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New aircraft, solid ground experience in São Paulo and plentiful entertainment options.
No Wi-Fi and wholly average food.
The Airbus A350 made its commercial debut in 2015, and now nearly 250 are in the sky. It’s starting to become a long-haul workhorse for many airlines because of its fuel-efficient design.
It’s not only popular for airlines, but passengers have found flying in the jet more enjoyable because of its oversized windows, relatively wide cabin and technologies that reduce jet lag for those on board. LATAM, the giant South American airline, has 11 of these jets in its fleet, with another 19 on order.
I needed a way to get back to New York from São Paulo, Brazil, after flying in from Portugal, and LATAM’s Brazilian subsidiary’s daily nonstop between the two cities fit the bill perfectly. It’s an airline I’ve never flown and have wanted to add to my list — and a product TPG has been wanting to review for a while — so it made sense to fly LATAM’s new bird back to the States.
As a member of the Oneworld alliance, LATAM has flights that can be booked with miles from any member of the group. That means popular currencies like American’s AAdvantage and British Airways Avios are good candidates to book a seat on the carrier.
Flights between the US and southern South America cost 30,000 American miles in economy. If you’re going to use Avios, which you can directly transfer from Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards at a 1:1 ratio, you’ll be dealing with a distance-based award chart. And since this flight was over 4,700 miles TPG would have had to shell out 25,000 Avios.
We decided to pay cash for this because of a lack of award availability — we paid $685 for the one-way ticket, which we purchased with The Platinum Card® from American Express. This card is one of the best cards for airfare purchases because it earns valuable transferable points at 5x points per dollar on airfare bought directly from the airlines, or through the Amex travel portal. So, even though the ticket was a bit expensive (mainly because we had to purchase it close to departure), we earned 3,425 Membership Rewards points, worth $68.50 according to TPG’s valuations.
Since this was a revenue flight, I would get the opportunity to earn some miles. But because of a hiccup in our booking process, I had to retroactively credit the miles to American. When it’s finalized, I should earn about 2,372 redeemable miles, since this was a M fare that earns 50% of the miles flown. I’ll also earn American elite miles, which are also calculated as a percentage of the actual miles flown. I should get 2,372 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM) and 474 Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQD).
My flight, LATAM 8180, departed from São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport (GRU), which handles most of the long-haul flights coming in and out of the Brazilian megacity. LATAM flies its international flights out of Terminal 3, home to many other international carriers, like Lufthansa, United and fellow Oneworld carrier British Airways.
I headed inside to find a massive terminal with sky-high ceilings that was teeming with thousands of travelers preparing for their lengthy flights.
Considering how crowded was the terminal was, I was relieved to see dozens of self-check-in kiosks that LATAM shared with Air Canada and Turkish Airlines.
That made getting a boarding pass and checked-luggage tag quicker. Many of them were in use, but the airport intelligently scattered them throughout the terminal, allowing me to find a few unused machines.
I had already checked in online and received a boarding pass that way, but I still needed to check luggage. (LATAM generously allowed two large bags as part of my ticket.) LATAM’s website showed a pretty full flight, so I stuck with my original seat, 37H, when looking online. The kiosk was easy and simple to use, and I was able to quickly get a paper boarding pass and print out a bag tag in just two minutes.
I headed over to the service desk and got in the express bag-drop line, and though there were just a few people waiting and at least a dozen check-in agents, I still stood in line for about 10 minutes when it should have been two.
This was even though I had already tagged my bag and was in a supposed express line.
Once I was called, though, the LATAM agent was helpful and gave me directions to get through security and to my gate.
Before I made my way through security, I noticed that two icons of American chain dining made their way to Brazil: There was both an Olive Garden and TGI Friday’s in the departures terminal. Maybe America’s cultural influence is as strong as ever, or maybe the unlimited breadsticks really are that good.
Security and passport control took just a few minutes, and I quickly spotted the sign for the lounges. I wasn’t able to access the lounges through my LATAM ticket, but there were two lounges and one restaurant that were part of the Priority Pass program that I could access in Terminal 3, thanks to the Platinum Card® from American Express. (A slew of other premium travel cards offer complimentary Priority Pass memberships.)
I didn’t incorporate my lounge visit into the score in this review, since it was not part of the typical LATAM ground experience, but if you do have a Priority Pass membership, I’d highly recommend visiting the American Express lounge — the food was some of the best I’d ever had at an airport lounge, and the space was well-designed. It was a good place to relax and get some work done before my flight.
As boarding time approached, I made my way through the massive terminal to Gate 323/324.
Even just a few minutes before boarding started, the lines to board the aircraft were completely devoid of passengers — gate lice need not apply here.
I caught a glimpse of the night’s ride, our A350-900, registered PR-XTA, that would be ferrying me and hundreds others to a continent thousands of miles north of where we stood. This bird was delivered to TAM in 2015, after TAM and LAN had merged but before the two carriers started operating under the LATAM brand in 2016 — meaning it still sported the old TAM livery even though it was really a LATAM Brasil flight.
Boarding started right on time at 10:20pm and was separated into three groups, those with families and special needs, premium-cabin passengers and then everyone else.
With an overwhelming majority of passengers in general boarding, we queued up in one big line, unlike many other carriers that break up economy travelers into a few separate groups. The line snaked through the ropes pretty slowly, and even though I was probably a third of the way to the front, I waited 22 minutes until the gate agent scanned my ticket. Sure, the line was organized and no one was rushing to get on the aircraft, but boarding took quite a while and led to a departure that was 10 minutes past schedule.
Cabin and Seat
Like most other A350s, LATAM’s economy class was set up in a 3-3-3 configuration. The economy cabin was divided into two sections separated by a few lavatories in the middle. There were 18 Economy Space+ seats in the economy cabin in bulkhead rows, featuring much more legroom than the 300 standard coach seats.
I was in an aisle seat, 37H. Since airlines aren’t cramming 10 seats across in economy on A350s (besides a couple of low-cost carriers), these economy seats are a tad wider than what you’d find on a 3-4-3-configured 777 at 18 inches across. Pitch was about standard at 31 inches. I didn’t feel like I had much room as someone who stands 6 feet, 1 inch, but I didn’t feel totally cramped either.
The cabin and seats reflected LATAM’s blue-and-red color scheme, and the seats were padded enough for me to sleep on the 10-hour flight. I wouldn’t consider them exceptional, but they were a cut above many of the slimline seats we’re seeing on more and more aircraft.
What helped most was the adjustable headrest that could be raised and bent to support your neck when you inevitably doze off.
The seatback had a tiny cup holder that flipped out from the back of tray table. There were two universal AC outlets in every row and a USB outlet below each IFE screen.
As economy gets tighter and tighter, I’ve found it more difficult to efficiently work on my laptop. The tray table didn’t fit my 15-inch MacBook, and when I flipped it open, I couldn’t extend the screen to a 90-degree angle. This got even worse when the person in front of me reclined.
Speaking of recline, my seat must have been jammed, because I had a heck of time trying to lean back. My seatmate appeared to have the same problem, but after a few good pushes, I was able to get the seat to move — revealing that these seats did have a decent amount of recline. It was frustrating and surprising to have these issues given that the product is only a little more than three years old.
Storage underneath the tray table was limited to a flimsy net with holes big enough for smaller items to fall through. Underneath the seat itself, I found something I was unsure what to do with — a mesh pocket that was either another storage area or a place to rest my feet.
The coach cabin normally features six lavatories for the 318 seats in coach, but on this flight one of them was sealed off for unknown reasons. Still, five seemed to be enough, and I never noticed a particularly long line for the bathrooms.
When I opened the door to one, I found that the mirror had partly detached from the wall, exposing myriad wires. I had visited it right after the seat-belt sign turned off, so I assumed it fell off during all the shaking during the takeoff roll. I didn’t want to mess with anything, so I let it be. It appeared that a flight attendant fixed it later.
The other lavatory was clean and spacious enough, but there were odd black marks up down the mirrors. It was nice to see that the lavs were stocked with more than just soap — there was moisturizing lotion too.
Amenities and IFE
On every seat, there was a small pillow, blanket and pair of headphones wrapped in plastic. After unwrapping and getting all of my stuff situated, I tested the headphones and found the sound quality to be less than average. It muffled voices, and the dynamic range was nearly nonexistent. I’d recommend bringing a wired pair of your own.
The blanket was big and thick enough to cover and warm my legs, which were bare, since I was wearing shorts during the entire flight. (It’s summer in Brazil!)
LATAM’s inflight-entertainment screens measured 9 inches diagonally and featured a generous amount of content, with 142 movies and 94 television shows.
There were plenty of newer films like “Boy Erased,” “A Star is Born” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other great modern flicks like “Gravity,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Dunkirk.”
I appreciated that LATAM actually had full seasons of TV shows. It’s nice to know that on a long flight I could have laughed my way through an entire season of “Arrested Development” or sat on the edge of my seat watching a thriller like “The Terror.”
I had no issues using the entertainment console. Even though it looked like a unit that I’d seen on aircraft much older than this, the touchscreen was responsive as ever and didn’t lag.
The inflight map and flight tracker was disappointing, only featuring a top-down two-dimensional view and few flight stats.
There was plenty of music and 11 games to choose from like Sudoku and pool. I was sucked into a tower-defense game dubbed “Stop Those Aliens,” which provided me half an hour of fun and mostly mindless entertainment.
Most of the flight, the aircraft’s exterior cameras were rendered useless, since it was an overnight flight, but I was able to catch our approach over the Atlantic Ocean and landing at New York-JFK from three different angles.
There was no Wi-Fi either, a disappointment considering the Airbus A350 is LATAM’s flagship aircraft and the New York-to-São Paulo route sees plenty of business travelers who could really use the service.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Going in with low expectations is always important when preparing yourself for a meal while flying coach. That mindset helped me, as the food was just OK.
On the menu were ricotta tortellini, short ribs and grilled chicken, but long after the flight attendants handed out the menu, the crew member serving me informed me that the menu was irrelevant and that I could have beef with potatoes, pasta with cheese or chicken salad.
I went with the beef. After I peeled back the tin foil cover, my meal in all its glory was revealed. It took me a little poking around, sniffing and a cautious bite before I decided it was roast beef.
For an economy meal, the meat itself wasn’t too bad. It was relatively moist and not the rubbery slab I was expecting. The caramelized onions and gravy added a rich complexity to the dish. The potatoes and green beans weren’t bad either, and paired well with the roast beef.
That being said, this was just slightly better than a regular economy meal and nowhere close to something you’d get in business. The chocolate-covered brownie was my favorite part, but it came wrapped in plastic like an afterthought.
There were plenty of drink choices from complimentary wine and beer to juice and coffee. I stuck with water mostly to help me beat my imminent jet lag.
Breakfast service started with a little less than two hours to go before we landed. Passengers had the choice of a tomato omelet or ham sandwich. I was tired of eating airplane omelets, so I asked for the sandwich, which was served with a choice of yogurt or fresh fruit on the side.
The sandwich was decent. I liked that the bread was thick and doughy, almost like pita bread. The bread and melted cheese mostly masked the flavor of the ham and made for a satisfying way to fill up before our final approach.
Crew members and ground staff were courteous, but in no way was the service anything different than an average economy flight.
Every LATAM employee and crew member I interacted was easy to deal with. They were all courteous and seemed happy to be there. At one point when I ventured to the back galley and it seemed like every flight attendant (I counted nine) was hanging out and enjoy each other’s company. Even with this going on, they quickly asked if I needed anything.
When I asked for a coffee during the first beverage service the flight attendant told me it was still brewing and said he’d come back with a cup later. To my surprise, about 40 minutes after asking and when dinner was over, a flight attendant came over with a cup of tea. It was great that they remembered that I had ordered, but unfortunately they got the wrong beverage. The attendant quickly went back to the galley and came back with a hot cup of Joe.
I’ve flown plenty of long-haul economy flights and my journey on LATAM’s A350 did little to stand out from the rest of my experiences — which is both an advantage and detriment for the carrier.
There’s nothing I can truly complain about other than a lack of Wi-Fi. LATAM provided a relatively smooth ground experience, a decent cabin with seats that have enough room to be comfortable and an IFE system with a smallish screen but a large selection of content. The food wasn’t normal economy crud, but that didn’t make it anything I’d want to eat when I was not onboard an aircraft. LATAM staff were pleasant and friendly and did remember to bring a drink when I asked, but at no point did service feel above average.
I definitely won’t avoid flying LATAM the next time I visit South America, but the airline didn’t give me much to look forward to in a future journey — at least in coach.
All images by the author for The Points Guy.
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