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Following his first flight on Norwegian Air and a round-trip from Stavanger, Norway to Houston, Texas, TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig returned home on Scandinavian’s new all-business 737 flight from Copenhagen to Newark. Here’s his review.
Last month, I flew nearly 14,000 miles on the exact same 737-700 — a modified all-business single-aisle aircraft operated by a small Swiss company called Privatair on behalf of Scandinavian (SAS). The plane had been assigned to a nonstop flight between Houston and Stavanger, Norway, but it was recently pulled from that route following a drop in oil prices. For now, the 737 is flying in an all-business configuration between Copenhagen and Newark, then beginning in early 2016 it’ll operate the same route with both business and economy cabins until it moves to Boston at the end of March.
While the configuration of the plane will change in a few months, the business-class seats will most likely remain the same, as will the service. The seats themselves are quite dated, with an angle-flat design, and the plane is lacking in modern amenities (such as Wi-Fi), but with just 44 seats on board (for the time being), many of which are often unoccupied, the unique nature of this plane may make it worth choosing over more modern alternatives, as you’ll see below.
Booking SAS Business
Given that I flew Norwegian Air’s 787 to Oslo and had just traveled round-trip from Norway to Houston, I needed to book my final leg of the trip separately, departing from somewhere in Europe and returning me home to NYC, preferably on a Star Alliance carrier (so I could earn United elite-qualifying miles). Nonstop one-way business-class fares were pricing at roughly $2,750 from Oslo, $3,000 from Stockholm and $3,800 from Copenhagen, but I found a open-jaw fare for $2,750 that had me traveling as follows:
- Bergen to Copenhagen on SK2869 (Z class) on October 24, 2015
- Copenhagen to Newark on SK901 (Z class) on October 25, 2015
- Newark to San Diego on United (P class) in May 2016
- San Diego to Los Angeles on United (E class) in May 2016
- Los Angeles to Newark on United (P class) in May 2016
- Newark to Oslo on SAS (Z class) in June 2016
The above itinerary without the nested San Diego trip was pricing around $3,250, so I ended up saving $500 and got a “free” round-trip to visit family in San Diego in business/first by booking the routing above. I paid with my Chase Sapphire Preferred card to earn two Ultimate Rewards points per dollar, netting me a total of 5,500 Chase points plus tens of thousands of United miles (by the end of the trip), since I earn 11x the base fare, thanks to my 1K status.
Even better than the “deal” I got was the fact that the 737 cabin was nearly entirely empty when I booked. As it turned out, 29 of the 44 seats ended up being occupied, as you can see in the seat map above (which was current as of check-in the day before the flight). When I boarded, the entire 11th row was empty, except for me in 11D (though I ended up moving to 11F, by the window).
While there wasn’t any award availability on my inaugural flight, there are PLENTY of award seats available now. You’ll only be able to book in business class through December, but beginning in early January you can book both business and coach. If you’re redeeming United miles, you’ll pay 70,000 miles each way in business and 30,000 miles each way in economy, plus the $5.60 TSA fee.
The excellent award availability appears to follow the Privatair 737 to Boston — there are plenty of award seats (4 in business and 9 in coach in the example above), including summer dates (which is a fantastic time to visit Copenhagen and the surrounding region). If you need more United miles, you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points instantly, earned with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
On the date of my flight, October 25, 2015, SK901 was scheduled to depart Copenhagen (CPH) at 6:25pm, arriving in Newark (EWR) at 10:35pm. The flight departed and arrived exactly on time, with a flying time of just under 9 hours.
Airport and Lounge
Besides the unique aircraft type, the flight’s departure time is what made it more appealing than SAS’ A330 alternative, since SK901 gave me most of the day to explore the city. My hotel, the Crowne Plaza Towers, very generously let me stay in my room until 4:00pm (perhaps thanks to my IHG Spire Elite status), and at 4:10pm I took the free shuttle to the airport, arriving roughly two hours before my flight.
Realistically, I could have arrived an hour later, even, since there was no line to check in and security/immigration was a breeze.
I decided to use SAS’ self-check-in, which required that I scan my passport before it printed out my boarding pass.
I really enjoyed the airline’s Fast Track security screening at Stavanger and Bergen airports, and the experience was just as pleasant at CPH. Each Fast Track area has a small screening checkpoint, with smiling security agents and no line whatsoever. It seriously puts TSA Precheck to shame.
I walked through the main terminal area and headed straight to the lounge. Keep in mind that while the European gate area looks like the above, the international gates have low ceilings and few facilities, and once you pass through immigration you can’t return. In other words, I’d stay in the main airport terminal for as long as possible.
The lounge entrance was easy to find, located just a couple minutes from the Fast Track checkpoint. The only two SAS lounges in this terminal are located behind the door above.
Once you’re in the lobby, you can scan your boarding pass to enter the appropriate lounge. If you’re traveling in business class, you can use the lounge on the left. If you’re Star Alliance Gold, you can use the lounge on the right. If you’re traveling in business and have Gold status, you can access either lounge.
Before I entered, I asked the check-in agent which lounge was the better pick. She confidently said that the Gold lounge was superior, as is also the case with Lufthansa’s Senator lounges, so that’s where I went first. It was packed, though there was a decent snack selection, including a big platter of lox.
After a minute or two upstairs, I went to the much less crowded lower lounge, which is restricted to passengers traveling in business class. The snack selection was more or less the same, though there wasn’t any lox — perhaps that’s what made it inferior to the more crowded lounge above?
The business-class lounge also has a nice quiet room with lounge chairs and blankets, which was empty when I visited.
Gate and Boarding
After a few more minutes in the lounge, I made the mistake of heading over to the gate too long before boarding, which required passing through immigration (the point of no return). I assumed that there would be another lounge near the international gates, but that wasn’t the case. There wasn’t even a water fountain so I could refill my bottle (though there are restrooms), but the attendant at 7-Eleven was happy to give me a cup of tap water.
I noticed our aircraft at the gate, and even though the actual waiting area wasn’t open yet, I asked the gate agent if I could step in for a moment to take a picture of the plane before the sun set completely. She explained that the aircraft wasn’t at the gate yet, even though it clearly was.
Fortunately, a minute or so later I noticed that the crew had arrived and were taking a group picture (to celebrate the inaugural flight).
I asked if I could take a picture of them as well, and they actually insisted that I join, declaring me the first passenger on the first flight. This was my third Privatair crew in three days, and they were quite possibly the friendliest. I also had a fantastic crew on the Stavanger to Houston flight, which had a very light load, but the flight attendants were a bit grumpy on the Houston to Stavanger return, where the cabin was almost full — so it’s safe to conclude that like with many other airlines, you could end up with a fantastic crew, or one that’s not so great.
Note that each flight normally has a captain, a first officer, a purser and three flight attendants, though our flight also had a Privatair manager who wanted to join the inaugural — he served as an extra flight attendant during the flight.
Our departure was scheduled for 6:25pm, but an hour before the gate still wasn’t open (and there isn’t much seating in the hall, so we just had to stand around and wait). It actually didn’t open until 5:50pm or so, at which point perhaps the most unfriendly gate agent I’ve ever encountered showed up, and slowly began scanning boarding passes so we could enter.
Once the gate area opened, we waited for another 15 minutes or so before boarding. In the meantime, several airport employees came over to check out the plane.
A couple of other SAS pilots stopped by as well to check out the aircraft’s interior. I have to admit that was pretty neat to see — it’s not every day that you see people getting excited about a 737. Sadly that was the extent of the gate festivities. There was no acknowledgement of the inaugural flight — in fact, two of the passengers were even pretty upset to be on SK901, since they had expected to be on the earlier SAS flight to Newark before their connecting flight from elsewhere in Europe was canceled.
Once boarding began, everyone got up and entered the jet bridge all at once, since our boarding passes had already been scanned. There ended up being a queue on the bridge, which I wouldn’t have expected on a 737 flight with just 29 passengers.
SAS’ All-Business 737 Cabin
(Note that I’ll be mixing in some photos from my Stavanger to Houston flight below, since the light was better at that time. It’s the same exact plane — the only thing that’s different is the time of day.)
When we boarded, there was a cart set up in front of the first row with juice, water and Champagne, along with local newspapers. Note that you’ll have a ton of legroom in the first row, though I ended up using the cubby under the seat in front of me to balance when the angle-flat seat was fully reclined, which wouldn’t have been possible in row 1.
The cabin consists of 11 rows with four seats each, for a total of 44 angle-flat seats. There’s definitely far less privacy than you’ll find in most other (more modern) business-class cabins.
The exit row offers the same amount of space as other rows (except for row 1) — you’ll have plenty of space wherever you choose to sit.
Each pair of seats is in its own fixed pod, so when you recline, the seat moves forward and down, rather than into the person behind you. Note that the fold-down screens show the aircraft’s current position, but they weren’t working on the flight from Copenhagen to Newark.
There’s a small crew rest area just behind row 11, though it doesn’t look terribly comfortable. Fortunately, the crew can rest in row 11 if all four seats are unoccupied, so if you’ve booked a seat in that row and there are open seats ahead, I’m sure they’ll appreciate it if you move up (though you’re by no means expected to).
Seat and Amenities
Most of the 29 passengers grabbed seats in the first few rows, and the back of the plane was fairly empty. I was the only person in my row, which I definitely appreciated considering I was planning to take a bunch of pictures and didn’t want to disturb anyone.
Each seat has a fair amount of storage. I found plenty of space for my MacBook in the literature compartment, and I put the rest of my gear in the other pocket. There’s also a water bottle and an amenity kit waiting at each seat (even if the seat is empty, so you might end up with two kits and water bottles).
Here’s what a seat looks like when it’s fully reclined. Again, these are angle-flat, so you’ll be sleeping at a somewhat uncomfortable angle. When you recline the seat, it slides forward and down — fully reclined, you’re only a couple inches above the floor, which is an odd feeling. I actually found it more comfortable to sleep with the seat mostly reclined, but not in the full angle-flat mode.
The amenity kit isn’t anything to write home about, but it does have all of the necessities. I actually really liked the toothbrush — you can easily use it for an entire trip without it falling apart. The ear plugs are also quite snug, so they’re very effective at blocking out engine noise during the flight.
As you may have noticed, the seats don’t have built-in in-flight entertainment systems.
Instead, you get to use an iPad with 20 or so movies and a bunch of TV shows (with just one or two episodes each). Unfortunately movies are cropped to fill the iPad’s screen.
Interestingly, not all of the iPads have the same movies, so if you don’t see anything you want to watch, you might want to ask to swap for another tablet.
Each seat also has its own universal power outlet — if you’re using the iPad, you’ll probably need to plug it in here, though you can also use it to charge a laptop. Unfortunately there are no USB charging ports available.
Food and Beverage
I already went into detail about the entrees in this post (which is definitely worth a read), so I’ll spare you the long descriptions here. I’ll still mention each of the courses briefly, though, so scroll on down to see what we had to eat.
Before departure, a flight attendant came by to offer me a small selection of stuffed animals, including a frog and a monkey finger puppet, each with an SAS tag. No, these aren’t inaugural flight gifts — they’re normally only available to children, but he wanted me to have something to celebrate the first flight, given that I was the only passenger who seemed to be on the flight specifically because it was the inaugural. In any case, I now own a small finger puppet monkey, which is definitely not something I could have said a few weeks ago.
Then, nearly an hour after takeoff, I was offered my choice of beverage. I went with the Air Born, a mix of vodka, cognac and ginger ale with a piece of celery. It was served with a relatively large bowl of nuts. Note that service always begins at the front of the plane, so if you’re seated in the back (as I was) you’ll be served up to 20 minutes after passengers in the front rows. This likely won’t be an issue after economy seats are added in early January.
The appetizer cart arrived 30 minutes later. Since I was in the last row and there were still plenty of appetizers on the cart, I was offered both the salmon and serrano ham — I gladly accepted.
Then, when the dinner cart came by nearly two hours after takeoff (ouch!), I clearly had trouble deciding. So I was offered all four entrees! The crew was pretty excited to have a passenger flying specifically because it was an inaugural flight, and there was far more leftover than they would be able to eat, so I decided to accept the offer! Check out my full entree review here.
Then, about 40 minutes after the entree course, dessert appeared at my row. Naturally, I also had ALL OF THE DESSERTS. From left to right, there’s chocolate ice cream (which was a bit soft by the time it arrived), Fourme d’Ambert and Saint-Nectaire cheese, a cherry tart with vanilla and a bowl of seasonal fruit.
And, while I absolutely WAS NOT HUNGRY, there was a cart set up between meals, much like the one above (note that this photo is from the SVG-IAH flight).
90 minutes or so before landing, around 9pm in Newark and 2am Copenhagen time, a second meal was served. Of course, given the time of day, this would have been the fourth full meal for anyone on board, and I couldn’t eat another thing. Still, I picked at it a bit for the purposes of the review, and it was clear that I wasn’t missing much. Meh.
Overall, I had a great flight — actually, make that a good three flights. I spent a combined total of nearly 30 hours on this one plane in just a few days, and I wouldn’t hesitate to fly it again. The seats, while not the best for sleeping, are perfectly comfortable for hanging out, and with just 44 passengers on board (at most), you’ll never have to wait long to board, deplane or use the lavatory.
While I haven’t flown SAS proper on a long-haul route, the Privatair crew is generally fantastic — since there aren’t many other passengers on board, you actually feel like you’ve gotten to know the flight attendants by the time you reach your destination. They really seem to enjoy their jobs and their plane, and if you fly this 737 between Europe and the US often, there’s a very good chance you’ll see a familiar face.
Based on the flight times, my preference would be to depart Newark for Copenhagen on SAS’ earlier A330 flight, which leaves EWR at 5:30pm and arrives at 7:10am, then return on the Privatair 737 flight, which gives you a full day in Copenhagen, or allows for afternoon connections from elsewhere in Europe. The 737’s 10:55pm departure from Newark and 12:45pm arrival in Copenhagen isn’t quite as ideal.
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