The last transatlantic ride with the Queen: Reviewing KLM’s 747 in business from Amsterdam to Chicago
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To The Point
I was finally able to check flying KLM’s 747-400 off my bucket list before they retire the aircraft. Pros: comfortable seat when reclined, tasty food, exclusive upstairs seating and wonderful service. Cons: dated IFE and an inconvenient 2-2 business-class configuration.
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More and more Boeing 747s are disappearing from the skies. With demand falling, there is little need for an airplane that can fly 400 people, so airlines are announcing their retirement before they were originally planning to. First Dutch airline KLM and Australia’s Qantas said they would not fly again the 747s grounded due to the coronavirus; this week it was the turn of Virgin Atlantic. The list of airlines still flying the most iconic of airplanes is getting shorter.
But we want to give the Jumbo Jet a fitting salute. So, Wednesday we republished our last review of a Virgin 747; Thursday, we ran our 2017 review of a Qantas 747 flight; now it’s time for another trip down memory lane with a review of the KLM 747 by TPG Marketing & Events Director Becca Manheimer, who flew for the first time on the upper deck of a 747.
This article has been edited from the original.
In the fall of 2018, I traveled with several members of the TPG team to Cape Town, South Africa, for the annual PeaceJam conference. After a fulfilling, memorable and busy trip, it was time to return home. I enlisted the help of the team to score a great redemption. However, I had a limited window of days in which I could travel, and we weren’t having much luck finding award tickets. But we did stumble across a reasonable paid fare that would get me home to New York City in style, though I would have to make two stops on the way.
It turns out that my itinerary — Cape Town (CPT)-Amsterdam (AMS)-Chicago (ORD)-New York LaGuardia (LGA) — would include a leg on the 747-400. To me, that didn’t mean a whole lot, but once some other AvGeek staffers in the office caught word, they immediately told me I was lucky and they were jealous. They explained that KLM had begun the process of phasing out its 744s — that’s how a true AvGeek calls the 400 model of the Jumbo Jet — meaning that I’d be flying on a plane that’s becoming more rare by the day. Go, me! I was already out-AvGeek-ing some in the office on what was my first official flight review for TPG.
Personally, though, I was most excited about the fact that I was flying across the Atlantic in the fabled upper deck of the Queen of the Skies. Another first for me.
As I mentioned above, we couldn’t find a decent award flight to take me home, but after playing around with Google Flights for a bit, we were able to find a cash fare that wasn’t too outrageously priced, considering the typically expensive fares to and from South Africa. We paid a total of $2,246 for the one-way trip from Cape Town to New York with stops in Amsterdam and Chicago with The Platinum Card® from American Express, in order to take advantage of the card’s 5x bonus category on flights when booked directly with the airline or through American Express Travel.
With this purchase, we earned a total of 11,230 Membership Rewards points, worth about $225 in May 2010 according to TPG’s valuations. And since this was a paid fare, I was able to earn airline miles for my flights, too. In this case, I credited to Delta’s SkyMiles program. I earned a total of 16,642 Medallion Qualifying Miles, 2,159 Medallion Qualifying Dollars and 15,113 redeemable miles (10,795 base miles plus 4,318 bonus miles for my Silver Medallion status) for the one-way journey.
If you’re looking to spend your miles on this flight, two places to start your search are Air France-KLM’s own Flying Blue program and Delta’s SkyMiles. Usually, though, Delta charges astronomically high amounts in SkyMiles for premium-class flights, so you’ll likely find more success with FlyingBlue.
Check-in and Lounge
I checked in for my flight at the airport in Cape Town and the gate agents were able to check my bag all the way through to New York. That flight went off without a hitch, and after landing in Amsterdam, I had a tight connection to make. Luckily, the airport is an easy one to connect in, so even with a very short layover, I was able to pop into a lounge before my flight to Chicago. As a business-class passenger, I had access to KLM’s own Crown lounges, but the Aspire Lounge 41 was really close to my gate, so I used my Priority Pass membership from my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card to gain entry.
I only had a few minutes but quickly discovered, this lounge wasn’t really worth visiting at all. The space itself was totally average in look and feel, but the real problem was that it was absolutely packed. It featured a decent array of food and beverages, but I wasn’t even there long enough to have anything.
On a long layover at AMS, in any case, you’re not in a bad spot at all. Amsterdam Schiphol had a variety of unique amenities beyond lounges, like a panoramic planespotting terrace and even a library.
After my brief visit to the lounge, I hustled to get to my gate and made it there just as boarding had begun. The process began with a call for those who needed any extra time boarding, followed by business-class passengers.
I knew that we’d booked a business-class ticket, but glancing at my boarding pass and seeing “78B” printed on it still made me nervous — it sounded more like a middle seat in economy than business class. But then, I saw the stairs and remembered that I’d picked a seat on the upper deck. I’m going to be honest: It was pretty exciting to climb the stairs in the Queen of the Skies to find my seat. Is it possible that I’m actually an AvGeek in the making?
I made my way on board the four-engined jet, then 18 years old and registered PH-BFW, and quickly realized I was the first passenger upstairs. I immediately envisioned myself as the only passenger up there, with the whole deck to myself for the entire flight. My glamorous daydreaming quickly ended once other passengers began filling up the cabin, so I just took my seat.
The seats were arranged in a 2-2 configuration, meaning not everyone had direct aisle access. I had an aisle seat with a small partition separating me from the attached window seat.
On its 747s, KLM places business-class seats on both the upper deck and the nose of the aircraft.
There were 35 of these lie-flat seats in total across the upper and lower decks. I was on the aisle, so it wasn’t a pain for me to get up and move around, but the 2-2 configuration wasn’t ideal for solo travelers seated at the window, since you’d have to climb over your neighbor to move about the cabin. That problem does not present itself on KLM’s newer Boeing 787s, where biz class is in a 1-2-1 layout.
Thankfully, my seatmate was about as good as a seatmate could get and only got up when I did, so it wasn’t awkward at all. I would have enjoyed the configuration much more, though, if I’d been flying with my fiancé (editor’s note: Jaime has since become Becca’s husband — and the two of them had a fantastic honeymoon on points!) or a friend or family member.
My seat was plenty comfortable — especially when fully reclined — and I ended up getting a lot of sleep on the flight. That being said, if you’re traveling alone, you’ll definitely want to snag an aisle seat (unless you don’t plan on moving the entire flight) so you won’t need to climb over anyone to get out.
While the seat didn’t have a ton of storage space, I did have space for my shoes (until I fully reclined), and definitely didn’t feel cramped.
The seat controls were straightforward and easy to use, with clearly labeled buttons on the side of the seat.
The provided amenity kit was nothing special. It came with a very standard collection of socks, toothpaste, lip balm, an eye mask and earplugs — no designer toiletries here.
Food and Beverage
Cabin service started shortly after I took my seat — I started off with orange juice and Champagne for a DIY mimosa.
For my appetizer, I got the smoked salmon with wasabi cream and Thai salad and was impressed, actually. I don’t typically order fish on planes that hasn’t been cooked over heat, but I was pleasantly surprised by how flavorful it was.
For my main course, I chose the ginger chicken in hoisin sauce with rice and vegetables. While it wasn’t spectacular, the chicken was tender and I enjoyed the rice and veggies, which were cooked just right.
Although I was pretty full, I still got dessert, which was a mango-and-passionfruit mousse with raspberry coulis and a cheese plate. I’m more of a chocolate person, so this wasn’t my favorite, but I thought it was well done.
The prearrival meal was served about two hours before landing. This time it was a Black Angus burger on a brioche bun with gherkins and vegetables, which was truly delicious.
While the inflight-entertainment screens were large, they seemed a little dated, and the remote was very old and worked really slowly. Although I was able to find a couple of movies to watch, I wasn’t impressed by the small selection of films.
The outlet was easily accessible and quickly charged my devices.
The provided noise-canceling headphones worked well. I could hear the movie loud and clear through them, and they blocked out external noises.
All the crew members I encountered went above and beyond. Everyone I interacted with was friendly and helpful, always greeting me with a smile and asking if I needed anything. I enjoyed a hot tea before landing, and even got the signature KLM ceramic Dutch house filled with alcohol as a gift to forever remind me of my KLM 747 experience. Now, it’s adding pizzazz to the bar cart in my apartment.
Flying on an iconic aircraft like the 747 is a really cool experience — especially upstairs — even for someone who doesn’t consider herself an AvGeek. Flying the upper deck really felt exclusive, almost like I was on a much smaller aircraft. Although KLM’s 747s are headed for retirement and don’t feature the latest and greatest in terms of seat, amenities and entertainment, I had a supremely comfortable flight overall, enjoyed my meals and had very pleasant interactions with the crew, which is the most important to me. I’m glad that I got the chance to fly this special aircraft at least once before they’re not around anymore, and I wouldn’t hesitate to fly this again and again if the opportunity presented itself.
All photos by the author