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Premium Class on Hi Fly’s A380 flying for Norwegian might be the most comfortable way to get between New York and London. Pros: tons of privacy, a completely flat bed and cheap fares. Cons: suites are assigned randomly, there’s no wi-fi and the food is mediocre at best.
With its Boeing 787s plagued by engine trouble, Norwegian Air has been forced, like other airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, to ground many of its Dreamliners to have their Rolls-Royce Trent turbines fixed. To combat the problem, it’s been wet-leasing planes from various charter companies — including a Wamos Air Boeing 747, which TPG Editor-at-Large Zach Honig reviewed and called “Junkyard Air.”
But the wet-leased airplane that Norwegian is now flying between New York – JFK and London’s Gatwick airport (LGW) is anything but junk. Quite the opposite.
Friday morning, Norwegian confirmed that it would be flying Hi Fly’s “new” Airbus A380 between the two. Though an A380 flying for a low-cost-carrier is unique in and of itself, what makes Hi Fly’s plane extra special is that it used to belong to Singapore Airlines and still sports its original interior with first-class suites.
It just so happened that Norwegian’s first flight with the A380 would be that same evening, so in true TPG fashion I immediately booked a Premium Class ticket for the inaugural flight from New York. After all, it’s not everyday that you have the chance to fly one of the best seats in the sky with a low-cost-carrier price tag. How often can you say that you’ve crossed the Atlantic on a low-cost-carrier in a lie-flat seat? (Both would be a first for me.)
The superjumbo is flying for Norwegian through August 23, and is being used to operate flights DI 7015 (LGW-JFK) and DI 7016 (JFK-LGW). Despite booking just hours before departure, my one-way Premium refundable ticket cost $1,054.90. We used the Platinum Card® from American Express to earn 5x points on airfare, yielding a total of 5,275 Membership Rewards points, equivalent to about $100, according to TPG’s latest valuations.
Interestingly, rather than be able to book a suite seat outright or pay to upgrade, Premium passengers are randomly assigned a premium seat — either a suite or the lie-flat business-class product. That said, due to the special occasion, we let Norwegian know that we’d be on the flight and they made sure we would get a suite assignment. (Note, on my same-day return flight, which Norwegian didn’t know about, the first class cabin was not used at all and neither the Norwegian gate agents or the Hi Fly crew onboard allowed Premium Class passengers to move there.)
Shortly after I booked my flight, I received an alert that my 11:00pm flight was delayed to 3:00am. Still, I wanted to play it safe and arrived at the airport around midnight for check-in.
Norwegian’s flights depart from JFK’s Terminal 1. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was early or if all of the other passengers arrived earlier based on the original departure time, but the check-in area was oddly quiet. There were separate Premium and Economy check-in desks, but neither had lines.
Although Norwegian tends to nickel and dime economy passengers for everything from seat selection to meals, like other low-fare airlines, Premium flyers get complimentary seat selection, two checked bags, priority check-in and boarding, lounge access and more.
Premium passengers departing from JFK have access to the Alitalia Lounge, located between gates 2 and 3. With the exception of Lufthansa’s First Class Wining and Dining facility, the lounges in Terminal 1 are pretty sub-par (unlike the Emirates and Etihad lounges in Terminal 4, for example) and this one was no exception.
The lounge was split between a dining area and a main seating area. While the lounge wasn’t crowded, it’s definitely showing its age and is due for a refresh.
I later found out that I was indeed among the last to check in since most of the passengers in the lounge were on my flight and at least half a dozen of them were deeply asleep on the couches.
The food options were modest, consisting of soggy packaged sandwiches and a selection of chips. There was also a self serve bar, but most bottles were empty.
The lounge closed at 12:30am. With quite a bit of time left to kill, I headed to the Air France lounge, which I had access to thanks to the Priority Pass membership that came with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card. It was significantly better than the Alitalia lounge, but also closed soon after, so I wound up wandering around the terminal for about an hour until boarding commenced.
Although Premium passengers already get priority boarding, Norwegian allowed me to board early so that I could photograph a (mostly) empty cabin. Given that general boarding didn’t begin until about 2:30am, passengers were beginning to get grumpy, but everyone’s jaws immediately dropped when they stepped onboard and realized that this wouldn’t be an ordinary Norwegian flight.
The A380, registered 9H-MIP, originally belonged to Singapore Airlines, but was acquired by Hi Fly in July. Although this was among the first A380s to be built, at just under 12 years old it’s still a young bird. It sports a bright blue coral reef themed livery which makes it extremely easy to distinguish.
Cabin and Seat
Hi Fly’s A380 carries a total of 471 passengers spread across three distinct cabins. Starting with the lower deck, up front, there are 12 first class suites arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration with no overhead bins.
Business class occupies most of the upper deck and consists of 60 lie-flat seats also laid out in a 1-2-1 configuration, so every passenger has direct aisle access.
Business class doesn’t have overhead bins in the center section so it has a spacious “cathedral ceiling” feel, similar to Delta’s A350.
Between the two business class cabins is an elegant self-serve bar, though it wasn’t stocked on my flight.
The rest of the plane’s seats are in the economy cabins. There are 311 seats occupying almost the entire lower deck in a 3-4-3 configuration, and 88 occupying the rear part of the upper deck, where seats are arranged 2-4-2, due to the narrower fuselage. The seats offer 32 inches of pitch and are 19 inches wide, more roomy than the seats on Norwegian’s Dreamliners.
Zach toured the plane at the Farnborough Air Show and was able to film a video walk-through:
Back in first class, all suites have sliding doors, which offer fantastic privacy even though they’re not floor-to-ceiling. Singapore Airlines was the launch carrier of the A380 and the first one ever to offer enclosed suites on planes — this is the OG onboard suite product. And now, Norwegian is the first carrier ever to offer enclosed suites between NYC and London.
I’ve read reviews, but the suite was still roomier than I’d expected — I can’t image how spacious Singapore’s new suites on the A380 must be in real life. The seats offered 81 inches of pitch and were 35 inches wide.
Suites are equipped with a decently sized in-flight entertainment screen, a built-in mirror with lights, several small storage compartments, a coat hanger and several built-in lights. Although I was traveling solo, one of my favorite features is the ottoman which allows you to dine face-to-face with a companion.
Although they offer significantly more recline than the swivel chairs aboard Singapores’ new suites, the suites’ seats don’t lie flat.
Instead, there’s an actual bed which the crew can set up for you. I’ll discuss the amenities in greater depth later on, but as you might guess, Norwegian doesn’t offer turndown service or any bedding besides a blanket. However, that didn’t stop me from using it to get some much-needed shut-eye — the bed’s mattress was soft and I was able to make a pillow by rolling up my blanket.
Although Norwegian doesn’t give you any say in picking seats on A380 flights, if you’re traveling with a companion, you’ll probably want to be assigned seats 2C/2D or 3C/3D as those are directly next to each other and offer Singapore’s famous double bed.
The seat controls in the armrests were self-explanatory. Above them was the remote for the IFE (which wasn’t touch-screen) as well as several lighting controls, the flight attendant call button and a “do not disturb” button (which the crew wasn’t paying attention to on this flight).
Unlike a typical Singapore Airlines first-class flight, where you could expect amenities like Lalique toiletries and Bose noise-cancelling headphones, the only “amenity” Norwegian had on offer for its premium passengers was a quilted blanket. The blanket was light (good, in my opinion) and reminded be a bit of the new Casper blanket American Airlines provides business-class passengers. Notably lacking, however, was a pillow.
Although Norwegian usually provides premium passengers with a pair of earbuds, those weren’t available on this flight or on my return. It was a good thing that I brought my own headphones though because the in-flight entertainment selection was pretty extensive for a charter carrier. There were a couple dozen movies to choose from, including blockbusters like Logan, The Martian and The Death Cure, as well as TV shows like Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother and New Girl. However, there wasn’t a map feature, which was a negative. Many passengers like to know the position, altitude and and speed of their airplane.
As for connectivity, each seat had two USB ports and a universal power outlet, which fortunately, Hi Fly didn’t disable. The plane has Wi-Fi capabilities, but the service hasn’t been set up yet.
Hi Fly and Norwegian reminded passengers that they weren’t on a Singapore flight through branded in-flight magazines, airsickness bags and safety cards.
Two lavatories were located at the rear of the first class cabin. Although not as big as business class ones at the front of the upper deck, they were nicely appointed and even had a leather-padded bench for freshening up.
Food and Beverage
As soon as boarding was complete, flight attendants passed through the cabin with cups of water and orange juice and to offer briefings about the seat — something you typically don’t get (or need) when flying premium on Norwegian’s Dreamliners. Due to a technical issue, we didn’t actually push back from the gate until an hour later, but the FAs offered refills on the pre-departure beverages. Due to the late hour, I would’ve preferred to just get the dinner service out of the way while stuck on the ground, but of course that wasn’t an option.
About an hour into the flight, which was around 5:00am New York time, the flight attendants passed through the cabin asking, “Good morning, would you like to join us for dinner?” The choices were simply “beef, chicken and vegetarian” with no further explanation. Others in the TPG office had warned me that the food would be bad so I figured the safest best would be the vegetarian option. It ended up being a vegetable ratatouille which was just as unappetizing as it looked. It was served with an endive, pear and pine nut salad which was awful, but I enjoyed the cheese tray that came with it. Although flight attendants didn’t use carts to serve the meals, the standard Norwegian Premium presentation definitely felt out of place for the first class suite.
Apparently the Kosher meals are supposed to be fantastic so I’ll consider ordering that next time. Worth mentioning, although Norwegian typically charges economy passengers for food and drinks, they’re free on flights operated by charters.
There was no drinks menu, but given the late — or early, depending how you look at it — hour, I didn’t want to drink anything besides a sparkling water anyway.
As bad as it was, if you go on your flight hungry, you probably won’t want to skip the first meal because there weren’t any mid-flight snacks on offer and Norwegian’s usual buy on-board menu isn’t available on Hi Fly flights.
About 90 minutes before landing, we had a cold breakfast consisting of a hard-boiled egg, cold cuts, Swiss cheese, tomatoes and mozzarella. Although nice in theory, it didn’t taste very good and I wasn’t too hungry due to the weird hours so I only had a couple bites. The three pieces of fruit that were served with it were great though.
Singapore’s first-class suites are generally regarded as one of the best first class hard products in the skies; being able to fly it for the price of a Norwegian Premium ticket is a steal. Although the flight is operated by Hi Fly crew, the soft product isn’t any different from normal Norwegian flights and ended up being of the low points of my experience. The crew was a mixed bag, but the food was consistently bad. That said, Norwegian Premium is sold as a premium economy product, not business, so you really can’t expect too much. Plus, premium passengers get lounge access which already is a step up from other premium economy products.
While the business class cabin on this plane is fantastic, it’s a bummer that there’s no way to guarantee a suite. Although suites are supposed to be randomly assigned, there was an unoccupied one on my flight even though there were a ton of passengers in business-class, which was odd. Even stranger was that on my return flight, Norwegian didn’t seat anyone in the first class cabin and the crew onboard wouldn’t budge when I asked if I could move there.
That said, Norwegian has a winner on its hands with Hi Fly’s A380s, but unfortunately you’ll need to act quick if you want to take one of these unique flights because they’ll only be offered until August 23. The A380 will then go to Air Austral which will fly the superjumbo between Paris (CDG) and French island Réunion (RUN) from August 24 through September 9.
All photos by the author.
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