Every few days, I tweet out another installment of my ’œairline you’ve (probably) never heard of before’ series. For many of you reading this, Thomas Cook Airlines probably fits that description. Thomas Cook is not a new airline, or really even that small. But unless you are European and going on holiday, you probably have not come across Thomas Cook as an option before.
That is slowly changing, as Thomas Cook starts its transformation from a primarily holiday booking and charter operation to full-time scheduled airline alongside its sister airline Condor. This is a daunting challenge, nearly as difficult as starting up a new airline from scratch in some regards. The airline reached out to me to give me a look at how they are changing, and offered a review flight in its Premium Class product. My response to them, basically, was ’œyou have a premium class product?’ It does, and it is worth a closer look.
Before I continue, it’s important to convey that Thomas Cook is not competing with other airlines on a basis of lie-flat seats or posh lounges. What it brings to the table is a specific value proposition. Getting passengers from A to B in relative comfort for the lowest fare possible. The airline is often hundreds of dollars less than its competitors flying between New York and Manchester — the route that I flew.
I wouldn’t blame you if you were to say ’œsave hundreds of dollars? The flight is probably crap, right?’ It isn’t. In fact, flying between New York and Manchester, it’s one of the better options. The Thomas Cook intercontinental fleet operates using the Airbus A330, and each aircraft has recently been refurbished. Each A330 sports economy in a 2-4-2 configuration, not the squishy 3-3-3 you might have found in the past. Each seat has its own on-demand entertainment screen, complete with USB port to charge your own device. You won’t find either of those things on a certain U.S.-based airline also operating this route.
In the front of most Thomas Cook A330s is the Premium Class cabin. Each row in the premium cabin is in a 2-3-2 configuration, so there’s one fewer seat per row. Imagine a U.S. domestic first class seat, or a basic international premium economy seat, and that’s what Thomas Cook is offering for a modest up-sell. Passengers get an upgraded drink and snack service, free reign of the entertainment system, and priority boarding.
Okay, enough background information. Here’s how all of the above stacks up in reality. The flight departs New York’s JFK Terminal 4, the primary international terminal. For whatever reason, Thomas Cook does not allow online check-in for those departing JFK, which meant I actually had to do so at a counter. I’m guessing most people opt to check a bag, so this really isn’t an issue for the regular passenger. Thankfully, there was a dedicated line for Premium Class passengers, or I would have been stuck in a rather lengthy line.
Once through security (a 25 minute wait), I arrived at the gate and noticed something odd. B36 at JFK T4 has no jet bridge, or really even any seating. Apparently, Thomas Cook almost always utilizes a bus gate at JFK, which I didn’t even know was still a thing. I last experienced this at JFK when boarding a Northwest DC-9. Boarding commenced on schedule, and Premium Class passengers were called first. However, that just meant we ended up standing on a bus longer than anyone else. Not really ideal, nor a great way to start a flight. At least that meant I got to see the A330 up close before boarding.
Once on board the A330, the experience quickly improved. Turning left into the Premium Class cabin, my seat was prepared with a pillow, blanket, and even an amenity kit. The amenity kit was actually quite nice, and was an unexpected touch for a low cost airline. A pre-departure beverage was offered, and after the last bus load of passengers were on board, we were on our way to runway 22R for a quick takeoff roll and climb to cruising altitude.
At altitude, the Zodiac RAVE on-demand entertainment system kicked in. Passengers in the Premium cabin are given unlocked access to the entire system for no charge. Down back, a small selection is offered for free while the bulk of the content requires flagging down a flight attendant to pay a small fee. Remember, this is a budget airline. Charging for IFE is not unexpected. Heck, one of the major U.S. airlines on this same route still uses overhead screens. The content selection was adequate and enough to keep me busy for the roundtrip journey, but only just.
For geeks like me (and let’s face it, probably you if you are reading this), the Thomas Cook A330s are hiding an extremely unique feature in the economy cabin. These A330s are some of the few in the world configured with a lower deck lavatory. Down a staircase in the middle of the economy cabin is a set of lavatories and small “lounge” where you can stretch your legs without disrupting seated passengers. This is a pretty cool oddity to check off your #AvGeek bucket list.
One of Thomas Cook’s major marketing points are the meals offered on its long-haul flights. Celebrity chef-inspired menus are all the rage at airlines these days, and Thomas Cook has partnered with James Martin to create its menu. As an American, I am not familiar with James Martin, but he is apparently a well known figure in the U.K.
Unfortunately, the James Martin meals are not offered on flights out of the U.S. ’œdue to local laws,’ so a spartan turkey sandwich was served to me in its place. Because this was a flight departing at 10pm, I was not all that torn up about it as I had eaten before the flight. For longer flights departing from the U.S. west coast, however, that’s a drawback.
Thankfully, I did have the chance to try out the signature meals on the return flight to JFK. Thomas Cook gave me the chance to try not one, not two, but all three of the James Martin meals currently on offer. Roast chicken breast wrapped in prosciutto, Malaysian beef over steamed jasmine rice, and roasted sussex charmer gnocchi were the three dishes I had the chance to try. All three of the dishes were quite tasty, and surprisingly the gnocchi dish was by far my favorite. Didn’t see that coming. The plating was spartan, but this is another opportunity to remind yourself that Thomas Cook is all about the value proposition. They can do away with expensive flatware and instead offer a quality meal. Mission accomplished.
On any redeye long-haul flight, the ability to sleep is more important than entertainment or meals. I’m not a great sleeper on flights, and I was never really able to get completely comfortable in this seat. The recline was fine, but there was no leg rest, and the footrest (just a metal tube, of sorts) was not comfortable. The center seats in the center section double as crew rest seats on longer flights, and include legrests that I would have liked to have seen on all seats. Thomas Cook says it will look into implementing that change.
One constant I observed was the crew’s love of the airline. Universally, each crew member I talked to was fully invested in what the airline was trying to do. Shifting from a holiday charter option to a full-time scheduled airline is incredibly difficult, especially with virtually no name recognition in the United States. Throughout the duration of the flights, crew members were energetic and continually asked me what could be done to improve the Thomas Cook brand. The best part, though, is that I think they are actually listening and trying.
No, you won’t find a lie-flat bed in business class, or even a pre-flight lounge. But what Thomas Cook showed me is that for those passengers on a budget, but still looking for a great flight, it can deliver. When passengers think of ’œbudget airline’ they may conjure up thoughts of Ryanair or Spirit, but I think most flyers will be pleasantly surprised with what they find flying Thomas Cook.
NOTE: This flight was paid for by Thomas Cook Airlines, but all opinions and statements are my own.
Yes, but what is the seat pitch like for regular economy folks? Seatguru says 31″, which sounds better than Condor’s 30″, but a real world opinion would have been nice.
It’s a perfectly acceptable and average 31″ in economy. If that’s a bit too tight for you, look into booking Premium instead. It may just be cheaper than economy on other airlines flying the route.
Mr. Rabinowitz, do you know if Thomas Cook is planning to add premium/business to its LAS-MAN flights? Right now the aircraft are wetleased from Air Tanker but using Thomas Cook crews. The MT website only shows Y seating out of LAS. Thanks.
Hi Lance. I believe that may be an economy only route. The Air Tanker leases don’t have a Premium cabin, but they do have an identical economy cabin to the regular Thomas Cook fleet. Sorry!
Thanks for the quick response. I may be flying the route early next year and have been exploring options: VS or MT non-stops (although the VS flights have suddenly disappeared from the schedule), UA via EWR using miles, DL, AA and other possibilities. The basic MT price on a non-stop is ok — but the add-on pricing (advanced seat selection, second bag, etc.) begins to lose some of the competitiveness. And I need to see if the Air Tanker seat pitch in an all-Y configuration is any different than MT’s. At 6’2″, I’d rather not be singing soprano by the end of the flight.
Seat pitch should be 31″ on the Air Tanker A330. Here’s a good breakdown: https://www.thomascookairlines.com/en/fly-with-us/our-airlines-partners/our-fleet/partner-airlines.jsp
Hi, not all services to LAS are on Tanker Services aircraft. During the summer only Glasgow and Stanstead flights are on Tanker, the Manchester service has a Premium Cabin
Thanks. That’s good to know. Right now the MT website is showing all winter schedule flights LAS-MAN using Air Tanker with only Y cabin. I’ll keep checking in case that changes.
I would agree that the flights are fairly pleasant and cheap. Good service on the plane. HOWEVER if you are in the US they are very close to impossible to call or contact in any way.I can’t tell you how many times I was put on hold. This cost a small fortune. Their web sites are no better with constant “computer problems.
A good report Jason and thanks. I have heard of Thos. before and even flown a fairly good long haul on their metal. IMO, they serve their basic purpose well, far better than some other ULCC operators. Their mission is singular, they understand it well and they meet their own corporate needs. At the time, I did NOT know that they had a premium class product up front, but even in coach it was acceptable and the long haul meal was two points better than satisfactory. I agree that they have their work cut out for them if they wish to offer scheduled services not tied to one of their branded holiday spots, similar to our Part 121 carriers. And I think they can do it. My airplane was clean, well stocked and did not suffer from broken this or that, or any obvious mechanical faults. The flew A to B, on time and, for the price paid, a perfectly adequate soft product. (OK, I was surprised.) Of they have – or will have one major problem, it is those obscene departure taxes imposed on those leaving the U.K. (I do not know if those fees apply to charter and house-owned airlines, but for those using the U.K.’s scheduled carriers, they can become a very nasty surprise. If you know, please tell us.) Although my flights with Thos. Cook were made 3-4 years ago, I thought they were satisfactory for price paid, even in coach and with a similar need today, I would not hesitate to fly them again. Even without some of the fluff and frills, they Get It and I am confident that they will get me to my (holiday) destination in one piece. A fair and objective report…
-Cook (no relation)
I would have assumed you know an airline with “cook” in the name :).
David | AirlineReporter
Thank you for mentioning the departure taxes. Grateful to see under 16s are not exempt.
LH also has lower-deck lavatories on the 346, though this has to be the first time I’ve heard of it on the 330.
ya i like this infrastructure and functions which are really unique and it is really awesome and i like that works very much , thus it is very good article.
What struck me about your look inside the Thomas Cook A330 was the below-deck lavatories, the “lounge” seating, and the spiral staircase. That represents more interior design innovation than one would first think. A good follow-up story might be to show us the design group (people & techniques) that brought the concept into reality. Did they use models and 3-D printer components to explore the actual workings before putting the new interior design into production?
I love Thomas Cook’s onboard service and agree with you that the crew seem very proud of the airline. I fly them often between Cancun and Gatwick. I’ve reviewed their services also in the past, including economy, for all those who would like to know about that!
The lower deck lavs are in place of a normal crew rest areas on the 330, which is on the lower deck. That’s why some Prem seats are allocated for the duty.
Just returned from Orlando-Glasgow-Orlando in economy class. Didn’t know what to expect but figured for the price to give it a try. Hey, I loved the food and though the seats don’t reclined much, I was very pleased for the service, better service than other national airlines, MUCH BETTER.
The flight was on time, clean plane and toilets, good food. The best feeling when my bags arrived!!!
It was a pleasant surprise.
Thomas Cook is not and never has been a “Budget Airline” and the onboard services do change depending on when/where flights depart, such as meals are served when departing West Coast USA. The services change depending on the time of day to avoid things such as serving a full hot meal at 11pm for example. JFK and BOS departures offer a cold snack to begin with but then a hot breakfast served before arrival into the UK. Whereas all other US departures, Carribean and Mexican departures offer a hot meal first and a continental breakfast before landing as these flights typically depart afternoon/early evening time. All meal services are served with additional soft drinks (Pepsi/Diet/Sprite/Orange juice/Apple juice) alongside tea and coffee on all US routes currently but will be available in the future on all long haul routes. Thomas Cook is also one of the the only 2 airlines in the world to fly the A330-200 with lower deck facilities. 6 were manufactured and Thomas Cook operates 4 of these alongside a further 6 standard A330-200’s and 1 A330-300. The aim is to offer comfort and value for money. Many people question as to why Thomas Cook does not offer complimentary drinks in economy class and the simple answer is this. With other airlines you will pay hundreds more for this privilege whereas with Thomas Cook, you can pay as you go essentially, again allowing you to get your money’s worth…