The Final Verdict
3.3
The Seat
The Service
The Food
The Drinks
The Privacy
The Value
The Amenities

Nothing says international first class like demanding headphones be returned an hour before landing, because “customers steal them”.

This week, I embarked on American Airlines worse nightmare: a trip around the world sampling business class on European, Middle Eastern and Asian Airlines, all culminating in a Flagship First flight on American Airlines.

American Airlines first class is without a doubt a regal treat for most travellers, but if you’re a traveller with enough context – it’s business class masquerading as something more. Here’s a review of the American Airlines Flagship First experience on the Boeing 777-300ER.

In a positive twist for American, they rated third of the airlines I sampled during the journey. There’s just one problem there: the two ahead of them were in business class, not first class. This leaves one distinct question: why does American Airlines bother offering a dedicated first class cabin if they have no intention of creating a bonafide first class experience?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy peeling the plastic wrap off my plastic butter container as much as the next guy, but in first class I just don’t expect it, considering most airlines put it in a lovely little glass bowl in business class.

To be fair to American, context was everything here. I had just experienced two of the very airlines they spend so much money lobbying to keep out of the skies in the USA, so that no one is ever able to see the difference in products. After a side by side comparison all within 24 hours of each other, I now think they’re less crazy for spending all that lobbying money.

I keep thinking I’ll be disappointed on Qatar Airways or Singapore Airlines and have yet to be, yet on American I keep hoping to be happy and find myself wanting…

I had just come off of two business class flights in the new Singapore Airlines A380 and the Qatar Airways A350-1000. This was by far the most disappointing of the three, and for a change, not on account of a lazy or combative crew. This crew was very engaged and tried their best, but their best was simply not on a level of sophistication or precision in line with the business class offerings of other airlines.

Don’t shoot the messenger…

Before the “what an ungrateful prick” eyebrows raise, just don’t.

I’m grateful every time wheels lift off and touch down safely and for once, I had a crew who did their best and for the most part I enjoyed their company on the 13 hour journey. I just wish that they were given a script and minimal service expectation so that a customer wouldn’t constantly feel as if they are in a game of flight service roulette upon boarding, and could instead board knowing that a certain level of professional precision was at hand.

I don’t blame them in any way and commend them for working with what they’re given. At the same time, I blame American in every way for all the shortcomings of this flight and for handing the flight crew what they were working with. Other airlines spend far more time working out the finer points of a service, including removing butter from plastic in premium cabins.

On Board American Flagship First

Upon arrival at the airplane door, I was instructed to turn left, which is always a great feeling. On many airlines, first class passengers are either walked to their seat, or greeted by name and given personal directions when they reach the first cabin and a general charm offensive ensues. Not here.

Alas, within 15 minutes or so, someone came around to offer me a pre departure beverage.

Again, this was not done by name, but I was very glad to enjoy a glass of champagne. It’s always a treat. In this case, it was a $55 Clos Du Moulin Champagne treat, which was a highly perfumed wine that smelled distinctly of honeysuckle. It was definitely an enjoyable drop, but perhaps one not remotely in line with what other airlines offer in first class.

I mentioned the name greeting thing, because on Singapore Air and Qatar Airways in business class I was greeted by name by at least two members of staff before take off and truthfully, within seconds of finding my seat. On American, that distinguished honour was not granted until meal service, when I received the “Mr. Ott, would you like to dine with us this evening”.

In business class, it’s ok for the experience to really just be about the better seat which turns into a bed. In first class, it’s supposed to be something more.

The crew could only apologize for the print out menus…

For reasons unbeknownst to me, this flight did not have proper menus. Instead, there were actual printer sheets of paper folded in black and white with the copy machine marks on them. This means nothing to me personally – I’m easy – but it’s one of the many “little things” which make this barely amusing as a sound business class experience and hardly something considered first class. But hey, don’t expect a discount, all that lobbying costs money!

The American 777-300 First Class Seat

The seat itself is large and any time you’ve got three windows on a plane you need to bless up to whatever deity or entity you believe in. I love the fact that the chair swivels and I was thrilled with two power ports and two USB options. The seat on its own is definitely passable as first class. Good stuff.

On the other hand, this seat was far more exposed to the cabin than either of the two airlines I’d just flown in a lesser cabin. On Qatar, I had a privacy door. On Singapore, a cleverly designed seat and staggered configuration left no one insight. On the same plane, I could’ve enjoyed greater privacy in business class, instead I was able to enjoy my seat mates entertainment just as much as they did.

Please enjoy this raw, untouched image to highlight this very thought adequately.

Hospital grey indeed, eh?

As to the wow factor, it’s limited to the volume of space alone. And keeping score – no – it’s nowhere near the 50 square feet some other airlines offer in first class. The colours are hospital grey, Ikea fake wood and some muted blue which I suppose symbolises American.

It’s bland, the monitor is tiny and the in flight entertainment system is painfully old and sluggish, especially compared to newer options in any cabin which flick through entertainment just like a new iPad. My heavily retouched photos are generous.

To my delight, the swivel function of the chair was more substance than style. I loved being able to face out the window and work, even though I was asked to close my modestly cracked blinds 2 hours before landing in LA at 5PM local time, just in case someone might wake up. The eye roll is massively implied, because eye masks were provided for each passenger, and if each seat happened to have a privacy door, it wouldn’t be “a thing”.

I found the American Airlines 777-300ER First Class seat very comfortable upright, in chill mode and in bed mode and the latter is where American deserves some first class praise.

The Casper bedding partnership is absolutely exquisite. I loved the mattress topper, which unlike many in the skies really did provide a mattress like level of support. The duvet was a perfect weight and the pillow provided did the job at a high level too. Great stuff, A plus – just gimme more of this level of effort.

The Food & Drinks In American Flagship First

Sometimes food on an airplane is equally about where you’re flying as who you’re flying. Hong Kong typically has excellent catering facilities and this gave American an opportunity to put up a fighting effort in an area they’re rarely regarded for. Honestly – who eats heavy, cream and cheese filled rehydrated pasta loafs on a plane?

Anyway.

I started with a cold soup and a little tartlet with a few caviar pearls inside. It was unmemorable, but did create the illusion of a first class effort at the very least. I was moderately impressed.

I then moved on to what had me most excited on the menu: a lobster bisque. The last time I was in Hong Kong I had the best lobster bisque of my life. Sadly, this did not also merit that distinction, but it was again a nice effort, albeit slightly oily, runny and disorganized. Pictures say a lot…

Next, I broke my no steaks on a plane rule and gave this one with mushrooms and an “Asian steak sauce” a whirl. It was surprisingly good, impressively not overcooked and plated to a nice standard. I’d say this was really well done.

For dessert, I had a basically terrible thing I can’t remember the name of. It looks about how it tasted.

Wines on this menu were an enigma.

I had just come off of two airlines serving $60 champagne in business class to find a $55 bottle in first class. There’s nothing overtly wrong with that and wine is far more than a price point, but by any account – that’s just downright low for “first” on a flagship international route.

Continuing that theme, there was an $11 Australian Grenache from Heirloom Vineyards on the list, which also screamed premium economy, not first.

Nothing on American’s wine menu set off the “woah, this is amazing stuff” alarm bells, but one wine was definitely a big win. I am a huge Pahlmeyer Vineyard fan and this flight featured “Jayson” a red blend from this esteemed estate. For a wine on the plane it doesn’t get much better, so I was thrilled to see some sort of pride being put into this otherwise lacking effort to make a bonafide first class experience. That, and the Trefethen Chardonnay is a solid option as well.

My Larry David Headphones Moment

About 2 hours before landing I cracked my blinds just a bit, in part to take a few photos but mainly to begin to adjust my body to the huge time zone change. We’d left Hong Kong in the evening, flown for 11 hours and with 2 hours to go we were facing mid-late afternoon in Los Angeles. It’s advised by all medical professionals to slowly adjust your body to natural light to counteract the effects of jet lag.

Within moments, I was not so politely told (not asked) by the cabin crew that I needed to lower my blinds so as not to disturb the passengers. I couldn’t help but laugh, thinking that each and every one of them had a huge duvet, a provided eye mask and more to deal with this, and none of them were awake.

Being told I have no control over my cabin environment did not feel very “first classy”.

This notion was made all the more amusing when about one hour prior to landing I was told I needed to hand in my Bang & Olufsen headphones. I found this policy laughable in business class and could not believe they do it in first. It’s the only airline I know of which insists on this. If they put nearly as much effort into any other part of their operation as they do berating passengers for headphones they wouldn’t need to lobby anyone – they’d be the world’s best.

I had a brief convo with the person working my section that went something like this..

Me: You need to stop this policy. It’s so degrading and ridiculous, particularly in first. 

AA Crew: Well, people steal them. Just bring your own. 

Me: I do have my own, and they’re nicer than these – but I didn’t want to bother taking them out of my bag when a decent pair was presented to me. And, that’s not the point. The “steal them” thing is called breakage. It happens in all companies and isn’t an excuse for treating first class passengers like thieves.

AA Crew: Your headphones please sir. 

AA Crew: Here’s some Avis ones. 

Final Thoughts On American Flagship First Class

Would I do this again – Never. I paid for a business class ticket and upgraded to first using a Business Extra upgrade certificate. I thought it would be cool to see if American’s service standards and fine touches were hidden in the pointy end, and to my dismay – they just aren’t. I find it so odd to serve such substandard Champagne on board when such wonderful strides have been made by the airline with Flagship First Lounge dining, including Krug Champagne.

If you’re over 6’2”, this seat makes a marginal difference in sleep comfort. If you require a really padded mattress, this mattress topper really does add to your support and coziness. If you’re looking for anything more – you’d best book another airline or just stay in business where you are. You’re not missing anything in American Airlines first class. It’s a no from me ; )

 

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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21 Comments

  1. I recently flew AA Flagship First HKG-DFW and have to say I agree with most of your sentiments. I’m not as well traveled as you, but there was definitely a feeling of “this is it?” in AA F that I didn’t feel in SQ J, BR J, or others. It didn’t feel comparably better than AA’s trancontinental F product, which I was surprised about given that you’re comparing a 5.5 hour flight to a 14 hour flight.

    I’d go so far as to recommend eating your fill in whatever F lounge you have access to (whether it is Flagship First Dining or the CX First lounges) and then skipping the meals on the plane. I wouldn’t say the same for the other airlines I flew on the same trip where the food was actually good.

    I liked the seat and privacy wasn’t an issue for me as I spent 90% of the flight is “desk mode” working. The only issue in that configuration is that turbulence above a certain threshold really sends your seat rocking laterally. It can be a little disorienting.

    The WiFi was really solid. Better than any other airline I’ve experienced, so if you have to be connected AA might be the way to go. My crew was friendly and seemed like they wanted to make sure you had a good time, but it felt odd how non-proactive they were.

    I was lucky enough to buy an R fare so I could upgrade with miles without a copay. I would do so again just so I can get into the CX F and FFD lounges, but wouldn’t do so for the seat alone.

  2. Excellent report and so true.

    It never ceases to amaze me, That if airlines spent time teaching onboard crew to be nice and attentive to passengers, that it can make for a totally great experience for the passenger at very little cost to the airline

    Being kind and not abrasive to passengers can make a huge difference and maintain the loyalty of customers

  3. Awesome review. I always love a good old fashioned smackdown when it comes to AA. They are just such dogshit in so many ways. You’re right, better wine and champagne should absolutely be served. Seriously, how many bottles do they expect passengers to gp through? Loading 4 bottles of nice champagne is totally doable, especially when nicer stuff is being served in the AA first lounge. And that collecting headphones thing always grinds my gears. Lmao at the avis earbuds. AA needs a lot of help, in so many ways. I’ve had Malaysia airlines economy flights that are better than AA’s J and F flights.

  4. My wife and I took the DFW-ICN flight in first a couple of years back on the 777-200ER. Older Captain Kirk seats but surprisingly similar otherwise, right down to the photocopied menus. We were unimpressed.

  5. Does any decent American airline exist? I tried a few and it was a disaster. It is a mystery for me why people still pay for first or even business class instead of choosing non-American airline? I wouldn’t even bother to redeem miles, not to mention cash. First class is a synonim of luxury and devils is in details. It’s not only a seat but food, drinks etc and first of all – service. Most of Asian airlines are excellent, same Middle Eastern. Even BA seems to be much better…..

  6. Some fair points here IMHO, particularly re the recent (and very weird) printed menu thing. Few other high class issues I agree could be improved. But I also think fair to challenge the source. What is this website actually being paid by other carriers? That would actually be new and interesting information… You mention AA lobbying in the fourth paragraph — clearly no agenda there. And LOL I for one am not really impressed by the “200,000 miles a year” in your bio. Going to experience QR 772 in biz (non q-suites) and QR 388 in first this weekend. Look forward to experiencing the difference myself. If pleased I guess I’ll book either QR or SQ on the other 150 segments I have this year to places like DTW, PIT and ICT since those two airlines cover them well. Oh and PS, why didn’t you review DL and UA FC? Right, because they don’t have an FC product offering a 2:8 FA:pax ratio. Anywhere.

  7. I took AA from Tokyo to LAX last week. I think I don’t have to say how AA flight attendants were. My suggestion is all AA business and F class crews take training on JL once a year. The same One World brand Japan Airline will help them to understand what is HOSPITALITY means. That could lead AA to be the first nicest airline in the US.

  8. Lol the last time I flew AA business JFK to LHR. The chicken came out half frozen. When I pointed it out… Her face was utter annoyance at me… No apologies… Here your chicken back. Never again. And first with AA… Sorry not into self humiliation…

  9. AA I have been travelling for 26 years now and can say with the greatest confidence that as is the worst airline. In all classes. The concept of service just doesn’t exist there.

  10. With all the negative press regarding US based carriers – eg. customers being manhandled, Overbooking flights, then asking genuine customers to leave, and general rudeness – why do people still keep flying with these airlines.

  11. I always fly the GRU/JFK/GRU route on First class and sometimes I also fly Business Class in the North Atlantic routes, which are far better than First Class to Brazil. I agree with you that the seats on First are great, but AA’s main problem is the absolute lack of standards on the crew training. On some flights you may have a better service, but in most cases what you get is a crew that doesn’t care about you. For instance, they never show you the bottle of the wine you have ordered. The glass of wine simply appears on your table. The NY/Sao Paulo flights always depart late in the evening, and the crew wants to get dinner served and done as quickly as possible. No gesture of kindness is the rule. The Miami crew offers a far better service than the NY based crew. First class is not just good seats and reasonable meals. It is, mostly, good, gentle, nice service. Kindness is of the essence given the money we pay to fly First. This is far away to happen on board AA.

  12. Pretty much. American is basically a travel size sampling of Dallas culture. Everything in that market is about cutting costs and putting on airs. The people are rude and greedy and it’s the only place I have to go on a regular basis that still mainlines 1980s classism. The one positive thing I have to say about them is the service industry is generally on point (which is unsurprising, given its tendencies of bougie, nouveau riche tin pot despotism and wealth hoarding). That’s where American airlines is nothing like Dallas; I’ve also experienced the suggestion I was stealing the headphones, despite the fact I was holding an $800 pair when this was said to me. I’ve “slept” in an 85 degree cabin and had zero fucks given about anyone’s comfort on an international flight. I haven’t seen so much as a smile, or an offer to hang a coat on my last 5 American flights, and forget about actually catering the meal I took the time to reserve (thankfully I expect it at this point and planned accordingly). American provides almost no value at an absurd premium, if I can avoid flying them, I do.

  13. Gilbert, I love reading your reviews and in-between-the lines commentary. Your experience on AA was disappointing to hear as I’ve had better service flying in flagship business. I have yet to try their international first class product but hesitant to so do given your review and many others I’ve read. There are some things that AA should work on, which you mentioned- upgrade the seats to be a true “suite” and better service standards at a minimum. Better food/drinks would be nice too. I have found AA crews to be very inconsistent and why they can’t calibrate and train on higher service standards is beyond me. I’ve heard all these same complaints from internal employees as well- they want to be better and are embarrassed. However, I sometimes wind up with an all-star crew who really go above and beyond and make me want to fly AA again. One of the best flights I had last year was on an upgrade going from MIA to MXP in flagship business. Not only did the flight attendant working my section use my name, she also checked in frequently to ensure I was comfortable and had everything needed. Even the purser stopped by to introduce himself to me, which was a nice surprise (I only had gold status at the time too so I took it as a nice genuine hello). Moral of the story- AA can be the best or the worst. Hopefully one day they’ll figure this out to be consistently better in all categories.

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