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Since it joined Oneworld back in 2014, SriLankan Airlines has rapidly been improving its fleet, expanding its route network and generally making a big impression on the Asian aviation scene. TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen recently had an opportunity to fly the airline’s newest business-class product aboard an A330-300 from Beijing to Colombo. Here is his review of the experience.
After flying Hainan Airlines’ new Dreamliner in business class from Los Angeles to Changsha and continuing to Beijing from there, the next question became, where else should I go in Asia? Sri Lanka had been on my wish list for a while now and a quick search showed quite a lot of award availability on SriLankan Airlines’ flights from Beijing to Colombo, so I decided to go ahead and try to make it happen.
I didn’t go into this process closing my eyes and pointing at a map — rather, I had sort of settled on Beijing as my stopover for two important reasons. Although I considered just purchasing an economy ticket, I looked for award space first.
Luckily, there was decent award availability in both business and economy on SriLankan Airlines from Beijing to Colombo (I used British Airways’ site to search for the space). Sure, I could have gone from Hong Kong instead, but most of the options were on Cathay Pacific in regional business class and I didn’t want to spend my miles on that. I wanted a novel experience and when I figured out that SriLankan operates its newest business class aboard the A330-300 on the Beijing—Colombo route, I was sold.
The flight departed rather late, at 12:20am, and arrived in Colombo at 5:40am, but that actually suited my plans and meant that I’d be saving money on a hotel night by flying instead. I resolved to put my American Airlines AAdvantage miles to use and pull the trigger.
Because both Sri Lanka and China are considered to be in the “Asia Region 2” category on American Airlines’ award chart, the total cost came to 22,500 miles and about $14 in taxes and fees — a relative steal for a nearly-eight-hour flight in an international business-class seat. Just for the sake of comparison, I looked at SriLankan’s site to price out the ticket as if I were buying it and it came to $1,194.70.
What made this even more of a no-brainer in my opinion is that this redemption was going to go through the roof once American’s devaluation goes into effect on March 22 because Sri Lanka is being reclassified from Asia 2 to the Middle East/Indian Subcontinent region in the chart. Translation: My business-class award will be 40,000 miles each way at that point — nearly double what I was paying now!
Airport and Lounge
Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) is a pretty massive place. My flight was leaving out of Terminal 2 and when you walk in, one side of the terminal is for domestic departures while the other side is for international flights. To get to the international departures area, you have to put your bags through a scanner before going to your airline’s check-in counter to check your bags and pick up your boarding pass. Then, you have to go through immigration control, get in another line and wait to go through security. That second line was the killer because they only allow one person through at a time in each line and basically make them strip down to the bare essentials, so it took me about 40 minutes of waiting in line just to complete the security portion.
Luckily, from there it’s a quick walk through the Duty Free area to get to where my gate was. The lounge I was given access to was a shared one near Gate 5. Basically, it’s just a partitioned off portion of the concourse, though it was nice enough and certainly a big step up from Hainan’s lounge at Changsha.
There were tons of seating options, a sort of separate little work area at the back along with a drinks refrigerator and a food buffet along the far side of the lounge with things like fried rice, pastries, nuts and some drinks. The alcohol available included Dragon Seal red and white wines from China (I couldn’t tell what varieties they were) and a bottle of Stoli vodka that had about two shots left in it by my approximation. There were also a few different kinds of beer. I grabbed some water and cookies and waited for my flight to board.
There were no boarding announcements and when each flight was ready to board, an attendant would walk through the lounge with a sign notifying everyone.
My flight boarded right on time and though I was the last person to board in business, I still beat most of the economy customers because there was actually a second (manned, even!) line for premium passengers.
Cabin and Seat
I was greeted at the door by two flight attendants who showed me to my seat, 2A, along the side of the plane. I was actually right in the middle of a very large family who seemed to have no sense of personal boundaries — one of the children even climbed up on my seat while I was sitting in it to look inside the overhead bin! I suggested the family might all like to be together and that I’d be happy to move to an empty seat farther back in the cabin.
In fact, the whole back half of the cabin and a good portion of the middle seats throughout were empty — no wonder there had been award seats available. I ended up sitting on the opposite side of the plane with empty seats all around me.
The business-class cabin on SriLankan’s A330-300s is the airline’s newest version. The carrier took delivery of the first of these aircraft back in October 2014, and since then SriLankan has just gotten seven of these babies, so I was pretty stoked to get to fly in one.
To my mind, the seat and cabin most closely resemble Cathay Pacific’s 777-300ER business class. The layout is a reverse-herringbone 1-2-1 configuration with the seats on the sides angled out toward the windows and the seats along the middle angled toward each other.
This cabin feels more intimate than Cathay’s and American’s — well, Cathay does have a small front business-class cabin on its planes — because there are just seven rows of four seats each for a total of 28.
Each seat is 21 inches wide, though with the aisle armrest down you get a few extra inches, and reclines to about 78 inches.
The other major difference between these seats and similar ones on its Oneworld partners (including Qatar) is that these are leather seats. I don’t know why, but if felt like it gave the seat a little extra cushion and I kind of liked the teal color more than I thought I would. It seemed to add just the right touch of exoticism to the experience, as did the patterned throw pillows.
The other cabin feature I liked a lot was the lighting. The ambient light once we took off was more of a bluish glow and they made it sort of red-gold for our descent into Colombo in the morning, like a sunrise. Overnight, the ceiling had little stars twinkling in it.
The seat controls were right next to the inner armrest and included three pre-settings — upright for takeoff, landing and lounging and fully flat for sleeping — though you could adjust the individual components including the seatback and leg rest.
Just next to and above this was a universal adapter power port and a USB power port so I could plug in my laptop and my iPhone.
Amenities and Service
After takeoff, I was given a little amenity kit with Crabtree & Evelyn lotion, lip balm and fragrance by something called Hydro Works that smelled like Acqua di Gio, ear plugs and socks. No pajamas, unfortunately.
My service experience started the moment I set foot on the plane and all the flight attendants I talked to (I counted five in total) were delightful. They asked me about where I was from, what I was coming to Sri Lanka for, what I was going to do and talked about how happy they were that I was onboard. Even more, it all seemed sincere and not intrusive at all. I was joking around with them by the end of the flight.
Each seat has a 15.4-inch video monitor that stows diagonally in the preceding seatback. Usually, you have to keep these stowed for takeoff and landing, but the crew on my flight didn’t seem to care — one of the flight attendants even popped it out for me while we were taxiing so that I could watch a promotional video about Sri Lanka and its many wonders, which actually got me even more excited to be taking off!
The IFE system is controlled either by touch on the screen itself or by touchpad remote control that stows in the seat next to the seat controls. There were tons of options and dozens of movies, including a lot of good new releases like The Martian and Bridge of Spies.
Perhaps more interesting, SriLankan offers OnAir connectivity, so if you purchase a plan, you can even make phone calls and send text messages from your mobile device in addition to using the service for web surfing. Plans ranged between $5-$15 for 6-20MB. I personally didn’t take advantage since I’d finished my work and wanted to get as much sleep as possible, but it’s still nice to know that’s an option.
Food and Beverage
As soon as I got to my first seat, I was offered Champagne or orange juice, so I chose the bubbly and asked for some water as well, which they brought right over.
Meanwhile, I was surprised to learn that we’d be getting dinner right after takeoff. I figured they might serve some light refreshments but let everyone get to sleep and serve breakfast before landing, but apparently I got it the wrong way around.
Instead, about 15 minutes after takeoff, service started with a drink and a plate of warm cashews. Then we got to the main meal.
The choice of appetizers were:
- Slices of Peking duck presented with pineapple salsa, pickled ginger, green onion, cucumber and plum sauce
- Finely pressed bean curd rolls accompanied with salted pumpkin, shimeji mushrooms, lettuce and tomato
Though I’d just had phenomenal Peking duck in Beijing, the “bean curd rolls” didn’t sound terribly appetizing, so I opted for the meat. It was fine, but I only ate a few bites and the pineapple salsa didn’t taste like much.
Main course options included:
- Chicken breast stuffed with pickled cucumber and Emmental cheese, served with grilled mixed vegetables, shiitake mushrooms, sautéed potatoes and rosemary sauce
- Braised fish in soy sauce with carrot rice and five varieties of sautéed mixed vegetables
- Braised slices of beef with rattan pepper, black fungus, bamboo shoot, braised eggplant and steamed rice
- Grilled breaded tofu served with tomato-chili sauce, grilled mixed vegetables and mashed sweet potato with cinnamon
This time, I selected the beef because it sounded pretty tasty, black fungus or no, and it turned out to be a wise decision. The beef slices weren’t overcooked, the sauce was just savory enough without being salty and the mushrooms were good. Plus, the portion size was moderate, so I was happy.
Then for dessert, there were:
- Pre-assembled cheese-and-cracker plates
- Seasonal fruit
- Assorted mini-desserts including a cheesecake and a brownie
The cheese didn’t look that great so I opted for the cakes and fruit. The cheesecake was surprisingly good but the brownie was really dry and only some of the fruit was ripe, so I just nibbled.
The portion of the menu I liked best was a whole page dedicated to the tea selection — after all Sri Lanka used to be Ceylon and is still a powerhouse tea producer. The ones on offer included:
- English Breakfast
- Ceylon Earl Grey
- Black Tea Sunny Lemon
- Black Tea Ginger Ceylon
- Black Tea Spice Chai
- Black Tea Forest Fruit
- Green Tea Jasmine
- Cool Peppermint
What I loved is that each one came with a little blurb about the tea and what made it so special. The ginger black tea was nice and soothing before bed despite the little bit of caffeine in it. Otherwise, there was a selection of wine and spirits including:
- Piper-Heidsieck Champagne
- Wines: There were two Australian reds (one a Shiraz by Yalumba and the other a Coonawarra red blend) and two white wines (a white Burgundy and a white Touraine), both from France.
- Chivas Regal 18
- Johnnie Walker Black Label
- Bombay Sapphire
- Beers including Lion Lager, Kirin, Asahi and Heineken
I tried the Australian reds and they were nice for the flight — full-bodied but not overly intense, just the thing to help me feel a little sleepy. Right after meal service ended, I brushed my teeth and snuggled up in my lie-flat bed.
I had a mid-size pillow, the throw pillow and a light blanket, which were all pretty comfortable. As I mentioned, the seat seemed more padded than others I’ve been in recently and I was out cold for about four hours of the flight.
I woke up to the captain’s announcement about 30 minutes out of Colombo that we would be landing shortly. As I woke up and put my things away, I was offered mango or orange juice and a small snack sandwich. I took the juice, got my seat in the upright position and we started our descent.
I actually didn’t mind missing breakfast since it felt too early to eat anyway and I wanted to nap a bit when I got in, so I could always eat later. We landed, pulled up to the gate in about five minutes and deplaned very quickly after that. It was all very smooth and efficient, and I was a bit sad to say goodbye to the crew!
Though flying SriLankan hadn’t been on my bucket list before this, when I found the award I wanted for a relatively low price and was able to fly in their latest business-class seats (which I’ve enjoyed on other airlines), I had no hesitation about booking.
It turned out to be a great option both for my specific China connections and for exploring a part of Asia I’ve been meaning to get to. Having those reverse-herringbone lie-flat seats was fantastic for what could be a pretty rough red-eye flight. The meal service was quick, the food was decent and the crew were very friendly and courteous.
I actually wish I could fly the airline another time on this trip, but alas, I’ve got some other carriers on my docket. That said, I’d fly SriLankan again in a heartbeat on future trips.
Have you flown on SriLankan Airlines? How did your experience compare? Let us know, below.
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