Surprise and (Mostly) Delight: Across the Atlantic in Business Class on Air Europa's 787-8
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="77" ground-experience="6" cabin-seat="18" amens-ife="8" food-bev="23" service="22" pros="Friendly and relaxed service, great food and competitive amenities." cons="Middling hard product on this aircraft, and the cabin was kept far too warm." /]
TPG employees are no strangers to doing crazy travel-related stunts. Hawaii for 12 hours? Yep. Singapore for even less? Absolutely.
However, I recently embarked on one of my crazier trips since I started working here just over three years ago. As the trip grew closer, my parents and friends would ask, "Where are you going again?"
And I'd reply, "Bogotá, via Madrid."
Cue the blank stares.
Basically, the goal for this trip was to review Air Europa's 787-8 Dreamliner. We hadn't reviewed the Spanish airline since TPG himself flew its A330 between New York and Madrid. Since then, though, the airline has grown quite a bit, and taken delivery of new Dreamliners in the process. Currently, the airline has a mix of the -8 and -9 variants, and each version features lie-flat seats in a 2-2-2 arrangement up front, though it's an ... interesting ... inward-oriented product that objectively isn't as good as its hometown rival Iberia, never mind some of the world's top carriers.
However, the airline recently shared plans to equip its forthcoming -9s with a much more competitive 1-2-1 reverse-herringbone product, similar to what you'd find on airlines like Air France on (some of) its 777s and 787s and Royal Air Maroc on its new 789s. Once the newest -9s with the latest biz product enter service, we'll definitely be there to review, but on this trip, we were focusing on the -8 to see how it stacks up -- and to see if it surpassed the wholly underwhelming experience TPG had way back in 2011.
When we began looking for flights to book, we noticed that there were reasonably priced fares that included a segment in business and in coach (review coming soon!) from Madrid (MAD) to Bogotá (BOG) and Lima (LIM). I'd been to Peru before, so I decided that I'd spend the weekend in Bogotá. But, I figured that I might as well review some more products on this trip, so I ended up making things a lot more interesting by booking three separate tickets that would allow all of this to happen:
- A round-trip economy ticket from New York-JFK to MAD (already flown) and then from MAD to Paris CDG to New York-JFK (upcoming)
- A round-trip ticket between MAD and BOG with one segment in biz and one in coach (already flown)
- A round-trip ticket business-class ticket from MAD-CDG-JFK (already flown) and then from JFK-MAD (upcoming)
Basically, I'm crazy. But, hey, this is what we do, right?
As Air Europa is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, a good place to start searching for award flights is Air France-KLM's FlyingBlue program, which is probably the best engine for searching SkyTeam availability. However, FlyingBlue doesn't maintain an award chart, meaning you can't count on redeeming miles at a fixed rate for flights. I did a search on the site for some of Air Europa's flights between its base in Madrid and the US cities it serves (New York-JFK and Miami) and found one-way business-class tickets for as little as 59,000 miles on select dates, though more commonly they were hovering around 70,000 to 100,000 one-way. You can expect to pay around $65 in taxes and fees when you book award tickets through FlyingBlue.
The benefit of booking through FlyingBlue, of course, is how easy it is to amass miles in the program. It's a transfer partner of all three major transferable points currencies -- American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou -- so even if you don't have enough points in one account, you can combine points from the various accounts in order to acquire the FlyingBlue miles necessary for booking the flight you want. If you're short miles in any of these accounts, you could sign up for a card like The Platinum Card® from American Express, which is currently offering 100,000 Membership Rewards Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases within the first 6 months of account opening. Depending on your travel dates, it may not get you all the way to a ticket, but it'll certainly get you close.
Since we paid cash for this ticket, I was eager to add my Delta SkyMiles number to the reservation so that I could earn MQMs and MQDs for my trip. Tragically, though, I made a critical error. I booked my round-trip Air Europa ticket without double checking which fare classes I was purchasing, and when I called Delta after noticing I earned 0 miles for the trip, I was kindly informed that the business segment had booked into the “O” class, and economy into the “P,” meaning I wasn’t eligible to earn any miles at all for the trip. SIGH. You’d think that after three years in the biz (get it?) I wouldn’t make mistakes like this, but, alas, I am merely human. I guess that’s what I get for trying to be clever and flying all the way to Madrid to pick up a discounted business-class ticket to Bogotá.
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I arrived in Madrid earlier on the morning of my Air Europa flight, but since Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport is so close to the city, I decided to take a 20-minute Uber ride to meet TPG senior writer and Madrileña Lori Zaino for a quick meal in the city before hopping back across the Atlantic (though this time around I'd be landing in South America). My flight was scheduled to depart at 3:15pm, so I showed up at Madrid's Terminal 2 around 1:30pm.
Things were quiet when I arrived, so I was able to drop my bag and made my way through the VIP security line in under 10 minutes.
Flying SkyTeam out of Madrid means that you don't get to hang out in the iconic terminal that Iberia and its Oneworld partners call home. T2 is still clean, relatively bright and has plenty of shopping and dining for those with time to kill.
AirEuropa doesn't have its own lounge in Madrid but rather uses a third-party lounge, called Sala VIP Cibeles, for its business-class passengers. This lounge also happens to be in the Priority Pass network, so even if you're flying economy, you can access the lounge if you have your membership credentials and a boarding pass for same-day travel.
In total I spent about an hour in the lounge -- I had just eaten a full meal in Madrid and was feeling the effects of my red-eye flight the night before, so I stuck to water and walking around the lounge so I wouldn't fall asleep in a chair and miss my flight to Bogotá. The lounge was bright, open and airy, but it was quite crowded (it emptied out toward the end of my visit) and was essentially one giant room, so it got loud -- and very warm.
It did, however, have interesting features that gave it extra oomph. Take, for example, the wide and varied selection of wine and cava -- this was Spain, after all.
Or the outdoor deck -- perfect for planespotting if you're me, or tanning and smoking if that's your thing.
I went back inside and took a look at the food selection. It was nothing special, but I did think everything was presented nicely, and employees replenished selections often.
As a Priority Pass lounge, Cibeles was great. There was plenty to eat and drink, it was clean and even had a lovely outdoor space. As a business-class lounge, though, it felt a little bit crowded and just very large -- it felt like the Delta Sky Club at JFK T4, which I firmly believe isn't up to a business-class standard, especially with American and United providing top-notch lounges for premium flyers.
Eventually, I couldn't take the heat, so I made my way to the gate in hopes of cooling down a bit. I arrived to a crowded gate area, as a Saudia flight to Jeddah (JED) was boarding next to our gate, and there wasn't a ton of differentiation between the two areas. Things calmed down once that flight was boarded, and just a few minutes later, gate agents appeared to start our boarding process.
Business-class passengers were called on board after those who needed extra time, though we were met with a traffic jam in the jetway, and it was apparent gate agents weren't aware that no one had even gotten on the plane yet because the line kept building up behind me. After what seemed like an eternity (really it was only a few minutes), I was aboard our Dreamliner.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="18" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="2" configuration-2="2" configuration-3="2" width="20.5" bed="78" lavs="2" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
My first impression of the cabin was that it was quite small and intimate -- similar to the feeling I got when I flew Korean Air last year and Xiamen Air before that.
The seats themselves were arranged in an all-forward-facing 2-2-2 configuration across four rows.
This specific product, though, is fairly uncommon and a new one for me. Each seat faced slightly inward, so passengers were oriented toward each other. It was basically the same seat that Royal Air Maroc chose to use on its 788s, though the seats on RAM are staggered in the sense that one seat is higher than the other within the same pod, and Air Europa's were on the same level.
On paper, this kind of configuration is outdated and not competitive, but the cabin was just about half full, which meant that I had a set of two seats to myself -- as did just about everyone else.
I was seated in 2G, an aisle seat in the middle section. I wasn't able to score a window seat because I booked fairly close to departure.
It didn't have a ton of storage. There was a bin behind the headrest that I used for my passport, wallet and phone, and then a shelf below the inflight-entertainment screen and a cubby under the footrest where my shoes went. When I wasn't using them, I stored the blanket and pillow on the seat next to me.
On the left side of the seat were the universal AC outlet, USB port, headphone jack, privacy divider, seat controls, reading light and IFE remote. The USB port wasn't working for me, so I dug out my charging "box" and plugged it in to the AC outlet, which charged my phone quickly.
Each of the 22 seats was about 20.5 inches wide and when fully flat offered a bed of 78 inches (6 feet, 6 inches). There was a mattress pad, too, which frankly shocked me (in the best way possible). I was able to get comfortable with no issue, but after a while I got really warm with both the mattress pad and the duvet -- there were no individual air vents.
Business-class passengers had access to two lavatories -- one in the front of the cabin and one in the back. Predictably, the rear one was also used by economy passengers, so sometimes there were lines. They were about as standard as they come, though the front lav did have a few amenities.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="8" tpg-rating-max="15" movies="47" tv-shows="22" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" wifi="0.21" wifi-2="4.92" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
When I got on board, I found a large pillow wrapped in a fabric bag, a pair of mediocre headphones, a blanket and mattress pad wrapped in plastic and an amenity kit.
The amenity kit fabric had a chevron design I actually liked quite a bit -- it reminded me of a cozy sweater.
Inside, I found a pair of socks, an eye mask, earplugs, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb and various creams and lotions that would ensure I stayed moisturized and fresh for my arrival in Colombia.
I found the IFE system to be generally intuitive, and the screen itself was sharp.
The seat felt quite far from the screen, so even though it was a touchscreen, I preferred to control it with the provided remote, which also had a small touchscreen built in to help control the system.
I especially liked playing with the globe from my seat with the remote.
The selection of movies and TV shows wasn't particularly extensive, but I found enough content to keep me occupied while I wasn't working or sleeping.
The Wi-Fi situation was a little less pleasant. It worked -- and quite well at that -- but it was ridiculously priced. It cost 22 euros (about $25) for a 100 MB plan. I wanted to be able to stay in touch with the ground, as I was flying for most of the US work day, but I ran through 100 MB in a matter of minutes. So I ended up buying two more packages -- spending almost $70 in the process -- in order to just stay kinda, sorta connected intermittently.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="23" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" champagne="Ramón Raventós Dissident Brut Cava" dine-on-demand="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Before this flight, I truly had no idea what to expect from Air Europa's catering. Long story short, I was very pleasantly surprised. Just reading the menu got me excited -- it seemed to me that the airline really wanted to present unique dishes with a Spanish tilt. Cabin service started shortly after I sat down. I was offered a choice of cava or orange juice, and went for the cava, which I was a big fan of. In fact, I asked for another glass before we even pushed back from the gate, and the flight attendants were happy to give me a refill.
We experienced quite a bit of turbulence on our climb out of Madrid, so the start of the meal service was delayed, but it was no bother, since we had plenty of flying ahead of us and it was a daytime flight.
First, FAs came around to take orders for another round of drinks. I asked for a still water and a Diet Coca-Cola. When they came back with my beverages, they also asked if I would like some sushi. This took me by surprise, as it was nowhere to be found on the menu, but I happily accepted their offer. I also got a bowl of potato chips, which reminded me of Spanish bars that serve tapas with each drink. The sushi came with a seaweed salad on the side, and I thoroughly enjoyed it -- it wasn't of the quality that you'd find on, say, Japan Airlines, but it did the trick.
After the sushi course was complete, flight attendants returned to take orders for the starters and main course. The starters on the menu included: red and yellow cherry-tomato salad with duck breast, mozzarella and pesto; and cod rillettes with paprika mayonnaise, olive oil and salad.
Since these were distinct dishes, I thought I had to choose between the two, but when I asked which was better, the FA told me that I would be having both. OK, cool! I'll take it! Then she told me that I got to choose between a pineapple, lemon and ginger detox juice (no, this wasn't a trendy Downtown New York City cafe) and a pumpkin-and-orange soup. I chose the soup. I frankly was blown away by the quality and taste of the food -- everything was fresh and packed with flavor. Even the cod rillettes, which I was initially skeptical about, turned out to be quite delicious when paired with the provided crackers.
I was already getting full at this point, but it was time for the main course. I had the choice of: grilled Iberian ham with mushrooms, cream sauce and sherry vinegar; grilled sea bass with roasted leeks, grilled mushrooms, peas and mashed potatoes in a wine sauce; and eggplant and scamorza panciotti with a cava sauce, Parmesan cheese and chives.
I wanted to have the Iberian ham dish because, well, Spain, but the FA told me they were out of it, which was sort of shocking to me given how empty the cabin was. The pasta was my second choice, and they did have a dish for me. It did not disappoint, either. It was gloriously rich -- more than enough to put me into the mood for a nice nap.
At this point, I was so stuffed that I had to refuse dessert, which involved both a selection of cheeses and a caramel and coffee cake.
After a lovely nap, more work and movies and about two hours before we were scheduled to touch down in Bogotá, it was time to eat again!
The evening snack consisted of a selection of fruit, crudites with black olive tapenade and then a choice of either chicken breast with roasted baby potatoes and broad beans or a prawn curry with seasonal vegetables. I chose the chicken and found it to be just as good as the main meal I'd had several hours earlier. I loved the presentation, too -- the chicken dish was served in an adorable miniature Dutch oven that had some real weight to it. And the fruit and crudites were presented in a way that made me think that I was in a cosmopolitan cafe in New York or London, not on board Spain's second airline.
Overall, I was blown away with the menu options, presentation and quality of the food. I really wasn't expecting any of it, and it left with me a great impression of the airline. Even a simple thing like midflight water bottles was made cool with a carton of boxed water instead of the regular plastic bottle.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="Yes" turndown-service="Yes" /]
I found the service to be excellent on all fronts. The flight attendants were attentive, generally on the ball, friendly and patient with me as I spoke to them in Spanish. They knew it wasn't my first language, but were happy to see me putting my years of classes and study abroad into practice. They were eager to chat, and it genuinely felt like they were enjoying their jobs and serving the customers.
I really had a great first flight with Air Europa. Despite a wholly average experience on the ground, Air Europa impressed me. The business-class hard product may be middling on the 788, but the rest of the experience stood out. It wasn't because it was over-the-top luxe -- it certainly wasn't -- but friendly and relaxed service, unexpected amenities like a mattress pad and delicious food presented in a fun and totally different way made me a fan of this airline.
Air Europa isn't an airline that can rest on its laurels like any of the other major European carriers. It has to set itself apart somehow to attract business that would normally go to Iberia, Air France, Lufthansa and many others. Once it takes delivery of the new 789s with a very competitive hard product -- in some cases much better than its peers -- I have no doubt that this quirky airline will continue to grow and win plenty more fans along the way.