Guest Reviewer: Chris
An avid traveler and obsessive points and miles hound, Chris is my travel buddy extraordinaire. I love him for his enthusiasm, his sense of adventure, and his many lounge access credit cards. Hope you enjoy his perspective!
Review: British Airways First Class SFO - LHR
Review: Iberia Airlines Business Class LHR - MAD
Recap: Sights in Spain
Review: American Airlines Business Class MAD - DFW
American Airlines (AA) #37
Madrid (MAD) - Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)
Sunday, January 3rd, 2016
12:20 PM - 4:45 PM, Duration: 10 hrs, 25 mins
Boeing 777-200 Business Class, Seat 5H
When we originally booked our flights to Spain for New Year's, we weren't able to find many options for the return flight: no Star Alliance, oneworld, or SkyTeam airline had two award seats available from Europe to the US during the first few days of January, and paid fares were crazy expensive. We were pretty set on going to Spain, so we decided to book an American Airlines "AAnytime" award, which requires many more miles than a "MileSAAver" award but has better availability. In our case it cost us 135,000 miles each for one-way business class, which is a ton (a saver award would have been 50,000 miles). But we were gambling that some last-minute award availability would open up and we'd be able to change our tickets.
Unfortunately nothing better ever opened up, so we were stuck paying the high mileage rate. To make things worse, we weren't all that excited about the flight itself, since the plane type was an unrefurbished 777-200. Jen reviewed this product last year and wasn't impressed: the cabin is dated, the seats aren't lie-flat, and there's no all-aisle access, so it's one of the worst international business class products out there. But hey, at least we had a way to get home, and we didn't have to fly in economy!
We took the train to Madrid-Barajas airport and got there about two hours before our flight. The economy class check-in line was insanely long, and the business class line wasn't much better, so we went to the automated kiosks. An agent quickly stopped us and told us that none of the machines were working and that we had to wait in the line instead. Later, while we were standing in line, we saw several passengers check in using the machines, so I told Jen to hold our spot while I tried to use the machines again. The agent repeated her earlier statement that all the machines were broken, and refused to explain why a select few passengers were being allowed to check in using them. It was bizarre.
After about 30 minutes in line, we finally made it to a check-in agent. I'm a relatively patient person, but Jen has a short fuse, so by this point in time she was getting pretty snippy and wanted nothing more than to quickly get her boarding pass. The agent had other plans, and decided to play a game with us that I can only describe as "500 questions". She started out by asking Jen a bunch of general questions about our trip, that gradually got more and more specific to the point of being ridiculous:
At that point the check-in agent turned her attention to me, and asked me some equally specific questions, except mine focused on my job rather than our travels. Toward the end of it I was having a minor existential crisis - she had managed to probe so deep that I'd learned there were many things I couldn't answer about myself. Eventually she decided that we probably weren't terrorists and handed us our boarding passes.
As I walked away from the check-in area, I checked our boarding passes noticed that our seats had changed - we were in row 5 instead of our previously-selected row 10. I suspected there might have been an equipment change, so I looked up our flight on FlightAware.com, and saw that our plane type had changed to a retrofitted 777-200. This was great news, as it meant we'd be getting a brand-new cabin with lie-flat seats, all-aisle access, and large TV screens.
We headed through security, which was relatively quick, then had a train ride and a long walk to get to our gate. On the way there, we briefly stopped in at the Iberia lounge, which was quite nice although very crowded.
The line for priority boarding was extremely long, probably due to the fact that Dallas/Fort Worth is American Airlines' largest hub and thus has many elite passengers flying to it. We got onboard and settled down in our seats: my seat (5H) was a rear-facing seat in the middle section, whereas Jen's (5K) was a forward-facing window seat. The cabin is in a 1-2-1 configuration, which meant I had someone next to me, but there was a tall partition so I never saw or noticed them for the duration of the flight.
The old 777-200s have 16 first class seats and 37 business class seats, whereas the retrofitted 777-200s only have a business class cabin with 45 seats. I suspect some passengers got bumped down from first to business, but honestly it's not much of a downgrade considering how crappy American's old first class product is.
The cabin felt modern, with new finishes and seats with plenty of privacy. There was more than enough overhead bin space, so I had no trouble stowing my bags. The seats were in a reverse herringbone configuration, with rows alternating between forward-facing and rear-facing seats. At my seat I found a large pillow, a blanket, and an amenity kit waiting. Each seat has two power plugs and two USB ports, and features a touchscreen remote for the TV, along with another touchscreen to control the seat.
This flight will forever be known as "that time I got the elusive double upgrade".
American Airlines #177
New York (JFK) - San Francisco (SFO)
Sunday, February 14th, 2016
6:30 PM - 10:07 PM, 6 hours 37 minutes
A321T: Seat 1F (First Class)
Chris and I were in Manhattan for the weekend visiting some friends and booked our typical return flight on Sunday night, AA 177. We've flown this route multiple times and really appreciate the new A321T and the unique availability of three cabin classes on a domestic route. Per usual, we booked Economy tickets and hoped that each of our Executive Platinum statuses would get us an upgrade to Business. Business on this flight is extremely nice, with a 2-2 configuration of fully lie-flat seats, which are perfect for couples traveling together. On Saturday morning, we received a notification that we had both been upgraded to Business, which we were extremely happy with given that we'd be having a long weekend with little sleep.
We arrived at JFK and spent about 30 minutes in the Admiral's Club before it was time for boarding. We were at the gate in about three minutes and saw that unfortunately the plane had just arrived and passengers were only just starting to deplane. We waited about 20 minutes for deplaning and cleaning to complete and lamented the fact that American never seems to update their boarding times in the lounge. Just before boarding began, we heard our names called to come to the desk. There was a line of about 15 people and I assumed it was just to give us new tickets for our upgrade to Business, so I figured we'd ignore it and use our mobile boarding passes. About 10 seconds later, Chris was staring at his phone and said "actually, we just got upgraded to First..." We were both in shock, but made our way over to the desk and grabbed our tickets to board before they called Business.
I fly a lot - my coworkers fly a lot. I've never heard of a double upgrade on a flight. Ever. It was amazing. We knew this was due to the unique circumstances of the day and the typical demographic of the flight - it was Valentine's Day and it was a Sunday night before a Monday holiday, which meant no business travelers would be flying that night. Business Class had been completely empty when we checked the seat map a few days before and First was even moreso, hence the double upgrade. It was essentially a perfect storm of luck and we were stoked to be able to take advantage of it.
American's First class on this route is excellent with 5 rows of single seats on either side of the aisle, which are fully lie-flat and very comfortable. You're essentially getting an international product on a domestic flight and it's absolutely perfect for the 6.5 hour flight from JFK-SFO.
We found our seats, 1A and 1F and settled in. The flight attendants had already placed Bose headsets and amenity kits at the seats when we arrived and she came by shortly after we sat down to offer menus. She also took pre-departure beverage orders, but I declined. As usual, Chris started downing champagne.
The entertainment selection on American flights is definitely excellent. There is a huge selection of new releases and older movies and also a good selection of television shows as well. The TV screen is a touch screen and there's also a touch screen remote next to the seat as well. In all honesty, I find them both to be a bit temperamental and difficult to use from time to time, but I found a movie I hadn't seen yet, The Intern, and settled in.
In addition to the remote, the seat controls, a reading light, headphone jack, and USB port were all located conveniently next to the seat.
During the ascent to cruising altitude, Chris was able to snap a photo of the skyline below as we said goodbye to one of our favorite cities.
Shortly after we leveled out, the flight attendant came by to take meal orders and passed out beverages and warm nuts.
Review: American Airlines Business Class LAX - PVG
Review: PVG Cathay Pacific Lounge
Review: Dragonair Business Class PVG - HKG
Review: Andaz Xintiandi Shanghai
Review: Grand Hyatt Shanghai
Review: Hyatt Regency Suzhou
I have already written about my flight experience on American after being upgraded from Business class to First class on the reverse of this flight (Shanghai to Los Angeles) here, but despite the fact that I've flown this flight in Business multiple times now, I haven't had a chance to review it yet. I took this particular flight back in March and it was my second time flying this route. In all honesty, I do my best to fly Cathay Pacific when traveling to Shanghai, but sometimes it isn't within my budget, so I resort to flying American.
American Airlines #183
Los Angeles (LAX) - Shanghai (PVG)
Friday, March 20th, 2015
10:55 AM - 4:10 PM (+1)
Boeing 777-200: Seat 11H (Business Class)
I fly to Shanghai for business quite often and since I am loyal to oneworld, I will often get stuck flying American Airlines metal internationally. I will admit that in some cases, i.e. when a route has a 777-300 or uses the newest American Airlines Business class layout, flying American internationally is not bad, but this particular route is a bit rough with the extremely dated 777-200.
American Airlines boards even this international flight directly out of American's terminal 4 at LAX, which is a bit of a nightmare to begin with because none of the boarding areas are really large enough to comfortably support such a large group of people. It's also disappointing because Tom Bradley International is the nicest terminal at LAX and terminal 4 is probably the worst, but I digress.
Once boarding, the first thing you will notice is how extremely old the airplane looks. The seats are caked in years of grime and unfortunately, nothing ever looks very clean. American's Business class on this route has a 2-3-2 configuration, which is less than ideal for an extremely long flight when you know you'll either have to disturb your seatmate to get up or they'll disturb you depending on where you're seated. Additionally, instead of being lie-flat, which is the standard for Business class seats on international flights, the seats are angled lie-flat, which is basically the worst when flying more than 12 hours internationally and preferring to spend a majority of the flight asleep. So, not only does every seat not have aisle access (standard in most international Business class cabins), but you'll be sleeping sitting halfway up as well.
It should be said that as an objective reviewer, I need to point these things out, but I am honestly really appreciative that my employer will pay for Business class when flying to China - much appreciated!
I grabbed my seat in 11H, which is an aisle seat next to the window and settled in. At some point during the boarding process, the flight attendants came by to offer orange juice, water, or champagne. I had some water and perused the menu. Due to the timing, this flight offers a "dinner" served at lunch time in the US shortly after takeoff, and a "breakfast" served in the middle of the night in the US about an hour and a half before landing.
While waiting for takeoff, I had a look at the entertainment system and the seat controls. As you can see, everything is extremely dated. The remote controls for the in-flight entertainment are usually somewhat crusty and can be found to the left of the seat. The televisions themselves are pretty small compared to standard international Business class offerings and are completely stationary, so no adjustments can really be made. The good news is that American's movie offerings are quite good and on flights to China, there are usually around 40-50 (my estimation based on flipping through) movies available each flight.
As I mentioned, the seats are angled lie-flat and the seat controls found near the armrest in the middle of the two seats are quite complicated given there's not really anywhere for them to go! I usually have a bit of a hard time getting my seat as flat as it will go, but then again, I usually struggle with seat controls, so maybe it's just me!
Prior to takeoff, the crew will come by to take meal orders and sometimes will introduce themselves. Service on these flights is usually hit or miss, but I'd say more often a miss. The first time I took this flight, I had service items sit on the table at my seat for no less than 6 hours without being taken away even though I had given all indications they were no longer needed. After ringing the call button, no one came for more than 20 minutes, so I had to wait for my seatmate to get up, then finagle my way out of the seat without knocking things over, then just took the glasses to the galley and put them somewhere because it was clear that a flight attendant was never going to do it. Generally, US airlines never have service on the same level as Asian airlines, which I find very disappointing, but it's something I accept as a given.
Shortly after takeoff, drink service began and we were offered warm nuts along with our drink of choice.
The "dinner" menu read as follows:
Thai Chicken with grilled five-spice pineapple, watermelon, and Asian mint dressing
Mixed greens with artichokes, roasted tomatoes and feta cheese
Peppered Beef Filet with thyme jus, smoked mac and cheese and haricots verts
Cashew Chicken with ginger garlic sauce, egg fried rice, stir-fried vegetables, and baby bok choy
Soy Glazed Halibut with miso sauce, green tea rice, snap peas and baby carrots
Stuffed Portobello Mushroom with mixed vegetables, wild rice, sauteed spinach and roasted red pepper sauce
Traditional Ice Cream Sundae with your choice of butterscotch, hot fudge, or seasonal berry toppings
Gourmet Cheese Plate
Black Forest Mousse Cake
True to form, I ordered the peppered beef filet as my entree. In general, I somehow think beef is better than chicken on an airplane (up for debate) and I don't eat fish or like mushrooms. The starter was pretty odd. The combination of chicken, fruit and mint was a bit too weird for me, but I at least finished the fruit and some of the chicken - separately. I really enjoy this salad and have seen it on multiple American flights. They love to pile on the dressing, which is more than I would have liked, but it has a lot of flavor with the artichoke and feta, which is great. The beef is honestly never great, but somehow it's the lesser of the evils for me, so beef it is. In this case, it was suspended in a pool of watery liquid and the mac and cheese was a bit too smoked for my liking, but it was edible so I'm not complaining. For dessert this time around, I went with the ice cream, but I've since found that my stomach is happier if I skip dessert while flying for long periods of time - imagine that!
As soon as meal service was complete, the flight attendants turned down the lights and straight up disappeared for the next 7-8 hours. Rarely have I seen them stroll the aisles to check and see if anyone needs anything and it's almost always the case that I won't see them again until the lights come back on and it's time for the "breakfast" service to begin. This is disappointing to me as someone who does not like to ring the call button and hates to be a bother, but would definitely appreciate it if the flight attendants came by every once in a while so that I could feel comfortable grabbing them if necessary.
About an hour and a half before landing, the lights come on and the flight attendants begin beverage service. "Breakfast" meals are on the cart, so they pass them out after you order your drink. I decided to pass on breakfast on this flight, but the menu read as follows:
Fresh Seasonal Greens with bell pepper, radish and pepper cream dressing
Broccoli and Red Pepper Strata with smoked chicken sausage and roasted potatoes
Dim Sum roast pork bun, chicken gyoza pot sticker and shrimp shumai with e-fu noodles
Triple Chocolate Cheesecake
I have ordered the Strata before and it's really not appetizing at all. The egg is always over-cooked and all of the items kind of blend together, so it all has the same flavor. In general, I just don't eat anything before landing when flying this route, but I think it would be really nice if they could offer some sort of a la carte fruit or yogurt as an additional option.
Once the meal service is complete, it's usually about 40 minutes until landing, so I'll use that time to freshen up and collect my belongings. It should also be noted that American passes out Bose headsets at the beginning of the flight, which is very nice, but they start collecting them right about now. So a word of advice here is to always have a backup pair of headphones ready in case you want to finish watching that movie that was almost over before landing.
All in all, this flight could certainly be worse, but I'm always so underwhelmed. Flying between San Francisco and Shanghai in Cathay Pacific Business is truly a world of difference and it's unfortunate that American doesn't even try to step up their game. Despite this, it should be noted - I have been told that in November, the aircraft will finally be upgraded to a 787, which I honestly think will make this a MUCH more pleasant flight due to the much nicer, newer aircraft and the fact that it offers a 1-2-1 configuration with lie-flat seats in Business.
As of now, my recommendation is to avoid flying American international on the old 777-200 aircrafts if you can.
American Airlines #182
Shanghai (PVG) - Los Angeles (LAX)
Tuesday, August 4th, 2015
6:10 PM - 3:40 PM (-1): 11 hours, 50 minutes
Boeing 777-200: Seat 2J (First Class)
I've spent the past month in a whirlwind of travel for both business and fun. After a great two week vacation in Norway and Iceland, I headed straight to China for two weeks of work. On the way there, I got very lucky to have Business class essentially empty, (which was amazing given that American currently flies the oldest, worst 777s from Los Angeles to Shanghai and the Business configuration is 2-3-2) so I was able to have the row to myself, which was excellent. On the way back, I was crossing my fingers for the same fate, but they really did me one better and upgraded me to First! It was a last-minute upgrade because I boarded the plane and spent a good 20 minutes in my seat anxiously awaiting the moment the doors closed so I knew I didn't have a seat mate. Instead, a flight attendant came up and asked me to come with her to my new seat, 2J. Sweet. As of now, I'm about 10,000 points short of Executive Platinum for the year, so I was super excited that my status was finally getting me somewhere.
I moved up to the First class cabin and saw that it was also empty except for 3 seats. Figuring it would be like my flight out where the plane was just mostly unoccupied, I was looking forward to a quiet flight in a lie-flat bed (since American's 777 Business has angled lie-flat). Unfortunately, the pilot announced a few minutes later that this would be a full flight and sure enough, the seats all around me became filled up with other passengers, including a very fortunate little girl and her parents.
American's First class on the 777 actually reminds me pretty much exactly of Business class on Cathay Pacific's 777-300 or American's new Business class on the 777-300 (which really sets the tone for what you should expect of American's international "First class" offering) with a 1-2-1 configuration. I certainly wasn't complaining though because there is nothing better than an unexpected upgrade, so I was just grateful I wouldn't have to get up in the middle of the night to let my seat mate go to the bathroom.
The seats were comfortable enough, but this plane is as old as they get. Every time I fly this route, the plane just feels so dirty, like the seats never get cleaned well. Unfortunately, First class was no different than Business in this regard. Similar to other first class products I've flown, the foot rest across from the seat actually has a seatbelt, which means a companion could dine across from you if you choose. While comfortable, the seat was literally the most confusing thing I have ever encountered on an airplane. I initially thought my seat was broken because the controls wouldn't work at all. Finally, I called a flight attendant over and she explained to me (as if I were a total moron) that the seat needs to be turned using this tiny invisible latch under the left arm rest into the center of the cubby in order for the controls to work. Um...how on Earth would someone know that's how they work?!
Once I got the seat controls worked out, it was a struggle to figure out the television, which pops up when you push a button under the window. That was one thing, but then I couldn't for the life of me find a remote, so I found my first movie by pushing the screen, which wasn't super responsive to the touch. About 30 minutes into my first movie (The Age of Adaline), I finally located the remote under the right armrest - duh.
Prior to taking off, the flight attendants passed out pajamas, which is probably my favorite thing about flying in First, because I feel awkward changing into pajamas in Business since no one else does it. The amenity kits were waiting at the seat when we boarded and were American's standard "heritage" amenity kits, but larger and more boring. There was also a Bose headset to use for the flight, but it should be noted that American is ridiculous about the Bose headsets and collects them literally an hour before landing in both First and Business class. As a result, I always remember to put my own earbuds in my pocket so I can finish whatever I am watching an hour before we land.
The flight attendants had collected meal and drink orders prior to taking off, so once we leveled off, they began handing out mixed nuts with our drink of choice. It's somewhat interesting that they make an effort not to use carts in First - I guess because it's not as classy and special (and come to think of it, none of the other First class products I've flown do either), so everything was brought individually.
I had looked at the menu when I was previously seated in Business and noticed that the First class menu was nearly identical. The only difference was the addition of one choice for a starter, an additional soup course (which I passed on), an additional dessert option (also passed), and slight changes to the wine list - better champagne and 1 additional selection each of white, red, and dessert wine.
The dinner menu read as follows:
Steamed Lobster Claw, Shrimp and Scallop with mango chili lime salsa
Peking Duck Spring Roll with leeks, cucumber and balsamic glaze
Hot and Sour
Seasonal Greens with Carrot Spaghetti and Tomatoes
Grilled Beef Filet with port sauce, potatoes au gratin, asparagus and carrots
Roasted Duck Breast with plum sauce, egg fried rice and snap peas
Ginger Scallops with stir fried noodles and vegetable medley
Mushroom Wellington with mushroom cream sauce
Traditional Ice Cream Sundae
Gourmet Cheese Plate
Warm Egg Tart
Mixed Berry Tart
I chose the steamed lobster claw dish for the entree even though I don't really like seafood. It was probably the smallest lobster claw I've ever seen, but it was fairly tasty. Then for the entree (as always), I had the beef. Airplane beef is never really good, but I don't like duck, scallops or mushrooms, so beef it was!
After dinner, I watched another movie (Furious 7) and was feeling pretty tired. The rest of the cabin had already passed out, so I decided to get ready for bed. In any other international First class (ok, on Singapore and Cathay - I'm insufferable and spoiled, I'm sorry), the flight attendants practically forced you to allow them to make up a bed for you. Not so on American! At this point, the flight attendants have disappeared, never to be seen again until the "morning", but all the bedding is available in bags on the foot rest and you just recline the bed, then put down the mattress pad and blanket provided and you're ready to go. The bed was pretty comfortable and the mattress pad was definitely appreciated since you don't get that in Business. The thing I wasn't very happy about was the lack of privacy while sleeping. As you can see in some of the earlier photos, there is no barrier on the side of the seats, so when you're sleeping, you're very exposed to the aisle, which I hated.
Breakfast came about an hour and a half before landing, but I wasn't hungry and the two choices were not my favorite, so I passed. The "Light Meal" menu read as follows:
Fresh Seasonal Greens with green peppers and Italian dressing
Pumpkin and Mushroom Quiche with paprika potatoes and grilled zucchini
Szechuan Prawns with fried rice, lotus root and carrots
At some point during the flight, I went to use the lavatory and was confronted with this note taped to the mirror:
I have honestly no idea what it meant or why it had any business being in a First class cabin lavatory, but there it was. It seemed like the note was inferring that the water was broken in the sink and toilet, but they worked fine for me, so I have no idea. Quite classy.
While the lavatory lacked in class, I think American made up for it by passing out a small golden box of chocolates to everyone just before landing. They were excellent and I was thrilled with the unexpected treat.
Shortly after, we landed without incident and proceeded on to the absolute worst thing about flying American internationally into LA - parking at terminal 4, then having to get on a bus to go to the Tom Bradley International terminal to get through customs, then walking back to terminal 4 to resume the last leg of the itinerary.
All in all, I was thrilled to be upgraded without even trying, but American's international First class is not really much to write home about. As I mentioned earlier, it's highly reminiscent of Cathay Pacific's Business class in terms of layout and configuration, but comparing anything more than configuration to Cathay would be doing a disservice to Cathay's incredible service quality. American's flight attendants are largely disinterested and hole themselves up in the galley as much as possible (with the exception of only two cases where I have had truly wonderful flight attendants and service). This flight, the staff was definitely nothing special and even made me feel bad when I asked about the seat controls (although, in fairness, I'm sure they get that question all the time).
If you get it for free, take this flight. If not, absolutely take Cathay Pacific Business.
One thing I did find out at the beginning of this trip is that American will thankfully begin flying a 787 on this route in November. The American 787s actually do not have a First class, just Economy and Business, but given how mediocre my First experience was, I find that to be no real loss and actually look forward to experiencing this flight in the future on a newer 787 with the same 1-2-1 configuration in Business.
Just a twenty-something with a full-time job and a full-time obsession with traveling. It's best to LiveTraveled.