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by Anne Spiselman
PHOTO: ROB FINLAYSON
Flights: OS066; OS065
Routes: Chicago O’Hare, Illinois (IATA: ORD/ICAO: KORD) to Vienna [Wien], Austria (VIE/LOWW); and return
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300
O’Hare’s Terminal 5 isn’t exactly user-friendly, and the long line at Austrian's economy check-in made me pleased to head to the business counter, where there was no line at all. We weren’t checking baggage so sailed right through with one slight hiccup: I was told my wheelchair couldn’t be stowed in a cabin closet but would be taken from me at the airplane, placed in the hold, and returned after we landed.
Within a few minutes, an attendant arrived to wheel me through security, a rather chaotic process that had me sharing the glassed-in room for manual pat-downs with a total stranger. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) officer patting him down thought we were traveling together and asked if I had the man’s boarding pass. ‘My’ TSA agent was smarter and very considerate; however, being patted down by hand (rather than a wand) felt intrusive.
Next it was on to the business lounge, which Austrian shares with Swiss International Air Lines (Swiss). Amenities included comfortable seating, drinks, and snacks. My favorite: a Nespresso machine allowing patrons to make their own many variations on espresso, even decaf.
The attendant came in plenty of time to wheel me to the gate for pre-boarding; a good thing, because Gate M21 is as far as it can be from the lounge—and everything else.
Business class consists of five rows configured 2-2-2. The seats, which are 18.2in (46cm) wide with a 60in (1.52m) pitch, feature push-button controls with three preset positions—upright, ‘relax’, and ‘sleep’—as well as adjustable backs, lumbar support, and foot rests that go all the way up. Pull-up partitions allow for privacy; reading lights with dimmers supplement overhead lighting. A console between pairs of seats has monitors for video, plug-ins for head sets and computers, and so on. Though the system wasn’t ‘on demand’, more than a dozen audio channels and several movies were among the entertainment options.
Two quirks: once you take out your tray table, you can’t adjust the seat; and in the ‘sleep’ position, the almost-flat seat tilts so far forward I felt like I was going to slide off.
While pillows and comforters were on the seats, pre-takeoff handouts included Champagne, orange juice, or water; amenity kits; headphones; and the menu/wine list with a separate sheet for us to mark with our breakfast choices (pen provided). Following pushback at 1645, magazines were distributed and the safety video was screened, with English narration first, then German. A welcome message from the captain informed us that we were fifth in line for takeoff, and we could keep track of our progress and the route map on the monitors. Estimated flight time was 8hr 50min.
Once we reached cruising altitude (37,000ft), the purser, Christina Tieferuner, solicited entrée (main course, for non-US readers) orders. The choices were filet of beef, grilled barramundi, or guinea fowl; we opted for the last two. Tieferuner also was one of the three FAs onboard this flight who had taken the voluntary sommelier course, enabling her to explain the wines and make appropriate recommendations throughout the meal. Austrian Airlines has a chef on board every flight, and ours was Stefan Schrempf, a veteran of the Grand Hotel in Vienna and several restaurants. Though most of the food is precooked, he was responsible for finishing and plating entrées, preparing eggs for breakfast, and making ten coffee variations for the Viennese coffee service.
Tray tables were set with sky-blue linens, salt and pepper shakers, bread plates, tiny ramekins of butter, water and wine glasses, and napkin-wrapped silverware. After the obligatory hot towels, we got an amuse-bouche of two vegetarian Japanese-style maki sections and the offer (repeated for each course) of half-a-dozen kinds of hearty, warm breads and rolls from a big basket. The purser suggested the Gruner Veltliner DAC 2007 (Weingut Gruber, Weinviertel) with the sushi, but I also experimented with the Duval-Leroy Fleur de Champagne Brut (quite good) and the Le Borgate Prosecco from Veneto. The whites weren’t chilled as much as they often are, but I didn’t mind. Tieferuner’s pick for the appetizers was the Riesling Urgestein 2007 (Weingut Schloss Gobelsburg Kamptal), a light and lively white that went well with both the trio of prawns atop greens with chopped eggs, tomato, and chives in lemon-olive oil dressing; and the antipasto plate, an arrangement of prosciutto, smoked salmon, vegetables, and cheeses. There also was a soup course: thick, creamy and very salty curried pumpkin ladled over chunks of the squash.
For entrées, the generous fillet of nicely grilled barramundi with chopped tomato, an olive-thyme puree, and grilled veggies surpassed the moist guinea fowl quarter with skinny asparagus, cherry tomatoes, and overcooked, mushy mushroom risotto. Ready for red wine whether it was right or not, I enjoyed the Zweigelt Riedencuvee 2006 (Weingut Glatzer Carnuntum), which also was just fine with the four cheeses, offered with pepper. Other choices on the dessert trolley were fresh fruit, breaded baked apple slices with cinnamon mascarpone cream, a vanilla parfait, and American cheesecake. Elegant, delicate Kracher Cuvée Beerenauslese 2005 (Weinlaubenhof Kracher, Burgenland) was a ‘must’, and I would have ended there except for the lure of the Wiener Melange, the Viennese version of a cappuccino served on a silver-plated tray with sugar and a piece of milk chocolate. My companion tried the Maria Theresia, black coffee infused with orange liqueur.
During the night, we were kept supplied with water, orange juice, and fruit smoothies. Breakfast service, about 90 minutes before landing, included a choice of all of those plus a fruit bowl, muesli, oddly cut-up ham and cheese, good breads, decent warm croissants, and coffee that suffered by comparison to the previous night’s. While the firm cottage cheese omelet with greasy potatoes and grilled tomato was marginally edible, the sunnyside-up eggs were a disaster: congealed yolk and runny white, served with cold grilled ham.
After a smooth landing a little ahead of schedule, we made our way to the gate. My wheelchair was brought up right away, someone was there to push, and we were out of the airport and into a cab within 15 minutes.
Austrian Airlines has two special assistance check-in counters at Vienna Airport’s Terminal 1, and we were directed to them (rather than business check-in) because of my wheelchair. The process was quick and efficient, with a tag provided for the wheelchair and the explanation that it would be taken at the gate (same as outbound). The attendant arrived within a few minutes and offered to take us to Austrian’s somewhat distant but accessible regular lounge or the business lounge, which was very near our departure gate (A07) but required an elevator ride and negotiation of three steps near the entrance (and three down to get to the bathrooms).
PHOTOS: AUSTRIAN AIRLINES
Austrian's business lounge at VIE.
Furnished mostly with little round tables and aqua-upholstered chairs with chrome legs—not very comfortable—the business lounge felt light and airy and had a computer area with three computers for use free of charge, but limited to 30 minutes at a time. Drinks, snacks, and a self-service coffee/espresso machine were arrayed on a long counter, along with breakfast fare: a domed silver server filled with scrambled eggs (moist, salty) and grilled tomatoes, and a basket of surprisingly flaky mini-croissants with several jams. The lounge’s big drawback, besides the poor accessibility, was that you had to walk though the smoking section to reach the bathrooms, and it reeked of cigarette smoke.
The attendant came to take me to the gate shortly before the posted 1005 boarding time, and the security check was at the entrance to the waiting area. They didn’t seem to have the ability to perform manual pat-downs, so I walked through the screening machine. No-one had to remove their shoes, and I informed the agent that the metal in my shoulder would probably set off the alarm—but it didn’t. A bottle of wine given to us by a restaurant was confiscated from my companion’s carry-on luggage, and when he asked, he was told it was too late to check the bag.
The waiting area was crowded, and the attendant positioned me in the line for pre-boarding, then went away. Boarding was delayed, but a different person returned to take me to the airplane at the appropriate time.
Once onboard, the sequence of events was similar to that for the outbound flight; however, the drinks included an ‘Austrian’ cocktail of prosecco and pink fruit juice, and the FA who handed out newspapers and magazines addressed me by name. The recorded narration for the safety video was in English first, but purser Alexander Krebs’s announcements were in German, then English.
We pushed back at 1110 and took off at 1126. Krebs announced that lunch service would begin as soon as we reached cruising altitude (36,000ft), and information on the entertainment system included a video on how to use it. For some reason, my audio channels 7-10 didn’t work; I mentioned this, but nothing was done about it.
The wine list and coffee menu were the same as on the outbound flight; however, the menu was different, starting with a listing of the antipasti on the trolley, and no offer of an alternative appetizer. The second service was a snack rather than breakfast. When I inquired, the purser told me that this flight didn’t have any sommelier-trained FAs; he tried his best to make recommendations, but really couldn’t tell me much about the wines. Chef Christopher Kraus, in white jacket and toque, served one side of the cabin—alas, not the one I was on. After tray tables were set (same as outbound plus tiny wooden clothespins to secure napkins to shirts), lunch got off to a great start with an amuse-bouche trio: a little round of pumpernickel topped with brie, smoked salmon in a pastry puff, and vitello tonnato (veal painted with tuna sauce) wrapped around Mediterranean arugula. The restaurant-worthy antipasti, artfully arranged seat-side on pear-shaped plates, were even better than those on the outbound flight. Highlights included terrific ‘home made’ goose liver paté, Scottish smoked salmon dotted with chive sauce, rosy Styrian-style duck breast (chewy but flavorful) on salad, dry-cured ham set off by grated fresh horseradish, and smoky grilled asparagus with tangy Austrian sheep cheese. Only the salty crayfish salad disappointed. Traditional wine soup, ladled over a crepe-wrapped morsel of smoked trout, had a satiny texture but was too salty for me to eat.
We passed on chicken Kiev in favor of grilled sea bream (dorade) and filet of beef. The big fish fillet was moist and delicious—though the skin was limp. Rosemary-roasted potatoes were soggy; the Mediterranean vegetables consisted mostly of zucchini and olives; and the lemon-caper butter tasted mostly of salt. The thick beef filet, requested rare if possible, arrived medium-rare, not bad considering the onboard chef has no control over the precooking.
‘Soy tomato vegetables’, practically all bean sprouts, was a misguided idea; ‘wasabi puree’ turned out to be lumpy mashed potatoes topped with a thyme sprig. Needless to say, we mixed and matched wines liberally.
Our coffee order was taken before the arrival of the dessert trolley—from which we sampled everything: four Austrian and other cheeses (a Gruyère-style, a brie, etc) with apples and grapes; a plate of ripe pineapple, papaya, passion fruit, kiwi, and cantaloupe; and three sweets—green tea parfait (a ball of unchurned ice cream), a cream-filled mini profiterole with chocolate sauce, and a traditional sweet dumpling that resembled a prune-filled brioche popover with vanilla sauce. My favorite coffee, and the high point of the meal (except for the goose liver paté) was the Wiener Eiskaffee, a strong double espresso with vanilla ice cream and dense whipped cream in a tall glass.
A couple of movies later, and about 1hr 40min before the 9hr 22min flight came to an end, another round of hot towels and blue tablecloths preceded the arrival of trays with silverware, coffee setups, and bowls of sour cream/crème fraiche with strawberries mixed in, plus our choice of mixed baby greens with avocado slices, cherry tomatoes, and three firm tail-on prawns in a light dressing (with a gauze-wrapped lemon half), or ‘home made’ linguini with halved artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes, and black olives in rich cream sauce finished with fresh basil and accompanied by a seemingly undressed side salad with tomato, cucumber, and grated carrot. I preferred the shrimp, but the hearty linguini tasted better than it looked.
Despite a bumpy descent and a bit of circling, we were parked at Gate M21 by 1352. We waited about five minutes for my wheelchair, and then were on our way, bypassing the long lines at O’Hare’s Terminal 5 immigration, thanks to the separate wheelchair line.Overall ImpressionsAustrian Airlines’s business class was on a par with some other carriers’ international first class, at least in my experience. The design of the seats needs to be tweaked to be more comfortable in the ‘sleep’ position, and I missed the interactive aspect of the entertainment system, but the ambitious food and beverage program was, for the most part, successful. In fact, some of the food on the return flight—especially the antipasti—would pass muster at any good restaurant. The big plus, though, was the excellent service. I wasn’t all that impressed with Austrian’s lounge in Vienna; however, Terminal 1 in general seemed nicer than O’Hare’s Terminal 5.
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