Tried & Tested

SN Brussels A330 business class

25 Oct 2006 by business traveller

First impressions I arrived at Gatwick's South Terminal at 0510 on a Sunday morning for my 0715 flight to Brussels to connect onwards to Dakar, Senegal. SN Brussels Airlines departs from the North Terminal so I took the metro link. The North Terminal was packed as I made my way towards check-in Zone F. The queue for a BA flight was so extensive that I almost got caught up in it before noticing a small sign for SN Brussels and managed to duck under the rope into the correct queue. There were only two check-in desks open and I had to wait for about 30 minutes before being served. I asked for my bag to be checked right through to Dakar and requested a window seat, 2A.

By the time I had checked in it was 0540 so I went straight to security. As this was a time of heightened security after the foiled terrorist plots I had to take off my shoes and my belt and make sure I wasn't carrying any gels or liquids. The gate flashed up at 0640 for boarding at 0700 and it was about a five-minute walk to 45G.

SN Brussels flies to 14 African cities. From Gatwick, Brussels-to-Dakar flights leave once daily (except Mondays): Wednesday and Friday at 1040 arriving 1455, Tuesday and Saturday at 1110 arriving 1525 and Thursday and Sunday at 1125 arriving 1540. For the return journey, flights leave Dakar daily (except Mondays) at 2155 arriving 0540, and Saturdays at 2225 arriving at 0610.

Boarding Boarding was 10 minutes late. The plane was busy. The business class section has three rows, configuration 3-2 and I was in the second row by the window. Orange juice or water were offered as we settled into our seats and the pilot announced a flying time of 45 minutes. We took off 15 minutes late.

The flight Breakfast was hot croissants and cheese omelette with two hash browns, a piece of broccoli, yoghurt, coffee and orange juice. The food was welcome but the service was so fast that I thought I might not have time to eat it so I wolfed it down. We landed at 0920 local Brussels time (five minutes late) and then had to wait 10 minutes for the stairs to be attached. We were told connecting flights onwards to Dakar at 1125 would leave from Gate B40.

The transfer As I walked through the terminal, following the transfer signs, I saw a screen that showed the flight to Dakar as 1800, and I was dismayed to realise it was delayed by six and a half hours. I went through another security check to reach Gate B40 and went to the gate anyway, to find out what was happening. I was told to go to the SN Brussels information desk opposite Gate B01 to check in for the delayed flight. When I got there the queue was about 40 people long. There were no members of staff to ask but luckily I saw a sign for the lounge and avoided an hour-long queue by checking in there.

The lounge The lounge is shared with Finnair, Cyprus Airways, Ukraine International Airlines, Malmo Aviation, Sun Air of Scandinavia, British Airways, American Airlines, Bulgaria Air and Etihad Airways. I asked what had happened to my flight and was told the reason for the delay was that a few days ago a plane had taken off from Brussels and suffered engine problems, and the delay was a knock-on effect from that. I was told boarding would be at 1720 and the flight would go via Banjul, The Gambia, before arriving in Dakar at around 2330 local time. Usually the flight stops in Banjul after Dakar, but apparently in order to make up time for the return flight this was a quicker route (although not for Dakar passengers like me, of course).

At this point I wished I had not checked my bag right through as it had my malaria tablets in it and I would now be arriving at 2330 rather than 1540. I was given two meal vouchers worth E16, which could be used at the airport food and beverage outlets. It was only 11am so I stayed in the lounge and checked my email on the free internet in the business centre. There were four computers (one was out of order) as well as laptop power points. I could see why they had given out food vouchers as although there was an extensive range of drinks there was very little food – just some nuts and later some ham and cheese to go with wine. In the centre of the lounge were rooms with dark glass, where people were sleeping with blankets. I used the phone for free to call my hotel in Dakar to rearrange my pick-up time from 1540 to 2330 and then I asked to use it to call home, which the friendly staff allowed me to do.

I spent my vouchers on a hot meal because I found the air conditioning in the lounge a little cold. On the way back to the lounge, through security, my bag was checked repeatedly.

Boarding Staff in the lounge announced that boarding was at 1720 from Gate B40. There was no fast-track for business class passengers but the queue moved quickly. As soon as I was seated I was offered orange juice, water or champagne. We waited as a small drama unfolded on the runway – a plane that was landing was having engine problems and we saw the fire engines racing to meet it. We took off at 1830.

The seat The business class cabin on the A330 has five rows, with seats arranged 2-2-2. I counted around 25 people in the cabin. SN Brussels introduced its new business class seat in May – the seats are smart in dark blue material with crisp white cushions, they have more legroom and recline further than the previous offering (economy has also been updated). The seat pitch is 198cm and the width 66cm. There are separate controls for the leg area and the feet, which you can expand and tilt from the armrest.

I found the seat extremely comfortable, mainly because of the material, which meant I did not slip down as I often do in leather seats. The seats have a fixed shell so that when you recline, the back of the seat does not move, giving more privacy from the passenger behind. Instead, the whole seat slides down and moves forward, reclining to an angle of 180 degrees (the seats are not fully flat but angled lie-flat). There is also a massage function, angled reading light, and ample space for belongings around the foot area. Water-bottle holders and a place to put shoes were also built in to the seat in front. The 10.4-inch IFE screen was fixed to the back of the seat in front but although it is individually controlled it is not audiovisual on demand, which was a little disappointing considering the high quality of the rest of the product.

The flight The attendant handed out blue amenity kits, which included L'Occitane lip balm and an intensive moisturiser. As well as earplugs, eye mask and the dental kit there was also a shoe-horn. We were handed headsets for the IFE and a copy of Connect, the in-flight magazine. We were served aperitifs and olives then, 15 minutes later, more drinks. When dinner was served there was no menu but the attendant had examples of the meal choices on top of the trolley. I chose a starter of smoked ham and roast vegetables served with a small bottle of vinaigrette, salad and hot rolls (the other option was vegetable terrine with scallops). For the main course I had spinach-filled pasta with a creamy sauce (other options were fish or steak). Pudding was a cheese board with fruit or cake but I was too full for the box of Neuhaus chocolates and coffee.

After dinner, I took a blanket and slept until I was awoken before landing in Banjul. We waited for an hour while other passengers left and arrived and the aircraft was sprayed. Annoyingly, one song was played on a loop for the full hour.

Arrival From Banjul, it was 30 minutes to Dakar. We were handed arrivals cards (make sure you fill in an address even if you don't know which hotel you are staying at, because the man in front of me was questioned at customs as he had left it blank). We landed at 2353. Passport control was fast and I went through to collect my bag, which arrived after 15 minutes.

Verdict The new business class product will be a welcome change for regular business class passengers flying to Africa. The seats are very comfortable and you can adjust them to your exact requirements. The service was top-notch. It is a shame my flight was delayed on the way out and, unluckily for me, again on the return flight on the Wednesday evening for over an hour. Consequently, I had to run for my connection to Gatwick. (My bag never made it, turning up on the Saturday.) Had I been flying to Heathrow, I could have code-shared (BA and SN Brussels) for a better choice of connections. Apart from these hitches, the experience with the seat and crew was good.

Price Return fares in business class start at £2,739, excluding taxes and fees. Lower fares with restrictions are available via online agents.

Felicity Cousins

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