Thursday, 30 April 2009

A Class Beyond First: Zurich To Manchester - SWISS International Airlines

Right, you thought that was it then, didn’t you? Well, you’d be wrong, because there is a last little bit to add to the SWISS First tale. Had we been originating in Zurich, or continuing again in First, we would have enjoyed limousine transfers to our aircraft. However, as we were inbound to Zurich and connecting on to Manchester in Business, there’d be no limousine. We would however have access to the SWISS First Class Lounge to await our onward connection, and our (ironically, Japanese) pusher meeting us off the Tokyo flight whisked us to the automated transit and then on to the lounge with speed.

The lounge is very swish in a Vorsprung durch Technik kind of way, though the Gummi Bears in carefully-aligned cocktail glasses are a charmingly unsuccessful attempt at edge-softening. At 4pm, the lounge was very busy in both the resting and dining areas. There’s a smallish buffet of canapés combined with the self-service bar offering a wide selection of premium wines, spirits, beers and champagne, as well as juices and soft drinks.

The bathrooms are beautifully fitted, spotlessly clean and each loo cubicle includes an immensely handy coat hanger – all of which combine to shame those of the Galleries Lounges and Concorde Club Room at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

Unlike the Concorde Room, however, it is a far from relaxing place – obviously better than the main terminal outside – but hardly a haven of peace and tranquillity. Surprisingly, free WiFi is only available for thirty minutes per visit, by means of an access code issued by Reception. For a First Class Lounge, this seems wildly stingy.

Not that we have much opportunity to feel short-changed by the WiFi, as the commendably short minimum connection times at Zurich mean that it’s not long before our next pusher appears to trundle us to the Manchester gate.

And it’s here that the incalculable luxury of space that First Class affords becomes a distant memory, as the scrum awaiting the boarding announcement of this Friday evening A320 service has to be negotiated to arrive at the desk. The customarily short wait to pre-board past, we take our seats on board with the centre seat between us blocked as per SWISS’ European Business Class policy. Even so, the aircraft is absolutely packed and it’s a hard landing after the prairie-like space of the A340.

The flight is, at least, mercifully short and the privations of passenger proximity accordingly not too unbearable. Service commences quickly with a hot meal, nicely presented and, in the case of the main course chicken breast and ravioli on a bed of mixed roast vegetables, is of far higher quality than similar British Airways Club Europe catering.

However, there was no bar or indeed any kind of drinks service before or with the meal. I can’t eat without at least a glass of water, so this was a bit uncomfortable. At least when the bar did come, it was full-bottle service and champagne was offered pro-actively.

The side salad was also largely forgettable and that curious continental concept of a lump of cheese but no biscuit upon which to place it, seemed to have found its way into SWISS menu-planning. A bread roll would have been too filling.

The leather seat was comfortable enough and the service friendly, if hurried, but on balance I’d say that SWISS European Business Class was, on this occasion, less clearly impressive against its competitor peers than its longhaul First Class big brother. That said, it was perfectly acceptable and I’d not be afraid to fly SWISS within Europe again – and the priority bag tagging even worked at Manchester.

Additional Verdict for SWISS European Business Class: 7.5/10. It is, of course, more difficult to shine on short haul sectors, but the basics of the SWISS service were there and it was a pleasant enough hop, despite the crowds on board. There were glimpses of SWISS attention to detail, like the mini chocolate bars handed out after dinner, however overall the meal-before-drinks service and not wholly-successful dinner itself mean that, personally, I’d still give BA the edge with their Club Europe.

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