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…
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.
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 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”.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ; )