Champagne in the sky
Two value airlines for transatlantic business class
By Panos Kakaviatos for Wine-Chronicles.Com
27 December 2017
Writing articles about wines means traveling to vineyards. And my work in media relations for the Council of Europe also includes several flights a year. Each holiday season, I return to my home in Virginia to see friends and family. So here a few reflections between Christmas and New Year’s on long haul flights…
Over the past few years, I have been booking long haul flights on business class that I find for decent rates, and as one can guess, quality varies. While some people understandably prefer to spend more money on their destination locations, I prefer to have maximum comfort on the way over and back, when I can afford it and when it comes to flights that last over five hours.
In that regard, Lufthansa had always been my go-to airline, as service and quality are excellent. On my YouTube channel, I have posted several videos from business class on Lufthansa flights, both A380s and 747-800s, including an excellent journey to Hong Kong in May 2016 (only one way in business).
But that was my last long haul with Lufthansa, as prices have gone too high for business class, at least for my wallet. What cost but three years ago some €2,000 round trip from Frankfurt to Washington D.C. for example now is 50% more.
So two airlines I have come to enjoy over the past two years are Condor and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS).
For the sake of following alphabetical order, let’s start with Condor: A rather maligned airline, if you look at online reviews. Once part of Lufthansa, it was more recently purchased by the Thomas Cook Group as a recreational charter airline based in Germany. When I told a steward on Lufthansa that I planned to fly to San Diego with Condor, he said: “They have small planes,” with a certain disdain.
Indeed, I was invited to take part in the wine tasting “Critics Challenge” in San Diego in May 2017 and found out that Condor operates a non stop round trip from Frankfurt to San Diego on a 767-300 twin engine jet. Sure it is smaller than the Lufthansa A380 to Los Angeles, but it was non-stop.
At first I was a bit weary about it: the mixed reviews online about Condor, which include some very nasty feedback, and the less important reason was that I have been used to four engine jets for long haul flights. Furthermore the website interface is rudimentary compared to those of other airlines.
How was Condor to San Diego?
In economy, not so great, as a dear friend who was on the same flight, told me. Service was sparse for the 12-hour flight, and the plane seemed excessively cold where she sat.
The price is hard to beat first of all: at under €2,000, round trip! Great staff service, always smiling and helpful, really charmed me. They served excellent food comparable to “regular” airlines and miles better, for example, than the food I had on a United Polaris Business flight I took earlier this year from Paris to Washington D.C.
As you can see in the pictures, it was really delicious!
The in-flight entertainment, full of fine movie choices, helped 12 hours flying pass more quickly. I also was pleased to enjoy Duval Leroy Champagne, a domain I had visited two years before, and which had invited me to become a Champagne Ambassador in Hong Kong.
The width of the business seats, at 19 inches, does not match that of Lufthansa or United business classes, however. And the seats do not go into “full flat” mode: they go “only” to a 170 degree angle. But that was hardly the problem that some reviewers say it is. It was so easy to sleep on the plane in Condor business – and there was no problem in terms of the cabin temperature. If flying on your own, be sure to get an aisle seat in the middle row, as the configuration is 2-2-2, so that you could get up without disturbing another passenger.
And the ride?
Very smooth on the 767-300. Overall, as you can see in the above video, flying Condor business class proved to be one of my favorite flying experiences ever for value, quality of service and comfort. One staff member was so happy to serve me that she gave me a bottle of Duval Leroy Champagne at the end of the flight.
That left me with an even more positive impression of staff service and kindness. I am invited again to the Critics Challenge wine tasting competition in San Diego in May 2018, and I am again taking Condor in business class, without any apprehensions this time.
One drawback to note however is that – even for business class customers – changing plans can be costly, and is much less flexible than for “regular” airlines.
Overall rating of Condor flight in May 2017, round trip Frankfurt-San Diego (non stop)
Quality of staff service: 10/10
Seating Comfort: 8/10
Entertainment and other in-flight services: 9/10
Food and drinks quality: 9/10
Flight convenience (non-stop): 10/10
Changing plans convenience: 5/10 (this brings down the overall rating, so just don’t change your plans ?)
Welcome lounge: Not applicable
Total rating (out of 10): 8.8
SAS (Scandinavian Airlines)
Better than Condor, overall, is SAS: at least based on two flights, rather than just one for Condor, which reinforces my positive opinion of SAS.
I traveled both times on the A330-300, also a twin-engine jet. While the ceiling is lower than the 767-300, it has longer wingspan and length. Furthermore, like Lufthansa, the seats have a width of 23 inches and recline to a full 180 degrees. Unique to SAS on the A330 at least: one enjoys a window seat, without an adjoining seat as the configuration is 1-2-1. So reserving a window seat on SAS across the Atlantic feels like a private jet experience, as the seat is more like a private booth.Another unique feature, at least compared to other airlines I have flown across the Atlantic, is free WIFI. Although slow to start – and not capable of supporting video calls on applications like WhatsApp – posting on Facebook, tweeting and sending e-mails all work well.
More flexible, too, than Condor Business, as flight plan changes are free.
The service on my most recent flight was particularly great. Staff was all very professional and sociable, and we shared Instagram accounts. For both flights, staff in chef outfits brought excellent food to business passengers on elaborate carts: all choices seen rather than just ordered from the menu. The Charles Heidsieck Champagne was excellent – and one that I had enjoyed over lunch at Château Dauzac in Margaux earlier this year.
Another added plus is a fun, unmanned bar, available throughout the flight, as you can see in the video below.
Inflight entertainment is excellent, so I saw for example the relatively recent release of Dunkirk in flight. As with Lufthansa, you get a camera view in real time for both underneath and ahead of the plane. Plenty of charging options for IPhones include USB slots and both European and American AC power outlets. And the food was top notch, with a fabulous choice of starters and main courses followed by fine cheeses and desserts.
While the flight to Washington was not non stop, that was not such a problem as the first leg, also in business, provided excellent service and efficiency. The layover in Copenhagen on my way to Washington D.C. was short, and I was able to get to my gate easily. On the return flight, passengers have more time – up to three hours – before boarding on to Frankfurt. But, as with Lufthansa when landing in Frankfurt, SAS, when landing in Copenhagen, includes a welcome lounge.
While not as polished as the Lufthansa welcome lounge in Frankfurt, one still gets a decent breakfast, and, most importantly, private showers to refresh oneself after the long flight, which makes the layover comfortable and easy.
That is an important added plus over Condor (and over United, which – when landing in Paris – does not include a welcome lounge at Charles De Gaulle airport, even if that is not necessarily the fault of the airline).
SAS is not as inexpensive as Condor. The shorter flight, with one stop, from Frankfurt to Washington costs more than the longer, non-stop flight from Frankfurt to San Diego, but SAS offers terrific value nonetheless. I feel as if I am getting the same quality of service – and better inflight entertainment (free WIFI for example) – than at Lufthansa, which costs, as noted above, up to 50% more than SAS. I am a most happy customer and will return to SAS with enthusiasm.
SAS flights Frankfurt (or Stuttgart) to Washington D.C. in December 2016 and 2017 round trips (with stops in Copenhagen)
Quality of staff service: 10/10
Seating Comfort: 10/10
Entertainment and other in-flight services: 10/10
Flight convenience (not non stop): 8/10
Welcome lounge: 9/10
Changing plans convenience: 10/10
Total rating (out of 10): 9.5 (factoring in the welcome lounge)
For long haul flights, in business class, these days between Europe and the US, I recommend very highly SAS first and Condor, second. I will report back again, after I have another experience with Condor in May 2018.