Economy with a better seat: A review of Brussels Airlines premium economy on the Airbus A330, JFK to Brussels
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Brussels Airlines is in the process of reconfiguring its fleet of Airbus A330s with new interiors. Along with installing a refreshed business-class product, Brussels has taken this opportunity to add a brand-new premium economy cabin on the reconfigured planes.
I flew Brussels Airlines’ new business-class earlier this summer and wasn’t all that impressed. Would my experience in premium economy be any different?
Ever since introducing premium economy cabins a few years ago, airlines haven’t been great about adding award charts for premium economy award seats. Furthermore, many airlines don’t yet support redeeming miles for premium economy awards on partner airlines.
To book awards on Brussels Airlines, I’d traditionally look at transferring credit card points to Air Canada Aeroplan or United MileagePlus. I’d also compare prices with Avianca Lifemiles and Singapore KrisFlyer to make sure I was getting the best deal. However, you can’t book partner premium economy awards through these Star Alliance programs, so cash it was.
Fortunately, I found a very good paid fare for Brussels premium economy originating in Tel Aviv (TLV). My multicity ticket ended up being Tel Aviv to Newark (EWR) in United Polaris and returning from New York-JFK to Brussels, Belgium (BRU), in Brussels Airlines premium economy. As my Premium Qualifying Dollars tracker showed, $834 of my fare was allocated to the JFK-BRU segment, not bad for a premium economy seat.
I purchased my ticket with The Platinum Card® from American Express, earning me 5x Membership Rewards points for each dollar spent on airfare purchases (when booked directly with the airline or through American Express Travel; up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year).
Brussels Airlines operates from the dreaded Terminal 1 at JFK. I made sure to arrive extra early, since you never know how long it’ll take to clear check-in and security there.
Although I already had my boarding pass printed during online check-in, I waited in the check-in line to get a sense for how long formalities were taking. There were seven Brussels Airlines check-in counters in Row H of Terminal 1, but, annoyingly, none were dedicated to premium economy passengers.
I joined the economy check-in line and waited about 35 minutes(!) before being processed.
After getting my printed boarding pass, it was off to security. I didn’t actually use the main security checkpoint, since I tried the new VIP One service. (Spoiler alert: VIP One is faster than both TSA PreCheck and Clear).
Without the VIP One service, I would’ve probably waited another 45 minutes to clear security, since Brussels Airlines premium economy passengers aren’t entitled to use business- and first-class priority security lanes.
Once airside, I headed straight to the gate area. Premium economy on Brussels Airlines doesn’t confer lounge access, so I patiently waited at the gate for boarding to begin.
The seating areas in Terminal 1 were less than ideal. The aisles between the seats weren’t wide enough for standard rollaboards, and the seats themselves had seen better days. Needless to say, there weren’t any power outlets or USB ports in sight.
After a decidedly economy-level ground experience, I couldn’t wait for boarding to begin. My fellow passengers clearly felt the same way, since lines started forming 15 minutes before the scheduled boarding time.
After business-class passengers were preboarded, it was my turn to board the 12-year-old bird for the short hop to Brussels.
Cabin and Seat
The best part of the Brussels premium economy experience was the seat itself. The seats were of average width, but the roughly 7-inch recline was quite generous for a premium economy product.
Brussels Airlines advertises the recline as 40 degrees, and though I don’t travel with a protractor, I’m inclined to believe them. The seat was significantly more comfortable than United’s Premium Plus.
I was seated in 12G, an aisle seat in the middle section of the plane. The seat itself was quite comfortable, with soft fabric padding and an adjustable, winged headrest to cradle your neck when sleeping.
Seats were spread out across three rows in a 2-3-2 configuration. The bulkhead seats had both legrests and footrests, while the remaining seats only had footrests.
If you’re faced with the choice, I’d definitely recommend choose a bulkhead seat for the added legrest.
As is standard for premium economy, the armrests between the seats were wider than normal — 6 inches, to be exact.
Aside from the literature pocket in the seatback, there wasn’t much storage space. There was a small bottle holder between each pair of seats, which could be used for your phone and glasses if you didn’t have a water bottle to store.
The tray table folded out from the armrest between seats and measured 16.5 inches wide and 10.5 inches long — plenty large for my 13.3-inch MacBook Pro. The table slid forward and backward, and the aisle armrest could be raised and lowered, making it easy to get up during the meal service.
The overhead bins were standard size for an Airbus A330, so I had no issues storing my carry-on bags.
Brussels didn’t install overhead air nozzles, a big mistake in my book. The crew must’ve been longing for summer, as they kept the cabin temperature in the low 80s for a good portion of the flight.
There were five lavatories shared between economy and premium economy. Four were in the middle of the economy cabin, and one was all the way at the back of the plane. Although they were kept quite clean throughout the flight, there was often a wait to use them, since you had so many passengers competing for the same five restrooms.
Amenities and IFE
The premium economy experience basically ended with the hard product. I felt like I was flying in economy for the rest of the flight.
I was disappointed with the lack of amenities and lackluster inflight-entertainment selection on the Airbus A330.
There was a pillow, blanket and pair of headphones waiting at my seat upon boarding. The pillow was quite plush, but the blanket was too thin and scratchy for my liking (and was nearly identical to the one given to economy passengers).
The headphones looked and sounded like they were purchased at a nearby dollar store and certainly didn’t fit the premium economy vibe. At least I had my AirPods Pro to listen to my own entertainment.
Unlike some other premium economy products, there was no amenity kit on offer.
While each premium economy seat had a 13.3-inch touchscreen high-definition monitor, the actual IFE content was quite limited. There were 37 movies and four TV shows on offer.
If you had trouble reaching the screen, there was also a remote that could be used to navigate around the IFE.
The movies were mostly new releases, including “Aquaman,” “The Lion King” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
There were four episodes of each of the four TV shows (“Black-ish,” “Blindspot,” “For the People” and “The Fresh Price of Bel-Air”).
Unless you’re an AvGeek who’s entertained solely by the route map, I’d definitely recommend bringing your own entertainment.
The good news is that you won’t need to worry about running out of juice. Each premium economy seat had a well-placed AC and USB port.
Brussels didn’t install Wi-Fi during the cabin reconfigurations.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Some airlines try to differentiate premium economy food and beverages from economy’s with predeparture beverages, printed menus or meals served on proper tableware. Brussels Airlines did none of that. In fact, I practically couldn’t tell the difference between the food and drinks served to premium economy and economy passengers.
Once airborne, flight attendants got on the public announcement system to tell everyone the food options: beef or pasta. Forty-five minutes after takeoff, the meal carts came rolling down the aisles. I got the pasta, which was presented with the plastic and foil covering intact.
The dinner itself wasn’t great. The pasta was dry, the roll was stale, and the salad was wilting (and only had one piece of smoked salmon). The best part of the meal was the apple tart.
After the meals were distributed, a drink cart came by with hard and soft drinks. I asked the flight attendant about the liquor selection for premium economy, and she said that economy and premium economy had the same alcohol options. So much for a “premium” experience.
During the meal, I headed back to economy to see what those passengers were served. Much to my surprise, the main meal was the exact same — same quantity and presentation. The only difference was the slice of Monterey Jack cheese that was added to the premium economy tray.
The meals were collected about two hours after takeoff, which isn’t terrible for a short transatlantic red-eye.
I got about three hours of sleep before the breakfast carts appeared. There was no choice for breakfast, and premium economy was once again served the same meal as economy.
The tray had two stale rolls, a strawberry-banana yogurt, orange juice and a hybrid (and flavorless) croissant roll that looked more like a challah. Most definitely not a breakfast of champions — look at all those carbs!
There was no real difference in service between economy and premium economy.
Airlines are conflicted in how they treat and serve premium economy cabins. Some offer an elevated service like business class, and others settle with economy service. Brussels Airlines definitely fits into the latter category.
There was no predeparture beverage, and the only difference from the economy service was that we were offered hot towels and a small bottle of water after takeoff.
The rest of the service experience was wholly underwhelming. As I mentioned, all meals were served from the same carts as economy, and the flight attendants didn’t pay noticeably more attention to premium economy passengers.
Brussels Airlines’ new premium economy cabin has potential. The seat itself is much more comfortable than the economy seat. With only 21 seats, the cabin is also quite private.
But hard product aside, Brussels Airlines fails in delivering a premium economy experience. The food and drinks were basically the same as economy, and the entertainment selection was limited. If Brussels is serious about offering a competitive premium economy product, it should invest in the rest of the premium economy product.
My recommendation? If you’re looking for a more spacious and comfortable seat at a reasonable upcharge from economy, then Brussels Airlines premium economy fits the bill. But don’t expect a whole lot — this product really is just economy with a better seat.
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