Every few days, I tweet out another installment of my “airline 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 “you 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 “save 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. “due 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 “budget 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.