It wasn’t until long ago that, at least if you were based in the UK, when flying transatlantic you chose either BA or Virgin Atlantic.
They each covered the major gateways from Heathrow and differences between the two airlines were largely a matter of personal taste. You only ever countenanced a US airline if there was an exceptionally good fare.
A combination of financial restructuring under Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings and the launch of transatlantic joint-ventures led US airlines to raise their game.
In the case of American Airlines, a step change came with the introduction of the Boeing 777-300 aircraft six years ago. This operates from Heathrow on selected frequencies to Los Angeles, Miami and New York JFK. It also operates one frequency to American’s biggest hub in Dallas Fort Worth, which is the subject of this review.
Check-in at a very quiet early morning Terminal 3 was swift.
For some reason American’s premium check-in desks are located separately in Zone B from its main check-in area. Fast track security was similarly quiet.
Arriving at the gate 40 minutes before departure, boarding was already well under way. There were no queues and it was straight on board the aircraft for an on-time take off.
This is a four class aircraft that has been retrofitted with premium economy.
The business class cabin is divided into a small “demi-cabin” of two rows behind First Class. Behind the galley is a much larger cabin of 11 rows. The cabin features Safran (formerly Zodiac) Aerospace’s “reverse herringbone” design where seats face inwards in a 1-2-1 configuration.
There are no bad seats in the cabin but, for reasons explained below, it’s best to be seated away from the galleys.
There is no question that this is a superb business class seat.
There is plenty of room at the shoulder and at the foot. All the seat controls are intuitive and close to hand. There is ample storage in a personal vanity unit, and by your feet in the side of the seat and under the foot rest. At seat power is provided through a three pin plug and USB charging port. Whilst the seat does not offer complete privacy, it is more than enough. Only one awareness point is that the arm rest on the aisle side of the seat needs to be lowered for take off and landing.
You certainly couldn’t ask more for space to work on a day flight. It did make for a very comfortable flight. Even with a relatively long flight time of nearly ten hours, there was never any sense of the flight dragging.
Having previously flown on this aircraft on a night flight, only one minor quibble is that as your head is positioned towards the aisle when sleeping, you might find yourself easily disturbed by noise in the aisle.
In a potentially unpopular opinion, if an alternative aircraft such as the Airbus A380 was available for a night flight, I would choose this, even with an inferior seat, because the 777 is so noisy.
Food and Drink
Here’s the main menu:
Marinated Heritage Carrots
hummus, curry oil, dried fruit
Red Chicory Salad
crumbled blue cheese, walnuts, sliced pears, balsamic vinaigrette
potato gratin, pesto alla genovese with pumpkin seeds
Miso-glazed Chicken Supreme
hollandaise sauce, butternut squash purée, fried spring onions
Butterfish with Pumpernickel Topping
red pepper sauce, creamy potato risotto, fennel with orange vinaigrette, Romanesco
Tomato and Mozzarella Cannelloni
pesto rosso sauce, creamy spinach
Lunch was served promptly. So promptly in fact the service was completed within 90 minutes of take-off. It did feel a little early to be eating lunch before 11:00. As is mandatory for a US airline, warm nuts were served after take-off and ice cream sundaes were served for dessert.
A light snack with a choice of a Chicken Fajita sandwich or Pomegranate and Feta salad was served around 90 minutes before landing. A personal bugbear with American is the use of reformed chicken in dishes. Never accept the offer of a chicken dish on domestic First Class.
There is also a large (and dimly lit!) self-service bar area with sandwiches and snacks.
In-flight entertainment and connectivity
The seat has a very good sized entertainment screen, albeit the content is limited for a system that should be capable of offering more.
Not wishing to appear parochial but it is heavily biased towards US programming. Given the importance of the UK market to American, it’s surprising there isn’t more UK content.
There is live TV, but for rights reasons this is limited to channels such as CNN International and BBC World News.
In-flight WiFi largely worked OK and was priced at a reasonable $19.99 for the flight, but was just about good enough for in-flight surfing. When WiFi becomes available, visit aainflight.com in your browser to purchase your pass.
This is where it falls down.
Possibly due to industrial relations reasons relating to the number of crew working on the aircraft, the set-up of the cabin and in-flight service routine seems designed to cut down interactions between the cabin crew and passengers.
Items that are handed to you individually by cabin crew on purpose on BA such as amenity kits, menus and water bottles are already placed on your seat. The post take-off in-flight announcements and many others are pre-recorded.
The cabin crew spent most of pre-take off in the galley talking loudly amongst themselves – even during the safety demonstration which does not instil confidence – and this continued for the rest of the flight.
The overall service style could be described as “brisk efficiency”.
There was no sense of anyone being in charge and leading the in-flight service. Nor any attempt of individual crew members to build any chemistry and rapport with individual passengers – name badges weren’t even in evidence – let alone personal introductions or tailoring service style, something BA crews are very good at. A brusque “Do you want lamb, chicken, or” was the first interaction with the crew member and that set the tone for the rest of the flight.
As a passenger you certainly want to the in-flight service to be dispatched efficiently – no-one wants to be waiting for their meal or for items to be cleared – but it was all just a bit too efficient.
“Efficient but not effective” would in fact sum it up. American probably knows this already. To put matters fairly bluntly, all the cabin crew were fairly senior, and American would not be alone in having senior crew members who are recalcitrant in changing their ways.
From relatively limited interactions with American Airlines, there is a lot it does well.
Its app is excellent for pre-departure and baggage tracking information. Interactions with its call centres are painless. Established ground service procedures are consistently adhered to. The necessary discipline that comes from operating a complex multi-hub operation in a large domestic market is in evidence.
Both BA and Virgin are due to introduce new business class seats this year. The exact design is of course a closely guarded secret. Regardless of whether either opt for a customised off-the-shelf or entirely bespoke design, it can be said with confidence that one cabin design will have a characteristic understated style and another will project its chutzpah.
With all aisle access business class soon to become the norm, as we are seeing with improved dining and amenities, it is on “softer” aspects of service that airlines will be competing. With American, there is no sense of brand personality in the cabin.
If there was both the will and the means, American could, to use that well worn business phrase, go “from good to great”.