This review is by regular contributor Ed.
Previously I reviewed British Airways First Class on their 777-300ER from Heathrow to JFK. The next flight in my journey to Brazil was on American Airlines in their First Class product, also aboard a 777- 300ER. This time JFK to Sao Paulo. This entire journey was booked to allow me to fly on Azul’s maiden A350 flight and so involved a rather out-the-way route to reduce the cost from Dublin to Sao Paulo via London and New York. This routing allowed me to experience both airlines’ first-class products and compare the two to see which I thought was best.
Interestingly, American Airlines has three different versions of First Class. One is Domestic First which realistically is a Business Class product with better seats but worse catering than Club Europe. The seats are recliners and similar to a long-haul Premium Economy cabin. The second type is long haul First which features only on American’s 777-300ER aircraft. This is the cabin I am reviewing here. Finally, there is a third type, transcontinental First which features solely on the A321T subfleet. These planes are used for premium domestic flights across the US from places like New York to Los Angeles. These A321Ts have three distinct cabins, First, Business and Economy. First is 1-1 and Business is 2-2, both are lie flat seats. Both the 777s and A321Ts are due for refitting in the next few years and so ending traditional First Class at American Airlines.
In this post:
The booking process and rationale were described in yesterday’s BA First Class review which can be found here.
I had arrived landside at JFK Terminal 8 from my BA flight and headed upstairs to go through security. I passed through the premium check-in area but didn’t see an agent as I had already been checked in. The signage really needs work as I only worked out afterwards that I had gone through the Club World/Business section and not to the First section.
Both were deserted at that time so it wouldn’t make that much difference. Exiting the check-in desks led to security though again signage was non-existent for which queue to go down. I joined a short queue and passed through security. As I was gathering my things and putting my shoes back on I noticed Peter Jones from Dragons Den also passing through security with his family.
British Airways had only recently moved to Terminal 8 and it was clear it was American’s home terminal with AA’s logos along the ceiling and their Eagle on the ramp down from security.
There were large signs pointing to the three different lounges available. Greenwich, Chelsea and SoHo. I actually appreciate these names in that they are named after areas in both London and New York but conversely, the names are confusing as they do not easily tell you which lounge you have access to. Particularly annoying for the infrequent traveller as Greenwich is in the opposite direction from Soho and Chelsea. Greenwich is actually the former American Admiral’s Club that has been rebranded. The other two lounges are new. I visited the Chelsea Lounge on account of my First ticket.
The entry requirements were fairly fluid at that point, due to crowding issues, with Gold Guest Lists not able to access it on domestic US flights (as well as more recently added restrictions). The lounge itself was a nice space, very bright, though some complain about that, I quite liked it. One disappointing thing is that, unlike the other two lounges, Chelsea does not have any windows which was a real shame. The real problems were the lack of food and beverage options. When it had opened as many as 17 champagnes were available, this list had been significantly cut by the time of my visit, though still had plenty.
The real issue was, even with this cut-down list, they kept running out, both of champagnes and strangely coca cola. The lounge was apparently regularly having to dispatch staff to other areas of the airport to get supplies in. Having visited since, these issues appeared to have been smoothed over but it was also quieter when I visited again so that may be why.
The peace in the lounge was disrupted by a fellow Gold Guest List member, berating staff about how the lounge was not good enough and that they didn’t think it was up to standard. Neglecting the fact that the staff members do not have the power to change any of this and the complaint should be levelled at the management of BA and/or AA. I thought it was a bit obnoxious as the passenger kept bringing up how much money they spent with the airline.
Luckily, the flight changed to show which gate we were leaving from and I headed off leaving behind the passenger who was still remonstrating with the staff.
When I arrived at the gate, boarding had already commenced and I joined the queue for Group 1. The boarding process was done using biometrics where a video stream compared your photo to one taken earlier. As I approached the front of the queue, I prepared my ticket as having seen no American Airlines staff and having been checked in by BA in London, I assumed they would have no photo to compare to. Slightly worryingly before I was able to explain this, the machine had confirmed I was me and told me to board. I still am not 100% sure how it managed to do that, with my only guess being the photo immigration took as I entered the country a few hours earlier.
I showed my ticket at the boarding door and was pointed in the general direction of my seat, unlike on BA no one volunteered to show me to my seat nor did anyone offer at any point to explain the functions of the seat and I was left to trial and error. Normally I am happy to find my own way to my seat and decline the BA crew’s offer to take me to my seat but it is nice to be asked.
At the seat, was a bedding set, Bang and Olufsen headphones and an amenity kit. Strangely, there was further bedding in the overhead bin which included a business-class amenity kit and another pair of headphones… Whilst a small point, these items are normally handed out by the cabin crew after boarding but American just places them on the seat, with the passenger then needing to find space to store the bedding products.
There was also a menu. This was a real indication that Americans does not invest enough in their First Class product, the menu was made of two photocopied pieces of A3 paper that had been stapled together. I have no idea what happened to the original menus, and whilst I am glad they cobbled together a replacement (I assumed that this was a service recovery attempt rather than the standard offering which turned out to be correct on my next flight in the cabin), it really does not give off the right impression in First Class.
My instincts were reinforced when the purser came over and rather than any form of pleasantries such as “Good evening, how are you today?” I received only my surname in the form of a question which set the tone for the flight. I found it slightly odd as on average there are more pleasantries in America than in the UK but on the aircraft, it was very much the other way round. Further in order to get the attention of my seatmate, the purser waved at her in a semi-passive-aggressive way.
Disappointingly, there were no pyjamas available on this overnight flight which was yet another thing that was below expectations for a long-haul international First flight. Interestingly, the seat across the aisle remained empty for the entire boarding process and mentally, I was hoping I could swap into the window seat. For some reason, the crew set up the bedding for this seat pre-departure which is something not many airlines do to keep the seat area clear in case of emergency. Finally, the passenger showed up and just my luck, it was the rather loud man from the lounge, luckily he was more restrained on board the aircraft.
Pre-departure drinks were offered a choice of sparkling wine, water or orange juice. I had the juice which was handed to me rather than placed down. It’s a very small detail but it does lower the overall experience when taken with other things that happened and a noticeable difference from BA that uses, special coasters and the like in First rather than standard napkins.
There were a few announcements that I noticed on the ground that I hadn’t heard on other airlines. One was for economy passengers to store their bags in the business cabin towards the end of the boarding process. This meant that passengers needing things from their bags would be traipsing into the business cabin during the night flight. Secondly, was just how often the crew had to repeat that passengers needed to sit down and keep their seatbelts on.
There were passengers standing during both pushback and during the initial climb out. Some of the worst compliance I had seen with ignoring the seatbelt sign which is normally reserved for the end of the flight rather than the beginning. Rather annoyingly, in line with other US carriers, the seatbelt sign remained on until we were levelling off in the cruise meaning it is on for roughly three times longer than other international carriers who switch it off around 10,000ft. During the climb, we were given hot towels which given my now relatively low expectations I was pleasantly surprised by.
The First cabin consists of eight seats in a 1-2-1 configuration over two rows. Sadly, because of my day-long delay, I was in one of the middle seats rather than by the window. It was quite a shame as most of the window blinds were kept down for the entire flight by those in the window seats. American carriers do not require the blinds to be up for departure and landing and so some people keep them down the entire flight, one does wonder why they pick a window seat in those cases but never mind.
The seat is slightly peculiar as the seat turns round on the spot to allow for sitting facing forward, angled to the side bed or fully turned 90 degrees to use the side table as a desk.
There was a little fold-out table where you could put your laptop to work in this configuration. It was clear that the seats were a little old, to be polite, and the seats swung from side to side even when locked in the forward-facing position. The privacy divided between the two middle seats was a little on the low side and so if you were pivoted towards your seatmate and both sat up you’d be looking straight at each other.
There is a small cupboard by your shoulder that has charging ports, the headphone socket and audio-visual input ports for cables that are at least a decade out of date. There was also a weird socket labelled as being for an iPod (again an out-of-date brand, supplanted by iPhones) that I had not seen before. Below the cupboard is the remote control that can be pulled out on a cable and retracted. On the side console, there is also a tablet device that allows for controlling the seat and activating the “Do Not Disturb” function. There is no enclosed storage with this seat beyond the small cupboard with the power ports.
Below there are three buttons which release the TV screen from its stowed position, the seat from its “locked” position and to turn on the overhead lights. There are two overhead lights for each seat and an overhead air vent too. The overhead bins have labels that they are only for First Class passengers and little mirrors to ensure you don’t leave anything behind. The footstool can also be used for buddy dining which is a feature dying out on aeroplanes. The table pops out and then is unfolded to create a rather large dining table and slides towards you on rails.
When reclined, the seat goes almost flat, not enough to notice though. The sleeping surface was very wide and was comfortable with the armrests up or down which was nice.
The mattress pad was a nice addition and the blanket was a bit basic but was at least thick enough to be warm. The good thing about these seats is that there are no enclosed foot cubbies and so your feet are not constrained when sleeping. One thing to note about the seat is it can feel a little exposed as there is really very little in the form of privacy divided in the aisle. When you angle your seat towards the sleep position it does feel more private but not hugely so.
There were two lavatories at the front of the cabin for passengers to use, though at various stages in the flight, at least one of them was blocked by catering carts that had been left out making them a little difficult to use!
Using my photocopied menu, I was able to place my order with the purser. I was asked about which courses I wanted, which drink whether I wanted to be woken for breakfast and how many courses I wanted, whether I wanted the soup and or the salad.
This seems to be the main difference between Business and First in that you can have a fourth course rather than being limited to three as my Business Class menu on the way home was remarkably similar and ironically not photocopied. I accepted the soup and declined the salad. I was also asked about drinks with the meal.
The table was set with a white linen cloth and my Dr Pepper was brought out with accompanying nuts and olives. I do like that they offer Dr Pepper which is one of my favourite soft drinks but not many other Europeans share my view on that so it’s not regularly offered on flights.
Following on my starter of poached baby figs was brought out along with a salad that I had explicitly not requested, one does wonder what the point of asking the question is if they are going to bring it anyway. Incredibly, this food was actually brought out on a tray and placed on top of the table. This is very much not First Class standard but American has decided it is, making it easier for the cabin crew to serve and thus reducing staffing in the cabin. Whilst it may seem like an unusual hill to die on and is very much a first-world problem, when you are in a first-class cabin, I would expect the table to be set and the food items brought out individually. They even managed to do this in Virgins Retreat Suite which is technically a Business Class product…
After I had finished my starter, which was nice though the figs were quite sickly sweet, as a lot of things in the US are, the plates were cleared and my Classic Beer Cheese Soup arrived. It looked quite plain but the flight attendant came racing up with the croutons she had forgotten to add which added a bit of texture. At this point, I asked for another Dr Pepper which was forgotten about.
Finally, I had my main course, for which I had chosen the chicken option, which was tasty. At this point, I declined pudding as I had had three multicourse airline meals in about nine hours which was quite a lot even by my standards. The food was fine overall but was effectively that which was available in Business Class and there was no real indication you were in First Class rather than Business, particularly given the food was served on a tray and preferences not paid attention to and items forgotten.
I don’t know whether I was just having particularly bad luck on this flight but the IFE was almost unusable, the interface was very old and reminded me of early windows with the scroll bars. The touchscreen barely registered when I attempted to use it and regularly went into the programme in the centre rather than scrolling left or right. I had to use the screen though as my little remote would not actually boot up.
The choice of entertainment was rather good, and I was pleasantly surprised. They had multiple episodes of series, though not the whole series, but more than many other carriers. I watched Person of Interest which I have now started watching again at home because of this flight. There were seven episodes available of this particular series.
The IFE had airspeed and altitude displays but because they showed us at above 0ft and going at circa 190 kph whilst we were still parked on stand, I didn’t pay much attention to these…
There was the option to use WiFi and the pricing was up to $19 for the entire flight. Due to it being an overnight flight where I was trying to sleep for as much of it as possible outside of the meal service, I decided not to pay for it in the end.
I was awake by the time breakfast was served and so I decided to have some food. I chose the omelette with vegetables which came with a bowl of fruit and a biscuit which British people would describe as scone-like. I also had orange juice and tea. Once again, the meal was served on a single tray. The meal was fine but not anything more. This time the tray table was left bare too.
I will start this section by saying the cabin crew member assigned to First was very well-intentioned but she was badly let down by the airline. It is clear that American Airlines does not see a step difference between First and Business. There appears to be no specific training for First and the cabin is understaffed with only a single crew member in the cabin, with occasional assistance from the purser, for eight passengers compared to two or three on BA. I liked the cabin crew member and we had a nice chat about her career before I disembarked but it was clear that to provide a first-class experience consistent with European or Middle Eastern carriers, more investment, training and manpower needs to be put into the cabin.
Sadly, I fear that AA’s First Class was in a negative vicious cycle with AA unwilling to invest in the cabin they didn’t see good enough returns on but which people were unlikely to pay a premium for. I do not think anything will change before the cabin is removed completely which is a shame as AA had the chance to differentiate themselves compared to Delta and United, neither of which have First Class anymore.
Uniform standards also seemed to vary wildly amongst the crew with some wearing fleeces and coats that made it difficult to tell whether they were actually on the crew. Supposedly, this is something AA is cracking down on with the help of their unions. Some members of the crew gave off the impression that we were self-loading freight and that they did not want to be there which was a real shame.
Rumour has it, senior crew members apply for positions in the First cabin because it is “less work” given the smaller numbers of passengers whereas really it should be more work given the, hypothetically, higher service standards and expectations.
The seatbelt sign was on for a majority of the flight which I found strange as it was relatively smooth for most of it, I don’t know whether the flight crew forgot, as I have on a sector before, or whether the pilots and or the airline, are super cautious due to liability reasons.
At 20 minutes to landing, there were still a significant number of meals and service items out in the cabin with the cabin crew only receiving the call to prepare the cabin for landing at 10 minutes to go. I felt this was quite late for a long-haul flight as BA tends to do announcements at 40 and 20 to go rather than 20 and 10. Ten minutes is how long we gave on our regional jet for comparison.
During the descent, we were given a chocolate and a cold towel and were thanked for flying American which was slightly unexpected given how standoffish the purser had been through the flight.
Multiple times it had been announced that masks needed to be worn at the airport as Brazil had reinstituted this requirement. During deplaning very few passengers wore one, even when there were staff on the jet bridge handing them out. The immigration queues were relatively fast and the officers were friendly from my experience and before long I was waiting outside in far too warm clothes waiting for my taxi to take me to my hotel.
In principle, I was excited to try a new airline product, particularly in First Class. I left quite disappointed with American. There was so much potential and even though the physical seat is old, I quite liked it. I liked the pivot so you could face where you wanted to and the sleeping surface was very good, wide, and not constrained, I slept quite well on it. It is let down by the service product, American really offers a Business Class service in First on the plane and even then, some members of the crew let the already sub-par First down and small touches that elevate other First cabins were missing such as boarding pleasantries or even just saying “Mr” in front of my surname rather than sounding like a school register and I may have had a particularly poor flight service wise but it was disappointing nonetheless.
To be clear, not all the crew are like this, the dedicated First crew member was lovely. The stapled-together photocopied menu was a let-down too and really set the bar at a very low point. The lack of investment by American, both in terms of crewing numbers, updates to the cabin and service items really do show through and I understand why passengers won’t pay a premium for First. Whilst BA’s First is not revolutionary and will not win the prize for best First in the world, I feel it is leagues ahead of American’s and unless the price difference is huge, I will attempt to use BA metal rather than flying American.