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Generous award space, a great business-class lounge and fast, friendly service.
Disappointing IFE and amenity kits, and the seat is tight around the legs and head.
As an Asia-based TPG contributor, it made sense that I was assigned to check out the opening of the new Jewel at Changi airport in Singapore this spring. There was only one problem: I was scheduled to be wrapping up a trip to Europe at that time.
I decided to make Singapore a stop on my way home from London to Shanghai. Since I needed to travel on a fixed date, I decided to look for award space on Swiss’s 777-300ER which I’d been wanting to fly for years. I find the carrier to be one of the more generous ones around when it comes to business-class award space on many routes, and sure enough there was a seat available on the exact flight I needed. So was Swiss worth the wait? Read on to find out.
The cloud of United’s recent switch to dynamic award pricing has one silver lining: It serves as a reminder that the real value tends to lie in partner programs based outside the US. For this Star Alliance business-class award between Europe and South Asia, we had plenty of options to book, including the following programs:
- Air Canada (Aeroplan): 75,000 miles
- Avianca LifeMiles: 78,000 miles
- Singapore KrisFlyer: 92,000 miles
- United MileagePlus: 100,000 miles
We opted to book via Aeroplan, paying 75,000 miles and about $300 in taxes and fees. Aeroplan is a great way to book Star Alliance awards, as it still maintains an award chart and is a 1:1 transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, meaning that you could get close to earning the amount of miles needed for this 12+ hour flight just by signing up for a card like The Platinum Card® from American Express, which is currently offering a welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $5,000 within the first three months of card membership.
Although Aeroplan typically charges more reasonable taxes and fees on Swiss award tickets (closer to $50), I’d be on the hook for the high UK Air Passenger Duty since my ticket was originating in London.
I started my morning at London City Airport (LCY) for the quick hop over to Zurich on an ERJ190. Intra-Europe business class usually consists of regular economy seats with an empty seat blocked off next to you.
Upon landing, I headed for the E concourse, which is where most of the long-haul flights at Zurich depart, and where Swiss’ newest and nicest business-class lounge is located.
Swiss actually has three lounges in this area — a first-class lounge, a Senator lounge and a business-class lounge. Since I don’t have any Star Alliance elite status, I was only able to use the business-class lounge. Star Alliance Gold elites and passengers traveling in Star Alliance first class (not on Swiss) can access the Senator lounge.
Both the business and Senator lounges are located in the same area, one level up from the main concourse. The elevator doors opened to a large Breitling display, and I made a mental note of the time change for when I landed in Singapore.
After handing my boarding pass to the agent at the desk I was pointed left to the business-class lounge. In order to use the Wi-Fi, you need to get a unique password from the desk, so I ended up having to come back out. This is very clearly signed inside the lounge, but there’s nothing by the entrance to explain this.
The lounge itself featured a similar design aesthetic to the Swiss cabins — a lot of wood, and neutral colors with the occasional splash of red.
The lounge was more or less deserted when I arrived around 1 pm, and it wouldn’t begin to fill up until evening. Even then, I never saw more than 50 passengers in the entire space and there was always plenty of seating.
I decided to grab some lunch so I could settle in and get some work done during my ~10-hour layover. There was a salad bar with plenty of toppings but not enough base greens in my opinion (unless your ideal salad is corn+olives+dressing).
I ended up opting for the live cooking station, which seemed to only have one option for lunch, a fried-fish fillet with a mustard sauce and some lemony potatoes. The food was delicious, though a bit heavier than what I was in the mood for. I would’ve liked more choices, but the fish was good.
I ended up succumbing to the dessert bar and indulging in a few pieces of carrot cake.
The lounge had a fairly well stocked self-serve bar …
… as well as a number of wine/water/soft drink fridges scattered throughout.
There was also a massive coffee and tea station. Thankfully, a server stopped me from trying to make a full glass of macchiato in a tiny mug.
By far the best amenity of the lounge was the view from the outdoor terrace. The parade of long-haul aircraft arriving and departing under my nose made for some easy entertainment.
The lounge even has free binoculars set up every 10 feet or so along the terrace, great for scoping out the planes on the far side of the airport or the Swiss Alps in the distance.
And while we’re on the topic of views, this is about as good as it gets looking out from a bathroom.
It was dark by the time my 10:45 pm flight began boarding, but during the day I got to watch plenty of Swiss 777-300ERs arriving and departing, stoking my anticipation.
The lounge also featured a number of private daybeds for relaxing, though the room had the same floor-to-ceiling windows as the rest of the lounge. If you’re a light sleeper, you might want to bring an eye mask.
There was also a business station with a number of computers.
Despite the limited food options, this still ranks as one of my all-time favorite business-class lounges. The space was sleek without being ostentatious, the views were unbeatable, and I was able to pass a 10-hour layover without going stir-crazy.
Cabin and Seat
Business class aboard Swiss’ 777-300ERs features about five different seat configurations, as the cabin alternates between a 1-2-2 and a 2-2-1 configuration. This means every row has one so-called “throne” seat alone by the windows, two seats in the middle, and a pair of seats on the other side of the plane.
While these “throne” seats provide the most privacy and storage space, they cost about ~$200 to select in advance. Swiss Miles & More HON Circle and Senator elites can select them for free, and you may be able to select them online 24-48 hours before your flight.
If you can’t get one of the most desirable seats, the next-best option is the seats in the center section. They alternate between being closer to the aisle and closer to the center, so if you’re traveling alone, you’ll want to aim for seat G in rows 5/6/8/10/12/15/17 and seat D in rows 4/7/9/11/14/16 (there’s no row 13 so it’s not as simple as picking even rows or odd rows).
Couples or families traveling together should select any of the pairs — with the center section being the first choice — since you won’t need to climb over your sleeping companion when you need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Our flight boarded on time through gate E52, which had the same sleek wooden design as the lounge and seats. First- and business-class passengers were invited to board at the same time, as well as HON circle elites.
I caught a quick glimpse of our 777 before making my way on board.
I was struck immediately by the beautiful designs in the galley/entryway, something a lot of airlines overlook. To the left of door L2 was a mini business-class cabin consisting of two rows of seats, with Swiss’ exclusive first-class cabin in front of it.
I turned to the right to head into the main business class cabin, which consisted of 52 seats spread across 11 rows.
I’d had a lot of trouble selecting my seat online. No matter how many times I tried to change it, the Swiss website kept reverting me to seat 8A. I really didn’t want a window seat where I’d have to climb over someone to use the bathroom on a 12-hour flight, but I couldn’t seem to get it to change my assignment. When I asked in the lounge, the agent told me that certain seats were on a gate hold and she couldn’t override it, but she wrote down the numbers of available seats so I could ask at the gate. I ended up in seat 14D, one of the center section seats that was less exposed to the aisle.
On the right side of the seat was a small wooden panel with a reading light and a bottle of water next to it.
There was also a button at the top, which released the tray table. This doubled as a privacy divider if you didn’t know the person traveling next to you.
This is also where the preset seat controls where located, and right next to them was a compartment with more specific seat controls and the IFE remote.
On the opposite side of the seat, no matter which configuration you were sitting in, was a two-story storage compartment. This was perfect for smaller items like a phone or wallet, and for bigger items like my headphone case, passport holder, and inflight menu.
The amount of storage is one of the biggest advantages of this seat configuration.
There was a small walkway of sorts separating the seat from the aisle, with a compartment to store your shoes during the flight. This was also where the outlet and USB plug were located, meaning they were safely out of the way if you wanted to recline your seat.
The biggest drawback to this relatively common staggered configuration is that you have to fit your feet into a small footwell when it’s time to sleep.
I’m only 5 feet 7 inches and didn’t find it to be too bad, but I thought that the seat was tight around the head area when fully reclined.
Another annoying aspect of the seat is the shoulder harness seatbelt that’s used, which is uncomfortable to wear normally and also to sleep on.
Overall I found the seat to be in great condition and the cabin finishes sleek and welcoming. Swiss’ 777 fleet is incredibly young — our bird was less than three years old — which certainly helps. Even with almost every seat taken in the cabin, I felt like I had plenty of privacy and I was able to sleep for eight hours, close to my personal record on a plane.
Amenities and IFE
Waiting at each seat on boarding were a pair of headphones, a water bottle, a pillow and a blanket.
The pillow was a little softer than I would’ve liked, but the blanket was the perfect weight both for lounging and for sleeping.
The amenity kit was by Victorinox and was really basic, with a toothbrush, eye mask, socks, chapstick, ear plugs, and nothing else.
There were a few tubes of single use face cream in the bathroom, but this is definitely one area where Swiss could improve.
The 15-inch IFE monitor had a crisp and responsive display and another small storage compartment beneath it if you wanted to protect your valuables. The selection left a lot to be desired and I struggled to find something to watch. The TV options were especially bad, with none of the classic sitcoms you can usually expect to find on even the most mediocre airlines. I ended up watching “The Social Network” with dinner and relying on downloaded content on my phone for the rest of the time.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
The very second that the captain announced that boarding was complete, the flight attendants came down the aisles with trays of pre-departure beverages. I selected a glass of champagne — Duval Leroy Brut in business class. We were also given dinner menus and cards to fill out with our breakfast selections, with the two pieces conveniently held together by a pen. I know other airlines offer this option of preordering your breakfast and letting the flight attendants know if you’d like to sleep or be awakened, but this was my first time experiencing it. The system worked exactly as intended, with the FAs letting me sleep until about 80 minutes before landing, then serving me breakfast without having to waste time taking an order.
Dinner service began about an hour and 15 minutes into the flight, starting with drinks. The drink cart was followed by a second cart with appetizers and table settings. Rather than preordering your appetizer, you simply picked as the cart rolled by.
I selected the Hiramasa kingfish with guacamole and soy vinaigrette, which was served with a side salad and a cheese plate. I was also offered a selection from the breadbasket, and the flight attendant insisted I should take a second pretzel roll if I really wanted to (yes, I did).
The fish tasted very fresh, as did the guacamole even though it was beginning to brown. I liked the little dropper that the sauce was served in, as it let me sauce the fish and not the avocado. The salad and cheese plate were both fairly simple but fine.
For my main course I opted for the gnocchi with saffron sauce and asparagus. After my appetizer was cleared, the dish looked a little lonely on a big empty tray, but that’s a small sacrifice to me if it speeds up the meal service on a late-night departure. The pasta itself was the low point of the meal — it was far too chewy and not flavorful enough. The other main course options were veal and cod.
Dessert was a chocolate mousse with passionfruit sauce. While the cake itself was rather dry, the sauce added a delicious boost of flavor.
Service throughout the meal was attentive, with flight attendants refilling both my Champagne and water proactively. One benefit of this staggered configuration is that it’s easy for the FA to reach over and serve you from the other aisle, so I essentially had two different crew members looking after me. Dinner was done about two hours into our flight, a great pace considering the size of the cabin. It wasn’t a memorable meal by any means, but it got the job done and other than the pasta I didn’t really have any complaints.
After an incredible full night of sleep, I woke up to a flight attendant tapping me on the shoulder. We were just over an hour out of Singapore, so I quickly ran to the bathroom to freshen up. By the time I got back, my breakfast tray was sitting on the table next to my seat, exactly as I’d ordered it 11 hours earlier.
I had a fruit smoothie and cappuccino, the English breakfast (scrambled eggs with chives, potato rosti and a grilled tomato), a yogurt and a few pastries. The eggs were better than you normally get on a plane and the cappuccino was perfectly made.
By the time I woke up, it was clear that most people had already finished eating their breakfasts, but I much preferred the option to maximize sleep. I don’t see any need to wake up for a drawn-out meal service and this breakfast did the trick. I should note that there didn’t seem to be any sort of mid-flight snack menu, one area where I’ve been consistently disappointed on my recent flights.
One hallmark of a great international crew is their ability to effortlessly switch between languages as they move from passenger to passenger and the flight attendant working my aisle was a pro. She smiled at every turn and made sure I always had enough to eat and drink. The crossover service I received from the flight attendant on the other aisle was a nice surprise as well. Carts often make service slower as flight attendants can’t easily reach the galley to get drink refills, but this crew kept my drinks topped up the way I’d expect from a first-class flight.
Toward the end of the flight I went to the bathroom and happened to strike up a conversation with the purser. When she learned that I lived in Shanghai, we talked for a good 10 minutes about how she’s been flying there for the last 30 years and watched the city grow from nothing into the global metropolis it is today. This was a wonderful crew and the fact that they were able to make me feel so valued and taken-care-of in a 62-person cabin is impressive.
I wasn’t expecting Swiss business class to blow me out of the water like Qatar Airlines’ QSuites did, but I also wasn’t expecting it to sink to the level of something like China Eastern. I found the overall experience very enjoyable. The business-class lounge in Zurich is one of my favorites and although the seat and food are by no means revolutionary, Swiss offers a friendly and comfortable way to get from point A to point B. Given how easy it is to find award space on Swiss, I wouldn’t hesitate to book again.
All photos by the author.
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