A wonderful surprise: A review of Norwegian’s premium economy on the leased Evelop A330, New York to London
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TPG UK staff love to travel and we fly the New York-London route more than any other as part of our jobs. After a recent visit to TPG’s New York office, there were various options for the trip back to London, but August is the absolute peak time for travel between these cities and cash fares were high with almost no award availability.
Norwegian is our go-to carrier when looking for a cheap fare on this relatively short flight. I flew from London (LGW) to New York (JFK) earlier that week on its 787 Dreamliner aircraft and I really wanted to take the day-flight back. Other members of the TPG team swear by these eastbound daytime flights and I wanted to put their “jet-lag-free guarantee” to the test.
In advance (and outside summer school holidays), Norwegian can offer incredibly cheap fares between New York and London. We regularly see one-way fares as low as $150, but booking in August only a week in advance was very different. Economy fares were around $450, which was still significantly cheaper than full-service carriers who wanted an outrageous $1,100 for the same route on the same day. Norwegian was the obvious choice.
What I noticed when booking the Norwegian flight was that it clearly listed that the flight was “operated by Evelop.”
I knew that because of issues with the Rolls-Royce engines on their Boeing 787s, Norwegian was using some leased aircraft on some routes, including the famous Hi-Fly A380 that previously belonged to Singapore Airlines. I couldn’t find much information on Evelop other than that it is based in Spain and leases aircraft and crew to different airlines on different routes.
After booking, I received emails from Norwegian in the days leading up to my flight, inviting me to bid for an upgrade from economy to Premium class, which is premium economy.
I checked the cash upgrade cost and was surprised to see that although there was only one Premium seat left, the upgrade price was not outrageous, only about $400. I figured Evelop might have an unusual “premium” seat that would make for an interesting review so I started researching what might be used on this flight.
Among TripAdvisor reviews I found one that suggested the seat would actually be better than Norwegian’s own 787 seat so I bit the bullet, paid the cash upgrade price the day before the flight and crossed my fingers.
In total, we paid $850 for this ticket — an absolute steal for a lie-flat seat on a transatlantic flight. We paid with The Platinum Card® from American Express, which offers a 5x bonus category on airfare purchased directly through the airline, and earned a total of 4,250 points for the purchase, which are worth about $85 according to TPG’s current valuations.
JFK Terminal 1 was almost deserted at 9 a.m. when I arrived at check-in.
There were no lines at any counter and I made my way through the Premium line where I was helped immediately. I had a full-size carry-on and a small personal item. I had originally planned to take both as carry-on, but decided to check the full-size bag to make it easier to take photographs as I moved around the airport and aircraft.
The agent wasn’t particularly engaging but I couldn’t fault her efficiency — check-in took less than 30 seconds.
Only the more expensive Premium Flex passengers receive lounge access with Norwegian (the cheaper Premium fare class does not) and my cheap paid upgrade was listed as “Premium” so I was surprised to be handed an invitation to the Alitalia Lounge to relax before my flight.
My boarding pass also listed “Fast Track” so I looked for the Premium line following a short walk from check-in to security.
At this time of the day the security area was also deserted. My boarding pass and passport were checked in seconds and I was through to the metal detectors. There was a slight wait for a male TSA officer but the other officers joked with me about where all the other passengers were, acknowledging what an efficient time of the day I had chosen to travel.
Although the architecture is unlikely to win any awards, Terminal 1 was efficient and calm.
The ceilings were high and bright and and everything felt close by. The check-in agent had told me the Alitalia Lounge was located next to Gate 4.
I walked to the gate but could only see a very nondescript lounge nearby which appeared to perhaps be a Saudia lounge based on the signage. I had to peek around obscuring signs to realize this was the Alitalia lounge.
The cheerful lounge agent took my pass, welcomed me, provided a Wi-Fi code and advised me that they would make a boarding announcement for the Norwegian flight in the lounge.
It is a rare treat to have lounge access on a premium-economy ticket. Norwegian is one of the very few airlines in the world that does this. I wasn’t expecting a spectacular lounge experience, though.
The lounge was… fine. If I were a first-class passenger I would have been disappointed but with a premium-economy ticket it was perfectly acceptable.
It was quiet, with plenty of seating and natural light. My favorite part was the spectacular view of the enormous Japan Airlines Boeing 777-300ER sitting right outside, waiting to return to Tokyo (HND).
The Alitalia lounge was also the designated lounge for JAL and the other guests in the lounge were mostly Japanese.
Speaking of coffee, the low point of the lounge was the food and drink. I wasn’t very hungry; I’d had breakfast at the hotel before departing for the airport and knew I’d be served shortly after takeoff. Still, there wasn’t a huge amount on offer.
There were plenty of chilled beverages but food was limited. I was also surprised to see an Italian airline use a pod coffee machine.
An hour before departure I made the short walk to my gate. I noticed the entrance to the nearby Air France lounge which looked spectacular. I wish Alitalia put a little more effort into its lounge but it was still a treat to have access on a premium-economy ticket.
The Norwegian gate area was well-signed and spaced out.
Perhaps the only downside of Terminal 1 is that the gate seating area is relatively cramped.
There was sufficient seating at 10 a.m., but I imagine the evening rush to Europe with an Air France A380 at one of the gates would be a different story. I checked out the window for clues about what sort of plane was awaiting me but all I saw was a mostly unmarked A330 with a green exclamation point on the tail.
Boarding started on time and Premium passengers were invited to board first along with any passengers who needed additional time to board. I walked down the jetbridge, crossed my fingers and stepped on board.
Cabin and Seat
I was excited to see the Premium cabin and immediately recognized the seats in both cabins — it was the A330. This one used to be owned by Singapore Airlines and I had flown in these seats (as SQ regional business class) many times.
Having a lie-flat bed (albeit on a slight angle) for a premium-economy flight was a huge upgrade over the 787 recliner seats.
I was impressed to see there was Norwegian-branded head rests to the seats to make it feel more familiar.
As I darted around the cabin taking some quick photos, other Premium passengers boarded and there were lots of excited gasps and “wows” as the passengers saw seats which were better than they were expecting.
There were five rows of seats in a 2-2-2 configuration, 30 seats in total. This is smaller and more intimate than the Norwegian 787 Premium cabin and doesn’t have the dreaded middle seat in their 2-3-2 configuration.
Although I had booked my upgrade only 24 hours before departure and secured the last seat in the completely full cabin, I had scored a window seat toward the back of the cabin.
There was plenty of storage space, which was open for boarding.
There was legroom for days. SeatGuru says it is a whopping 60 inches, almost double what the economy passengers receive.
Understandably for a leasing company purchasing a second-hand aircraft, this bird was not new and the seat showed some wear and tear. What looked like dirt on the seat proved to be just discoloration from years of use.
I was surprised when I researched the history of the aircraft and discovered it was only six years old. It felt older.
There was a wide console with cupholders between the seats. There were additional cupholders in the seatback between the screens and literature holders which my laptop fit comfortably in. There was also in-seat power.
There was loads of legroom and I enjoyed stretching out.
I opted for a quick nap midflight and reclined the seat fully. While not horizontally flat, I found the slight angle easy to sleep in — and I hate angle-flat seats for sleeping.
I have flown both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic’s current premium-economy seats (which are both recliners) and this was significantly more comfortable, both to sit and sleep in.
One of the frustrations of the premium-economy seats on both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic was that despite more legroom than economy, I could not get out from the window seat to the aisle without the passenger next to me getting out too.
No such issue here. I could easily slip past my seat neighbor when he was seated or even fully reclined.
I popped back to the economy cabin and found a lightly loaded very spacious 2-4-2 layout. I would be very happy if I booked a cheap $150 economy sale ticket and found these seats awaiting me.
Amenities and IFE
Awaiting me on my seat was a plush, high quality duvet but no pillow. It seemed odd that they would provide one without the other. I asked the crew about a pillow and they quickly offered me a second duvet which worked as a makeshift pillow.
I was also offered a pair of headphones in a Norwegian-branded pouch.
There was a large screen in front of me, with a remote control to my side.
I was curious to see what sort of entertainment would be provided, given they’re a leasing company. I was pleasantly surprised to see they featured their own promotional videos as well as some background on the airline. I was also pleased see a decent selection of both new releases and classic movies, some TV shows and games.
The flight map also worked well, tracking flight times and estimated arrival for this fairly short flight.
There were several Oscar-nominated films I had not yet seen but I ended up spending much of the flight chatting with my seat neighbor. We started talking about the unusual plane and as soon as he said, “I love reading travel blogs,” I knew we would have plenty to talk about.
There was a big tray table that easily fit my 13-inch Macbook.
I do have to take marks off for the lack of Wi-Fi, for which the crew apologized profusely. I would also note that I flew Norwegian’s flagship 787 Dreamliner earlier the same week with Nicky Kelvin, TPG UK’s director of content, and the Wi-Fi failed to connect for either of us the entire flight. Norwegian offers Wi-Fi in both classes on their standard 787 flights.
I also checked out the bathrooms which were spacious and spotlessly clean. There were drawers that would in the past have been stocked with Singapore Airlines business-class amenities but were mostly empty on this amenity-free Evelop service.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Service started during the boarding process with crew passing through the cabin with a choice of water or fruit juices.
After takeoff, the meal service started with another drinks service.
Having read a recent review of Norwegian Premium on the 787, I could see the meals were the same on the Evelop A330. The choice was “beef or chicken.”
I asked what they were served with and was told “vegetables” for both. I selected beef and was handed a long narrow box and then offered a bread basket to choose from various types of bread.
The bread basket was definitely a business-class touch, though these boxes are more economy than premium.
The meal wasn’t much to look at but was extremely tasty. The beef was essentially a hamburger and the accompanying vegetables were well-cooked. The side salad was great, and I am such a sucker for macarons — a more upmarket choice than the standard tea cake or ice cream.
Several drink rounds were offered at the time of serving the meal and afterwards. I spied a few different bottles on the cart, including cava and wine. I asked for a glass of white wine and was shown two different wine bottles with a brief description of each and offered a taste before deciding on a whole glass. Again, these little touches definitely felt more like business class than economy class.
Tea and coffee were also offered with the meal. Spirits were not displayed and I was told that these were available at additional cost, so I stuck with wine and soft drinks. I rarely drink spirits on planes, regardless of the class or airline.
Approximately 90 minutes before landing, a second, lighter meal was served. Again it was another box, bread basket and several drink rounds. There was no choice for the second meal; we all got cold cuts, cheese and egg. The fruit salad served with it was possibly the smallest fruit salad I’ve ever seen — three lonely items. It wasn’t really worth the effort, but the meal was great.
Business-class level of service provided by the professional, friendly and genuine crew.
I’ve taken dozens of flights in both economy and business class and there is a noticeable difference in the level of service between the two classes, just as in the seats and ticket prices. Premium-economy service sits somewhere in the middle but is usually closer to economy than business.
What I expected from the service on this flight after reading horror stories of HiFly and Wamos crew on other leased Norwegian flights was a distant, unfriendly crew doing the bare minimum and unhappy to be there. After all, they are not Norwegian employees so what motivation do they have to be brand ambassadors and deliver an authentic Norwegian experience?
I was surprised and very pleased to find a business-class level of service from the Evelop crew from start to finish. I was addressed as “Sir” with every single interaction, no requests were forgotten and everything was done with efficiency, professionalism and a genuine smile.
My seatmate and I hadn’t flown Norwegian Premium before so we had questions for the crew about what was included and what was not. The crew member serving our aisle patiently explained the service and what flying on a leased aircraft meant for us on this flight. She said they adopted as much of the Norwegian experience as possible (such as headrests and food boxes), but there were some features, like Wi-Fi, they weren’t able to deliver because the older aircraft was not fitted with it.
The crew (and Evelop brand) was Spanish. I find crew on Spanish airlines like Iberia and Vueling to be very serious, barely cracking a smile. The crew on this flight had plenty of smiles, warmth and even the odd joke from time to time. Little touches, like passing through the cabin every single hour like clockwork with trays of water and juice and lightning-quick responses to the call button, were emblematic of top-notch service.
I tested them with a request for an (alcoholic) drink outside of meal services. I wasn’t even sure if this was complimentary, given this was a low-cost carrier. It was delivered, quickly and pleasantly, no questions asked.
Leased aircraft are often a downgrade for passengers, as it’s hard for the substitutes to deliver an experience close to that of the airline they are filling in for. I had heard horror stories of other leased aircraft and went into this flight with low expectations.
I was blown away by the entire experience with Evelop and would rate this as easily the best premium-economy flight I’ve ever taken, ahead of full-service British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. I had hoped the seat would be better than the 787 (it certainly was), but I was also impressed with the service. I’ve had many business-class flights poorer than this premium-economy flight. Problems that arose could often be traced to Norwegian’s own touches in its Premium product. They can be decidedly low-cost — the meals could be bigger, pillows would be nice and spirits should be free.
This is easily the best Premium seat Norwegian operates and I would go out of my way to book it again — especially on the daytime flight.
The Evelop A330 will continue operating flights DI7013 and DI7014 between London (LGW) and New York (JFK) until at least late October 2019. If you are looking to fly Norwegian Premium on this route, I would book this plane.
All photos by the author.
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