MIAMI — After an exciting, but very cold, visit to Amsterdam Schiphol’s famous observation deck, it was time to head back into the far warmer terminal to thaw out. Holding a business class ticket, I learned I was entitled to expedited security. With no one ahead of me I blazed through in a grand total of five minutes. By virtue of traveling within the Schengen Area, I did not have to clear immigration, saving even more time.
With two hours left to spend before my flight, I paid a visit to the KLM Crown Lounge nearest Pier B. The lounge was well appointed, as far as lounges go. A number of seat styles and arrangements dotted the space, though partitions between them were hard to come by. I sampled a few Dutch-style cookies and had a few drinks (water), before catching a badly needed 45 minute nap in a corner.
Twenty minutes prior to final call I headed for the gate, and quickly boarded the Boeing 737. Expecting a comfy first class seat I was surprised to see instead a cabin outfitted in all coach seats. I settled into seat 2A, and noticed that the middle seat had a head rest with the words “Reserved for your personal space” imprinted above the KLM logo. I was not entirely sure whom the ‘your’ was addressing, but recalling the European trend toward blocking the middle seat in an economy row then calling it business class, I assumed it meant me: Excellent.
As we prepared for take-off it became clear that I had the entire row to myself. Not long after we were airborne I stretched out for another nap, further assuming that 2C was also reserved for my personal space. A flight attendant woke me up twenty minutes into the fifty minute flight, offering drinks and a meal box.
I had passed eating anything substantial at the lounge, knowing a meal was coming on board, and thus was quite hungry. Consequently, I was disappointed when the box consisted of chicken on a bed of sauerkraut and two deserts arrived. The chicken tasted great, but 50% of the meal was the sauerkraut bed, and I don’t like sauerkraut. The two deserts, though small, were also enjoyable.
By the time I finished the meal the flight was well past half over. I enjoyed the remaining the twenty-five minutes with my 33 inches of pitch and 17 inches of seat width before touching down in Paris. Taxi time lasted about fifteen minutes before pulling up to our gate in the E pier. The wait for my luggage took the better part of forty minutes, after which I was on my way to the hotel for the evening.
The flight was the first time I’d seen the new ‘European style’ of business class. KLM launched its version in 2011. The difference between this evolved business and economy is somewhat difficult to ascertain, but the experience was significantly underwhelming compared to domestic first class in the US. Still, there are a few factors to consider.
First, the flight was only 50 minutes long. If I were flying in the US there’s a good chance I’d be on a CRJ700 or similar, which is not exactly a bastion of comfort in first class (or any class, for that matter). Was I thrilled about having a regular economy seat that tried to pass itself off as a business class seat? No, not really. But for 50 minutes did it really matter? Can’t really say it did.
Second, I did get a meal. A little trolling around frequent flyer sites yielded a generally negative perception of intra-European meals on most full service carriers, but we did get one (and I found it rather good). You’d be hard pressed to find a carrier in the US that offers something similar on a route as short as ours.
Third, lounge access. Lounge access comes through as the unlikely big winner of the experience. The Crown Room nearest Pier B did not have the best view (I like lounges with a view), but was well stocked, well laid out, and quite comfortable. It was a great way to whittle away a four hour layover. While many US carriers offer lounge access for those travelling domestically in first, some, like American, do not.
Fourth, business does have more legroom; even if it is only by two inches. The seat-width is the same cabin-wide, at 17 inches. Most US domestic first products will be at least four to five inches above coach, by comparison.
Fifth, prices are not that much higher than KLM coach. A unscientific sample of fares on the same route yielded an average increase of roughly $125US for business class over coach (average coach fare was $600). The amount is low enough to entice those looking for an inexpensive upgrade. On the other side, if you price out the amenities you’re receiving, you can easily quantify the total value. Let’s assume that the economy ticket is $600, and business is $725. If an economy ticket plus a $50 lounge pass (meal/snacks appear to be offered free in coach) is $650 and row 20 has an empty middle seat, you’re receiving a nearly equivalent experience for $75 less.
Just to make it crystal clear, this is not avoidable by taking your business to Air France or Lufthansa. Almost every major European carrier offers a variation on the middle-seat-blocked theme. I have not tried the others, so I cannot speak on the experience from a comparative perspective. Compared to US domestic first, the US carriers have a very good chance of coming out ahead.
In sum, KLM intra-European business class boils down to one thing: a guarantee. You’re guaranteed to get priority security, you’re guaranteed to have overhead space, guaranteed to have the middle seat open, and are guaranteed to get a meal. Flights over two or three hours? Might swing for it. Under two? Enjoyable, yes, but it feels like an indulgence, and a small one at that.