book on United’s website — without having to involve an agent — using the “Multiple Destination” option: August 4 from Beijing (PEK) to Zurich (ZRH), and August 5 from Zurich (ZRH) to Austin (AUS). Although booking just the Beijing to Frankfurt flight would have been 45,000 miles, this longer itinerary priced at just 35,000 United miles plus $89.50 of taxes and fees, which I paid for using my Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card.
Once I was ticketed, I called Lufthansa at 1-800-645-3880 to request seats (first choose option #3, then #1). Since I’d used miles to book, seat selection was complimentary; however, if you pay and are booked into a discount fare class (W/S/T/L/K), the upstairs economy section isn’t available for free until airport check-in.
Check-in and Lounge at PEK
At the Beijing airport, the Air China employees serving as Lufthansa agents opened the counter roughly three hours before the scheduled departure; by this time, the line of passengers waiting to check in filled the roped-off line area and stretched nearly to the terminal entrance. And by the time I got up to the check-in desk myself, it took some convincing for my counter agent to check my bag through to Zurich — my destination for the night — even though the connecting flight was on the same ticket. Not an auspicious start.
I cleared China immigration and intense security checks and headed into the beautiful, open international Terminal 3E. Although there are comfortable lounge seats and plenty of food options in the terminal, I opted to use one of my free Lounge Club passes earned through my Chase Ink Plus card (sadly no longer a benefit) at the BGS Lounge outside gate E19. I grabbed a hearty breakfast and enjoyed some decent Wi-Fi while charging up my laptop and phone for my long journey ahead. I opted not to use the lounge’s showers or the serve-yourself open bar, although both were available when I arrived at 8:30am.
The flight started boarding less than 30 minutes before scheduled departure, with three lines boarding simultaneously: (1) first and business class, (2) business and upstairs economy (rows 95-99) and (3) the remainder of economy. The upstairs economy section was directed to board through the second gateway onto the main deck. At the aircraft door, my polite “guten morgen” was convincing enough that the Lufthansa flight attendant responded with instructions in German — a language in which I’m not exactly fluent — but thankfully, his motions were clear enough that I need not ask for translation: Walk through the main deck economy sections and up the stairs at the back of the plane.
Onboard the A380
The new 2-4-2 upstairs economy section is quite unique. It was created by Lufthansa during a recent reconfiguration of the A380 upper deck, which swapped out business seats and replaced them with this small (5 rows, 35 seats) but roomy economy section. Due to its size, just one flight attendant serves this cabin. There is only one bathroom in this section, but four additional bathrooms are just down the back staircase.
On each seat was a plastic-wrapped blanket; a pair of plastic-wrapped, over-the-ear headphones (two-prong, so remember your converter if you want to use your own earbuds); and a small pillow.
The seats themselves are comfortable and have generous recline for economy. The 31 inches of legroom is comfortable enough for sitting, but not enough for easily climbing over a sleeping seatmate — particularly when the seat in front is reclined.
Especially nice are the six window seats in rows 96-98 (I was in 96A), as the curvature of the plane leaves extra space on the window side. This space features a large storage compartment that can easily hold your blanket, pillow, menu, laptop, camera and any other small items — perhaps even a small carry-on bag — when you’re not using them.
Once the 500-plus (mostly Chinese passengers) — including three non-crew, non-employee passengers sitting in jumpseats due to overbooking — were boarded, we pushed back shortly after the 10:30am scheduled departure time. Our gargantuan A380 took off at 10:53am and started its slow but steady climb into the sky.
Shortly after reaching cruising altitude, drink service began. The selection was impressive, from juices to sodas to a variety of liquors and even sparkling wine. Having never had the option to choose sparkling wine in my broad economy-flying experience, I ignored that the clock said 11:20am and decided to give it a try. When the bottle released its satisfying pop, I forgot for a moment that I was in economy. That is, until it was served in a plastic cup accompanied by a cartoonish “Cloud Hoppers” pretzel snack bag.
Like the drink options, the Lufthansa A380 entertainment system offered a wide selection. It included the standard options — new releases, TV shows, and a variety of music — as well as a live TV feed of “Sport 24,” audio books and views from the various plane-mounted cameras (forward, downward and from the tail). Of particular interest were the “Well-being” and “Study & Business” themed options. Although some entertainment options were only offered in German, there were plenty of English documentaries and self-help learning tools available if you wish to better yourself on the flight.
After passing through the cabin with warm towels, the FA served lunch. The menu presented a choice between “Chicken with Zurich Sauce, Linguine, Broccoli and Carrot Stick” and “La Sha Pork with steamed Rice, Pumpkin and Beans.” Both were served with a salad with Thousand Island dressing (on the side), a cold bread roll, a packaged dried apricot and cheesecake. The meal was served with metal utensils, but chopsticks were available upon request.
I chose the chicken and wasn’t surprised to find that it was dark meat, but happily surprised to find that it tasted pretty good. The salad was crisp and the apricot was a sweet treat, but I didn’t particularly care for the somewhat dry cheesecake. Overall, though, it was an excellent meal that left me satisfied.
Another drink service accompanied dinner, and — feeling a bit guilty that the bottle was still almost full — I again ordered sparkling wine. After the dinner trays were collected, the flight attendant passed through the aisles five different times with separate after-dinner drink offerings: red and wine white, water, hot jasmine tea, coffee and Baileys or Chantre cognac.
After dinner, the flight attendant asked everyone to lower their shades to allow rest, although many passengers in my section remained awake. About 3.5 hours after lunch, the flight attendant passed through to offer a snack choice of Cup Noodles or a plastic-wrapped slice of cake, along with another drink choice. Then periodically over the next few hours, the flight attendant passed through the cabin with drink offerings to ensure everyone remained either hydrated or tipsy.
For the restless passengers — young and old — Lufthansa seems to have a variety of alternate entertainment options. Upon reaching cruising altitude, the flight attendant passed through the cabin with coloring books and other children’s activities. Meanwhile, in the galleys, the flight attendants had a tray with instant-film cameras and Lufthansa photo holders. Once revealed, the cameras were a big hit with the nearby passengers. I gladly posed in a couple photos with random people, something I’d already grown accustomed to doing while traveling through China.
Dinner was served 90 minutes before landing. The menu listed a Western option of “Penne Pasta with Jade Melon Sauce and Parmesan Cheese” and a Chinese option of “Chicken with Crab Paste Sauce, Steamed Rice, Chinese Mushrooms and Bok Choy.” Both meals were served with a sliced watermelon and cantaloupe fruit dish and a cold bread roll. I chose to have one last taste of Chinese food and went for the chicken, which proved to be so popular that they ran out of it halfway through our cabin. Its popularity proved warranted, and I was pleased with my tasty choice. Blending cultures, I chose a German Warsteiner beer to accompany my Chinese dish.
The Lufthansa headphones were picked up about 30 minutes before landing, but the entertainment system remained active through our landing at 2:15pm. Even after touring the upstairs business and first-class cabins (which the flight attendants not just allowed, but encouraged), I still disembarked before our 2:45pm scheduled arrival time.
Based on this flight, I look forward to flying Lufthansa again! Onboard the A380, the hard product was good and the soft product was top-notch. The only things that could improve the experience — and I’m nitpicking here — would be better-trained check-in agents, better-quality headphones, more legroom and the addition of a simple amenity kit. Besides that, Lufthansa went above and beyond with their service. If I have the chance to fly the Lufthansa A380 again — especially if I can get a window seat in the upstairs economy section — I will jump on the opportunity.
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