Flight Review: Austrian Airlines (767-300) Business Class, From Vienna to JFK
We've written a few pieces about the excellent award availability on Austrian Airlines — a Skytrax four-star carrier that ranked eighth in the world on TPG's list of the best airline food back in 2015. Now, it's finally time we gave this airline a proper review.
I was looking for options to fly back to New York from ITB Berlin, a massive travel trade show, and award availability was understandably tight. However, thanks to Austrian Airlines' generous award availability, I was able to find business-class seats from Berlin (TXL) through Vienna (VIE) to New York (JFK) for 70,000 United MileagePlus miles and $112 in taxes and fees.
I coughed up 70,000 United MileagePlus miles for this one-way flight but could have also booked my ticket through another mileage program. The same trip from Europe to JFK would have cost just 40,000 miles one-way by using Asiana miles, a transfer partner of SPG. Because I was booking my flight within a few weeks of departure, though, and we couldn't be sure that awards would still be available after the 10-day transfer time to Asiana, I opted to book through United. Additional options (if I'd had more time to book) include redeeming awards through Lufthansa (52,500 miles; transfer partner of SPG), Air Canada (55,000 miles; transfer partner of Amex and SPG), Avianca (63,000 miles; transfer partner of SPG), EVA Air (65,000 miles; transfer partner of Citi) or Singapore Airlines (65,000 miles; transfer partner of Amex, Chase, Citi and SPG).
I contacted United to get my Austrian Airlines record locator so I could access my flights. To avoid international calling prices (even at just $0.20 per minute), I direct-messaged United on Twitter and got a personalized response with my record number within eight minutes.
With this number, I obtained my record locator on Austrian Airlines and completed most of the steps to check in before receiving an error message that read, "All selected passengers are excluded from the check-in process." On a hunch, I removed my middle name — which had auto-filled in the first-name box — and was finally able to check in successfully.
At Berlin's Tegel Airport (TXL), the check-in experience was rather basic, but quick thanks to the special priority line for business-class passengers. Two checked bags of 70 pounds each were allowed with my ticket, but I didn't need to bring anywhere close to that much on this trip.
My connection flight arrived in Vienna (VIE) at a remote stand. From there, we were loaded onto buses and dropped at the ground floor of the airport in the connector between terminals. It took just a couple of minutes (which included clearing immigration) to get to the lounge, located a few steps from passport control. Upon presenting my boarding pass, I was invited — in German — to visit the lounge's business-class section.
This lounge was unique in its variation between extremes. The food wasn’t very wide-ranging. There was a buffet with scrambled eggs, yogurt, apples, three choices of cereal and a large selection of breads. On the other hand, the drink selection was expansive, with multiple espresso machines offering a variety of coffee drinks; about eight varieties of wine; a handful of beers, sodas and mixers; and 10 self-serve liquor options. While there were men’s and women’s showers, they were very small and basic bathrooms.
Boarding was scheduled to begin 45 minutes prior to departure from gate G1 — the closest international gate to the lounge. At the gate, there were two lines for passport checks before you could enter the gate waiting area — one for business-class/Senator elites and the other for economy. There was a strange disparity between the large space allotted for business-class passengers and the small, cramped space that economy passengers had to squeeze into.
Boarding began with business-class passengers 17 minutes after schedule. Strangely, I didn’t see any secondary US security checks being done at this point, there didn't seem to be any pre-board passengers and families weren’t invited to board ahead of time. Due to the layout of the airport, it’s quite a hike down the escalators and through a long jet bridge to get to the plane. Despite the late boarding start, we still pushed back a few minutes ahead of our scheduled departure time.
If you’ve flown in business class on American Airlines’ 767, you already know these seats and the cabin arrangement. The seats are arranged in a staggered 1-2-1 pattern — due to the configuration, they measure only 20 inches between armrests, which is a little tight for a premium cabin. Austrian only flies 767s and 777s transatlantic — the flight attendants mentioned that the same seats are on the 777, however that aircraft sports a convoluted 1-2-1 / 2-2-2 arrangement that creates the opportunity for both good and bad seats.
When it comes to seat selection on the 767, there aren’t any clear winners and losers, but you should still take your preferences into consideration when selecting the best place to sit. For the most privacy and best window views, you’ll want to pick 1A/K, 3A/K, 5A/K, 7A/K or 9A/K.
With the exception of 1A/K, those seats are going to have a narrow 10-inch-wide entrance, so they might not be suitable for passengers with limited mobility. If you want a window-side seat with plenty of room to get in and out, you're going to want to pick 1A (my seat) or 1K. Across the entire bulkhead, you're going to get more legroom and a larger seat entrance — from 18 inches for seat 1A up to 27 inches for seat 1D.
The seats lie completely flat into an approximately 74-inch bed with a generous foot well. The mechanics are quite quick, and adjusting the bed into your preferred position takes about 25 seconds.
The overhead light can be controlled via either the IFE remote or by the touchscreen. There’s also an adjustable reading light for more focused light, as well as a “mood light” button, which lights up the seat-side storage cubby and foot well.
As far as storage goes, these seats aren’t the most generous, but there's a surprising number of small pockets to hold your items. The pouch under the in-flight entertainment screen could hold — but not really hide — my 11-inch laptop, for instance. A water bottle holder next to the IFE screen could also double as a place to stash a phone or camera.
Next to that was the literature pouch, which provided little additional space. There's a shoulder-side cubby, which was large enough to hold my phone, camera, 360-degree camera and passport all at once. And there's a small pouch near the floor that, at first glance, seemed to be a shoe pouch, but it was much too small for that purpose. Instead, I ended up using it as a place to store trash and other items that needed to be collected — as the passenger before me had clearly done as well.
During the online check-in process, I received this invitation: "To go straight to your free travel reading, click this way." Intrigued, I clicked through to see what was offered. Once there, this message appeared: "You have used up all of your free downloads." The only free publications remaining were Austrian's onboard magazine and the in-flight shopping magazine, while other options were available for €0.99 to €3.99. I took this as a sign of cost-cutting and figured there'd be no reading material onboard, but that wasn't the case. During taxiing, the cabin crew pushed a cart of newspapers and magazines — available in English and German — through the cabin.
Unlike some airlines, Austrian Airlines has a large (15-inch) crisp touchscreen IFE built into the seats.
The IFE system included 54 movie options, episodes from 71 TV titles, 64 audio albums, nine games and — of course — in-flight shopping. For families, there was a dedicated kids' section with popular movies (including Frozen, Storks and Trolls), audio, games and even a dedicated Austrian Airlines kids' magazine (in German). Movies began with a 30-second ad, which you could manually skip to the end of.
Seats were stocked with a pair of high-quality, Austrian-branded, noise-cancelling — and quite comfortable — three-prong headphones. There’s no indicator of the manufacturer of the headphones, which is a bummer, as I might actually consider buying a pair. The IFE system has a three-prong audio output, so while you can plug standard headphones into one of the prongs, you’re only going to get sound in one ear — if you'd like to be able to use your own headphones effectively, you'll need to bring along an adapter.
One strange aspect of the in-flight entertainment was the poorly animated safety video. One way of spinning it: It’s effective in making you watch the safety video out of pure curiosity as to what strange or borderline creepy thing is coming next.
Taking all of that into consideration, though, the biggest disappointment is that Austrian Airlines doesn't have Wi-Fi on these 767 aircraft, which might end up being a deal-breaker for some travelers.
The seats were stocked with a full-size pillow, a thick rolled-up blanket, an amenity kit and noise-cancelling headphones.
The amenity kit contained a face mask, socks, a plastic-wrapped toothbrush and toothpaste, plastic-wrapped earplugs, lip balm and face cream.
The business-class bathrooms were unadorned but offered a basket of amenities: moist towelettes, earplugs, a stain-remover wipe, plastic-wrapped combs and a full shaving set.
Food and Beverage
Service began during boarding, with a crew member dressed as a chef handing out menus and taking our meal orders before the aircraft door was even closed. A welcome drink — your choice of orange juice, Prosecco or another cocktail — was served after the last economy passenger had boarded the plane. The flight attendant stuck to these choices and wouldn’t open a bottle of white wine for the passenger behind me.
Around 20 minutes after takeoff, a warm towel service preceded the first food/drink service, which offered mixed nuts along with a selection of sodas, juices, still and sparkling water, wines and Champagne. Intrigued by the design on one of the soda cans, I decided to try out the "special Austrian ginger ale" called Almdudler — along with a glass of Champagne and a glass of water.
About 20 minutes after the first service, the crew began the meal service. It featured a luxury I hadn't yet experienced; everything but the main dish was plated seat-side from the trolley. Appetizers were a choice among smoked salmon tartare, octopus salad, a Spanish-style ham and cheese, cottage cheese with chives and cherry tomatoes, grilled vegetables and mini-potatoes with butter and bacon. Although all the options looked delicious, I limited my ordering to just the salmon, a potato, octopus salad and ham. None of them disappointed. The service was complemented by a selection of warmed rolls and crackers.
Another 20 minutes later, the second course was served: a smoked tomato soup with optional soft mozzarella cubes. This service also came with a choice of bread.
15 minutes after the soup service was the main course. The main dish was a choice of "miso glazed short ribs, caramelized pineapple, fried sushi rice," "seafood brochette with butterfish/salmon/prawn, risotto with pomegranate seeds" or "truffled rigatoni with creamy mushroom sauce." When the chef took main-dish orders during boarding, I chose the seafood option in a hurry but didn't end up regretting it. The fish was wonderfully cooked and the risotto and pomegranate seeds tickled the palate with completely different flavors than the seafood.
The fourth and final service of lunch was dessert: a choice of cheeses, fruits, "traditional sweet dumplings" (plums and chocolate-filled pastries), marinated mango and a "homemade chocolate parfait." The cabin crew recommended the traditional pastries along with an accompanying glass of award-winning dessert wine. Along with the Austrian treats, I sampled the chocolate ball, cheeses and nuts — along with another recommendation to have a glass of port.
Although I was completely stuffed by this point, the first meal service didn’t end there. Another menu was handed out: a coffee menu listing 10 choices. I ordered and sipped the Maria Theresia black coffee but found the orange liqueur to be a bit strong.
Nearly three hours after takeoff, the food/drink service was complete and the lights were turned off to allow passengers to sleep off the massive meal. Passengers weren’t forced to shutter their windows, but most did anyway. Through the rest period, the crew was attentive to any passengers who were still awake, offering additional drinks and taking trays of juice and water through the cabin. A quick note: If you ask for coffee, you’re going to get a mostly empty cup of espresso.
After slightly less than five hours of rest time, it was time to eat again. The "second service" was a choice between two smaller plates: "smoked salmon with sauce Claudio and ratatouille" or "veal carpaccio with wasabi crème fraîche and beetroot." Sticking with my seafood theme, I ordered the salmon. The flight attendants recommended a glass of Riesling to complement the dish.
We were bound for a 25-minute-early arrival, but evidently the pilots had been directed to pull too far forward — it took a few minutes to figure this out, and passengers had mostly unloaded the overhead bins by the time the error was discovered. Multiple announcements and a few minutes later, everyone was seated and the plane was pushed back a few feet to the correct location. We still ended up arriving 15 minutes before the scheduled time, and the first checked bags dropped out 24 minutes after that.
Simply put, this was an incredible experience. The onboard service and food were top-notch. The in-flight entertainment provided a variety of options. The amenity kit was basic but satisfactory — with other items available in the bathroom if needed. The full-size pillow, blanket and long lie-flat bed made sleeping onboard easy and comfortable. The 10-hour duration helped passengers get the most out of the experience, too.
The downsides were a lack of Wi-Fi — which has become a necessity for some travelers — and the staggered configuration that led to the need for narrower seats. The current schedule (departing at 10:45am ET) makes getting to this flight rough if you're connecting from elsewhere in Europe or want to enjoy your Vienna hotel. If Austrian can transpose its experience onto a 787 or A350 with Wi-Fi and a later departure time, it would certainly be a top contender in the transatlantic business-class market.
Have you flown in Austrian Airlines' business class yet? Tell us about your experience below.
All images by the author.