Chris Barnett on Business Travel
Tapping Into TAP's Transatlantic Revival
Thursday, August 31, 2017 -- For most of its 72-year history, TAP Air Portugal was a quiet, government-owned flag carrier that linked far-flung colonies with the homeland and wooed vacationers with Portugal's sunny cities and tasty food and wines. But when Portugal and the other PIGS--Italy, Greece and Spain--descended into financial chaos, TAP--and its North American presence--withered.

In the last 24 months, however, TAP has been engineering a sprightly revival. The airline is once again flying to its Lisbon hub from five North American gateways: New York/Kennedy, Newark, Boston, Miami and Toronto. It has ordered dozens of new long-range Airbus jets and retrofitted existing transatlantic widebodies with a radically upgraded business class. What's more, TAP is now 50 percent privately owned and 100 percent entrepreneurial.

What happened? David Neeleman, the visionary who created JetBlue Airways and then launched Azul Brazilian Airlines.

Two years ago, Neeleman led an investor group that eventually purchased 45 percent of TAP. Employees received five percent of the carrier while the government retained a 50 percent share. Neeleman was given carte blanche to create a new flight plan to get TAP back on the global route map and back to top of mind of U.S. business travelers looking for a reliable airline with a calm, efficient hub serving points throughout Europe and Africa.

Neeleman has promised TAP will have a fleet of brand new and totally refurbished planes by 2020 to further broaden the Portuguese carrier's penetration into North America. In fact, TAP is the launch customer for the widebody Airbus A330-900neo jet. It debuts next year and the aircraft would be ideal for a Chicago-to-Lisbon route and maybe even a return to the West Coast. TAP also is buying new Airbus A321LRs, a narrowbody jet that could serve "long, thin" routes to Lisbon from secondary North American cities such as Montreal, Hartford, Providence and Baltimore. Neeleman predicts TAP's North Atlantic passenger traffic, which doubled in the last 12 months, will double again in a few years.

TAP's revival can be partially attributed to the return of the free stopover, a time-honored airline gimmick. It was launched with a scheme that allows transatlantic flyers to spend three days in Lisbon or Porto and receive hotel discounts and other nice perks. Starting in September, the free stopover gets extended to five days. The program helps TAP pitch itself and its Lisbon hub as flexible and fairly priced alternatives to the megahubs and megacarriers in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

Some business travelers prefer TAP's "old school ways." Marco Costa, the owner and president of Southern California's Portugal Imports, says he could fly United Airlines all the way to Lisbon from LAX. But he's annoyed by United's "nickel and diming and uncomfortable seats." Instead, he now flies United to Newark and connects there to Lisbon nonstops from TAP.

"It just treats me better," he says. "There are comfortable seats and good meals, even in coach." Plus, he can still earn and burn United MileagePlus miles when he flies on TAP.

Joao Santos, a vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, has been a TAP loyalist for 20 years. He sees "big improvements, more pleasant experiences, huge differences" since Neeleman's team took control. Santos particularly likes the lie-flat beds in the new business class and the 11:30 p.m. departure from Kennedy. "I can get a good five hours sleep on the six-hour flight," he says.

Santos also takes advantage of the Lisbon stopover and the "much more attractive and competitive pricing" to onward cities such as Zurich, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. "It's not just the sum of two tickets anymore. TAP's now paying attention to the small, important details for the frequent business traveler."

But there's still a ways to go, Santos adds. TAP recently opened a sleek, spacious business class lounge with showers and creative dining at Lisbon's Humberto Delgado Airport. At Kennedy, however, TAP flies from Terminal 5 and relies on the tired, disorganized Airspace lounge. There's "plenty of room for improvement" there, Santos says.

I recently flew TAP's business class from Miami to Lisbon and found it a pleasant blend of old and new experiences. The Airbus A330 did not have individual, self-contained pods, but did offer all of the stretch-out work and sleep room I needed plus at-seat power plugs, personalized lighting and a 14-inch video screen. And Neeleman knows the power of a great price. Any traveler, not just elite-level frequent flyers, can buy a one-way upgrade to business class for $500 or less at the airport. (Some flights also allow you to upgrade to preferred coach seating for as little as $60 each way on transatlantic routes.)

The comfort and in-flight service alone is worth the upgrade. The pampering started with a rolling trolley piled high with daily newspapers and magazines in English and Portuguese. In a not-so-random act of kindness, a TAP flight attendant also loaned me his personal adaptor so I could plug my laptop into the power port.

The in-flight food was generous and tasty with a choice of four main courses. There were also cheeses, desserts and endless pours of fine port wines. Equally impressive was the pace of the service--neither hurried nor lagging. Four smiling, but not obsequious, flight attendants served 24 seats and asked questions such as, "Do you have any preference, sir, in cheeses?" They clearly seemed to enjoy their work.

Neeleman also came up with a tangible way to blend TAP's Old World charm and its modern approach. He created a series of back-to-the-future "retrojet" flights. An aircraft was painted in TAP's livery from the 1970s and flight attendants outfitted in period garb, when flying was fun and fanciful. The only thing missing, thankfully, was the in-flight cigarette and cigar smoke. I'll save you the instant replay, but it was pretty authentic, right down to the leather flight bags TAP handed out back in the day.

There's no lack of imagination today, however. On TAP, the business class amenities bag is a keepsake faux sardine can and it's "packed" with ear plugs, an eye mask, toothpaste and a toothbrush.

Still, modern-day reality whacks you in the face at Lisbon's airport. A word of caution when you depart before noon. Arrive two or three hours early because passport control is molasses slow and understaffed. If you blow all your time clearing the formalities, you won't get a chance to enjoy the new lounge.

On the other hand, if you need an airport hotel, several good alternatives are an easy walk from the terminals and rooms are often available for as little as 100 euros a night. That includes a branch of the local Hotel Star chain, the Tryp by Wyndham and the Radisson Blu.

This column is Copyright 2017 by Chris Barnett. is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.