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KLM’s 787-9 proves a worthy competitor in the economy transatlantic market. Pros: excellent, responsive IFE; good catering & food; mood lighting; decent seat recline; departure from T4. Cons: slightly less-than-ideal legroom; unpadded headrests; inoperative Wi-Fi.
For the vast majority of the flying public, the paint job on the outside of a plane is nothing more than an indicator of what’s inside. Generally speaking, that’s true for me too. KLM, however, is a different story.
KLM, the Dutch flag carrier, is an airline that I’ve actively tried to fly because of its classic, stunning livery. The elegant KLM blue stands out without ever being ostentatious (yes, I’m a geek, I know). And, AvGeeks rejoice, KLM is one of the last operators of the passenger 747-400, regularly operating the type to US cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago; a feast for eyes when you catch it in action, and maybe the best part of spotting at Amsterdam’s Panorama Terrace.
As I needed to get to Amsterdam (AMS) from New York-JFK for this year’s SkyTeam Megado, I had the opportunity to check out the airline’s economy cabin on its newest long-haul workhorse, the 787-9. Even more importantly, I needed to know if the KLM onboard experience lived up to its livery.
With only a little more than a week before my flight, I used Air France-KLM’s joint award program, Flying Blue, to book a one-way economy ticket. For 22,000 American Express Membership Rewards points, transferred at a 1:1 ratio to Flying Blue and 58.75 euros (about $65 dollars), I had an economy ticket.
Unfortunately, that didn’t include a seat assignment. Another $23.10 later, I had a window seat and was ready for my trip to Amsterdam. If you’re interested in booking a similar ticket but don’t have any FlyingBlue miles in your account, fear not. The FlyingBlue program is a 1:1 transfer partner with all three major transferrable points currencies: Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou.
My flight was scheduled to depart at 5:30pm, and I arrived at a busy (but not suffocatingly so) JFK Terminal 4 just before 3:30pm.
I had checked in remotely the day prior and didn’t have a checked bag, so I breezed past the KLM check-in desks and self-serve kiosks and headed directly to security, just beyond the KLM area.
Despite being enrolled in TSA PreCheck, which I secured with my Platinum Card® from American Express, my boarding pass didn’t have the TSA PreCheck mark that I was hoping for. I figured KLM didn’t offer PreCheck, but I was wrong: KLM does in fact offer TSA PreCheck, it’s just not as easy to get it as on some of the other carriers, and I hadn’t taken the right steps to make it happen.
To my relief, the regular line took only 10 minutes — not too bad for JFK! We were departing from Gate B24, so I headed to the long Concourse B, home to Delta, KLM, Virgin Atlantic, El Al, Swiss International Air Lines and others.
T4 had several quality eateries within the main terminal area, just after security, but once I made my way down the concourse toward the gates, options were a bit more limited (though by no means sparse) and it was quite a walk to get back to the central building. My advice: Plan accordingly!
Concourse B was also home to numerous lounges. As an economy passenger, I didn’t have access to any premium ones from my ticket but was able to access Delta’s large SkyClub (between gates 31 and 33), thanks to my Amex Platinum, even as an authorized user.
I’d been to this lounge before — also as an economy passenger using my Amex to get in — and was excited to have a hot meal, a drink and incredible airport views instead of sitting at the gate. After I passed through the sliding doors and ascended the escalator, an agent scanned my boarding pass and Amex Platinum and welcomed me to the lounge.
The SkyClub at JFK was big. It started with a selection of the day’s newspapers that were provided complimentary to all guests.
The lounge was broken up into several large seating rooms, some interior and others with views of the airport.
This is one of the interior ones:
And one of the exterior-facing ones:
Seats were comfortable, and there was a variety of large lounge chairs, tables with chairs, counter space overlooking the ramp, etc. There was also decent Wi-Fi provided for free and power outlets scattered around the lounge. It did get quite crowded though, so, as always, we’d recommend bringing your own portable power adapter in case you can’t snag an outlet for yourself.
And what’s a lounge without the bar and food? The central room of the SkyClub is where I found the food and the bar.
Drinks were complimentary, provided you weren’t asking for top-shelf liquor. I kept it simple and ordered a Jack and Coke.
Delta has done a phenomenal job among its competitors for providing tasty, hot food in these lounges (although, perhaps, elites will complain there’s nothing for higher-tier customers like with American’s Flagship Lounges and United’s Polaris Lounges).
There was an assortment of prepared hot food, a salad bar, soup and the usual vegetable dip.
The day’s hot-food theme seemed Latin-inspired. I got rice and beans, corn and a chicken dish, pasta salad and greens.
Additionally, there were servers bringing around appetizers, too!
The lounge provided pretty fantastic, panoramic views of JFK even from inside. After spending a few minutes looking for a good seat, I found one, perched above a resting Delta 767, overlooking Concourse A and remote parking stands
The SkyClub was large enough that it provided views in both directions. Below is the view from the other end, looking toward Terminal 2 with the Manhattan skyline in the background. I could’ve spent the whole afternoon planespotting.
I even got a cool view of the special retro livery El Al 787!
The lounge had other noteworthy amenities, like several hot-beverage machines, shower rooms and access to a printer. As always, I’d recommend taking a look around the lounge before posting up somewhere for a while to find the best spot for you. The bathrooms were also clean and well-maintained. Oh, and don’t forget the AvGeek favorite, the SkyDeck, the outdoor patio with its own bar. (Sadly, it had just closed for the season.)
As nice as this lounge was, the word is certainly out. If you’re traveling during peak times (5pm to 8pm), expect it to be pretty crowded. As a solo traveler I didn’t have too much trouble finding a seat, but a family might have to split up or spend considerable time looking for seats together. I’d say it’s worth that potential inconvenience.
In any case, I found my ideal seat and was able to sit back, enjoy the food and get some work done. Oh, and got some planespotting in, of course.
With boarding commencing at 4:50pm, I left the lounge around 4:45pm and headed to the gate. Give yourself some time to get to and from this lounge, as Concourse B is deceptively huge.
Hoping to board as early as possible to snap photos of a relatively empty economy cabin, I was at the gate, B24, right at 4:50pm for the 5:30pm flight.
Upon arrival, however, I realized boarding must’ve started considerably earlier than the stated 4:50pm time, because I was one of the last people at the gate. The gate agents were already on the final boarding calls at 4:55pm! Whatever, I figured I was going to Amsterdam in a beautiful blue airplane!
I didn’t spend very long in the jetway, as most folks had already boarded. Before long, I stepped through the L2 door, turned right and made my way to my seat, 33A. The flight was mostly full.
As I walked to the aft cabin, I noticed a Wi-Fi onboard sign, which is a plus, though I never got it to work, but more on that later.
As I settled into my seat, our captain came on over the PA and gave us a nice overview of the route, our cruising altitude and our anticipated early arrival due to the particularly speedy flight time — only six hours from takeoff to touchdown. I always appreciate a more thorough flight crew briefing, especially one that you can actually hear! All announcements were made in English and Dutch.
Before I knew it, we were pushed back (seven minutes early!), taxied quickly and proceeded all the way to the end of JFK’s longest runway, 31L.
Cabin and Seat
KLM’s 787-9s are split into three cabins, with a total of 294 seats. World Business, with eight rows of 1-2-1 lie-flat reverse-herringbone seats, occupies the forward cabin, while Economy Comfort takes up the first six rows of the forward economy cabin arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration, standard for a Boeing 787.
More specifically, there were 30 World Business seats, 48 Economy Comfort seats and 216 regular economy seats on my flight. At the time of booking (about 10 days out), there were a few available window economy seats in the front of the aft cabin.
Unable to decide between seats 32A and 33A, I decided to go for 33A because I figured the proximity to the galleys might be bothersome, especially on a relatively short red-eye over the Atlantic. I was right.
KLM’s 787-9 fleet is young (of its 13 787s, the average age is about two years). On this particular aircraft, PH-BHI, delivered in 2016, the seats were clearly worn but not dirty or particularly faded. Despite my late boarding, there was nobody sitting in my row when I arrived. Each seat came stocked with the standard lightweight blanket and pillow.
KLM’s regular economy seat was 17.5 inches wide with 31 inches of pitch (compared to the same width but 35 inches of pitch in Economy Comfort). Legroom wasn’t great, but it was manageable. Though 31 inches is about an inch or two less than standard for an internationally configured airplane, this was sufficient with no one occupying the middle seat. Comfort-wise, the seat was OK but a bit stiff.
The headrests of each seat also slid upwards, but I found it exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) to fold them to cradle the head or neck when it came time to sleep. The pillow proved useful, as my headrest was totally unpadded.
Seat recline, however, was good — it actually felt a little better than the competition. The bottom cushion slid out a bit to give me a little more space, too.
I was mildly disappointed to find no personalized air vents on this aircraft, though. Thankfully, all 787 cabins boast higher humidity levels and a lower cabin altitude than older-generation long-haul aircraft (767, 777, A330, to name a few), which lessen the adverse effects of distant air travel, like fatigue and dehydration.
Back to the seat. Each had its own 11-inch high-definition touchscreen with a USB slot, headphone jack and a universal power outlet between the seats in the row in front.
Below the monitor, on the underside of the tray table, there were small drink holders, something that frequent flyers (especially those flying on the window seat) appreciate so as to not have to use the entire tray table anytime drinks are served.
KLM uses mood-lighting on its 787s. Throughout the flight, cabin lighting changed from orange to purple to orange again. It was meant to be easier on the senses than the normal white light, especially prior to arrival on a red-eye, making the time-zone jump considerably less nasty. I wholeheartedly agree.
As with all 787s, the windows were huge and come without a traditional window shade. Instead, with the help of an electrical gel between the window panes, I used a dimmer button under the window to control how much light came through.
The button had five presets, going from full light to total blackout. On long-haul flights, cabin crew will often restrict the controls to the three dimmest settings while at cruise altitude, which is good for passengers seeking sleep but bad for those trying to see outside.
As for the bathrooms, onboard lavatories were quite clean and came with motion-sensor sinks instead of the push faucets on older aircraft.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
All of KLM’s 787-9s are equipped with the same 11-inch HD touchscreen (the same as the ones on the 777-300ERs). Mine was no different.
Passengers were given KLM in-ear headphones to use with the system. And with decent volume, they actually weren’t all that bad. Still, I’d always recommend bringing your own.
Economy passengers were also provided with a pillow and lightweight blanket, which were both on my seat upon boarding. Neither were particularly great, but that was not surprising for regular economy. The blanket proved useful, since the cabin temperature dipped a bit and I found it somewhat chilly.
The screens (and overall IFE system) proved impressive, packed with plenty of content for several long-haul segments. The screens were bright, crisp, quite functional and intuitive.
Like other top-notch entertainment systems, there was an array of content: movies, TV shows, music, radio stations, games, moving maps, passenger messaging and plenty of KLM-specific airport information. There were dozens of films, from “Gladiator” and “Jurassic World” to the complete “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Bridesmaids” — some in 14 different languages. There were also international films, to boot. In line with my taste for mediocre action movies while in flight, I chose “Safe House.”
There were also plenty of TV options, from “New Girl” to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and more. You couldn’t binge-watch a show but you could get your fix.
I particularly liked the pop-up control bar on the bottom that allowed you to control the reading light, crew call, volume brightness and parental controls while also providing your flight progress and easy access to other features in the system. I really liked that the flight time was visible at all times on the various browsing screens.
It proved especially helpful when I was in the middle of watching something.
Of course, there was the traditional flight-information screen, with the ability to toggle between imperial and metric measurements.
Our initial cruise speed was fast. It turned that we’d gotten lucky. The jet stream was in our favor, carrying our 787 at 660 mph at one point in the flight. Flight time would be under six hours, a mere 5 hours and 58 minutes, arriving in Amsterdam nearly an hour early.
To track our progress, I used KLM’s excellent inflight map, which, while not as awesome as Ethiopian’s new one, gave passengers the option to track the flight from an array of different views, like the left or right window.
There was also a a cockpit view. (Hello, AvGeeks!)
Or you could just play around and explore the earth. KLM even had destination preview videos and information that you could access via the map to pass the time.
Or you could’ve spend hours playing “Battleship,” “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “Angry Birds,” “2048,” “Bejeweled” and others, with the option to play with fellow passengers. There were also inflight health tips and KLM aviation videos.
Actually, the one thing that was missing was functioning Wi-Fi. Despite the signs in the cabin, and the resemblance of functioning Wi-Fi (you could connect to it), I couldn’t get online. The reason, it seemed, was a faulty login system. It wouldn’t accept the partner ticket number (since I had a Delta ticket), and with no way to retrieve a KLM one, I couldn’t resolve the issue. For the best results, I’d recommend getting a printed boarding pass (even at a self-serve kiosk), as you should be able to use that number to log in. I wasn’t too upset. It’s great when there’s international Wi-Fi, but if you can avoid it, I’d always recommend not banking on it working.
Overall, the entertainment system was great. The touchscreen wasn’t as flawlessly responsive as one that I used earlier this year on a recently refurbished Delta 767-300ER from London Heathrow (LHR) to New York-JFK, but I would look forward to using them again on another KLM flight.
Food and Beverage
KLM’s premium meals aren’t known to be particularly great, but I actually found the catering in economy on this flight to be superb, including the packaging, napkins and overall attention to detail. I’m a sucker for Dutch design.
A few minutes after rocketing out of JFK, the pilots sounded the double chime, indicating that we’d passed through 10,000 feet.
Right on cue, flight attendants began preparing for the initial drink and snack service. I ordered a San Pellegrino, but I could have opted for complimentary beer or wine. It was served with barbecue-flavored salted almonds. A small amount, but they were good.
With this service, we also received a post card that doubled as a 10-euro coupon on purchases of at least 99 euros from the inflight store accessed through the IFE.
About 40 minutes in, the cabin crew announced meal options: chicken or a veggie pasta. Keeping with my rule to avoid meat in economy meals, I went with the pasta, which was served about 80 minutes into the flight with a cabbage salad, a carrot cake-type dessert, crackers, cheddar cheese and butter. It also came with a bottle of water and a warm roll! This time, I opted for some red wine.
The food was good! The pasta had eggplant in it, which I liked, and it tasted better than most pasta I’ve had on airplanes, including ravioli in United Polaris.
The service was good, too, and flight attendants were nice and attentive. They came around frequently for trash. Roughly two hours into the journey, the orange cabin lights were dimmed completely as we made our ocean crossing with four hours to go. I soon finished the movie and donned an eye mask. It was time to sleep.
With 90 minutes left, the cabin lights came back on as a soft orange (morning, I presumed), even though it was barely 10pm in New York and totally dark outside. Soon after, cabin crew came around with hot disposable towels. And 20 minutes later, we were served a quick cold breakfast in lovely Dutch packaging, which consisted of a box of yogurt, an apple-oat bar and OJ. I also ordered a water.
Perhaps due to the obscenely early hour, we weren’t given hot food, but I actually really didn’t mind. After all, it was 4:45am local time in Amsterdam! This food, too, was satisfying. The yogurt, clearly loaded in NYC, came from a company in Buffalo, New York.
My experience on KLM was a positive one, and one I’d recommend to anyone with the option to fly the Dutch flag carrier. An impressive entertainment system, in-seat power and enjoyable food on a relatively new 787-9 made the six-hour overnight hop to Amsterdam one of easiest red-eyes I’ve ever been on.
While the seat itself was a bit thin and the legroom wanting compared to (some) of the competition, the recline (and presumably the shorter-than-expected flight time) made up for it. Plus, flying KLM at JFK meant leaving from Terminal 4, which, for Amex Platinum cardmembers, means access to the excellent Delta SkyClub, a major advantage over European SkyTeam partners like Air France, Alitalia and Aeroflot, which use Terminal 1.
FlyingBlue used to be one of our favorite ways to redeem Membership Rewards programs, but recent changes have made the program hard to make sense of. Still, I’d keep an eye out for award availability — in economy and in business — if you’re flying to Amsterdam or beyond, especially for flights on the 787.
Know before you go.
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