Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Across the Atlantic with the Belgians (A review of Brussels Airlines)

This past Saturday, I traveled from Brussels to New York (and then onward to Nashville, but that's for another story).  To cross the Atlantic, I flew with Brussels Airlines, Belgium's flag carrier. Here's my review. 

I've been traveling back and forth between Belgium and the United States for nearly 15 years and this flight was the 40th-odd time I've crossed the Atlantic.  During this period, I've flown on numerous airlines and have experienced the evolution in long haul travel. 

While I'm by no means an expert, I've spent enough time on airplanes to get a good feel for different economy-class products.  I wanted to give Brussels Airlines a review as they're not only my hometown airline, but they're also a bit of enigma.  

Flying under the radar (figuratively, not literally, thank God), they are largely overshadowed by their neighboring giants of Air France-KLM, Lufthansa and British Airways.  

On top of serving multiple European destinations, their main niche is connecting Europe to Africa.  In the past few years, they've moved into the ultra-competitive transatlantic market, helping to connect more African cities with New York, Washington D.C. and very recently, Toronto.   

For this trip, I chose to travel on their Brussels-JFK route.  This was mainly due to the fact that I had to connect inside the US to get to my parents in Nashville and flying into New York gives me the most options to do so.   


Seeing as Brussels Airlines is headquartered in Brussels, check-in was fairly fast.  I counted 10 counters open for their transatlantic flights, and even though there were easily 100 people queued up in front of me, I didn't wait more than 10 minutes to get my bag checked in.  

Interesting to note, the airport is still in the process of returning to normality following the attack on March 22nd.  While communication and directions getting into the airport itself is a bit lacking, once inside, it was business as usual.   I would imagine that once the airport fully reopens, it will be more streamlined, but with additional security. 


Getting on board was more or less about what you would expect for an international long haul flight.  The only caveat was that there was an additional, random security screening check at the gate.  This reminded me of what happened at airports in the US shortly after September 11th.  In any case, it wasn't a big set back, and I'm sure with time, the process will become more streamlined.  

The Seat

After the long walk down the air bridge,  I took my seat towards the back of the plane.   One disadvantage I noticed is that when booking your flight on Brussels Airline's website, you cannot chose your seat.  This option becomes available 24 hours before your departure, once you check in online.  

I'm not a big fan of this, especially when traveling solo.  I'm pretty flexible about where I sit, other than the middle seat.  I've paid my dues in the past and rode bitch  across the Atlantic a couple of times, but I'm going to avoid that at all costs going forward.  

My work around was to contact Brussels Airlines on Twitter and ask them to reserve a seat for me in advance. They were very prompt and put me on an aisle seat.  I later changed this during my check-in to my advantage, scoring one of the few seats left without someone sitting next to me. 

Once seated, I had two main impressions: 
    1. There was ample leg room, especially for economy class
    2. The seats were extremely firm
First, there has been an across-the-board downsizing of economy class legroom throughout the airline industry.  Disruption coming from companies such as Ryanair have played a crucial role in showing other airlines that passengers will put up with increasingly smaller seats if the price of the ticket appears to be low enough.   

Legacy carriers have responded to this by creating premium economy cabins; giving customers the opportunity to pay for more legroom without forking out serious cash for business class.   I've gotten to the point where I usually will spend the extra 150 bucks for this privilege as I find having my legs rested makes the jet lag that much easier to deal with.  Brussels Airlines, however, has gone another, more pleasant direction. 

Brussels Airlines Leg Room
Plenty of legroom in my seat.
Instead of creating a two-class economy cabin, they have  elected to be fair to all of their passengers by putting well-above average legroom in the back-half of the plane.   This, for me, is a huge selling point.  There's probably nothing less infuriating about spending 8 hours on an airplane than feeling like you're trapped in sardine tin.  

Brussels Airlines, by giving all it's economy passenger more space, is effectively bucking the market trend.   Not only is it respectful to passengers, but it leads to a much more pleasing experience.  I'm not particularly tall, at 5'10"/175 cm and with average-length legs, but I myself feel trapped in most economy seats.  I can only imagine what taller people must put up with on most other airlines.  

Of course, the airline business is based on selling seats, and the more that you have on your airplane, the more revenue you take in.  And in order to compensate for the extra legroom, Brussels Airlines has to find a way to get those extra places back, which leads me to my second point.  

The seat itself was extremely firm.   Upon observation, I also noticed that the seat was very thin.   This allows Brussels Airlines to not only get more seats on the plane, but also provide the above-mentioned additional legroom.  Given this trade off, it took some adjustment to make the seat more comfortable.   I found that by sitting upright and reclining the seat make it more pleasant.   I also got up about once every hour-and-a-half or so to walk around (as you should) to keep the blood flowing.  

In any case, there are probably ways to tweak the seat through adding memory foam or other cushioning.  I doubt that this will happen as it would require very heavy maintenance on the interior but in any case it would go a long way in improving the seat.  

In terms of in-flight entertainment, there are medium-sized touch-screens built into each seat with video and audio on-demand along with a few simple games.   The content selection was a bit smaller than average, at least compared to other airlines.  However, I usually just read or watch my own stuff off of my tablet/laptop.  Each seat came with an USB port allowing passengers to charge their device while using it, which I found to be a very useful touch.  

Food and Drink

Airplane food has a bit of an iffy reputation.  For sure, there was a time when the meals on board where uniformly bad.  Over the years, most airlines have made improvements on this front.  A lot of it has to do with various factors including who they use for catering, where those meals are being made, and maybe most importantly, how much they're willing to spend.   

Brussels Airlines uses their long haul flights to show off some Belgian culinary classics.  In line with the subtle mystery that is Belgium, the country has some of the better if less renowned cuisines in Europe.  Defined as comfort food, Brussels Airlines serves hearty meals that punch above their weight for economy class grub.   

On this flight, we were served 'boulettes' or beef meatballs, with an alternative choice of fish (I didn't take it so I don't know what the meal consisted of).    This came with steamed peas and carrots, and stoemp, which is a Belgian take on mashed potatoes.  On the side was a chicken tabbouleh, a roll, a packet of butter, and a portion of Camembert cheese.  Additionally, there was a chocolate mousse for desert.  

Overall, I found the meal tasty for an economy-class presentation.  Indeed, other than the roll being a bit stiff, the meal left me satisfied.  To top it off, after the trays were collected, the staff came around and give each passenger an ice cream bar from a reputed Belgian dairy, which was well appreciated by the passengers.  

Brussels Airlines Onboard Meal of Boulettes
My lunch on board

Drinks were plentiful, with alcoholic beverages being free of charge.  I mostly drank red wine (along with plenty of water) as I find it relaxing without being too sharp on the head while flying.   I'm not a big fan of beer in the air, however, this being a Belgian company, Brussels Airlines served Jupiler, which is the national pilsner (interesting fact, this beer really doesn't get exported.  It's way more popular than Stella Artois in Belgium, which has more success internationally than at home).   

I was able to go back to the galley throughout the flight for refills without any issue.  The coffee served after the meal, while instant, was still better than what you'd get on US carriers.

Towards the end of the flight, there was a final drink service along with a small pizza served as a snack.  I wasn't a big fan of it, but then again, I think that was just my personal taste.  

The Service

Belgium isn't exactly known for it's excellent customer service.  A lot of that has to do with just the cultural attitude.  Belgians are pretty laid back and in general, but broadly lack a client-first instinct.  Without delving into the complexity of the country's makeup, people there don't tend to sweat the small stuff and would rather relax than stress.  While it's generally recognized that the client should be the priority, it just doesn't always translate well into action. 

With all this being said, the crew on board operated with a high level of professionalism along with gentle friendliness.   The staff were polite and ready to help passengers when issues arose.    There was a young mother with a crying child and I observed that a flight attendant went over to help out in the best way she could.   

About once every hour, flight attendants came around and served water to the passengers.  While this is standard on most long haul flights, the frequency seemed greater than on other airlines.

My highlight though, and one that really made my flight, happened by accident.  A bit after the meal service ended, I went back to use the restroom next to the galley.  Unbeknownst to me, a woman was in the toilet but didn't bother to lock the door.   A flight attendant tried to warm me, but it was too late; I saw something, I really didn't want to see. 

Quickly shutting the door, I looked back at the flight attendant.  She told me that unfortunately, this happens far too often.   She offered to serve me a drink to ease my shock, and when I told her I was still working on my current one, her colleague piped in with "What? Come on! Drink faster!"  I couldn't help but smile and laugh.  This was both a quintessentially Belgian response and excellent client service wrapped in one.   I took them up on their offer and returned to my seat with a wide grin on my face....+5 points for the Belgian crew.   

What to Like and What to Improve 

What's good

    • The Service. The staff is professional, yet not overly serious.  Spending 7-plus hours on an airplane is never a guaranteed pain-free experience.  Having a light attitude projected by the crew rubs off on the passengers and makes traveling that much easier.
    • The Leg Room.   By far the most important factor when flying long haul.  Brussels Airlines gives all its economy class passengers adequate space above the industry average.
    • The Food and Drinks.  The meal served was one of the better ones I've had on a long-haul flight.  On past flights with Brussels Airlines, I've been served another Belgian classic, Carbonnade Flamande.  The drinks were plentiful and easily available.  
    • The Price.  I bought my ticket a four weeks in advance of traveling.  I paid 520 EUR for a round trip between Brussels and New York.  Seriously.   That deal is extremely hard to beat. 

What Can Be Better

    • The Seats.  From most reviews I've read, the seat comfort is the number one complaint from passengers.  From my experience, it's really not the worst but was definitely noticeable.  However, additional thin padding (like memory foam or some sort of thin gel like you find in bicycle seats) could go a long way.  
    • The Seat Selection Process.  I would love to be able to choose my seat at time of purchase.  While I don't particularly care for airlines who charge for this, especially during long haul (looking at you, Swiss), if that's what it takes to avoid sitting in the middle seat, I'm willing to do so.
    • An expanded In-Flight Entertainment Selection.  This is a tiny bit of nit-picking, but it passengers would definitely be more distracted from the seat discomfort with more videos/music to distract them.  I like what some airlines in the US are doing (such as Delta and Southwest) where they provide a local wi-fi network on board and serve media to passengers through this medium.    You simply browse to their website (it loads by default) on your device and you can stream hundreds of movies/TV shows from there.  I would imagine that this saves them serious money both in maintenance cost and weight (airplane fuel allocated is based on the weight of the aircraft) by 'outsourcing' the entertainment system to the passenger.  In any case, it's a point Brussels Airlines should consider going forward. 


Overall, I was once again impressed with my flight from Brussels to New York on Brussels Airlines.  They are definitely one of the smaller carriers in western Europe but find a way to do their business in a unique way.   As a seasoned traveler, I found it refreshing and, most importantly, a hassle-free way to get across the Atlantic.  While this might not be so apparent to more casual fliers, I definitely appreciated these details.  Here's to hoping that my flight back will just as agreeable. 

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