My 7 Favorite Airlines I Flew For The First Time In 2016

One of my big focuses of 2016 was reviewing as many new airlines as possible. Given that I’ve flown most of the world’s best first class products, this came primarily in the form of trying more business class products. Furthermore, with so many airlines having devalued their award charts, often the sweet spot for award redemptions is shifting from first class to business class.

At first I figured I’d miss products like Cathay Pacific first class, Emirates first class, Lufthansa first class, etc., which almost began to feel like second homes.

However, I’ve found it so enjoyable to try new airlines. In many ways, airlines reflect the cultures of their respective homes, so even if you’re not visiting a country, flying a country’s airline gives you a good taste of that destination. I’ve enjoyed flying new airlines so much, and my goal for 2017 is to review even more new airlines than I did this year.

With that out of the way, I figured it would be fun to reflect on the airlines I flew this year, and specifically the seven products that delighted me most in 2016. I’m not using any sort of specific scale to judge, but rather I’m approaching this as follows:

  • It has to be a product I flew for the first time in 2016
  • It’s not necessarily which airline was the best in absolute terms, but rather which product delighted me most, which is a combination of the absolute quality of the product, and how it performed compared to my expectations
  • Even from reading my past reports I don’t expect everyone to agree with my rankings, but I still thought it would be fun to reflect

Here are the seven airline products that delighted me most in 2016, roughly in order:

7. Japan Airlines business class

While I’ve flown Japan Airlines first class many times before, this year I finally had the chance to experience JAL’s Apex Suite business class product. The window seats in this configuration are incredible, and extremely private.

I loved Japan Airlines business class — the food was great, the service was typical Japanese excellence, and the wifi is reasonably priced and fast. A window seat in this configuration has to be one of the best ways to fly across the Pacific.

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6. Air Astana business class

If you asked me a year ago what Air Astana was, I would have given you a blank stare. Yes, I knew they were based in Kazakhstan, but that’s about it.

Well, a few months ago I flew them from Seoul Incheon to Almaty to Astana to London, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself on a solid airline. Air Astana’s 767s are the newest of any airline in the world, and they have a very nice business class product on them.

The service was generally friendly, food good, and the airline had some quirk factor that I really liked. When you consider how much aviation has suffered in Kazakhstan in the past, what Air Astana has done in the past decade is remarkable. I highly recommend flying with them.

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5. Xiamen Air business class

This year I had the chance to try two Chinese airlines for the first time. Earlier in the year I flew Hainan Airlines from Los Angeles to Changsha and back, and was very impressed by the quality of service, food, etc. They’re the only Skytrax 5-star airline based in China.

So why am I putting Xiamen Air on the list, when Hainan is arguably just as good? Because Hainan is a widely praised airline, while Xiamen Air doesn’t seem to get any credit. Prior to flying them people didn’t have much to say about them one way or another.

While Xiamen Air “only” has fully flat forward facing seats, everything else about the product is great. They offer pajamas, free wifi, have top notch catering, and exceptional service. So while Hainan and Xiamen are generally on the same level, I think Xiamen Air deserves the award in this case, since I came in with much lower expectations than on Hainan.

Xiamen Air now has 787-9 aircraft with reverse herringbone seats, which will hands down mean that they have China’s best business class product.

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4. Aeroflot business class

I had low expectations leading up to my Aeroflot flight from Los Angeles to Moscow. For whatever reason, most people seem to have a negative impression of the airline, without knowing much about it. Well, that’s why I was so delighted by my flight with them — they have pretty standard fully flat seats, but the service and food on the flight really stood out.

The flight attendants were charming and poised. The food was tasty. Best of all, transiting Moscow Airport is easy, and Aeroflot has a legitimate business class product on intra-Europe flights, unlike most other airlines in Europe, so they’re great if you’re connecting as well.

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3. Oman Air business class

Oman is probably my favorite country in the Gulf region, and they have an airline they should be very proud of. Several of their planes feature a business class product that feels more like international first class from a decade ago, while other planes they have feature Apex Suites in business class.

Oman Air serves great Omani cuisine, and there’s something about their product that feels so exotic. They consistently offer incredible business class fares, so you should be able to fly them from Europe to Asia via Muscat for under $1,500 roundtrip.

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2. Air Serbia business class

I can’t help but smile when I think back to my Air Serbia flight between Belgrade and New York. Air Serbia has herringbone seats which are perfectly fine, though it’s the soft product that sets them apart. The crew was so professional and personable, the food was phenomenal, and I loved how Serbian the whole experience felt, down to the selection of Serbian wine.

Air Serbia also offers dine on demand and turndown service, so overall the experience feels more like first class than business class, in my opinion. I’m so happy that they finally offer longhaul flights to the U.S. Best of all, redeeming Etihad Guest miles for that flight is a great value.

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1. Garuda Indonesia first class

I flew Garuda Indonesia for the first time this month. I came in with high expectations, and even so, they blew me away. Garuda Indonesia first class is definitely one of the top three first class products in the world, and I might even rank them as having the top first class product.

Garuda Indonesia has fully enclosed suites in first class, which in and of themselves aren’t that exceptional. However, the crews are incredible, the food delicious, they offer complimentary wifi for first class passengers, etc. Their first class product certainly lives up to the hype.

But I really can’t emphasize enough how it’s the people that make the difference. Every single Garuda Indonesia employee I interacted with had an infectious smile that couldn’t help but put me in a good mood right away (not that it’s really possible to be in a bad mood in Garuda first class).

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Bottom line

As I reflect on the airlines I’ve flown in 2016, I’ve come to realize that the things that really make an airline stand out are friendly and authentic service and some local “flair.” I’m so fortunate to travel as much as I do, and I’ve really enjoyed being able to fly new airlines to new countries. I can’t wait to do more of it in 2017, and appreciate all the support and ideas you guys provide.

Do you have any favorite airlines you tried in 2016?

About lucky

Ben Schlappig (aka Lucky) is a travel consultant, blogger, and avid points collector. He travels about 400,000 miles a year, primarily using miles and points to fund his first class experiences. He chronicles his adventures, along with industry news, here at One Mile At A Time.

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Comments

  1. I flew Condor Business Class from Frankfurt to the Seychelles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4850UPfIAo). I did not expect a lot (Condor is part of the Thomas Cook group), but I was pleasantly surprised by the overall experience and service, especially the food (some of the best I ever got on a plane). You should definitely try them out some day and put them on your bucket list of lesser known airlines that you want to fly with !

  2. Lucky – will you do a yearly wrap up? For example:

    Total miles flown
    Total points spent
    Total points earned
    Total cash spent on flights
    Total cash spent on hotels
    Best/Worst redemptions

    It may help put some perspective on the “points and miles travel is free” comments.

  3. I just left Oman, and it is my new favorite country. It is cleaner than Singapore and amazingly well put together. People were so nice. I am going to go out of my way to fly on Oman Air.

  4. Benjamin: I would like to see you on some of the Malaysian flights. You get what I mean. Oh sweet Jesus, wouldn’t that be FUN?

  5. Oman looks very expensive. I was just pricing out places to stay on airbnb and they weren’t cheapish. It’s fairly expensive (compared to other third world countries)

  6. @Credit: Oman, a third world country? Are you serious?! Evidently, you haven’t seen much of this world or know anything about Oman hahaha

  7. Because of you and this hobby I was able to fly LH F for my first international flight ever. I’ve been following you for I think 4 or 5 years now and watching you has always inspired me to keep pushing for more even if I’m not in the same financial position. I can’t thank you enough and can’t wait to see what you have up next in 2017.

  8. >Oman, a third world country? Are you serious?!

    I’m not the one you’re replying to, but yes – it’s a third world country. In terms of Human Development Index, it shares its ranking with Romania and Uruguay, which isn’t terrible as such.

    Human rights, freedom and everything we use to consider a society ‘civilized’, is where the country fails.

    It places 120 on the Human Freedom Index (2016) of 159 countries surveyed, below such places as Senegal and Mozambique. Homosexuality is an imprisonable offense (3 years). And so on.

  9. Guyguyguy – how does Oman compare to other ME countries like UAE and Qatar in terms of development?

    Credit – i dont think Oman is a 3rd world country?!

  10. I know a few travelers. None of them have mentioned oman. First world countries are not “unknown”.

    I got interested in oman after reading up about it in the comments in this blog. Never heard oman mentioned in the same breath as Dubai or Abu Dhabi or Qatar.

    What is it main source of income?

  11. Out of sixty countries I’ve visited around the world, Oman definitely ranks my top three. It has strong cultural presence but laid-back and relaxed, very friendly people, beautiful natural scenes from pristine beaches to mountain oasis, lush tropical-like jungle to untouched deserts. The only complaint is it has become a very expensive country to travel. Quite different from any other neighboring countries.

    Who cares if it’s first country or third country? It’s one of few countries in the world I felt like every local I interact to seem to enjoy their life – while not as financially rich as UAE or Qatar, an average Omani does have quite high standard of living in the region and poverty is almost non-existent.

  12. @William Y – FYI, the Sultan/ Ruler of Oman is gay. Everybody knows it, it is the the world’s biggest secret, FYI. There’s a reason everything is immaculate there and all the royal guards, etc are hot. Though homosexuality is technically illegal, there’s an incredibly vibrant gay scene in Oman.

  13. @Dan +1

    And, what were the worst ones? Smoking cockpits, bad champagne, powdered cappuccinos, broken seats…somehow, I recall your difficult flights as much as your fantastic ones.

  14. Can we imply that your “business class is all about hard product” rule is not applying any longer, since the JAL apex suite is in the last position and yFinnair a350 is not even in the list?

  15. I did not fly all of them. However, Air Serbia is my favorite. I bought an economy seat for $400, r/t JFK-BEG and I got upgraded for free to an amazing business class. It’s not just because of the ‘free upgrade’ that I got, their service is really good.

  16. Really great year of reviews. I feel like all the new airline reviews were a breath of fresh air in an otherwise increasingly obnoxious travel blog atmosphere.

  17. @Lucky Ever considered of trying out Philippine Airlines? Palawan and Cebu are definitely worth a visit in the Philippines. I’ve had some reviews of Philippine Airlines online…but none to recent or as detailed as your reviews. It would be nice to see what you think of it…and it’ll give you another new airline to try 🙂

  18. @ Marvin D — They’re on my list, though in the near future hoping to fly them from New York to Vancouver. 🙂

  19. @Lucky Great! Looking forward to your review. They just rolled out an updated true lie flat hard product so it’ll be interesting to see which one you end up on. Most of their fleet is sadly Angle lie flat seats…oh well. NY – Vancouver is an interesting route to fly them…they used to, or probably still do, YVR-LAS. They’re not the best product out there but I’ve read some reviews on the YVR-LAS that has them beating everyone else since they offer a meal and good value for this route. 🙂

    Looking forward to what you think of it. 🙂 But yes, definitely have a true visit to the Philippines in the future…it’s definitely worth a visit 🙂

  20. Lucky,
    Myself and several other readers of yours want to know when you will visit Israel. Several times now you’ve either booked and the cancelled or posted saying you’d go and then bail. I get that this is your blog and as an individual you’re free to do as you choose. Just seems you have some strong objection to going but don’t want to come out and say as much. If you truly have some ethnic connection to our people, understand the impact a trip by you may have as anti-Semitic BDS and UN resolutions are increasing taking form each and every day. We need your support.

  21. Hi Lucky,
    Keep up the great work, your reviews are great and inspiring. I have to say, the China Eastern smoking incident was a particular highlight for me, reading from afar, probably less so for you

  22. Flying Finnair for the first time was the highlight of my flying this year. Local flavours – marimekko, iitala – and warm service made it unforgettable and I’ve already planned a return trip to Finland. Unfortunately their HKG flight is operated by HKG-based crew and it was an inferior experience – one crew member I’m particular belonged in a Hong Kong Cafe barking at customers to hurry up, rather than in business class on finnair.

  23. I just returned from a EU-BKK trip with Oman Air and my experience is a kind of miss and hit. While the hard product is just great (the window J suites makes you feel like In F), the onboard soft product is incosistent – very much depending on the crew ( maybe just a coincidence, but many Philipinos working there who are great, but when you have Omani crew, you will hardly receive any attention. Food acceptable, but nothing you will write home about. And the ground experience in MCT is just a crap. I would with any doubt compare it to Ryanair Bergamo, Frankfurt Hahn or Gerona. Hopefuly it will improve with the new terminal, but we will see – the lack of the customer experience orientation is obviously in the people, not only the infrastracture. From the first to the last person in the airport – they just dont care. Anyway Lucky is right that the deals are sometimes quite good.

  24. i’m glad air astana has improved. i took it in 2008 and although the hard product was not bad, it was (at the time) famous for being late. i think my flight was delayed for 2 hrs without any announcements nor explanations from the crew LOL. i spoke to a businessman who flew with them quite a lot, and he said a 4-hour wait time is not unheard of.

    oh and whoever said freedom, homosexuality bla bla bla are key indicators to being classified as a 1st world country, by your standards then singapore is a 3rd world country then 😀

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