Typically, flying on the upper deck of a Boeing 747 is an exclusive affair. When the jumbo jet was first introduced, the upper section was a lounge for premium passengers. More recently, most airlines put premium seats up top. This means that most don’t have the ability to experience the upper deck. Unless you have the means, a job willing to pay, the miles to upgrade, or some extra luck, you’re relegated to the main deck.
However, there have been a few airlines that have configured their 747s with economy on the upper deck. Today, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, and EVA Air are the only ones to offer the option. With many airlines constantly upgrading their fleet, and the 747-400 thus being phased out, the ability to fly economy up top on the “Queen of the Skies” will soon be a thing of the past.
I recently had a flight home from Taipei (TPE) to Seattle (SEA) on EVA Air, and the airline kindly put me in business class (pretty much standard procedure when flying on press-related trips). At first, it didn’t fully make sense to them when I asked if I could give up my business class seat in the nose of the 747 for an economy seat on the upper deck. But that is exactly what I worked hard for; I was never as excited to fly in economy.
My first memory of commercial flight is flying on a Northwest Airlines 747-200 from Seattle to Minneapolis. Since then, I have been able to fly on many other 747s and always wanted to experience being up higher. I remember when I was about eight, I had a relative fly in to visit and he had been upgraded to the upper level.
After he arrived (after all the hugs and such) I went right into asking him what it was like being higher. “I don’t know, it was the same, just kind of looked higher off the ground and I had to lug my bags up the stairs.” Obviously he is not an AvGeek and I was disappointed in his “review.” I was hoping my experience would be a bit better.
For my flight, I had pre-arranged to get on the plane a few minutes prior to other passengers to get photos, and it was amusing that the gate crew and the flight crew both offered for me to sit in business versus economy.
It was hard for me to explain why I wanted to be up top. It felt weird to continue to decline having a business class seat, but I had a mission!
Going up the stairs of a 747 (or even an A380) is always exciting. When I arrived up top and saw the economy section, I realized that it was a bit more than just the extra few feet of altitude. There are things that even non-AvGeeks can get excited about. Where the main deck economy has a seat pitch of about 32″, the upper deck has a seat pitch of 35-36″ and is set up as 3-3 (downstairs it is 3-4-3).
Since there is such a curvature to the side of the fuselage, there is quite a bit of space between the seat and wall. In this space, there are storage bins, giving the window seat passenger extra width. Although the price is the same for a middle seat in the back of the main deck, an upper deck seat is really much more like an “economy plus,” option one might find on a domestic airline.
Many larger aircraft (A380 / B747) have their cabins subdivided to make then feel smaller and more intimate. This is really how the upper deck feels. Almost like a very short Boeing 737.
Trying to be good hosts, EVA decided to let me know that even though I was set to fly in economy upstairs, they had an empty seat in business set aside. I couldn’t help but ask which seat I had reserved and they let me know it was 6A (which might as well be 1A, since it is the first seat in the nose). I had never flown in row 1 of a 747 either, so the temptation was high, but I wanted to fly upstairs. After getting my photos, I made my new home in seat 81A.
I knew going into this flight that EVA’s 747s have an old product. But I was not expecting the old product to be in such great shape. Most of the inside of the plane looked quite new — it is obvious that EVA takes great care of their interiors. I had seen interiors that were decades newer, but looked in worse shape; it was almost like traveling in time.
Each seat has its own in-flight entertainment (IFE) system. Now, the screens are super small and the resolution is nothing to write home about, but that is not what the flight was about. I was still given a free set of headphones and before departure, I was able to see that the system provided quite a few movie and other entertainment options. Heck, you could even move the map and details of your flight on demand, where the newest product on the 777-300ER had no interaction.
One disappointment that I had was not being able to see the wings. I was sitting in row 81 (2nd row) and if I put my head all the way on the window, I could barely see the winglet and navigation light. If I moved back to row 88 or so, then I could make out both engines, but it wasn’t easy. Another down side is that there was a gap between the inner and outer windows of about 6″. I am sure this is due to the angle of the upper deck and helps with sound, but it also removes the passengers from the flight experience a little more (and makes taking photos a bit of a challenge).
I really wish I could glamorize more what it was like taxiing, taking off ,and flying from the upper deck, but honestly, it was hard to tell a difference visually — although it was late and dark and I know when I have flown on the upper deck on the A380 during the daytime, it was quite different.
I had heard that wind noise on the upper deck was quite a bit louder than the main. I had experienced this a bit when I took a visit to the top floor on a Lufthansa 747-8I flight, but during takeoff and flight, I didn’t notice it being too loud on the 747-400.
However, when I tried to listen to a movie and after I went down to the bottom deck, during flight, it became pretty obvious that it was louder. Other than having to turn my movie up a bit, I found the white noise intoxicating and not really a hindrance. Especially since there was a child a few rows back who wasn’t exactly quiet.
Service started shortly after take off, since the flight departed so late. I had the choice between chicken or fish and I went with the chicken. I am not going to say that the food was amazing, but it wasn’t horrid and it was free for economy passengers. By the time I was done with my food, it was well after midnight and I was ready to get some sleep — but this is where I hit another challenge.
I always try to sit in a window seat, mostly to gaze outside. Another bonus is being able to lean my head against the wall for support and this is typically how I rest. The seats did have a usable headrest, but since there was such a gap between the seat and the window, leaning my head would cause severe neck pain, if I did it long-term. It was not easy to get good rest, but having the extra arm width was better than being on the main deck.
I was only in Taiwan for two-and-a-half days, my sleep rhythm was off, I was getting into Seattle at 7:30pm on Tuesday, and I needed to be back at work at 8:00am on Wednesday. Although the power of AvGeek goodness flying on the upper deck is strong, the need to get a good rest is much stronger. After a few hours experiencing the upper deck, I gave in.
I know it might be weak, but I asked the purser if my seat downstairs was still open. It was, and I made my way downstairs. Yes, I feel guilty. I had been wanting for years to fly on the upper deck of the 747, but the need for rest (and really wanting to also fly in the nose) was too strong. I have to say that it was the right call, since I was able to get good sleep during the rest of the flight, and was ready to function the next day.
Both in economy and in business, EVA Air did a great job with service, the catering, and providing the best product they could with an aging aircraft. I think I might have had my hopes up that being on the upper deck was going to be some huge magical experience. No question, I enjoyed being able to experience it, and even as a non-AvGeek there are true benefits of flying on the upper deck over the main deck. But when it came down to it, during most of the time on the upper deck, it felt no different than being down below. Does that really matter? No way. There is the unmeasurable AvGeek factor of being up top and that is what made it awesome!
The sad part is that many airlines, including EVA, are in the process of retiring their old 747-400s and replacing them with the 777-300ER.
When asked about the 747’s future with the airline, Glenn Chai, executive vice president for EVA Air explained to me, “Now, we use B747-400s for some flights to Seattle and Vancouver. We are gradually phasing out the aircraft and expect to complete the process by early 2017.”
Sure. There is a good business reason here. The 777-300ER is 20% more fuel efficient and lets EVA connect TPE to cities in North American and Europe that the 747 can’t. But, even Chai has a special place for the plane, “The Boeing 747-400 is a magnificent aircraft and our appreciation for its service is heartfelt.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love the 777-300ER, but it doesn’t have the history or character that the 747 has. I almost felt my flight was a piece of history, experiencing something that future generations might never be able to.
But when it comes down to it, most passengers are going to care less about the aircraft that they are flying on and more about getting an improved product (better IFE, inflight Wi-Fi, etc.) that the 777 offers.
In the end… it was one amazing flight. Having two major firsts of flying on the upper deck and the surprise of flying in the nose of a 747. Even if, on paper, other products might seem like a better option, there is nothing quite like flying on an EVA Air 747-400.
Note: EVA Air provided my airfare from TPE to SEA. All opinions are my own.