When the Long Way Is the Right Way: Swiss Air Lines' A330 in Business, London to New York via Geneva
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="82" ground-experience="7" cabin-seat="21" amens-ife="10" food-bev="21" service="23" pros="Soothing and stylish cabin, comfy seat, truly great food and exceptional service." cons="Very crowded lounge at Newark and tight footwells at certain seats." /]
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="80" ground-experience="4" cabin-seat="22" amens-ife="8" food-bev="22" service="24" pros="Smart-looking cabin, comfortable throne seat and fantastic service." cons="Lackluster ground experience and outrageously expensive Wi-Fi." /]
There's no shortage of direct flights between London and New York, which is undoubtedly one of the commercial aviation industry's most important routes, but sometimes it pays to consider a connecting flight -- whether that's to grab a deal, travel on specific dates or just to experience a different or superior product. I did just that when I flew from London to New York via Geneva on Swiss Air Lines.
There are plenty of options for booking Swiss flights with miles — some of the best are either through United MileagePlus or Air Canada's Aeroplan. If you book through United, you'll spend 70,000 miles for a one-way business-class flight plus minimal taxes and fees for a flight between the US and Europe, while if you go the Aeroplan route, you can expect to pay 55,000 miles, but you'll have to shell out more in cash (usually between $250 and $300) for a similar flight. It's easy to come by miles in either of these programs, too, since United is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Aeroplan is a 1:1 transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards. If you wanted to go the United/Chase route, you could almost earn a one-way biz ticket just by signing up for a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, both of which are offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 within the first three months of account opening. Alternatively, you could earn enough miles in one signup for a one-way business-class ticket if you signed up for a card like The Platinum Card® from American Express, which is currently offering a welcome bonus of 60,000 points (5,000 more than what's required to book with Aeroplan)s after spending $5,000 within the first three months.
Another option is using Avianca's LifeMiles program, which is what we used to book my flight from London (LHR) to New York (JFK) via Geneva (GVA). We paid a total of 60,000 miles, and taxes and fees came to a total of $292, which we put on the Platinum Card in order to earn 5x points on the purchase — in this case a total of 1,460 points, worth about $28 according to TPG's current valuations.
Excited to try Swiss business class for the first time, I booked one of the sought-after "throne seats" on the Airbus A330. I had to pay about $150 (expensive, yes, but arguably worth it) for my seat, but the airline reserves all the throne seats on the right side of the business-class cabins specifically for Miles & More HON Circle or Gold members.
Flying the Airbus A220 From London to Geneva
Beside getting a chance to fly long-haul in Swiss business class for the first time, this itinerary contained another treat — a flight on board Swiss' new Airbus A220 aircraft from LHR to GVA. As an AvGeek, I was pretty much as excited for the short intra-Europe flight (it would be my first on an A220) as I was for the almost-nine-hour transatlantic flight. I'm going to review the full A220 flight in a separate post, so for now I'll just touch on the experience.
After a quick visit to the Lufthansa business-class lounge, it was time to board the A220.
As expected, the aircraft and seats have a very modern feel and though the seats look very slim, they were comfortable enough for such a short flight. Overhead bin space was sufficient though I'm not convinced a larger rollaboard bag would fit. I was seated in 1A and legroom was wholly adequate.
Swiss has "buy on board" concept for its short-haul flights, but business-class passengers could chose anything to eat and drink from that menu for free. Since I'd eaten already in the Lufthansa lounge, I chose a lighter meal of muesli and tea, which was nicely presented on real china.
Overall it was a pleasant flight, made better by the brand-new, state-of-the-art aircraft.
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Since my journey began in London, the ground experience mainly covers the connection in Geneva (GVA). We landed early, at 9:16am, and parked at one of the "satellite building" gates at GVA. Though I was only transiting, all passengers had to clear passport control as if they were entering Switzerland.
When I passed through the airport, Swiss' business-class lounge was closed for refurbishment — kind of. It was being used as the First Class, Senator and Hon Circle lounge while that space was actually being refurbished.
As a result, business-class passengers received a measly 10 euro voucher for food and drink at one of the airport shops, which I thought was a pretty subpar compromise. I think Swiss should have set up some sort of arrangement with a Priority Pass lounge, or it could have offered more than a food voucher for its long-haul business-class passengers. The business-class lounge at Geneva has since re-opened, which will surely be a massive improvement compared to what I experienced.
Luckily, though, thanks to my Amex Platinum, I do have a Priority Pass membership, which I used to access the nearby Horizon lounge. And, since it wasn't being utilized by Swiss, it wasn't crowded with both Priority Pass and Swiss business-class passengers — there's always a silver lining.
This lounge was basic but had all I needed. Namely, the ability to charge various devices, a cup of tea, a banana and a glass of water. It's the simple things.
I decided to head to our gate about an hour before departure to get some pictures of our plane — probably a smart move anyway, as there was another passport check for all C gates, which is where many long-haul international flights were departing from. And, of course, the lines were quite long. At the gate itself, there was another boarding pass and security check with the usual "what's the reason for your trip" line of questioning.
Our gate was a bus gate. During the ongoing airport refurbishment, it seems that most long-haul flights depart from these types of gates. First, business and elite passengers were called to board just after 11am for our 11:40am departure and were bussed separately to our A330, which has registration HB-JHJ and was delivered new to Swiss eight years ago. The bus was completely packed, though, so it didn't feel like a premium experience. And, we were held for a while on the bus before we were allowed to board. Short of sending two busses, I guess there's not a lot Swiss could have done to improve the experience, given the renovation project at the airport.
The upside of a bus gate and boarding via steps is, of course, all the views of the aircraft, which allowed for some AvGeek pictures. I did notice, though, that a few of the other passengers were struggling with their bags while climbing the steep steps.
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Swiss A330s feature first, business and economy class cabins. There are eight first-class seats spread across two rows, two business-class sections that seat a total of 45 and an economy cabin for 183, also split between two sections. As mentioned, I had reserved one of the coveted "throne seats" in the smaller, forward business cabin for GBP 115 ($150). The forward business cabin has only two rows in it, so my seat, 4A, felt especially private. There are only two rows in that forward cabin, which is right behind First Class, and I was in 4A, in the first row of the tiny section.
Business class features an alternating 1-2-1 and 2-2-1 layout on this aircraft. The "single" window seats on the right hand side are typically reserved for HON Circle and Senator Miles & More members. Standard seats can be reserved free of charge, and the throne seats on the left side (being in every other row) can be reserved for the same fee that I paid. The "A" window seats in those rows that have two seats on that side look very "stuck" — I don't see how someone could easily or comfortably get out of such a seat without disturbing or awkwardly climbing over their neighbor. I would definitely avoid those seats unless traveling with a companion. Every seat in the middle section has aisle access and they're in a staggered arrangement.
Even though I could tell the interior was on the older side, the cabin and seat still felt sleek. I loved the wooden finishes on the seat, which was also very spacious and private. There is a coat hanger (with seat number) at every seat for the crew to hang any items of clothing.
Each seat has an adjustable reading light and a USB charging port as well as an international AC power port. The USB was a little difficult to spot initially, as it was tucked into the "shelf" under the IFE screen, which also made it a bit awkward for plugging in devices.
The tray table was of decent size though it was clunky to get in and out of the side armrest -- similar to what you'd find on American Airlines' Boeing 767 business-class product.
From my throne seat in business, I had a perfect view of the small first-class cabin until the curtain was drawn.
Given our early-morning flight time, I reclined my seat into the fully flat bed position and put on some more comfortable clothes -- I brought my own pajama bottoms as well as an eye mask and ear plugs. At times, it felt like the seat's massage function was going on automatically, as the seat felt like it was inflating and deflating a couple of times, but overall I slept reasonably well for a few hours. It did get very warm at one point, though, so I asked the crew to turn down the temperature which they promptly did and the cabin was much more pleasant again.
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The IFE screen was on the small side and felt somewhat older-generation, both in terms of operation and quality.
There is Wi-Fi on board most of Swiss' long-haul aircraft. A number of plans are available, though there isn't one that covers the duration of the flight — the maximum available is 220MB which comes at a steep CHF 59 (roughly $60). The Wi-Fi itself was adequate for my usage, though the limit meant I was cautious in terms of what I was using it for, and it ran out before the flight ended. Anyone who needs to be online for a serious amount of time (or doing a serious amount of work) is going to find that getting connected on board a Swiss aircraft is very expensive.
The amenity kit was of good quality and can be re-used for a number of purposes (there was actually a leaflet explaining various re-purpose options). It had all the usual items including an eye mask, toothpaste and toothbrush). There were also red socks at each seat.
Each seat had a nice-looking blanket and matching pillow. If I had to be picky, I'd say the pillow could have been bigger and firmer, but it did the job.
The toilet between the front- and back-business-class sections on the left hand side was very spacious (it's the wheelchair-accessible one) and had some premium amenities including cute tubes of face cream.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" dine-on-demand="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Before we took off, there was a choice of Champagne, orange juice or water. I went for water off the bat and also asked for a soda, which was no problem. I quite liked the glassware that Swiss used, too.
Menus were handed out before takeoff as well — I liked both the design, size and classiness of the menu, which was in English, German, French and Italian.
We pushed back on time at 11:40am and were airborne 20 minutes later. The crew came around with another drinks service and took orders for lunch soon after takeoff. Orders seemed to be taken in order of elite status as the crew were moving all around the cabin to take orders rather than moving down the rows. The "Maître de Cabine" (Swiss' equivalent of a purser) introduced herself to some passengers — again presumably passengers with status as most of the cabin didn't get such a personal welcome. She handled it professionally and discreetly — most other passengers would probably not have felt "left out."
Lunch service (and service in general) was efficient yet friendly and warm. The crew were very professional throughout the entire flight in a way that some US carriers' crew aren't. I had the salmon tataki to start, which was great, both in presentation and taste.
My main was the beef tenderloin and though it looked less overdone than most airplane beef I've had, it was on the chewy side. I liked the potato and leek puree despite its looks. I probably would have halved the portion, though, and added a more straightforward carb dish, like regular old mashed potatoes.
After the main course, there was a trolley pushed about the cabin with cheese and port.
Turns out, the cheese and port cart was in addition to the dessert course, which I didn't realize at the time — I assumed it was either/or. The cheesecake was very nice, and I enjoyed it with a green tea. Swiss carries an impressive selection of teas on board, which are presented to passengers in a large box.
In addition, the Maître de Cabine also came around with a box of chocolates — the dessert just never ended!
Overall, both the food, presentation and general service was of good quality and nicely done. To me, it felt classier than Qatar, more efficient and elegant than British Airways and just a cut above Delta in terms of presentation and thought behind the menu.
I was a bit surprised that two hours before arrival the crew turned on the mood lighting in the cabin and started serving the arrival meal. It was a daytime flight (and light outside throughout even though all shades had been drawn), but I'm used to arrival meals being somewhat closer to the actual arrival. I had contemplated trying to get some more sleep just as the service started.
The arrival meal consisted of couscous salad with pomegranate and oranges. Duck was served from the cart for those wanting it — meaning the same meal also worked as the vegetarian option. Again, a full bar was on offer.
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Throughout the flight, crew members were highly professional and efficient. I really couldn't fault them for anything.
I had a nice chat with the Maître de Cabine during the flight, and she was interested to hear my thoughts on the flight and genuinely seemed to care about the job she and her team were doing. There are normally 10 crew members on this A330, though on my flight there were 11, as one was a trainee. Unlike on the 777 where the Maître de Cabine works as a pure team leader, on the A330 they work a specific cabin. She also said that both Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines have more crew on their aircraft than Swiss, an interesting tidbit given that Swiss is a part of the wider Lufthansa Group.
I felt that my experience on Swiss was solid, and at times impressive. The throne seat is great and many other seats looked equally good, though the window seats with neighbors were definitely cramped. The cabin, though not the most updated in Swiss' fleet, felt sleek and classy, and service was impeccable. The menu, food and presentation was also very good. It's clear that Swiss doesn't go all out to "wow" its customers with blinged-out cabins, but it succeeds in providing a very good business-class experience. What let this flight down was the ground experience in Geneva, which shouldn't even be an issue now that the lounge is complete. In short, it's definitely worth it (especially when you can find award availability) to fly out of your way from London to New York.