Good value, but not much more: A review of TAP Air Portugal's A321LR in business class, Porto to Newark
[tpg_rating ticket-class="0" tpg-rating-score="70" ground-experience="10" cabin-seat="25" amens-ife="10" food-bev="14" service="11" pros="Fresh new cabin with comfy throne seat. Tasty food and drink." cons="Very poor ground experience and the service could have been more polished." /]
Since joining TPG at the start of the year, I've been fortunate to do an eclectic mix of reviews. From my first time flying Virgin Atlantic to the shortest scheduled flight in the world, I've had unique and unforgettable experiences. On a recent trip to the States for work, I was looking for an interesting route, aircraft or airline that I could take that had never been reviewed before. TAP's A321LR was exactly that: The more modern, technologically advanced and fuel-efficient version of the A321 I flew back from Amman, Jordan, earlier in the year. It was a no-brainer, it had yet to be reviewed, and it meant my inner AvGeek would get to fly a new aircraft and airline for the first time. But did my experience live up to the self-generated hype?
Another reason that this was a great product to review is the fact that a one-way in business class from London Gatwick (LGW) to Newark (EWR) via Porto (OPO) was pricing at a very reasonable $965. If you're willing to spend the night in Porto — which, by the way, I highly recommend — you can even find fares as low as about $780 for a one-way ticket. Considering one-way flights between London and New York routinely sell for about $8,000, the stopover is well worth it if you're looking to fly in business class without breaking the bank. Round-trip tickets booked in a similar way also save significant amounts of money compared with the nonstop flights between the two hubs.
As TAP is part of Star Alliance, there are plenty of miles and points redemptions for this flight, too. TAP's own Miles&Go program was showing the one-way OPO to EWR ticket in business class at 145,000 miles and $72. Not cheap. Luckily, though, there are programs that will allow you to book for both fewer miles and less of a cash outlay.
For example, through United's MileagePlus program, if you can find business saver availability, you'll pay for 70,000 miles and $45. Another great option is Air Canada's Aeroplan program, where you could use 55,000 miles for a one-way ticket. You can earn both United and Aeroplan miles very easily, as Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer at a 1:1 ratio to United, and American Express Membership Rewards transfer at the same ratio to Aeroplan.
And, right now, TPG readers can get an exclusive 150% bonus on purchasing Lifemiles, another excellent option for booking Star Alliance flights.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="10" tpg-rating-max="20" tail="CS-TXC" age="0" departure="17" departure-2="31" duration="7" duration-2="45" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I was scheduled to fly from Gatwick at 1 p.m, land in Porto at 3:15 p.m. and depart for Newark at 4:55 p.m. With one hour and 45 mins to transfer, what could go wrong?
I arrived nice and early, as my business-class ticket gave me access to the No1 Lounge in Gatwick's South Terminal. There was not one single person in either the premium or economy lines at check-in, which meant the process was super quick. TAP's check-in area was in Zone E, next door to Turkish Airlines, which had about a dozen people waiting in line. I had my bag checked and boarding pass in hand in no time at all. No mention of delays was made to me, either.
Related reading: Comparing British Airways and Turkish Airlines Business Class between London Heathrow and Istanbul
Walking toward the escalators up to departures, I turned around to view an eerily quiet check-in area.
I breezed through the terminal's priority security, again, thanks to my business-class ticket. The terminal's lounges were on the upper level of departures, on the opposite side to where I came through security.
There was a small queue of people waiting to get into the lounge. When it was my turn, the staff member scanned my boarding pass and handed me a menu. Just like Heathrow's No1 Lounge in Terminal 3, the menu was à la carte. As always, I did a tour of the lounge to find the seat with the best view and I quickly found this spot. I also noticed that the departures board was suspiciously showing 'gate displayed at 1:10 p.m.,' which was after my flight was due to depart. It was just the start of my troubles.
Set up and ready for some work before my flight, I headed to the bar to order something to eat. What I'd forgotten is that you could only order once from the menu and had to hand it in when ordering. Breakfast options before 11 a.m were poached egg (singular) and avocado muffin, classic sausage sub and toast and preserves. I was absolutely starving and love my eggs in the morning, so it was an easy decision to make.
I actually laughed out loud at the size of the portion that was plunked down in front of me.
The saving grace was that the yolk was perfectly runny.
Two bites later, I was done and still hungry. I then received a text from the airline. Thankfully, I speak Portuguese, so could see that my flight would now depart at 2:20 p.m., which would mean I would now land in Porto only 30 minutes before my flight to New York. The plot thickens.
As I had more time to kill, I went to see what other delights were on offer.
The lounge was quite busy, so a few of the options were pretty spare and could have done with being refilled.
I don't think anyone had done a quick clean and tidy of the food service areas for a while, either.
After being rather disappointed with the cold buffet, I got back to my seat to find my neighbor had left without ordering any food, so I smugly headed straight back to the bar to order a bacon roll from the 'all day favourites' section of the menu. It was as disappointingly small as my egg and avocado but tasted good nonetheless. Other all-day options were a fish-finger wrap and beans on toast. No expense spared there.
In terms of beverages, there was a soft drink, water and juice refill station.
And a "coffee" machine. I say "coffee" because it was so bad I almost spat it back into my cup.
The lounge was fairly busy and has a nice variety of different seating areas.
That's including a cozy TV area sectioned off from the noise of the main lounge area.
I headed to my gate, where boarding was supposed to start at 2 p.m.
The gate area was cramped, and the scene resembled something akin to boarding a Ryanair flight at Stansted. I didn't see any power sockets, and there definitely wasn't enough seating. It didn't help that a Norwegian Dreamliner bound for LAX was boarding at the gate next door. The lounge and boarding experience were distinctly average and certainly not what I would call premium.
Once we were on board, the pilot announced a slot delay due to weather in Porto, which meant we would land at around 5 p.m. Seconds later, I received another text from TAP advising me that I had been rebooked on the flight the following day. On arrival at Porto, there was a huge queue for TAP customer services, so I figured there had been many flight issues that day. I headed straight to the front to find out if I were in the right queue, and a member of the TAP team said she had been waiting for me and that transport and accommodation had already been arranged for myself and the other two business-class passengers from my flight who were also due to fly to Newark. This finally felt like the service that a business-class passenger should receive, as it meant that I didn't have to wait in the queue with over 100 irate Brazilians who had had their flight home canceled.
After an impromptu (and fun-filled) evening in Porto, a car picked me up from the hotel at 2 p.m. the next day, and I headed back to the airport with the hope that my ground experience would be distinctly better than the day before. Once again, there was nobody waiting in the check-in area for premium passengers.
After a slight technical issue with tagging my bag, I was on quickly on my way toward security, where there were two Fast Track lanes for premium passengers.
Unlike at Lisbon Airpot (LIS), there was no TAP Premium Lounge at Porto. Instead, there was a "business-class" lounge shared by seemingly every airline with business cabins that used the airport, as well as Priority Pass, Dragon Pass and Diners Club International cardholders. My expectations were low.
Entertainment-wise, there was a sparsely filled magazine and newspaper stand by the entrance.
There was also this phone charging stand, which at first I thought was a great addition, but maybe more so in the 2000s, when portable battery packs weren't a thing. Still, it would be a lifesaver if you forgot your charger.
Aside from the main room, which was pretty clinical to start with, it reminded me of a dentist's waiting room.
It was a bit nicer and brighter out on the terrace.
But the view was mainly only of the terminal with a bit of the runway in the distance.
The buffet area in the middle of the main room was on the small side.
Though they were cold, I liked the variety of Portuguese and Brazilian snacks and street food. Coxinha, or croquettes, are my favorite!
I was less impressed by the tray of sad-looking sandwiches.
And the bowls of stale pastries.
On the plus side, drinks were aplenty.
Including a Nespresso coffee machine. A slight shame, though, as Portuguese coffee is some of the best I've ever tasted!
There was a variety of local wines.
Some middle of the the road spirits, and other assorted drinks.
After stuffing my face with coxinha, I checked the departures board before 3:30 p.m. when I saw "head to gate" displayed next to my flight. I thought it was quite early but did what I was told and headed to the gate. As often is the case with European airports, there was a second security area to clear before passing through into the gates area. This process took around 20 minutes.
Once I got to the gate, there was yet another security screening to clear before I could get on the plane. It was a rather slow and arduous process where I had to take everything out of my bag, remove my shoes and have a full pat-down by a rather stale-breathed guard. Good job I left the lounge on time.
The boarding area was really full.
There were a few charging points around the space. Most were poorly located, meaning passengers sat on the floor to charge their devices.
There was no premium seating area, merely a sign pointing right for premium boarding and left for everyone else.
A day later than scheduled and after a very subpar ground experience first at Gatwick then in Porto, I finally boarded the 2-month-old CS-TXC around 4:30 p.m.
An hour later, we departed slightly later than scheduled at 5:30 p.m.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="25" tpg-rating-max="30" width="22.3" bed="80" lavs="1" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I had high expectations for what I would find inside the cabin, and for the most part these were met. The throne seat was in a class of its own. No neighbor, space galore and two greatly positioned windows all to myself.
The small, 16-seat business-class cabin comprised five rows. Odd rows were in a 2-2 configuration, and even rows were in the coveted 1-1 formation -- arguably one of the best in the sky.
Storage was significantly less in the 2-2 rows.
The cabin was cozy but didn't feel cramped, considering it was only a narrow-body aircraft.
I did a quick inspection of the seat area and noticed a few sloppy cleaning oversights that could easily have been rectified with a bit of care and attention.
The footwell was actually quite dirty.
The seat controls were easily accessible. The seating positions were fixed, and there was no way of altering them to your own preference.
The footwell was spacious and didn't go too narrow at the end. Perfectly comfortable for me, but not sure it would be as good for those around six feet or taller.
There was a shoulder-level reading light and a hook for stowing headphones once in flight.
Then there was what I'd call a cupboard rather than a storage compartment.
As well as a headphone hook, there was also a water bottle holder, great for when turbulence hit.
The safety cards and inflight magazines were stored in a small pouch on the other side of the seat next to the window.
Then there was final additional storage gadget in the form of a mesh on springs. Not really sure what it was for, but it was there if you needed it.
Nope, this was not a door. It was the meal tray. It slid out from next to the storage cupboard then flipped down at a 90-degree angle then rotated another 90 degrees into the right position for eating.
The tray table itself was definitely big enough.
There was a 90-degree swivel, but I think this was just part of the stowage process, as it didn't really make leaving the seat any easier.
My 13-inch laptop fit comfortably on the table with enough space for a drink. Or two.
But there was plenty of surface space either side of the side if you wanted to continue working in an office in the sky while dining.
The seat lowered nice and easy into a fully flat bed. The blanket was basic, but I liked the thickness and quality of the pillows. So much so that I asked for a second, which was brought to me with no problem.
There was nothing premium about the single lavatory in the business-class cabin. It was rather small.
And it didn't even have any special amenities.
Due to the narrowness of the plane, the bathroom was almost cut in half diagonally by the wall of the fuselage. It was definitely not the most comfortable of spaces.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="10" tpg-rating-max="15" movies="101" live-tv="0" tailcam="No" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
About 10 minutes before takeoff, I received the TAP-branded amenity kit by Porto's very own Castelbel. From what I could gather, there were two or three different designs that were handed out at random to passengers.
Inside, there were all of the usual suspects: eye mask, lip balm, earplugs, pen, comb, toothbrush and toothpaste, some body lotion and a pair of socks. Admittedly, the eye mask felt pretty cheap, but I liked the colorful on-brand design of the flight socks.
I was pretty impressed with the size of the inflight-entertainment screen. The picture was crystal-clear, and the touchscreen very responsive.
I rarely pay attention during the safety video (naughty, I know) as there are usually far more interesting views to be had out of the window. But not with TAP. I was completely engaged by the airline's fresh, unique and emotive use of expats who have moved to Portugal and learned Portuguese to explain the safety briefing.
In total, there were 101 films, plenty by anyone's standards. I liked that there was a selection of Brazilian and Portuguese films, too.
The earphones did not appear to be noise-canceling at all, despite being advertised as such.
There was also a "wine experience" included in the entertainment section, which I thought was pretty cool. But when I asked the crew member serving me if all of the displayed wines were available, she didn't seem to know what I was talking about. She then explained that there was only the selection of two red and two white wines that she had on the trolley.
The Wi-Fi was the biggest letdown. There were prices ranging from free for messaging to Total Wi-Fi for 24.99 euros, which would mean being connected for the entire flight — or so I thought.
Once I had connected, it was immediately clear that it would only be for 200 MB of data. Needless to say, it was less than 30 minutes before I had run out.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="14" tpg-rating-max="20" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" champagne="Yes" dine-on-demand="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
The focus of this review the Porto-to Newark segment of this trip, but I had such a great food experience on the short flight from Gatwick to Porto that I thought it deserved a mention.
Drinks on that first flight were served pretty much as soon as the seat belt signs went off.
A full meal was served with sizable starter, delicious main course and dessert. The main course was a thick, juicy and perfectly cooked veal tenderloin. I would go as far as to say that it was the best intra-European business-class meal I have ever eaten.
Back to the main event, Porto to Newark. For some reason there was no preflight drink offered before takeoff. About 45 minutes after takeoff, the first drinks were served — note the Coke Zero and gin and tonic theme. I like airlines that serve regular Coke, Diet Coke and Coke Zero. I wasn't a massive fan of the Sunbites, though.
Around half an hour after that, dinner was served. There was only one starter: codfish carpaccio with Algarve salad topped with a random sprinkle of olive shavings. The soup was not cream of pumpkin and beetroot mousse, as advertised on the menu, but it was delicious, nonetheless. I think this was the first time I'd ever had my soup served from a Thermos, too. I was also asked at this point if I'd like another drink.
The bread was really poor. If I'd fed it to the ducks, it would have probably knocked one unconscious.
The main course, just as was the case on the Gatwick-to-Porto flight, was my favorite part. The heartier and more comforting the food, the bigger the thumbs up from me it usually gets, and this was definitely up there with one of my favorites. It was roast lamb in a crispy dough with pumpkin purée. As much as I've pretty much cut out red meat from my diet, I couldn't resist the sound of this, and I'm so glad I chose it.
Shortly after mains had been cleared, a selection of chocolate was offer to cleanse the palate before dessert.
I was given the choice of ice cream, cheese plate or fresh fruit. Naturally, I went for the cheese, which I was told was a strong local cheese, perfectly accompanied by a glass of Porto's finest port.
The cheese was indeed strong. Very strong. That still didn't stop me from scraping every single bit out of the rind.
About 90 minutes before landing, I was offered the second meal service. This was no better or worse than the usual half a meal that is served on transatlantic flights before landing. It was a nice snack, but I was certainly still hungry afterward. And the bread? Probably another concussed duck. The presentation was nice, and the food itself was fresh and tasted good. It just wasn't enough to be called a meal.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="11" tpg-rating-max="15" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="No" turndown-service="No" /]
The service wasn't bad by any means, but it wasn't a particularly memorable experience. The one standout moment for me was that the ground staff at Porto were expecting me and had already arranged ground transportation and a hotel for my unexpected night in Porto. That did feel like business-class service. I thought it strange that there was no preflight drink served after boarding the A321LR to New York.
The crew made sure I had enough to drink and responded in under 30 seconds when I tested the call button, which is certainly commendable. The whole thing just lacked a certain personality — not once was I called by my name, and neither did any of the crew try to establish any kind of rapport when I attempted jokes or small talk. That could simply be because I'm not funny, but it definitely wasn't a language thing, as falo português.
This was by far and away the least premium-feeling premium flight experience I have had so far. But of course I would much rather have a long-haul flight in the comfort of a lie-flat, throne seat than in a cramped, upright economy. That being said, you really do get what you pay for. If you really want to fly business rather than economy to New York and back, then I would seriously consider this as an option. It can save almost £2,000 on the cost of a direct return flight from London to New York. The bed is flat, and the food is good, and these are probably two of the main differences between economy and business class. What TAP lacks is a real business-class ground experience and a little extra something from its staff. Fix those two things and this lesser-known route might a have a better chance.
All photos by the author.