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TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen recently had the opportunity to fly American Airlines’ new business class aboard the airline’s retrofitted 777-200 from New York-JFK to Rio de Janeiro (GIG). He flew the plane both on the outbound and return, once facing forward and the other facing the rear, to experience both types of seats. Here’s his review of both experiences, combined.
In recent years, American Airlines has really stepped up its game when it comes to business class. First, the airline launched a fantastic new seat on its brand-new 777-300ER, which we reviewed on a recent flight to London. Later, AA announced retrofits for its 777-200 and 767-300 aircraft, which would each be getting different seats.
Since then, the airline revealed that it would be introducing yet another seat type to its fleet, which will be installed in 777-200s that haven’t already begun the retrofitting process, once American identifies a new seat manufacturer. So, stay tuned for updates — and in the meantime, please enjoy this review of AA’s first-round 777-200 retrofit business class.
Booking and Mileage
Back in August, we reported on a phenomenal business-class airfare from New York-JFK to Santiago, Chile (SCL) via either Rio de Janeiro (GIG) or Sao Paulo (GRU). These fares were available on Orbitz and you could pick a combination of carriers, including American, LAN and TAM.
Unfortunately, flights on LAN’s nonstop Boeing 787 Dreamliner service from JFK-Santiago were not part of the deal. However, I was able to book my tickets on American Airlines’ retrofitted 777-200 with a new business-class cabin from JFK-GIG, continuing on to SCL on TAM.
Overall, I paid $1,035 and earned 16,528 miles and EQMs thanks to the base flight miles and the class-of-service bonus for paid business class. That works out to about 6.26 cents per mile. Not exactly mileage-run rates, but not at all bad!
If you didn’t get in on the fare deal and are interested in an award flight, you can redeem anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 American miles for a round-trip ticket in business, depending on award availability.
Airport and Lounge
I initially flew out of American’s Terminal 8 at JFK, where I probably could have saved time if I’d just checked in at a kiosk in the main area. At premium check-in (a perk afforded by my business-class booking), there were only two people ahead of me in line, but all three desk agents seemed to be in the midst of a delay or seating-arrangement crisis; their collective drama kept me waiting for more than 20 minutes.
When I eventually reached the desk, however, I was fully checked in within one minute. Despite the fact that this was an international flight, my boarding pass was labeled with my TSA Precheck status, which (happily) enabled me to zip through security.
I headed straight for the American Admirals Club across from Gate 11, in the near section of the terminal.
There’s another American lounge at the farther end of the terminal (where many of the domestic flights depart), but this one is nicer, with a small private section for first-class passengers. The lounge’s main section features a variety of seating areas with couches, armchairs and coffee tables, as well as side tables that have power outlets.
There are TVs on the walls, and at the near end of the lounge, there’s a little self-service beverage and snack station. Toward the back is a small children’s area and office section.
At the very back is the bar and café. I received two drink certificates with my entrance, so I ordered a glass of wine and some water, took over one of the tables and plugged in my computer to charge it while I worked.
About 30 minutes before my flight was scheduled to board, I asked to use one of the shower suites, and the front-desk agent led me to the shower area. Though my shower looked pretty spare and clinical, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was stocked with Red Flower bath products.
By the time I had showered and changed clothes, it was just about time to board my flight, so I left the lounge for the gate, went straight through the premium line and was pointed to my seat.
The Cabin Layout
American’s retrofitted 777-200s are now in a two-cabin configuration with only business class and economy (including Main Cabin Extra seating), as opposed to the old three-class configuration that also included a first-class cabin.
The business-class cabin is actually split into two sections, each arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration. The front section has five rows of seats (plus one seat on the side in the sixth row) and the aft section contains six rows, for a combined total of 45 seats.
Unlike the airline’s 777-300ER business-class seats, half of these new business-class seats face backwards. The side seats in one row face forward, the middle seats face backwards, and then that pattern is reversed in the following row; in other words, the pattern you’re seated in (herringbone or reverse herringbone) will depend on the row in which you’re seated.
SeatGuru provides a map of this new cabin layout — but unfortunately, I didn’t learn until after I’d booked that it’s actually inaccurate.
On my flight down, I chose seat 8L, which is forward-facing in both the SeatGuru diagram and real life. Had I relied on this diagram to guide my choice of a rear-facing seat for the return trip, though, I wouldn’t have chosen my seat, 2L — as SeatGuru shows this as forward-facing. Fortunately, American’s website indicates the direction of each seat with a little arrow, allowing me to confirm 2L as rear-facing.
If seat orientation matters to you, go by American’s own listings for these seats on aa.com, or call the airline to have an agent assign you a seat facing your desired direction.
As I took my forward-facing seat on my initial flight, I’d wondered whether it would be awkward to be facing someone and have my head next to someone else’s; fortunately, the height of the seat dividers ensured that I couldn’t see the person either in front of or behind me, nor the person whose head was beside mine. In fact, the person I saw the most of was actually seated across the aisle from me, facing backward.
On the return, the major difference of sitting in a rear-facing seat was that during takeoff and landing, I felt the need to splay out my feet a little in order to brace myself and stay steady.
I was traveling alone, so on both flights, I was happy to secure seats on the side of the plane. However, if you’re traveling as a pair, there are a couple of factors to consider when choosing front- or rear-facing seats in the middle. On the one hand, the rear-facing seats have their backrests right next to each other, but the seats themselves face away from each other. (Each of these seats has a divider you can raise if you’re traveling alone.) Front-facing seats are far apart, so you have to lean forward around the seat controls and armrest to talk, but at least they’re sort of angled toward one another.
One final positive: Each seat has direct-aisle access, so there’s no need to step over anyone else to get to the lav.
As I mentioned, these seats resemble those aboard the airline’s 777-300ERs, but their forward-reverse switch-off configuration makes them quite different in practice. Like the 777-300ER seats, they’re handsomely upholstered with gray fabric flecked with red and white, and sport charcoal-gray leather headrests. You’ll have to wear the seat’s shoulder strap for takeoff and landing, but you can otherwise just use the lap portion of the seat belt.
Each seat has just 60 inches of pitch, and is 21 inches wide with the side armrest raised or 26 with it lowered. However, you can’t lower the armrest in the rear-facing seats, so you’re stuck with the narrower dimensions. To be honest, though, both seats felt pretty narrow — and much more so than on the 777-300ER, where the seats are 26 inches wide 78 inches long.
The rear-facing seats have hard armrests on the aisle that contain their tray tables and don’t move, so you’re a bit more confined in them.
Each seat lowers to a fully flat bed of 77 inches, or six feet, five inches. Though to be honest, I’m nowhere near that tall and it seemed like either my head or my feet were bumping into one end of the seat or the other at all times while I was in lie-flat position.
The seat controls are on a touchscreen next to and slightly in front of the seat. Preset positions include upright for takeoff and landing, a Z-shape for lounging, and the lie-flat bed. You can also switch to the “Custom” screen to adjust the seat to your own specifications, including the back and leg rest. I also liked the “Do Not Disturb” button that lit up your seat number in red so flight attendants wouldn’t disturb you if you wanted to skip the pre-landing breakfast.
Speaking of meals, the tray table pops up and out from the hard armrest panel of the seat closest to the window on the front-facing seats and the aisle side on rear-facing seats. Large enough to make a good workspace, it’s got a nicely grained wooden finish and slides both forward and back, so you can adjust it to a position that’s comfortable for you. American unfortunately didn’t order tablecloths to match this table’s size, so you end up having a place setting with half the table exposed; it’s a small quibble, but a detail that was clearly overlooked.
The seats have international adapters and USB ports for device-charging, as well as an overhead lamp and a reading light.
The major drawback to these seats is the utter lack of storage space. Even the little pocket by the USB port where you would want to stick your iPhone literally says “no stowage for takeoff and landing.”
And don’t even think about keeping a bag with you or trying to put your tablet or laptop … anywhere.
In terms of privacy, I preferred the rear-facing seat, as it’s more isolated from the activity of the aisle. However, the fact that it’s narrower than the front-facing seats might be an issue for some.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
These seats have 16-inch touchscreen monitors with about 200 movies and 200 TV shows, as well as hundreds of musical selections. I personally watched Pitch Perfect 2. Don’t judge me.
The entertainment screens are slotted into the side of the seat, and you have to release a latch to get them to flip out so you can watch them; for takeoff and landing, they must be stowed. Though there are touchscreen controls, it’s actually easier to use the entertainment system’s handheld remote control, which is slotted into the side of the seat.
Passengers are lent Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headsets, but they’re not passed out until 20 minutes after takeoff and are retrieved 45 minutes prior to landing, so if you opt to use them, be aware that you’ll miss about an hour’s worth of in-flight entertainment. Better just to bring your own.
The airline now offers paid Wi-Fi on its retrofitted 777-200s, but you get free access to aa.com, where you can check flight times and connection information, book another flight, etc. Otherwise, Wi-Fi costs $12 for two hours, $17 for four hours or $19 for the entire flight.
The amenity kits are currently part of American’s limited-edition “Heritage Collection,” each of which bears the livery and logo of one of the airlines that have merged with American over the decades. I found it particularly amusing that the kits on my flight were emblazoned with US Airways’ signature navy-blue and red trim. In addition to the usual toothbrush and toothpaste, Scope mouthwash, foam ear plugs and tissues, the kit also contained an eye mask, socks and Red Flower face cream, hand cream and lip balm. (I found it even funnier that on my return flight, my amenity kit was an American Airlines heritage one, sporting one of the airline’s old logos.)
Business-class passengers have four lavatories from which to choose — two at the front of the plane near the cockpit, and two between the two sections, one on either side of the galley. However, while the rest of the plane might have been renovated, the only noticeably refreshed feature in these bathrooms was a no-touch sensor faucet.
For most of my flight down, there were actually only three lavatories available; someone seemed to have had an accident in one of the lavatories, as if a well-fed and enraged monkey had found its way onto the flight. After meal times and before landing, there was quite a line-up.
In fact, as I was waiting to brush my teeth and use the bathroom one last time before landing, one of the pilots came out of the cockpit, cut in front of me without asking (of course, I would have let him go first), and started banging on the lavatory door, asking the passenger inside if he was going to be finished anytime soon. I’ve never seen anything like it and felt terrible for the guy in there — who was accommodating, but not pleased.
Though they weren’t very friendly, the crew for my 10.5-hour outbound flight to Rio were certainly efficient about meal service. The quick beverage service was accompanied by bowls of warm nuts, and the main meal service included:
- Assorted breads (I always go for the pretzel roll).
- Roasted beet and quinoa salad with herbed goat cheese, toasted pepitas and dried cranberries.
- Spinach and frisée with strawberries, blue cheese and vinaigrette.
On the flight down, the choice of mains were:
- Boursin-crusted beef filet with creamy demi-glace, mashed red-skin potatoes and sautéed kale.
- Herbed turkey cutlet with sour-cherry sauce, orzo pasta and broccoli with garlic.
- Pepper and olive tapenade-crusted halibut with parsified potatoes.
- Chilled Mediterranean panzanella salad with fresh prawns, toasted brioche, yellow tomatoes and tarragon aioli.
For dessert, there was a choice of a cheese plate with Fontina, dill Havarti and smoked cheddar, or cookies-and-cream ice cream.
I chose the beef, which seemed like the most reliable option. By Boursin-crusted, they just meant a blob of cheese had been melted on top, but other than that, it was fine. The salad and quinoa were actually both pretty fresh and tasty, so I enjoyed those a lot more.
I chose the ice cream for dessert, but it tasted and felt more like a brick of chocolate mousse — and was not very good at all.
As you can see from the photo, everything was served at once, which was probably a good thing, overall. However, this meant that the crew only came through the cabin once, and then did spotty beverage checks after that; if you wanted a refill, you had to speak up.
On the positive side, it meant that meal service was pretty quick, even for such a big business-class cabin. This meant that you could eat and/or get to sleep, work, watch a movie, etc. in plenty of time.
There was the usual selection of mid-shelf spirits and domestic beers, in addition to a selection of wines that included:
- Gerard Demilly Brut Champagne (about $25 on the ground, if you can find it).
- Millbrandt Vineyards Traditions Chardonnay from Oregon (about $13 on the ground).
- Anselmi Capitel Croce from Italy’s Veneto (about $20 on the ground).
- Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon from the North Coast of California (about $12 on the ground).
Breakfast was a choice of Quiche Lorraine with fire-roasted turkey sausage and paprika potatoes, or a fresh fruit bowl with granola and Greek yogurt. Having had my fair share of gross airplane egg dishes, and not feeling that hungry yet, I chose the lighter option and enjoyed the fresh fruit. Both were served with warm breakfast breads and a choice of juice and coffee or tea.
On the return flight, the wines were the same.
The small dishes on the tray were fresh mozzarella and prosciutto with melon; seasonal greens with fresh vegetables (as far as I could tell, the latter were just carrots); and assorted gourmet breads that included these delicious little cheese puffs.
The choices of mains were:
- Herb-crusted beef tenderloin with fines herbs cream sauce, thyme-roasted potatoes, creamed spinach and a parmesan-crusted tomato.
- Coq au vin with sautéed haricots verts, roasted peppers and yucca puree.
- Gemelli pasta with fresh San Marzano tomato sauce, mushrooms and asparagus.
- Thai shrimp salad with fresh shrimp, avocado and ginger-soy vinaigrette.
I asked the flight attendant which main looked best, and she suggested the beef. The piece of meat was actually pretty good, but the potatoes were not well cooked, and the creamed spinach tasted like it had been tossed in warm mayonnaise.
As with the outbound flight, the crew hustled to get meal service done. We were supposed to take off around 10:45 pm, but instead, we finally rolled down the runway just after midnight, so we were already a few hours into sitting on the aircraft by the time the drink cart came around; most people were eager to get the meal over with and go to sleep.
For dessert, there was a choice of:
- Vanilla ice cream topped with crumbled chocolate chip cookies.
- A gourmet cheese plate of gorgonzola, gouda and brie.
- Grand Marnier fruit salad with strawberry sorbet.
I didn’t have a taste for anything sweet, so I went for the (tiny) cheese plate, which was good for a last bite or two.
My flight out of Rio was very delayed, so after having spent around 40 hours in that airport, I was fairly exhausted; I slept right through breakfast and almost up to the moment we landed. However, the breakfast options they served to people who managed to stay awake were:
- Cheddar omelette with Lyonnaise potatoes, smoked ham and fresh fruit.
- Fresh fruit bowl with granola and fruit yogurt.
- Warm breakfast breads.
- A choice of coffee, juice and other beverages.
At non-meal times, the bar area between the two business-class sections and just aft of the galley was stocked with fruit, chips and some breakfast bars, juice, soda and tiny water bottles.
Though head and shoulders above American’s old 777-200 business class — which had angled lie-flat seats in a cramped 2-3-2 configuration — this new business class fell a bit short of the flagship version aboard the airline’s 777-300ER.
Both the front- and back-facing seats were pretty comfortable, but the major drawback was the lack of storage. What good is it to have universal adapters if you can’t put your computer anywhere while it charges?
The mess in the lavatory was also fairly disgusting, and the crew made no effort that I could see to either clean it up or alert passengers not to use it; I saw a few green faces pass by me on their way back to their seats.
I’ll also say that, while competent, the crew down wasn’t terribly friendly — and some were downright brusque. The one or two flight attendants who actually smiled really made a difference! On the flight back up, everyone was courteous and fun, so that flight was a lot more pleasant.
Given a choice, I’d probably try to fly American’s 777-300ER or LAN’s 787 down to South America, but the 777-200 was still very nice and a much better option than the airline previously fielded on this aircraft. Once the issue with manufacturer Zodiac is resolved, I can’t wait to check out the even newer seats that American will put on its 777-200s.
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