Evolution, Not Revolution: A Review of Brussels Airlines’ New Business Class on the A330
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This month, I got to travel with several others on the TPG team to Accra, Ghana for the annual PeaceJam conference that TPG sponsors there. Any PeaceJam trip is an incredible experience from start to finish, and adding to the fun, of course, is the journey. Part of joining the crew on one of these trips is the expectation to find interesting products to review there and back.
On the way there, I flew with South African Airways on its refurbished Airbus A330 nonstop from Washington-Dulles to Accra (review coming soon!). And when I was searching for a way to get home, I stumbled across a brand-new transatlantic product that hadn’t yet been reviewed on TPG. As we first reported back in February, Brussels Airlines is in the process of reconfiguring its entire wide-body fleet of Airbus A330s with a new business-class product.
With the first aircraft with the new product already flying, this would be a perfect opportunity to try it out, since the airline operates a fairly extensive African network. Brussels advertises the new business-class product as a “boutique hotel in the air” — so did the seven-hour, 21-minute flight from Brussels to New York-JFK really feel like I was in a boutique hotel?
Short answer, no.
Booking the new Brussels Airlines business class is a bit like finding a unicorn. There’s currently only one refurbished plane (registration OO-SFD), and it just re-entered service on May 1. While this plane has mostly been flying to and from JFK, it has spent a few weeks flying to cities in Africa.
The next plane to feature the new product will be OO-SFE, which is currently undergoing the cabin refurbishment in Amman, Jordan. I’ve got to imagine that once the second reconfigured plane enters service, the JFK route will consistently feature the new product.
As Brussels Airlines is a member of the Star Alliance, there are multiple ways to redeem miles for flights to and from North America, including:
- United MileagePlus: 70,000 miles
- Avianca Lifemiles: 63,000 miles
- Air Canada Aeroplan: 55,000 miles
- Singapore KrisFlyer: 72,000 miles
Brussels Airlines releases a fair amount of award availability, but if you can’t find availability on the JFK route, you can check its other North American routes — Toronto (YYZ) and Washington, DC (IAD).
My “stay” with Brussels Airlines began in Accra with a red-eye flight to Brussels operated by the carrier’s oldest angle-flat business-class product.
It certainly felt like Brussels Airlines was trolling me when I got onto the flight to BRU and found a card advertising the new business class.
The angle-flat product wasn’t comfortable for sleeping, and I tossed and turned until we landed in Brussels.
I’m happy to report that connecting in Brussels passed my test for a great European connection. In my book, any good European connection shouldn’t involve remote stands and bus transfers to what feels like a neighboring country.
After arriving in the B Concourse, I followed signs for connecting flights and identified that my flight to New York would also be departing from the B Concourse.
The transfer process required walking down a long hallway, clearing transit security and entering through a maze of a duty-free store before entering the departures level of the B Concourse.
Thirty minutes from arrival to airside isn’t bad for Europe!
Brussels Airlines has three lounges in the airport: The Loft in Terminal A for European Schengen flights, the Sunrise Lounge in Terminal T and The Suite in Terminal B, both for non-Schengen flights.
Since I’d be departing from Terminal B, I had access to The Suite, open daily from 5am to 9pm.
To access The Suite, you needed to take the stairs or elevators near Gate B1 or B15. You were then in the lounge corridor where you followed signs for The Suite.
I had arrived a bit before the morning rush, and the lounge already felt quite crowded. With only 160 seats for all Star Alliance business-class and Gold passengers flying from Terminal B, the lounge was way undersized. Compare the pictures for what the lounge looked like at 7am versus 9am.
The lounge was shaped like an especially long and narrow rectangle with sweeping apron and runway views. There were two main sitting areas, one to the left of the entrance desk and the other to the right of the desk.
For an international business-class lounge, the continental breakfast spread was unimpressive.
Take a look at the unappetizing eggs and beans, breakfast meats, salads and yogurts.
There was a separate area with soft drinks and some liquor.
The lounge’s restrooms were definitely too small for the number of people in the lounge.
There was also a small relaxation room with four reclining chairs that were occupied the entire time I was in the lounge.
Finally, the lounge had a tiny business center. Wi-Fi in the lounge was slow (download speeds of about 5 Mbps), so I instead connected to the airport’s free high-speed Wi-Fi, which was 20 times faster.
If you’re looking to shower, bad news: There weren’t any showers in The Suite. On a space-available basis, the lounge attendants could arrange a shower in the nearby Priority Pass lounge.
After a quick shower in the Diamond Lounge, I headed to the gate for boarding.
Brussels Airlines flights to the US left from the end of the B Concourse, near Gate B40. There was an additional security check to enter the gate area, and I was thrilled to find seating and space in the sterile US-bound departure area.
Before long, it was time to
check-into the hotel board the flight.
Cabin and Seat
As I entered the plane, I turned left at the “lobby/bar.” The cabin’s finishes definitely felt fresh and snazzy, especially with the mood lighting.
The new business-class configuration for Brussels has seven rows of seats alternating between a 1-2-1 and 2-2-1 layout.
All seats have fully flat beds and share the same basic design.
However, there are some seats that are better than others. If you’re traveling alone, I’d definitely recommend one of the throne seats, 1A, 3A or 5A.
The thrones are the most private seats in the cabin, since there are two large tables on each side.
If the thrones are reserved, a solo traveler should choose seats on the K side of the plane.
Rows 2, 4 and 6 are the best seats on the K side, or starboard side, since they are flush with the window and further away from the aisle.
Finally, if you’re traveling as a couple or with a group, I’d recommend seats in the center D and F section of the plane.
The worst seats on the plane are the couple seats on the A and C side, or port side, of the plane, as they are the tightest and feature the least amount of storage space.
The biggest improvement in the new seats were the finishes and larger storage compartments. The finishes definitely felt modern and upscale, especially the square lamp next to the AC outlet.
Most seats featured two shelves of storage for shoes or loose items, and some seats also had deep storage compartments next to the tray table for laptops, books, etc.
I was seated in 1A, the bulkhead throne that offered an extra storage compartment on the floor as well as an oversized footwell.
Take a look at the bulkhead footwell versus the footwell in Seat 2C.
The large tray table easily extended from the side of the seat.
Unfortunately, there were neither individual air nozzles nor oversized overhead bins.
The bed was quite long, at 74 inches, and was extremely comfortable.
There were basic seat-control functions on the right armrest, and opening the IFE remote compartment revealed advanced seat functions like lumbar support, massage functions and an adjuster for the way the seat cushion felt.
I wish Brussels had placed the seat controls elsewhere. As I relaxed my right elbow on the armrest, I kept inadvertently adjusting my seat during the flight.
There were two bathrooms for the 30 passengers in business class: one in the front by the cockpit and one in the back by the premium economy cabin. Neither restroom had any special features other than Rituals hand cream and single-use cloth towels.
Amenities and IFE
The inflight amenities certainly didn’t make the product feel like a boutique hotel.
If I were reconfiguring a plane in 2019, I’d want to install the latest technology, like Wi-Fi and high-definition screens. Someone at Brussels Airlines, however, decided to keep the carrier in the 2000s.
Business-class seats featured 15.4-inch touchscreen TVs with 46 movies and 21 TV shows. Of the 46 movies, many were in French, but there were some Hollywood new releases like “Aquaman,” “Black Panther” and “The Mule.”
Annoyingly, the IFE only had one TV episode per season. Some of the titles included “The Big Bang Theory,” “Arrow,” “Marlon” and “Westworld.”
The noise-isolating headphones were just fine.
The touchscreen TV could also be controlled using a trackpad on the remote — the Apple TV-esque remote was really the most modern-feeling aspect of the IFE system.
The airshow map was quite detailed but didn’t offer any customization.
Needless to say, there was no Wi-Fi or tailcam.
The two biggest issues with the IFE were that, one, the TV was highly reflective, so everyone needed to close their windows in order to really see anything other than yourself, and, two, the TV software kept resetting my movie to the beginning and also took more than two minutes to register a touch or remote command.
Aside from the IFE, pillows and amenity kits were waiting on the seats during boarding, and comfortable blankets were distributed after takeoff. Don’t expect any pajamas or mattress pads on Brussels Airlines.
The amenity kits were designed by Essentiel Antwerp, and, yes, they contained the essentials like Rituals hand cream, dental kits, eye mask, earplugs, socks and a pen.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Just like one might be impressed by the curated selection of food and drinks at a boutique hotel, I was similarly impressed with the food and beverage offerings on my
“boutique hotel” flight.
Service began on the ground with predeparture beverages including water, Champagne, orange juice and apple juice. Shortly after takeoff, menus were distributed. The food service began with lunch, transitioned to a midflight treat of IJsboerke ice cream and finished with a snack just before landing.
Forty minutes after takeoff, the crew passed carts through the aisles with the amuse-bouche and first round of drinks. I stuck with Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée, and the crew did a good job of keeping my thirst quenched throughout the meal.
I had preordered a special meal (an Asian vegetarian meal), so my meal was a bit different than the standard menu. My first bite was a dollop of hummus with raw crudités.
A full 50 minutes (!) later, the starter was served. While the regular menu promised a choice of smoked beef or salmon, my starter was rice-stuffed grape leaves and sautéed vegetables.
I was impressed with the quality of the food thus far, but was getting really annoyed at the slow meal pace.
There was a selection of warm breads served alongside the starters. Pretzel roll, yum!
The mains were finally served 30 minutes later. I really enjoyed the beans and cauliflower with tomato sauce and couscous, while my fellow passengers had the choice of grilled veal, sea bass with squid or pesto spaghettini.
The cheese and dessert cart finally rolled through the aisles a full two and a half hours after takeoff. I loved the dessert from the regular menu, a pistachio tart with lime and ginger.
Although I stuck with Champagne throughout my meal, the Brussels beverage selection was really impressive. There were eight beers on offer, including Hoegaarden and Stella Artois, two wines and a full selection of spirits and liquors like Johnnie Walker Black Label, Glenlivet 12 and Baileys Irish Cream.
Kudos to Brussels Airlines for really embracing Belgian beer culture. They’re making frat boys proud all around the world.
Although Brussels advertises a walk-up bar with wine and beer, it wasn’t set up on my flight.
To satisfy my sweet tooth, I enjoyed a cup of coffee-flavored IJsboerke ice cream.
The snack service was an hour before landing. At this point, I wasn’t hungry but was happy to see that the snack was at least pretty healthy.
I’m torn on how to rate the service, since it was simultaneously really good and bad.
Let’s start with the good. Everyone I interacted with was incredibly friendly and welcoming. I really felt like I stepped foot in a boutique hotel, with all the flight attendants addressing me by my last name and remembering my food and drink preferences.
At the end of lunch, the purser asked me for my thoughts on the food and drinks, politely asked whether I’d like to be woken up for the snack service and presented me with the duty-free catalog. The personal attention each passenger received was definitely above average for a business-class flight.
However, I was incredibly disappointed that it took three hours for the lunch service to be completed. Even though the flight attendants were well-intentioned, the service flow felt very much like an assembly line with everything served from carts. The snack service began a full hour before landing, leaving only three and a half hours for sleeping or relaxing.
Brussels Airlines could earn a perfect service score, but the service flow must be optimized to avoid forcing passengers to spend over half of the flight eating.
Do you remember getting so excited for the newest iPhone only for Apple to release a slightly improved, S version of the phone? Well, that’s exactly how I felt about Brussels Airlines’ new business class.
The experience is definitely an evolution from the previous product. The hard product and cabin finishes have both been updated, but the amenities and IFE are still very much version 1.0. Sure, the food and beverage choices are impressive, but you can find the same cuisine on flights operated by the older planes.
So, should you go out of your way to fly the new business-class product? Definitely not. But if you happen to find yourself on a refreshed plane, you will not be disappointed. You may just question how Brussels Airlines compares the new business class to a boutique hotel.
All photos by the author.
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