Of the 200-or-so classic Boeing 747s still in passenger service around the world, perhaps none are more recognizable from afar than KLM’s 11 big blue jumbo jets.
The Dutch flag carrier, which for four decades has relied on jumbo jets as the workforce of its massive transatlantic fleet, is set to retire the remainder of its 747 fleet in the next 18 months. This plane should be missed, particularly by the masses who fly in economy class. Unlike the jets that succeed her, KLM’s 747 features wide, plush economy seats in a well laid out cabin.
I had the chance to fly on one of the airline’s five 747-400s on a recent work trip from New York Kennedy (JFK) to Amsterdam (AMS). These five true passenger 747s hold 408 passengers. The airline also flies six 747 Combi jets, which contain a smaller economy cabin ahead of a full-sized cargo bay.
KLM makes it easy to find and choose 747s through an impeccably well-designed website interface. Alongside price and schedule, the airline prominently lists aircraft type, and in my experience, KLM rarely makes last minute fleet deviations.
I paid an incredible $447 for my return airfare. The ticket was technically a basic economy fare, though unlike many carriers KLM extends full elite benefits to basic economy ticketholders, meaning I could still sit in Economy Comfort seats free of charge.
I paid for the flight using my American Express Platinum Card, which netted 2,235 Membership Rewards points at 5x points per dollar spent through the airline website. If booking through an online travel agency or other travel service, I’d have been better served with my Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earns 3 points on all travel purchases.
I’d earn 1,821 SkyMiles on this ticket, at a measly 25 percent of miles flown, but full Medallion Qualification Miles, even on the basic economy fare.
On my eastbound overnight flight, I could choose between an early 747 departure and a later service operated by a Boeing 777.
The 747 is vastly preferable, as I’d confirm on my return one week later. While KLM has standardized armrest-to-armrest seat width across its fleet at 17.5-inches, the armrests and margins on the 777 are noticeably narrower, and KLM now avoids seat padding like its going out of style.
KLM is very welcoming to Delta Medallion frequent flyers. Once a SkyMiles number is added into a reservation, Platinum and Diamond medallions can select any seat — including Economy Comfort seating — for free using the online seat map. Silver and Gold medallions can pick standard seats for free and enjoy a discount on extra legroom and Economy Comfort seating.
When flights depart JFK, KLM shares resources with joint venture partner Delta Air Lines, including check-in. While there is a dedicated check-in counter with KLM branding in the departure hall, all desks are staffed by Delta reservations agents, and KLM passengers can use any Delta check-in, including the SkyPriority lounge.
I was in the mood for something different, so I gave the SkyPriority line at the KLM quarter a try. That ended up being a mistake.
There was one unfortunate hiccup that threatened my trip, the source of which I’m still trying to track down, though I believe it was the rather short and clueless agent I was unlucky to get at this counter. My SkyMiles number, which had been included when I purchased the tickets and was on the digital boarding pass Delta sent me 24 hours before departure, was supplanted by a KLM Flying Blue number that I had never used. This mixup had the potential to cause significant problems.
Neither SkyPriority nor TSA Precheck were listed on my boarding pass. Fortunately, I still had the boarding pass with both labels on the FlyDelta app, so I was able to skirt through the airport.
The real trouble came days later, when I realized that KLM ended up crediting the flight to this mysterious Flying Blue number, rather than my SkyMiles number. It took a phone call to rectify the problem on my return flight, and a letter to the Delta technical support team was promptly answered with a promise to credit the miles for the outbound flight in 7 to 10 business days.
I’ll write more on this as it unfolds.
I spent some time at the Delta SkyClub Terminal 4 in JFK, which has been covered extensively and which is almost always too crowded to admire much, anyway. Thus, onward.
Why Delta chose a gate in the narrow middle of Terminal 4 to board a 747 is beyond me, but it was apparent to anyone trying to get past gate B24 that a huge aircraft was outside and that it needed to move as quickly as possible.
The boarding line stretched as far as I could see, at least to the next bend in the terminal building. That said, once boarding began the process unfurled fairly predictably, in a slightly modified rendition of the five zone procession that Delta uses for its own flights.
Down the gangway and onboard the 747 was the first place I encountered any KLM staff, easily recognizable in (very) Royal Blue naval-style uniforms.
Boarding was through the second door, into the foyer with the 747’s grand staircase.
Cabin and Seating
The Economy Comfort cabin on the 747 is a left turn out of the second door. The cabin is entirely private from the rest of the economy cabin, a real treat.
Even World Business Class passengers wouldn’t pass through, as used a passage on the other side of the aircraft. The dedicated flight attendant gave the mini-cabin a very premium feel.
Unique to KLM, the main galley is located ahead of the staircase. On almost any other 747 configuration, business class would be here and would stretch the entire width of the aircraft. In its place, a large galley takes up one side of the aircraft, and a unique 3-2 mini-cabin houses all the 747’s Economy Comfort seating.
When I first saw this seating configuration, I couldn’t imagine sitting next to the interior galley wall. In practice, the setup is very well executed. There’s enough space between the second seat and the wall to create a small passage, wide enough for most people to use as aisle access.
KLM’s 747 fleet was furbished in the late oughts, but the plane’s interior was no worse for the wear. The interior was spotless from floor to ceiling, and the carpet and seat fabric were complimentary blue and brown, with orange accents.
The seats themselves were wide, with full armrests, pitched 36 inches apart. Legroom was just enough so that my tall Dutch seat mate could pass without me having to stand.
Those familiar with Delta’s Comfort+ cabin will find KLM’s version familiar. In addition to additional seat pitch, the seats recline about 50 percent more than standard economy seats. The recline was impressive, sufficient for me to doze off comfortably for a few undisturbed hours during the flight.
Seat padding was thick and breathable, a welcome respite from the sticky leatherette seat covers increasingly favored by U.S. carriers.
The most consistently positive aspect of both KLM flights I took this month was the staff. I found KLM staff to be impeccably well trained, friendly and consistent in their service and general engagement.
I LOVE the blue naval coats with white lining and gold cuff rings. I also love the fact that the coat — the unifying component of the uniform — is worn by both men and women.
Flight attendants were always close at hand.
The amenities were the least impressive aspect of KLM’s transatlantic economy service. The cabin crew was extremely professional, the meals were good, but the whole experience seemed stripped down, sanitized and just stingy.
There would be no eyeshades handed out on this redeye flight. No chapstick. No socks. No earplugs.
All the perks one might expect on a daytime flight from New York to Portland, Oregon were dubiously and curiously absent from this otherwise exceptional Economy Comfort cabin.
Lavatories were kept clean throughout the flight but were bare bones 747. No lotion, cosmetics, dental kits or any other long-haul amenities were provided. The soap was nice, though.
The entertainment screens on this 747 were of an older generation, but they were sufficiently bright and large.
These screens weren’t responsive to touch. Rather, entertainment options were controlled using a standard remote control.
The entertainment selection was fair, but nothing impressive. There were a few summer releases on offer and a decent selection of Dutch movies.
One amenity that did impress was the complimentary headphones. Unlike most in-ear airplane headphones I’m used to using, these were comfortable and produced fairly good sound while blocking out a decent amount of ambient noise.
As with the vast majority of KLM’s long-haul fleet, there was no Wi-Fi installed on our 747.
Like the amenities, meal service on this flight was one and done. There was one drink service, meals-in-cart, and a follow around with coffee and tea.
Shortly after takeoff, flight attendants distributed moist towels. The towels KLM uses are nicer than most economy class wet wipes. There were also sizeable bottles of water. No printed menus were offered. Instead, a placard pushing duty free items. Yum.
I’m not entirely sure what orange sauce my beef was swimming in, but it made up for all the terrible things that happen to an economy meal. Rolls were warm and soft, and wine was served by the bottle. Overall, all the food I was served was of quality. Portions were well controlled. This wasn’t the most memorable or delicious economy meal I’ve had — that award goes to Air France, ironically the same company — but it was among the better ones.
There wasn’t any more proactive cabin service until just over an hour before landing, when small sandwiches were passed out. I did venture out once to explore the nooks and crannies of the 747 and found water and juice waiting in one of the galleys.
The absence of a snack service, or even a second drink service, was somewhat disappointing on such a long flight. It was even more troublesome on the 8-hour return flight I took on a more tightly packed 777.
Consider that Delta provides snack basket service to Comfort+ customers on the same route. Flight attendants on Delta’s New York-Amsterdam flights come through with drink carts repeatedly, and the trip is broken up by snack sandwich and ice cream service.
For such a heavily trafficked airport, I’m always surprised at the efficiency at Schipol airport.
Economy Comfort passengers disembarked immediately following World Business Class, meaning we were among the first 50 passengers up the jetway and into the terminal, making transfers a breeze.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t admitted into Lounge 52, the KLM Crown Lounge nearest my arrival gate. The agent was quite understanding and warm, however.
All-in it took about 10 minutes to transit passport control into the Schengen zone and made it to Lounge 25.
In a way, I felt like my KLM flight was a bit old-fashioned. That’s not necessarily an insult or a bad thing.
KLM’s excellent staff and well kept 747 delivered in all the fundamental ways an airline should. The aircraft’s interior was impeccably maintained. The seats were wide and comfortable by economy standards, while the tall ceilings and abundant nooks and crannies made everything feel less taxing than the crammed-in economy passage we’re becoming more used to.
Exceptional service, cushy seats and the roomy 747 were tempered, though, by an otherwise stingy and slimmed-down service. Delta, United, and others provide greater amenities to economy passengers on the same route, including amenity kits, mid-flight snack service and reliable wi-fi.
KLM’s slimmed down service was just the basics, albeit done very well. If the venerable Dutch airline is positioning itself to compete with bare-bones economy products like Norwegian and British Airways, the carrier is in an excellent position. It seems to have mitigated costs, designed an efficient replacement fleet program for the 747 and maintained morale among employees. That’s not an easy task by any means.
At a similar price, I’d gladly choose KLM over the likes of British Airways or Norwegian, and most Air France jets. Where Delta, United or Lufthansa Group compete, KLM’s limited internet and slim onboard offerings fall a hair short.