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For my year-end South American trip, I decided to try out the two remaining legacy US carrier international first class products: United’s new 767 first class and American’s 777 Flagship Suite. As I reported here, overall, my expectations were exceeded on United with respect to the physical seat, but the food and amenities left a bit to be desired.
To sum it up, my experience in American International First was mediocre at best and not nearly as good as United. American lacked in every area: lounge (albeit a non-hub, non-First class dedicated one like United), physical seat, service, food, cabin cleanliness, and in-flight entertainment. The details of my EZE-JFK flight are as follows..
For our two nights in Buenos Aires, I used Hyatt points for the Park Hyatt, which turned out to be an incredible experience and one I will write about soon in great detail. As a Hyatt Diamond, they granted me a 4pm late check-out, which was much appreciated since our American flight wasn’t until 9:15pm. At 4pm, we checked our luggage at the front desk and went for a late afternoon lunch along Avenida del Libertador. We ended up arriving at EZE around 5:45pm and upon arrival, I noticed that no check-in agents were at their stations in first and business class, only at coach, which I thought was a little backwards.
There were about four people in front of us in the First Class check-in lane and it took about 5 minutes for the first business class ticketing agent to get settled (but still no one for First … weird). About 5 minutes later, another rep came and settled in at one of the First and finally at 6:00, the second flustered First agent came with her plastic box and set up shop. Once staffed, check-in was efficient, with our bags being given Priority luggage tags and we were given verbal invitations to the Admirals Club by gate 10. However, a 20 minute wait for first class international check-in is poor performance in my opinion, especially since AA.com lists the Buenos Aires ticket counters to be open from 8:30am -10:00pm during US winter months.
Security and immigration were empty and you no longer have to pay a departure tax when leaving EZE, which was nice (I guess they figure they
fleece you enough with the $140 entry reciprocity fee when you enter the country). Duty free was extensive and we blew our last pesos on Malbecs.
The Admirals Club lounge was bare bones at best. I found it nearly impossible to find plugs to charge my laptop and the food offerings were abysmal: fake Doritos, bugles, crackers and cheese. Even the self serve alcohol bar was low budget: Smirnoff as the main vodka (though admittedly they did have Grand Marnier, Baileys, and a couple other decent brands). The lounge filled up quickly and the trash quickly piled up since there were very few people on clean-up duty and there are no trash cans. However, the lounge served its purpose: free wifi and a relative calm compared to the noisy terminal.
Boarding began around 8:30 and when we arrived at gate 4 it was a mob scene. We navigated our way through the crowds and the gate agents took our boarding passes after questioning whether we were Priority AAccess. It’s good that they monitored for priority boarding, but it’s a shame they didn’t have an orderly process for boarding a fully packed 777.
Prior to boarding, they had an additional table set up with 10 or so agents who looked through each passenger’s carry-on luggage. My savvy inspector caught my renegade bottle of “agua con gas” I had from the lounge and chastised me for trying to take it on board. How dare I want to remain hydrated while flying! They didn’t even have a trash can to throw stuff out, so I left it on the table and went on my way, thinking I’d be able to get unlimited bottled water on board, oh how wrong I was. My partner easily got his water past the security agents, so it’s good to know that Argentinian airport security is just as useless and random as the TSA.
We boarded through door 2L, so we made a left upon entering the door to get to the first class cabin. First class on the American 777 is 16 seats in a 1, 2, 1 formation (1 seat on each side, 2 in the middle). The two in the middle are perfect for traveling companions, because you can put the privacy divider down and swivel the seat to dine looking at each other. In fact, every seat can be turned into private dining, where someone can sit on the ottoman and use swivel the tray between the main seat. I personally like having my own space while flying and I had just spent 11 days with my partner, so I didn’t mind not taking advantage of the 1 on 1 dining opportunities!
The amenity kit was extensive, with Burt’s Bees lip balm and hand lotion. They also included a pen, which I always appreciate since I seem to chronically lose pens when traveling (especially since I take lots of notes for these trip reports). However, United First’s amenity kit was better in my opinion because they also included Purell and Scope mouthwash, versus American’s Smint and no hand sanitizer.
My first impression of the cabin and seats was that it seemed dated. The suites were certainly spacious, but they were “old school” style in my opinion and they lacked sleek design. They also lacked storage – while the new British Airways and United suites had tons of compartments, the AA one had none, that I could easily find at least. There was a huge space between my seat and the middle divider, but it was clearly marked No Stowage, so I had to put everything on the ottoman and put my feet on it to hold it during take off and landing, which was less than ideal and possibly against FAA regulations (though the flight attendants didn’t seem to care with everyone putting their stuff on the ottomans.)
In fact the flight attendants didn’t really care about much, except for one thing: absolutely no intermingling in the cabins. They made this point at least 3 times during boarding, even giving painstaking examples. They stated for security reasons, absolutely no one can move between cabins during the flight and even went on to say “So if you are sitting in the first class cabin, you can ONLY stay in the first class cabin, etc etc.” I know a lot of airlines enforce this rule, but the AA flight attendants were on a rampage about it. Does anyone know if this is actually an FAA regulation?
Champagne/OJ/Water was served and menus were passed out. Upon review of the menu, I was impressed – things sounded pretty tasty. I have pictures of the menu listed below so I won’t write in detail, but the service was basically:
1) Warm nuts or marinated cheese
2) Smoked salmon and shrimp appetizer
3) Pea soup
4) Beef (Cheateubriand), garlic shrimp or paprika chicken entrees with a choice of either salad or vegetables (tomato Provencal, creamed spinach and potatoes).
5) Dessert: ice cream sundae, cheese plate or fruit salad with Grand Marnier glaze
Coming off of two nights of Argentinian parilla red meat indulgence, I decided on the grilled shrimp with both the vegetables and salad and my partner got the beef. While I was not overly impressed with the first class cabin, I was hoping American would wow me with their celebrity chef menu and sommelier compiled wine list. Sadly, they did not.
While I was perusing the dinner menu, the flight attendant dropped off Bose QC15 noise cancelling headphones. I’ve heard a lot of good things about these headphones and I see them often on flights. I have the cheaper Bose OE headphones, which I like because they are small, but I was excited to try out the QC15 nonetheless. I was very impressed overall – they block out most noise, but they are pretty bulky. I like to leave my headphones on while I sleep and I couldn’t get comfortable with the QC15 while sleeping on my side. They had great sound and everything, but I don’t think I’ll buy them anytime soon.
After placing our dinner orders and drinking the champagne, it was time for takeoff. I wanted to test my seat before we took off to make sure it was in working condition (I recommend everyone do this on all flights), but the seat is locked in the upright position for takeoff and landing. In order to test it, you need to swivel it to align with the ottoman using a level on the armrest, which I was able to do and then the electronic controls would work. I didn’t put it into a full-flat bed, but it didn’t seem to have any issues. The reason why I do this pre-departure is because if your seat is broken they can 1) have a mechanic take a look at it and 2) switch you to an open seat or switch you with a non-revenue passenger. Once you are airborne, its much harder to make such swaps and spending 11 hours in a malfunctioning first class suite is quite the buzz-kill. The traveling pair in front of us did not have as much luck with the functionality of their suites as the security divider between them was broken and wouldn’t stay down. Mechanics came on board, but we unable to secure it in the “down” position, so they had to leave it up for the duration of the flight. Not the end of the world, but certainly not top notch.
Taxi and takeoff were smooth and uneventful and the only interesting thing about the captain’s speech once we were airborne was that he told everyone that due to the length of the flight, that pilots would be taking turns getting rest, so no one should be alarmed if they saw a pilot in the cabin or sleeping – that two would be in the cockpit at all times. I’ve never heard a pilot address pilot rest before, but I guess in the day of hyperparanoia about flying, it makes sense to head off any possible complaints.
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While dinner was being prepared I turned on the in-flight entertainment. It was an older and smaller screen, though still nicer than British Airway’s old first class cabin (I still can’t get over how tiny their screens are). The movie selection was decent and I was torn between Inception and Wall Street 2. I started off watching Inception, but the screen quality was low and it seemed really dark, so I ended up switching to Wall Street 2, which was certainly entertaining, especially since my full-time job is for a Wall Street firm.
The IFE was fine, though I found the On/Off button to be so close to the “Back” button, that I accidentally turned the system off twice. At least it loaded very quickly and didn’t require any hard resets. At one point during the movie, the screen became extremely jumped and the audio scrambled. I noticed this wasn’t happening to anyone else, so I just tapped the screen a bunch of times and put the movie on pause for a couple seconds, then it began playing again, the issues stopped, so I’m not sure what the program was, but it was a minor annoyance.
For beverage, I chose a bottle of water and the Fabremontmayou Malbec Reserva, which was decent and seems to be about a $20 bottle of wine. I like champagne, but had never heard of the Nicolas Feuillatte Brut and while I am generally open to trying new wines, I really don’t like messing around with cheap champagne. I Googled the bottle and it seems like a $30 bottle of champagne – which is a joke compared to the Dom/Krug on foreign carriers. Even United had a 1998 Henriot Brut Millesime champagne, which is a $75 bottle, but can be purchased for about $50 online.
Dinner service began and I chose the warm nuts, which actually weren’t warm at all. I didn’t have an issue with that since I’m perfectly fine with them at room temperature, but thought I’d note it for the report.
The smoked salmon and shrimp starter and soup all came out on the same tray. I had smoked salmon for breakfast earlier in the day at the Park Hyatt, so I wasn’t really in the mood. I tried it and it was, well smokey and salmony as one would expect. The shrimp were well-seasoned and would end up being tastier than my main course shrimp.
The pea soup was actually perfect. Not too salty or buttery and went well with the warm whole grain triangle bread. No complaints there.
The main course was a disaster in my opinion. I had asked for the shrimp with salad and vegetables, so I figured it would be a couple seasoned grilled jumbo shrimp with the vegetables with the salad on the side. Instead it was a handful of mini-shrimp dumped on top of a bland salad. In fact, the shrimp were smaller than the appetizer shrimp and had absolutely no flavor. At first I was even confused whether this was my entree or whether they added some extra shrimp to my starter salad. On my United flight, the appetizer shrimp salad was the highlight of my meal and that absolutely blew away this entree. My partner’s Cheateaubriand was also dumped on top of his salad and looked awful. The beef ended up being so peppery that it nearly brought tears to my eyes – and I love pepper.
I started choking down the salad out of sheer hunger and wanting to catch some sleep, and the flight attendant realized she also forgot the vegetables. I also asked for a another bottle of water, to which she denied since they were all out. Seriously? They only stock enough water bottles for one per first class passenger? Delta domestic first class has a seemingly limitless supply and they even have them at your seat when you sit down (which American did not). She indicated that she would “fill it up” for me. How or where she did it is beyond me, though I imagined her using some form of high-tech funnel from the master spring water bottle. This seems a little bit ridiculous to me that there was not a single extra bottle of water on a 777 that was loaded for a 10 hour flight.
She brought the filled up bottle of water and the side of vegetables, of which the tomato Provencal was actually the best part of the entree. The spinach was heavy enough to fill me up, so most of the salad went uneaten. I would have asked to switch to the beef, but that was equally as dreadful, so I decided to save up for dessert. We got both the sundae and fruit salad, both of which were very tasty – especially the dulce de leche topping on the sundae.
Sufficiently sated and with my movie finished, I popped a Lunesta and made my seat into a bed with the press of a button. I brushed my teeth in the restroom (for those of you wondering, First class bathrooms are equally as small as coach bathrooms on United and American – the only difference is that fewer people use them, so they generally stay cleaner).
I got back to my “bed,” put in ear plugs, put on the eye mask and stretched out. As a 6’7″ tall traveler, I have to say that its pretty incredible to fully strech out on a completely flat bed and not feel cramped. Unlike Air France’s angled lie-flat bed in business class, which was incredible cramped to me, I slept like a baby in the Flagship Suite. The only gripe would be that they could offer mattress pads like British Airways and the duvets could be a little bit bigger. I’m constantly impressed with Delta’s BusinessElite duvet, which is larger and more comfortable than every other carrier I’ve experienced.
I slept for a solid 6.5 hours, only waking up briefly for mild turbulence. I awoke somewhere near North Carolina to the unmistakeable smell of airline breakfast. The flight attendance took my order and I chose the cheese omelette with roasted peppers, Lyonaise potatoes, and smoked pork loin. I asked what kind of tea they had and just like United, she responded “Black.” Any others? “Nope.” Seriously, tea is so cheap, it would be a nice touch to also stock perennial favorites like English Breakfast tea, Green, and Earl Grey. Air France and British Airways both brought me over a huge selection to choose from, which was a nice touch. I know Americans aren’t huge tea drinkers, but there should be some more options in a true First Class product.
Breakfast was decent and I was enjoying a TV show when the flight attendant was standing over me and demanded my Bose headset. I was confused because the pilot just made an announcement that we were 150 miles/ 35 minutes away from JFK. She offered me the crappy coach headset in exchange, which I politely declined and instead opted to read my book for the rest of the flight. I understand that they don’t want people walking off with their expensive headsets, but collecting them 35 minutes prior to landing seemed a bit extreme. There was even a sticker on the side of the headphones noting that there was an “automatic theft detection system” that would sound if you tried to walk off with them, though I bet that’s just a bluff.
Another pet peeve about this product is that there are no power outlets. Yes, you heard me right. The first class cabin was made for business travelers who want to have a working lunch facing each other, yet does not provide power plugs for your laptop. They did have a car lighter jack, which wasn’t helpful for charging my laptop, but I did have a car charger for my Iphone, so I was able to juice that up.
We were ready for an early landing in JFK and we had our two empty water bottles and a read newspaper waiting to be picked up for trash, but that never happened. It reminded me of our Pluna airlines flight from Rio to Montevideo, though that was in coach. Nonetheless still a weird experience. The flight attendants had already done their final walk through and decided to leave the trash – trust me, there was no mistaking the fact that the water bottles were empty (on their sides) and the newspaper fully picked through. Oh well, not the end of the world, but another sign that American just didn’t go above and beyond.
To sum up the service, the American flight attendants were okay, but weren’t really interested in provided fast, excellent service. There were three flight attendants for our cabin of 16, whereas United had two for a cabin of 6 (both cabins had one seat for pilot rest). During the American meal, there were numerous times when I had my course for at least 5 minutes before my partner. Additionally, my main entree and breakfast came without silverware and getting bread with my first course took me waving down a flight attendant. While these aren’t major service flaws, cumulatively they cheapened the entire experience.
Overall, I left the plane with a worse impression of American Airlines “Flagship” International First Class service, than when I walked on the plane. Our trip was amazing and I was definitely hoping this flight would be a showstopping end to the trip, but instead it was mediocre at best. In my opinion, everything on this flight; airport check-in, the lounge, boarding, flight attendants, food, in-flight entertainment and seating was just wholly uninspired.
Am I glad that I wasn’t in coach? Absolutely. I’m extremely fortunate to be able to fly first class and I 100% recognize that, however in the spirit of honest, unbiased reporting, I have to grade American where it stands, which is definitely behind United International First and miles behind international competitors like British Airways’ New First, Singapore, Cathay Pacific and Emirates.