Flight Review: American Airlines 777 International Business Class to Beijing
This is an installment in my series on my January 2012 trip to China. Posts include: Help Me Plan My Trip To China, Flight Review: American Airlines 777 International Business Class to Beijing, Hotel Review: St. Regis Beijing, Beijing Overview: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and Peking Deck, A Great Day at the Great Wall of China, Flight Review: Air China 777 Domestic Business Class, Hotel Review: Andaz Shanghai, Trip Report: Terra Cotta Warriors and a Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian, Hotel 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.