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In January I flew American Airlines 777 First Class from Buenos Aires to JFK and I was wholly unimpressed – terrible lounge, tasteless food, and careless service. The sole redeeming feature was the ultralong lie-flat bed, which allowed me to get 7+ hours of restful sleep. Sure, it was a whole heck of a lot better than flying in coach, but their first class product is nowhere in the realm of their competitors, like Oneworld alliance partner British Airways New First Class product, which I absolutely love.
That being said, my expectations were decidedly low when I booked a flight in American Airlines business class from JFK-MAD. The product is their new generation angled lie flat seat, so I was expecting a similar experience to Air France’s angled lie flat seat.
In general, my experience was better than expected, but still not remarkable in any way.
I arrived at the airport via my preferred rush hour route: subway to Long Island Railroad to Jamaica to Airtrain to Terminal. Total time: about 45 minutes from midtown and $9. I could also take the E subway, but I’ve had one too many close calls with delayed trains and it’s almost nearly impossible to get a seat during peak hours on the 50 minute trek. American had a cordoned off premium check-in area, which reminded me of British Airways at Heathrow. There was a small line, so I ended up using the kiosk, which was perfectly efficient. I laughed at the attempt to upsell me miles at nearly the same price that I can buy them online, which I talked about in this post. Security was jam-packed and the lady checking boarding passes for the premium lane seemed overwhelmed and was letting everyone in, which I see happening almost every time I’m at the airport. Even with the line, I was through security in 15 minutes and on my way to the Admirals Club. I have to say, American’s terminal 8 is a pretty nice space – light years ahead of Delta’s dumpy terminals 2 and 3. I decided to go to the Admirals Club on the far side of the terminal, closest to my gate since I only had about 25 minutes. The lounge was spacious and well appointed, although the amenities were bare-bones. Complimentary snacks included apples, veggies, and pretzel mix. I received a single drink coupon (which was fine for my short stay, but I would have been annoyed if I had several hours to kill) and a wifi coupon. I was only given the wifi because I was on a international business class ticket – a week earlier I was flying transcontinental business class and the agent refused to give it to me, stating it was only for Admirals Club members, which I thought was incredibly stingy. My uneventful lounge visit soon came to an end and we headed for the gate. Boarding was wholly uneventful (in a good way) due to strictly enforced priority AAccess boarding. Upon boarding the plane through 2L, we turned left and made our way into the business class cabin. Its a “next generation” product, so it looks more modern than the old school recliner style cabins. The seats are encased in shells, so you never have to worry about someone reclining into your space or having to stare at a stranger’s scalp the entire flight. We were in row 2 and the cabin ended up being completely filled.
The service didn’t start off well – I was fully situated with my jacket in my lap for about 5 minute before the flight attendant said hi. He seemed to be in a mood and unfortunately, not one that involved happily dealing with customers! We were offered OJ/Champagne and the rest of the boarding process seemed to wrap up quickly, followed by the usual corny, “All devices, including iPods, iPads, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries - anything with an on off switch!” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard flight attendants try to joke with that line! This flight leaves at 5:15pm and the weather was nice, so our taxi was short because we got in right before the evening transatlantic/transcontinental rush. The weird thing about a 5:15pm transatlantic flight, is that we were scheduled to get into Madrid at 5:45am and with the fierce tailwinds lately, I knew that time would be even earlier. While it would be great for a business traveler who needed to be in Madrid for the next work day, it threw me off leaving so early and trying to get sleep. Luckily I had my trusty Lunesta on me, but I still only got a maximum of 5 hours of rest. One of the things I both love and hate about AA is their standard Bose QC15 noise canceling headphones. I love them because they are fantastic headphones, but I absolutely hate it because I own them and I always have to fend off grabby flight attendants who always try to collect mine with the others at the end of the flight! I also dislike how AA is over the top vigilant about collecting them – sometimes almost an hour before landing. I understand the headphones are valuable and they don’t want people walking off with them, but there must be more efficient ways than snatching them up with 15% of a flight left!
Dinner service began quickly after takeoff, which I appreciated. We started with a choice of nuts or cheese and for the main course I chose the Red Curry Thai chicken and my partner got the Boursin Crusted Beef Filet. First course was smoked salmon and shrimp, which is very similar to Delta’s offering – I wouldn’t be surprised if they used the same vendor, even though AA and Delta both tout differing “celebrity chefs.” For the beverage/first course service, the flight attendants used a cart to help their service. I personally don’t really care about carts in the cabin, though many people have strong feelings that they don’t belong and everything should be hand carried from the galley. I sort of agree that a chunky cart blocking the aisle doesn’t really add to a sense of richness that many airlines are trying to sell, but I also like getting service quickly – especially on an eastbound transatlantic flight. What are your thoughts on this pressing aviation issue? The Thai Chicken was flavorful, though not really memorable. Frankly, I was just happy they didn’t dump it on top of a salad, which is what happened in first class on my last AA flight. What was memorable was the ice cream sundae, which was a nice way to cap off a meal as the Lunesta started to kick in! I stood up to turn the seat into a bed which quickly morphed into an angled lie flat seat. The AA duvet was the same as First Class and it’s pretty substantial, as far as airline blankets go. Once settled in, I quickly dozed off into the best pill induced airplane sleep I could muster and I slept pretty soundly, except for a few bouts of mild turbulence. I’m 6’7″, so it’s hard for me to get completely comfortable in a business class seat, therefore I’m not the best judge. I think most people would sleep fine, though anyone over 6’1″ would probably feel cramped. In fact the window seats on these planes are somewhat boxed in, so if you aren’t traveling with a companion, I’d recommend the aisle so you don’t have to do gymnastics to get over your seatmate to go to the lavatory. I chose to not get woken for breakfast, since I usually hate airplane breakfast and would rather sleep and then grab something to eat in the airport. However, sure enough, I was woken up by the flight attendant stealing my Bose QC15s! I quickly grabbed them back in my half asleep haze, but it was enough to keep me up for the remainder of the flight. Oh well, I’ll learn to put them away next time! Landing was a breeze and as usual, Madrid immigration was an absolute joke – no questions asked and waved right through. Yet another reason why I love Spain! We transited to the Spanair terminal via bus (the Iberia terminal is about a mile away from the others) and hopped on a MAD-Barcelona flight to spend 30 hours in Barcelona before coming back to Madrid. I wrote about my thoughts on Spanish airtravel here, but here are a couple pictures from the Barcelona hop. I’ll upload the pictures of my suites at Le Meridien Barcelona and The Westin Palace Madrid in another post. Before I knew it, Sunday had arrived and we were in a cab en route to Barajas. Normally I’d metro, but the AA flight MAD-JFK leaves at 9:05am and we had been out late, so a Euro 35 cab ride was our best bet. Check-in and security were smooth – the only annoying thing was that we had to go down a bunch of steps, take a 10 minute tram, and then go back up several of flights of escalators to get to the terminal. The sign said it would be an 18 minute trek and it was pretty close! However, the lounge was worth the hike. The Iberia Sala VIP was pristine and well-stocked. I could have spent several hours there easily. They even had a relaxation room which was dimly lit and had loungers (and lots of signs noting that the area was videotaped, so no funny business!). We had a short time in the lounge, so by the time we made it to the gate, we only had a couple minutes before boarding. When boarding finally commenced, I was annoyed to find out that I had to go to a separate security desk to get the ICTS stamp on the back of my passport – I wish they did that at check-in instead, like most airports. After answering 4 or 5 idiotic security questions, I was stamped and onto the plane. This time, we were in row 1, which I would recommend for this plane. It just seemed more spacious, though I don’t know if there’s actually more room. This time around, we had a jubilant flight attendant/purser who took great care of us. We spent time talking to her about Spain and our love of flight. She was very attentive to my hangover needs and let me sleep in peace and eat my Tarragon Chicken with fava beans, sun-dried tomato medley, and truffled mashed potatoes much later in the flight, which I greatly appreciated. I slept for most of the flight and then watched Black Swan, which was certainly… entertaining. I was actually very impressed by the movie selection. I never go to the movies so that I always have something to watch while on a plane, but I thought the AA selection was the best quality I’ve ever seen on an airplane: The King’s Speech (FANTASTIC movie), True Grit (which I didn’t have time to watch), Black Swan, and several other new releases like Burlesque. I’m used to seeing maybe one movie that I actually want to watch if I’m lucky, so having a bunch of Academy nominated films was a rare treat. The MAD-JFK flight was uneventful until landing when there was a medical emergency. Apparently a woman in coach was vomiting the whole time so we had wait in our seats upon landing for the paramedics to arrive. I guess the JFK ground staff didn’t get the memo, because they sent police officers who didn’t seem like they wanted to deal with a sick passenger. There was a whole lot of back and forth and about 15 minutes later she got off the plane and we were allowed to get off. However, because we were in row 1, we heard the whole confusion between the crew and emergency officials and it didn’t reassure me that they were the most qualified people to react if a bigger emergency were to have occurred. All in all, it was a perfectly enjoyable quick trip to Madrid. Am I absolutely dying to fly AA transatlantic business class again? Not really. Would I book it again if I got a really cheap fare? Absolutely!