Air Serbia Business Class London-Belgrade – Europe’s Largest Underdog Airline?
Air Serbia, or JAT Airways as the airline used to be called, has its roots almost a century back and acted as Yugoslavia’s national airline for several decades. After Yugoslavia’s dissolution, JAT became the largest airline in the republic of Serbia. In later years, the airline has become famous for offering a fairly shabby product, both concerning hardware and service.
On August 1st, it became clear that the Abu Dhabi based company, Etihad, had purchased 49 percent of the owner share of JAT, as well as full authority over the airline for a five year period. At the same time, a comprehensive review of the airline was initiated, close to 300 people were let go and 100 new flight attendants were recruited and sent to Abu Dhabi to train with Etihad.
In October, it was announced that JAT would change their name to Air Serbia and take on an entirely new business profile, including a new a design and colour combination of blue, red, and white. The existing Boeing 737 aircraft will be exchanged for the new Airbus A319, Airbus A319LR, and Airbus A320. This is to be done during the late Spring of 2014. The current Boeing 737 aircraft are to be used for charter flights and later taken out of service completely. An order has been put in for 10 Airbus A320 Neo, which will be delivered between the years 2018 and 2020.
At BusinessClass, we became very interested in the changes happening within the old JAT, especially as they fly to a number of European destinations. We therefore booked a business class ticket between London and Belgrade.
At the Airport
Air Serbia has a daily flight between London Heathrow and Belgrade, with a time of departure of 1.30pm. I arrived at Heathrow terminal 4 at around 10am in order to be there as check-in opened.
Exactly three hours before departure, check-in opened, with a total three counters, two for economy class and one for business class. I was immediately checked in at the business counter by a young woman. I do not know if they were employed by Air Serbia, but everyone on the staff seemed to speak Serbian.
I travelled with only hand luggage, two rather big bags, but this was not a problem, as, according to the rules, two pieces of hand luggage are allowed on business class. They both received a red tag that read “approved baggage”. A window seat on the first row was arranged for me before the young woman instructed me as to which lounge I could use, a confirmation of exactly what I had hoped for.
As a business class passenger I was able to use the fast track at security control and then went directly to the lounge. Air Serbia uses Etihad’s lounge and this was the reason behind my early arrival at the airport. This was my fourth visit to an Etihad lounge, and based on my previous visits, my expectations were rather high.
The lounge was one floor beneath the transit hall. There were two women dressed in light blue welcoming guests at the entrance. There were cloakrooms to the side where you could leave coats and larger hand luggage in lockers. I was then asked if this was my first visit, as it was, I was taken on a short tour before I was wished a pleasant stay.
Etihad’s lounge in London truly is fantastic. It is very modern with an elegant decor. It has everything you could wish for when it comes to facilities, including a spa with a 15 minute free massage, a manned bar, a large business centre, and an à la carte restaurant with table service.
There were not many people in the lounge when I arrived. A hostess quickly came by and asked me if I wanted anything to drink, and within a minute or two there was a glass of champagne at my table. She told me that they were starting to remove the breakfast dishes so I only had a couple of minutes if I wanted anything. Lunch was to be served at around noon. I had already had breakfast so I booked a massage at the Six Senses Spa just around the corner. As there were so few passengers, I had no problem getting a slot thirty minutes later for a 15 minute back and neck massage. The masseuse was extremely good and very professional.
Relaxed after the massage, and with 90 minutes remaining, I went to the à la carte restaurant for lunch. A waitress quickly arrived at my table with the menu, which included a starter, three choices of main course and dessert. There was also an extensive buffet with several side dishes, salads, Arabic meze, and a cheese platter. I ordered lamb biryani to eat, followed by a dessert of rice pudding and fresh berries. Alongside this, I had a glass of red wine. There were two varieties to choose from and I decided to go with the Bordeaux wine. The main dish, the biryani, tasted great and was served with some kind of sauce and pita bread. I was offered a further replenishment of my wine, and subsequently, coffee and dessert. Everything tasted splendid. The self serve buffet around the corner was also very extensive.
There were now substantially more visitors in the lounge, in time for the 2pm departure to Abu Dhabi. The screen for Belgrade read, “Go to gate”, but also notified us that the flight would be a few minutes delayed. I asked at reception when they felt it was time to leave for the gate, and they informed me that I could sit down and wait for them to personally let me know when it was time to board. In the end I chose to leave the lounge any way to stretch my legs, but what a great service.
All in all, Etihad’s lounge is topnotch. It is not really that big, but it has everything you need with very high standards on the most part, and excellent service all around. When it comes to service and facilities, I would say it is up to the standard of, for example, British Airway’s first class lounges at Heathrow.
Boarding and First Impressions
Boarding started at 1.15pm, at gate 17, fifteen minutes prior to the scheduled departure time, with priority boarding granted to business class passengers. To my disappointment I could see a white Boeing 737 outside of the window, and not one of Air Serbia’s new Airbus A319. Apparently there had been a change of aircraft in the morning.
Two people greeted me at the entrance, one young stewardess and a middle-aged male purser, both of whom were very courteous and offered to help me with my hand luggage. I found my seat just around the corner, 01F. As I sat in the front row, all hand luggage was to be placed in the overhead compartment as usual. To my surprise, it turned out that even this older Boeing 737 aircraft had proper business seats, not the nice modern ones found on the Airbus A319, but still far beyond what is standard in Europe. The seats were comparable to those offered in first class on a lot of domestic flights in the USA. On the seat was a red pillow as well as a heavy dark blue blanket.
Shortly after, the purser came by and asked if he could get me something to drink. I was offered water, orange juice, or champagne. It would, of coarse, have to be a glass of bubbly. I also received a warm towel on a small wooden plate. The champagne being served was, G.H. Mumm Cordon Rouge, not one of the better and more expensive varieties, but still a very positive gesture to be offered champagne before departure within Europe. Based on reports from the Internet, they apparently also serve Veuve Cliquot on board. I was also offered newspapers and a small selection of magazines, mostly British and Serbian.
We left the gate at 1.45pm, fifteen minutes after the scheduled time. The flight time to Belgrade was estimated to be 2 hours and 25 minutes.
The Boeing 737 had two rows of business class in a 2-2 configuration, which resulted in a total of eight seats. This flight had four passengers in business class and the check-in staff did well in getting us each a pair of seats. On board were proper business seats, not what is usually the case within Europe, with three seats across and a blocked middle seat. The seat was upholstered in dark grey leather, maybe not the most modern design, and overall the cabin felt rather old and worn, although the seats were actually quite comfortable.
The seat offered a couple more centimetres of legroom than economy class, but above all, it was much wider and more spacious.
It was, of course, sad that I never got the chance to try the new seat on the Airbus A319, which looks very modern and fresh, with light grey upholstery and other details in white, red, and blue. This is the same colour combination as the new company logo, as well as the uniforms the staff are dressed in. Seeing as the Boeing 737 aircraft are being phased out from regular service, aircraft switches such as this one should be minimised in in the coming months.
On flights over two hours, business class offers the chance to borrow an iPad loaded with four films, 20 TV programmes, 50 music albums, and 12 games. The iPad comes with noise-cancelling headphones. I did not, however, test this during the flight.
There were also newspapers and magazines available in business class, as well as Air Serbia’s flight magazine – an interesting issue featuring an interview with the 25-year-old who developed Air Serbia’s new image and brand, as well as a visit to a Serbian vineyard where some of the wines on board were produced.
Air Serbia has four different dining concepts in business class, each depending on the flight time. On flights up to one hour, they serve canapés with drinks. On flights between one and three hours, they offer “à la carte dining”, with a more extensive choice on flights over two hours. Finally, on flights over three hours, three different main courses offered.
The food and drink options were presented in a professional white and red menu, with contents in English and Serbian. On this flight to Belgrade, they offered a three-course lunch with a cocktail and nuts, an appetiser, two choices of main courses, and dessert.
The drinks list was also quite good considering it was on an inter-European flight, with champagne, two white wines, two red wines, Serbian and international beers, and different types liquor, including Serbian cognac. The wine list consisted of a Serbian wine and an international wine, each in both red and white. There was also the standard range of soft drinks and juices.
After departure, service started with a cocktail service and I ordered a gin and tonic. The table of the seat next to me was utilised to create more space and was therefore covered with a white tablecloth before the aperitif was served alongside a bowl of warm nuts.
A couple of minutes later the purser returned, picked up the menu and asked me if I had decided what I would like to eat. I was somewhat unsure of which of the two main courses to go for, but before I could give an answer, the purser spontaneously said, “but we can make it so that you can try both of them, if you’re interested?”. Somewhat surprised by the suggestion, I ended up agreeing to his offer.
A white tablecloth was placed on my table as well, and then came the dinner tray with the first main course, along with two pieces of bread. The starter was a shrimp cocktail which also had some pieces of smoked salmon in it. The main course was, ‘Punjene paprika’, a speciality in many Balkan and Eastern European countries, consisting of stuffed peppers. In this case the peppars were filled with with ground beef, lamb and a dill sauce. The dish tasted superb and I was enraptured by the taste. Even though I had some more food to come, I finished nearly everything on the plate.
I ordered a glass of red wine to go with my meal. I had originally thought about trying the Serbian wine seeing as we were on a Serbian airline, but the purser informed me that the Serbian wine was quite sweet and instead recommended that I take the Chilean wine as it was better suited to the main course. I followed his recommendation.
The tray was removed and a few minutes later the second main course arrived, a chicken dish with potato purée and mushroom sauce. This was also very nice, although it seemed more like a traditional in-flight meal.
Additional bread was offered followed by more wine. The purser also asked if I was interested in trying the Serbian wine, and arranged a small wine tasting. It turned out that he was right, in that the Serbian wine was much sweeter and was better suited as a dessert wine. My initial glass was removed and we agreed that I would have a glass of the Serbian wine with dessert.
Eventually, my second tray was removed and it was time for dessert. There were two choices, a chocolate dessert and a lemon mousse dessert, and for some reason both ended up on my table. To be honest, there is not a lot I can say, they were both delicious. As previously agreed, I also received a glass of the Serbian red wine. Finally, I ordered a cup of black coffee which was served with a small piece of chocolate. I looked through the drinks list and saw that they had Chivas Regal whisky on board, so I ordered a glass to round off this superb meal. I was later offered refills of coffee, wine and whisky.
Overall, the meal was completely satisfying, both food and drink were very good and the whole arrangement was close to perfect. All drinks were served from large bottles, both the different wines and the liquors, and in most cases, at my seat. This too deserves a big thumbs up.
The service on board can not be described as anything but fantastic, and the male purser, especially, made a great impression. The approach was personal, yet proper and courteous, and I was consistently referred to as Sir (though not by name). The purser also spoke excellent English and we conversed on a fairly high level without any problems whatsoever.
The young woman who also worked in business class spent the most of her time in the galley preparing the food. She was also very pleasant and polite, but somewhat coy when she helped serve drinks later on.
Otherwise, the service included everything I appreciate with regards to a good premium product – elegance, finesse, attention to detail, and engagement. It felt as though Etihad had somewhat of an influence in developing the new service concept. There were a number of aspects which I recognised to be similar on flights I took with Etihad just a couple of months earlier, and it is indeed official that Etihad helped train the cabin staff. As I said before, there was nothing wrong with the engagement and spontaneity, though it almost got a little too enthusiastic at times.
I do not know if I was just lucky when it came to the staff, or if Etihad really did wonders with the old JAT, an airline who a number of people discouraged me from using. On the contrary, this was one of the best European business experiences I have had for several years. The trip was also completely incognito, the staff had no knowledge that they were being reviewed.
Shortly before 5pm, we began to descend towards Belgrade. During the approach, I was offered a glass of water and a hot towel, again served on the small wooden plate used previously on the flight. Before landing, the purser came by to say goodbye and thanked all passengers in business class.
At 5.15pm, we landed at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport. Despite a slightly late departure from London, we landed only five minutes behind schedule. After the aircraft parked, one of the flight attendants stood in the aisle between Business and Economy, blocking it, so we in business class could pick up our things and get off first. Very professional. At the door, I was once again thanked by the enthusiastic purser.
I had a connecting flight later in the evening. Changing flights at Belgrade airport is simple but somewhat boring, however, there is a business lounge which is quite nice.
This was one of the best business experiences I have had in Europe for many years. I do not know if I was just lucky, or if Etihad have done wonders with the old JAT. Really good from beginning to end and everything from food and drinks to the service. The only thing I can think of to improve the experience was if they used an Airbus A319 as was planned. JAT using Etihad’s lounges are an additionally bonus.