Flying in Coach – A Quick Review of Three Airlines

I’m a luxury guy and try to leverage my miles and upgrades whenever I can. Sadly this is not often enough and frequently I find myself flying in economy. It’s not the end of the world though; many airlines have great coach offerings and flying isn’t just bearable, it is sometimes even pleasurable. It’s a grab bag though as you’ll see in this review of some of the best and, well, not the best economy class travels I’ve had recently.

South African Airways

1. South African Airways

Comfort – I wasn’t exactly thrilled the first time I set foot on a South African Airways flight. Not because of the airline, but because I knew I had in front of me about 15 hours of air travel alone. I love South Africa, I love it dearly, but it’s somewhat far away from the East Coast of the United States. The idea of spending so much time in economy class wasn’t something I relished. Somehow contorting my 6’2” frame into a relatively teeny tiny seat can be difficult at times and I couldn’t imagine 15 hours of that agony. But what I didn’t take into account was 1) SAA realizes their flights are long and 2) they really try hard to account for this extreme flight time.

The first thing that impressed me was the small amenity pouch on my seat. Usually reserved for Business class passengers, the packets include eyemasks, earplugs and a toothbrush/toothpaste. It may not seem like a lot, but these special touches are enough to make a long flight much more bearable. Throughout the flight I was impressed with the crew attention to my comfort and well-being. Unlike the surly flight attendants on some other airlines, the SAA crew knew I’d rather not be on a plane for 15 hours and tried to help. That makes a huge difference in the overall comfort of the flight.

Food/Entertainment – I wasn’t overly impressed or dismayed by the food offerings. Everything was decent, they fed us often enough and during the designated ‘sleep’ times they made sure that snacks and drinks were available. The entertainment system was great with plenty of movies and TV shows to keep me amused during the super long flight. I’m not always impressed by the entertainment options on certain airlines, so it was nice to see.

Overall Impression – I have now flown three long haul legs on SAA in economy and so far I have no complaints. As I mentioned before, the attitude of the crew is a huge reason for this. Instead of fake smiles plastered on the flight attendants of many U.S.-based airlines, they were actually nice people who tried to help out when they could. I think everyone, from crew to passengers realized that we were all going to be locked in a small metal tube for a long time and that it’s only by working together that we’d survive with our sanity intact. The little touches, from amenity pouches to great service helped further this underlying social contract and ultimately is what makes flying with SAA a pleasure.


2. Scandinavian Airlines

Comfort – The universe depends on yin and yang, and I’m pretty sure that’s why Scandinavian Airlines exists; to balance out the good airlines. Entering the aircraft for the first time I was not impressed, but that didn’t necessarily surprise me. It was what it was, a standard plane with the standard fittings. Comfort though suffered throughout the flight. For some reason the pilot assumed he was flying rare orchids, which could be the only reason why the cabin was kept at a hot, stifling temperature for the duration of the flight. Instead of being able to sleep en route to Copenhagen, I sat there drenched in sweat praying for any waft of air. I wasn’t alone either; passengers all around me were fanning themselves, the crew oblivious to our predicament. It was unpleasant, uncomfortable and unnecessary.

Food/Entertainment – This is where I got a little pissy. I was on a transatlantic flight of eight hours and yet I was granted only one beverage for free. After my meal I asked for another Diet Coke and was told that I had to pay for it. Shocked might be a good word to use for how I felt, but even that is understated. I wasn’t on Ryan Air, I was on a real airline, providing a long flight across an ocean and still I couldn’t get an additional soft drink. Add to that mediocre food and equally understated crew members and the experience was lacking to say the least. On-board entertainment was fine, nothing impressive and nothing really worth mentioning.

Overall Impression – This was not a pleasurable flying experience for me, as you can probably tell. It wasn’t a fluke either, the return trip was just as uncomfortable as the outbound journey. If you have any choice at all be sure to avoid what is a very mediocre airline.


Photo courtesy of Austrian Airlines’ Flickr stream

3. Austrian Airlines

Comfort – I last flew Austrian Airlines about a decade ago and didn’t have a good experience. The flight attendants were impossibly rude and the planes were out of date and uncomfortable. I was prepared to hate them again but despite my predisposition I was surprised to find myself enjoying the trip. I was on newly updated 767-300 and all I can say is that they’ve done a great job modernizing the fleet. The business class product looked amazing, but in coach the ride was comfy as well. The pitch was adequate, seats fine and crew friendly. In fact a flight attendant moved me to a seat with more legroom without any begging on my part. I guess the last ten years have been good to them because everything was different in the very best way possible.

Food/Entertainment – Austrian is doing something a few other airlines are attempting and it’s about time. Rather than trying to serve overly fussy food that never translates well to plane travel they offer guests more homey food that doesn’t taste bad. A hamburger steak with potatoes au gratin for dinner and a Panini as a snack before we landed were both perfect inflight meals. The entertainment system is what impressed me the most though. Instead of the standard monitors with touch screens that aren’t responsive, they have installed tablets in every seat. The result is fantastic screen resolution and clarity and a touch screen capability that is superb. These units are also lighter, which means the airlines save money. A win-win for everyone, I guess.

Overall Impression – As I said, I was prepared to hate my experience but left the aircraft content and happy. There must have been certain institutional changes because everything was different from the last time I flew them. Crew hospitality, food and entertainment all scored high and now, finally, I can recommend them without hesitation.

What airline is your favorite for economy class comfort?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

7 thoughts on “Flying in Coach – A Quick Review of Three Airlines”

  1. I’d have to say british airways. But that’s just probably because I’m an anglophile.

  2. Haven’t flown any of those airlines. Cathay Pacific was decent in coach, though the 22+ hrs on the plane ruined that. And I seem to recall Korean Air being pretty good. Iceland Air seemed a little cramped, but not terrible.

  3. Aer Lingus, hands down. The coach legroom is silly generous, the very tasty food keeps coming regularly plus snacks, and their blankets are beat by none. I now have 2 in my closet. The attendants are as friendly as can be and continuously make sure you have all you need. And I’m not Irish!

  4. I’m going to be flying South African between South Africa and Zambia next May. I hope the SAA cabin crew on the short flights are as nice as they are on the long ones.

  5. Nice reviews! I haven’t flown any of those airlines but thanks for the heads up. I like your writing style too.
    I recently wrote a review of Aeroflot. Surprisingly, they are pretty good as well!

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