3-4-3 to Moscow: Flying Aeroflot’s 777-300ER in Economy
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After returning from a whirlwind trip to China in June, it was time to begin piecing together yet another marathon trip that would have me spending more time in the air than on the ground — which, to me, sounded like a dream. After hours of planning with help from other TPG team members, we were settled on all but one leg of the journey: We needed to find a positioning itinerary from the US to the Middle East, ideally in economy, as costs were sky-high across the board and award availability from the US was slim.
Russia’s Aeroflot emerged as the top contender. The airline serves several key US markets and has an expansive connecting network to Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The 96-year-old airline has historically been quite conservative with its network growth, especially in the US, but serves 146 destinations across the globe with its fleet of about 250 aircraft. Plus, if you’ve searched transatlantic fares on Google Flights, you know that Aeroflot consistently tops the results with the cheapest fares, even at the last minute.
I’ve often been asked for my opinion on Aeroflot by hesitant friends and family weighing their travel options. Up to now I had never flown with the Russian airline, so I always pointed to its good safety record and modern fleet. Finally, though, it was time to find out for myself.
I had a Wednesday evening departure from Abu Dhabi, so I was aiming to depart the US on Monday afternoon and arrive in Abu Dhabi at sometime on Tuesday. Unfortunately, Aeroflot doesn’t offer service to Abu Dhabi, but they do fly twice daily to Dubai, a mere one-hour cab ride down the Persian Gulf coast.
When searching Google Flights, I noticed that Aeroflot’s cheapest fares were routing on their New York-to-Moscow flight, even if departing from a city where it offers nonstop service (Washington, Miami or Los Angeles). The airline codeshares with Delta, a SkyTeam partner, for all feeder flights within the US.
I settled on a $1,062 one-way fare from Washington, DC, to Dubai, connecting through New York (JFK) and Moscow (SVO). The three-segment itinerary was operated on Delta Connection E-170, Aeroflot B777-300ER and Aeroflot B737-800, respectively.
As always, we booked the trip using The Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns Membership Rewards at a rate of 5 points per dollar when booking airfare (directly through airlines or through American Express Travel; up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year). The $1,062-purchase yielded 5,130 MR points, worth about $102, according to TPG’s current valuations.
My morning started with an 11am departure from Washington Reagan (DCA) to New York (JFK) with Delta Connection — an easy and uneventful flight of just 50 minutes. Delta operates out of both Terminal 2 and 4 at JFK, while Aeroflot exclusively uses Terminal 1, so I knew I’d need to change terminals once I arrived. After touching down at JFK, the Embraer E-170 pulled into gate C67 at JFK’s Terminal 2, where upon deplaning, I happened to catch a glimpse of my next ride getting tugged into its gate after arriving from Moscow.
Unfortunately there is no airside connection between Terminals 1 and 2, so the transfer involves exiting the terminal, walking outside along the departures-level driveway, and re-entering through security. I had about two hours of layover, so it wasn’t a big deal, but it’s definitely something to consider for those with tighter connections.
About 15 minutes after getting off my Delta flight, I arrived at the Terminal 1 departures hall.
Aeroflot operates three daily flights between JFK and Moscow, making it the airline’s busiest long-haul route with up to 1,105 daily seats each way. My particular flight, SU101, was the first flight of the day with a scheduled departure time of 2:15pm. I reached the counters just after 12:30pm and they were busy as expected.
There were no self-service kiosks, so all passengers were required to visit the counters for both check-in and bag drop. The business-class and Sky Priority lanes were fairly empty, but there was a long queue for economy check-in with a likely wait of at least 15 minutes.
Luckily, the Delta agent in Washington, DC, had issued my boarding passes for all three flights through to Dubai. I had everything I needed, so I proceeded straight to security.
…or so I thought. After glancing at my boarding pass, the TSA agent turned me away, saying, “Delta doesn’t fly out of this terminal.” I tried explaining that my ticket was for an Aeroflot flight to Moscow and my boarding pass had simply been printed by Delta, but to no avail. She insisted that I needed an Aeroflot-issued boarding pass to go through security.
I walked back to the check-in desks and explained my situation to the employee guiding passengers into the queueing area. Since I was checked in and my bags were already tagged and on the way, he kindly offered for me to use the empty SkyPriority counters rather than waiting in the lengthy economy line. The counter agent happily printed my boarding pass and I was back at the checkpoint a few minutes later.
I’m no stranger to the horror stories coming out of JFK’s Terminal 1. Long lines, angry people, crowded spaces — my expectations were low, but even then, I figured, “How bad could it be?”
Just as I entered the queue for security, they closed two of the four open lanes and the lines instantly doubled in length. I ended up waiting nearly 20 minutes to reach the X-ray machine only to have my bag flagged for further inspection, along with a dozen or so others. I waited another 15 minutes until it was finally my turn to have my bag inspected, only to have the X-ray machine break down as the TSA agent was pulling up the scan.
The agent apologized and said she’d have to run the bag through again in the adjacent lane, which dragged out for another 10 minutes or so. Finally, over 45 minutes after initially getting in line, my backpack made it through (without getting flagged again).
Now with the security debacle behind me, I was hopeful that Terminal 1 could redeem itself. I made my way down the concourse, which had a fair number of food and shopping options to choose from. I got an up close look at the sleek 777, registered VP-BGF, that would be operating my flight to Moscow that afternoon. It was delivered new to the airline in April 2013 and serves major gateways like New York, Shanghai, Beijing and Los Angeles from Aeroflot’s Moscow hub.
The Gate 6 podium posted an on-time departure and the agents were making occasional announcements that boarding would begin around 1:35pm, exactly 40 minutes before our scheduled pushback time.
For boarding, Aeroflot offers Business Class, Sky Priority and two standard economy lanes (rows 17-37 and rows 38-51). Although the signage didn’t explicitly state it, Premium Economy passengers were eligible to use the SkyPriority lane.
The Aeroflot ground staff began inviting passengers to line up in their respective groups about 15 minutes before boarding was scheduled to begin.
The 403-seat 777 was completely sold out, so as boarding time drew closer, passengers began flooding into the area, and the boarding lines kept growing.
A Korean A380 and Saudia 777 began boarding across the hall at Gates 5 and 7, so the concourse walkway soon resembled an indiscernible sea of passengers.
With three wide-body jets now simultaneously boarding more than 1,000 passengers combined, the crossfire of announcements made it difficult to tell which gate was boarding which zone. I didn’t hear the agent make an announcement for economy-class passengers, but I just followed the pack once it started toward the podium. It turned out the two economy groups board back-to-front, i.e., rows 38-51 followed by rows 17-37. My assigned seat was 35K, so I was one of the last people to board the aircraft.
Cabin and Seat
All 19 of Aeroflot’s 777s sport the 3-4-3 configuration, which, unfortunately for flyers, is becoming the new norm among airlines except for a handful that are bucking the trend, like Delta and Singapore Airlines.
The cabin was outfitted with Aeroflot’s traditional color scheme of bright orange-red and dark blue. The seats were upholstered with cloth, which I tend to find more comfortable than leather.
The standard adjustable headrest was simple but did the trick. It held its shape pretty well throughout the flight.
Each economy-class passenger had a pillow, blanket and small amenity kit waiting on their seat.
I measured the seat pitch at roughly 32 inches, which is pretty decent. I fit comfortably in my seat with some extra room between my knees and the seat in front.
What did prove to be a problem, however, was the seat width — I measured just 17 inches between my two armrests. Since the 3-4-3 configuration is squeezing in an entire extra seat per row over its 3-3-3 predecessor, I really began to feel the narrowness after a few hours in the air. It seemed like my neighbor and I were constantly bumping shoulders unless I was leaning against the window.
On the flip side, I found the seat recline to be quite generous, and with a 32-inch pitch, it didn’t feel particularly cramped when the seat in front of me was reclined either.
The seat-back tray table folded out in two sizes. The smaller tray was especially convenient for sipping a beverage without needing to bring out the full-size meal tray.
It was plenty large enough for my 13-inch MacBook Pro with some elbow room left on either side.
Each seat-back boasted a 9-inch IFE touchscreen, original from the aircraft’s 2013 delivery. It certainly wasn’t modern, but despite its age, it was fairly responsive. There was also a latched IFE remote stowed right beneath it.
SeatGuru says Aeroflot’s 77W doesn’t have in-seat power, which is partially true. There was no standard AC outlet, but each seat had a USB port located just to the right of the seat-back screen. I was pretty bummed to find out mine was broken after plugging in my phone and getting no charging response.
Except that it was only partially broken — later in the flight, I discovered that I was able to charge my AirPods case without any problems, but still not my phone. My seat neighbor was able to charge all of his devices, so I guess I just got unlucky with a half-broken USB port.
Like many foreign airlines, Aeroflot does not offer personal air vents on its 777 fleet. In this case it wasn’t an issue for me as the cabin was kept comfortably cool for most of the flight.
The 324 economy seats were spread out across three mini-cabins, which cumulatively shared eight standard-sized bathrooms. They were kept decently clean throughout the flight.
Amenities and IFE
Aeroflot’s provided pillow and blanket were great quality and very comfortable, which made sleeping in the tight seats a bit more feasible, especially since I had a window to lean against.
I was amazed by the amenity kit Aeroflot provides in economy class. It was stocked with a small bottle of lotion, earplugs, an eye mask and even a pair of slippers.
The bathrooms offered some additional amenities, including a bottle of hand lotion and toothbrush kits.
Small earbuds were also handed out shortly after takeoff. I forgot to bring my own, so I used them the entire flight – they were OK quality.
The IFE had a great variety of movies (both Hollywood and foreign) and plenty of TV shows. It also offered games, audiobooks, music and a decent flight tracker.
Unfortunately my IFE screen became a bit glitchy about midway through the flight, which made it difficult to use the touch navigation. Luckily, the remote still worked, which was an easy workaround.
Aeroflot’s entire long-haul fleet is equipped with onboard Wi-Fi, but it is expensive, starting at $5 USD for a small 15-minute or 10MB session, going all the way up to their $50 “infinite” plan, which didn’t have a time limit but had a data cap of 150MB.
I originally went for the smallest plan, but I burned through it almost immediately after connecting with one sync of my email inbox. I bought another small plan to run a quick speed test, which returned a download speed of 0.27Mbps and upload speed of 0.30Mbps.
Needless to say, the Wi-Fi left a lot to be desired. Each webpage took 1-2 minutes to load, and at times, they wouldn’t even load at all.
On the bright side, the online portal had a “News” tab, which was a pretty neat alternative to live TV. It offered plenty of “breaking news” to keep yourself up to date with the world 30,000 feet below.
Food and Beverage
About 70 minutes after takeoff, the dinner service began with a round of beverages, anything from juice and soda to beer and wine. I started with red wine.
A full hour after the beverages were served, the flight attendants began delivering the hot meals. There were two options: chicken with rice or beef macaroni. I went with the former, and I was pretty happy with my choice. The chicken was actually well-cooked and quite flavorful. The entrée was accompanied by a small side salad, plastic-wrapped bread roll, and a slice of cheesecake for dessert. Overall, the meal was well above average for what you typically find in economy class.
The trays had been delivered with a plastic “mug” for tea and coffee, which were offered at the tail end of the meal.
Less than three hours after the dinner trays were picked up, the cabin lights were turned back on and the beverage carts were brought through the aisles with a round of drinks before breakfast.
Although the dinner service was a hit, the breakfast was a big miss. My entrée was a scoop of rather unappetizing eggs with a single cherry tomato and piece of broccoli. The small side salad with a cold piece of fish didn’t do much for me either, so the strawberry Nutrigrain bar was really the highlight. The other entrée selection was a crepe, which didn’t look great but in hindsight was probably the better choice.
In general, it’s difficult to find a decent hot breakfast in economy, which I guess is why more carriers are resorting to a cold continental breakfast instead — typically some combination of yogurt, cereal and breakfast pastries. I would’ve been happy with something of that sort, especially since this was just three hours after dinner had been served.
Aeroflot’s service was a bit of a mixed bag, but with more positives than negatives.
Service on this flight was extremely slow-paced, which is especially inconvenient on overnight transatlantic flights where passengers need to maximize sleep. The dragged-out meals on either end of the flight left less than three hours of uninterrupted time in between, which is unnecessarily short given that the total flight time exceeded nine hours.
But although the service wasn’t particularly speedy, all of my interactions with the crew were enjoyable. They spoke fluent English, which was definitely useful since a large portion of the passengers on board were American. The flight attendants weren’t particularly warm, but they definitely were friendly enough — more important, they were highly meticulous and professional in their duties.
Arrival and Transit
We touched down in Moscow about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Our 777 taxied past the main terminal and came to a stop at a remote stand. We deplaned via air stairs and were bussed over to the arrivals-processing area.
Although US citizens typically require a visa to enter Russia, the Moscow airport offers a sterile transit option that allows connecting passengers to bypass immigration requirements by staying airside. The transit was painless — I was able to make my 90-minute connection with plenty of time to spare.
Unfortunately, my bag’s transit wasn’t as seamless. Upon arriving in Dubai I was informed that my bag was left behind in Moscow but would be expedited overnight to my hotel in Abu Dhabi, 80 miles away. I was a bit uneasy since I was due to catch another flight from Abu Dhabi less than 24 hours later and figured if I wasn’t reunited with my bag before then, it’d likely be a few weeks before I see it again. Thankfully, my bag was delivered to my hotel room door by 7am the next morning, a huge relief. Delayed baggage is an annoying reality with air travel, but the way Aeroflot handled the situation was as good as could be expected.
Aeroflot offers solid value for your money. As 3-4-3 configurations are becoming the norm on 777s, the airline’s economy class ranks about average when stacked up against other carriers. The food was hit or miss, but the professional service and solid amenities make it an attractive option for jetting to Europe and beyond.
All photos by the author.
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