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TO THE POINT: American Airlines’ 787-9 premium economy seats effectively bridge the growing gap between international economy and business-class cabins. The pros: much more legroom, wider seats, larger IFE screens and improved recline. The cons: disappointing footrests for two-thirds of the cabin, tricky tray tables and poorly placed IFE remotes.
On October 6, American Airlines launched its brand new 787-9 Dreamliner between Dallas (DFW) and Los Angeles (LAX), the first in its fleet to feature a premium economy cabin. Since AA isn’t quite ready to launch premium economy service until early 2017, however, the new premium economy seats are still being sold as part of the regular economy cabin for the time being.
Using Google Flights, I checked out options from Austin (AUS) to Los Angeles (LAX) via Dallas (DFW), and when the price dropped to just $168 one-way, I went for it. I booked the flight with my Chase Sapphire Reserve since this card would cover me in case there were any delays, and earned 3x Ultimate Rewards points for the travel purchase.
As of right now, the new premium economy seats are coded as Main Cabin Extra economy seats, meaning general flyers are going to have to pay a premium to select them. As an American Airlines Platinum member, however, I was able to select these seats for free during the booking process. Since these seats are part of the economy cabin, you can’t expect any extra service on these flights, but you will end up with a superior economy hard product.
On this DFW-LAX route, the majority of the premium economy seats had been full on most dates I was considering. However, on the flight I ended up booking, the three premium economy middle seats remained unoccupied despite the rest of the economy section being almost full.
You may also be able to snag a nicer seat at the last minute. Just before boarding, I checked ExpertFlyer and saw that the seat next to me — 11A, a window seat — was available. If you’re stuck in a middle premium economy seat or in the standard main cabin, set up an ExpertFlyer seat alert to find out as soon as there’s an open seat you can snag instead.
After pre-boarding, first-class passengers were allowed to enter the plane, followed by Oneworld elites. There was no special boarding procedure for those sitting in the premium economy cabin, as can be expected for now, although it’ll be interesting to see if premium economy gets a special boarding zone once the product is sold as a separate cabin.
The only remarkable part of the boarding process was how orderly it was, especially compared to what I’ve typically experienced on domestic American Airlines flights. Passengers resisted lining up until their group was called, although it became a mad dash to line up once this had happened.
Cabin and Seat
AA’s premium economy seats aboard the 787-9 are arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration rather than the 3-3-3 layout in standard economy, which allows the new seats to be a bit wider and have a larger armrest.
There’s plenty of legroom, too, thanks to 38 inches of pitch. My seatmate ended up being a 6’6″ man who inquired at boarding if there were any exit row seats still available. Since there weren’t, the gate agent showed mercy and gave him seat 11A — he reported having absolutely no trouble with the legroom.
Those seeking even more legroom can grab a seat in row 9, the bulkhead row in premium economy.
The seats offer quite a bit of storage space as well. In addition to a seat-back pocket, there’s a hard-plastic storage slot underneath the IFE screen. This space seems to be best for storing smaller items like boarding passes, passports and magazines, although the slot isn’t very deep and it was hard for me to maneuver my cell phone into it.
Each passenger also gets a hard-sided storage compartment. For the pair of seats by the window, it’s located under the armrest between the seats. For the three seats in the middle, the storage compartment is between seats D/E for both D and E and between E/H for the H seat. I found this to be a good place to store my phone, wallet and camera. A tablet or very small laptop might fit there, too, but my 14″ laptop was a bit too much for it.
I noticed some people having trouble with the premium economy tray tables, which were situated on the opposite armrests of each seat. The trick is you need to first pull the tray table release lever — the tray table then ejects most of the way by itself, but passengers still need to fully extend it before it can be turned and used as a tray table. When you’re finished with it, expect to exert a little effort to fit it back into the armrest.
Inside this storage compartment, you’ll also find a universal AC power plug and headphone jack. Unfortunately, the power plug was situated in a rather tight spot, so much so that I was unable to plug in my phone’s charger and ended up using the IFE screen’s USB plug to charge it instead. Note that the easiest way to access the AC power plug and headphone jack is to lift up the armrest. This gives you a clear view of the plugs without having to awkwardly bend over.
The headrests were quite comfortable and could be extended upward a few inches, while the sides could be folded in to provide head or neck support while sleeping.
While the front row of the premium economy cabin has a comfortable combined leg/footrest, the footrest for rows 10-11 (the second and third rows of the premium economy cabin) only have a simple footrest that folds out from the seat in front of it.
I was rather underwhelmed by this footrest, as I have found similar ones in economy on other airlines and was expecting something more substantial. It’s also quite misleading since AA states premium economy seats have “extendable foot, leg and head rests” when only one-third of the seats come with that type of leg rest.
The windows installed on this aircraft seemed to be third-generation Dreamliner windows, as they got exceptionally dark. Unlike other 787 Dreamliners I have flown on, these windows go completely black at their darkest setting, making it nearly impossible to see outside, even in daylight.
Before takeoff, the cabin crew tinkered with the settings, eventually settling on pitch-black for premium economy, but only slightly dark for regular economy. The difference was stark. While we were unable to see anything from our windows during takeoff, we could see clearly out of the economy windows when we looked back.
While there’s no curtain set up to separate the premium economy seats from the rest of the economy cabin, there are walls and a curtain rod between the two, so it seems that premium economy will eventually be separated into its own three-row mini-cabin once it’s officially sold as a separate product.
I had selected seat 11C in the back row of the premium economy cabin. While some of the back row seats have limited recline, that didn’t seem to be an issue and I measured that my seat reclined 14°.
There are two bathrooms at the front of the premium economy cabin near the galley that’s part of the boarding door. When I asked, the cabin crew were unsure if these bathrooms were for business- and first-class passengers only, like it is on the 787-8, or if they were part of the premium economy cabin. I later discovered that there’s only one bathroom in the front of the aircraft for the 32 business-class seats, so it’s likely that the two bathrooms are part of the business-class cabin. Hopefully, premium economy will get to share these, too, so the passengers there won’t have to walk dozens of rows back through economy just to use the facilities.
Food and Beverage
About 25 minutes after takeoff, the cabin crew passed through for the beverage service. Coffee, juice, tea and soda were served with a Biscoff cookie, while food and premium drinks were also available for sale.
For the sake of this review, I purchased a $4.99 “Continental Breakfast Bag,” which was basically a bag containing a pre-packaged bagel, a quite-green banana, a granola bar, cream cheese and jelly. I paid for it with my Chase Sapphire Reserve, which ended up only yielding me 1x Ultimate Reward points — in retrospect, it would’ve been better for me to use my Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World MasterCard, which would’ve also saved me 25% off the in-flight purchase.
While it’ll be quite different once the AA premium economy product is officially launched, in-flight service on this flight was pretty impressive. Based on my discussions with the crew, it seems many of them are senior members who prefer not to fly internationally.
It also seems the cabin crew might be hand-picked and/or specially trained to brag about the new 787-9 Dreamliner. When my seatmate mentioned the nice premium economy product during the beverage service, the flight attendant was eager to tout the benefits of this new plane. However, she did erroneously state that this is just the “second or third flight” for this plane — I bit my tongue from correcting her.
The in-seat remote is very poorly placed and because of that, the flight attendant call button can be easily and accidentally hit by a passenger’s thigh. I noticed this happening a few times during the flight and each time, a flight attendant would come over to check if there was anything needed, only to find the passenger confused by the question.
One would think that this sort of thing would eventually lead to a less-responsive crew. However, when I intentionally pressed the call button later on during the flight, a flight attendant responded promptly, albeit tentatively. Overall, this was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with an American Airlines cabin crew.
On the 787-9, there are in-flight entertainment (IFE) screens at each seat, which seem to be identical to those on the 787-8. The screens are bright and crisp from the front but appear frosted or even opaque from the side, giving passengers a bit of privacy for viewing.
At the bottom of the IFE screens, there’s a USB and headphone plug. Since the IFE screens are so far from the seat, a headphone plug is located in the between-seat storage well I mentioned earlier.
In premium economy, the screens tilt around 12.5° (based on an iPhone app I used), allowing passengers to clearly see the screen, even if the person in front of them is reclining their seat. For the bulkhead seats, the screens were mounted on arms that extended from the front of the armrest.
The in-flight entertainment system was pretty well-stocked for a flight of any length. There were dozens of movies ranging from new releases to classics, as well as a selection of TV shows, music, audiobooks, live TV — BBC World News, Sport 24, CNBC and CNN — and four magazine options. And all of this was accomplished with no under-seat entertainment box.
Wi-Fi was available on the flight, with pricing more suited for an international trip. Despite the flight taking less than four hours, the pricing options were $12 for two hours, $17 for four hours or $19 for a “Flight Duration Pass.”
I was pleasantly surprised by my experience in American Airlines’ new premium economy seat. The pros are definitely more legroom, wider seats and a moderate 14° recline. However, more thought could have gone into the placement of the IFE remote so that passengers don’t accidentally hit the flight attendant call button with their legs. The simple footrest offered in rows 10-11 was rather disappointing as well, especially when compared to the legrest/footrest combo found in row 9.
Have you had the chance to try out American Airlines’ new premium economy cabin between DFW and LAX? Tell us about your experience, below.
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