Great seat, so-so service: A review of KLM’s business class on the 787-9 from Amsterdam to Toronto
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Dutch flag carrier KLM is a major presence in the U.S. and Canada, with year-round flights to Amsterdam (AMS) from 14 cities. It sends across the Atlantic pretty much all of the airplane types in its long-haul fleet: the Airbus A330 and Boeing 747, 777 and 787. The last one is the only one offering business class with direct aisle access for all seats, while the other types feature configurations with seats in a 2-2-2 layout.
It’s a much different story on the 787s, which began joining the fleet four years ago and sport a 1-2-1 configuration in business class, with seats laid out in a reverse-herringbone pattern. On paper, it’s a totally competitive offering across the Atlantic, at least in terms of seat.
KLM is also a member of SkyTeam, the alliance that includes Delta Air Lines, so flyers can earn and redeem Delta’s SkyMiles on all flights, as well as Air France and KLM’s own Flying Blue miles.
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We’ve reviewed KLM’s business class before several times, including the classic upper-deck experience on the 747. Every time, we found it to be a good, but not great, way to fly at the front of the plane.
What would we find in 2019, which also happens to be the 100-year anniversary of KLM, the world’s oldest airline?
The Flying Blue program has become complicated lately, but you’ll be able to navigate it easily using our guides. You can also get Flying Blue miles by transferring points from Citi ThankYou Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy.
When we found a great award fare from Amsterdam to Toronto (YYZ) for 45,375 Flying Blue miles plus $226.15 in taxes and fees, we went for it without hesitation. We value Flying Blue miles at 1.2 cents each, making this a transatlantic flight in business class for $750.65. You can pay a lot more in coach!
On the KLM app, I was able to select my seat in advance — not my meals, unfortunately — and I was off for one of the cheapest premium-class Atlantic crossings of my entire frequent-flyer career.
Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is one of the easiest airports in Europe to navigate. Connections are a breeze compared to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) or London Heathrow (LHR), getting there from the city is easy with plenty of trains and the airport itself is well designed.
When I arrived at the departures hall at 2:40 p.m. for the 5:35 p.m. departure to Toronto, I found the check-in area and departure gate already displayed on the monitors.
Biz-class passengers and elite members of the SkyTeam alliance could check in using a separate gated area, indicated by the SkyPriority logo.
Within this area were both traditional, staffed desks and self-service kiosks, useful if you don’t have baggage to check. KLM’s institutional blue color, with accents of Dutch orange, appeared in tasteful touches.
Despite having already checked in on the app, I got a paper boarding pass from a desk employee — you never know when you might need it. Then I used the priority access to security and the departure gates, clearly indicated within the gated area.
After a quick and painless security and passport check, I was out in the departures area, headed to a duty-free shop for the delicacies I always make sure to bring home from the Amsterdam airport — stroopwafels, salty licorice, Gouda cheese — and then to one of the KLM lounges.
Even without lounge access, I would have had plenty to see and quiet areas to sit in. Schiphol is a nice airport to be in if you don’t have lounge access. It’s also a “quiet airport,” with no announcements on loudspeakers.
TPG contributor Eric Rosen has reviewed in depth the renovated KLM Crown Lounge, one of the two at AMS (the other one is within the area restricted to flights within the European Union’s passport-free zone.) Eric explains in detail what you can find there, but I can sum up my time in it with one word: Wow!
This was a far cry from the cavernous, rather boring space it used to be. It had been completely transformed into a large, world-class lounge.
Immediately upon entering, I could see things had changed from my previous visits.
As befits the name, it now had lounge chairs. And much, much better food options, including an à la carte restaurant on the second floor, called Blue. (Too bad it was not free, unlike the food and drink in the lounge.)
I spent a delightful hour exploring, and liking, the buffet food and the decor. Another reason to pick a transfer at AMS over other European gateways.
Monitors in the lounge included a mention of how long it took to walk to a specific gate. Armed with that knowledge, I could maximize my time in the lounge and timed my arrival at the gate just four minutes before the start of boarding, long enough to admire the beautiful blue 787-9 that was to fly as KL695 to Toronto.
KLM names its 787s after flowers, and this one, a year-old Dreamliner, was called Tulip. How much more Dutch can you get?
Priority and general boarding lanes were clearly marked, and nobody was crowding the boarding area. At 4:50 p.m., boarding began right on time.
Cabin and Seat
KLM’s 787-9 has 30 business-class seats, in a single cabin. The longer 787-10 has 38.
It was, even at first sight, a huge improvement over the 2-2-2 biz classes of previous KLM birds. The reverse-herringbone layout and that particular seat type have been around for years, but in KLM’s incarnation, they exuded quiet elegance.
Of course, as is usual on this aircraft: No window shades! 787 windows are dimmed electronically, with the touch switch under them.
The inflight-entertainment screen swiveled out with a press of the blue button to the left.
Headrests were adjustable in height and angle, and had adjustable wings. The seatbelts had airbags, as happens more and more in premium seats.
In the lie-flat position, the 22-inch wide seat turned into an 81-inch bed. Though a mattress pad for sleeping was not available, the bed offered enough space in the footwell to move comfortably. The only thing I didn’t like about it in bed mode was the clunky airbag belt, and the pillow could have been firmer, too.
When sleeping under a blanket or comforter, fasten your seat belt over it. That way, if there’s turbulence and flight attendants come to check if you’re buckled in, they can just take a look and not bother you — and you’ll make their job easier, too.
The armrest on the aisle side could be lowered with the blue button. Flight attendants asked passengers to keep them in the lowered position for takeoff and landing.
It would not have been possible to store large electronics like laptops or tablets anywhere other than the overhead bins, but the closed storage cubby next to the IFE remote was ideal for wallets, phones and other small items. Headphones for the IFE were hanging in it from a hook.
I especially liked the clever mirror inside the door, in classy KLM blue.
An international power outlet and powered USB outlet were under the armrest by the window, with a sign indicating their location.
The tray table extended from the same armrest with the press of another blue button. It was a bit small, but still OK for a 15-inch laptop, and once extended it could slide forward, letting the seat occupant get up during meal service. This is a key element that not all airlines get right; for example, Virgin’s swanky new Upper Class forces you to stay seated when the table is out and a meal is on it.
The seat controls were intuitive, and I didn’t see any other passenger have to ask a flight attendant for help figuring things out. From the top, the four buttons are: slide seat forward and back, bed mode, seat back up and overhead light.
Besides the overhead light, which could be controlled from the remote too, there was a reading light built into the seat. Two adjustable air-conditioning vents were above the seat, the latter a feature not found on all aircraft. (Some European airlines, like Lufthansa, are notorious for keeping cabins far warmer than what Americans are used to.)
The bathrooms were more or less normal, save for a KLM classic, the Delft-house decorations. They’re found all over its branded materials, and even on the escalator to the Crown Lounge.
Amenities and IFE
As customary, I found pillow and comforter already on the seat, and headphones in the mini storage locker. Amenity kits were distributed later.
The amenity kit by Dutch designer Jan Taminiau, featuring the colors of the Dutch flag, was distributed to each passenger just after flight attendants closed the overhead bins prior to pushing back from the gate. It had the basics for a long-haul flight: socks, toothpaste and toothbrush, eye mask and earplugs, moisturizer, lip balm and a pen — useful for immigration forms.
More toiletries were found in the two bathrooms exclusive to business class, which were spotless throughout the seven-hour, 40-minute flight. Hair gel, body mist and hand-and-body lotion were a limited edition by Rituals for KLM. Besides the pillow and comforter, I didn’t receive any other amenities like slippers or pajamas.
These KLM aircraft feature crisp, 16-inch screens, with about 250 movies to watch in at least 14 languages, and a gorgeous moving map: this was a good IFE, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
The Wi-Fi internet disconnected a few times, but was otherwise quite usable. I paid 18 euros ($20) for the whole flight, a much better deal than the other choice of 8 euros ($9) for one hour. (If you just wanted to send or receive text messages, that was free.) The Speedtest app kept timing out, but the internet was fast enough for videos, albeit with some buffering.
The headphones supplied by the airline were of the fairly rare three-prong kind, with OK, not outstanding, sound quality.
The beautiful 3D moving map could also be loaded on the smaller display in the remote, which retained full pinch-and-zoom functionality.
The cockpit-view function is increasingly popular in IFEs, and for aviation geeks it’s a delight every time. After our takeoff on schedule at 5:45 p.m., I followed on the screen our climb from sea level straight to our initial cruising altitude of 36,000 feet in 25 minutes — which happened in near silence, despite my position just in front of the righthand engine.
The flight unfolded entirely in darkness. In late June, say, the views out of the window would have been spectacular, one long sunset seen from the edge of the stratosphere, but in early November we flew at night from start to end.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Are you even flying on a Dutch airline if you’re not offered a Heineken? Of course not, and a can of the national beer of the Netherlands was on the tray that a flight attendant brought down the aisle as boarding finished. There were also Champagne, orange juice and water. (Incidentally, the two stripes on the flight attendant’s sleeve identified her as a senior cabin attendant in the KLM rank insignia system.)
At my seat, I found a menu and wine list, with the KLM logo inside a Delft-porcelain motif. The airline’s Champagne may have been a midrange Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Réserve, but its taste in graphics was impeccable.
On the wine list, I noticed a cocktail described as a special “lighter, crisper” version of a Negroni, with Dutch genever (a typically Dutch kind of gin), chosen because both KLM and the Negroni were born in 1919. When the drinks cart arrived at my seat, half an hour after takeoff, I asked for it, with a small bowl of nuts and sparkling water.
The nuts should have been warm and the drink in a wider glass, but those are minor quibbles to have at 36,000 feet, and the Negroni-ish was indeed lighter and crisper than the original, a true pleasure.
For dinner, I could choose among two appetizers, three entrees and two desserts. For the appetizer, I had tomato soup over the other choice, salmon and spicy mango with hazelnut-cucumber-pepper-and-mango dressing.
All three main courses featured potatoes, in an apparent nod to a classic Dutch staple food. My choice was panfried cod and Dutch prawns with herb potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes and broad beans in a mussel gravy. The other two entrees were miso-marinated chicken thigh with carrots, potato puree, Brussels sprouts in an orange beurre blanc sauce; and beef stew with red cabbage, potatoes and cornichons.
For dessert I could have a cheese plate — blue cream cheese, Klaver Roem and Leerdammer Caractère, all Dutch cheeses, served with crackers and grapes — or “sweet bites”: brownie with ganache, a chocolate-caramel tartlet and a lemon cheesecake with raspberries. I went with the cheese, and a glass of New Zealand riesling from a simple, five-wine list. It also featured a Chilean chardonnay and three reds: a grenache from France, an Argentinian malbec and a South African shiraz.
Things sounded promising on paper. But when dinner service began, they went awry.
The galley ran out of the salmon appetizer for everybody who wanted it, and flight attendants proposed alternatives to at least two passengers. This happens, I said to myself, no biggie. Space on board is limited, and not everybody gets their first choice on every flight. In any case, I had the tomato soup, which was very good, and though the salad was a bit wilted, it came with a zingy beetroot dressing that was as cheeky as the salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Dutch clogs.
But then I waited 30 minutes between the appetizer and entree, and the flight attendant assigned to my aisle got confused and thought I had ordered the chicken, not the cod.
They hadn’t loaded enough cod anyway, he said, seeming a little confused about what was going on in his galley, but after some inquiry he turned up one stray cod entree for me. And good thing he did, because it went beautifully with the riesling.
The silverware had pretty inlaid handles, and the carts were ornamented with the same motif as the menus.
With dessert, the flight attendant brought around a box of chocolates in the shape of, you guessed it, Delft houses. I had two, and I could have had more. They were excellent, and so were the cheeses. By the time I was done with all of it, though, it had been a 90-minute dinner, and when your flight is under eight hours and at night, you may want a service flow that maximizes sleep instead of time spent eating.
A half hour later it was lights out in the cabin, when we were already nearing the southern tip of Greenland, four and a half hours out from Toronto.
Ninety minutes before landing, after some sleep, it was time for the second meal service. The appetizer was a sweet-potato salad with white cheese and pomegranates, followed by either a cheese quiche or an Angus beef burger with cheese, and then by an apple pie. The meal was served with pepper jelly and deep-fried onions on the side. I got the burger and a Coke, which proved to be a good choice. And the apple pie that followed was perfectly warm.
KLM did not let me go hungry. It wasn’t top-quality, but it was perfectly competent airplane food, in abundant amounts.
“Would you like a house, Mr. Riva?” the flight attendant asked me after the last dish had been removed from my tray. On any other airline, I would have thought that a weird question, but in KLM business class it could mean only one thing. It was time for the distribution of the miniature Delft porcelain houses filled with liquor, which the airline gives away as souvenirs to business passengers.
The one distributed on KL695 that day wasn’t any old house, either.
“It’s the house where our king and queen live,” he said.
According to the booklet that came with it, Huis ten Bosch is the residence of King Willem-Alexander, Queen Máxima and their children. That’s the very king who occasionally moonlights as a KLM pilot, but there was no royalty at the controls on my flight: His Majesty is qualified on the Boeing 737, not the 787.
That very nice interaction with the flight attendant and the story behind the Delft house ended the flight on a high note for me, but overall, the service was OK, not great. There were moments of slight confusion during meal services, and dinner lasted way too long.
You don’t need to be an aviation enthusiast to see how pretty this 787 was on the inside and out, and even a casual flyer notices the Dreamliner’s smooth, quiet ride. Add a very good biz-class seat, and you have the makings of a very nice Atlantic crossing.
Coming off the flight on a cold night in Toronto, I reasoned that I’d just flown in a better biz seat than most Delta One seats, certainly better than any Lufthansa seat short of first class, and on par with the best seats offered on KLM’s sister airline, Air France. It would just have needed better service to compete for greatness. That said, you would not be disappointed if you redeemed a reasonable number of miles for KLM biz class on the Dreamliner.
All photos by the author.
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