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Flight Review: American Airlines 777 International Business Class to Beijing

by on January 9, 2012 · 31 comments

in American Airlines, Trip Reports

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This is an installment in my series on my January 2012 trip to China. Posts include: Help Me Plan My Trip To ChinaFlight Review: American Airlines 777 International Business Class to BeijingHotel Review: St. Regis BeijingBeijing Overview: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and Peking DeckA Great Day at the Great Wall of China,  Flight Review: Air China 777 Domestic Business ClassHotel Review: Andaz ShanghaiTrip Report: Terra Cotta Warriors and a Wild Goose Pagoda in XianHotel Review: Sheraton Xian, and My China Trip Wrap Up: China Eastern, Hainan Airlines and the Westin Beijing.

As you know, one of my new year’s resolutions is to explore more of Asia, and since I’m now based in Miami and going for American Airlines Executive Platinum status, I figured I’d take advantage of some low AA fares to Asia in January–especially because the airline is offering double EQM’s on flights until January 31, 2012. My $1,600 fare would net me 32,000 elite miles, and my friend Rick, the Frugal Travel Guy gave me some systemwide upgrades so I could fly business class this time.

MIA-ORD

First I had to make the domestic connection from Miami to Chicago. I boarded what must have been one of the older planes in American’s fleet, a rusting 757, and was seated in a business class seat that Gordon Gecko might have expected back in the Wall Street days (you can see from the shot in the gallery below). Plus, there was no WiFi, which makes this flyer sad, but otherwise it was okay. At least it was a relatively short 2 hour and 50 minute flight, and there was enough room to stretch my long legs. I had a light salad for lunch since they were out of chimichangas, which I was curious about, by the time food service got to me. A fine experience, but nothing amazing, and I was actually kind of shocked at the old clunker they had flying between two of the airline’s major hubs.

ORD-PEK

My flight was AA 187 aboard one of the airline’s flagship 777-200′s, departing at 7:55 pm CST and arriving almost 14 hours later at 11:3o pm Beijing time, so I was going to have some time to settle in, and needed to plot out my napping plan appropriately so I wasn’t wide awake all night when I got to China.

As I said, I was booked in the airline’s flagship business class thanks to a systemwide upgrade. The 37 seats in business class are arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration, and are in squared-off fixed-shells. (The airline also has 4 rows of its Flagship First Class seats in a 1-2-1 configuration up in the very front.) Each seat is 20 inches wide, with a pitch of 60 inches, and when reclined fully in the angled lie-flat position stretches to 76 inches—pretty much the industry standard on US carriers’ international business class from what I’ve experienced—and a duvet and large pillow for sleeping.

I hate having to climb over someone or having someone climb over me to get to the bathroom, so I chose an aisle seat in the middle section hoping that I’d have an empty seat next to me, or be seated next to a couple traveling together so they could just deal with it themselves and leave me alone. Up until the door closed, it looked like the seat would be empty, but then someone boarded at the last minute. He had an Executive Platinum tag on his backpack, so I assume he was probably mileage running to take advantage of the double EQM promo.

At the gate I asked about upgrading to First Class and I was given the option to upgrade for 25,000 miles and $450, but that seemed like too big a splurge, and I’d already flown in American Airlines’ Flagship First Class Suite, so I wanted to experience business class this time.

If I had to do it again, I’d probably upgrade since I thought first class (which I flew from Buenos Aires to JFK) was really roomy and comfortable, whereas the angled lie-flat in business class was just not big enough for my 6’7″ frame, though I did manage 9 hours of sleep thanks to post-New Years exhaustion and a little help from my friend Xanax. I’ll be testing out First class again on the Oneworld megado later this month from JFK-London and then London-DFW, so I’ll see how that goes, and then make a final decision about whether upgrading to first class is worth it.

Apart from that, I was glad the flight boarded on time the door closed on time, and we departed the gate on time…in business class we were offered a choice of water, orange juice or sparkling wine before takeoff, and then we were on our way. (Clearly I chose the sparkling wine to kick off my epic journey to China).

Things I Liked

The menu was simple and the food was okay, and I liked the wine list which had choices from all over the world including California, New Zealand, and Portugal. I also liked the fact that the airline has changed out the Burt’s Bees products that used to come with the amenity kit for Dermalogica products, which are much better in my opinion. Service was brusk, but by no means angry like some people experience on American. I had a younger flight attendant who happily served me ice cold Tsingtao beers and my mediocre meals.

Things I Dislike

Again, the angled lie-flat just didn’t do it for me, and I can’t wait for AA to upgrade its fleet and start getting all those new planes it ordered. I also thought the flight times were weird since we left in the late evening and arrived very late at night, so it was hard to gauge just how much sleep to try and get on the long flight, and it feels like you definitely lose a whole day rather than arriving fresh in the morning. Eric suggested getting about 4 hours’ sleep on the flight so I wouldn’t be a zombie when I arrived but that I could still get a full night’s sleep in Beijing, but I ended up getting about 9 hours and then still sleeping for 6 hours once I got to my hotel in Beijing, so I actually ended up being ready to go when I woke up at 8am on Thursday, so maybe the flight time wasn’t so bad after all. I also hated the DC power ports–who uses these?

Now, I don’t really watch movies on the plane, but I did notice how small each seat’s 10.6-inch screen was, especially because it’s fixed in the seatbacks of the preceeding row, so despite the dozens of movies including quite a few new releases, television shows, plus options like music, games and travel shows, it wasn’t the best viewing experience.

Arrival

Everything went smoothly upon arrival. There weren’t any other flights getting in, so getting through customs was a breeze–they didn’t even ask any questions! The taxi line was short and I got one quickly, though the driver didn’t speak English and it would be the first of many frustrating taxi experiences. I showed him the address of the hotel from my Starwood app and he had no idea. I then loaded it up in Google Maps – no clue whatsoever. He then signaled to call the hotel so I showed him the number for him to call and he finally got through – meanwhile the whole time he was fully stopped in the taxi lane with about 20 cabs behind us honking for him to move. Oh China.

Airline Strategy

This trip is definitely a big part of my decision-making process about my 2012 airline strategy, and will determine just how hard I try for Executive Platinum status. I’ll have nearly 70,000 EQM’s by the end of January, so I might go for it anyway, but I want to see how the flight back and the Oneworld Megado go before making any final decisions.

As for China–I’m super excited to be here, and grateful for all the TPG reader comments and suggestions. Keep an eye out for more trip reports as I travel through the country. I’m wrapping up this trip report as I sit in Beijing airport Friday afternoon after a once-in-a-lifetime type Great Wall experience. I took lots of pictures and videos, so stay tuned.


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  • MN1971

    It is sad to see that AA still keeps the same bad service and bad planes but charges as much as Asian and European airlines. There is no comparison between a Cathay, Singapore, Ethiad, Air France, Swiss and AA. For me all US based airlines are still on the Stone Age when compared to peers in Asia and Europe. I will never forget when I was at the Delta business class on my way from MSP to SIN and the grumpy flight attendant came with bottles of water to offer to us. She had Dasani (tap water) and Evian and gave me a bottle of Dasani. I asked if I could switch to Evian and looked at me with an angry face and said:”Why do you want to change? Water is water!!!!”. Well, no comments needed, right?

  • CTR

    “Each seat is 20 inches wide, with a pitch of 60 inches, and when reclined fully in the angled lie-flat position stretches to 76 inches—pretty much the industry standard on US carriers’ international business class from what I’ve experienced”

    - This isn’t really the case anymore, and the AA product lags well behind most of its major US competitors. UA/CO, DL and even US all have flat-bed products on large portions of their long-haul fleet and AA’s product looks extremely dated in comparison. This goes beyond just the seat too – in terms of IFE they are well behind the offerings available from their competitors.

  • Anonymous

    I see your point, but DL/UA/CO are far from having fleetwide lie-flats. Delta even has a ton of 757s with recliners!

    I guess my point was that an angled lie-flat is par for the course for domestic carriers. While they all have lie-flats being rolled out, none are fleet-wide and they’ve all got a lot of work to do

  • Anonymous

    Agreed.. the only reason why I’d choose AA business over the others is because they allow dirt cheap coach fares to be upgraded with systemwide upgrades

  • Michael

    And that’s a great reason!

  • Shawn

    The upgrade offer from the gate agent was a mistake–only paid business (including deep discount) can upgrade with miles, had she/he honored it you’d’ve gotten lucky, but most likely as you laid down your amex platinum (or is it a citibank visa?) they’d have apologized and indicated an SWU’d flight from coach cannot be upgraded further.

  • Joe

    Sounds like a stressful taxi experience, always make sure to have the name & address in characters there.

  • Carberrie

    Does anyone know of anyone who’s ever experienced a double upgrade from coach to first on AA using SWUs and/or Miles + Cash? I’ve sometimes seen advertisements at check-in for upgrades from coach to business for $750.

  • Vince

    Power Ports!!!!! AAARRRGGGHH!! I do a lot of flying on AA metal and can not stand the DC power ports. I’ve got to carry around yet another cable and they do not properly charge my MacBook. I think they are the only carrier left – anywhere – still using these and on their 757′s none of them work. They are apparently upgrading the 757 fleet to proper AC jacks but haven’t announced anything about the 777 long haul jets so who knows when that will happen.

    I’ve also go to agree that at this point both their business and first product is severely lacking and dated. Compared to a number other intl carriers though I really can’t stand their intl business – 2-3-2 layout??? C’mon!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Q7IGGGKTDFN3MT2DVJSV23LSOU Noah

    I flew from SAN – EZE and then GRU- SAN coming back home. I was in First on a 777 and the whole experience (service, food, etc) was really bad. I didn’t even think the seat was that great. The only good part was the entire trip was 133k miles.

  • KP

    LOL, AA’s Business Class and Domestic First Class looks like ASS!!! Cheap ass product if you ask me, quite satisfied with Delta actually!

  • BR

    Very good report! I wish you’d mix the pictures into the report like you used to instead of just putting them all at the end. It’s nice to get a visual of what you’re reading.

  • tivoboy

    Man, every time I read one of these reports and see the pictures I say. “man am I glad I fly United” but then again, I remember I’m HATING United. So, AA must be pretty bad.

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  • Anonymous

    It is very funny to read about your taxi experience in Beijing. The same thing has happened every day during the six trips I’ve made there. I’ve printed out Google maps in Chinese, and still the drivers have no idea. I’ve added the hotel page in Chinese to the paper stack, and still no help. I’ve had bellmen speak to the driver and draw maps (no help), and I’ve been with Mandarin and Cantonese speaking Chinese customers in the back seat of a taxi headed to a restaurant only a mile away, and still there is a long discussion that sounds like an argument, and it seems like we’ll never get to the right place. I have never found a solution to the taxi problem. During my last visit, I was in a taxi that overheated, and the driver just pulled off the highway, parked in a semi-suburban area, and told me (in Mandarin) to get out of the car. I walked a mile or so to the nearest hotel (which i found on Google maps with my iPhone), and when I got there, the bellman said they could not help me with a taxi because it was rush hour, and they suggested I stand by the road and try to flag one down. Total craziness.

    And the AA review confirms my fears about their long-haul business class product. I have decided to stay with the consistent, lie-flat CO product out of EWR. The W fares are usually reasonable, and the 6 SWUs (with 100% lie-flat seats on the routes I fly) make for a reliable, almost enjoyable experience. I love the IFE, the universal AC plug, the USB ports and the iPod integration. I just hope UA keeps it as consistent as it has been for the last few years.

    Thanks for the typically excellent review.

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  • Anonymous

    Yeah, AA Premium service is pretty cra**y, and I’m switching over to Singapore. Just as soon as they offer a first year free Visa card with 100K bonus miles, a BankDirect checking account with 60K miles a year with a $50K account balance, and mileage deals with stock brokers, shopping portals, car rentals, etc. As I read their award chart, my wife and I can fly SA to Singapore R/T in FC for between 750K and 2 Million miles, depending on availability. Since I don’t have expense account travel, I’ll be able to earn that many Kris Miles by about, oh, the year 3025.

    In the meantime, the two of us are going DFW to LHR, AA FC next summer, for the third year in a row. Using miles only, all of which were earned without any flying whatsoever. Sure, if we were paying the R/T list price of $21K for two, we’d be bitter about the grumpy service and mediocre wine and food. But we aren’t paying for them, we are just playing the Mileage Game, and AA gives us lots of ways beyond flying to get those miles.

    By booking some 10 months in advance, I got the exact days and N/S flights I wanted. Since we are flying in total lay flat pods, with first off the plane baggage handling, nearly empty Flagship Lounge access, and priority customs clearance at LHR, all basically for free *, we will grant AA more slack than they deserve. Would I rather fly Singapore for free? Sure. Can I fly Singapore for so little expenditure of cash and effort? No.

    * Free, except for a couple hundred dollars in UK taxes, of course. As for Star Alliance, the two worst IFEs I’ve ever had were with UA, thanks to the angry prison guards they used for FAs. After the second flight, I swore I would never fly UA again, and I haven’t.

    While our pods don’t have “doors” on them, the “Champagne” is a medium quality US domestic rather than Dom or Krug, and the FA may in a grumpy mood, we are still giggling like kids locked up alone for the night in a candy store. No, no, Brer Wolf, please don’t make us fly AA Trans-Atlantic FC for free again… :>}

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  • Mdalton81

    Upgrading for cash at check in is different than paying miles and a co-pay. If you’re offered to pay cash ONLY to upgrade, you can do that from an award ticket or an upgraded fare with SWU.

    You cannot double upgrade using a combination of SWUs and miles as indicated in this story though.

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  • Kenny

    Haha you are so dead on with the ‘gordon gecko’ reference! I love the old AA fc though – it reminds me of being a kid when my dad was in his 80′s/90′s business days and my family got upgraded on our vacations.

  • Nwh7928

    I agree with you 100%. I just returned yesterday from Tokyo, flying AA 1st class. Are they perfect? No. Are they as good as the foreign airlines like SA? Usually not. But I just went on phenomenal trip for cash pay of $52, and got to enjoy the Flagship Lounge both ways, had priority baggage, etc and got to walk to the front past all the sad looking people boarding economy for the 12 hour flight, and out first past the same tired looking people upon arrival. AA is just an unusual situation to allow racking upon gaudy amounts of miles, rarely setting foot on a plane as a cash pay customer. I think we should all be giddy with happiness as long as this system keeps going, rather than grumbling about wine quality. And I loved your comments about United….what is going on with them? I just flew then from ORD to DUB a couple weeks ago…the FA’s were in a bad mood, the loading of the plane was terrible, both ways, luggage was late…not good.

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  • NguyenVanFalk

    I’ve had similar experiences in China. Arriving at PVG around 10pm to find the metro was closed, I approached a group of three cabbies smoking and chatting whilst waiting for fares. None of them spoke a single word of English, couldn’t understand a bit of my admittedly lousy Mandarin, couldn’t read the directions I had in Chinese (apparently a startling amount of Shanghai cabbies are illiterate) and had no earthly idea what I was talking about despite my repeating one of the largest bridges in the city over and over. Finally found a cabbie who drove me at about 120 mph whilst texting and smoking down a barren, futuristic toll road into the city. A frustrating but exhilarating experience. Then there was the time in Hong Kong (Hong Kong!) where the cabbie spoke no English and hadn’t a clue where Yau Ma Tei MTR Station was — a major location in Kowloon. Unbelievable but always a thrill.

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