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Last month, TPG Travel Editor Melanie Wynne took her first trip to Ireland, and to get there and back, she opted for the comfort of US Airways’ (soon to be AA’s) international business class. Here’s her review of her flight experience.
I’m always up for an adventure, so when I was recently invited by a handsome Irish gentleman to visit his homeland (where I had yet to travel) to attend a family wedding and stay in a bona fide castle, of course I said yes. I decided to spend six days on the Emerald Isle, followed by a week at TPG HQ in New York City. When I shared my travel plans with TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig, he suggested that I book a flight from my home base in Los Angeles to Philadelphia, and look into a business-class seat on US Airways’ A330 to/from Philadelphia (PHL) – Dublin (DUB) in order to take advantage of some fantastic transatlantic fares.
Earlier this year, just shy of the recent American-US Airways merger, I enjoyed flying round-trip LAX-LHR in business class on American Airlines’ 777-300ER; post-merger, I was curious to experience US Airways’ relatively comparable transatlantic product and service. I considered dipping into my stash of 400,000 former-Dividend Miles/now-AAdvantage miles, but I found I could get a much better deal by paying outright vs. booking award space.
If I’d paid outright for my trip on US Airways’ site, my six-day itinerary would have priced out at $6,611 (note that if you plan to stay seven days or more, though, that price would drop to $5,111).
If I’d booked an award via AA.com (where usairways.com now directs you for award bookings), I’d have had to settle for business AAnytime space (which is plentiful on the route, as opposed to practically nonexistent business SAAver space for 50,000 miles each way). Awards on this route price out at between 110,000-135,000 each way, so the best I could hope for would be 220,000 miles round-trip (plus $46 in taxes and fees). While that does work out to 3 cents per mile in value, I managed to do much better on the paid fare, as you’ll see below.
Using AARP’s $400 discount when booking flights through the British Airways site, I booked my flights as a BA codeshare and scored a round-trip fare of $1,582 — a heck of a deal for a transatlantic business-class flight in a lie-flat seat.
I booked this fare with my Chase Sapphire Preferred, and within a few days, my Chase statement showed that I’d earned 2x per $1 for my spend on airfare — for a total of roughly 3,165 Ultimate Rewards points. Not too shabby.
Also, thanks to American’s summer transatlantic bonus, I was eligible for 20,000 bonus miles, in addition to what I earned from the flight.
Check-in and Lounge
I’d booked a US Airways connecting flight from LAX-PHL, and at LAX I was smoothly checked in all the way to Dublin, provided with my boarding passes, and sent blissfully on my way through a two-minute trip through security thanks to the TSA Precheck I get through my Global Entry.
Upon arrival at PHL, I hoofed it over to the American Airlines Admirals Club nearest my departure gate in Terminal A West, to which I had access with my business-class boarding pass.
It’s easy to find this lounge, as the glassed-in elevator is only a few feet past a cool, modern replica of the Liberty Bell.
If you’re not flying a premium class on American Airlines or US Airways, you could still get access to this Admirals Club (and all other Admirals Club locations, too) via the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, which comes with a premium-level annual fee of $450, generously offset by a current 75,000-mile sign-up bonus after spending $7,500 within the first three months. This card also recently added a credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application to its benefits; earns 2x miles per dollar spent on eligible American Airlines purchases; and provides priority boarding, 25% savings on eligible in-flight purchases and your first checked bag free.
TPG Intern Kevin Song recently spent some time at this same lounge, and I also thought it was exceptionally large, with a sweeping view of the runway, and like him I was underwhelmed by the service and food. When I arrived at 8:20pm, the staff member at the front desk greeted me without a smile, then neglected to give me the Wi-Fi password or a drink ticket. When I asked her for both, she offered the password but said she was out of drink tickets. I peeked around the corner into the lounge and saw that there were only three other people scattered around the mammoth space, looked back at the unsmiling desk attendant and decided to try my luck at the bar.
As I walked past the lounge’s long bank of departure screens, I learned my flight would be delayed by an additional 50 minutes. Whee! Amidst busily tidying up for the night (the bar closed at 9pm, an hour before the lounge itself), the bartender assured me that I could have a glass of house wine without a drink ticket, but not any of the higher-end booze offerings. Scooping up my house white, a packet of decent whole-grain tortilla chips, a handful of yogurt-raisin trail mix and some slightly sad celery and carrots, I headed over to a cushy leather chair to settle in, text my travel companion to let him know I’d be arriving late and watch planes land and take off.
By the time the lounge closed at 10pm and I was swept out like a dust bunny, my flight’s delay was up to about two hours. Facing a weary crowd at my gate, I opted to take a seat at the bar at Vino Volo at Terminal A West, where I met a great couple from King of Prussia who were also headed to Dublin for a (different) wedding — also seated on my flight in business class, and also into wine. We chatted with the friendly bartender, talked travel and kept each other laughing until it was time to board. Far more cheery than the Admirals Lounge, this spot provided a delay well spent — just be aware that the kitchen closes at 10pm.
On Board (Finally)
We finally boarded roughly an hour and 45 minutes late, and business-class boarding was a fast and surprisingly fun affair. I was booked into a seat that split up my new-found friends, so I immediately moved two rows back to 5B so that they could sit together. I had friendly exchanges with my across-the-aisle neighbor (a 20-year-veteran US Airways pilot meeting up with his wife and kids in Dublin for vacation) and my seat-mate (a medical sales rep who often travels to Dublin for work — and turned out to be an avid reader of TPG!), set all of 36 inches away and partially obscured by a small partition unless we both leaned forward.
Champagne and whiskey flowed; warm, salty nuts were served in little bowls; and no one minded or even questioned that I was semi-surreptitiously photographing everything within a stone’s throw of my arm for this review. (US Airways: 1; American Airlines: 0.)
Within a half-hour, the entire flight had boarded and we were off at last.
The Business-Class Seats and Amenities
US Airways’ A330 on this route is an A330-200, and its small, cozy business-class cabin has 20 open suites spread across five rows in a 1-2-1 herringbone configuration that gives every seat direct-aisle access. The cloth-upholstered business-class seat has plenty of legroom and reclines to a fully lie-flat 180 degrees.
The seat is fairly intuitive, but there’s also a laminated guide in the literature compartment if you need a bit of help figuring out where everything is.
The lie-flat controls are simple to use and conveniently placed right above the pull-out tray table. Beside them is a cubby for glasses or a smartphone.
The seat also features a roomy ottoman area and cubby, set across from the chair itself. I eventually stored my shoes and purse in the lower cubby, and while eating dinner, I easily stored my duvet in the ottoman area.
There’s a standard 110-volt universal power outlet and a USB port at each seat. Wi-Fi wasn’t offered on my flight, but I was happy to charge my dying iPhone at the power outlet and unplug myself from the web and email for my entire flight.
The entertainment system is loaded with movies, music and games (as well as a map that allows you to track the flight in real-time), and I was happy to recline a little, put my feet up on my footrest and watch the entirety of Woman in Gold (thumbs-up for Helen Mirren) and the silliness of The Second Best Marigold Hotel. The touch-screen monitor is 12.1 inches wide, which is a bit on the small side, especially after experiencing the 15.4-inch HD screens on American’s 777-300ER.
You get the same Bose headphones as you’ll find on AA, with the same irritating collection protocol an hour prior to landing — albeit with far less force than that exerted by some American Airlines attendants. In compensation for removal of said headphones, you’re given a pair of earbuds in a little plastic snap-close American Airlines pouch. (I may have later de-planed with this handy pouch in my possession, but I can’t confirm or deny.)
US Airways business class uses the same wool-flannel heritage airline amenity kits that you’ll find on American, and this time around, mine was Piedmont.
The contents of these kits are pretty spare, with a little bottle of Scope, some toothpaste, earplugs and tissues, but the soft socks and eye mask in Piedmont’s colors and the Red Flower lip balm, face-wash cloth and tube of hand lotion — as well as the flannel pouch itself — made it worthwhile for me.
The seat comes with a big ol’ comfy duvet and a full-size pillow, though I found I missed the leather adjustable headrest on American’s business-class seat, and the US Airways seat’s padding felt a bit thin when I put the seat into the lie-flat position. That said, I managed to sleep for three hours of the six-hour flight as if I’d been shot with a tranquilizer gun.
Food and Service
Before my blissful rest, I managed to dine pretty well. Dinner service began with a cold starter of Thai chicken — a few pieces of dry sliced chicken breast guided towards tasty by some zingy grilled five-spice pineapple and refreshing watermelon tossed in mint. This felt more like a daytime summer salad searching for some lettuce rather than a dinnertime dish, but I was still glad to get in a little lean protein after a few hours of salty/carb-y snacks and wine.
Then came some not-so-springy — but at least colorful — mixed greens with artichoke hearts, roasted tomatoes and feta cheese (I chose the balsamic dressing), which provided me with much-needed vitamins even though it wasn’t especially tasty.
This was followed by a choice of warm breads (hello, pretzel roll) and my entrée (the suggestion of the flight attendant taking my order), a surprisingly delicious almond crusted chicken with brown butter sauce, basmati rice and sautéed spinach. Despite being a bit over-steamed, the almond crust maintained some crunch, and I was relieved that the spinach wasn’t drowning in butter; put into a different context, this entrée would have been the best microwave meal I’d ever had.
Other entrée options were peppered beef with smoked mac-and-cheese and haricots verts; seared halibut with a tomato gremolata, lemon risotto and broccolini; and a stuffed portobello mushroom with red pepper sauce, wild rice mixed veggies and the same spinach that came with my meal.
Early in the flight, one of the flight attendants took something of a shine to me (maybe it was the presence of my camera?), and in addition to proposing marriage to me, he placed a cute “I Love You” message on a napkin on my tray. (I love you, too, sky stranger.)
About 15 minutes after dinner was cleared away, the dessert cart was rolled out with a flourish. I could have gone with a small fruit-and-cheese plate or a custard-y round of cake, but the pilot across the aisle smiled and pointed me toward the glass of chocolate and mint-chocolate chip ice cream spiked with a pirouette cookie. (Turns out that pilot knows his desserts.) While I was too full for even a splash of vintage port, I did think about it for a solid minute. I mean, business class — right?
Fortunately for me/unfortunately for this review, I slept through breakfast, waking only in time for some coffee. I wasn’t hungry so it didn’t bother me, especially as one of the choices was granola with Greek yogurt and a fresh fruit bowl, a meal I have at home a few times a week. However, I did have a little FOMO when I saw that I’d missed broccoli and red pepper strata with smoked chicken sausage and potatoes — my seat-mate told me that his was hearty and not overcooked.
Service was efficient, accommodating and friendly — this felt like a crew of FAs who genuinely like and respect each other, and that vibe was a pleasure to be around. I felt very well taken care of by my flight-attendant admirer; when I expressed that I was thirsty upon waking, he brought me a full liter of water for my journey. Had I felt peckish in the night, it was good to know that I could have grabbed some fresh fruit or packaged healthy/salty snacks in the galley.
Upon an exceptionally smooth landing — after a fair bit of passenger oohing and aahing at the sight of the impossibly green outskirts of Dublin — de-planing took all of 10 minutes. Reuniting with my Vino Volo buddies for the long walk to customs, we agreed that DUB smelled sulfurously odd by the arrival gate; nearing customs, though, the odor improved. (Anyone know what that’s about?) I stood in line for only five minutes at customs to get my kelly-green Ireland stamp, then waited 20 minutes for my bag — but at least it was one of the first to come out. Soon enough, I was embracing my Irishman, climbing on the Aircoach into the city center (round-trip, this journey costs €12/$13 if you pay cash upon boarding or €11/$12 if booked ahead online) and on my way to a glorious vacation.
While I waited for my bag to make its appearance, I took a moment to realize that my back wasn’t stiff, I didn’t feel puffy or bloated and after/despite a not-so-great cup of US Airways coffee, I was looking forward to the day ahead. Taking a swig from my enormous water bottle, I reminded myself that this is why business class on a transatlantic flight is always a good idea.
I feel that US Airways’ business class on the A330 is similar to the American Airlines business-class product on its 777-300ER. There are a couple more lavatories on the larger 777-300ER, and I prefer American’s headrest, seat cushioning and coffee, but I tip my hat to US Airways’ cozier cabin and duvet, as well as its decent food and warm, attentive (in some cases, really attentive) flight attendants. For my next trip across the pond, I’m eager to experience United’s business-class product (this version, not this), but given a choice between US Airways and American instead, I’d likely choose US Airways. The Points Guy Assessment: The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great pick for the beginner and the frequent traveler. The CSP has superb travel benefits, double points on certain purchases, and a 50,000 point sign up bonus. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year so this puts it as one of the less expensive cards, while still allowing you to earn one of the most valuable point currencies.
The Points Guy Assessment: