Photo: Clément Alloing

TAP Air Portugal has been expanding its North American gateways this year, and I was delighted to be invited on its first-ever flight from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Lisbon Airport on June 1.

Currently scheduled for five times a week—every day except Tuesday and Thursday–the nonstop was on the A330-900, the new wide-body plane TAP is proud to be the first airline in the industry to fly.

This was my first trip to Portugal, so I decided to stay ten days and will also report on the return flight on June 12, which was on an A330-200.

Arriving at Chicago-O’Hare

Finding the check-in counters for TAP in bustling Terminal 5, O’Hare’s international terminal, was a bit of a challenge, because they are all the way at one end in section A.

My traveling companion Fred and I arrived at about 14:30, and boarding for flight TP 228 wasn’t until 17:05, so the balloon-decorated business class counter (also for Star Alliance members) wasn’t very busy. But the check-in process was slowed by a broken boarding-pass printer.

As it turned out, the wheelchair information for our arrival in Lisbon had been entered incorrectly and had to be fixed. I travel with my own wheelchair—a “companion” chair with small wheels that folds up to measure 20” x 24” and fits in an overhead bin—and the A330-900 lands remotely at LIS, apparently because its 64-meter wingspan is too wide to fit into the stands.

Since I wouldn’t be able to descend the plane’s steps to take the bus to the terminal, I would have to use the system in place for passengers with special needs.

Once checked in, we waited for the wheelchair attendant supplied by ORD to take us to the SAS Business Class Lounge used by TAP and other Star Alliance partners.

The TSA security lines were very long, but with the wheelchair, we bypassed most of the crowd. I received a very thorough pat-down.

The SAS lounge is smallish with a pleasant Scandinavian design, a variety of seating, and good views of planes passing on the tarmac. Unexceptional dining options consisted of cold cuts and salads, as well as wine and spirits.

At nearby Gate M 12, where we were to board, the inaugural spread for all passengers included sandwiches, both on baguettes and crust-less bread triangles, snacks, and soft drinks. There also was a big sheet cake slated to be served after the opening remarks and ribbon-cutting.

Unfortunately, the inaugural flight arriving from Lisbon was late, though TAP personnel hadn’t mentioned the delay or the reasons for it. TP229 was supposed to land at 16:05, allowing for a 2-hour turnaround before our flight took off at the scheduled 18:05.

Instead, it got in sometime after 17:00. The customary water-canon salute by O’Hare Airport’s Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting department as the plane approached the gate was greeted with applause by one and all.

Pre-departure speeches about half-an-hour before TP228 started to board kicked off with a welcome from a deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation, followed by comments from TAP’s chairman, Miguel Frasquilho, and the Consul General for Portugal in Chicago, Nelson de Castro.

The general gist was that TAP had picked the perfect time to launch the new route, which will strengthen the carrier and benefit both wonderful destinations, creating a welcome bridge between the U.S. Midwest and Europe. Both men led the ribbon cutting.

Boarding the A330neo

Boarding began a bit after 18:30 and finished at 19:25, with long lines, several delays, and passengers mobbed at the door to the gate.

Because I was eligible for pre-boarding, we were among the first to be allowed through, only to be stopped again in a holding area, and yet again on the jetway. No one told us the reasons for the delays, but the rumors ranged from agricultural inspections to a broken toilet.

While we were in the holding area, a gate agent came and gave me a hard time about taking my wheelchair in the cabin, despite my reiterating that it fits in an overhead bin and reciting the provision in the Air Carrier Access Act that requires airlines to allow assistive devices that fit in the overhead or under the seat.

Happily, the TAP agent who checked me in initially came by and helped.

Welcome On Board: Details

TAP’s A330neos seat 298 passengers in two classes. Business Class, equipped with the AirSpace cabin by Airbus, has 34 Recaro CL6710 full-flat seats in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration so that all seats enjoy aisle access.

We were in seats 9E and 9F, the center seats in the last row of the cabin. Alternating center rows have the consoles between the seats or on either side, while window seats are either adjacent to the window with the consoles next to them or the reverse, with the seat more exposed to the aisle.

The width of the entry to the seat depends on whether is angled in our out; ours was quite narrow. The seats measure about 20.5 inches at the widest point and 76 to 77 inches long in full-flat mode.

Seat controls are conveniently located in the console and easy to use. My favorite feature was the ability to raise the footrest without lowering the seat back, but the back, unfortunately, cannot be adjusted independently; instead, there are four positions from straight up to the full flat.

The seat pods are generally well-designed with several little storage spaces, adjustable headrests, a place to hang the noise-canceling headphones, high-definition 16-inch screens that swivel for easy viewing, pull-out remote controls and tray tables that pull out from under the screen.

On the downside, the plug-in for the headphones is low down and hard to use; the rack for magazines and the info card is slightly behind the seat, and one side of the seat belt is very heavily padded (and heavy), I don’t know why.

Ample quilts and pillows in colorful cases were on the seats when we arrived. The amenity kit by Portuguese company Castelbel had the usual toothbrush and toothpaste, comb, hand cream, eye mask, earplugs, and pen, plus nifty argyle socks in TAP colors and an overwhelmingly aromatic sachet, all in a pouch with a streetscape design.

For the inaugural, we also got goodie bags holding a full-size bar of soap; mine was basil-scented.

Superb IFE, WiFi Connectivity

The inflight entertainment system, which can be personalized using the five-digit key code on your boarding pass, could keep anyone busy for days. More than 100 movies range from recent releases like “A Star is Born” (with Lady Gaga) and “Crazy Rich Asians” to such classics as “Casablanca.”

There also are loads of television shows, from news recaps to network and HBO programs; scores of music albums in myriad genres and video games to warm the hearts of teenagers (of any age). For AvGeeks, the 3D flight tracker has a dozen different angles, even one that puts you in the cockpit.

Photo: Daniel Sander

I spent much of the trip listening to Portuguese fado music to get in the mood for our destination, though I also called up the wine list to review the information, which is hard to read on the menu because the print is pale.

Four Wi-Fi packages to stay connected while in the air start with free messaging and go up to Tap Total Wi-Fi for €24.99.

Mood lighting is one of the other assets of the AirSpace cabin, but I only noticed it once, and that was a purplish hue.

The A330neos have Rolls-Royce Trent 7000 engines, which makes them quieter than most, as well as more fuel-efficient.

In-Flight Service

Once seated, Business Class passengers were offered a choice of sparkling wine, water or orange juice and little packets of nuts. The safety video was part of Portugal travelogue, in keeping with the trend to dispense this essential information in entertaining ways.

After a brief announcement from the captain, we finally pushed back in the rain at 19:37 and, between sitting on the tarmac and taxi-ing a long way, didn’t take off until 20:17, more than two hours after the 18:05 scheduled departure time. Cruising altitude, when we reached it, was 39,000 feet.

Dinner service got underway with not-so-hot towels. Fred and I were being served by different FAs, and only I received a menu.

By the time they got to us to choose from among the three main courses—beef, chicken or fish—they were out of the roasted fillet of beef with Madeira sauce, green beans, baby carrots, and au gratin potatoes, so we went with the other two.

There was no choice of starters. Once the tray tables were pulled out and white tablecloths laid, we each got a canape of seared tuna topped with salmon caviar, a dab of cream cheese and an herb sprig on a little square of toast, accompanied by a little bowl of mixed nuts. It was a lovely way to begin dinner.

Of the impressive nine wines on the list, the Aliança Baga Bairrada sparkling wine went well with the tuna, and the Quinta do Gradil Castelo Sulco rosé was even better with its good balance of sweetness and acidity.

During the meal, we also tried all three whites, two reds and two dessert wines, Churchill’s LBV Port and Bacalôa Moscatel. Fred was partial to the Casa de Compostela Vinho Verde, while I liked the white Esporão Reserva from Alentejo and the red Altano Reserva from Duoro.

The appetizer and soup, served together on a tray with the soup poured over a sour cream garnish on the spot, were the highlight of the meal. In fact, the satiny green-pea soup with a hint of mint was as smooth and well-seasoned as in a classy restaurant.

Even better was the sophisticated veal tonnato, tender slices of still-pink meat with thinly sliced radishes and an herb salad in a light tuna sauce. The portion was big enough for a meal.

That was a good thing because our entrées were very disappointing. Seared salmon with dill cream sauce, cauliflower rice (an interesting concept), baby fennel, green beans, grilled artichoke, and a grilled tomato wedge sounded promising, but everything was overcooked.

The same was true for the dry herb-roasted chicken breast with mushroom parsley cream, over-roasted potatoes, and limp broccoli florets; only the little sautéed shimeji mushrooms survived unscathed.  

Naturally, I had to try all the desserts. The three kinds of cheese weren’t Portuguese, but they were decent enough, especially the mild blue cheese.

The strawberry ice cream passed muster, but best was the perfectly ripe mango on the fruit plate that also had blueberries, raspberries, and watermelon. Being able to get espresso (though not cappuccino) was a plus, as were the Passport chocolates handed out.

Service throughout the meal—and the flight—was courteous and professional, though not especially warm or friendly. Dinner was paced very slowly, leaving relatively little time for sleep on the 7-hour flight. Picking up the pace would help those who need to rest, as would offering an express dinner option.

Before dinner, passengers were asked if they wanted to be awoken for breakfast, which was served an hour and 20 minutes before we reached Lisbon. It consisted of cold meats and cheeses, tomatoes, strawberry yogurt, the same fruit as at dinner (without the raspberries), rolls or croissants with butter and jam, and various beverages. No hot dish was offered.

Landing in Lisbon

On arrival, we circled for awhile because another plane had had a medical emergency. Passengers in window seats had great views of the Portuguese coastline and Lisbon that those of us in the middle missed.

We touched down at 09:31 and parked remotely on the tarmac at 09:39, whereas we were supposed to land at 07:50.

While everyone else deplaned to greetings from TAP officials and inaugural flight certificates (I’m told), we had to wait for the wheelchair help vehicle. When it arrived, there was a problem because no one had a record of me using a wheelchair—even though I was obviously sitting in one. They wouldn’t let me off the plane until the FA finally realized that his passenger list mistakenly showed Fred as being the person with the wheelchair.

Photo: Nicky Boogaard 

The first vehicle, which had a lift up to the plane, took us a very short distance to a second vehicle, which was more like a regular van with a wheelchair lift. That drove us to a special terminal entrance, where we were met by a woman from MyWay, which handles special services for the airport. She whisked us through passport control, avoiding the long line to clear immigration that some others encountered.

Though we hadn’t checked any baggage, she then took us to the baggage claim area, where the rest of our press group was waiting.  

Flying Back To Chicago

TAP’s business class check-in is tucked around a corner, and there was no line when we checked in for TP 229 at about 09:15, leaving plenty of time to visit the TAP business lounge before the 12:05 boarding time.

The process went smoothly with no problem about taking my wheelchair in the cabin (which I’d prearranged). After a 10-minute wait in the adjacent business center, a MyWay employee came and took us through security (a priority area I think because there was no line), passed a nice shopping area and up to an elevator to the spacious TAP business lounge.

Done in mod style with bold painted stripes and a wall of windows overlooking a few gates and taxiways, the lounge has a full bar at one end and an extensive food buffet with tables at the other.

In between are rows of black-upholstered connected seats with white side tables. Some of the light fixtures conjure up Saturn’s rings, while semi-spherical cork chairs are unlike any I’ve seen. A room in back has daybeds for napping and a few showers, as well as a quiet work area.

The buffet changes throughout the day and also has wine and beer dispensers, so you don’t even have to go to the bar.

We spent the time snacking on savory and sweet Portuguese pastries (including a decent pastel de nata), so-so salads like chickpea and zucchini, meats and cheeses, canapes topped with chopped shrimp, vegetables and dips, a very sweet orange roll and banana-nut and chocolate loaf cakes.  Almost everything was labeled in English as well as Portuguese.

We had been warned to leave extra time to go through customs and immigration, which is located between the lounges and the gates and often has long lines, but the MyWay attendant who picked us up at 11:56 whisked us through (again, a priority line, I think) and on to gate 44 N for boarding, where our passports were checked a couple more times before we lined up with a few other wheelchairs for pre-boarding.

Change Of Planes

The good news was that there was a plane at the gate, so we didn’t have to go to a remote area. The bad news was that it wasn’t the A330neo on which we were supposed to have seats 7E and 7F.

We didn’t learn this until we handed in our boarding passes as we went through the door and were given new ones with different seat assignments—with no explanation. Unfortunately, I’d been assigned 6K, a window seat, and Fred was in 6F, two seats away in the center section.

Shocked, we explained to the gate agent that we needed to sit together, so Fred could help me. He was totally unsympathetic and replied that we’d have to talk to the crew on the plane. He also tagged my wheelchair and said it would have to go to cargo, despite my protestations that TAP officials approved my taking it in the cabin.

While we were waiting to enter the jetway, another agent came and explained that the wheelchair would have to go into cargo because of the last-minute change of plane. I asked if suitcases fit in the overheads on the new equipment, and when he answered “yes,” I replied that my wheelchair would, too. He relented and said we could try, and of course, once we got on the plane, it fit.

Welcome Onboard

No one would give us a straight answer about what the new equipment was, but we gleaned from the safety card that it was an A330-200, which only had six rows in Business Class.

Other passengers traveling together were upset at being separated in the seat reassignment melée, so an FA juggled things a bit. We ended up in 6H and 6K, the aisle and window on the right side of the plane.

The seating configuration was very odd, with six single seats on the left side of the plane, six rows of two seats in the middle and a 1-2-1-2-1-2 arrangement on the right side.

Consoles were variously positioned, some seats had more storage space than others and, unlike on the A330neo, the footrest could not be raised without the back reclining.

When asked, an FA said the IFE was the same as on the Neo, but I’m not sure that’s true. I couldn’t find all the fado albums I’d listened to before, just a 60-minute fado “radio” station. I watched “Captain Marvel,” Stan & Ollie” and half of “The Favourite” on the 8-hour and 40-minute flight.

The plane was supposed to take off at 13:05 but didn’t push back until 13:35. Take off was at 13:57.

Return In-Flight Service

Once we reached cruising altitude, the food service followed the same format as on the outbound flight, only the towels were hotter, the pace was a little faster and none of the food was anywhere as good as the veal appetizer and pea soup.

This was surprising since Tiago Bonito, one of TAP’s handful of Michelin-starred consulting chefs, had contributed to the menu.

His dishes were an appetizer of rather chewy smoked ham paired with peeled pear wedges on a plate dabbed with truffle egg yolk and decorated with tiny lettuce leaves and the main course described as “black pork terrine, sweet potatoes, and Port wine.”

A pancake-size patty of shredded pork, it reminded me of toddler food and came with pale mashed sweets and two flattened, overdone asparagus spears.

The thick fillet of lightly breaded hake on a bed of chopped shrimp and tomato was a better entrée. The third choice, a pasta, was “86” by the time the ordering got to us.

Dinner began with a complicated but dull lobster canapé with a bowl of roasted sunflower seeds, and the soup, listed as “cream of sweet potato, pumpkin mousse, courgette, sun-dried tomato and green asparagus” suffered from saltiness and an oval of superfluous pumpkin mousse.

Chef Bonito’s dessert, sponge cake with pistachio and pineapple, was missing in action, but the individual round of pungent Monte da Vinha cheese with jam and almonds was very good, as was the chocolate ice cream.

The light meal of cold meats, cheeses, fruit, and rolls was offered about an hour and 10 minutes before landing. At the same time, the fasten seat belt sign was turned on in advance for the descent and customs forms were handed out.

Back in O’Hare: Overall Impressions

The captain estimated we’d land at 17:02, but we actually touched down at 16:36 and were at the gate by 16:45.

We had to deplane last, but wheelchair assistants were waiting to take us to the electronic customs machines, help us use them, and usher us through passport control.

The A330neo is definitely an improvement over the A330-200, and I really enjoyed the outbound flight once we were in the air.

I suspect minor kinks like the glacial pacing of dinner on a 7-hour flight can be worked out: An express meal is one possibility; I’d prefer breakfast a little sooner, which would alleviate last-minute lines to use the WC, and the airline might consider adding a hot dish to the choices.

In general, the food could be improved: all of it should be as good as the outbound openers and the desserts.

TAP’s biggest problem seems to be communicating with customers and being sensitive to their needs. We were kept in the dark about delays and changes, and separating passengers who were seated together without even discussing this with them is extremely bad form, especially when someone has a disability. All airline personnel need to know and understand the provisions of the Air Carrier Access Act, too.

Finally, TAP should think about increasing the turnaround time at O’Hare between the arrival of TP 229 and the departure of TP 228. Two hours is simply not enough given all the things that can go wrong.