Great Service Across the Atlantic: Swiss Airlines in Economy From JFK to Dubai via Zurich
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="77" ground-experience="8" cabin-seat="15" amens-ife="8" food-bev="23" service="23" pros="Optional inflight luxury upgrades; great service; timely flights." cons="Advance seat selection costs a lot; terrible, pricey Wi-Fi; uncomfortable armrest design; poor-quality headphones." /]
A recent trip to the United Arab Emirates gave me the opportunity to review Swiss Airlines' service from New York-JFK to Zurich, as well as a connection from Zurich to Dubai. I've flown United Airlines for the majority of my life, but my growing familiarity with the Star Alliance program as a whole has me branching out to new partner airlines.
The first place I looked for flights was United's site, hoping that I'd find availability with miles. Sure enough, a saver award was available on the date that I needed to travel for 42,500 miles, the standard saver rate for a US-Middle East flight. Taxes and fees were a minimal $23, which we charged to the Platinum Card® from American Express in order to earn 5x points on the purchase. I flew LX 15 from JFK to Zurich (ZRH), one of the two daily flights on Swiss from JFK to ZRH, connecting to Dubai (DXB) via LX 242 — both on Airbus A330 aircraft.
When I logged into the airline's site to double-check that all was in order, I noticed that the airline offered me several options for upgrading my flight.
Swiss charged for advance seat selection, which is a feature I generally find to be standard on international flights operated by full-service carriers. It cost $45 to reserve a standard aisle seat on my JFK–Zurich fligh, and $35 for the Zurich–Dubai flight, for a total of $80, or $7 more than the cost of my combined award-ticket taxes and close-in booking fees. It was nice to go into my trip with the peace of mind that I'd know where I'd be sitting for 14 total hours, but the cost of that knowledge was steeper than I would've liked. (Granted, my assumption was that I would pay zero dollars for the privilege of picking my seat, so perhaps I'm the one with misguided expectations here.)
Considering my seat selection wasn't free, I was concerned that my one checked bag might also cost me additional money, since luggage allowance was another upgrade option. Fortunately, my flight confirmation from United stated that my ticket allowed me to check up to two bags of 50 pounds apiece with no charge.
My other up-charge options were much more pleasant. I had could order a "special surprise" for someone else on my flights, starting from $29, or I could order special a la carte dining options. Since I was traveling solo, I didn't see the need to woo a stranger with either a bottle of Champagne or a variety of assorted Swiss pralines or truffles (the airline asks for the lucky recipient's full name and seat assignment to deliver the goodies midair).
The a la carte dining options definitely intrigued me — was the potential of better inflight fare worth $30 to $50? In the name of research, I decided to splurge and find out, but more on those meals later.
Though $80 was pricy for advance seat selection, I was happy that the carrier only charged a minimal amount of taxes and fees with the award flight itself. And while the a la carte dining and special surprise options were on the pricier side, they seemed on par with Swiss prices overall — the nation, not just the airline — and offered a cool, unique way to upgrade my travel experience for far less than the cost of a business-class fare.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="8" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="HB-JHA" age="9.8" departure="21" departure-2="05" duration="7" duration-2="31" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
My overall ground experience with Swiss' ground staff at Kennedy airport was positive, especially considering that rush-hour traffic from Manhattan was way worse than usual. I left the TPG offices nearly four hours before departure time but didn't make it to the airport until mere minutes before the cutoff time for checking a bag. (Thus no photo of the check-in area in Terminal 4.)
I marched directly to an incredibly friendly ticket agent, who smiled and cracked a few jokes to set my mind at ease post-traffic. Things were less relaxed at security, though. The screening process at JFK never goes particularly quickly in my experience, even with TSA PreCheck. In fact, this particular airport won notoriety this year for the slowest security lines in North America. But the process, while slow, was steady and consistent. It took me about 18 to 20 minutes to get through, including a random bag check. Note that this checkpoint utilized automated security screening lanes, which still seemed to confuse the heck out of travelers, contributing to the delay. According to J.D. Power, my 20-minute security experience was right on the nose for the average traveler's wait time, which was 19.02 minutes, as opposed to the national average of 15.32 minutes.
The gate itself was in a relatively high-traffic part of the terminal, and the area looked quite messy as people attempted to line up for boarding. Fortunately, everything went quickly and efficiently despite the boarding process starting four minutes late, and we all found ourselves seated with carry-ons stowed away right on time for departure — we even took off five minutes early.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="15" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="2" configuration-2="4" configuration-3="2" width="17.3" pitch="32" tray="16" tray-2="9" lavs="4" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Swiss' A330-300s feature a 2-4-2 configuration in coach, with four lavatories located centrally in the middle of the two main economy sections. On my flight, each seat came with a pillow, headphones and a plastic-wrapped blanket, as well as a fabric headrest cover.
"Adequate" is the perfect word to describe the seat pitch: It inspired no stronger emotions in me, either positive or negative. For context, I'm only 5 feet, 2 inches, so my knees almost never touch the seat in front of me on flights. However, the passenger next to me looked to be about 6 feet, 1 inch, and his knees were right up against the magazine holder.
The headrests were quite cushy, and the seats were upholstered in a drab brown plaid.
The single-piece tray tables slid forward about 4.5 inches and felt relatively solid — enough to bear the weight of a fully laden meal tray (more on that later). I appreciated that there were little cupholders built into the bottom right of the closed tray table so that you could safely stash a beverage without having to fold down the entire table. There were no power outlets in coach, although first- and business-class seats featured one outlet at each seat. I did, however, have a USB outlet built into the back of seat in front of me.
The seatback featured the standard amount of storage space for books, tablets, and other personal items. I appreciated the two mesh pockets over the magazine holder, which were perfect for stashing my phone.
The crisp, clean blankets and pillows were slightly nicer than I expected, with pillowcases made of real cotton that felt surprisingly soft, compared to the cheap microfiber pillow covers of certain other airlines that shall remain unnamed.
The generously sized plaid blankets came packaged in plastic and looked clean. They also didn't feel scratchy.
I regularly fly economy and have learned to make the most of my seats on overnight flights. However, two quirks of Swiss economy made it very difficult to get a decent night's sleep, even considering that I got lucky enough to score an entire empty row on my flight from JFK to Zurich. I wasn't able to lean against the wall to sleep in the window seat, and I wasn't able to utilize the full extent of my lucky "poor man's business-class" seat because the armrests didn't raise up all the way.
The side of the plane curved away from the seat, so window-seaters were not be able to lean against the side of the plane to sleep more comfortably. In the photo below, you'll see that there was still an inch or two of space between my head and the wall, even with my neck pillow folded up and bunched into the gap for comfort.
My second issue with the seats was that the armrests didn't go up all the way; the angle you see here was as far up as I could raise them. (That is a feature of other A330s in coach class, such as Alitalia's.)
Oh, and yes, those were indeed the feet of the passenger behind me. Fun fact: I discovered she was doing that when I was in the window seat and felt her toes against my arm. As you can also see, I then switched to the empty seat next to me, thanking my lucky stars that that was an option. I did politely ask her to desist, but she simply pulled them back two inches and carried on. You do you, boo boo.
I eventually figured out a body contortion that allowed me to shrimp up and lie across the seats in a way that mostly avoided the armrests. But it was far less comfortable than it could've been. And since the seatbelt buckles were fixed directly to the seats, I could feel them poking into my back when I lay down instead of being able to loosen the strap and let the buckle hang over the edge of the seat for comfort.
The lavatory layout was interesting. Swiss has all four economy bathrooms in a row between the two sections of the coach-class seating, which led to frequent aisle jams as people trying to stretch their legs would get in the way of other people standing around waiting for their turn. It was a relatively small gripe overall, but I could tell it got annoying for a couple of young parents trying to soothe a small baby to sleep by pacing up and down, because there wasn't really anywhere to go. The back area was designated as galley space for the flight attendants, so standing around there wasn't a trouble-free option either.
Location aside, the lavatories were just fine and started out quite clean and neat.
Swiss offered Soeder products in the bathrooms, with skin-hydrating lotions and creams as well as hand soap. I tested out the face spray. I liked it.
Overall, I'd say that the Swiss economy cabin earned a "meh" rating from me. The "bedding" was nice, and the seats weren't uncomfortable, but the quirks and the lavatory location kept my overall experience solidly in the range of average. That being said, it was way better than any economy experience I've had on any of the major US carriers this year.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="8" tpg-rating-max="15" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" wifi="0.51" wifi-2="1.08" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
The Wi-Fi setup was one of the stranger ones I'd ever seen. Though there were multiple options, it wasn't charged by how long you used it but by bandwidth — and it wasn't cheap. Packages ranged from about $20 to $60 for 50 MB to 500 MB bandwidth, and I was dismayed to discover that running an Internet speed test — when the connection allowed it — cost me a sizable chunk of my allotted usage.
Just in case my first flight's Wi-Fi experience was a fluke, I tried again on my second flight, with even worse results: This time, my attempts to access my work email ate up my bandwidth almost immediately. The quality of the connection was also worse than I'd experienced on board most international flights of comparable duration and distance. Don't plan on doing more than sending maybe a couple of emails at most on the basic plan.
The headphones were flimsy with tinny sound. They also utilized a two-prong design, which meant that I couldn't swap in my own superior-quality earbuds. So I just sucked it up when I wanted to watch movies and switched over to my own headphones when I felt like listening to music via Spotify.
Not everything about the amenities and inflight experience sucked. The airline offered at least 80 movies. I like to catch up on new movies while flying, so I was happy to see a number of summer blockbusters and relatively recent films.
A similarly generous number of TV shows were also available, skewing heavily toward American entertainment. However, only a few episodes per show were available for the most part, so bingeing wasn't possible. (This is an issue on other airlines, too.)
The screens themselves were quite bright and large, with both touchscreen capability as well as remote controls in the seat armrest. I appreciated the flight duration countdown at the bottom of the screen at all times, which allowed me to track our progress without leaving my movie.
The map functionality was perfectly adequate but didn't include any particularly fancy features such as a tail cam or 3D visual effects.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="23" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="2" meals-purchase="Yes" comp-alcohol="Yes" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
As I mentioned earlier, I had the option of preordering an a la carte meal before departing, though this option was only available on the Zurich-Dubai leg, presumably because the airline has a commercial kitchen at its home hub.
For the first leg, JFK-ZRH, though, it was regular old coach food, but it was actually pretty tasty. The choice was chicken or pasta. I chose the chicken, which came with a small salad, a tiny, wrapped square of hard cheese and a small serving of surprisingly delicious cheesecake. I also got a small, dense roll. I merely pecked at the salad and the roll.
Beverage service was standard for international flights, with all the usual sodas, juices, water, tea and coffee available for all passengers. Swiss also offered tasty red and white wine in single-serving bottles. (Somehow, I think plane wine tastes a little better when I pour it into a plastic cup myself instead of having it served to me like I'm at a budget party.)
The flight attendants also proactively handed out small bottles of spring water and walked through the cabin quietly offering cups of water throughout our trip. Also, I was offered a little Swiss chocolate at the end of the first meal service, and I imagine I could've asked for several more if I wanted them. It was delicious, and that's coming from someone who doesn't particularly care for chocolate.
My breakfast the next morning looked far more basic. Inside the cardboard box was Chobani yogurt and Minute Maid orange juice. A flight attendant handed me a croissant separately.
Things were much more interesting on my flight from Zurich to Dubai. When I discovered the elevated food options, I opted to purchase the Swiss traditional meal in honor of my eponymous airline. For $39, I got to look forward to a traditional Swiss veal dish served with veggies and finished off with a dark-chocolate mousse. Yum!
I had my doubts about a $39 inflight dining experience, but the weight of the tray and the quality of the real porcelain and silverware definitely felt like class — premium class. My meal included: two types of bread rolls, a fresh salad with a hard-boiled egg wedge and its own bottle of salad dressing, a small selection of cheeses, a single-serving bottle of red wine (although these were free for all coach class travelers upon request) with a real wine glass, chocolate mousse and the main course.
Everything was tasty, although I would include the disclaimer "for being served on a plane in coach class." I ate every bite of the Swiss veal. The side dishes were fine, and I finished one of the cheeses. Despite it being expensive, I would 100% order the meal upgrade again, if only for the novelty of getting much better food on a coach-class ticket.
Oh, and because I had the upgraded meal, I was served my food ahead of all of the other passengers in coach, although I don't particularly enjoy that sort of publicity and felt a bit like a heel when my retirement-age seatmate looked over at my tray rather longingly. I resisted the urge to justify my special treatment.
After my a la carte extravaganza was over, I decided (still totally in the name of research, of course!) to request a standard economy meal in addition to my gourmet meal. I found the pasta to be quite edible despite its appearance.
Overall, Swiss got a high rating from me for its food because I genuinely enjoyed my fancy meal. When it comes down to it, $39 is an attainable price to pay for an elevated experience in economy class, and the option is available for most travelers departing from Zurich. And even without the a la carte meal, the regular economy offerings were quite palatable on both the food and the beverage front.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="23" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="From airport check-in to deplaning, Swiss employees were unfailingly helpful and kind." /]
Swiss customer service was impeccable across my travel experience, from check-in and gate agents to flight crew and baggage services — especially for economy class. I really appreciated that flight attendants proactively walked the aisles handing out water, rather than waiting on me to step out of my seat to grab some from the galley or, even more inconveniently, me having to go request one from the back area. In fact, they were attentive enough that I don't recall utilizing the call button more than once, and that solely for the sake of this review to test their response time. (They were prompt and efficient.)
All in all, I was pleased with my Swiss Air experience, and would definitely fly this airline and route again. The good aspects — such as quality wine and the thoughtfulness of offering inflight surprise deliveries — were great, while the negative aspects — the armrest and expensive but badly designed Wi-Fi packages — seemed poorly thought out. Altogether, the airline delivered an experience which could easily be improved with just a few simple tweaks.
All images by the author for The Points Guy.