Junkyard Air: A Review of Wamos Air's Biz Class (Flying as Norwegian Premium) on the 747
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Last week, I traveled to London (LHR) for the Farnborough Air Show, which takes place every other year not far from Heathrow and Gatwick (LGW) airports. I used my return flight from a March booking to get out to Europe, which left me hunting for something interesting to get me back home.
It just so happened that my trip coincided with a Norwegian Air wet lease of Wamos Air's 747-400, due to the carrier's new 787 Dreamliners being grounded for engine replacements. That presented the unique opportunity to travel in "business class" on a premium-economy fare — I'd get to fly on the upper deck of a 747 for about $930, including the UK's outrageously high Air Passenger Duty. Not too shabby.
As the date approached, I began to read passenger reviews of the Wamos Air experience, to get an idea of what to expect. And they're shockingly bad. To give you an idea, here are some of the negative review titles that have appeared just in the past week:
- "Is there a worse airline out there?"
- "Worst flight in terms of service"
- "Awfully bad"
- "Stay clear - Wamos air"
- "Do not fly with Wamos"
- "Awful! I know it's cheap but do not do it!"
- "Easily the worst flight I've ever experienced"
- "Grateful to be alive"
Well, alright then! While Wamos also offers scheduled service, including flights from Madrid (MAD) to the Caribbean, most of the recent reviews seem to be referring to the same flight I had booked, from London Gatwick (LGW) to New York (JFK), specifically for travel in one of the economy cabins. Those passengers also booked through Norwegian, and likely missed the key "operated by Wamos Air" note on the booking page and email confirmation. Or they booked through a third-party site, in which case Wamos may not have been mentioned at all.
I would have been very disappointed as well, especially given how prominently Norwegian features its own state-of-the-art Boeing 787s, and what you might expect after reading one of our various reviews.
I headed directly to Norwegian's site to book my ticket, hoping that would give me the opportunity to pre-select a seat on the upper deck. I was mistaken (more on that below).
We put the $930 fare on The Platinum Card from American Express in order to earn 5x points on the purchase, thanks to the card's fantastic bonus category. In total, we walked away with 4,650 Membership Rewards points, worth about $88 according to TPG's most recent valuations.
As you may have noticed above, the flight was blocked for eight hours from gate to gate, even though the journey takes less than seven. As a result, it's not unusual for a flight to arrive "early," even with a late departure, given how much padding is added.
It's not just a Norwegian thing, either — carriers flying from London to New York list the journey time as taking anywhere from 7.5 hours (Air India) to nearly 8.5 (Primera Air), presumably to maintain acceptable on-time performance scores.
Unable to select a seat online, I used ExpertFlyer to pull up the seat map and sent Norwegian a Twitter direct message to request 19K, one of the few remaining business-class seats.
As it turns out, this was a crucial step — there have been numerous reports of Premium passengers getting bumped to coach, given that the business-class cabin has just 24 seats, compared with as many as 56 in Norwegian's own Premium cabin on the 787-9.
Airport and Lounge
I attempted to check in online, but received a message that I'd need to visit an agent at the airport — definitely a pain, considering that I was traveling with only a backpack. The check-in area at Gatwick was quite a mess, too, with a huge crowd of travelers checking in for flights to Norwegian's various US destinations, which depending on the day could include Boston (BOS), Denver (DEN), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Los Angeles (LAX), Oakland (OAK) and Orlando (MCO), in addition to New York-JFK.
There was a queue specifically for Premium passengers, with 10 customers in line. I was through with my boarding pass in about 15 minutes, including a special "Premium Gatwick" sticker that let me access a much speedier security lane.
After a few more minutes — and having my bag yanked for extra screening after forgetting to remove a tiny tube of toothpaste — I came across an interesting sign, making it clear that it's illegal to be drunk on a plane. Leave those bottles of duty-free booze in the bag, kids!
The main terminal area was fairly spacious, but also very crowded.
There's a large duty-free store, plus a handful of restaurants, including the Grain Store Cafe & Bar, where Priority Pass members can get 15 GBP (about $19.50) off the bill.
Given how crowded the terminal was, I decided to check out the lounge, instead. Norwegian Premium passengers can visit the No1 Lounge free of charge, as can Priority Pass cardholders. Naturally, it was packed.
I was handed a well-worn menu as I walked in, including a choice of six lunch/dinner items. Each guest is allowed to order just one.
I was starving, having come right from the Farnborough Air Show, where I had spent the morning and early afternoon chasing Hi Fly's "new" Airbus A380. Since I was limited to one item, I asked the bartender which he recommended for a hungry traveler — his pick, the smoked salmon salad, was definitely a decent size, and was delivered directly to my seat just a couple minutes after I placed my order.
After shoveling down that salad, I whipped out my laptop to finish my Hi Fly post — easier said than done, given how slow the Wi-Fi was.
About 40 minutes before departure, I made my way to the departure gate — a roughly 10-minute walk from the lounge — which fortunately didn't require passing through immigration. Boarding was already well underway when I arrived, and seemed to be terribly disorganized. I asked a gate agent if there was a designated lane for Premium passengers, and he just waved me right through.
And with that, it was time to board the 747!
Our 24-year-old 747-400, EC-KXN, flew with Malaysia Airlines for more than a decade before bouncing around to charter operators. After taking a look around, you'd be forgiven for assuming it was far older than that, though.
Cabin and Seat
Despite its enormous size, Wamos Air's 747 has just 24 premium-cabin seats, all located on the upper deck.
The main deck only offers economy seating — even up in the nose, where you'd normally find a posh first-class cabin. Every seat appeared to be full when I ventured downstairs during the flight, with a handful of passengers just kind of standing around — and I certainly didn't blame them, considering how tight the economy seating looked. There was barely any legroom, and I only saw one working seat-back screen, which was displaying a moving map. In a word, economy looked miserable.
The upper deck was a different story, however. Seats were arranged in a 2-2 configuration, which is standard for the 747, and were angle-flat.
The cabin was clearly past its prime, but it was an oasis compared to what passengers experienced downstairs. Even though it reeked... the smell was truly terrible.
Row 16 was downright spacious — I haven't seen legroom like that on the upper deck in quite some time.
The lavatory was a mess even at boarding. There was only one accessible to passengers, with the other blocked for crew, and the sink was stuck running when I entered. The toilet hadn't been flushed as well — I went out on a limb and guessed that it might have been broken, and sure enough, I couldn't get it to flush either. Hoping to avoid one of Wamos Air's legendary hours-long delays, I decided to keep that to myself, however.
I was pretty happy to see that there were dedicated air vents, but, hilariously, there weren't any flight attendant call buttons — I imagine by design. The only way to get the crew's attention between meals was to visit the galley. My attempts to politely flag someone down were unsuccessful every time.
My seat, 19K, was in the very last row, right next to the staircase. My seat mate was already settled in when I boarded, so I wasn't able to get a picture of both seats together, unfortunately.
There weren't any seats across the aisle, however, making Row 19 a great fit for passengers flying together, given that it offers decent privacy compared to the rest of the cabin.
Unlike Norwegian's Premium seats, which simply recline, these Wamos Air biz seats actually extend almost completely flat.
They're angle-flat seats, which I find far more comfortable than recliners when it comes time to sleep, such as on the short New York-London redeye Wamos has been operating on behalf of Norwegian.
The upper-deck window seats also offer fantastic storage, thanks to the large bins beneath the windows. After removing a few items, I had no problem tucking my backpack and duty-free bag in.
There's not much storage to speak of otherwise, though — just a small compartment to the side of the seat, next to the inoperable headphone jack and power outlets.
There was also a small compartment in front of the seats — one already had garbage in it when I arrived.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
Aside from a blanket (pictured up above), there weren't any amenities on offer, which is consistent with my previous Norwegian experience. We did receive a pair of (crappy) earbuds, though.
The in-flight entertainment situation was bad to the point of being amusing. The pop-out screens were actually taped down with masking tape — it looked like another passenger had broken through, but I still wasn't able to release mine.
Wamos to the rescue! A bit over an hour after takeoff, flight attendants slowly began passing out iPads, which were offered up without explanation.
There were only 10 movies to choose from, plus a couple of "magazines."
I clicked on Cars 3 just to see if the iPad worked — it did, and the picture even looked decent. But I wouldn't count on there being nearly enough to keep you entertained for the whole flight, and without in-seat power, your laptop will likely die long before landing, too. I was glad I had loaded up my smartphone with TV shows before the flight.
It probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: In-flight connectivity is not available on Wamos Air.
Food and Beverage
Flight attendants came through offering pre-departure beverages, but for whatever reason they either skipped my row or came while I had been in the lavatory and didn't offer anything once I had returned. And, since I didn't have a call button and the door had already been closed, I was pretty much out of luck.
I figured I'd just grab something after takeoff — little did I know it would be more than 90 minutes before the drink cart made an appearance. It almost seemed like the crew had forgotten to serve drinks, and only began to prepare for the service once passengers started coming up to the galley asking for water.
When the drink cart finally did show up, there weren't any menus available, so I asked for a Scotch, which the flight attendant misinterpreted as "sparkling water." I clarified that I had wanted a Scotch, and she said "what is that? An alcohol? I don't drink alcohol." Well, okay, sure, good for you. I clarified that I was requesting a Whisky from Scotland, and she went digging through the cart, coming across "The Famous Grouse," which I had seen at duty-free stores in the past but had never tried. Given how long it had taken to get the first drink, I asked for a double, which I regretted almost immediately after taking my first sip.
At the same time, another flight attendant was handing out dinner. My neighbor had pre-ordered a Kosher meal, and she was served first. Her meal actually looked outstanding — the whole thing was wrapped in plastic, with three large trays stacked one atop another. She was handed a separate heated entree, too. Given how hungry I was, I couldn't wait to see what was in store for me....
Well here it is. A Norwegian-branded box, complete with a "three-course premium dinner," as the carrier highlights on its website. Everything was presented at once, which was quite a relief given how long it took for the first cart to appear.
I started with the bread. Stale and gross. The salad was just bizarre — sunflower seeds, raw onions and blue cheese. I tasted the mysterious dessert. It was a big letdown.
Next, I eagerly unwrapped my "Beef Entree," hoping that I had saved the best for last.
Ugh. It was beyond overcooked, yet somehow still barely warm. I usually manage to eat most of my food, even if it isn't great, but in this case I could only handle a couple bites — I decided to give up once I noticed that the meat was an odd deep-black color. I then spent the rest of the meal eyeing my neighbor's Kosher feast — there was way too much for her to eat, but I wasn't quite desperate enough to ask for any of the leftovers.
Probably knowing we'd still be hungry, flight attendants came through with menus shortly after the meal. There were prices listed, but since we were in "business class" I assumed there wouldn't be a charge.
I asked for a recommendation, and one flight attendant suggested the "Southern Fried Chicken Wrap." Nobody seemed clear on whether or not it should be served heated, and left it up to me to make that call. The packaging didn't say much beyond "Warning: may contain bones," but we ultimately decided to heat it up. It was served lukewarm a few minutes later, but the lettuce was pretty gross, having spent some time in the oven. Oops.
I also requested a Glenlivet, a far superior Scotch which lo and behold happened to be available on the main deck. I was charged for both items — a total of $15.
Later, about 90 minutes before landing, the crew served the second boxed Norwegian-branded meal. Again, my neighbor got the Kosher meal — and again, it looked outstanding. I wasn't nearly as fortunate, though this Caesar salad was arguably a huge improvement over the beef I had for the main meal.
I was also offered a drink, and the flight attendant suggested Baileys, so that's what I got. As it turns out, cocktails are free, but only during meal times...
While Wamos Air slightly exceeded my low, low expectations, saying this ancient 747 offered a comfortable journey across the Atlantic would be far too generous. That said, as inefficient and downright odd as the service was, the Spanish crew was friendly, and the legroom exceeded what I've had on Norwegian's otherwise far-superior Dreamliner. We also arrived in New York safely, and a few minutes "early" to boot.
While it looks like Norwegian's 787 will replace the Wamos 747 after tonight's (July 23) flight from JFK to Gatwick, there's always a chance it'll make an appearance again — given how awful the experience is in coach, I would love for the airline to contract Hi Fly's A380, instead.
That said, would I avoid flying this bird at any cost? Well no — had the fare been, say, $500, I would have felt like I had gotten a decent deal on this "Norwegian" flight to New York. Overall, this experience really bummed me out, though, and it seemed like economy passengers had it especially rough — I heard one cursing as we walked off the plane, before muttering "never again." There's no better way to end a decades-long love affair with the Queen of the Skies.