Flight Review: airBaltic (Bombardier CS300) Economy From Abu Dhabi to Riga
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After flying Emirates first class from Madrid (MAD) to Dubai (DXB), I thought I would never again be able to return to economy, but lo and behold, just a few short days later, my queen status was long gone and I was flying from Abu Dhabi (AUH) to Paris (CDG) with a stop in Riga (RIX) on airBaltic in economy. But at least it wasn't any old economy — it was on the Bombardier CS300, the newest airplane in the sky.
Currently, only airBaltic and Swiss are using these new jets, the 120-seat CS100 and the 140-seat CS300. Delta has several of the CS100s on order for 2018, so US-based SkyTeam flyers will soon be able to try out the Bombardiers for themselves. (Unless a controversy between the US and Canada, with the US government slapping a 300% import duty on the Canadian-made planes, cannot get resolved. Airbus bought the CS program last month, and says it will make the plane in Alabama, which would sidestep those tariffs.)
With a bunch of innovations from larger windows to easier to use overhead bins, the C Series is better than the older jets it replaces — and I wanted to test that out. So here's what I thought of airBaltic's new CS300.
I needed to get back to Europe from Abu Dhabi and, conveniently, airBaltic had one of the cheapest fares, according to Google Flights. When I was routed to the airBaltic website, I noticed the airline had three fare types: basic, premium and business. You can compare the price options below, but I chose the premium fare, which included seat selection and one checked bag for a total of 383.89 euros (just under $450) for a flight to Paris with a stop in Riga. But when it came time to book, I used the Amex concierge and charged the ticket to my Amex Platinum card, which gave me 5x Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on flights. I also made sure to join the airBaltic PINS loyalty program and earned 247 points for the AUH-RIX leg of my flight. (I could also have earned Etihad miles, thanks to a code share deal between the two airlines.)
It's also worth noting that although airBaltic isn't part of a specific alliance, it does partner and codeshare with several other airlines in varying capacities.
The airline has a small presence at the Abu Dhabi airport, which is mainly served by Etihad.
The check in agent didn't work for airBaltic, just for the airport, so he couldn't tell me if a meal was included with my ticket. I asked how much an upgrade to business class would be, and I was told $250, which actually seemed a solid deal — if I had bought it outright it would have been much more. But in the interest of seeing if the economy cabin was truly all that it seemed to be, I decided to stick with my original seat. Plus, the check-in agent couldn't tell me how the seat or amenities were any different than economy, so I didn't feel like playing seat roulette.
Before going through security, I was told I needed to get my eyes scanned, which is how security is done at Abu Dhabi airport.
A man apathetically glanced at my passport and scanned my eyes, and then I headed toward security (where my eyes were indeed again checked for confirmation) and then to my gate, which was hidden in what felt like the basement of the airport.
Boarding was via bus, and felt decidedly like a Ryanair cattle call.
As the bus arrived, it only opened one set of its six doors, and that meant I could not get out in time to photograph an empty cabin.
Cabin and Seat
I was able to get an idea of the seating layout from when TPG attended the annual Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg and toured the CS300 thanks to Hamburg Aviation. My first thought upon entering the CS300, which is 127 feet long with 145 seats, was that it was sleek and muted.
It was like the Ikea of planes: It was new and modern, but made you wonder how it would wear after several years of use. The 2-3 configuration felt roomier than the 3-3 on the Boeing and Airbus single-aisle planes, but it also remained the same in business.
The lighting changed throughout the flight.
I was relieved I hadn't paid the $250 to upgrade to business, because the seats were exactly the same — only with slightly more legroom and a meal included, as well as a pillow and a blanket, which you weren't given in economy.
I didn't think legroom, a reheated sandwich and a pillow were worth $250 more. They did block the middle seat off, though, so if you were in the row of three, you wouldn't be directly seated next to someone else. That's common practice among many European airlines, which do not have separate business class cabins on short haul flights.
My seat, 8D, toward the front, was the aisle in a row of three. After takeoff, though, I ended up switching to a two-seat section so I could have both to myself.
Each seat is 19 inches wide, which is larger than most other aircraft in coach, and with a 30-inch pitch, which is average. It still was adequate legroom, but that appeared to be thanks to "slimline" seats. I noticed after five minutes of sitting that the seats were extremely hard with little padding, and I dreaded the next six of hours of sitting on a rock. The armrest also seemed thin, but it didn't really bother me, since the seat next to me was empty.
Yes, the overhead bins and windows were large.
The plane was a little brighter thanks to the larger windows. Each seat also had an air vent, reading light, seat pocket with magazine, and tray table.
There were only two lavatories on the plane, one upfront for business class and one in the back for economy. Every time I turned back, there was a line for the single bathroom at the back of the plane, and my flight was only 60% full, so I couldn't imagine what it would be like if the aircraft were completely full for a six-hour flight.
All in all, I tried to enjoy the spaciousness and good legroom, but the seat was so incredibly hard and had such a lack of padding that that was really all I could focus on. Luckily, I had two seats and could stretch out, but that didn't help with the seat's hardness.
The recline of the seat was normal, but the moment I reclined, I was screeched at in Russian from a child (yes, a child of about eight, who apparently didn't have enough space) behind me, and I just couldn't deal so I simply put my seat back up to normal and used the second seat to stretch out a bit.
Large bins and windows are all right, but only go so far if an airline installs "slimline" seats and you get tired of sitting on a wooden board.
There were no amenities. At times, this flight did feel kind of like Ryanair, though the flight attendants were a tad friendlier. Service wasn't anything out of the ordinary, and since there wasn't an official meal service, I had little contact with the FAs during the flight.
There wasn't a charging option, but luckily I'd brought an external charger with me. As there wasn't any in-flight entertainment, I knew I would be watching Netflix on my phone the whole time. I was surprised that a plane this new wouldn't have any power options at the seat, but economy is bare-bones these days, I guess.
There were small screens (they reminded me of the Game Boy Advance, remember those?) in each row that showed the safety video and then the route and map, but they were so tiny I found myself squinting to read the writing at times.
I'd also heard that this plane's engines are quieter compared to other planes. I honestly tried to notice if they were less noisy, but I couldn't really tell a difference.
Food and Beverage
I realized at check-in that I didn't know if my flight included a meal, and, sure enough, my ticket didn't. I chose to get the chicken panini off the menu in the airline magazine, along with a small can of Pringles. They were fine but nothing memorable. The 8.50-euro ($10) price tag wasn't obscene, but it made me wish I'd gotten some food in the airport ahead of time.
The staff came around once with the beverage and food carts about an hour into the flight, but I was under the impression you could order food at any time by using the flight-attendant call button or walking back to the galley.
The aircraft was clean, modern and new, and I enjoyed the large windows, but the seats, the most important part of a flight this long, were incredibly uncomfortable, though they were wider than average. There was also no real IFE screen, pillow, blanket or meal. There were certain aspects of the airBaltic service, like check-in, boarding and meals that seemed to emulate everyone's favorite low-cost carrier Ryanair, but at least there was more legroom.
If this is the future of economy class in aviation, I hope to be able to teleport places soon, or else I'll have to plan for a very hard ride.