Brand-New Bird, in Biz: A Review of TAP Air Portugal's A330-900neo From Lisbon to São Paulo
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="79" ground-experience="5" cabin-seat="23" amens-ife="13" food-bev="16" service="22" pros="Great new seat and amazing IFE. Friendly and helpful service." cons="Subpar food and mediocre ground experience." /]
It’s always exciting when a new aircraft is introduced to the world. Airbus rolled out its first A330-900neo last year, introducing a wide-body aircraft with longer range and better fuel efficiency that will likely become a workhorse in many carriers' fleets.
TAP Air Portugal was the aircraft's launch customer -- the neo was delivered to the airline in November and it entered commercial service in December.
This was an important step for TAP as it works to grow and modernize its fleet in its aim to make Lisbon into a connecting hub for the rest of Europe. The Portuguese airline plans on taking delivery of 20 more A330-900neos over the coming years.
I was curious to check out the brand-new aircraft, which also features a new seat in business class, on a carrier that is starting to become a household name — and one that’s constantly offering deals to Europe.
TAP’s currently flying the aircraft from Lisbon to the Brazilian cities of São Paulo and Salvador but will introduce service to North American destinations in starting with Toronto in March, New York-JFK and Newark in April and Boston in July. I ended up in Lisbon after reviewing Royal Air Maroc’s new Boeing 787-9, so we decided that it made the most sense to get me back home via a route that gave us a test run on this new aircraft.
Booking flights with TAP is a real dream. I say that because the airline is part of the Star Alliance, which includes airlines like United, Lufthansa and Avianca. This means that you can use any of these carriers’ miles to book a flight on TAP.
I’ve noticed there’s usually great business-class award availability for TAP flights, but the ease of redemptions may be my favorite aspect of TAP. I just performed a quick search for nonstop flights from New York to Lisbon and immediately could see how solid availability was — and this during peak summer months!
This flight was booked just a few weeks out, so we weren’t able to to find award availability, but we did get a solid cash fare, $1,091 for nonstop flight in business class. Definitely not a bad deal considering we would have had to use 87,500 United Miles (transferrable from Chase Ultimate Rewards), 75,000 Air Canada Aeroplan points (transferrable from Amex Membership Rewards) or 72,500 Avianca Lifemiles (transferrable from Amex Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou).
Since most readers will probably be booking this product for flights between the US and Europe, you’ll need these many miles to fly from the US to Lisbon and other European destinations: 55,000 Air Canada Aeroplan miles, 63,000 Avianca Lifemiles or 70,000 United miles.
As this was a revenue flight, I was able to earn miles, but because of an issue when we booked, my frequent-flyer number wasn’t entered. I’m retroactively crediting this flight to United and should end up with 6,145 miles. That’s because if you purchase a ticket through TAP, you still earn miles based on the distance flown and a percentage of the fare class (although if the ticket had been more expensive, it may have been better to purchase through United).
We paid for the flight with The Platinum Card® from American Express, since it earns 5x points on purchases directly from the airline, in the process earning 5,455 Membership Rewards points worth $109, according to our points’ valuations. That's a very solid 10% return, since we value Amex points at 2 cents apiece.
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Over the last 10 years, TAP's home at Lisbon (LIS) has seen lots of investment. The goal is to modernize and expand the space, to help make the airport a gateway to Europe and a connecting hub for destinations further afield. David Neeleman, JetBlue’s founder, got involved with TAP in 2015 and has been instrumental in the carrier's growth.
My Uber dropped me off right in front of the entrance to Terminal 1 at LIS, which is where TAP’s international flights depart from. (Ubers are quite cheap in Lisbon — it was less than 10 euros for a private car to take me from the city center to the airport.)
Immediately upon entering, I spotted the main TAP self-check-in area that had two dozen kiosks for passengers to retrieve their boarding passes and bag tags. After tagging your own bag, it appeared that you actually didn’t have to deal with an agent at all when dropping off your luggage in some sort of sci-fi looking machinery.
Since I was flying in business class, I ventured around the corner to find a nearly abandoned desk for premium and elite check-in. I whipped out my camera to take a few wide shots of the area and was immediately yelled at by one of the TAP agents for doing so. I was a little confused, as the desks were mostly empty and I was so far away it would have been nearly impossible to tell who I would have been taking pictures of. But the European Union has very strict privacy laws, even in public settings, so it's probably a standard policy at the airport.
Funnily, when I brought my bag over, he changed his tune when I asked to be checked into business class.
The agent took his time printing out my boarding pass and tagging my bag, but was courteous throughout our interaction.
I had some time to kill after making it through security and a massive duty-free store. I headed upstairs to the TAP lounge to get my grub on.
A majority of the TAP lounge was in one large room, with a bar on one side and the food and soft drinks bookending the other.
There was plenty of seating throughout, with couches, tables and funny-looking spherical cork chairs.
After wandering into the back, I found a quiet room that was perfect to get some work done, and further in the back there was a room full of daybeds for those who wanted to get some rest on a long layover. There were a few showers to freshen up after the nap, too.
Most of the lounge was clean, but I noticed a number of stains on many of the couches and chairs — TAP would do well to perform a deep clean of all the furniture.
The food selection was just average, and I was a bit underwhelmed considering this was TAP’s main hub — the food didn’t measure up to the caliber of an American Flagship or United Polaris lounge. I mainly found finger foods, pastries and cold cuts.
I grabbed some veggies, Portugal’s famous pastel de nata, a few miniature quiches and a machine-made latte (the former Brooklynite in me cringed). The last two items were quite good and fresh, but the pesto that came with the veggies did not taste anything like what its description said.
There was a full bar with a bartender and plenty of Portuguese wine, and I expected no less from Portugal's national carrier.
If you're into planespotting, the space overlooks a few of the airports gates and taxiways, making it a good place to catch a glimpse at the many aircraft in Lisbon. The TAP lounge held its own and would get me by if I had to spend a few hours there, but it wouldn't have me clawing to get to the airport any earlier than I’d have to.
Be aware that customs and immigration is located between the lounges and the gates, so budget extra time when heading to your flight.
Boarding started on time, and passengers were separated into three groups: premium cabin, then groups A and B for those in coach.
Business boarded first, and I thought I would quickly get on the plane, but to my surprise the A330 I saw through our the window was not our bird. We descended to find a line of buses waiting to take us to our remote gate. They put all the business passengers on one bus that took off first, but the entire process took about 12 minutes to board and actually make our way to the outside of our aircraft.
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After being greeted by a few friendly flight attendants, I was delighted to see a fancy-schmancy new cabin — which in fact is Airbus' new state-of-the-art Airspace design that features more baggage storage and mood lighting. As well as a quieter-than-normal ride, thanks to the Rolls-Royce Trent engines that power the A330neo.
TAP has a variety of great business-class seats, but its newest hard product probably beats them all. The airline decided to install a customized Recaro CL6710 flat-bed seat, which is also on EL AL’s new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
The 34 seats are set up in a bit of an odd fashion — all nine rows are configured in 1-2-1 layout. This means that all have direct aisle access but, because they are staggered, some are in better positions than others.
The A330-900neo is TAP’s second aircraft to feature fully flat seats that all have direct aisle access.
My seat, 5K, was flush against the window and was partly separated from the aisle by the storage and desk area, while the seat behind was more exposed to the rest of the cabin.
You’ll find the same in the middle section, where some seats jut into the aisle and the others face inward. If you’re a traveling couple, those inward-facing middle seats can be a great choice, or if you’re an AvGeek flying solo like me, try and grab a window seat so you can gaze out into the great beyond.
The seat is 20.5 inches at its widest point and 76 to 77 inches long in lie-flat mode, about average for a business-class seat. The seat controls were responsive and provided some extra controls that would actually move your entire seat forward while still keeping it upright, in addition to lumbar support adjustments.
My feet couldn’t reach the footwell when upright (a good sign), but when I was getting ready for bed, it was a tad cramped.
It felt spacious enough, but compared to the Royal Air Maroc 787-9 seat I had recently flown, it was definitely more enclosed. The seat is intelligently designed to combat some of this, as it allows you to fold down the armrests on either side. That being said, it was nice having my own space on a crowded aircraft. There was plenty of padding, and I had no trouble falling asleep when I adjusted it to lie-flat mode.
There were a few storage areas that proved to be handy to hold my cameras and the amenity kit while I dozed off: one below the armrest, a mesh netting where I put shoes, and the area above my left shoulder where the inflight magazine and safety card were stowed.
I was pleased to find that the IFE screen swiveled out, providing an adjustable viewing angle. Below the screen was the tray table, which was on the smaller side for a new business-class product, as it barely fit my 15-inch MacBook. But it still got the job done.
There were three lavatories for the business-class cabin, all clean and, dare I say it, quite nice. One was stocked with toothbrushes and moist towelettes. They all had faux-wood paneling and flowers that almost made it feel like I wasn't in an aircraft bathroom.
All in all, TAP’s hard product on the A330neo delighted. The variety of seat design gives couples and individual travelers plenty of choices. Even though the seats aren’t as roomy as others, the sleek new product is thoughtfully crafted and more than comfortable for a long-haul flight.
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Soon after boarding, flight attendants came around handing out amenity kits, which by all measures were pretty standard. Mine contained a toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, pen earplugs, lip balm, lotion, an eye mask and socks. There were no pajamas or slippers. At least the case itself had some character!
A thick blanket and pillow were waiting on the seat and provided plenty of comfort, even though a mattress pad wasn’t supplied. A flight attendant did provide a second pillow upon request.
The headphones provided were noise-canceling, and although they were no Bose Quiet Comfort, they did do a great job at blocking the sounds of the engines without any annoying buzzing that some lower-quality noise-canceling headphones have.
One of my favorite parts of flying TAP was its fantastic IFE, as both the hardware itself and plentiful content provided a splendid experience.
First off, the screen itself was plenty large, measuring in at 16 inches. The display’s crisp image made viewing a pleasure, and navigating throughout the system was easy considering how responsive the touchscreen was. A small, basic controller located near the storage area could control the unit as well.
There were 100 movies with many new films like "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Venom," "Crazy Rich Asians" and some collections of classics like James Bond flicks.
Using the 3D flight tracker provided plenty of AvGeek fun, as it had a dozen different viewing angles including one that put you inside the cockpit with different indicators like speed and altitude.
What really surprised me after digging around a bit was the games the console had. These were full-on video games, albeit from the late '90s or mid-2000s that you would have found on a Playstation or Nintendo 64. These were the most sophisticated games I’d ever seen in an aircraft’s IFE console, not the archaic 2D games that feel straight out of 1987.
Games included: "Syberia," "The Bluecoats," "Darkstone, Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars – The Director's Cut," "Body Blows Galactic" and "Moto Racer." The IFE also had more basic titles with cartoony graphics like "Angry Birds," "2048" and "Battleship."
And to round out everything was a great selection of TV shows including programs from HBO like "Ballers," "Last Week Tonight," "Insecure" and an entire season of "Succession." There were other staples like "Empire," "Family Guy" and "The Big Bang Theory" (a show that I’m starting to feel like is on every flight I’ve ever been on). As someone who works in media, I was pleased to find a news recap provided by Bloomberg that covered big events that occurred during the previous week.
TAP offered a few ways to stay connected to the rest of the earth while 30,000 feet in the air. This A330neo has Ku-band Wi-Fi and TAP offered four different internet packages to choose from on this flight.
The first plan was free and allowed for free messaging through services like iMessage and WhatsApp. If you need to just a send a few emails or do light browsing, you’ll likely want to go with the TAP Email or TAP Browsing, which cost €6.99 or €14.99 respectively. I opted for the TAP Total Wi-Fi plan which costs a significant, but still reasonable, €24.99.
There’s a 200mb limit which I thought would have been enough to get me through most of the flight, but I ran through it much quicker than I thought. I was cut off less than an hour after logging on and browsing social media, news and sending emails.
While I appreciated that TAP actually had an estimate of how much data would be used by certain actions, it seemed to be wildly inaccurate — saying an hour of web surfing would only take 17mb. I'm guessing the few videos that auto-streamed on Twitter were what ate up my data allowance so quickly.
Speeds were fast enough to browse Twitter, Instagram and news websites, but videos had to buffer quite a bit.
Be aware that your phone will automatically connect to Aeromobile which allows you to use your own mobile phone for calls, texting and mobile data while in flight — at rates provided by your cell carrier, which are usually quite high.
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For everything TAP did well, it felt like most everything with the food service was average at best. A flight attendant came around offering juices and trail mix to passengers for the predeparture beverage — although no Champagne was available at this time.
For our main course, we could have duck rice with serra cheese and rosemary, a roasted grouper and chorizo stew or panzerotti pasta with porcini mushrooms. I went with the duck, which I found to be a little tough. The fried rice the meat was served on top of really wasn't that tasty either — it felt like a small step above an economy meal. It tasted processed and felt like something you’d find at a dingy New York City Chinese joint.
The main meal's saving grace was the pumpkin soup with beetroot mousse -- I ended up enjoying this part of the meal the most. The creamy concoction was a little sweet and still savory, creating a well-balanced flavor profile.
TAP's wine program features a variety of Portuguese wine that rotates throughout the year. The first wine the flight attendant recommended was quite good, providing a light, fruity complement to my otherwise bland meal.
TAP had nine different wines on the menu, including a few reds and whites, sparkling wine and two dessert wines. The attendant came around after I had finished my second glass and suggested another wine, the Quinta da Pedra 'Longos Vales' Alvarinho, another sweet white wine that I added to my list to purchase when I got home. TAP's wine program was the only highlight of the entire meal service for me.
Dessert was also underwhelming, and there were no fancy pastries or cake. Instead, I was given just two options: fruit or chocolate. I asked the flight attendant what he recommended, and he said I should go with the chocolate with salt flower. It was actually pretty tasty.
I was hoping breakfast would be better than dinner, but that hope was crushed when I was served a few cold cuts of turkey, ham and prosciutto, fruit that wasn't quite yet ripe and yogurt with mango pulp. The only thing that I truly enjoyed was the croissant, since I could coat its dry texture with a few large swabs of butter.
All in all, I was left unsatisfied and a little disappointed in TAP's meal service. The quality of the food was not up to any other business-class meals I've had, and it all felt a bit rushed. With everything being brought out at once for dinner, it made me feel like I was in premium economy, since the presentation was classy but the food itself was closer to an economy meal.
The flight attendant did tell me that because the flight I was on leaves so late (11:20pm was the scheduled takeoff time), the meal service was abbreviated in order to allow passengers to eat quickly so that they could maximize sleep.
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Other than the snafu with the agent at the check-in desk, I found all the crew members to be more than welcoming and helpful on my flight. Standout moments included the great detail the crew provided about the TAP wine program when asked, and the flight attendant who helped me choose the wines really seemed to enjoy and know what he was doing when recommending drinks — and the results were clear.
It only took 20 seconds for a crew member to reach my seat after I hit the call button, and they were happy to accommodate my requests for more pillows and extra water. I was hoping there would be turndown service considering how long the flight was, but unfortunately mattress pads are not provided on TAP flights.
At the end of the flight, the same crew member who helped with the wine was more than happy to accommodate my request to take a few more pictures of the cabin after it had cleared out. He cheerily provided details about his career at TAP and was proud the airline was the first to be flying the A330neo.
Similar to other aircraft in TAP's fleet, the airline got the A330neo's hard product right. It provides plenty of comfort and privacy, and the layout allows different types of travelers plenty of choice when selecting a seat. The IFE was probably the best I've ever experienced on an airline, and could have easily gotten me through a dozen 10-plus-hour flights.
However, other aspects that surrounded the travel experience were just OK, if not sometimes disappointing. The Lisbon Lounge is supposed to be its flagship predeparture experience, but it felt like more like a basic Delta Sky Club than a United Polaris or American Flagship lounge. A remote gate didn't make getting on the aircraft any easier, either. The food could use a lot of work, though it was balanced by a great drink selection and a friendly cabin crew that tried to make the experience better.
TAP's no Emirates or Qatar, but a great hard product, standout service and solid premium-cabin award availability wouldn't have me hesitating to take another flight on TAP's new A330neo.
All images by the author for The Points Guy.