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Review: Comparing Preferred Economy Seats on AA’s 777-300ER — Dallas to Hong Kong

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Earlier this year, TPG Associate Editor Emily McNutt found a great fare on a round-trip flight between Dallas and Hong Kong and took off on a mileage run to earn Platinum status with American Airlines. Read on for her comparison of two preferred seats in the economy cabin of the 777-300ER.

A few months ago, I signed up for a status challenge with American Airlines around the same time I signed up for a subscription with the “unlimited flying” app, OneGo. The plan was to fly as much as possible with AA during my month-long subscription in an effort to get to the 12,500-mile mark needed for AA Platinum status. I did the math, planned the necessary routes and times and took off on my first week of travels for a total of 3,886 EQMs — putting myself well within reach of my goal. And then, I found out my subscription was canceled.

How was I going to finish my status challenge? Time was running out — and then I found a pretty fantastic deal with AA for a round-trip flight to Hong Kong for $548.

The mileage run would put me well over the 12,500-mile requirement for Platinum status with the challenge and I would get to experience AA’s flagship product. Plus, I would have a couple of days in the Hong Kong to experience Asia for the first time. It was a win-win scenario and I couldn’t wait to take off and experience a new product — even if it was in economy — and a new city.

As I’ll explain below, I ended up flying in two different preferred seats in economy — the outbound leg in a two-seat row at the rear of the aircraft and the return leg in an exit row. This review is a comparison of the two seats and which one I’d recommend if you decide to splurge on a preferred economy seat.

Booking

I booked the flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) to Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and them to Hong Kong (HKG) directly through AA’s website and paid $548 for my round-trip economy ticket. At the time, I didn’t have any kind of status with American Airlines, so I wasn’t eligible for complimentary preferred seats. However, knowing the outbound leg was going to be a nearly 17-hour flight, I decided to switch from my middle seat in a three-seat row to a preferred seat in row 41.

The seat upgrade was $84, but the cost was completely justified in my opinion, given that I would have more room and one less seat to climb over during the flight if I had to get up and go to the bathroom or stretch my legs — and I would get my desired window seat. The preferred seats with two stars would have cost me $93, the three-star seats would have cost $169 and the four-star seat would have cost $177.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 2.07.35 PM
My upgraded preferred seat in AA economy — 41A.

For the return leg, I was set for a window seat in the main economy cabin. However, I got my AA Platinum status before I left Hong Kong, so I was able to score an exit row seat on the return leg free of charge, something that would have cost me more than $160. What can I say, status has its perks!

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 2.17.39 PM
My booked seat for the return leg — 25L.

I booked using my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, specifically for its travel insurance options. If your trip is canceled or cut short by sickness, severe weather and other covered situations, you can be reimbursed up to $10,000 per trip. In addition, if your flight is delayed more than 12 hours or requires an overnight stay, the card covers up to $500 per ticket for unreimbursed expenses such as meals and lodging. The purchase also gave my 2x Chase Ultimate Rewards points, so that was a nice added bonus on top of the travel insurance benefits.

Check-In

I checked in for my outbound flight from LGA at an electronic kiosk. My flight left New York around 6:45am so by the time I got to the airport, the check-in area was rather quiet. I scanned my passport at the kiosk and received boarding passes for both flights that day — LGA-DFW and DFW-HKG.

From there I headed for security, which is where things took a turn for the worse. The line to get to security was painfully long and wrapped around corridors, with two separate lines eventually merging into one. I didn’t have TSA PreCheck at the time so I had to stand in line the whole time — in all, it was about an hour wait.

My return trip went much more smoothly. Hong Kong’s public transportation is so advanced and easy to use. There’s a train that takes you between the airport and Kowloon Station, as well as a complimentary shuttle between the train station and your hotel. On my return trip when I went from my hotel to the Kowloon Station, there were counters for each of the airlines so you could check in, drop off your bag and then hop on the train to the airport. If I’d had a bag that I was checking, it would have been extremely convenient to get rid of it there and not have to lug it with me on the train and through the airport.

Not only was the check-in process smooth in Hong Kong, security was also a breeze. For such a large airport, neither the security line nor the customs line was long — in fact, I was through security in about two minutes.

Overall, the return trip was quite different compared to my outbound flight. Although that has nothing to do with my preferred seat, it’s worth noting that the check-in experience in HKG was much quicker than at LGA.

The Lounge

Last year, when Citi announced that Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard authorized users would be able to access Admirals Clubs, TPG added the whole staff as authorized users. For a perk that’s worth up to $500 per user for a membership, this card benefit is highly valuable — and definitely worth considering if you’d like to have Admirals Club access.

There are four Admirals Club lounges at DFW — one in each terminal except for Terminal E. It’s very convenient because no matter which terminal you’re leaving from, chances are there’s an Admirals Club nearby. On my outbound flight, I went to the Admirals Club in Terminal D in the international terminal.

The Terminal D lounge was pretty large with very high ceilings. For me, the best part of the lounge was the natural light. There are floor-to-ceiling windows lining one wall, which allow for some great runway views. This isn’t the largest Admirals Club, but there some nice benefits that come with it, such as a quieter space and more room to stretch out.

The Admirals Club at
The Admirals Club at DFW’s Terminal D.

On the return leg, I had more lounge privileges because my outbound flight had earned me enough EQMs (9,500) to put me over the edge for AA Platinum status. When I arrived in Hong Kong and checked my AAdvantage account the following day, the miles had already posted to my account and I had officially reached Platinum status — meaning I would then earn bonus miles on the return leg, as well as additional perks like lounge access.

As a newly appointed Oneworld Sapphire member, I had access to the Cathay Pacific Business Class Lounge at HKG because I was departing on a Oneworld carrier. However, I chose to go to the Plaza Premium Lounge — arguably not the best choice — which is accessible for Admirals Club members.

The Plaza Premium
The Plaza Premium Lounge at HKG.

The lounge itself was nice. Because it’s not exactly an Admirals Club, there were more than just the regular Admirals Club food options. I didn’t see a designated bar, but there were a couple of canned beer options, as well as basic soft drinks in coolers available throughout the lounge. The feel of the lounge was pretty nice, but not luxurious — it’s open to the main terminal on a bridge-like platform, so it’s a bit on the noisy side. I was a fan of the comfortable seats with power outlets, and the large windows that gave way to some pretty nice views of the tarmac.

The view from my seat at the Plaza Premium Lounge at HKG.
The view from my seat at the Plaza Premium Lounge at HKG.

Overall, I liked the DFW Admirals Club more because of its noise level and traditional Admirals Club options, which I preferred over the Plaza Premium options. That being said, the Plaza Premium Lounge wasn’t too bad. I’ll definitely be checking out the Cathay Pacific Business Class Lounge in the future, too.

Boarding

On both flights, I was able to board early so I could get some shots of the empty aircraft.

The gate area for my outbound flight was right next to the Admirals Club in Terminal D so there wasn’t a long walk when I left the lounge and headed to the gate. The gate area at D23 was very spacious with its extremely high ceilings, but there really wasn’t much seating space. There was also some construction going on in the Terminal, especially next to gate D23, which kind of made the gate area feel claustrophobic when everyone on the nearly-full flight started congregating around the boarding area. The lighting was kind of dim, too, but that might have been due to the ongoing construction. I wasn’t there for the regular boarding process, as I boarded early, but there was definitely a lot of traffic in front of the gate before I boarded.

On the return flight, there was plenty of natural light around the gate area. On my way from the Plaza Premium Lounge, which was about a five-minute walk from the gate, the hustle and bustle of the very busy HKG’s Terminal 1 started to thin out. At gate 65, where my flight left from, people started congregating by the door very early on. Again, I wasn’t there for the regular boarding process, but there were two separate doors at the gate, which, I assume, expedited the boarding process.

The gate area at HKG
The gate area at HKG.

Overall, in both cases I boarded early so I don’t know what the actual boarding process was like for people who boarded at the regular time. However, I would say the gate and terminal at HKG was far more comfortable, spacious and aesthetically pleasing with plenty of natural light than the ones at DFW. However, I did like that the Admirals Club entrance was steps away from the gate at DFW. In the end, I do prefer the HKG boarding process.

The Cabins

Because I flew the same product on both flights, the interior of the aircraft was the same — the service was essentially the same, too, but more on that later. American’s 777-300ER is split into four classes — First, Business, Main Cabin Extra and Economy. As soon as I boarded, I explored the first three cabins.

The first-class cabin is comprised of eight seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. Each seat has 64 inches of pitch and is 78 inches long when fully expanded to its flat-bed position — each seat is also 30 inches wide.

When I briefly walked through the cabin, each seat had a welcome kit consisting of a pillow, slippers and a blanket. The cabin looked really nice — especially with the complimentary Bose headphones, which both business- and first-class passengers get.

The
A first-class seat on AA’s 773.

The business-class cabin is composed of 52 flat-bed seats arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration. Each seat has 43 inches of pitch —  75-78 inches of bed length when in its flat-bed position — and is 26 inches wide.

AA's business-class cabin on its 773.
AA’s business-class cabin on its 773.

My next stop was the Main Cabin Extra cabin, which is comprised of 30 seats in a 3-3-3 configuration, featuring three rows with nine seats and a last row with three seats. Each seat has 36 inches of pitch (about five more inches than its regular economy counterpart) and 18 inches of width (one more inch than in regular economy).

The Main Cabin Extra
The Main Cabin Extra cabin on board AA’s 773.

Finally — the plane is quite long — I made my way back to the economy cabin, which is made up of 220 seats in a 3-4-3 configuration.

The economy cabin on AA's 773.
The economy cabin on AA’s 773.

Each seat has 31 inches of pitch and is 17 inches wide. I came to the rather quick conclusion that 31 inches of pitch is not enough for a 16.5-hour flight from DFW to HKG.

Each seat had its own pillow and blanket wrapped in plastic. I didn’t use the pillow, but the blanket was a nice grey fleece material that kept me comfortable when I was sleeping or watching movies during the flight.

31 inches of pitch in economy is not a lot for a 16.5-hour flight.
31 inches of pitch in economy is not much for a 16.5-hour flight.

Each seat also had its own in-flight entertainment system, which, for the most part, was located on the seat-back in front of you. Each seat had a USB port, as well as a power outlet. The options available to use with the IFE system were the same 0n both flights. I spent most of my time flipping through AA’s extensive collection of movies and TV shows — I was pleasantly surprised with both the just-released options as well as those that had been around for a long time.

The in-flight entertainment system also had several features that were pretty neat, including an in-flight chat system where you could communicate with everyone on the plane or with a certain seat. I thought the chat option was really neat, but since I was traveling alone, I didn’t make use of the seat-to-seat chat function.

The in-flight entertainment system.
The in-flight entertainment system with remote, USB port and power outlet.

There were 12 lavatories on the 773 — two in the first-class cabin, two in the business-class cabin, four in between the business-class and Main Cabin Extra cabins, two in the middle of the economy cabin and two at the rear of the aircraft, located almost within the largest of the crew galleys. The bathrooms I saw were all pretty standard with no motion-activated faucets.

Pretty standard lavs — at least in economy.
Pretty standard lavs — at least in the economy section.

The overhead bins were also very large.

The overhead bins
The overhead bins were quite spacious.

The Seats

Both of my seats were unique and each had its advantages and disadvantages. First up, the outbound seat from DFW-HKG, which was located at the back of the aircraft in row 41.

The seats at the back of the aircraft where the body of the plane narrowed were nice and definitely felt more spacious than those in the three- or four-seat rows.

The three two-seat rows at the back of AA's 773 cabin.
The three two-seat rows at the back of AA’s 773 economy cabin.

I had the window seat, and I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of space I had to my left in between the armrest and the cabin wall. Whereas in other window seats, there’s usually no space between the armrest and the window, but in my two-seat row I had at least a foot of space between the two. This was really nice because I was able to store my personal items in between the two, freeing up plenty of space under the seat in front of me to stretch out.

The space between my
There was plenty of space between my armrest and the cabin wall.

My seatmate also lucked out because he had an empty seat to the right in front of him. There was no IFE system on the aisle seat of the row in front of us. Instead, my seatmate used the ground space under that aisle seat to store his personal items so his leg space under the seat in front of him was clear as well.

The seatback of the aisle seat the row in front of me was
The seatback of the aisle seat the row in front of me had no IFE system.

This two-seat configuration was also nice when it came to getting up and moving about the cabin, since I only had to ask one person to get up instead of two.

I really liked the location of this seat relative to the rest of the cabin. Because it was at the rear of the aircraft, there were two bathrooms and a large crew galley located right behind the last row. I felt like even though there was a lot of foot traffic (mostly people on their way to the lav behind us) there wasn’t an overwhelming number of people congregating around there — at least from what I could see.

Look at all that space between the window seat and the cabin wall!
Look at all that space between the window seat and the cabin wall!

The return flight, however, was a whole different story. I was sitting in a two-seat exit row (row 31), which was really convenient as far as not having to jump over anyone when I wanted to get up, but also meant the presence of both a bathroom and a galley close by — in fact, they were both right in front of me.

My window seat (31A) in an exit row on the return leg.
My window seat (31A) in an exit row on the return leg as seen from the crew galley.

While this did mean that I had a ton of leg room …

Look at all that leg room!
Look at all that leg room!

… It also meant that for the duration of the flight there were people congregating near the lav and galley — not exactly the most private and quiet of scenarios. Each time I fell asleep, I would wake up almost immediately because people were talking right in front of me or because of the light coming from the galley. Even with all the legroom, I found myself thinking I would much rather be far, far away from the constant congestion so I could get some privacy and more importantly, some much-needed sleep.

There was a curtain that flight attendants pulled in front of the galley to help block some of the light, but each time someone walked through it, they would pull the curtain back not knowing it was closed to prevent the light from beaming directly into our eyes in the exit row.

The seat itself was comfortable and having the extended amount of legroom was very much appreciated on this 14-hour flight.

A meeting spot during the flight.
A popular meeting spot during the 14-hour flight.

Another negative aspect of this seat was the IFE system, which comes from below the seat. This isn’t an issue until you want to leave your seat — you have to close it a bit to maneuver your way out of the seat. This was also an issue at one other time: when I had my tray table out. The remote for the IFE is placed on the armrest, so when I had my tray table out, the remote was inaccessible. This wasn’t a huge issue though, since I just made sure to take it out before I opened the tray.

Each of the exit row seats also had a power outlet below it. The USB plug and headphone jack were still located at the bottom of the IFE screen, so those weren’t accessible during taxi, takeoff and landing. One final negative thing about this seat was the lack of a window. I’m a big fan of the window seat because I enjoy looking outside and getting a glimpse of the scenery, but on this flight I didn’t have access to one — only if I stood up and opened the window on the exit door.

Each of the exit row seasts
Each of the exit row seats had a power outlet and an IFE screen below it.

Overall, there was one seat I clearly preferred over the other. The in-flight experience of the two-seat row at the back of the aircraft was far superior to my experience in the exit row. Although the exit row did give me plenty of legroom — which I didn’t have in the rear of the aircraft — not having any privacy and constantly being woken up was really unpleasant.

Food and Beverage

Each of the two flights had three meals — a “lunch,” a snack and a “dinner/breakfast” — depending on the time zone you’re used to, I think you could get away with calling the two main courses breakfast, lunch or dinner.

For lunch on the outbound flight, there were two options: cheese tortellini or pork and rice. I opted for the cheese tortellini. It came with a pretty sad-looking salad with pepper cream dressing, edamame, a roll, a bottle of water and a double crunch brownie for dessert. The cheese tortellini was surprisingly really good and there was plenty of flavor. The edamame was also a really nice option to have and made up for the poor salad — the peppers were pretty good, though!

Lunch on the outbound flight — cheese tortolini.
Lunch on the outbound flight — cheese tortellini.

Lunch on the return flight also had two options: beef and rice or curry chicken. This time around, I opted for the curry chicken dish, which was pretty unappetizing. The meal came with chicken curry and rice, a salad, a tuna salad of sorts, a roll, bottle of water and a banana dessert. The chicken was a bit rubbery, but the curry had nice flavor, so I ate that. There wasn’t anything else in this meal that I was very fond of and I ended up throwing much of it away.

Chicken curry on the return flight.
Chicken curry on the return flight.

Not too long after the lunch service, flight attendants came around with a snack, and on both flights, there were no options as to the selection. On the HKG-bound leg, the snack consisted of a ham and cheese sandwich, rice cracker snack mix and salted caramel gelato. I only had a few bites of the sandwich and it seemed decent, but the gelato was great!

My snack on the
My snack on the outbound flight.

On the return flight, FAs came around with the white boxes again. Inside it this time was a chick pea wrap, which had some nice flavor. Also inside were three unwrapped seeded grapes and a snack-size Mars bar. I liked this snack box, but wasn’t especially hungry so I didn’t eat much of the wrap.

The snack
The snack on my return trip.

For the breakfast/dinner meal on the outbound flight, passengers were again given two options: chicken and rice or a breakfast sandwich. The breakfast sandwich consisted of turkey and eggs but I opted for the chicken and rice. It was served with a bottle of water and some fresh fruit. Both parts of the meal were alright — the chicken was pretty good and not rubbery, while the fruit tasted pretty fresh.

My chicken and rice dish on the outbound flight.
My chicken and rice dish on the outbound flight.

On the return flight, passengers were given two choices for dinner/breakfast: curried vegetables with rice or a breakfast sandwich. I opted for the curried vegetables and was completely surprised with how appetizing it was. Not only was it a sizable portion, but the food tasted good — something I would definitely order again. It was also served with fresh fruit, which was also very good, especially the kiwi!

My meal on the return flight.
My dinner/breakfast meal on the return flight.

On both flights, FAs came around several times with drink service and were very generous with the drinks. There was a general selection of soft drinks as well as complimentary beer and wine. I chose to go with white wine on both flights, which was nice — nothing special, but it tasted pretty smooth.

Overall, my food on both flights was surprisingly decent — with some good parts and some parts I’m likely to skip on my next trip given the same options. I really enjoyed the cheese tortellini on the outbound flight and the curried vegetables on the return flight, both snack options were nothing to rave about, the chicken and rice on the outbound was decent and the chicken curry on the return was kind of unappetizing. So while that has nothing to do with which seat I was in, I would say the food on the outbound flight was better than the food on the return trip.

Service

On both flights, I had the same crew — they stayed in Hong Kong the same amount of time I did! When I boarded both times, all the flight attendants were very friendly and accommodating — especially those stationed in the premium classes.

Although the service was good, it wasn’t the best I’ve ever had on a flight — by far. That being said, it was much better than usual and the flight attendants were nicer than I had anticipated on an AA flight. They weren’t overly friendly, but were very attentive and made sure we got to our destination safely, which is their main job.

As the crew was the same and because I was sitting in economy for both flights, the service was pretty consistent overall. I can’t really say I was overly impressed with the service, but it was decent enough and I was happy with both experiences.

Overall Impression

Flying between Dallas and Hong Kong was, by far, the longest flight I’ve ever been on — and to do it in economy can be a pretty daunting thought. Given the situation and knowing how long the flight was, I decided to try out two different preferred seats — a two-seat row in the back of the aircraft and an exit row seat.

There were positives and negatives to both options, and each offered its own perks over a regular economy seat, but there was one clear better option — the two-seat at the back of the aircraft for my outbound flight. Between the privacy, additional room between the armrest and the cabin wall, the food and the better IFE screen, I was much more content with that seat. The return exit row seat was fine and the legroom was beyond generous, but the lack of privacy and constant swarm of people standing right in front of me were major issues.

I was
Overall, I was happy with both of my flights.

For such a long journey, sitting in a preferred seat really made these flights bearable — and quite enjoyable at times. Of course, a premium class is always preferred, especially on these longer routes, but I was happy with the economy product. The IFE system really made the trip fly by (har har) and the service was pretty good — best of all, I now officially have AA Platinum status!

If you’re going to splurge for a preferred seat, definitely pick the two-seat row at the back of the plane over an exit row seat — even if you’ll have less leg room, you’re guaranteed to have a more private and comfortable flight.

Have you flown in either of these economy seats long-haul? What was your experience like? 

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