Flying Poet: Aeroflot in Premium Economy on the 777 from Moscow to New York
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="73" ground-experience="6" cabin-seat="19" amens-ife="11" food-bev="18" service="19" pros="Good quality/price ratio, excellent inflight-entertainment content." cons="Chaotic boarding; shell seats, which may not be to everyone's liking." /]
Aeroflot offers consistently low prices for economy and premium-economy flights between Europe and the US and vice versa. The Russian flag carrier is also a popular choice for flyers loyal to Delta, since, as part of the SkyTeam alliance, its flights are eligible to collect Delta SkyMiles and count for mileage accrual and spend toward Delta elite status. Since passengers in transit do not leave the sterile area of Aeroflot's home base at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport, a Russian visa is not needed to connect on the carrier.
Aeroflot has three classes of service on its Boeing 777-300ER flagship, which currently serves two of three daily flights to New York-JFK: business, premium economy — which it calls Comfort Class — and economy. (Aeroflot's Airbus A330s, also used on long-hauls, do not have premium economy. A350s, to be introduced on US routes in 2020, will.)
Last year, our JT Genter declared himself "nyet impressed" with Aeroflot's premium economy service from JFK to Moscow. An attractive cash fare from Milan to New York via Moscow in early June gave us the opportunity to try Aeroflot's midrange offering again. Would it be any better when departing from the airline's home base?
We put the $676.33 one-way fare on the Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns 5x points on airfare booked directly with the airline or American Express Travel (on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year). The 3,380 Membership Rewards points we earned on this booking were worth about $67, at TPG's valuations.
The two flights from Milan Malpensa (MXP) to Moscow Sheremetyevo (SVO) and on to New York earned a total of 5,377 redeemable Delta SkyMiles, worth $64, and the same amount of elite-qualifying miles, indicated as MQMs in the table below. To qualify for Delta elite status, you need spend, too, and these flights yielded a respectable $1,075, more money than we had actually spent for the ticket. That's because flights booked on Aeroflot, as a partner airline, earn Delta qualifying dollars as a percentage of distance flown.
With cash rates this low on Aeroflot, using points and miles to fly the carrier is not very attractive. In any case, we've got a primer on the best ways to redeem them on Aeroflot, and another on how to search for award seats on SkyTeam airlines.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="6" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="VQ-BQF" age="5" late="26" avg="0" avg-2="42" departure="09" departure-2="42" duration="8" duration-2="24" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
My boarding pass for the SVO-JFK flight was issued at check-in in Milan. With a midnight departure to Moscow, the airport was a desert, and the flight to SVO was half empty too.
The bad news was that I got "SSSS" on my boarding pass. That's the sinister-sounding acronym for Secondary Security Screening Selection, which usually is as much fun as a root canal. Flying one-way to the US on a cash fare may have raised security concerns. People with "SSSS" get extra screening, which can be quite cumbersome. Bafflingly, that's not at all what happened in this case.
The personnel staffing the screening lanes in Milan all but ignored my "SSSS," and so did those in Moscow, where I went through a single security check. All that happened was a look at my passport, the usual routine of putting bags through the scanner with laptop out then walking through a metal detector, and that was that. At the gate for the New York flight, that big fat "SSSS" on my boarding pass elicited the same indifference. I waltzed aboard without having been asked a single question throughout the process, let alone extra ones. And upon arrival at JFK, I breezed through Global Entry.
My time at Sheremetyevo, about three hours, began with arrival from Milan at a remote stand, requiring a bus transfer just after dawn. Dress warm if you're doing this in winter! If you're an aviation enthusiast, you'll enjoy the proximity to airplanes on the tarmac, like this 747 in the colors of Aeroflot subsidiary Rossiya.
Passengers on Aeroflot Comfort Class do not have access to airport lounges. But thanks to SkyTeam ElitePlus status, which I had as a Delta Platinum Medallion flyer, I could use all Aeroflot lounges regardless of class flown. At Terminal D, where Aeroflot's US flights depart, there are two, the St. Petersburg and the Moscow. I chose the Moscow because of proximity to the departure gate. I could have entered the Aeroflot lounges as a cardholder with Priority Pass, as well.
Without lounge access, I could have chosen among a wide variety of restaurants and cafés at Terminal D, Russian and not.
You may have to go to the second floor of the lounge to find a seat. On the morning of my visit, the first floor was thronged, with no available seats and people sleeping on most couches. One floor up, the vibe was far more relaxed, the buffet well-stocked if not top quality, and the attendants removing plates and glasses solicitous.
The main space and bathroom were spotless. One could book showers, as well. There was also an enclosed smoking area, an important detail in a country where 30% of adults smoke, according to the World Health Organization -- about double the US rate.
With enough room to stretch and plentiful outlets to charge appliances, the Moscow lounge did the job well enough and provided a good way to immerse oneself in Russia for a couple of hours without needing a visa.
Boarding was definitely not as enjoyable. Access to our gate was blocked by the queue for a flight to Minsk, Belarus, departing just before ours.
The scene was a free-for-all. A huge column in the middle of the waiting area contributed to the chaos by reducing space. Boarding began one hour before the 9:20am departure time, with everybody through the same line regardless of priority and elbowing their way to our 777. It's true that queueing in Russia is an art, and I did not expect an orderly experience, but Aeroflot might want to rethink boarding lanes at Sheremetyevo's Gate B22.
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The stressful boarding was promptly forgotten when I was welcomed aboard by flight attendants in beautiful red uniforms and actual white gloves. Walking through business class toward Comfort Class, I noticed the now-dated 2-2-2 seat layout. With the arrival of the Airbus A350, Aeroflot will finally have a 1-2-1 biz class with all seats offering aisle access.
Even though this was my first time in Aeroflot Comfort Class, the cabin was a familiar sight, with the exact same shell seats and 2-4-2 layout as in premium economy on Air France, China Southern and others.
All in a single cabin, the 48 seats were enclosed in their own nonreclining shell. Recline is indeed possible, but only with the actual seat sliding down within the shell. It's great for one's neighbors, but may not be to everyone's liking.
On the airline website, I had chosen Seat 15A, just in front of the lefthand engine. Every seat in Comfort Class offered 38 inches of legroom and 20 of width, much better than 32 (less for some seats) and 18 in economy.
Every seat had a big, warm blanket and a beautifully embroidered pillow, larger and more supportive than standard economy-class pillows.
Seat 15A was distinguished by the luxury of two windows, something usually found in business class.
The seat featured adjustable legrests and footrests. This was a good seat for people of average height. At 6 feet, 2 inches, I wasn't able to sprawl, but in the over nine and a half hours I spent in it, I truly appreciated the extra room over coach.
Water bottles to go in the holders were distributed after takeoff. The seat offered several open-storage areas, as well as the usual mesh pocket in front, plus an adjustable individual light on a flexible arm.
One armrest had the two buttons for mechanical adjustment of the seat and legrest, while the other housed the remote for the inflight entertainment (which could also be controlled via touchscreen) and another open-storage cubby.
Two international power outlets -- no adapter required -- were between each pair of seats.
The bathroom was kept clean throughout the flight, and offered dental kits with brush and toothpaste, plus a bottle of moisturizer, in a tray.
At 9:20am, with boarding complete and before the safety video played, we got the customary welcome-aboard announcement from the cabin crew. But this one was unique. Among the usual stuff, there was a gem: "Our airplane is named Aleksandr Blok," said the flight attendant. Blok was a Russian poet; Aeroflot's planes all bear the name of a prominent figure in Russian history.
Cosmonauts, writers, explorers, directors, even soccer players: at Sheremetyevo, looking at the names written on the plane's noses — Cyrillic on the left, Latin script on the right — was a crash course in Russian culture.
Several airlines name their airplanes, but I had never heard a crew member announce who or what a plane was named for. At Aeroflot, it seems to be company policy: On the previous flight from Milan, we had been given the same announcement (for the record, it was Isaak Dunayevsky, a Soviet-era composer.) Sheremetyevo Airport itself had just been renamed in honor of Aleksandr Pushkin, the greatest Russian poet.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="11" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="10.6" movies="223" tv-shows="19" live-tv="No" tailcam="Yes" wifi="0.01" wifi-2="18.1" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Aeroflot has amenity kits in economy class, a rarity. The kits distributed in Comfort Class were the same as those in coach class, with eye mask, earplugs, moisturizer and slippers. The airline's current kits are branded with the name of a city on Aeroflot's network and its skyline. This flight got Sochi, Russia. The kits didn't include toothbrush and toothpaste, but those were found in bathrooms.
Headphones were distributed before takeoff. Bring a two-prong adapter if you want to use your own headset. The inflight entertainment's remote was a breeze to use.
The IFE featured a feed from a downward-facing camera, which could be interesting to look at during takeoff -- in the photo below, over the forests northwest of Moscow -- and landing.
The latest-generation IFE provided an especially good map function. If the 1,003-kph ground speed in the image below, equivalent to 623 mph, seems very high, it's because it was: On this flight, we had almost none of the headwinds that add a lot of time to journeys from Europe to the US.
The video section was where this IFE system really shone. I counted 223 movies, but many were duplicated across more than one category. More than for sheer quantity, they were notable for breadth of subject, from American classics like "The Deer Hunter" to new, smart European movies like "The Realm." A documentary section with 47 titles featured a vast array of subjects: history, science, nature and even a two-hour "video course on space biology and other space professions" with English subtitles and stern-faced Russian professors delivering actual lectures. I was mesmerized. (And occasionally amused by the translations.)
The 19 TV shows included "High Flyers," a total softball job about the Russian air force produced by government-owned media outlet RT, but any aviation geek worth their salt will devour that stuff, like I did. Yet, Russian militaristic propaganda coexisted right next to an American punk rock documentary, "Gimme Danger," starring Iggy Pop, and a gallery of paintings.
It may not have been the hundreds of movies available on Emirates, but this was inflight entertainment done right, and it made a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean go fast. I even learned things.
Wi-Fi was the negative point here. I managed to to get a really slow connection after multiple tries, and could barely text. It wasn't cheap either, with four tiers starting at $5 for 10 MB or 15 minutes, whichever was reached first. Fifteen dollars got 30 MB or an hour, $40 got 100 MB or three hours, and $50 would allow 150 MB without time limits.
None of those levels would have been a good bargain at the barely noticeable speed I logged.
Kudos to Aeroflot for the inflight magazine, too, featuring beautiful graphics and engaging text. Even the slightly bizarre, lost-in-translation wording of some sentences felt pleasant: "Infinitely chill on the beach with a jug of local beer"? Yes, please!
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Before pushing back from the gate, flight attendants -- without the white gloves, which came off during service -- walked down the Comfort Class aisles with trays of water and orange juice. After takeoff, another welcome drink followed. Note that Aeroflot is a Pepsi airline, which is rare these days.
Not all premium economy classes come with a menu, and Aeroflot's promised a culinary experience above the premium economy average, with a wider choice than usual, several typically Russian items and two full meal services. Graphically, the menu was a beauty, too. Mors, a berry drink popular in Russia, was illustrated with a cute drawing.
Meal service began one hour after takeoff, on trays with a beautiful napkin bearing the embroidered Aeroflot logo and actual silverware.
Both meal services offered one meat, one seafood and one vegetarian entree. Items identified with the tray icon were designed by Moscow chef Karel Benmamar of Ryby Net restaurant — "No Fish" in Russian. Weirdly enough, two of those three dishes were fish. Curious about this, I chose the sea bass over the beef in red wine with mushrooms and the teriyaki-roasted eggplant.
The first meal opened with a stolichny salad — a "symbol of Soviet cuisine" according to recipe site Food52. This version was weird and frankly ugly, with the chicken coming in the form of two thick slices plopped on top of the greens.
I ignored the thoroughly unappetizing bowl of green salad with tomatoes and croutons and hoped that the sea bass would rescue the meal, which it partially did. I don't think chef Karel would have been too pleased with the bland execution of his dish, though. And I really should have gotten over my aversion to dessert to try the kartoshka cake, another Russian classic.
Coffee, tea and the water bottles that had been missing from the seat holders followed, as well as hot towels — which usually come before the meal!
Around noon Moscow time, flight attendants came round with snack baskets, and about three hours later, with three hours to go, an announcement invited us to put our seats in the upright position for the upcoming second meal. That was unusual -- what if I wanted to eat while reclined?
Hot towels came before the meal this time, and the food was excellent. The farro with vegetables and truffle oil was a hit. It wasn't one of the dishes designed by the chef, but for texture and flavor, it beat hands down any real, rice-based risottos I've had on airplanes.
Aeroflot didn't skimp on the amounts either, and I arrived at JFK very well-fed indeed. So much so that I really couldn't eat the rest of the meal.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="19" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="A job done competently with no fuss." /]
The all-female flight attendants in Comfort Class were not inattentive, but they would have come across as a bit unsmiling to most American passengers. It's a well-known trope that Russians smile less than Americans. It does not mean they are being rude. The crew members I interacted with did their jobs efficiently and with precision, and I always felt that I was in competent hands.
The more interesting people on board proved to be my fellow passengers, who saluted the landing -- after a smooth, beautiful final approach over the Rockaway Peninsula -- with a round of clapping, despite the entirely uneventful journey. I haven't always heard clapping upon landing in a Russian plane, but it's quite common.
Was premium economy on Aeroflot worth it? No doubt: Yes, it was. Compared to the tight 3-4-3 seat layout in coach class on the Boeing 777, Comfort Class with 2-4-2 seating and 6 extra inches of legroom offered a lot more.
In business class, I would have expected a bit more outward politeness during passenger interactions, but in premium economy for under $700, I definitely got my money's worth on this flight. I would choose Aeroflot's Comfort Class again. If you do too, make sure to listen to the announcement of the aircraft's name. What great scientist or famous writer will you get?
All photos by the author.