A Cabin of Our Own: KLM (777-300ER) in Economy From Amsterdam to JFK
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When is flying long-haul economy on a Boeing 777 vastly better than on a newer 787, with its more comfortable cabin pressure and humidity? When you were originally booked on a 787, but the airline swaps in a bigger 777 at the last minute, and you end up with a lot of free seats in coach. So many, in fact, that economy class becomes a relaxed, lovely experience.
That's what happened to my wife and me on the way back from a recent European vacation. We were expecting a Dreamliner for our flight back to New York-JFK from Amsterdam (AMS) on KLM, but were surprised at the gate to find a much larger 777-300ER. The airline had made a plane change, and it was a boon for us back in coach class: We went from an aircraft with 216 economy seats to one with 334, for the same number of passengers.
Our flight from AMS to JFK then turned out to be an extremely comfortable economy-class ocean crossing, with a free middle seat between us in a block of three.
This was the return leg of a New York to Zagreb, Croatia, an itinerary that had taken us across the ocean on an Air France 777-300ER from Boston (BOS) to Paris (CDG). For the relatively low price of $661.71 per person at the end of summer, this was a great way to get to Europe and back on mainline carriers in the SkyTeam alliance and to collect Delta SkyMiles. Enough miles, in fact, to vault past the level needed to qualify for Delta's Platinum Medallion status for one more year.
I booked on Delta.com and paid with my Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earns 3x points on travel purchases, netting a total of 4,162 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, worth $83 according to TPG's latest valuations.
Because the Zagreb-to-Amsterdam leg was on Croatia Airlines, an airline not in the SkyTeam alliance with Delta, Air France and KLM, we didn't earn miles on that segment, and the Croatia Airlines agent at the ZAG airport could not check us through all the way to New York. We had to check in at a transfer desk in Amsterdam. According to the agent, though, our luggage, unlike us, would be sent to JFK with no need to be checked in again at AMS.
While AMS has plenty of automatic transfer kiosks that have always worked perfectly for me, this time was the exception. The terminals kept showing that there was no record of my ticket, which was absurd.
An agent was able to issue boarding passes for both of us, and explained that Croatia Airlines' computer systems and Delta's, which had issued our tickets, aren't connected. Because the systems don't talk, our boarding passes didn't show that we were SkyPriority passengers, entitled to both lounge access and early boarding through my Delta Platinum status. I showed the agent my physical Delta Platinum Medallion card, and she reissued the passes. The incident was a useful reminder to always check your boarding passes if you have elite status, and to carry proof of it.
As for our luggage, the Zagreb agent was right — it was already waiting for us at the JFK baggage claim after we sped through immigration using Global Entry.
Armed with the passes showing my Platinum status and with my wife as my guest, we walked into the large KLM Crown Lounge 52, near Concourse F. The extremely useful LoungeBuddy app showed that we could also have chosen the airport's other KLM Crown Lounge, No. 25, near Concourse D, as well as an Aspire lounge. Our flight, KL645, departed from Concourse E.
The Crown lounge was a straightforward, no-frills big lounge at a big hub, with tons of space and basic amenities. It wasn't especially fancy, but got the job done: You had room to relax, free if uninspiring food, a place to work in peace, fast Wi-Fi and plenty of outlets for charging. Stay far away, though, from the smoking area, behind dark glass at one end. The smell carried into part of the lounge.
Around noon on a Wednesday, the lounge was about 75% full. The food stations offered a warm and cold buffet ranging from the usual cheese, cold cuts, fruits and salads to a pasta with tuna sauce that was not as woefully overcooked as the pastas usually found in northern Europe.
Dishes got picked up fast by lounge attendants, food stations were replenished constantly, and bathrooms were spotless.
Our gate, E24, was at the end of the E concourse; be aware that many E gates are a bit of a hike from either KLM Crown lounge.
When we got there, waiting for us under a dreary sky was not the Dreamliner we were expecting, but a much bigger bird: the biggest twin-engine plane ever built, a 777-300ER, the stretched, long-range version of the Triple Seven. So big, in fact, that KLM is replacing its 747s with it. This thing seats a staggering 408 people in business, economy comfort and economy — almost as many as KLM's jumbo jets, but with two fewer engines.
We could have kept our original seat assignments of 36J and K, since those seats were available on the 777 too, but a check of the seat map on SeatGuru revealed they would have been on the wing, impeding our view. I asked a gate agent for seats with a better view, like a good AvGeek, and got 56A and C plus the promise that no one would take 56B between us, unless a last-minute passenger showed up and couldn't sit anywhere else.
Our 777 sported the livery of KLM Asia, the airline's internal division created to serve Taiwan without jeopardizing traffic rights to mainland China. KLM Asia aircraft are owned and operated by KLM but feature a slightly modified livery with no Dutch crown above the logo and no national or European Union flags. Inside, they are the same as their standard-KLM counterparts. They are often found on routes all across the network, not just to Taiwan.
A check of the tail code, the Dutch registration PH-BVC, revealed that our 777 was nine years old — young in aircraft years. Best of all, an announcement at the gate said SkyPriority passengers were welcomed on board at the same time as business class. Boarding was via a double jet bridge, useful for an airplane with a humongous 242-foot length. Rows 1 through 39 boarded from the forward bridge, and we used the aft one, which took us directly to the last section of coach class all the way in the back.
Inside, we found seats looking fresh and new but in a dense 3-4-3 layout. Only a few airlines including Delta and Air India have kept coach class on their 777s in the original, roomier 3-3-3 configuration. 31 inches of legroom didn't look great on paper, but with a half-empty plane, that didn't matter much.
Flight attendants gave us a friendly welcome on board. Unlike on other SkyTeam carriers like Korean Air and occasionally Delta, I didn't get an acknowledgment of my SkyTeam Elite Plus status at any point in the flight. But with all that room to stretch, in a gleaming cabin, I wasn't in the mood to complain about details.
Blanket, eye mask and pillow — headphones would be distributed later — were waiting at our seats. As expected, no one showed up to sit in 56B.
I had no complaints about the seat, which had an adjustable headrest, a power outlet shared with the adjacent seat and a USB connection below the monitor.
With a scheduled departure time of 2:30pm, our captain got on the intercom at 2:33 to introduce himself, explain that bad weather would delay us by about 35 minutes, and that we might have to wait for connecting passengers, who never materialized in our section of the plane.
Flight attendants closed the overhead bins at 2:40pm and warned people not to change seats before takeoff to preserve weight balance. We waited at the gate with the doors closed for a while, in a stuffy cabin that became a lot more bearable when the air conditioning was turned on at 3:10, and FAs went around with water. We got pushed back from the gate at 3:22 and at 3:40 we were airborne, after watching a safety video (in English, not Dutch, which was confined to subtitles) that reprised KLM's signature color by playing on the famous Delft Blue tiles, a Dutch classic. Color consistency is a hallmark of KLM's branding, and our flight was no exception, from napkins to flight attendants' uniforms.
"I've never been on a flight this empty," my wife, Regan, commented, almost incredulous.
At the very back of the plane, on the left side, we found a lavatory — indicated by the red arrow below — that does not appear on KLM's seat map. It's significantly larger than the other coach-class lavs.
Throughout the flight, all the bathrooms we visited were spotless.
The good news: KLM is introducing Wi-Fi on its fleet of 14 Boeing 777-300ERs. The bad news: When we flew it in early September, Bravo Victor Charlie was not one of the Triple Sevens with Wi-Fi. But it did feature bright, responsive touchscreen seatback monitors offering plenty of content in 12 languages (yes, 12), which worked even during boarding.
The entertainment system also incorporated a chat function, available both between individual passengers and for groups. (And with no filter for foul language: In a test between my wife and me, it didn't flag two four-letter English words that would have been censored in a US television broadcast.)
The movie classics did not go beyond the 1990s, but the TV selection was far more appealing, including the riveting European drama "McMafia," which I recommend heartily. Season 10 of "The X-Files" was instead a dud that I dropped halfway through, in favor of Bob Dylan on the music channel. True AvGeeks will be delighted by the "Cockpit" option of the map menu: a heading, airspeed and altitude display superimposed on a moving map.
The inflight mag Holland Herald was a fun, quick read, but a reference in it to the legendary Edmund Hillary as "among the first to reach the top of Everest" was jarring. In his native New Zealand, those are fighting words. Sir Edmund and Tenzing Norgay weren't "among" the first on top of the world: They were the first, period.
But airlines, after all, aren't in the business of editing magazines. Their job is to get people places, and KLM did that flawlessly. Our aircraft climbed to 38,000 feet over the Atlantic coast of Canada then descended down the Eastern seaboard and over Long Island for a smooth landing at 4:50pm local in New York, 20 minutes behind schedule, not bad considering the initial weather delay.
Food and Beverage
A hop across the Atlantic in coach on any airline doesn't lead to high gastronomic expectations, and even KLM's business-class meals didn't woo TPG contributor Eric Rosen. The food on our flight was worthy of a C+ grade.
Thirty-five minutes after takeoff, we got a pouch of (very good) smoked almonds and a drink. We stuck to nonalcoholic beverages on this flight, but could have had wine, beer or cocktails at no charge. No menu was available, but we got a flier for duty-free onboard sales.
The main meal was served about an hour later with the most classic of airplane coach-class choices: "Chicken or pasta?" the flight attendant pushing the meal cart asked. We both got chicken with rice and green beans, quite salty and accompanied by a wishy-washy coleslaw. We ignored the dessert, a custardy-looking concoction that failed to appeal.
The coffee wasn't terrible, which is all you want from an economy-class airline brew, and water was available in the back galley.
With three hours to go, FAs went around with vanilla-and-chocolate ice-cream cones (good, said my wife; I didn't have one.) About 90 minutes before landing, the cabin filled with the aroma of cinnamon, signaling the impending arrival of the final snack, either a cinnamon roll or a tiny pizza. The latter was perfectly fine for a quick bite with an orange juice.
I fly KLM across the Atlantic in economy often, and it has never disappointed me. This flight confirmed my take on the flag carrier of the Netherlands: It gets me there just fine, with competent, no-frills service, on well-maintained airplanes featuring an elegant and consistent visual identity. And it gets me those valuable MQMs needed to re-qualify for Delta Medallion status for the next year. I'll gladly fly the big blue jets again and again.All photos by the author. Featured image by C. V. Grinsven/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images