I recently made a trip to Santiago to cover the opening of LAN’s new VIP Lounge. I was pretty excited since this gave me a few firsts. This was the first time that I was invited to do an international trip as media and my first time in South America. This was also going to be my first trip on a 787 of any variant. While the Santiago to JFK route was normally flown by a 787-8 at that time, the night before my flight I discovered that a brand new 787-9 had been swapped in. I was beyond excited!
Although I would say that I had a better than average international economy experience, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t encounter some challenges. Some were things that happen just because the complexities of running an airline, but others I think could be updated to improve the overall economy passenger experience.
Arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Terminal 8, I proceeded to find the check-in desks for LAN, which was not an easy task. There is a definite need for more signage.
Most confusing were the illuminated signs that said “Main Cabin Check-in” at the end of each aisle, referring to terminal operator American Airlines’ economy class product. Even aisles that were dedicated to partner airlines had these signs. I like to think that I know the airport system more than the average passenger, and if I was a bit put off, I couldn’t imagine how less-frequent travelers must feel.
However, once I figured out where to check-in, the wait was short.
While boarding had been scheduled to begin an hour before our scheduled departure, that time ended up slipping by 15 minutes. This was due to the additional preparations the cabin crew needed to complete on the larger 787-9. All passengers entered through the forward boarding door, allowing us to observe the upgraded business class seats on the larger Dreamliner. The cabin was decked out in magenta mood lighting with fully darkened windows. Truth be told, the darkened windows were a bit of a shock, given that I had just been photographing the exterior of the aircraft in the bright sunset.
I quickly found my seat, 12D, an aisle seat in the first row of the Economy cabin against the bulkhead. The 787-9 is arranged so that the 30-seat Premium Business cabin is located between the first and second doors. The two arched entryways form the front and rear of the premium cabin on the -9, so the bulkhead marks the absolute front of the Economy cabin. In contrast, on the 787-8, there are the same number of Premium Business seats, with three rows between the doors and two rows aft of the second door. The bulkhead between the premium cabin and the coach cabin on the smaller Dreamliner is just a wall.
The forward-most overhead bins in economy are narrower than they are throughout the rest of the cabin. They also seemed to be just slightly too short for my standard-size rollaboard to fit on edge, so it went in wheels first instead. This wasn’t an issue on my return flight, so I’m not sure if it is just a ‘feature’ of the forward-most bin in the economy cabin. Regardless, it did not seem that there was a lack of overhead bin space available.
I placed my camera bag (on its side) in the adjacent bin, feeling slightly bad for taking so much bin space. I settled in to my seat and took a moment to explore the amenity kit left on each economy class seat. A nice touch.
In addition to the typical pillow and blanket offered by US-based airlines for long-haul flights, LAN added a few additional items. There was a small package containing bright orange earplugs and a matching eye mask. The earplugs were the standard-issue foam ones, and while the eye-mask looked a bit cheap, it was perfectly functional for keeping the light out.
At first glance, I marveled at how a brand-new plane could still have 2-prong headset jacks. But wait, my seat had only a single hole for the headphone jack! It was only after we were in the air that I discovered that the second prong folds away. The headphones were a universal fit or both the 767 and 787 fleets — neat.
We pushed back on time and had a rather long taxi as our departure runway (31L) was diagonally across JFK’s expanse. The cabin crew never undimmed the windows, so as a dyed-in-the-wool window seat lover, it was a bit of an odd sensation to be taxiing without having any idea where we were going. It was only when we were on our takeoff roll that I finally figured out what runway we departed from.
I have to say, while the electrically dimming windows are a cool novelty, in practice I was not a fan of them. On the overnight southbound flight, I found them disorienting during taxi on both ends of the flight. Also, if I choose a window seat, I want full control of the windows. I hate the idea that somebody else can decide that my window should be darkened.
On my flight back to New York, I felt that the windows were not dark enough to keep out the just-risen sun. The result was similar to a really bright light being shined in your eyes at night. I’ll take a traditional manual window shade, thanks.
Before takeoff, I cued up ‘Birdman’ on the armrest-mounted IFE screen. It was a film that I had done a small amount of work on during my day job as an entertainment lighting technician, so I was excited to finally get to see it. The placement of the IFE screen allowed me to easily watch the movie while enjoying my dinner.
I only had three days on the ground in Santiago, and only my arrival day wasn’t booked solid. I was planning to spend a full day exploring the city by subway once I arrived, so I wanted to have my phone fully charged by the time we landed. I plugged it into the USB jack below the fold out screen and then nothing happened. I always look forward to having in-seat power ports (not nearly enough airlines offer them), so when they are there but not functioning I get disappointed. It was especially disappointing given how new this plane was. Fortunately, I had packed a couple of USB battery packs, so I pulled one out to take care of the charging duties.
Once we were in the air, the dinner service began fairly quickly. We were given the choice between a chicken dish and a pasta dish. I chose the pasta and it was delightful! Described as a ravioli with pesto, it was more of a tortellini with a very light garlic and oil sauce and diced tomatoes. It was fresh and filling without being too heavy. Dare I say, it just may have been one of the best economy class meals I have ever had.
The main dish was served with a small salad garnished with fresh Parmesan cheese that was just as fresh as the main dish and significantly better than the standard-issue airline salad. For desert, the tray included a delicious square of cheesecake.
Each tray came with a set of metal utensils and a paper napkin, along with a small glass for wine. Yes, you read that right: the wine is served in an actual glass in economy. I had a glass of merlot, and while the portion was small it was tasty. While US-based airlines in my experience have served larger portions of wine than what LAN offered, the quality was definitely superior on this flight.
If there was one thing that really turned me off about the food and beverage service, it was the willingness of the flight attendants to refill passengers’ personal water bottles from the communal jug. YUCK! In flight, there was no way to fill a used personal bottle without touching the lip of it. I was glad that I was among the first to be served, and that I could choose a beverage that hadn’t been opened yet. Those behind me weren’t so lucky.
With the economy cabin ending abruptly at my feet and curtains drawn, you’d think that the bulkhead row would be a very low traffic part of the cabin to be seated in. You would be wrong. Apparently, “respecting the sanctity of the cabins” was a concept unheard of amongst my fellow passengers. The first offender was a father who parted the curtains to change his daughter’s diaper in the galley. Classy. As the carts blocked the aisle during dinner service, more than a few passengers ducked behind the curtain to cross to then other aisle, though I have no clue where they thought they were going from there. It was mildly annoying, though it wasn’t as bad as the woman who decided that it was better to cut through my row. Sorry lady, this isn’t an aisle.
Let’s talk about the seats on LAN’s 787 for a minute. A lot has been written on how tight nine-abreast on the 787 is, with some writers going so far as to advise passengers to avoid flying the 787 in economy. To be honest, I spent the first portion of the flight giving some serious thought to what all the fuss was about. I’m a rather large guy, and my seatmates (a Chilean couple) were rather portly themselves. And yet, through boarding, taxi, takeoff, and dinner, I found myself to be no less comfortable than I have been on recent 767 or A330 flights. Sure, it was a little tight, but I didn’t feel like I was jabbing my neighbor with my elbow every time I moved. And this was with a bulkhead seat that is narrower than most due to the tray and IFE screen being mounted in the armrest. I even had no problem falling asleep with the room provided. With my seat fully reclined (the toddler behind me wasn’t going to mind any more than I minded him acting like a toddler on a redeye), I could comfortably stretch out with my feet just barely reaching the bulkhead in front of me.
While I went right to sleep, my seatmates were fully immersed in the IFE. At some point an hour or two into my slumber, I was awoken by my seatmate repeatedly trying to move my arm! As one who is particularly averse to being unexpectedly awoken, anger seethed inside of me as they repeatedly attempted to make me move. Unwilling to remove my eye mask and further risk not being able to fall back to sleep, I discretely checked that I was within my bounderies. Sure enough, my feet were propped just to the sides of the pocket on the bulkhead and my elbows were snug into my gut.
The seats that were just wide enough for me apparently weren’t wide enough for my obnoxious seat mate — they wanted some of my space. Eventually, I leaned slightly towards the aisle and fell back to sleep, waking up just in time for breakfast to be served.
Similar to dinner, the breakfast service offered two entree choices. This time, it was a choice between eggs and a warm ham & cheese sandwich. I chose the sandwich, which was served with a fresh fruit cup, yogurt, and a roll. While the accompaniments were fresh and delicious, the sandwich was just okay. The bread had become quite dry as a result of the reheating process, taking on the texture of cardboard in the process. Despite these shortcomings, the meal was filling enough to keep me going well into my day of exploring Santiago. That’s more than I can say for the second meals on the long-haul flights of other airlines that I have flown.
Much has been said about the improvements to the cabin environment that are possible because of the 787’s composite construction. As my first flight neared an end, I began to realize just how noticeable these improvements are. I didn’t feel the fatigue that so often follows a long-haul flight. Sure, I was ready for a nap, but that had more to do with the sub-optimal sleep I had received because of my not-so-amazing seatmate.
Just before beginning our decent into Santiago, the flight attendants came around with one last treat for those of us in economy: a tray of soft, chewy caramels. They made for a sweet ending to a flight where the only ups and downs we didn’t experience were turbulence.
My flight landed just before 6:00 AM local time, well before sunrise which occurred about two hours later. Once on the ground, we taxied for about 10 minutes before reaching our gate. The jetway was positioned at the second boarding door (L2) on the 787-9, so once the Premium Business cabin had emptied, I was able to quickly exit. There was a moderate amount of walking required to reach customs, though once there, it was an easy process. Arriving in Santiago from an international destination also requires a mandatory tour of the duty free shop and an x-ray inspection of all luggage at the agriculture checkpoint. From there, I was off to my hotel for a quick nap before a day of exploring Santiago on my own.
Note: LAN providing airfare and accommodations during my trip.