Thursday, June 10, 2010

The New Biz Class on Swiss

As domestic air travel in my part of the world - urban North America - grows more pinched and ever more tedious, it's good to know that flying can still be fun sometimes, somewhere. Generally, this means long-haul flights on well-run, profitable carriers, and even more specifically, it means flying in the front of the cabin on international routes.

Why? Well, this is where most major airlines make money. Catering to high-yield business and corporate travelers who can pay for good service is good business.

One of the very best premium services I've experienced recently is the new business class on Swiss International Air Lines. Swiss, a unit of the profit-making Lufthansa Group, has just started to reconfigure its business product. I flew the old business class from San Francisco to Zurich last week; it was far from bad, but the new product is better - an upgrade in the sky. This is in keeping with Swiss' recent track record. The airline, which carried 13.8 million passengers last year, is one of Europe's best upscale boutique carriers.

I flew the new business class on my way back to California from Zurich on board an Airbus A340, the biggest aircraft in Swiss' 77-strong fleet. The first thing I noticed was the unusual, and unusually attractive, seating arrangement: 2-2-2 or 2-2-1. Every seat in the cabin is either at a window or on an aisle. I had a window, which I always prefer, and did not have anyone sitting next to me, which gave me room to spread out. My seat, like all the others in biz class, was backed by a hard plastic shell; so, when the passengers in front of me inevitably put their seats back, then all the way down, on our 11.5 hour flight, there was no intrusion into my space. I was, of course, able to do the same.

Swiss has a true flatbed, reclining to 180 degrees, not one of those inclined seats that makes you feel you'll slide right out onto the floor if you don't wear your seatbelt the whole time. That said, a seat is not a mattress. Passengers are able to tweak the hardness and softness of the aircushion seat, which helps a lot, though you can feel, slightly, the component parts of the seat. Movement in the cabin, aircraft noise and anticipation of arrival usually prevent me from sleeping on all but the most exhausting, middle-of-the-night flights. This was an afternoon flight. So, I didn't sleep. My fellow passengers didn't seem to have that problem; they were off in dreamland. Everyone I talked to afterward said they loved the new seats, and I found them decidedly better than what you usually find in the sky, even onboard top international carriers.

Then, there was the food. Airline food has long been the butt of complaints and jokes. In my days as a newspaper comedy critic, I heard comedians crack wise about airline food in nearly every stand-up show I reviewed. But, surprise. The food on Swiss is good. True, the airline ran out of my first choice on both flights, a minor annoyance that has happened on many airlines I have traveled with. Shouldn't customer surveys alert airlines about which of their main courses are most likely to be most popular, so they can order more? I missed the veal in cream sauce created for the airline by a Swiss celebrity chef. This was not entirely tragic. The moist salmon that I did have was more than acceptable, and I liked the emphasis the airline puts on fruity, fragrant Swiss Pinot Noir and mild Swiss Chardonnay. For dessert, there was good cheese and fruit salad but I, of course, also went for the fine Swiss chocolate, as who wouldn't?

The amenity kit came in smart, zippered Navyboot fabric bags and included the basics: eyeshade, earplugs, toothbrush and toothpaste. An enclosed card told male passengers that a shaving kit is available on request, as are other items such as a shoehorn and sewing kit.

The in-flight entertainment system was very good, offering a wide range of choices for video on demand, TV, games, movies, many genres of music, a changing electronic map showing the progress of our journey - in short, the long menu of electronic distractions international business- and first-class passengers have come to expect. Creature comforts are, as always, nice, but I especially appreciated the work of the flight crew. The pilots often shared information - not a given at many airlines - and the seasoned flight attendants were friendly without sacrificing efficiency; there wasn't a grump in the bunch. That stands in sharp contrast to the attitude of too many FAs on U.S. carriers, where a sense of resentment mingled with a sense of entitlement has replaced hospitality; United Airlines, I'm looking at you.

Swiss is a member of Star Alliance, the largest of the three global alliances of airlines. Travelers on the twentysomething Star member-carriers can not only use airline code-shares to extend their routes, but also use other members' airport lounges. In Zurich, that's a good thing, as the sparkling, two-level Swiss lounge is a lovely, spacious place to unwind before or between flights. One suggestion: If the airport agrees, the lounge should be moved from before security to beyond security; travelers never know how much time they will spend in screening lines, and this would ease anxieties.

Swiss International Air Lines is based in Basel, Switzerland. More information can be found online at http://www.swiss.com/ or by toll-free telephone in the U.S. at 1-877-FLY-SWISS.

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