Now that we’ve been back from our Seychelles and France trip for a full three calendar months, it seems to be the appropriate time for the final blog post on the trip – our flights back on Brussels Airlines from Paris to Brussels to Washington Dulles. We leave for Israel in two days, and I promise those blogs (to the extent I do any) won’t be as tardy.
As a recap since it’s been awhile, we used US Airways miles for one ticket, and United miles for the other – the last chance to use US Airways miles on Star Alliance and the last chance to use United for partner business travel without paying a bazillion miles. Our award routing was IAD-ADD-SEZ on Ethiopian, SEZ-ADD-CDG on Ethiopian, and CDG-BRU-IAD on Brussels.
People seemed to be more surprised that we were connecting through Brussels to get back home than they were surprised by our Ethiopian flights. But there were only two options with two seats on dates that worked for us, Brussels via Brussels or Lufthansa via Frankfurt. Not only is Frankfurt more out of the way than Brussels, but Brussels Airlines business class has a much better reputation. I can confidently say we made the right choice.
It took us about 7 minutes to walk from the Park Hyatt to the RoissyBus in the Opera area of Paris, where we had just missed a bus. But the buses run every fifteen minutes, so itwasn’t a big deal. I’ve taken the bus before and it is really easy from that part of town. <http://www.youwentwhere.com/?p=1034> It was a 10,50 euros (tickets on machine or on bus) 35 minute ride, as we were going on a Sunday morning and went to the first stop, Terminal 1.
Terminal 1 at Charles DeGaulle is right out of the Jetsons, a large round building, disconnected from the rest of the airport,with many levels and tubes of stairs and walkways. It is also a giant pain in the butt, which I’d experienced when I flew out of T1 on Lufthansa last year. Brussels Airlines check-in is downstairs, near baggage claim. There was no wait, but it was the only time on the whole trip where carry-ons were weighed and tagged. We then headed back to the entry level, and then through a long series of tubes leading to the gates. Each “pier” (more like a spoke) at T1 has 4-6 gates, and its own security (and lounges). Our pier only handled Schengen area flights, so there was no immigration. Even though we were flying Business Class, we weren’t given “Priority No. 1” passes at check-in, so couldn’t use the priority lane, but the wait was only about 3-4 minutes and we had time.
The pier was pretty crowded, as it is shared by five Star Alliance carriers – including SAS, LOT, Aegean, and Swiss – making for a motley crew of passengers. The one lounge is operated by SAS, and it really wasn’t anything special, though Ikea-like. It was clean, with an adequate continental cold breakfast spread and some snacks. The free wifi worked alright. The wall of windows, though, made the lounge unbearably hot. There also wasn’t a bathroom in the lounge, so we didn’t end up staying too long.
Our flight to Brussels boarded about fifteen minutes behind schedule. The passenger mix seemed a mix of Brussels-bound passengers that had originated in the US and Canada on United and Air Canada, and Francophone Africa-bound passengers originating in Paris.
The plane was set up for only three rows in business class. Oddly, when I had called Brussels Airlines for seat assignments, the agent told me the middle seats were not blocked off in business, and that we had to take a middle seat if we wanted to sit together. I knew that wasn’t right, so just took an aisle and a window. Sure enough, at boarding, all of the middle seats were indeed blocked.
The seats were the same slim-line seats as on our Air France flight from MPL to ORY, with tiny tray tables and little padding, and what seemed to be even less legroom. Unfortunately for my boyfriend, a woman sat in front of him (in the bulkhead row), and proceeded to recline her seat the entire way – as soon as she boarded. While I agree that technically you have the right to recline your seat, to do so before taxiing, when you will just have to lift it up again, and when you have your own row in a bulkhead, is just rude. She ended up moving before take off to the other side of the plane, and, naturally did not lift the seat up when she did. Better him than me, though, as I am the long-legged one in our relationship.
The flight attendants distributed orange juice and water predeparture, along with magazines and newspapers. It took us a long time to get moving from the gate for some reason– enough that I read an entire Belgian auto magazine. (Okay, by “read”, I meant looked at the pictures.) But once we hit the taxi, we were in the air.
As soon as the captain turned off the seatbelt sign, the flight attendants leapt into action- necessary as they did a meal service on the 40 minute flight. First came hot towels, then about 2 minutes later, a tray with a skewer of shrimp, a half-scallop, and some vegetables, an open faced small beef sandwich with Indian spices, and a “dessert” skewer with fruit and cheese. The tray also included a small box of Neuhaus truffles. About 40 seconds later, we were offered beverages, then 2 minutes later coffee, and a minute after that a basket of Neuhaus chocolates. Amazingly, there also seemed to be a complimentary snack service in coach, which looked like a small sandwich. Brussels typically charges for food in European coach on most of its fares but I think due to limited catering at Paris, they just give the sandwich and juice for free. Shortly after trays were cleared, we were descending into Brussels.
It was a loooooong walk from the A-gates where we arrived at BRU to the B-gates where we were departing from. The airport seemed way too big for the number of people there, as we went up and down multiple escalators and walkways, and made close to a full circle. When we finally reached the B-gates, our boarding passes scanned to let us into the “Fast Lane,” but it didn’t save us much time. After the ID check, the lines merge, and although the x-ray belt said “Priority for Fast Lane,” two women pushed in front of us who didn’t understand the 8-language sign explaining what needed to come out of their bags.
We made it to the Brussels Airlines Lounge which, though larger than the SAS lounge in Paris, was still pretty small. Most of the food was in a supermarket style display case- sandwiches, cheese, salami, and olives. There was also a beef soup, and when we were finishing up, they brought out cherry cheesecake. The highlight of the lounge though is the large display of beers, Belgium’s specialty. As with the SAS lounge, there was no bathroom in the lounge. In lieu of a dedicated wifi, they provided slips for 1 hr of free wifi on the main airport network (good for one device). The lounge was decently crowded, as there were a few departing flights to the UK, in addition to the Washington-bound flight.
We headed to the gate about 10 minutes before scheduled boarding, and reached a dead area of BRU’s B gates; of what seemed like a dozen gates, only two had planes at them – our Brussels Airlines’ A330 to Washington and a Qatar Airways 787 to Doha. About 20 minutes after scheduled boarding time, with no previous announcement, boarding was announced all at once. There were two lines, each with a security employee, and alas the one working the business class line was particularly slow. The two lines merged as we boarded in unison. I’ll say the ground experience in BRU was not so impressive, but the flight experience was a different story.
The Brussels A330 has the same seats and configuration as the Austrian Airlines flight I took in the summer to start my Croatia trip. The seats are new and lie-flat in 1-2-1, 2-1-2 alternating configuration. They feature two USB ports and one regular power outlet, and a few small storage pockets. On my Austrian trip, I was in one of the solo seats, which wasn’t super comfortable for the overnight flight due to the narrowness of the foot well. The double seats are counterintuitively a bit wider, and I wasn’t anticipating any problems on the day flight.
The business cabin was about 60% full. Pre-departure, the flight attendants served orange juice, Kir, champagne, and water. After takeoff, we were handed headsets and amenity kits. The amenity kits looked nice on the outside, and were a highly reusable shape, but they were pretty weak on the inside, containing only plain black socks, a plain eyemask, a toothbrush, lip balm, earplugs, and a surprisingly large-sized toothpaste.
The large inflight entertainment screen is basically a big iPad, and had a decent number of new movies and TV shows available. As inflight service started, I booted up “Gravity.” Menus were distributed, though no hot towels, as well as large bottles of mineral water.
First up was a drink service, along with nuts and an amuse bouche of smoked salmon and a foie gras brochette. It was unremarkable. All drinks and food selections were served off carts in the aisle.
For the next course, there was a choice of “parmesan panna cotta” with beef, or shrimp. We went with the panna cotta, which was the designated “star chef” selection. It was odd, and a lot of cheese. The little pesto mozzarella balls and tomatoes were best, and we both independently combined it with the small greens and snap peas salad served at the same time. The presentation was nice, but my lettuce was a little brown.
As entrees, the choices were veal, salmon, or cheese tortellini. We both had the veal which, though resembling a coach meal in its presentation, was tasty and garnished with fresh parsley tableside, served along side some boiled potatoes and some mushy, well-seasoned vegetables.
We skipped the cheese course, and went to dessert, a chocolate mousse that looked a lot better than it tasted. Later, a flight attendant came around with a small box of 4 Neuhaus pralines. There was also a setup of fruit, juice, liqueurs and champagne in the front of the cabin, reminiscent of Lufthansa. There seemed to be a special junior flight attendant who had no job but to set up this display and bring out coffees.
Overall, the service was super-friendly, and the flight attendant working our row was very nice. At one point my boyfriend very loudly laughed as he was watching “Identity Thief,” and she smiled and talked to us about how funny she found Melissa McCarthy.
After lunch, I watched an old episode of “The New Adventures of Old Christine” (I’m a sucker for Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and then switched to “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The flight had gotten pretty turbulent and my coffee was spilling all over the place. I couldn’t get into the movie, so I turned it off and just relaxed. Once the flight calmed down, I did some photo editing, and with about 4 hours left in flight, Jules Destrooper stroopwafel flavored ice cream was served. Deeeeelicious.
Around this point, we discovered that we both had felt like our seats had been growing firmer and less firm randomly throughout the flight. Huh. About 75 minutes before landing, we were served a snack of a Morccoan stew over couscous, along with some fruit, which was tasty
Just prior to landing, the Flight Attendant came around and gave each business class passenger a large red gift bag with a box of 20 Neuhaus pralines, and a card thanking us for flying Brussels. I don’t know if this gift is distributed on all Brussels longhaul flights, but it was definitely nice!
The nonstop service to Dulles was pretty new, and I would be shocked if it continues at the same frequency in the winter next year. Whereas business class was about 60% full, coach was less than 25% full. When I went back to take a peek, it felt like I was in “The Langoliers.”
Of all the transatlantic business flights I’ve flown, I’d rank Brussels pretty highly – probably just a bit above Delta, exceeding Lufthansa and Ethiopian, a bit below Alitalia and Aeroflot, and comparable to Austrian. If it weren’t for the massive devaluation of United miles for partner travel, given their new nonstop service into Dulles, I could imagine myself using them quite frequently.