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Review: KLM 747-400 World Business Class — Shanghai to Amsterdam

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This week, KLM announced plans to retire its 747s, though it’s not clear when the final flight will take place. TPG Special Correspondent John Walton recently tested out KLM’s World business-class product on a flight from Shanghai to Amsterdam on the carrier’s Boeing 747-400, and there’s still time for you to do the same. Read on for his impressions. (All images by the author).

I hadn’t originally planned on flying KLM that day, but sometimes the elements — in this case, fog over Shanghai (PVG) and the diversion of my Virgin Atlantic flight to Beijing, leading to hours of delays and uncertainty about whether the crew would “time out” and need a rest period — conspired to change my plans. What started out as a nonstop flight to London soon turned into to me rebooking on KLM and connecting via Amsterdam (AMS).

Check-In and Lounge

Shanghai Pudong's Terminal 1 is beautiful.
Shanghai Pudong’s Terminal 1 is beautiful.

Since I was rushing from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1 to make this new flight, my swift and efficient business-class check-in went by so quickly I didn’t have even have time to take any pictures besides this one of Terminal 1. Passport control and security lacked priority lines (no worse than the TSA these days, though) although I did get some great recommendations for dinner in Amsterdam from a Dutch fellow passenger while we commiserated about our thirty-minute wait in line.

I didn’t get a chance to do more than poke my head inside KLM’s paltry Shanghai lounge, although even if I’d had more time I don’t think I would have spent much time in it anyway. The lounge was small, dim, offered only prepackaged snacks and didn’t really have any redeeming qualities, so honestly I’d rather spend my time in the terminal where there are windows to watch the planes go by. Having priority boarding on the same level as the lounge without having to join the crowds upstairs, however, was a plus.

The Cabin

The 2-2 layout throughout most of the business-class cabin just isn't competitive these days.
The 2-2 layout throughout most of the business-class cabin just isn’t competitive these days.

It had been a few years since I had tried out KLM’s long-haul product, so needless to say I wasn’t upset to be flying in the nose of this Boeing 747-400, which is perhaps the most delightful way to travel by air.

The nose section of KLM’s 747 is mostly in a 2-2 seat configuration, although there are three solo seats that you should totally pick if you can — 1A and 4A near the windows and 4E, the “Captain Kirk” seat in the center.

My seat choices during rebooking were 1J or an upstairs aisle seat. I picked the front row of the plane for the quietness of the passing air and the fact that there would be nobody walking past me. Also, row 1 on a long-haul flight? I’m never going to pass that up.

Another benefit of older planes like the 747: Overhead airflow nozzles.
Another benefit of older planes like the 747: Overhead airflow nozzles.

KLM flies two kinds of Boeing 747-400 aircraft — one is the full passenger plane, the other is a half-cargo Combi version. The seat map is the same in business class, though, with seats located in the nose section as well as the upper deck. Overall, the cabin was nearly silent throughout the flight, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the nose of the plane.

The Seat

I was curious to test out the significant seat and design investment KLM had made in its seats, particularly these B/E Aerospace Diamond fully-flat beds designed by Hella Jongerius that offered 78″ when fully flat and 60″ of pitch in the sitting position. These seats, however, don’t allow for direct aisle access, so KLM has now opted in favor of a herringbone product on its latest aircraft.

Legroom was fine, but the seat lacked step-across space.
Legroom was fine, but the seat lacked step-across space.

All things considered, the seat itself was below par. It was comfortable enough for lounging, but then again so is a reclining seat in premium economy on other airlines. The problem is there just isn’t enough space between the beds for the window passenger to be able to pick their way over the aisle person if both seats are flat.

The perforated metal screen between seats does give a good amount of privacy.
The perforated metal screen between seats does provide a good amount of privacy.

Another problem is the placement of the audio and power sockets. They were placed in the “tower of power” position above my right shoulder, which was more convenient initially than a position on the front of the center console, but I lost count of how many times I pulled my US-style AC charger out of the wall while using my phone with the standard length iPhone cable attached.

KLM's headphones were noise cancelling, but not particularly good.
KLM’s headphones were noise cancelling, but not particularly good.

The same goes for the headphones, pictured above, (which were slightly noise cancelling but not that great), which not only tended to pull out but also got tangled very easily with the USB cable. It’s truly baffling to me how this kind of thing doesn’t get picked up in seat design trials.

Food and Beverage

While I was unimpressed by the 747’s hard product, there were a few other things on this flight that were simply superb.

The soup could have used a little garnish, and the plastic salad dressing wasn't pretty, but these are relatively minor issues.
The soup could have used a little garnish and the plastic salad dressing wasn’t pretty, but everything tasted fine.

I thought the meal service was particularly well-thought-out, featuring a good range of options and a particularly delicious set of Chinese small dishes. While these were somewhat inelegantly presented, every morsel was absolutely delicious.

I loved the mini-bowl presentation of the Chinese meal.
I loved the mini-bowl presentation of the Chinese meal.

The whimsical tableware was also delightful.

I was delighted by the fun 3D cutlery, which includes a semi-hidden KLM crown motif.
I loved the fun 3D cutlery, which includes a semi-hidden KLM crown motif.

Both the cutlery and crockery bore the raised bas-relief motifs that KLM has been using to spruce up its business-class style.

The light meal was slightly less elegant, but it was still quite tasty.
The light meal was slightly less elegant, but it was still quite tasty.

Cheap and unrewarding Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne was as disappointing a find as the other items on the wine and cocktail list were exciting. Who knew that the Dutch made a very light, acid-forward and aromatic wine? The reds were less interesting, with the exception of the Malbec, a grape grown at altitude and thus often excellent for drinking at 8,000 feet of cabin pressure.

The two mini-desserts, though, were smashing.
The two mini-desserts, though, were delicious.

I am an absolute sucker for a good airline cocktail, and the Flying Dutchman proved every bit as delicious as it sounded. Tart yet pleasant, and without too heavy an alcoholic kick, I experimented — thanks to the very accommodating crew — with mixing it half-half with the Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne and was rewarded with an excellent Champagne cocktail I’d highly recommended.

In-Flight Entertainment

Big screen, but low-def content and a weird aspect ratio.
Big screen, but low-def content and a weird aspect ratio.

Back to a downside, unfortunately. The in-flight entertainment was pretty terrible, partly because the relatively large, decently-sized screen is reflective, which is a bad idea in an airline cabin — also because the 747’s in-flight entertainment system is so old it can’t drive even modern standard-definition video.

It would be nice if KLM updated this to reflect that there's only one lounge at the Amsterdam airport.
It would be nice if KLM updated this to reflect that there’s only one lounge at the Amsterdam airport.

The old system also means that the range of movies is significantly smaller than you’d expect for a cabin that’s just three years old. Oh, and there’s no Wi-Fi either.

Service and Amenities

Throughout the flight, the crew were delightful. Most of them were middle-aged — while on some airlines this might tend to lead to either bored disinterest or over-efficient fussiness, these crew members were more like your cool aunt with the ever-changing red horn-rimmed glasses and a penchant for old-school cocktails.

The amenity kit is a relatively new version for KLM, and is supposed to be reusable as a travel wallet. While it’s pretty good on the take-home front, the kit was pretty average on the contents part, due in part to its unimpressive socks.

The new KLM amenity kit (green for the gents' version) is reusable as a travel wallet, but a little lacking in goodies on the inside.
The new KLM amenity kit (green for the gents’ version) is reusable as a travel wallet, but a little lacking in goodies on the inside.

Toward the end of the flight, the crew came around with small blue Delft porcelain houses filled with Bols, the signature gift for KLM’s business-class passengers.

On the left, the 20th KLM house to join my family's collection.
On the left, the 20th KLM house to join my family’s collection.

I was delighted to add one to the family collection that, thanks to my jet-setting parents, spans four decades now.

Overall Impression

The 747-400's a relatively old plane these days, but it's still beautiful.
The 747-400’s a relatively old plane these days, but it’s still beautiful.

Overall, I’d say the flight was good, not great, but most of that was because of the hard product, in particular the seat, in-flight entertainment and awkward power cord situation I mentioned. That bodes well for KLM’s newest aircraft and latest refits, which have a much better herringbone layout, although I will miss flying in the nose of a 747.

Have you ever flown in the nose of a 747? Tell us about your experience, below.

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