Bare bones: A review of Brussels Airlines economy on the A330 from Brussels to Monrovia
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TPG has supported the PeaceJam Foundation for many years. PeaceJam operates youth leadership conferences in developing countries around the world each year including in Liberia, West Africa. As part of TPG’s sponsorship, a small group of TPG staffers attend each conference, both to help with the running of the event, and the personal opportunity to learn and grow through this unique experience.
I was selected to join the Monrovia, Liberia, event this year and in true TPG spirit, jumped at the chance to review the flight there.
Monrovia (ROB) is the only airport in Liberia with scheduled airline service, and has very few flights from anywhere other than nearby Accra, Ghana. Without a national airline — Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world — the only flights from Europe, or anywhere other than Africa, are on Brussels Airlines. (Air France will begin service from Paris on April 20.)
The Belgium-based carrier operates a triangular routing from Brussels (BRU) to Freetown, Sierra Leone (FNA) and on to Monrovia, then back to Brussels nonstop, using Airbus A330s. On this route, Brussels Airlines operates both the A330-300 and the smaller A330-200, which have a business, premium economy and economy cabin. The flight currently runs five times weekly.
Cash fares even in economy aren’t cheap regardless of when you are looking to travel, starting at about $1,500 roundtrip and making getting to Monrovia a smart use of miles. Brussels Airlines is a member of Star Alliance, so booking flights is possible with a number of mileage programs. A good option is to use United miles, for 30,000 miles each way in economy.
We booked with The Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns 5x points on airfare booked directly with airlines or Amex Travel (on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year), for a total of about 7,500 Membership Rewards. We at TPG value those points at $150 – not a bad return for a paid ticket! For U.S.-based flyers, the United Mileage Plus program is a good place to credit flights on Brussels Airlines.
Brussels Airport Pier A is the newest part of the airport, though still almost 20 years old. There were some festive decorations outside the terminal as I entered, as this was late November.
The terminal was spacious though it felt dated. It reminded me a little of Frankfurt airport in Germany.
Brussels Airlines is a relatively small airline, but with a huge African route network, unique among European airlines. The departures board listed flights to Entebbe, Kigali, Yaounde, Douala, Ouagadougou and Bamako, among other African destinations.
Check-in for the African flights was grouped together at the far left of the terminal. There were plenty of counters open, so the queues moved fairly quickly.
There was no lounge access included in my economy ticket, and I hold no Star Alliance status that would give me lounge privileges, so I headed to the gate. I was through efficient security in just a few minutes.
I appreciated how spacious everything was. No bottlenecks in the departures hall.
There was a beautiful array of airlines from all over the world I could spot through the fairly dirty windows.
I was curious to see if these West African flights would be treated any differently from any other Brussels Airlines flights, given that for check-in at least they were grouped together. Apparently, they were. All West African departures that morning were from the furthest possible gates from check-in and security and were a long, long walk.
I like stretching my legs before a flight as much as the next person but this terminal just went on and on and on.
At the very end of the furthest pier of the terminal I finally found my gate. About the only positive of these gates is that there is an additional Brussels Airlines lounge at the very end of the pier.
My guess would be that’s because if premium passengers had walked all the way to the gate to find an unexpected delay, they would not want to then walk all the way back to the central lounge.
There were plenty of people milling about at my gate as the scheduled boarding time came and went.
Gate staff eventually announced that passengers should enter the queue from the other end of the gate area, and positioned an agent there to split the economy passengers into two lines: the back half of the economy cabin in one queue and the front half in the other.
Gate staff then boarded the entire back half of the economy section first, along with premium passengers through a separate premium boarding lane, before any of the front half of the cabin (including me) were allowed to board. While some passengers seated at the front of the plane expressed frustration that they were the last ones to be allowed onboard, this system proved to be a good one. The aisles remained clear as I boarded.
With the angle of the jetway, I couldn’t snap a good photo of my aircraft, but another photographer had caught that exact same A330-200 a few days earlier at the Brussels airport.
Cabin and Seat
I walked to my seat through the premium economy cabin, which TPG’s Zach Griff recently reviewed, reporting a mediocre experience.
It was then through to the economy section. For me, the single best thing about the A330 aircraft is that virtually every airline operating it uses a 2-4-2 configuration in economy, versus 3-3-3 on the slightly wider 787 Dreamliners and Airbus A350s. 2-4-2 is my favourite economy layout — pairs traveling together can select window seats with no one else next to them, and for families or four the middle sections are perfect.
I had assigned myself a window seat in row 21, near the front of the first economy cabin. This is because you will usually be served your meal first by the crew rather than waiting for the cart to slowly make its way to the back of the cabin.
The seats were an older style, with thick padding and a pretty standard 31 inches of pitch, which was fine for my 6′ frame on a relatively short flight.
There was a one-piece tray table with a cup holder indent and an individual cupholder on the seat back.
The headrest wings did not fold up very far, nor did they stay up when I tried resting my head against them.
Brussels Airlines did not install individual air nozzles, which was disappointing.
The bathrooms were fairly spacious and were kept reasonably clean during the flight.
Amenities and IFE
This is where things started to go downhill. Awaiting me on my seat was a pillow so thin it was like a pancake.
There were no blankets on the seat, in the overhead bins or handed out by the crew during the flight.
Earbud headphones were handed out shortly after take-off, as were the immigration and customs landing cards for Liberia.
I expected there would be no Wi-Fi on the flight, and there wasn’t.
The IFE had a very limited number of movies and TV shows to watch, and there wasn’t much to interest me on there.
I appreciated there was a USB charging point at every seat next to the screen, though there were no individual power points for full-size devices. Those are available in business class, but in economy you have to make do with USB.
I did enjoy the inflight magazine which featured stories from some of the unique West African destinations Brussels Airlines flies to. I definitely want to visit Togo to see the stilt dancers!
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
The flight time to Freetown, the first stop, was around six hours. This is about the same time as a New York to London hop. I take (and review) flights of this length regularly and the meal service is usually a full-size meal shortly after take off and a lighter meal just prior to landing.
Sure enough, around an hour into the flight the cabin crew offered lunch. There were no printed menus, just a choice between beef and mashed potatoes, or fish with barley. I opted for the fish.
The meal was a mixed bag — Brussels seems to go very cheap with some elements and splurge on others. The starter was tasteless cous cous and the main was small, overcooked and basic. But the bread roll was definitely a step above a standard coach dinner roll, as was the dessert, which looked like it had come from an artisanal patisserie.
A single drinks run with lunch was offered, no refills. I opted for a soft drink which was served with ice and a slice of lemon.
There were no snacks available for the middle of the flight, nor did the crew pass through the cabin to offer any water, or refills of drinks.
Around 90 minutes prior to landing the meal cart was again wheeled up the aisle. All that was served was a single soft drink, water, tea or coffee and a small chocolate bar. The chocolate bar tasted good (and was another high-end element) but this was barely even a refreshment.
Crew performed required tasks with minimum effort.
Probably the most disappointing part of the flight was the crew. They did the absolute minimum required from start to finish. I did not see a single crew member in the economy cabin between the two meal services, which was several hours. I pressed a call bell to test the response time; after several minutes of waiting no one came. The cabin had been darkened and I realized that my little call bell, above my seat, was not alone. There were at least a dozen other call bells illuminated throughout the cabin, with no crew answering them.
After waiting a good 30 minutes for a crew member I wandered down the back of the cabin to find out where they were. I found a lone, frazzled flight attendant madly trying to pour drinks for the other passengers who had walked down the back for the same reason. She poured me a soft drink and I pointed out to her the number of call bells that were illuminated in the cabin. She explained that the Brussels Airlines service process meant she was the only crew member currently working the entire economy cabin on this A330, as all other crew members were on break.
At the same time.
This was a strange service process. One flight attendant cannot tend to hundreds of passengers at once — economy class on the Brussels A330-200 has more than 200 seats — and there were numerous passengers twisting around in their seats, wondering where the crew were as their call bells went unanswered.
When we stopped in Freetown for around 90 minutes, those continuing onto Monrovia were instructed to stay on the aircraft as cleaners came on board to remove garbage and clean the cabin. A party atmosphere immediately broke out, which was unexpected and fun to witness. Many passengers had flown from the U.S. to Brussels on United and connected to Liberia — I saw lots of UA-issued boarding passes as we boarded in Brussels — and seemed relieved and excited to be so close to home after such a long journey.
Complete Liberian strangers became close friends, moving about the cabin, singing, chatting, laughing and socializing. The Brussels crew then used this time to check that every single cabin bag left onboard belonged to a passenger headed for Monrovia, as a security check. Hardly anyone was in their seat and close to their bag in the overhead bins, so the crew, rather than using the PA to ask all remaining passengers to briefly take their seats to efficiently conduct the cabin-bag check, simply started yelling down the cabin “Whose bag is this? If no one claims it is being left in Sierra Leone!”
Crew and passengers eventually became openly hostile to each other, screaming over bags. It was an awful way to try and conduct the security check and a few passengers who had remained in their seats around me shook their head in disbelief at how poorly the crew conducted this process.
A busload of new passengers eventually joined the short hop to Monrovia. There was no service on the second leg, and we arrived roughly on time.
I wasn’t expecting Brussels Airlines economy class to be a premium experience, and it wasn’t. The airline has a monopoly between Liberia and Europe, though Air France is recommencing services to Monrovia in April, and keeps even economy fares quite high, though Liberia is one of the least-developed countries in the world.
Yes, it was a full-service flight, but only just. It felt like Brussels had stripped just about everything from the inflight experience while still being able to market the flight as full service. It has an extensive route network in West Africa, but if this was a route with more competition, like Europe to New York, I would probably pick a different airline.
All photos by the author.
This story has been updated to indicate that Brussels Airlines’ route network in Africa, while extensive, is not the largest on the continent from Europe.
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