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TPG Contributor J.P. recently flew first class from San Francisco to London via Zurich aboard Swiss’ Airbus A340. Here’s his review. (All photos are by the author).
I’m a big fan of Swiss and a long-time Miles & More elite flyer since I fly between San Francisco and Europe about six times per year — it’s usually the best option for me, despite the fact that the planes used on the airline’s San Francisco (SFO) to Zurich (ZRH) route are outdated Airbus 340s. Needless to say, I was very excited when the carrier announced it would soon be transitioning to new Boeing 777-300ER planes for its long-haul routes.
I was planning to fly in business on the new aircraft during my next trip to Europe in August, but then had to work in an unexpected trip to London in June. The new itinerary would actually require me to fly back to Los Angeles instead of SFO, so I started looking into options on the new 777, which was slated to begin flying the LA route on June 9. The stars aligned and I was determined to give the new bird an early try, but first I had to make my way to Europe.
As a Miles & More Senator, I have access to Swiss’ first class redemptions, which run 170,000 miles for a round-trip ticket between SFO and ZRH. Unfortunately, there was no award availability for my flights on the new plane, so I checked out the cash price of the flights on the carrier’s website. As I was checking my options, I noticed that first-class tickets were unusually low-priced. The flight out of San Francisco was actually cheaper in first class than in business class by $818, although this kind of made sense since it was the older A340 plane.
I decided to also check out the prices for the new plane on the London to Los Angeles route. The price for a first-class ticket on the new Boeing 777 was slightly higher than on the old A340, but still cheaper than a business-class ticket. It seemed I’d stumbled upon an unpublicized first-class promotion.
At these prices, redeeming miles wouldn’t have been as good of a deal, giving me only 3.38 cents per mile in value for a miles currency that is very hard to earn. Additionally, flying a paid ticket would earn me tons of miles: 300% of miles flown (6,309 miles flown in each direction, so almost 19,000 award miles each way), a 25% Executive Bonus that silver and gold elites get (1,577 bonus miles each way), plus 2x the miles on each dollar for the ticket if I’d used my Miles & More Barclaycard.
All in all I would be earning 41,000 status miles (of 100,000 miles needed to extend my Senator status by another two years) and 52,500 award miles. The award miles alone would get me a free one-way business-class ticket between the US and Europe, or just 25,000 miles short of one round-trip business-class ticket if I were booking for two. That alone is worth at least $3,000 to $4,000, adding to the fact that this was really one amazing deal for first class on a plane I really wanted to fly!
The price would have been even lower, had it not been for the crazy air passenger duty you have to pay when flying out of the UK. Here’s the breakdown of the price:
I decided to fly into London-Heathrow (LHR) — since it was more convenient to where I’d be staying — and to fly back home from the London City Airport (LCY). This tiny airport is located pretty much in the center of London, a 15-minute Uber drive from my hotel, and there would likely be smaller lines than at Heathrow. Plus, I was looking forward to traveling through a new, interesting airport for a change. But let’s get back to the outbound flight.
Check-In and Lounge
I took a 30-minute ride on San Francisco’s BART metro to SFO and arrived at the airport about two hours before our scheduled departure time. The check-in area for Swiss was quite empty and there was no one in front of me at the first class check-in desk. I had already entered all my information online so it was just a matter of dropping off by checked luggage — I was done in about a minute.
I was informed that I could use the United Global First Lounge, located between gates G98 and G100, which was also very convenient since my flight happened to be leaving from gate G100.
I headed toward the TSA security checkpoint dreading the wait time, but was relieved to see that there were hardly any passengers in line. As a Miles & More Senator (aka. Star Alliance Gold member), I was shown to the Gold Track line, where I was the only passenger. This left me with more than an hour to explore the United Global First Lounge and get some work done before my flight.
After a brief check-in at the lounge entrance, I headed downstairs. Unlike the usual United Club lounges, which tend to get very busy, this one was very quiet and only had about a handful of passengers inside.
As you enter the lounge, there are a few sections of armchairs and a work area off to the left side. The décor is notably dated and because of Asian touches like bamboo chairs and plantation shutters, the room has a colonial Hong Kong kind of feel to it.
Toward the back of the lounge was the food and beverage section, along with some chairs and low tables.
There were three warm dinner options, including steamed broccoli, fried chicken in orange sauce and chow mein noodles.
Cold options were a tad more plentiful, but still very basic: tomato and mozzarella, potato salad with chicken cubes marinated in whole grain mustard, ham and cheese canapés, sushi rolls and some vegetables and cheeses.
Drink options included a decent selection of white and red wines, Veuve Clicquot Champagne (which wasn’t restocked after it ran out), plenty of soft drinks and water — there was also an espresso machine serving Illy coffee. I was pleasantly surprised to see a decent selection of spirits, the best option of which was a 12 year-old Scotch.
The dessert options consisted of fresh fruit, chocolate chip cookies, brownies and miniature muffins. All in all, the food and drinks were decent, a big departure from the cubed cheeses and hummus you’ll find in domestic United Clubs, but still not very impressive compared to most business-class lounges you’ll find in Europe, Asia or the Middle East.
I was told that someone would come and get me when boarding began and that first class passengers would be the first to enter the plane — that sounded great, especially because I wanted to take photos of the cabin. Without having to worry about timing, I connected to the lounge’s complimentary Wi-Fi and got some work done.
Boarding was scheduled for 7:05pm for our 7:45pm departure. A little after 7:10pm, an associate came through the lounge asking for all passengers who were flying to Zurich. He then escorted the three of us to the elevator and then to the gate area. By escorting, I mean he dragged his feet behind us as we walked. When we got to the gate, the boarding area was already completely empty at 7:18pm and we ended up being the very last passengers to board.
Cabin & Seat
The cabin on Swiss’ Airbus A340 is showing its age and after many flights on this route in both business and economy, I feel like the first class cabin is the most outdated. This is largely due in part to the muted gray and brown color scheme, as witnessed in this in-flight shot:
The first-class product on Swiss’ A330 is already much more modern and nice, but the 777-300ER, which I’m scheduled to fly on the return trip, is the real star of the fleet. On the A340, though, Swiss is still rocking the old first-class product that features eight seats in a 1-2-1 layout. The seats are 22 inches wide with a pitch of 80-83 inches when fully reclined in the lie-flat position.
I chose seat 1K (the window seat on the right side) and had the console to the right of my seat. It didn’t offer much storage space other than a magazine rack, which continued all around the console. There were no storage compartments that could be closed, so you had to put your stuff in the overhead bins instead — you could also store your shoes on a shelf in the ottoman, like I did.
The seat itself resembled Lufthansa’s first-class seats, as they have a similar three-piece shell on the back and a movable ottoman. However, the finishes are much nicer on Lufthansa, plus they have a big privacy partition around the back of the seat, which does wonders when the it converts to a bed. The seat on Swiss’ A340, however, lacked any privacy, especially when fully reclined (more on that later).
The console featured two spaces for glassware, a reading lamp, a universal power socket, the IFE remote and seat controls.
Since we were the last ones to board, there was no one to welcome us at the door. As we sat down, two flight attendants — a woman and an older gentleman working in first class — were quick to help with our jackets and luggage. The male flight attendant had an especially interesting way of providing service, almost dancing with every move.
An amenity kit and a pair of slippers were waiting at my seat and soon after, I was offered Champagne (the airline serves Duval-Leroy Brut on the ground, the same as in business class), a warm towel and an amuse bouche of marinated chicken breast with a cherry tomato and an olive. I was also offered pajamas, made by the Swiss brand, Zimmerli.
Just as we pushed back and the safety video began to play, the purser — or “Maître de Cabine” as Swiss calls them — made his rounds, informing us that this was going to be the last flight for the captain, who would retire the following day after 33 years of service and 33,000 hours flown on Swissair and Swiss.
The purser himself had more than 5,000 flights under his belt, but still praised the captain, who has seen the industry change quite a bit in his 33 years, flying planes like the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, Fokker 100, Boeing 747 and Airbus A330 and A340. He said the crew had celebrated with the captain and his family the night before at dinner in San Francisco. I thought it was nice of Swiss to bring out his family, who were also on the flight.
The purser later made a short announcement on the PA, which was followed by a round of applause from the whole cabin. This was also repeated after the captain’s last landing and made the whole flight feel a bit more special.
After a while, the plane headed north, giving us some amazing views of the San Francisco Bay Area from above.
I’m not sure whether this was just the standard route or a special treat from the captain, but we were treated to an amazing flyover of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Before long, it was time to see how the old IFE system was handling its age. It’s actually exactly the same as the one in business class, with a 10.4-inch screen that’s stowed away in the console, meaning you can’t use it during taxi, takeoff and landing — just for reference, the screen in the airline’s updated A330 first class cabin is 23 inches and goes up to a whopping 30 inches on the 777.
The movie selection was pretty terrible, with the newest film offer being The Revenant, which I had already seen on an Emirates business-class flight two months ago. Sadly, the TV show options weren’t much better. In fact, it felt like the IFE selection was worse than I’ve ever had on a Swiss flight.
Meanwhile, the amenity kit was quite nice. The “Swiss First” branded textile bag contained high quality socks, an eye mask, a toothbrush and toothpaste, earplugs, a wooden comb, tissue paper, four products from luxury Swiss brand La Prairie (including Cellular hand cream, Cellular eye contour cream, moisturizing lip balm and Cellular Swiss ice crystal cream) and a full-size pack of Ricola bonbons. The contents were quite similar to what Lufthansa offers in first class, with a bit more of a focus on Swiss products and an extra La Prairie product included.
I jumped into the lavatory to change into my pajamas and noticed it was just your ordinary economy lavatory, the only difference being access to cotton hand towels and full-size La Prairie skincare products. The A340 only offered one lavatory for eight first-class passengers.
The wine menu was not huge, but it was well appointed. The Champagne was Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle La Cuvée, which is roughly in the Dom Perignon price range, less famous but just as delicious. Swiss features one of the cantons or regions on a rotating basis, and on our flight it featured the Jura region, famous for very peculiar wines as the vines are grown at high altitude and on difficult terrain. Also on the menu were some solid whites from France and California as well as a really good 2me Cru Margaux that I chose for my main course.
The table in Swiss first is huge, easily three feet by three feet and made of solid wood. As the attendant was setting it, I commented that it was the biggest airplane table I’ve seen, to which he replied “big table, small screen.” This was very true, unfortunately.
I saw the ottomans had seat belts built in, so I’m assuming a couple can share one table for dinner — there’s enough room for sure!
The table setting was very restaurant-like. Plates were quite big, glasses were full-size, there was a proper bread basket featuring a white bread, a whole-grain and a rye, all baked together in one bun. Additionally, we had butter, very good olive oil and normal-size salt and pepper mills.
Swiss served the starters off of a cart, so you could choose what you liked from the options you saw. I like the concept, because that way you know what you’re getting, you’re in control of the portions and it’s less awkward if you want to try several things.
On our flight, the options included Balik smoked salmon with crème fraîche, seared tuna on a salad of mango and avocado, prosciutto with melon and a tomato flan.
Unfortunately, Swiss doesn’t serve caviar other than a few weeks each year when the airline offers its “Connoisseur Experience” offerings. (This is how Swiss describes this program: “Enjoy being pampered by the Swiss Connoisseur Experience four times a year: seafood in February, caviar tasting in May, Swiss Steakhouse in September and white truffles in November. These selected premium products complete the Swiss First gourmet offer.”)
I sampled three of the starters. The salmon was just fantastic, however the tuna lacked seasoning while its accompaniments overpowered the actual tuna, so the dish was out of balance. The tomato flan, served with an artichoke and zucchini, was rather nice though.
Afterward, I was offered a garden salad with a choice of dressings and tomato soup. I went for the salad with an olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing, which was very fresh and well seasoned.
The main course options included beef fillet with a red wine sauce and roasted potatoes, roast chicken with rosemary potatoes, summer squash and baby peppers, a fish course and four-cheese mac and cheese. I went for the chicken dish, which was underwhelming. The chicken was extremely dry, the sauce had an odd gelatinous consistency and the potatoes were under-seasoned, possibly under-cooked.
Let’s just say I was happy when it was time for the cheese course.
I wasn’t given an explanation of what was what, but I believe one cheese was Camembert and the others were an aged gouda, a comte and a very light blue cheese. These were accompanied by an apricot mostarda, dried plum, walnuts and a sweet cinnamon pastry.
That filled me up quite well, so I skipped dessert entirely and just ordered chamomile tea, which was presented with a box of very nice Sprüngli Collection chocolate truffles.
Dinner service was finished about three hours into the flight, well past 10pm San Francisco time. With about 7.5 hours of flight time remaining, I asked the attendants to make up my bed.
I didn’t notice any branding on the bedding, but it was very nice quality. They first put a memory foam liner on the seat, then covered it with a padded mattress cover and added a huge down pillow and a nice duvet that wasn’t too thick.
I usually have trouble sleeping in first class because all the bedding just makes it too hot, but on this occasion I actually slept quite well and for more than five hours. I woke up as we were flying over Ireland and continued to watch James Bond in The World is Not Enough.
Immediately the crew offered breakfast, but I asked them to serve it as late as possible since I wasn’t so hungry yet. They set my table for breakfast about an hour before landing.
There was no breakfast menu and it was more like a conversation about what I’d like, but judging from what I saw being carried around, they had muesli (which I ordered), plain and fruit yogurt, fruit, cold cuts and cheese. They also offered breads and pastries, as well as a mushroom and cheese omelette and waffles.
My breakfast spread: mushroom and truffle ricotta omelette with bacon, pain au chocolat, plain croissant with cherry jam, espresso, brie and prosciutto di Parma and muesli. The breakfast selections were all delicious. The eggs on the omelette were a bit rubbery toward the edges, but it was very tasty.
At this point we were just about 20 minutes from landing so I changed back into my clothes. When the attendant noticed that I was folding my pajamas, he asked if I’d prefer a fresh pair to take with me — so nice of him!
The landing was nice and smooth, despite the bad weather in Zurich. A big applause followed for the retiring captain and after a short taxi we pulled into our gate at the E concourse.
The airport seemed completely empty, both outside (there was only one plane parked in all of the E gates that service long-haul destinations) and inside.
I grabbed one last photo of the old plane that’s being phased out and replaced by the new Boeing 777-300ERs. The plane is really old and beat up, but I love those winglets with the red logo on them. I have so many photos of them, reminding me of trips to the US and Asia, but still I’m sad to see them go.
My connection to London was in just about an hour so I headed toward the new First Class Lounge in concourse E to see if Swiss would offer a transfer to my next flight. It turns out the airline didn’t provide this service, although I’ve seen people driven around in Swiss First branded Mercedes limousines. I was instructed to take the train to the D gates, clear security and, if time permitted, use the lounge there. The D lounge and the flight to London Heathrow were uneventful, so I won’t cover them here. I was through immigration in seconds, since there was no one at the E-gates and waited less than five minutes for my luggage at LHR, which did come out first.
The real star of this trip is the new Boeing 777-300ER first-class flight that I will be taking on my way back, but I’m glad I got to experience the old product for the first time as well. Having flown several other first-class products and many business-class products, I had plenty to compare Swiss’ old first to.
I thought the service was very good. Both flight attendants were nice, happy to take care of their guests and did a very good job at it, especially considering there were eight of us and only two of them. They struck a nice balance between being nice and talkative, but not intrusive or blindly fixated on performing their tasks. While the cabin is old and beat up compared to Lufthansa’s sleek new cabins, it’s still comfortable enough, but the service felt better delivered than on Lufthansa and much much better than the indifferent attendants on Emirates. With the cabin upgrade on the 777s, if the airline can keep the level of service and improve the IFE options, it will indeed offer a superior hard and soft product to Lufthansa, Swiss’ parent company.
I’m interested to see how the catering out of Zurich will compare to what I had out of SFO, which wasn’t quite up to scratch. I’m also excited to check out the new E First Class Lounge on my return trip, but in any case Swiss should really improve ground handling of their first-class passengers if it wants to be competitive.
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