TAP Portugal, which celebrated its 70th anniversary in September, is in renewal mode. In 2015 it was privatised, and a consortium run by David Neeleman, founder of Jetblue in the US and Azul in Brazil, purchased 61 per cent (now down to 45 per cent) of the shares from the Portuguese state. Along with the fresh capital, outside expertise was brought in to take TAP to the next level.
As far as network is concerned, the plan was to add long-haul flights and destinations to Brazil – where it currently has 67 flights per week – as well as the US, where new Boston and New York-JFK operations have already started.
On short-haul, meanwhile, the plan is all about renewal of the fleet, both by revamping the cabins and also new orders of aircraft. At TAP’s home base of Lisbon the first of its 21 A319s have new cabins (four are already in service). Visiting this week and stepping from the dark hangar into the brightly lit cabin of aircraft registered CS-TTM is a refreshing change, although this aircraft is already 17 years old (the average age being 17.4 years).
“This is the biggest revamp in TAP’s product history”, says cabin interiors product manager Joel Fragata, while admitting that “This is mostly about efficiency gains, to be able to compete in today’s market.” TAP’s economy class has to match the fares of the Low Cost Carriers (LCCs), which are strong in Portugal. As reported previously, TAP has introduced new fare classes.
These include a “Discount” fare including one cabin bag. At the same time, TAP has to offer business travellers, especially those connecting on to long-haul in Lisbon, a suitable product. The current fare spectrum is illustrated at a randomly picked flight from Heathrow to Lisbon, where the online check yields ticket prices varying from £52 to £238 one-way. That’s why TAP now aims at differentiating its offerings more, for example by tightening seat pitches in the back, with slim-line seats by German manufacturer Recaro.
“We are achieving several goals at once with the revamp – increasing the seat count, lowering the total weight of the aircraft by 700kg and thus lower fuel burn, and still offering more comfort to many customers,” says Joel Fragata.
The result is that the A319’s capacity goes up from 132 to 144 seats, the A320’s from 162 to 174 and the A321’s from 200 to 216. That’s not all due to thinner seat-backs, but also a result of removing Galley 2 in the front, next to door 1R.
The whole A320-family fleet will be converted by July 2017. In total TAP has ordered 6,600 seats of the BL3530 model for business and SL3510 for economy class, representing an investment of €70 million.
The first ten rows of the A319 are equipped with business class seats, easily recognisable by their red leather edges, where the middle seat remains free and gets a table applied. Here the pitch is a generous 33 inches (83.8cm), every three seats have a power outlet for electricity (110V) as well as a USB port, something still rarely found on short- and medium-haul.
TAP plans to offer an “Economy Plus” product in some of the “red” rows, which is supposed to come online system-wide in 2017.
The best option for travellers in economy is definitely the first “green” row, in the A319 it’s row 11. It boasts a generous 33-inch pitch, to compensate for the four-inch recline of the seats in the last “red” row.
Moving further back, it gets very tight in terms of seat pitch. Economy class beginning in the seat rows aft of the over-wing emergency exits (easily visible by the seat covers framed in green leather) has a seat pitch of only 28 inches (71.1cm) pitch, making it even more uncomfortable than Lufthansa in the aft rows of its A320neos. In addition, TAP doesn’t allow any recline at all, while Lufthansa’s seat-backs move slightly. In airline speak this is euphemistically called “pre-reclined” mode, which of course is nonsense at this minimal pitch.
Fragata tries to sell it positively (“This means no intrusion into your personal living space”), but for bigger frames there is almost no breathing space. If you are tall (over 1.75 metres), you will be uncomfortable. And TAP operates its A320 family on fairly long routes, for example from Lisbon to Accra (five and a half hours) or to Helsinki (four hours forty minutes).
Still, the cabins look lovely, with an attractive ambience and a newly designed, lighter carpet in green and black patterns, with everything having a specific Portuguese note. The overall design has been conceived by local company Almadesign, the seat covers are manufactured by Kharman Ghia de Portugal, using leather from Portuguese supplier Couro Azul.
“This leather gets a special treatment, so all heavy metals are removed, it is chromium free, we are one of the first airlines to fly it”, explains Fragata.
The situation of cabin products on TAP’s long haul routes is more complex. Both of its newest A330-200s, registered CS-TOS and CS-TOT, already have seven rows in the front of economy boasting a 34-inch pitch – they will soon be sold as “Economy Plus”. Currently they operate just the JFK and Boston routes.
Starting in January, seven out of 16 TAP A330-200s will be refurbished. At the moment, in business class, TAP still flies angled lie-flat seats, which are no longer acceptable to many passengers. In business class, they are getting fully-flat seats for the first time, a newer model of the Thompson Vantage seat, this revamp will be completed by October, 2017, but only in 2019, will the airline be all fully-flat in its offerings.
A real relaunch of TAP’s long haul cabins, however, is only to be expected when the newly ordered aircraft arrive. TAP is launch customer for the A330-900neo, the first of 14 will arrive at the end of 2017/early 2018, as well as six new A330-300s. A year later, the first batch of a total of 39 A320neos/A321neos will follow. Among these will be a few of the long-haul A321LRs, which TAP intends to operate on shorter Brazil routes. “They will also have full-flat seats in business class,” promises Joel Fragata. Either way – it won’t be boring at TAP in the next few years.