Cramped in Coach: A Review of KLM's 787-9 Dreamliner From Amsterdam to New York
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="72" ground-experience="8" cabin-seat="15" amens-ife="12" food-bev="17" service="20" pros="Wi-Fi available, and both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks were generous." cons="Seating felt cramped and uncomfortable, with tight pitch and inconvenient recline." /]
My first Dreamliner experience wasn't particularly dreamy on a recent KLM flight between Amsterdam and New York (JFK). The pitch was tight, and the recline of the seat in front of me made me acutely aware of every minute of my seven-hour flight. This segment, one leg of a multipart trip to South Africa, was definitely not the highlight of my journey.
This was the fourth leg of a five-segment itinerary purchased last summer as part of a flash sale from the US to South Africa. (I had reached Amsterdam from Los Angeles on a Delta Airbus A330, which we also reviewed.)
I paid $575.11 on my Chase Sapphire Reserve for the round-trip ticket, earning 3x on the full purchase. As a result, Delta only awarded me a whopping 68 Medallion Qualifying Dollars for the 3,644-mile portion from AMS to JFK, although I did earn 3,644 Medallion Qualifying Miles towards elite status with the airline.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="8" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="PH-BHE" age="2" avg-2="30" departure="14" departure-2="00" duration="7" duration-2="27" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I arrived at the airport just over two hours before the scheduled departure time. Since I had come on an inbound flight from Cape Town (CPT), I first had to exit through passport control — a straightforward yet tedious process that kept me waiting in a line for more than 30 minutes. Once I passed through, however, I exited Terminal 2 and re-entered through the departures area after stepping outside for a quick breath of fresh air.
The airline's check-in area was clearly marked with on-brand blue signage. Passengers checked themselves in via a generous number of self-serve kiosks dotted throughout the area, with plenty of gate agents standing around, ready to help.
When I arrived about an hour before the flight departed, there was no wait for either check-in or bag drop, with only a handful of travelers in the area at all.
My designated check-in counters were 12 and 13, but the walkway toward the security checkpoint was around No. 16, just a little way down the hallway.
The security checkpoint wasn't very clearly marked, especially with fellow passengers milling around the area, so I asked a KLM agent for help and soon was on my way.
There was no wait, and the security checkpoint was bright, orderly and uncrowded. It seemed like the security scanners were very cautious when it came to double-checking carry-on items, as two separate agents flagged 60% to 80% of the bins for manual inspection both of the times I passed through the checkpoints. However, the inspections weren't very time-consuming; both times, the agent simply took my bin of belongings over to a screen and reviewed the X-ray scan for a closer look, then let me on my way within 45 seconds.
Passport control on the departures end was electronically managed by a series of checkpoints. Travelers entered through clear barriers and placed their passports through a digital scanner, which then took a photo. After about a minute, passengers passed through the checkpoint and handed their passports to an immigration official on the other end for a quick double-check and exit stamp, then were free to go on their merry way.
I emerged from security and immigrations right next to Aspire Lounge No. 41 in Terminal 3, accessible to Priority Pass card holders from 6am to 10pm daily. However, the lounge tends to experience an excessive influx of travelers in the mornings; I was turned away on my outbound trip to Cape Town when the lounge was over capacity. With a few minutes to spare this time around, I was excited to pop my head in to see the lounge for myself, one floor up from the departure gates.
This time, I was readily welcomed into the Aspire Lounge and quickly found myself a seat at a small round table. The late-morning fare was light but diverse, with a variety of salad options, wines, a handful of liquors and Heineken beer on tap — both alcoholic and nonalcoholic. My favorite item from the buffet spread was cream of mushroom soup, which was far more flavorful than I would have imagined.
A quick look at the clock showed me that it was just about time to board, so I left the lounge and began winding my way through the long terminal hallways. Gate D43 was half-enclosed behind glass dividers and looked quite crowded. The few unclaimed bench seats were plain black and a little bit dated, and passengers trying to queue up for boarding cluttered up the available standing room.
Although my boarding pass stated that boarding was scheduled for 12:35pm, we didn't begin the process until 12:46pm. Departure time was scheduled for 1:25pm, but we ended up taking off 35 minutes late, at 2pm.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="15" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="3" configuration-2="3" configuration-3="3" width="17.5" pitch="31" tray="15" tray-2="9" lavs="5" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
KLM Flight 641 was operated by a 2-year-old Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, which was delivered new to KLM. Seats in coach were 17.5 inches wide with a 31-inch pitch, which felt very cramped.
The slightly trapezoidal tray tables were large enough to comfortably fit my 13-inch MacBook Pro, although my table slanted slightly to the left, especially when extended to its full length.
Seats were in a 3-3-3 configuration with cheery, dark blue, dotted upholstery.
Two outlets were available between each three-seat row, while each seat featured a USB port next to the audio jack under the IFE screen. The outlets weren't very snug, though, so my laptop's charger brick kept falling out of it. The only storage space available was the magazine holder on the back of the seat, but it was roomy enough to fit my MacBook and a chunky novel.
I always appreciate trays that feature separate drink holders which don't require me to drop down the entire table. These were very sturdy.
Although I wasn't seated by a window, I could see that each one was equipped with the Dreamliner's slick automatic dimming feature, which allowed passengers to "keep the windows open" for the entirety of the daytime flight without having strong sunshine reflected into our eyes. The thin, blue fleece blankets were adequate but worn, with noticeable pilling on one side, while the pillows were encased in flimsy disposable pillowcases.
The seat cushions weren't particularly comfortable, and the sliding headrest seemed to be sized for people between 5 feet, 5 inches and 6 feet, 4 inches, which makes sense for a Dutch airline. For this 5-feet, 2-inch girl, it wasn't particularly helpful, although it didn't noticeably detract from my comfort, either.
The tight pitch meant that the recline of passengers in front had a pretty big impact on those behind, as I discovered to the chagrin of both myself and the traveler behind me. When the passenger ahead of me reclined his seat, my open laptop screen would promptly fold down to an acute angle unless I fully extended the tray toward me and held the bottom edge of the laptop in my lap.
And then, when I reclined my seat, the older gentleman behind me kicked the back of my seat and protested with me to raise the seat. I turned around and could see his knees pushing right up against the hinge of my seatback. And while I was fully within my right to recline, he looked both tall and miserable, and made a little prayer-hands gesture to communicate what his broken English could not. So I sighed and sucked it up, napping upright for a few hours.
I did notice one nice feature about the seats in front of me. Row 30 was fitted with a bassinet latch, and a young family sat in the seats ahead of me after another kind passenger swapped aisle seats, moving from 30D on the left to 30F on the right. I later realized that they did this because seats 30D and 30E were thoughtfully outfitted with a movable armrest between them rather than the standard fixed armrest with a stowable tray table (as seen to the right of the photo below). This feature made these two seats just a tiny bit more comfortable for adult passengers traveling together with a baby or toddler, as parents could raise the armrest for a little additional flex room — necessary with these narrow 17.5-inch seats.
The 10-month-old baby who necessitated the bassinet kept looking at me and trying to play throughout the flight. He was perfectly well-behaved, and I succumbed to his charms in no time. The flight attendants set up the bassinet as soon as the plane reached 10,000 feet, and removed it when we began our descent into JFK.
The lavatories on this plane were of average size and featured a handful of unique details, most of which I could probably have done without. For instance, the lavs feature dark-blue mood lighting by default, only brightening up once the door was locked.
All in all, the KLM cabin configuration was fine, but definitely not my favorite coach cabin in which to spend seven hours.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="12" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="9" movies="205" tv-shows="120" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
The IFE screens on board the 789 were large, but did not tilt to adjust for seat back recline, which meant that my screen often reflected a bit of glare from the windows and lights around me despite the matte finish.
The selection of entertainment was generous, with more than 200 movies and nearly 250 TV programs available.
I was also very impressed with the audio selection: There were curated playlists, themed music categories, and full concerts available, both for classical and pop music.
The provided earbuds were actually decent quality for freebies, and were handed out prior to departure. They worked just fine, but I had my own noise-canceling headphones, so I reverted to using mine after about three minutes.
As I boarded the plane, I was pleasantly surprised to see prominent "Wi-Fi Onboard" signs throughout the coach section, since none of my previous KLM flights this itinerary had Internet access. Unfortunately, my excitement was short-lived. Although the inflight entertainment system notified me as soon as Wi-Fi was available by displaying a little banner at the top of my screen, I found the Wi-Fi packages to be very expensive and not particularly effective.
I purchased a 20 MB data package for 5 euros (almost $6), which was completely expended with one (failed) attempt to run a speed test, and one Gmail inbox tab that didn't leave enough data to load individual emails.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="17" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="2.5" meals-purchase="N/A" comp-alcohol="Yes" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
We were served two meals on board this flight: beef meatballs with braised cabbage or vegetarian pasta soon after departure, and a personal-size pizza about an hour before we landed. The staff did not offer menus, but the purser made an announcement regarding the meal selections before food was served.
The complimentary red and white wines available were South African blends, and came in personal-size plastic bottles.
The first meal was served over an hour after our actual departure time, more than 90 minutes after our scheduled departure time.
Drink service took place simultaneously with meal service, and included wine and beer as well as the standard selection of nonalcoholic beverages, including soft drinks and juice.
The beef meatballs seemed to be KLM's signature meal, as I had the same entree on my outbound flight to Cape Town a week prior. I enjoyed them on both flights, and also liked the salad that came with the meal, since it was fresher and more flavorful than most coach salads I'd had. The dinner rolls were adequate, and the carrot cupcake for dessert was a little bit too sugary.
The personal pizzas ... let's just say they didn't live up to the claim on the box. One bite showed that the interior was still raw dough, so I nibbled off the cheese and left the rest. Sorry, KLM. Take some pizza-making classes, please.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="20" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="Service was friendly and genuine, overall was a very average experience for economy." /]
Each member of the flight crew I interacted with was friendly and competent, but service overall wasn't particularly attentive. We did, however, have a full flight, and we also had a minor medical emergency an hour or so into the flight, when the purser asked if there was a doctor on board who could help.
Both circumstances no doubt kept the flight attendants busy, but they did manage to make it through the cabin once to offer drink service outside of mealtimes. Since duty-free items were available for purchase on this flight, the flight attendants also trotted out the goodies a couple of times during the flight, and the purser made a couple of announcements about it as well.
I can't tell you how quickly the crew responded to the call buttons, because I tried twice with no response either time. However, they did have a small station with water and other basic beverages set up in the galley, and the flight attendants jumped up to pour me a drink every time I saw them.
Again, I don't feel like the service I received on that flight was indicative of the standard because of the minor emergency. I later asked a flight attendant what happened. It turned out a woman fainted early on in the flight, so they spent extra time and attention monitoring her condition to make sure we didn't need to make an unplanned emergency stop.
All things considered, this flight was, as my friend says with deliberate inflection of shade, "fine." The plane was new and the crew was solid, but the cramped seats made the cabin look and feel claustrophobic, especially once people settled into their seats. Truth be told, the KLM Dreamliner in Economy wouldn't be my first choice to cross the pond in the future.
All images by the author for The Points Guy.