30 September 2014

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 September 30, 2014
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Brussels Airlines
The outbound flight for my annual visit to Switzerland was on United Airlines in their BusinessFirst cabin to Zürich but our return was on Brussels Airlines via (obviously) Brussels. Hey, any excuse for dinner in Brussels :-).

We took the train as we normally do from Montreux to Geneva Airport. The journey is about an hour and a half but the scenery as the train hugs the shore of Lake Geneva never fails to disappoint. Once at the airport station, it is an easy walk to the check-in area. Brussels Airlines Business Class check-in was handled by Swiss Airlines/Star Alliance. There was one counter open but as our flight was later in the afternoon the airport was relatively quiet — as the trans-Atlantic flights had long departed.

Check-in probably took a bit longer than it should have as the agent, while very pleasant, was a bit spacey. We were flying to Brussels, overnighting, and then connecting to JFK in the morning. We explained this (several times) only to see when she began to tag the bags that she checked them through to JFK. I questioned it, thinking perhaps they were just tagged to be re-checked but no — they would have sat at the airport until our flight the next morning. Again, while very nice, she seemed a bit confused that we would actually like to collect our bags and re-check them the next morning. No big deal, she eventually reprinted the correct baggage takes terminating in Brussels and handed us our boarding passes for both of our flights — which was nice.

Once on our way we proceeded to the Fast Track security that I always love — scan your boarding pass and access is granted to a dedicated security channel. Again, there was really not a huge amount of people but it is extremely helpful when traveling at peak times. Swiss security is, as one would image, the epitome of efficiency. The staff are actually friendly and seem to enjoy what they do. Just like in the U.S. :-).

We were soon on our way to the Swiss Business Class Lounge which in all the years we have been flying out of GVA is the only lounge we have used. It was actually a bit busy but soon quieted down. I did notice that quite a few people were using Priority Pass for access so that likely explains the crowd.

The lounge itself is more than adequate and offers a range of beverages and hot and cold food options. On the food front I was a bit disappointed because they have a sign saying if you require gluten- and dairy-free options to simply ask for them. When I did the staff had no clue what I was even talking about even when I showed them the sign. Oh, well — it would have been nice but definitely not the end of the world. Though if they do not have the options then they should remove the sign. There is comfortable seating in the lounge and free wi-fi is available as are computers for use. The restroom is located outside the lounge but just down the hallway so not an issue.

When it came time to head to the gate it was the first time that we did not have to go through immigration since the destination was Brussels so we were at the gate in no time and just waited for boarding to begin.

Brussels Airlines
Flight: SN 2720
Depart: Geneva
Arrive: Brussels
Equipment: A319
Class: Business
Seats:  2A and 2C

Business class on the A-319 is the front two rows of the aircraft and essentially the same seats as economy with the center seat blocked and overhead storage bins marked for the use of business class passengers. There might have been a slight bit of extra leg room but it was negligible — and quite frankly for an hour-long flight absolutely fine. Behind business was their bFlex class (denoted on the headrests and a sign placed just behind business.

The service however was top-notch. Pre-departure beverages were actually offered while on the ground which was a nice touch. Also, once in-flight I was amazed that there was a full service conducted — despite the short duration of the flight. Hot towels were even distributed before the meal service started. To my even greater surprise there was a gluten-free meal for me to enjoy which while requested when I booked did not expect for this short leg. The meal itself was actually very good and was comprised of a chicken breast with potatoes and even accompanied by some gluten-free bead. Of course the obligatory Neuhaus chocolates were part of the single tray service.

Overall the flight was uneventful and the flight attendants were extremely professional and conducted a well organized service for the entire plane.

Landing in Brussels was on-time and the priority tagged bags were among the first to arrive. We were soon on our way to the hotel and dinner.


 
Brussels Airlines
Flight: SN 501
Depart: Brussels
Arrive: New York JFK
Equipment: A330-300
Class: Business
Seats:  4A and 4C

Check-in for this flight was a bit chaotic (through no fault of Brussels Airlines). The original line we were on to access the check-in desks was actually for all flights except the flight to JFK which required the additional security checks. We were directed to the area where the JFK check-in was and queued-up on the somewhat long line. There was a single line that fed to two people checking your passport and information before you were given access to the check-in desks. There was one line for both business and economy but it did move and the nice thing was that by the time someone got through the checkpoint there was almost always a desk open so there was no back-up. Additionally there was a dedicated Business check-in desk and after our credential check was complete the agent asked “You are flying with us in business today?” and when I answered in the affirmative both agents parted their desks and directed us to the business class desk which was roped-off behind them.

Check-in was quick and painless but because of the agent in Geneva first printing tags all the was to JFK this agent thought we had already checked our bags. No worries though, after we explained what happened she typed away on her keyboard and soon had our tags ready to go and automatically tagged priority. We had already received our boarding passes the day before so were good to go after we dropped the bags.

Now, I have not flown out of Brussels in ages (read, since I was a teenager) and did not remember it being so massive – -it likely wasn’t at the time. Upon our arrival the day before it was definitely a trek to get to baggage claim and I thought to myself we’d be doing it in reverse tomorrow — and here we now were. Thankfully there was a separate Fast Track for security and with a scan of the boarding pass and we were through the gates and through security in a matter of minutes. We then made our way to the lounge.

The first lounge we visited was a bit on the small side and crowded — I thought to myself this did not look quite right and realized we were in fact so far from our gate there must be another. The friendly agent at the desk (who warmly welcomed us to this lounge) confirmed there was a lounge nearer our gate. So we walked, and walked…and walked towards our gate which was at the absolute furthest reach of the terminal. Before getting through to a few gates reserved for U.S. and Africa departures you have to clear immigration. Thankfully I asked the duty-free shop just before if there was another beyond the checkpoint. There was not — so if you want duty-free this is your last chance (aside from on-board). Immigration took seconds and we could see the Brussels Airlines lounge at the far end.

The Sunrise Lounge appears to have limited hours as it is for the departing long-haul morning flights. Again, we were warmly welcomed and the lounge was quite nice. Lots of space including a separate quiet room. All in all it was fresh and modern with lots of windows for natural light. Food offerings were basic but there was quite a few beverage options. There is free wi-fi available as well as computer terminals for use. Bathrooms are located inside the lounge so no need to exit until it is time for your flight.

When it was time to board we made our way to the gate where additional security checks (namely just document checks) were taking place but there was a dedicated line for business class and we were soon through and on our way down the jetway as boarding had already begun. I have to say that it was extremely well-organized and the Brussels Airlines staff were fantastic in keeping things moving.

Once we reached the aircraft we were warmly greeted and directed to our seats. The cabin itself is pretty much identical (not surprising) to Swiss Airlines Business class. Seats are staggered in a 2-1-2 or 1-2-1 depending on row. As on Swiss some of the single seats offer a vast amount of personal space but since I was traveling with my other half the single seats would mean two rows between us — if it was the single row of single seats à la Swiss we would have chosen those (as we do on Swiss).

The two-seaters were quite spacious and provided a good amount of personal space. Entertainment is via a very large and crisp touch-screen that also includes a handheld remote. Entertainment selections were very good with a lot of new releases (though I did not partake). The map channel (my favorite of course) was one of the best I have seen in a long while provided interesting 3-D views. Pre-departure cocktails were offered and menus and amenity kits distributed. I was able to confirm while on the ground that my gluten-free meal was in fact on board.

Shortly after take of the full-service began and aperitifs and hot towels were offered. The crew was friendly and extremely professional. The service was polished and not rushed but did not feel like it was taking forever to move along — which is a very good thing. I received my gluten-free amuse bouche of dip and vegetable sticks and when my cocktail arrived it was offered with a small bowl of green olives — a very nice touch.

My main gluten-free meal consisted of a grilled zucchini and tomato appetizer served with a cucumber salad and gluten-free bread. The main course was a fillet of fish with sautéed spinach, Ratatouille, and saffron rice. As I am hyper-allergic to shellfish I do not eat fish as a rule because the thought of having to use my Epi-Pen at 35,000 feet is truly not appealing. Could I technically eat it, yes — but there are so many variables and cross-contamination risks I just tend not to. I kind of ate around the fish to the best of my ability but had plenty of other options to fill me. Dessert was a vanilla pudding but I was not sure it was in fact gluten-free so just had a quick taste.

Throughout the meal the crew kept glasses full and I thought it was such a nice touch that when wine was ordered they first provided a taste to the passenger before pouring the full glass. Sometimes it is the small details that leave the largest impression. Not to mention that they actually had a good variety of wines available and while I am a vodka and seltzer kind of guy did indulge in a few glasses of the Château Malescasse Haut-Médoc. During the coffee service the crew came around with a selection of Neuhaus chocolates which would later also be left at the front to the cabin along with a range of self-service refreshments. I was unable to indulge in the Leonidas ice cream as it contained gluten — I think it was a cookie flavor which was disappointing.


 
Most airlines now have celebrity chefs as consultants and tout them out on their menus but I really liked Brussels Airlines approach Belgian Star Chefs which they describe as:

A table with a view…

As a Belgian ambassador, Brussels Airlines is please to offer you a taste of Belgium’s internationally acclaimed cuisine.  Every season, a Michelin-starred Belgian chef will create a menu using local products to be served on board.  From August through November of this year, we are proud to present the creations of Chef Thomas Locus from the award-winning restaurant Bistro Margaux in Sint-Martens-Bodegem.  In 2010, the restaurant was awarded a Michelin Star, and the following year Chef Locus received the title of Young Top Chef of Brussels.  Chef Locus designed the Belgian Star Chefs Brussels Airlines Business Class Menu on our intercontinental flights to Africa and the US using regional products from the Flemish Brabant province to creat classic Belgian dishes with innovative touches.

Wine List:
Featured Wine of the Month: Château Bon Baron Acolon 2012, Belgium

Champagne: Laurent-Perrier Brut

White Wines: Les Lions de La Louvière Pessac-Léognan 2010, France; Mooiplaas Houmoed Bushvine Chenin Blanc 2012, South Africa

Red Wines: Château Malescasse Haut-Médoc 2009, Bordeaux; Kendall Jackson Vitner’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2010, California

Beer List:
Featured Beer of the Month:Palm Hop Select
Beers: Jupiler; Leffe Blond; Brugge Tripel


 
The regular menu consisted of:

LUNCH

Appetizer
Orecchiette pasta salad
Starter
Rabbit fillet roulade complemented by radishes and a mustard yogurt sauce
or
Shrimp with coconut milk served on a bed of vegetables

Main Course 
Goats’ cheese crusted fillet of turkey with dried fruit accompanied by roasted potato and asparagus
or
Fillet of brill presented with potato mash with leeks and Oostende-style sauce
or
Torn pasta sheets with fig and percorino cheese

Cheese
Grimbergen Abdjikaas
Brie Pâturages
Manchengo

A selection of warm bread rolls will be served throughout the meal

Dessert
Raspberry-passion fruit delight
Coffee and tea accompanied by a delightful selection of alcohol-free chocolates manufactured by Neuhas, Royal Warrant Holder and leading Belgian luxury chocolatier.
Fresh fruit is available at anytime after your meal

MID-FLIGHT TREAT
We are pleased to serve Leonidas ice cream

COLD SNACK
Chermoula chicken complemented by a wheatberry salad with sun-dried tomatoes


 
My partner had the shrimp starter and the turkey for his main course both of which he said were very good. The regular dessert looked quite good and had a nice presentation was well.

Prior to landing I was served a grilled panini filled with artichoke and mushrooms which was served warm accompanied with a fresh fruit salad. I have to say it was the first time I was served a gluten-free panini in-flight and it made for a very nice change and showed a bit of effort on the airline’s part to provide something different for their guests with special dietary needs.

Just before landing, the crew came around with red Neuhaus shopping bags containing a large box of chocolates for each business class passenger. This was such a nice gesture and took me back to the days when small gifts were the norm in premium cabins rather than the exception.

Arrival into JFK was uneventful and we were through customs (thanks to the new kiosks) quickly and, per the JFK norm, had a bit of a wait for our bags. When the bags finally started to arrive it was a mix of priority and non so it took a fair amount of time until we had ours.

All in all I was very pleased with Brussels Airlines (having not flown them since they were Sabena and I was a teenager) and would not hesitate to fly them again.


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