Flightreport inaugurationflight Brussels Airlines SN501 BRU-JFK
Plane: Airbus A330-300, OO-SFW
Seat: 32H/32K exit/economy
ATD: 10h47 +/-
Loadfactor: 90% (estimated guess)
Cruise altitude: 11.636 meter / 38.165ft – 12.220m/ 40.100ft (landfall Canada)
Cruise speed: 864km - 885km/h
Check-in wasn’t opened yet when we arrived at the counters, SN staff needed to figure out how the computer systems worked to check the ESTA and passport validly. After a small amount of time (give or take about 20 minutes) check-in was opened, our lugage was weighed and tags were applied. Carry on items were also labelled and a “real” boarding pass was handed upon request. Gate T61 was assigned to our aircraft but when we tried to pass the automatic gate at pier A (T is a closed section of A where SN’s AFI and now also TATL ops depart and arrive) denied access and send us to the B-pier. After a quick visit to SN’s counters they guided us and other passengers through the gate. Apparently there was a computer glitch that held us from entering the A-pier.
At gate T61 (just after customs) we were welcomed by SN’s friendly staff and everybody was invited to get a drink and a mini donut. CEO Bernard Gustin and the US ambassador to Belgium Howard Guttman gave an inauguration speech to celebrate the historic moment of Belgian’s national airline “Brussels Airlines” now to re-unite Brussels again with New York. Brussels-New York was the flagship route of the late Sabena, Belgian’s national carrier before they filed for bankruptcy back in 2001. Sabena, the second oldest airline in the world was one the first Europe based airlines to connect the European mainland with the United States. The first route was to JFK’s predecessor Idlewood Airport which later became JFK. Now after more then 10 years of absence a “SN” flight will land once again on JFK. Brussels Airlines carries a lot of his predecessor, it not only holds the same IATA code “SN” but it operates planes that once where used by the late Sabena while loads of people working at Brussels Airlines are former “Sabeniens” like they are called. Brussels Airlines also carries on the tradition to care about their passengers. The service is held upon high standards and passengers are feld welcome right from the moment they arrive at the airport. Every single SN agent wetter it was a desk agent, a gate agent, a flight attendant , purser or pilot welcomed us with a friendly smile while making time to have a small chit chat.
2) Embarking, take-off, inflight
The embarking of SN501 was quite smooth and the staff welcomed us with a big smile while giving us directions to our seats. Some of SN’s A333’s have already received the interior upgrade. This upgrade involves a complete new interior throughout the plane, award winning business seats with a 180° full flat bed, a 15” AVOD IFE system with connect ability for personal devices like iphones or ipads. The seats are nearly identical to these of sister company Swiss International Airlines but with some nice upgrades (bigger screen, etc…). In economy class you’ll notice the new seats that are a bit slimmer to the old seats and thus give more legroom for the passenger. The economy passenger can now rely on a 33” seat pitch witch is more then other airlines offer in economy. A new AVOD IFE system, with hours of entertainment with 10” screens has also been installed. The IFE system features an USB port which will load your personal devices like an iPhone or iPad. Unfortunately, compared to business class where one can actually look at their content on the IFE system, the port is only used to charge devices. Never less compared to the old offering (monitors throughout the cabin and no personal IFE) it’s a big step up from what it has been. Actually with the new seats, the AVOD IFE system and the very nice service from the cabin members you can actually say that SN is offering one of the best products on the Atlantic routes. As a frequent United Airlines flyer myself occasionally travelling with British Airways I can say that SN’s product in economy is the best around. Personally I don’t like flight cuisine as I shall name it, most of the time, even when flying business class, it’s edible but that’s all one can say about it. The offering is 90% of the time “chicken or pasta” and taste like “sh*t”. However, as I’m writing a report about the inauguration flight of Brussels Airlines flight 501 to New York JFK, I find it my duty
to have a taste of the food on offer. SN’s offering from BRU to JFK was an African Coriander Chicken or a Fish Ragout. The rare occasions I ate fish on a plane I found it quite reasonable however my luck runs mostly out on the chicken that is often dry and even chewy. So there we go, we take the chicken, pray to God and hope for the best yet prepare for the worst. As the dish was delivered it offered a decent sized (yet cold) bread, a nice fresh salad with chicken and parmesan cheese, a piece of Camembert cheese, a small cake and the main dish, the chicken dish. It all looked quite decent (remember, travelling in cattle class), and after tasting the salad I was quite surprised about the quality offered. It was certainly up to standards but don’t rush it I thought to myself, the main dish can be quite different. The chicken dish is a normal economy sized dish however I was quite surprised that there were quite some pieces of chicken in the dish together with a good amount of rice. After taking a bite of the rice and the chicken (which was in a sort of curry sauce) I was again surprised about the quality offered. The chicken tasted delicious, it was soft, moist and had a good taste to it. The rice was still moist too and tasted also delicious.. Never thought I would say this but damn, this was a decent quality meal. SN made quite an impression with it. 2h out of New York a genuine Belgian “Frisco” (icecream) was offered. An hour before landing a "wrap" or something was offered as a snack before arrival. SInce I don't like such wraps I've no idea if it's edible but I guess it wont be to bad.
During the flight the flight attendants came by frequently and were very attentive, they would offer drinks on regular times and with a small touch on the call button the were at your seat in less then a second. Being a big guy as I am I do tend to have a problem with regular economy seats when they are of the kind that are a bit small. I never have a problem on a Boeing 777 nor on a 767 and even not on a 757 but the A333 from SN does seem to feature quite small exit seats (yes, I choose exit seats because I’m also more then 2m tall). Seeing that it was a tight fit a flight attendant immediately offered other seats were the seat separation can be removed. I friendly declined this offer since I rather sit in a small chair, which is bearable then to sit into a cramped seat with no legroom. I find this very attentive of the FA’s and I thanked them for the kindness.
Seeing the FA’s busy on the flight and being friendly to all the passengers it reminded my to the old days of Sabena, right before Sabena became an acronym for “Such A Bad experience Never Again”. It reminded me to the old days of flying, the days when the customer was important, the days when an airline offered a decent product and where the customer was the king even when he flew in economy class (these days mostly called “cattle class”). Even in economy class every single beverage was free, wetter one would take a simple water or would take a gin-tonic of a scotch. I’ve enjoyed a very nice gin with some tonic that was offered with a small bag of pretzels and a napkin. While the beverages are offered in cups only (I didn’t ask for the can since they came by more then often to ask if one was thirsty) there were plenty of refill services available. When walking towards the galley to ask something they were just starting their meal. Since I didn’t want to disturb them I excused myself and tried to walk away but instead they insisted that they would help me. I rarely saw such a service, this gets more then 2 thumbs up from me. This level of standard would remain constant throughout the whole flight.
The flight itself was literally uneventful and was one of the smoothest flights I ever had in the past.
While SN’s A330’s are nearly the oldest birds flying they are very good maintained and fully up to standards. I only have a minor issue with the upgrade of the plane. While the planes received a complete overhaul of the interior with a brand spanking new interior it seems that they did actually forgot things and used them for the old configuration. While the interior of the lavatories were brand-new they did actually forget to overhaul the exterior and some parts of the “clothing” (think it’s a very thing layer of painted triplex wood) showing some wear. This could and should have been dealt with during the upgrade. I don’t understand how they could have missed that. However it has to be said that the plane was further in an immaculate condition.
3) Inflight Entertainment, aka IFE
Well, like said before SN is in the process of reconfiguring their long-haul fleet (A333 & A332 and this means that an state of the art IFE system was installed. It’s actually a quite unique system since it’s the wireless system of RAVE with all the content installed on flash memory build into the system. It features hours of audio (unfortunately they need to add more famous singers and groups to it since it’s content wasn’t to familiar to me (and I’m a big music lover). The system was loaded with loads of recent movies and Hollywood hits, thanks to the system one could choose from a couple of languages to have it dubbed or with subtitles. A lot of useful information about Brussels Airlines, the airports, etc… was loaded and loads of games were also available. The only minor glitch with the system is the fact that it’s sometimes a little slow in response. This could be improved but overall it’s a wonderful system that will provide sufficient entertainment for young and old on this flight
I’ve been on inauguration flights before and I attended inauguration events in the past. Al these events marked one thing. They were a happy celebration of a new flight, a new part in an airline’s history. Unfortunately I can’t say the same about SN’s inauguration of the JFK flight. JFK is and has been an important part in SN’s (Sabena / Brussels Airlines) history and they made very decent promotion about it. So one could say they were (initially) proud about this route. However, it seemed that this had vanished today on the day of the inauguration. Yes, they held a limited event with speeches of the CEO and the US ambassador, yes there was orange juice, coffee and donuts and there it stopped. If one wouldn’t knew about it nobody would ever know that today was the big day at the airport. Few banners reminded passengers that there was something to happen but if you didn’t look for it nobody would notice. One exception was the big amount of Belgian press at the inauguration, multiple camera crews and photographers were present to capture this true historic moment. Some of them flew with us to JFK and took some images during the flight. If one would think twice about it I would imagine that SN had second thoughts about it but they couldn’t back out of it and let it all happen. It wasn’t a true celebration, it was a formality and one that screamed “we do this because we have to” and not “we do this because we want to and we are proud about it”. I’m not sure what happened before the inauguration, are the bookings that bad? Every source is telling me that the bookings exceed expectations, that they are happy how things are going and that they are confident that it will be a successful route. However, today nearly told another story. What the reason is we don’t know but I’m guessing we’ll probably know it in the upcoming months. SN should be proud about this route, they are re-instating a flagship route, they are re-instating one of the original transatlantic routes and from what I see on this flight they have absolutely every single reason to be proud. The plane is nice, the staff is friendly (and they operate beyond the call of duty), the food is great, the load on this first flight is great, even the fares are quite competitive. What does an airline want more? God damn, be proud, be happy and f*cking celebrate this!
Totally beyond the control of Brussels Airlines lies the worst part of the trip... John F. Kennedy Airport... It all looked promising when the fire department gave us a watersalute but then the real JFK experience began. When we arrived at immigrations hundreds (and probably over a thousand) people were standing in line to pass immigration. An hour passed and we literally moved 5 meter during that timespan after nearly 2 hours they became smart and opened every single counter for every immigration and from that moment we were quite fast through but it took us from time to landing to the moment I picked up my luggage 3 hours... Way to much and JFK should do something about this. Normally I use IAD as my point of entry and the JFK experience tends to move me back to IAD again, even though SN's experience was much better then my previous flights with UA.
6) To conclude
To conclude this long trip report I would like to congratulate Brussels Airlines with the new route and the splendid service they are offering. I truly hope they succeed and that they will operate more TATL routes in the future. If they maintain this level of standard and if they get more connections at JFK I’ll be more then happy to dump United Airlines as my carrier of choice to cross the pond. I’ve always been a proud United Airlines users and they still are a great airline but for me, and this is not because I’m Belgian, Brussels Airlines exceeds every expectation that I had. For once in a long time I’m actually proud to say that I’m a Belgian and that Brussels Airlines is our national carrier (hopefully for the next couple of decades however I have may choose I would love it if they would bring the “Sabena” name back. Because let’s be honest, Brussels Airlines is and always will be (an improved) Sabena for many many people across the globe.
I'll add pictures later when I'm back at my hotelroom.