To Morocco, in Style: A Review of Royal Air Maroc's 787-9 in Business From NYC to Casablanca
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="78" ground-experience="7" cabin-seat="23" amens-ife="10" food-bev="18" service="20" pros="Great new hard product that features large, private seats in a roomy cabin." cons="Mediocre IFE and food, no Wi-Fi." /]
Royal Air Maroc shared massive news in December: The airline would be joining some of the world's largest carriers, like American Airlines and British Airways, in the Oneworld alliance, officially becoming a member-elect in 2020.
Royal Air Maroc flies from its hub in Casablanca to two US destinations including New York-JFK and Dulles Airport in Washington, DC (IAD), but will add service to Boston (BOS) and Miami (MIA) later this year. It currently operates a fleet of five Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners, but recently took delivery of the larger Boeing 787-9 and with that introduced a greatly improved business-class product on the aircraft. It has three more 787-9s on order, which it will receive over the next few years. It plans on using the new aircraft on flights to New York, Paris-Orly (ORY) and São Paulo (GRU).
The carrier installed the B/E Super Diamond seat in business class; a similar version is found on American's Boeing 777-200 and 787-9 and has received great reviews from TPG staff. I was excited to hop on the carrier's newest bird to see if the product lived up to my relatively high expectations, and, in a larger sense, to see if it can truly compete with some of the biggest names in the industry.
Royal Air Maroc isn't a part of any of the big three airline alliances (yet), so you can't use the usual suspects' (American, Delta, United) miles to book a flight on the carrier. But there still are a few ways to book a RAM flight with points, and one of those ways just so happens to be one of the better redemptions that exists in the points-and-miles universe.
Your best bet to secure a RAM flight with points is through the Etihad Guest loyalty program, because of the airline's distance-based partner-award chart.
You can book a business-class seat from the US to Morocco or anywhere beyond, including other points in Africa and the Middle East, for just 44,000 miles one-way. That's a heck of deal, considering most of the other major mileage programs charge 75,000-plus miles one-way for business-class flights to Africa or the Middle East.
Even better, availability is known to be quite good on RAM, and we easily found an award seat for the flight we needed. We transferred 44,000 Amex Membership Rewards points to Etihad Guest, which appeared instantly in our account, and then booked the flight after paying a somewhat hefty $232 in taxes and fees. You can also transfer Citi ThankYou points (at a 1:1 transfer ratio) and Capital One Miles (a 2:1.5 transfer ratio) to Etihad.
Since it was an award ticket, I wouldn't earn any miles from the flight, although we did get 1,160 Membership Rewards points (worth $23 according to TPG's valuations) when paying for the itinerary's taxes and fees with the Platinum Card® from American Express, since the card earned 5x points on airfare. If you do book a revenue ticket on RAM, your best bet is to credit it toward Etihad or Iberia's Avios (which can be transferred to British Airways' Avios or topped off with an Amex or Chase transfer).
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I arrived at New York's Kennedy airport a few hours before my flight was scheduled to depart at 8:20pm to ensure I'd be able to get the full ground experience.
Royal Air Maroc flies out of JFK's soon-to-be demolished Terminal 1, which is home to an eclectic group of international carriers like Air France, Turkish Airlines, Philippines Airlines and Korean Air.
I checked in online about 26 hours before my flight and chose my seat. RAM's website provided a quick and painless experience, unlike some other airlines I've had to deal with. All window seats were taken except for one, and all of the middle seats were blocked off, which I found a bit bizarre.
I still had to check a bag, so I headed to the check-in desk and bag-drop area.
There was a priority check-in for business-class passengers, and since I was a couple of hours early, there was barely anyone in line. Still, a half dozen friendly check-in agents were available to help me and had my bag tagged and on a conveyor belt within two minutes. The agent answered my question about a long layover in Casablanca, advising me to not leave the airport before the connecting flight to Lisbon (LIS). She handed me my boarding pass and pointed me to the Air France lounge, where RAM business passengers could kill time before their journey over the Atlantic.
I've been to the Air France lounge a couple of times because it's a part of the Priority Pass network, which I'm granted access to when I enroll through The Platinum Card® from American Express (many other credit cards offer complimentary memberships too).
After checking in, I found that the the second story was closed off to anyone not flying on Air France metal. The airline had recently converted it to a traditional dining experience, but it was only available to those flying in an Air France premium cabin or with Flying Blue elite status. I did take a peek upstairs and was bummed I couldn't try what looked to be a classy experience.
That means that I was confined to about half of the space that I was used to. Fortunately, there was still enough room to grab a seat and enjoy some food before my flight. After about 20 minutes and a call for an Air France flight to board, the lounge opened up even more as about half of the people inside cleared out.
This lounge has a minimal but still chic design. Its seating options are comfortable, and I really enjoyed the airline's retro posters.
Even though I couldn't access the sit-down dining, I still found that there were enough food and beverage choices to keep me satisfied. There was a salad bar, fresh fruit, two soups, cold cuts and cheeses, a couple of hot items and plenty of desserts, including Haagen-Dazs ice cream and cookies. There was a self-service bar with plenty of wine, sparkling wine, liquor, beer and soft drinks.
I filled up a plate with beef bourguignon, chicken and broccoli, rice and a warm roll. The chicken and broccoli was actually quite good, and it felt like I was eating at an upscale Chinese joint. It was perfectly fried with just the right amount of crunch and spice — I enjoyed it so much that I went back to the buffet and filled up my plate with seconds.
Last month, Air France introduced a new beauty center in partnership with La Prairie, which replaced the old Clarins spa. It wasn't available when I was there, and a check-in agent said I would have needed to make a reservation in advance to guarantee a spot even if it had been.
I headed over to the gate a few minutes before boarding began, and passengers were already starting to line up. As always, Terminal 1 is a great place for planespotting, as it's home to a diverse group of airlines from across the globe. I caught a glimpse of two countries' flagship airlines, Russia's Aeroflot and its Airbus A330-300s, and a Turkish Airlines Boeing 777.
Boarding was broken into two groups, business class and economy.
Because I was traveling in the premium cabin, I was able to get on the plane first and skip the long lines. RAM staff actually let the business-class passengers onto the jet bridge a few minutes before boarding officially began.
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The first thing I noticed after stepping onto Royal Air Maroc's new 787-9 was the stunning interior it installed on the aircraft. Immediately, I could tell this was a huge upgrade from the business-class cabin on its 787-8.
The 26 business-class seats are divided into seven rows (one row doesn't have window seats) in a 1-2-1 configuration. This means every seat has direct aisle access and avoids the awkwardness and hassle of having to hop over a seatmate.
I chose Seat 4A, a window seat right in the middle of the cabin. The B/E Aerospace seat was appointed with purple and beige leather and still had that new-airplane look and feel. My seat and the rest of the cabin were free of any stains, crumbs or worn-down equipment.
At its widest point, the seat is 21 inches, and when in lie-flat mode, you'll have almost 80 inches (6' 8") to stretch out in.
This is a great business-class configuration. The way the seats are designed makes each seat -- and especially those at the windows -- very private so there's no need to be ashamed of whatever reality television show or corny movie you're watching.
If you're flying with a companion, you can choose the pair of middle seats, which offer just as much space and privacy and also allow you to chat — there's a partition that can be extended if you need alone time, though, or if your seat neighbor is a stranger.
I could stretch my legs all the way out and still not hit the footwell. And speaking of the footwell, once I did lower the seat and got my legs inside, I wasn't confined to a teeny space. And, there was still room to store my shoes underneath.
There were more than enough storage areas as well as large surfaces to store my laptop and phone while I was using the tray table to eat.
I found two compartments adjacent to the window, a pocket near the footwell and another hidden compartment on the right side of the seat next to the armrest. Inside one of the storage units was the IFE controller, headphone jack, two USB outlets and an AC power outlet. I could plug in my phone and store it out of sight while it juiced up.
Revealing how new the hard product was, the seat even had a touchscreen seat-control system that allowed me to move from fully upright to slightly reclined to fully flat. If I'd wanted, I could've solely extended the footrest or given my back a bit more support without having to move the entire seat.
The tray table extended out from underneath the IFE screen, so it really didn't take up much room. When it was fully extended, it had a few positions it could be secured in, and it was large enough to fit my 15-inch MacBook on it alongside a drink and snacks — something that can't be said for many tray tables, even in business class.
The business cabin had two lavatories reserved for passengers. I found both to be clean, and they each had fresh roses and moisturizing cream, which felt like a nice touch in a part of the flight experience that's normally boring, to say the least.
Overall, the new cabin knocked it out of the park: The seat was well-designed and obviously had privacy and convenience in mind.
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The 17.5-inch high-definition touchscreen looked great, but what was behind the screen didn't match the quality of the hardware. An unresponsive IFE touchscreen bugs the hell out of me. If an airline can't get those tech basics down in 2019, then what's the point of even trying? Fortunately, the monitor was very responsiver, and it almost felt like I was swiping through a large iPad.
There was a remote that controlled the entertainment unit and featured a touchscreen of its own. But this didn't match its bigger brother and was sometimes inaccurate and lagged when responding to my commands.
I still had hopes that the device would have some usefulness when I saw you could play games or look at the interactive flight map, but I received an error message saying both features were currently unavailable. I hope this was just something the airline was figuring out, given how new the plane was, but it was still a bit disappointing.
Royal Air Maroc had a small but solid collection of newer films like "Mission: Impossible - Fallout," "Ocean's 8," "Bad Times at the El Royale" and "Crazy Rich Asians" in addition to another dozen foreign films. TV options included modern picks like "The Big Bang Theory" and "The Flash" and classics like Tom and Jerry cartoons as well as National Geographic documentaries.
As always, an AvGeek and traveler favorite is the inflight 3D map, and I did plenty of playing with it -- it even helped me find inspiration for future trips. This one was provided by Thales and was up to date with the latest controls, which allowed me to view our flight from all sorts of angles and get the lowdown on our speed and position.
If reading's more your speed, you could choose between several magazines and newspapers at the front of the cabin.
Before takeoff, flight attendants came around the cabin handing out amenity kits, slippers and noise-canceling headphones. The headphones claimed to block out the drone from the engines and chatty passengers, but to do that they emitted a louder-than-normal buzzing sound. This made it hard to concentrate when I was watching a movie.
The amenity kit felt a step above basic and covered the essentials, like a toothbrush, eye mask, socks and comb, and even a shoehorn. It also threw in a few nicer products from Pier Augé, including both hand and face cream, lip balm and an orange face mist.
My favorite part of the amenities were the airline-branded hotel slippers. Normally, these would be a bit over the top for my tastes, but something about their red color made me feel like I was heading to Casablanca to close an important business deal and then cap off my visit by attending a party hosted by the Moroccan royal family. One can dream!
I was disappointed to learn that the airline does not offer Wi-Fi on any of its jets — even the new ones. It's puzzling to me that a carrier that is trying to make a name for itself by joining Oneworld and acquiring a large number of new planes wouldn't put internet access on one of its flagship routes. Business travelers needing to get work done on the flight may want to look elsewhere. Even budget carrier Norwegian Air offers free Wi-Fi on all its transatlantic routes.
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Shortly after boarding, I was greeted with a welcome drink and a choice of orange juice (which I went for), tomato juice or water.
A few minutes later, a flight attendant came around offering a second round — but this time consisting of Laurent-Perrier Brut Rosé. I'm no Champagne snob, but it sure tasted better than your typical $7 bottle of André. For reference, a bottle typically retails for around $70 or $80.
As this was just a six-hour flight, I hoped that meal service would start quickly after takeoff so I could get some sleep on the overnight journey. But the exact opposite happened. It took about 45 minutes before the first course came out.
To begin, I was served three tiny canapés including one covered in guacamole, one of fresh smoked salmon and the final topped by an assortment of veggies. With Royal Air Maroc being Morocco's flag carrier, I thought it was appropriate to order a Casablanca beer, a heavier lager similar to an Israeli Goldstar. The canapés tasted fresh and quite flavorful and were my favorite part of the meal.
Then, the appetizer -- a tuna tataki and a salad of mozzarella and tomatoes -- arrived. The tuna didn't taste very fresh and was a bit dry and bland. The salad was a bit better but nothing in that course knocked my socks off.
After the lackluster appetizer, I was excited to try the main course. I went with the grilled sea bass topped with a lemon-cream sauce and accompanied by a side of grilled zucchini and carrots and roasted red potatoes. (Also on offer were grilled chicken breast and roasted beef tenderloin.) The main event ended up disappointing me too: The lemon sauce, though it added some flavor, wasn't able to make up for the mediocre and dry fish. The veggies and potatoes were decent, but it's hard to screw that up.
I did indulge in some of the Moroccan wine, since it was offered to me so many times that it seemed like there was no tomorrow. The red varietal from La Ferme Rouge winery was fruity with no bite, and I was thoroughly satisfied drinking it to wash down the otherwise forgettable meal.
The airline showed off the strong French influence in its home country with the extensive cheese course. There was a plate of four or five cheeses, including what appeared to be goat cheese and Roquefort. I passed, as I was saving room for dessert, but before that the flight attendant came back around with his cart chock-full of fruit including grapes, apples, bananas, oranges and kiwis.
To finish off the meal, there was a choice of three desserts: a coffee mousse, Sachertorte and raspberry cheesecake. I'm a sucker for cheesecake and grabbed a handful of grapes to go with the kid-sized sweet. The cheesecake wasn't outstanding but could hold its own against something you'd find from your neighborhood bakery. It was fluffy and not overwhelmingly sweet.
The flight attendant cleaned up my table and offered a glass of mint tea, which was a nice way to unwind before trying to doze off.
With a little more than an hour left of our flight, I was awoken for breakfast service (which you could opt out of if you want to sleep longer). It wasn't worth opening my eyes: I got a bland, rubbery mushroom omelet that tasted like something you'd eat in economy. The same could be said about the single sausage link that came along for the ride. I mainly chowed down on the pain au chocolat, croissant and fresh fruit, all of which were acceptable.
I found most of Royal Air Maroc's food to be decent at best and forgettable at worst. None of the food was outright bad, but nothing impressed me. Flavor and freshness were lacking, and the menu was uninspiring.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="20" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="Yes" turndown-service="No" /]
All the flight attendants I encountered were warm and accommodating, but I couldn’t say any of the service was outstanding. The crew was courteous but not overly nice or eager to help, although one flight attendant who stayed up for the majority of the overnight came out from the galley immediately after I pressed the call button.
If I really had to nitpick, there were two things I could fault the crew for: The hot towels before the meal service started were cold by the time they got to me, and, while I'm more than happy to pour a beer myself, I was handed the can and glass separately. In my experience with other airlines, FAs would fill the glass for me.
There was no turndown service, but when I asked for a mattress pad and extra pillow, the flight attendant returned with an extra duvet to put over my seat and another pillow. Since the business cabin was just half full, it's likely he just grabbed them from a nearby empty seat.
I was surprised when we deplaned in Casablanca at a remote gate — which is not something I expected for the airline's newest aircraft on a very important route. We were, however, greeted by a luxury minivan and a few members of the ground crew who quickly whisked us to immigration, which guaranteed that we beat the passengers who'd flown in economy.
I was really only wowed by Royal Air Maroc's hard product on the 789, but, to me, that matters most. Its new seat really makes for a comfortable journey and is one of my favorite business-class products out there. The fact that it can be booked for just 44,000 miles makes it even more attractive.
The lounge, IFE and meal service won't leave you feeling disappointed, but you likely won't come away thinking it was the best flying experience you've had. If the airline invested a little more in the soft product and installed Wi-Fi on its aircraft, I think it could be a real contender for one of the better ways to hop across the Pond. For now, though, perhaps its best selling point is the fact that it's the only way to fly nonstop between the US and Morocco, and it offers a slew of connections to many other destinations in Africa. And for that, it's a more than suitable option to get the job done.
All images by the author for The Points Guy.