Flight Review: Azerbaijan Airlines (787-8) Business Class From Baku to New York
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Azerbaijan Airlines isn't historically known for its extensive route network, premium product, state-of-the art fleet and stellar service. Or even known, period — its namesake nation in its current form didn't even exist until 1991, when the Republic of Azerbaijan declared independence from the dissolving Soviet Union.
Until a couple of years ago, the Azeri flag carrier operated a handful of Boeing 767-300 and A340-500 aircraft on its long-haul routes. But in December 2014, the carrier, known as AZAL, made a huge step towards becoming a more competitive player on the long-haul market by taking delivery of its first Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
The Dreamliner, one of the most modern aircraft in the world, is a major change for the airline, which began service from the capital Baku (GYD) to New York JFK in September 2014, originally with one of its A340-500, before introducing the Dreamliner this year.
Now AZAL has a total of two leased Dreamliners in its fleet (one registered VP-BBR, named "Fizuli," and VP-BBS "Ordubad," both after regions of Azerbaijan). Both aircraft are about three years old, and the carrier announced in October that it's purchasing four more, totaling $918 million. The new aircraft will likely replace the remaining two A340-500s.
After flying on El Al's first-ever 787 flight from Newark (EWR) to Tel Aviv (TLV), I needed a way back home from Israel. Looking to test out a new carrier and compare Dreamliners, I landed upon AZAL, connecting in Baku.
After having already established that I wasn't on AZAL's banned passenger list, I began to look at my booking options. Azerbaijan Airlines does have a frequent flyer program, the AZAL Miles Programme. Within the program, there are four levels of membership: Classic, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Flying between Baku and JFK would have cost me 14,300 Travel Points one-way or 18,000 Travel Points round-trip. The only issue is that AZAL Miles isn't a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou, Chase Ultimate Rewards or Starwood Preferred Guest.
So unless you fly a lot with AZAL and have Travel Points saved up, your best bet is to book with cash or through a travel portal. Rather than using any of my points for this booking, I paid outright with cash.
Azerbaijan Airlines flights are searchable through Google Flights. I found availability on the day I needed and was able to click through to book on Azerbaijan Airlines' website.
In all, the one-way business-class ticket cost me $2,240. I paid for the ticket with the Platinum Card from American Express in order to earn 5x points on the purchase for booking directly with the airline. Because I paid for it with the Platinum Card, I earned a total of 11,198 American Express Membership Rewards points. Based on TPG's most recent valuations, those points are worth $213.
While there was no issue with navigating AZAL's website during the booking process, after I'd already made my booking is where I ran into some issues. A few days before my flight, I went to the carrier's website to check up and make sure that everything was set. However, when I went to the Manage Booking tab and entered my information, I got a notice that my reservation couldn't be found.
I called AZAL's US number and waited on hold for about 20 minutes. Finally, the hold music stopped and it sounded like someone picked up — only to have them hang up. So, I tried the JFK office. I spoke with a pretty unfriendly agent who was able to confirm my reservation and who also told me that the carrier's website is "broken" when it comes to looking up a reservation. That's kind of an important function — Dreamliner or not, AZAL definitely needs to improve its website functionality to be on par with other international carriers.
Having never been through Israeli airport security before, I'd heard that you never know what to expect — you could pass right through or it could take several hours between the questioning and luggage screening processes. So, to play it safe, I arrived at TLV at around 7:00pm for my flight departing at 10:25pm.
The TLV check-in area is separated into different zones, and your airline's check-in counter can be located by pairing the zone with your flight on the departure screens spread throughout the room. AZAL was located in Zone A, which has self check-in kiosks outside before going through the first round of security. However, when I went to check in by scanning my passport, AZAL wasn't an option on the screen. After talking to an airport employee, it seems like it's an ongoing issue and I was allowed to enter the screening area before checking in on the machine.
At around 7:30pm, passengers bound for GYD started to congregate around the ticket counter, but there were no AZAL employees. Once four employees had appeared, passengers flocked to form different lines. There were no priority check-in lanes for premium passengers — it was a big mess.
Once I finally reached an agent, she noted that I was a business class passenger and said I didn't need to wait in line. I told her there was no sign for a premium passenger check-in line and she brushed it off. The non-acknowledgement of business class passengers from AZAL employees was a trend I noticed through almost my entire flying experience.
Lounge and Boarding
After a comfortable flight from TLV to GYD, which was also operated by the 787 Dreamliner, I arrived in Baku around 2:15am to a nearly empty airport. The empty corridors were very modern and sleek — it was a very pleasant airport experience. The AZAL Business Class Lounge is located a level above the main airport terminal.
There are two business-class lounges: the Business Class Lounge, reserved for passengers on non-AZAL carriers in business class, and the AZAL Business Class Lounge, which is reserved for — you guessed it — AZAL biz passengers. Both lounges, from the outside, looked to be about the same in terms of size and amenities.
Inside the AZAL lounge, passengers are greeted by a model Dreamliner.
During my time in the lounge — around 3:30am, after going through a painstaking transit process at Heydar Aliyev International Airport, named after the country's late, first president, father of the current one, and reputed autocrat — I was the only person there most of the time. Only in my last 20 minutes in the lounge did other passengers enter. In fact, there were only three of us total in there.
There was plenty of seating inside, plus a full bar and some light fare. Food options so early in the morning included some finger sandwiches with chicken or beef, cookies, pastries, baklava and other small bites.
I found the lounge to be very welcoming and comfortable. The flight, J2 101, was set to depart at 5:00am, with boarding beginning at 4:30am. I left the lounge around 4:20am and made my way through the nearly empty terminal to Gate 7, where there was another round of security. The agents rescanned my bags and I walked through another metal detector before taking a seat. About five minutes later, the gate agent made his way to the small seating area and said something along the lines of, "OK, we are boarding now."
Again, here, like with the check-in process, there was no acknowledgement of business class passengers. I'm not normally one to complain about not getting preferential treatment, but one of the perks you get as a business class passenger is priority boarding and check-in. And business passengers received neither. I hope AZAL can sort out these processes in the future.
Cabin and Seat
The seats themselves and the cabin are nothing that will take your breath away when you step on board. There's very little color to them with the exception of the seatbelt, the piece of cloth on the headrest and the stitched panel on the sides of the headrest. Other than that, the grey tone of the seats was largely underwhelming.
Azerbaijan Airlines' business-class cabin on its Dreamliner has 18 lie-flat seats in a 2-2-2 configuration. Each of the seats is 21 inches wide, which is pretty comparable with what other carriers offer on their Dreamliner aircraft. Each of the seats also features 61 inches of pitch, and when its fully lie-flat position, the bed is 76 inches long — or about 6'3".
Because the cabin is in a 2-2-2 configuration, not every passenger is granted aisle access. If aisle access is important to you, don't choose a window seat, as you'll be forced to climb over your seatmate in order to access the aisle. Also because of the cabin configuration, there isn't much privacy between you and your seatmate no matter where you're sitting. Each of the armrests pops up slightly so there's a bit more face-to-face privacy — especially when in the lie-flat position.
My seat to JFK, 3J, was a window seat in the last row of the cabin. If you choose window seats because you like to look out, you'll want to avoid window seats in row 3, as there's no window. You really have to sit forward in order to see out the window, which is hard to do especially during prime window-watching times. Each seat has a footrest below the in-flight entertainment system. When the seat is in its lie-flat position, the footrest becomes the lower part of the bed. Beneath the footrest, there are two open compartments. In one, I put my personal carry-on bag, and in the other, smaller slot, I stored my shoes.
Overall, the seats are perfectly comfortable — especially for sleeping. The controls for the seat and its functionality are fairly straightforward. There's also a nice massage function on the control panel.
While the seats are comfortable for a long-haul journey, there is one notable design flaw: very little storage for small personal items, such as a phone, besides the small compartments in between the two IFE screens. On the flight from TLV to GYD, I placed my phone underneath the armrest in the same nook where the IFE handheld remote is stored. Not thinking, when I was reclining my seat, my phone fell behind the seat. I told a flight attendant who told me that it wasn't going to be able to be retrieved until we arrived in Baku. In all, it took about 15 minutes for a mechanic to get it out when we landed.
This wasn't the only example. On the flight from GYD to JFK, one of the business-class passengers had the same thing happen. This time, the crew was able to get his out by removing some of the seat cushions. I wish there was some more storage around the seat to avoid anything like this from happening. It also serves as a good warning to watch where your things are — especially when reclining your seat.
Each seat has a power outlet, located forward underneath the armrest, as well as a USB port, which is located toward the back of the seat but also underneath the armrest. Of the two seats I sat in (TLV-GYD in seat 2A and GYD-JFK in seat 3J), neither of the power ports worked. I also tried my empty neighbor seat on the longer leg, and that didn't work either. In addition, when I was attempting to charge my phone via the USB port, it kept disconnecting and reconnecting. AZAL should look into what's going on here. In the interim, I recommend bringing your own power supply if at all possible.
Food and Beverage
Upon boarding, a flight attendant came around the cabin with tray of beverages. Choices consisted of fresh orange juice, lemonade or Champagne with a splash of apple juice. I opted for the orange juice, which indeed did taste very fresh. Not long after that, flight attendants also came around with a basket of AZAL-branded wrapped candies. I got a cherry-flavored hard candy.
Flight attendants also passed around two menus before takeoff — a food menu and a drink menu. Since the flight departed Baku at 5:00am, breakfast was the first meal offered. The breakfast menu consisted of eight different choices for cold appetizers, which were later served in person and required no pre-selection.
The hot meal portion of breakfast featured four choices: cheese omelet with sautéed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, baked beans and cherry tomato; boiled frankfurters with hash brown potato, sautéed mushrooms, baked beans and grilled tomato; Syrniki (fried cottage cheese mixed with eggs and semolina) served with vanilla sauce; or milky oat porridge.
I ordered the omelet, which was just OK. There was a lot of cheese inside, and the mushrooms, spinach, tomato and beans were all tasty sides. Of the eight choices for cold appetizers, flight attendants came around offering only five of them, already plated. I was offered a choice of muesli or cottage cheese and sour cream, and I chose the muesli, which was very tasty. The other choice included caviar with pancakes, a foie gras plate and cold cuts — I didn't opt to try any of them. During breakfast, each passenger also got their own bread basket, which is a really nice touch, giving you plenty of choices.
About two hours before landing, the second meal service commenced. Given the weird timing, around 7:00am ET and having already having been served breakfast several hours ago, passengers could choose from either a lunch or snack. Again, like the breakfast selection, there were a number of cold appetizers — this time seven — for lunch. Main hot courses for lunch included: fried salmon steak with apple and horseradish creamy sauce topping on a bed of saffron rice and grilled vegetables; fried marinated chicken with pesto spaghetti and sautéed baby carrots; grilled lamb chops with light sautéed vegetables; vine leaves with minced lamb meat and yogurt; or "Oriental-style vegetables", as the airline called them.
I went for the fried marinated chicken. The chicken itself wasn't really fried at all, but it was cooked very nicely and wasn't at all rubbery. The pasta was also lightly seasoned and the carrots weren't too overcooked and mushy.
Like with breakfast service, flight attendants went around the cabin to each passenger with individually plated cold appetizers — this time, only five of the seven options were offered. I ended up getting the Lebanese beetroot salad with a mustard topping and chopped parsley, as well as assorted marinated olives. Both were very tasty.
Other options that were offered included assorted seafood, assorted meat and a "capital" (sic) salad, which included boiled carrots, potato, cucumber, eggs, green peas and chicken mixed with sour cream dressing.
To round out the meal service, each passenger got some fresh fruit. Like the orange juice I had upon boarding, this fruit was also very fresh and a nice way to conclude.
Overall, the food was pretty good — not the best in-flight meal I've had, but definitely not the worst. I must say, I really liked the way the meal service was conducted. It was nice to see everything before deciding whether or not to go for it.
I also really liked the set-up and presentation of the meal. The silverware was unique, and the knife wasn't too dull, which I often find to be an issue. Also, nearly everything was AZAL-branded, from the tablecloth to the napkin ring and even the wet towelette.
In-Flight Entertainment and Amenities
Each business-class passenger was greeted on board with an selection of amenities In it, there was a fleece, AZAL-branded blue blanket, a large pillow, mattress pad, set of pajamas and amenity kit. I found the pajamas, which had a very fun chevron design, to be cute and comfortable. The blanket was very long, which is great news for taller passengers. Aside from the amenity kit itself, the highlight of the on board amenities was the pillow. It was the largest pillow I've gotten on a plane, and it was padded perfectly and very comfortable.
When it came time to sleep, I asked one of the flight attendants to help lay down the mattress pad. It was simple, and there wasn't much to it in terms of added comfort, but it was nice to have some separation between the seat and my body. My only complaint with the mattress pad was that it was only strapped in at the top, meaning the sides and bottom of it slid around a lot and it didn't really stay in place at all. I ended up sleeping very comfortably for about 7.5 hours of the nearly 11.5-hour flight.
The amenity kit was also a highlight of the on board experience. It was deep blue in color with a brown trim and leather in composition. Inside there were the standards — eyemask, socks, earplugs and a dental kit. But there were also some added amenities — a hairbrush, mirror and large containers of Azerbaijani hand cream and face mist.
One area where the in-flight experience is lacking is with the in-flight entertainment selection. The screen and handheld remote were both nice in quality and responsive, however, there wasn't that big of a selection. I scanned both the movie and TV sections and found very little US selection — especially new releases. In fact, I didn't see anything that I found to be especially appealing at all. There appeared to be many more Azerbaijani options. I ended up having the flight map on for most of the flight while I wasn't asleep.
Unfortunately on this flight, there was no Wi-Fi available. The option for AZAL Wi-Fi appeared on my phone as an option, but when I went to click through to purchase and test it out, nothing popped up.
Typically, service is one of the easy parts of an in-flight experience to master. Few times have I ever had issue with flight attendants and crew being outright cold. But from the get-go, I found flight attendants to be rather reserved and standoffish. There was little smiling and little desire to go above and beyond the typical to make it an enjoyable experience.
The business-class cabin holds 18 passengers, however, there were only four paying passengers, including myself, upon boarding. After boarding had completed, however, flight attendants moved an Azerbaijani couple from the Comfort Club (premium economy) cabin to the business-class cabin.
Throughout the flight, I could hear the other biz class passengers being very curt and snappy toward the flight attendants. In return, I could sense that the FAs weren't overtly friendly back, so I learned after the first few interactions not to expect anything over-the-top. Perhaps it was just my expectations as an American, but it was a different experience than I've ever had on a plane — especially in business class.
The odd, cold service wasn't only on board. As I mentioned previously, during the check-in and boarding processes, there was no acknowledgement for priority privileges for business-class passengers. On every other flight I've been on, those who pay for premium seating are entitled to at least those two things.
To top it all off, I ended up checking a bag through to JFK from TLV. It was marked with a Priority tag and in good, totally functioning condition when I dropped it off. When I picked it up at baggage claim at JFK, it was indeed one of the first bags off the carousel, but when I got home, I realized that the zipper had been broken. The handle where you pull the zipper was completely gone. I've never had an issue checking a bag as a business-class passenger, and especially with a marked bag, I was surprised to see it damaged. I wrote in to AZAL to complain about the damaged luggage but have yet to hear back.
Overall, AZAL leaves a lot to be desired in the service department.
Overall, Azerbaijan Airlines's 787 is a perfectly comfortable business-class product for long-haul routes, if you don't mind the lack of all-aisle access. After the nearly 11.5-hour flight, I got to New York feeling refreshed. The comfortable bed and wide range of dining options, including the ability to see something before you pick it, were positive. But there are huge margins for improvement for AZAL. That includes improving the priority experience at check-in and boarding for premium passengers, a better-functioning website and friendlier flight attendants. If AZAL is able to improve the customer experience in those areas, it might have a competitive product.