Traveling from the Bay Area to Europe? Chances are you may find yourself on the Star Alliance trunk route from SFO to Frankfurt. I did recently as I kicked off a trip to Germany, India, and Southeast Asia, celebrating my final few months of freedom between a journalism job and medical school. In my experience, flying to Lufthansa’s “Fraport” mega-hub from San Francisco generally meant a trip on United’s venerable – and noticeably aging – 747-400s. While they are beautiful birds from the outside, they don’t make for the best long-haul economy class flights: no seatback screens, no power outlets (although that has since been corrected), and cramped seats, unless you can bump up to Economy Plus or better. Interested in something new, I leapt at the chance to try out Lufthansa’s A380 flight on the same route.
I was glad to be able to book the flight on United ticket stock (ticket number beginning with “016”), which meant I earned both premier qualifying miles (PQMs) and dollars (PQDs) for the flight. With the current UA premier qualifying system, you earn PQMs when you book non-UA ticket stock with Star Alliance partners, but not the PQDs – which are needed for elite qualification.
Curiously, the confirmation code United provided me allowed me to manage my reservation on Lufthansa’s website, but did not work for online check-in. I found a Lufthansa-specific code buried in a separate email. A bit confusing, but not a huge deal. One downside of booking a Lufthansa-operated flight through United is that you are not always able to pick a seat in advance. That ended up being the case for this flight, and I was dreading the possibility of a back-of-the-bus middle seat. Luckily, seat availability was still good when I checked in online, even though the flight ended up being full.
I had only flown the A380 once before (on Emirates) and assumed that the upper deck was first and business class only. To my surprise, there was an “upper deck” tab on the seat selection window during online check-in. It turns out that on Lufthansa’s newest layout for some of its A380s, there is a premium economy section in the front of the lower deck and a small section – five rows, to be exact – of standard economy at the back of the upper deck. I snagged a window seat at the front of the latter section, thrilled that I would finally get upper-deck bragging rights (though without the usual business class accouterments that usually go with it).
LUFTHANSA A380 ECONOMY FLIGHT: Pre-flight & lounges
LH455 departs from the Star Alliance’s half of the shiny and spacious international terminal at SFO. There was no TSA PreCheck lane at the security checkpoint for the G gates, but Star Alliance Gold status got me into a separate “Gold Track” that only took five or ten minutes.
As a coach class flyer on a student budget, I’ll take any perks I can get. I especially love the free lounge entry privileges that Star Alliance Golds get on international itineraries. Lufthansa doesn’t have a dedicated lounge at SFO, so travelers are directed to the gargantuan United Club. However, Star Alliance Golds can get into any Star Alliance member airline lounge in the terminal. At SFO G gates, my choices included Sinagpore and EVA’s offerings. I recalled having an amazing experience on the first and only Singapore Airlines flight I’d ever taken (SFO-ICN-SIN-BKK) and so I headed for their lounge at the base of the terminal.
SQ has only two daily flights out of SFO, so its modestly proportioned lounge is only open in the early afternoon and later at night. I was able to catch the last half hour of the afternoon period. Two seating areas with space for around thirty passengers each were divided by a set of counters with a good selection of food and a self-serve bar. Singapore’s flight was boarding so the lounge was emptying out, but I could see how it might have been a bit crowded earlier.
I had a great time with the DIY laksa station, pouring a spicy coconut-based broth over pre-prepared bowls of noodles, seafood, and boiled eggs. The broth’s flavor reminded me of a Thai red curry, but the noodles and seafood were very different. I loved it, but beware: it’s definitely spicy!
The drinks counter had a mini-fridge with sodas and water, a Nespresso station, and a well stocked self-serve bar with options like Belvedere and Gran Marnier. As I took a seat, I took in the solid view out over the tarmac, including the SQ 777-300ER that was about to depart.
Overall, I’d rate the Singapore lounge highly for travelers who happen to be passing through SFO G gates when the lounge is open, with the food and drink options as the standout factors. I believe there may also be a shower there, though I was not able to check that out. The downsides are the potential crowd factor at peak times, as well as the limited hours of availability.
Before heading to my gate, I decided to check out the United Club lounge for a few minutes. WOW, the place was massive. Wrapping around the side of the building one floor up from the main concourse, it had multiple rooms and tons of space. Some were pretty full, but others – along with the bar – had plenty of free seating.
Food options were unimpressive at the time – pita chips with hummus, trail mix, and some chips – though United has since updated the food it offers in its lounges. The best part about the space was the view. With expansive windows and a great north-facing view, I got a great look at the heavies departing along runways 28. On the whole, while the UA lounge was not a bad place to kill some time, it wasn’t much of a step up from the United Clubs in domestic concourses.
LUFTHANSA A380 ECONOMY FLIGHT: Flight basics
Aircraft: Airbus A380-800 (Version 3)
Departed: San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
Arrived: Frankfurt International Airport (FRA)
Class: Economy class
Seat: 95A (upper deck, emergency exit row, no window)
Flight length: 10 hours
Star Alliance Gold got me access to a separate boarding area on the upper concourse level with much less of a crowd, but since I was headed for economy I rejoined the bigger crowd shortly after. I was hoping to board through the upper-deck jetway so I could take an aspirational peek at business class, but I was instead sent onto the lower jetway. I walked the length of the lower deck economy cabin, which really let the size of the plane sink in, before ascending the semicircular stairway to the back of the upper deck. I was seated in the left-hand window seat of the first row of the upper deck economy section. I was the last passenger in this section to board, and all the overhead bin space had been taken. A flight attendant graciously took my bag and placed it in a bin in the adjoining business class cabin – big bonus points for saving me from a gate check.
Taking a seat and getting my bearings, I was impressed by how new and fresh the cabin décor was. The color scheme was refined without being too bright, with seat upholstery in a modest gray with deep blue and bright yellow accents. The standard economy seats were a bit stingy in terms of dimensions, with 17” width and 31” pitch. Luckily for me, I’m a pretty skinny guy and the exit row seating gave me more legroom than I’ve ever had on a flight. For the wider and taller folks out there, premium economy may be worth considering if you can’t snag an exit row seat.
LUFTHANSA A380 ECONOMY FLIGHT: Checking out the upper deck
Sitting in the upper deck ended up being a great experience. While downstairs seating was 3x4x3, up here it was 2x4x2, meaning easier aisle access for the window seats. The five-row mini-cabin had only 35 seats and its own dedicated flight attendant and lavatory, a slightly better ratio than downstairs. The geometry of the upper deck, with walls sloping inwards as opposed to an outward slope downstairs, made for a cozier feel. Window seats on the upper deck had a six-inch ledge between the armrest and the wall that contained a small storage space – enough for a few magazines, a laptop, or maybe even a small bag. I can see why these are popular. The ledge also meant that window seats had a solid amount of extra elbow room.
Especially during pushback and taxi, I was disappointed that my seat did not have a window. Angling my head I could catch a glimpse out of the window behind me, but with the curtains open between economy and business class I ended up looking at the tail cam that was playing on one of the large screens in there.
It’s pretty amazing to watch from the ground as an A380 takes off, but from onboard it’s almost anticlimactic. Compared to other planes, there was strikingly little cabin noise and the plane lifted off sooner than I was expecting, though I suppose this flight wasn’t pushing the plane’s range envelope. A right-side window seat for flights departing SFO for Europe gives you a great view of downtown San Francisco as the plane flies in an arc around the city. For the hardcore flight trackers out there, print out the SNTNA TWO departure chart beforehand; I believe it is the one used for European departures.
During the climbout I struck up a conversation with the flight attendant sitting in the jump seat diagonally in front of me. She shared that the upper deck economy section was a relatively new addition to Lufthansa’s A380 fleet and (to her knowledge) has not been implemented across the fleet.
As the service portion of the flight began, the benefits of having a 35-to-1 passenger-to-FA ratio became clear. Just a few minutes after the double chime, our jovial flight attendant came by with pretzels and fixed me a refreshingly stiff pre-dinner gin and tonic.
After a hot towel, we were given the choice of chicken or vegetarian pasta entrees. The chicken had an Asian-inspired sweet and sour sauce and vegetables on the side. I thought it was pretty good for economy class fare, though a bit heavy on the rice. I always appreciate a salad that has more than just iceberg lettuce. The more colors the better, science suggests. Both the roll and the brownie were on the tough side.
After dinner I explored the entertainment system, which for my exit row seat folded up from the armrest. The interface was slick and very responsive to the touch. I found the selection solid but not quite as good as United’s library.
Before trying to get some sleep, I got up to stretch my legs and look around. You can actually take a pretty decent walk on the A380 – good news for any FitBit aficionados or other activity trackers out there. With the cabin lights out, flight attendants had neatly laid out snacks and cups of water and juice at each galley for passengers to help themselves to. A nugget of health wisdom: drinking plenty of water in flight isn’t just good for dealing with dry cabin air. It can also reduce many individuals’ risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a dangerous clotting condition that occurs more frequently in passengers on long-haul flights.
As I reclined my seat and got ready to sleep, I realized that the inward slope of the fuselage on the upper deck made it a bit harder to lean my head against a window to sleep. Still, I managed to get around five hours of mostly uninterrupted shuteye. With the relative quiet of the A380 cabin, I barely needed my noise-cancelling headphones.
About an hour before landing the crew came around and served breakfast: an omelet with some greens and potatoes. Eggs are tricky to do well on a plane, but this ranked as one of the better in-flight omelets that I’ve had. The descent and landing were smooth, and soon we were parked at Frankfurt International Airport’s C gates. Although I had to board through the lower deck, we were allowed to deplane from the upper deck. I was glad to catch a glimpse at the business class cabin and snag a picture of the Great White Whale from the outside.
The C concourse at Frankfurt requires a pretty lengthy walk to reach the arrivals area. It felt surprisingly strange to cross out of the transit lounge, as I’ve transferred at Frankfurt plenty of times before but have never entered the city. A fantastic week in Germany with family followed, with great scenery, impactful history, and not-insignificant quantities of hefeweizen beer.
LUFTHANSA A380 ECONOMY FLIGHT: Final Verdict
I’d rate my experience on LH455 pretty well on its own merits, and even more positively when compared to my experience flying the same route on United’s older 747s. The interior of the plane looked and felt new, the plane is quiet in flight (great for light sleepers), service was friendly, and the food was pretty good, though not spectacular.
The upper deck cabin was an additional value-add, with a cozier feel, better seating configuration, and zippier service. The primary downsides I can think of on this flight were the stingy seat dimensions in standard economy (though not worse than the standard economy dimensions on United’s 747s), lack of TSA PreCheck, and the default use of United’s lounge at SFO.