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TGP Contributor Kevin Song recently flew in business class on American Airlines’ 787-8 Dreamliner from LA to Shanghai. Read on for his impressions. (All photos are by the author.)
I recently used some fantastic fares from the US to China as an excuse to do a mini mileage run to Asia so I could earn a bunch of miles before the American Airlines devaluation and use up my expiring systemwide upgrades.
Since the fares I found were fairly flexible in routing, I chose to fly Chicago-Dallas-Los Angeles-Shanghai to not only maximize my mileage earnings, but so I’d also be able to fly on not one, but three separate Boeing 787 Dreamliners — one from Chicago to Dallas, and another two from Los Angeles to Shanghai and back.
I snagged a great fare for my flight — about $625 for an economy fare since I specifically routed it to fly on three of AA’s Dreamliners. As an Executive Platinum member booking just a day or two before the flight, my systemwide upgrade cleared at the gate after I’d already boarded and settled into my Main Cabin Extra seat.
Even though I didn’t this time around, you can still opt to redeem miles for this flight. American Airlines classifies China as part of the Asia 2 region, which includes most Asian countries except Japan and South Korea. From North America, you can use 35,000 AAdvantage miles to fly one-way in economy, 70,000 AAdvantage miles to fly one-way in business class or 110,000 to fly in first class (although technically, there was no first class on the Dreamliner I flew on). Other options include flying to China through Hong Kong on Oneworld partner Cathay Pacific or routing through the Asia 1 region on the way to the Asia 2 region by flying on Oneworld partner JAL through Tokyo — award availability might actually be easier to find on those carriers, so do your homework before you go.
Airport and Lounge
As a business-class passenger, you’re eligible to use the Admirals Club in Terminal 4 or the Oneworld Business Lounge in Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), where this flight departed from. Needless to say, especially since it’s so easy to go between the two terminals now, I’d suggest using the Oneworld Business Lounge. As an American Airlines Executive Platinum member, I decided to use my Oneworld Emerald status to go to the lovely Qantas First Class Lounge.
At the Qantas First Class Lounge, I opted for a delicious pre-departure breakfast of a custom omelette and buttermilk pancakes. At 8:00am, the lounge was nearly empty and therefore very peaceful and relaxing. Soon, it was time to board so I headed over to my gate, where boarding began just a few minutes late.
Cabin and Seat
American’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a two-cabin aircraft, with 198 seats in economy and 28 in business class — there is no first-class section on this plane.
In economy, there are 57 Main Cabin Extra seats, and 141 Main Cabin seats, both in a 3-3-3 configuration. Both types of seats have a width of 17-18 inches, though Main Cabin Extra offers a little extra legroom at 36 inches versus 31 inches in Main Cabin.
Business class is where things get interesting, as there are both forward-facing and backward-facing seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. All 28 seats are lie-flat and have direct aisle access. There’s a larger forward cabin of five rows and a mini-cabin of two rows behind the main business-class galley and bathrooms.
Note that at the back of the mini-cabin, there’s only a thin wall separating business class from the first few rows of economy, which could be bothersome when the economy cabin turns the lights on for meal service or if there’s a bassinet baby in the bulkhead row.
Regardless of your seat, be sure to use the middle starboard lavatory, especially if you’re changing into more comfortable clothes as it’s a bit bigger than the standard airplane lavatory.
On this flight, I sat in seat 5A, a forward-facing window seat in the front of the business-class cabin. As with most new seats, this one adheres to the industry-standard of all-aisle access and lie-flat seats. The similarities to the majority of seat designs stop there, however — they’re not the much-loved reverse-herringbone seats found on the Boeing 777-300ER, but rather an alternate design. In general, this affords less privacy than reverse-herringbone seats — on the bright side, your feet aren’t in a little cubby underneath the seat in front of you, so it feels a bit less restricting.
These seats are manufactured by Zodiac and are quite similar to the ones on AA’s refurbished Boeing 777-200 planes. Here’s the thing: Zodiac has had trouble keeping up production of the seat to American’s liking, so the carrier has terminated its contract with Zodiac and suspended the refurbishment of its Boeing 777-200 planes.
What this means is that newly refurbished Boeing 777-200 planes and Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners that will be delivered to American Airlines will use another, yet-to-be-announced seat — this will certainly lead to some confusion and a lack of consistency across the fleet. However, Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners like the one I flew on will continue to have the same Zodiac seats.
The seats can actually vary quite a bit, especially between forward-facing and backward-facing options. Both are actually pretty tight for business-class seats. While I’m small and didn’t feel too squished in, the seat itself is only about 22 inches wide.
Backward-facing seats actually have more personal space — as they are afforded a surface for items on both sides — while forward-facing seats only have space on the window side and are open to the aisle. While this does allow a little extra wiggle room on an otherwise pretty narrow seat, it means that you’re also exposed to the aisle and as a result, will have a little less privacy.
Additionally, if you’re sitting in the forward-facing seats, you must wear a shoulder strap during takeoff — there’s also an adjustable armrest on the aisle-side. Because of the reversing seats, you sometimes end up facing directly toward the seat of the person across the aisle, which can be a bit awkward. The number of windows also varies by seat — mine, seat 5A, had only one window, while most of the others had two.
Of course, the Dreamliner is famous for its blue-tinted electronically dimmed windows — sadly, they don’t get nearly dark enough, and it can be quite annoying during a daytime flight such as this one depending on the position of the sun and time of year. It generally wasn’t much of a problem, but sometimes the sun was quite strong and made me feel hot underneath the blanket. Boeing has announced that the next-generation windows will be a bit darker, but in the meantime there’s not too much to be done about it. I wish that AA would follow JAL’s lead in distributing static-cling blackout sheets to put over the windows. Elegant, no, but it gets the job done.
Oddly, while AA generally uses only thin curtains that let light through for “safety reasons,” the starboard-side forward galley actually has an opaque curtain, though the port side did not. Note that if you’re traveling together, at least on this plane, the middle partition remained up throughout the flight for odd-numbered backward-facing rows and down for even-numbered forward-facing rows.
But, here’s the biggest problem with these seats: Because their position alternates, some seats are physically connected to the ones facing the other direction. If you move around and fidget, the other person will be able to feel each and every one of your seat movements. This is a major cause for concern and is reason enough to recommend looking for and booking the seats that aren’t connected to anyone else: 1D, 1H, 5A, 5L, 6A, 6L, 7A and 7L. Thankfully, my seat (5A) didn’t have this problem, but on my previous Dreamliner flight from Chicago to Dallas, I encountered this and couldn’t imagine dealing with it — especially when trying to sleep — during a long-haul flight.
One plus: While some aircraft don’t have adjustable air vents in premium cabins, this plane not only has personal air vents, but they’re incredibly strong and you can adjust them to your heart’s content.
Unfortunately, I flew just one day before the new Cole Haan-designed amenity kits were released, so I still got the old heritage-themed amenity kit. I’ve racked up quite a few of these over the past year — this time around, I received my third US Airways legacy kit, pictured below. It comes with most of what you need in an amenity kit, but I won’t talk about it too much, since it’s now an outdated product.
One special touch on the Los Angeles to Shanghai leg was the inclusion of slippers for use in-flight — American Airlines offers them in business class and first class on all flights to Asia, as well as Sydney. Personally, I loved having slippers to wear and I really appreciated them.
Luckily, a few days later, I flew to Rome and received a new Cole Haan-designed amenity kit, which should be what you’d receive on this flight. I find the bag to be pretty well designed and I’m pretty happy with it. My favorite part? The tiny one-time-use tube of toothpaste is replaced by a larger, travel-sized tube in the new kit — you can never have enough of that when you travel!
Food and Beverage
Meal service on this flight was like any other business-class flight on American — with one exception: I had quite literally the best entrée I’ve ever had on any airline in business class, including Cathay Pacific.
The flight attendants came around before takeoff to offer pre-departure beverages in plastic cups and to take entrée orders. On this flight, the entrées offered were:
- Coffee-crusted beef filet with red wine sauce, roasted potatoes and sautéed spinach
- Roasted duck breast with curry lime sauce, coconut jasmine rice, broccolini and peppers
- Sesame-crusted salmon with yuzu cream sauce, ginger honey spaghetti squash, carrots and snap peas
- Spinach ravioli with smoked gouda cream sauce and fresh parmesan
Shortly after takeoff, we started with the standard hot towel and warmed nuts service, pictured below.
The tray tables are actually a fair amount larger on the Dreamliner than most other AA planes, but the tablecloths are still the same size as on every other flight, meaning it doesn’t cover the whole table. A minor detail, I know, but it’s that type of attention to detail that US-based airlines often lack.
We started with a flaky tomato tart with grilled artichoke heart, a mixed greens salad with sun-dried tomatoes and shaved parmesan and a selection of breads from the breadbasket. I didn’t think any of the starters were particularly good — the tart was dry and bland, the salad was mediocre and the bread was cold. On the plus side, AA has recently upgraded to my choice of butter at home, Kerrygold Irish Butter. Strangely, the tray was delivered with a packet of soy sauce, despite nothing on the menu that actually warranted the use of soy sauce — contrary to popular belief, soy sauce isn’t simply put on any and all food items to make them “Asian.”
All of my concerns vanished instantly, however, when the entrée — roasted duck breast — arrived. Yes, the portion could’ve been a bit bigger, but boy was it the best entrée meal I’ve ever had on a plane. I consider myself to be a bit of a foodie, having enjoyed meals in many a Michelin-starred restaurant around the globe, and I have to say, I really would order this duck breast if it was offered in a restaurant. The duck was tender and juicy, with the Japanese-style curry sauce delicious and perfectly seasoned.
After the main course, I was offered a choice of desserts: An ice cream sundae, cheese plate or a raspberry tart (that was more like cheesecake). I ordered the tart, and it was pretty decent, but not amazing — not too sweet, but not that flavorful and creamy either.
Here was one sorely-disappointing aspect of the flight. AA offers only cold mid-flight snacks — on this flight, a teriyaki chicken wrap and grilled lemongrass shrimp, which were bland, stone cold and in dire need of improvement. Snacks were only offered once during the flight instead of as an on-demand option. I’d imagine the flight attendants would still offer one if asked, seeing as it’s merely a cold dish with no preparation, but if you’re asleep when meal service starts, don’t expect to be offered food when you wake up.
Moreover, AA only stocks the exact number of personal water bottles needed for the flight, so once I finished mine, I couldn’t get another one. The flight attendants were happy to refill it or offer refills of my glass of water, but I generally like to drink quite a bit of water during a long-haul flight.
There was a pretty decent spread of food set up in the bar between the two business-class cabins, featuring mini-sandwiches, chips, fruit, yogurt, hummus and other sweet treats.
While I didn’t go hungry during the flight, I really wished for on-demand mid-flight service like that on Cathay Pacific, where the (hot) wonton noodles are a must-order.
Just before arrival, we had another light meal. I ordered scrambled eggs over a buttermilk biscuit with poblano cream sauce, potatoes au gratin and New Mexico chicken sausage. The other option was grilled shrimp with sausage with dried shrimp fried rice. The eggs looked absolutely horrid, as if I was being fed pig food dumped in a trough. Fortunately, it tasted a little better than that, but still wasn’t great, as is the norm for pre-arrival meals. With that came a caesar salad and creme brûlée cheesecake that was more like a flan. Oddly enough, my raspberry tart from the main meal was more like a cheesecake than this cheesecake was.
Shortly after the meal service, I settled in to watch some movies, as it was a daytime flight and I wasn’t tired enough to sleep just yet. The Panasonic entertainment system offered on the Dreamliner is the same as the one offered on other new AA aircraft on both domestic and international routes. The selection was pretty decent but not stunning. Annoyingly, even in business class, ads play before videos — generally the “Stay Amazing” ad series from Fairfield Inn by Marriott on my flight. My seat seemed to have a bit of an issue where the entertainment would pause every 15 minutes or so — annoying, yes, but I believe it to be an isolated experience (lucky me!)
As on all long-haul business-class flights, American Airlines goes above and beyond the competition in offering Bose noise-canceling headsets. Unfortunately, they take these away too early in my opinion, about an hour before touchdown, so if you’d like to continue your in-flight entertainment past this point, I’d recommend bringing your own headphones, lest you be stuck with the mediocre ones they give out at the end of the flight.
Of course, if you find yourself bored, you could always look out the window at the majestic, flexing carbon-fiber wings of the Dreamliner — it’s quite incredible how much they move during flight, almost like a bird.
As I mentioned earlier, the Dreamliner’s windows don’t dim to black, but rather to a blue tint. While I can usually sleep just fine with light around me, even I had to break out the amenity kit eye mask after being woken up several times with the sun shining directly on my face thanks to a few unlucky turns somewhere over Alaska.
I do find it a little easier to sleep on the Dreamliner compared to other aircraft thanks to the improved cabin pressure and humidity. It’s not a huge difference, but I woke up a little less dry and parched then I usually do.
One of the best features of this Dreamliner is the in-flight Wi-Fi — it’s actually quite reasonable at $19 for a whole flight pass. In fact, it’s actually a 24-hour pass, so if you’re on more than one flight that day, you’ll be able to use the pass during all of them. I was turning around and going straight back to Los Angeles, so $19 got me internet service in both directions. You can also switch between devices easily — you don’t even have to log in again if you elect to have it remember your devices.
The speed wasn’t incredibly fast, but it wasn’t that bad either. Reliability was good in general and I was able to stay connected throughout the flight. The service is offered by Panasonic but billing is done by Deutsche Telekom (not T-Mobile).
I was even able to stream a full-length movie from Netflix (albeit at a lower quality), so I watched the new Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny sequel that was just released as an exclusive on Netflix.
Soon, we were on the ground at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport (PVG). Unfortunately, there’s no expedited line for business-class passengers in Shanghai, and the AA Dreamliner flight from Dallas landed right behind us on the runway, so there was a pretty significant line for immigration.
Ultimately, I had a relatively pleasant flight — including the best entrée I’ve ever had in business class on any airline — but it’s worth noting that there are some short-sighted design flaws in the seats and windows that prevented this plane from being my favorite to fly across the Pacific.
I would take the Dreamliner again. Yes, there are certainly problems with it — the blue-tinted windows, the annoying connected-seat movement problem I mentioned and its narrow business-class seats — but, all things considered it’s quite a nice plane with pretty comfortable seats and improved cabin pressure.
The crew on my flight were friendly but sometimes lacking in proactive service. They seemed genuinely, incredibly proud to be working on the Dreamliner, however, and that made a huge difference. I do believe that a crew that can’t be proud of their own product is one that won’t deliver in-flight service that they can be proud of.
I’m excited to see what the future has in store as American Airlines expands its fleet with five more 787-8 Dreamliners and 22 787-9 Dreamliners with all-new business-class seats.
Have you ever flown American Airlines’ Dreamliner? Tell us about your experience below.
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