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SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) Economy Extra
by Anne Spiselman
ALL PHOTOS: FREDRIC SWANSON
Airline: SAS (Scandinavian Airlines)
Flights: SK946; SK945
Routes: Chicago O’Hare International (IATA: ORD/ICAO: KORD)–Stockholm-Arlanda, Sweden (ARN/ESSA); ARN/ESSA–ORD/KORD
Aircraft: Airbus A330-300
Seats: 14D; 14F
Departure times: 1625; 1015 (1045 actual push-back; 1100 takeoff)
Arrival times: 0750 (0725 actual); 1230 (1300 actual)
Passenger: Anne Spiselman
The very early bird doesn’t always get the worm. When I arrived at the SAS counter in O’Hare’s Terminal 5 at 1255, a long line of passengers was waiting to check-in. I relaxed in a small seating area until the ticketing staff came on duty at 1300, but by 1330 the line had cleared.
Because I was flying Economy Extra—a class of service between coach and business—I was eligible to check in at the business counter, but a separate line had been set up for Economy Extra.
After waiting briefly for a wheelchair, I proceeded to passport control where I was whisked to the head of another very long line—one of the advantages of having to use a wheelchair. The queues at security were shorter, and that process took about ten minutes. Notwithstanding repeated recorded announcements about the ‘3-1-1’ policy for liquids (three-ounce bottles in one one-quart clear-plastic bag only), if you forgot to show your baggie, no-one seemed to ask.
Economy Extra passengers don’t have access to the business lounge, which is unfortunate because once you pass security Terminal 5 is a culinary wasteland. You can buy packaged snacks and drinks as well as duty free items, but there is no restaurant, café, or take-out, not even a coffee bar. It’s a major missed merchandising opportunity.
SAS was departing from Gate M15, and gate agents had to ensure everyone’s passport was registered (a US government requirement), which caused some confusion because the announcements failed to indicate that the blurry red blotch on the boarding pass was the required stamp. A wheelchair waited for me at the door to the Jetway for pre-boarding, but I had to get to it myself, whereupon I was pre-boarded right before regular boarding began.
The Economy Extra cabin on the A330 consists of Rows 14-18 in a 2-3-2 configuration. (Economy is 2-4-2, while business is 2-2-2.). Seats have a 38in (96cm) pitch, compared to 32in (81cm) in economy, and are 1in (2.5cm) wider at 18.3in (46cm). They have well-designed foot rests, but the seat backs don’t recline very far. The bulkhead row, which I was in, has additional leg room, as much as in many business cabins. Seats have individual video screens, as in economy; the ‘Extra’ is audio/video on demand (AVOD).
Plastic bottles of Minute Maid Fruit Plus were handed out before our on-time push-back at 1625. The safety video ran on the screen at the front of the cabin, in English first, then with Swedish subtitles. Next we got to watch the pilots’ view of takeoff. The flight-tracking map and information followed later for our northern route at a cruising altitude of 37,000ft.
A flurry of announcements (some in English first, then Swedish, some vice versa) and activity began after takeoff. Evidently, economy passengers were allowed one free welcoming alcoholic drink and one with the meal, while Economy Extra imposed no drink limits and included a second entree (main dish) choice. Headphones were handed out, along with an amenity pack consisting of a rolled-up shoe bag with toothbrush and toothpaste, eye mask, and ear plugs. Pillows were on the seats at boarding, and large blankets available on request. I needed one, because the cabin temperature was quite cold.
The flight attendants (FAs) came around with carts for beverage service, and the Champagne was Nicolas Feuillatte splits with twist caps made to look a little like corks. Although plastic cups were the rule for most drinks, real glasses were provided for Champagne. The accompaniment was plastic packs of tiny crackers flavored with cheese, garlic, and poppy seeds. Between drinks and dinner, we got hot towels.
It was around then that I discovered my video screen wasn’t working properly. I couldn’t play any of the dozen or so movies, and was getting only a fraction of the audio channels. I told an FA who told the purser who tried a few times to “reset the system” but to no avail. They didn’t offer to move me to a different seat, even though a few were empty.
The main meal arrived on a plastic tray with real silverware encased in plastic and wrapped in a cloth napkin with a tiny red plastic clothespin (to attach to your clothing), while an FA came around with a basket of warm rolls and flatbread. In economy, the entree was penne pasta in tomato sauce topped with sliced chicken breast. The Extra choice: a slightly fishy sole fillet flanked by rice (of passable quality) and overcooked vegetables. Because many other carriers’ international coach services offer a choice of entrees, this didn’t seem like a big deal. We also got a romaine salad with carrot, cucumber, and pepper-cream dressing (on the side), and spice cake with white frosting. I opted for red wine with dinner, and coffee/tea service followed.
Bottles of water were handed out later, and wrapped candies were available in the aft economy galley. The relaxed flight crew allowed me to use the nearer business class toilet (the Economy Extra cabin used to be part of business). It was spacious and well-designed with a mirrored door. In the business galley chocolates and mini sandwiches were on offer.
About 90 minutes before we landed, hot towels and glasses of iced orange juice preceded the continental breakfast, which included more orange juice, yogurt, and a plate of ham, cheese, cherry tomato, cucumber, and hard-boiled egg, as well as butter and strawberry jam to go with the hot rolls.
The flight was very smooth, and we touched down 25 minutes early. A wheelchair was waiting, and with no paperwork required to enter Sweden for US citizens, I got through passport control quickly. However, the wheelchair pusher said it was good that I hadn’t checked any luggage, because baggage claim often takes 30-45 minutes.
SAS has separate check-in counters for nonstops to New York and Chicago, so checking in about 2½ hours before flight time was smooth and fast. My travel companion and I originally had been assigned seats 14F and 15A because we couldn’t get two together in the requested bulkhead row (14), but when we learned we’d been switched to 15A and B and explained we wanted the bulkhead instead, the agent was able to change us to 14E and F.
At Arlanda, the luggage carts are well-designed with a stop mechanism, so they don’t roll away with your luggage on them. Wheelchair users can request help, in which case there’s a special waiting area and the wheelchairs are taken to the gates in a group, or users can simply borrow a wheelchair and make their own way to the gate. We did the latter, and proceeded through passport control and security with no delays or problems. After a long walk past shops and down hallways with handsome dark-wood floors, we reached Gate 58 at about 0800, but the glassed-in area with another passport check wasn’t open yet, so we settled down in the little café right next door, which had tables overlooking the tarmac, for a very good cappuccino.
An announcement was made when the gate area opened, and once inside with our passports checked and boarding tickets issued, we found it had its own washrooms, a nice amenity.
The Jetway was a level below the waiting area and, while most passengers took the stairs, we pre-boarded using the elevator—which went up instead of down and then got stuck! With a little help we figured it out, and a gate agent met us at the bottom and helped us down the Jetway to the airplane before the rest of the passengers boarded. As far as I could tell, business and then Economy Extra were boarded before the rest of economy. We pushed back at 1045 and, as on the outbound flight, got to watch the takeoff on the front screen.
Aside from pillows and blankets already on each seat, service was much the same as on the outbound flight—same juice, hot towels, amenity kits, etc. But the FAs were more attentive and rigorous about the rules (particularly about keeping Economy Extra passengers from using the business toilet). The announcements were more detailed (including helpful and healthy instructions to move our legs frequently and drink lots of water), and they were in Swedish first, then English. I suspect we were on the same airplane as on the outbound flight, because the AVOD system for Seat 14D still wasn’t working (in other words, it hadn’t been fixed in five days, which means it may have been broken long before I had a problem with it). Happily, I was in 14F this time, and my unit worked just fine.
The main meal featured either slightly tough chicken breast with wild mushroom-topped mashed potatoes, corn, and green beans in lots of gravy; or hake on spinach with tortellini and cherry tomatoes in creamy butter sauce.
The fish, though permeated with salt, was of a decent texture, and the cheese-filled pasta fared surprisingly well. An appetizer of two kinds of salami with olive tapenade was much too salty for me, but the foil-wrapped wedge of brie, warm rolls, and apple cake were good.
During the flight, the FAs came around several times with water and passed out panna cotta-flavored ice cream with jelly (very sweet).
The gastronomic highlight, though, was the pre-landing snack: a pair of open-faced sandwiches on hearty bread, one topped with paté, ‘mystery’ meat, and lettuce, the other with little shrimps, mayonnaise, and lettuce. A mini Toblerone was on the tray, and the FAs proffered a basket of fresh fruit (good grapes), followed by coffee/tea service.
Aside from estimating that we would touch down at 1249, the pilot offered no explanation or comment on any of the delays; in fact, we didn’t land until 1300. For the most part, the cruising altitude was 36,000ft, and there was some turbulence in the first hour, though not enough for the seat belt sign to be turned on.
Both flights were enjoyable, and Economy Extra offers extra comfort and leg room, especially for those in the bulkhead row. While the food in this class isn’t really better than in economy (more or less cafeteria quality), the standard on the return flight seemed slightly better than outbound. The only thing I would fault SAS for is not fixing the AVOD in Seat 14D during the five days between my flights, because the airline obviously knew about the problem.
O’Hare could take lessons from Arlanda in making its international terminal user-friendly once passengers are past security.
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