Flight Review: American Airlines 787-8 Dreamliner in Main Cabin Extra – Shanghai to Dallas
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TPG Contributors JT Genter and Katie Genter traveled to Hong Kong over Thanksgiving. While the weather in Chicago wrecked havoc on both their outbound and return flights, they were still able to fly in Main Cabin Extra on American Airlines’ Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner from Shanghai (PVG) to Dallas (DFW). Here’s their take on the new aircraft.
We’d been seeking out a flight deal to take advantage of during the Thanksgiving holiday. While it was no Etihad-level steal, we found a $769 round-trip from Houston to Hong Kong on American that wasn’t a bad deal considering:
- It departed Saturday and returned the next Sunday, allowing us to minimize vacation time.
- We scheduled a 23.5-hour layover in Tokyo to get a sampling of the city.
- Both transpacific flights were on the new American Airlines Dreamliner.
- We could fly in AA Main Cabin Extra, thanks to Katie’s AA Platinum status.
We used our Citi AAdvantage Platinum SelectWorld Elite Mastercard to book the flight. In addition to earning us 2x miles on this American Airlines purchase, this booking satisfied over half of the $3,000 minimum spending requirement to earn the current 50,000-mile sign-up bonus. The sign-up bonus is typically 30,000 after $1,000 spent in the first three months.
After factoring in Katie’s 100% mileage bonus for being an AAdvantage Platinum member, and the pro-rated credit card sign-up bonus, we ended up with 82,850 AAdvantage miles total from this trip. Using current TPG valuation of 1.7 cents per mile, this trip earned us about $1,408 worth of miles. Considering the value of elite-qualifying miles and upgrades earned, these flights practically paid for themselves!
Our outbound was plagued with delays and cancellations — which will be covered in another flight review — so we were hoping for a clean return trip as booked: Hong Kong (HKG) to Tokyo (NRT) to Chicago (ORD) to Houston (IAH). We checked flight statuses the night before, and everything was on time.
Overnight, Katie received an email from AA that our NRT-ORD flight was delayed. As this delay would cause us to miss our ORD-IAH flight, American automatically re-routed us to HKG-NRT-LAX-IAH. While this rebooking was never communicated to us via email, thankfully Katie has T-Mobile and received a free text message in Hong Kong informing her of the change.
However, when we went online to select seats, we found that the transpacific flight from NRT-LAX had zero available seats in economy. Rather than hoping to get an operational upgrade to business class — and risking getting no seat at all — we called American Airlines for rebooking.
After 40 minutes of being transferred, being put on hold and having to lead the agent through the available options, we were finally ticketed HKG-Shanghai (PVG)-Dallas (DFW)-IAH, including seats in Main Cabin Extra on the Dreamliner from PVG-DFW.
Our Dragonair flight arrived in Shanghai relatively on time — a surprise to Katie and I after all the delays we experienced flying in China this summer. Five minutes after deplaning, we found the “Transfer to International” desk and were in front of an American Airlines agent. However, our transfer itself wouldn’t prove to be as easy.
At the transfer desk, the agent worked with our documents for a few minutes before informing us that Dragonair’s system didn’t transfer our baggage information to American Airlines. We were asked to wait while they figured out the situation.
40 minutes later, no progress had been made, but we were informed that we were unable to transfer through Shanghai airport until the situation was resolved. We started mentally planning our involuntary Shanghai stopover…
About 10 minutes later, the transfer desk agent approached us and said that he was able to clear us through — even though our bags had still not been found. The transfer doors dropped us into an area between Chinese immigration and security. Soon after, we’d cleared security and arrived in the international terminal.
Katie’s AAdvantage Platinum status allows her (and a guest) Oneworld lounge access on overseas itineraries. The closest lounge to our gate was the Cathay Pacific lounge, located just inside security around gate 69. The transfer desk agent had provided the “invitation” card that was required for entry.
We enjoyed our last taste of authentic dim sum and dumplings, an out-of-place Russian borscht and serve-yourself drinks (including champagne, wine and liquor) in the airy and gorgeous lounge. While the fresh food was delicious, we’d recommend skipping the wrapped sandwiches, which were fairly unpleasant.
At the Gate
If you’re unable to access the lounge, you can use the “free internet” terminals next to gate 67 — our gate for this flight. Whether accessing the internet in the lounge or at these terminals, just remember that you won’t be able to catch up on your Gmail, check Facebook or Twitter, watch videos on YouTube, blog on Blogspot or enjoy any of the other websites blocked in China. If you’re spending time in China — and not just connecting through as we were — you might want to get a VPN to get around the “Great Firewall of China”
At the gate, the numerous contract workers serving as American Airlines agents appeared to be quite unhelpful with some passengers’ requests, but other passengers seemed to get their questions and issues resolved quickly and satisfactory.
Boarding and Seats
Boarding began at 5:16pm for our 5:55pm departure, using American’s standard boarding procedure of boarding elites first and then by zones. There was an additional, but minimal, security screening after our boarding passes were scanned but before getting to the plane. I was asked two basic questions and allowed to continue without my carry-on bag being searched.
On board, each seat contained a pillow and a plastic-wrapped blanket. No amenity kit or headphones were provided. Our Main Cabin Extra seats boasted a whopping 36 inch pitch, enough that my seatmates were able to pass in front of me without requiring me to get up. The pitch provided more than enough legroom for me to fully stretch out my legs.
However, there are some clear downsides to the seats. The armrests are surprisingly low, requiring you to slouch (or have long arms!) if you want to reach them.
Similarly, the adjustable headrest is awkwardly low, even when fully raised. In order to rest my head naturally against the headrest, I needed to recline my seat. And at just 5 foot 11 inches, I’m not even that tall! The 17-inch-wide seats were barely enough for my 38-inch waist; my hips touched both armrests whenever I sat up.
Overall, besides the legroom, these seats seem designed for a much smaller person than the average American. I’m not sure if I’d pay ($142 for window/aisle; $136 for middle seats; $150 for bulkhead) to sit in Main Cabin Extra on this flight. However, Katie certainly would pay the premium. However, since she’s an AAdvantage Platinum, she — and travelers on her same reservation — can choose Main Cabin Extra seats for free. AAdvantage Gold members can choose MCE seats for free when checking in, or they can pay 50% of the standard price to move up before check-in. It’s definitely a huge benefit of American Airlines elite status!
Boarding seemingly finished 15 minutes before departure, but we were held with the door open as the flight attendants had to find a Chinese-speaking gate agent to come on board and throw off a seemingly-sick passenger. Once he and his carry-on bags were unloaded — and an unsuspecting passenger moved into his seat — we pushed back just 13 minutes late.
My onboard experience got off to a horrible start, as the purser frantically approached me as I was taking photos of the cabin. While I knew Zach’s “adventure” taking photos on American Airlines ultimately turned out fine, I was still on the ground and seemed very much at risk of being thrown off of the plane. So, I obliged with the demand to stop taking photos … for the meantime.
The service from the Dallas-based crew wasn’t any more pleasant toward other passengers. I observed (1) a FA rudely pushing passengers to the side to let her pass through the aisle (2) a FA partially using a passenger’s leg as a stepping stool to close an overhead bin (3) a FA losing her temper and raising her voice at a (seated) passenger who clearly didn’t understand English.
Once in the air, I was hoping the service was taking a turn for the better when — 12 minutes after takeoff — the FAs passed through the economy cabin with warm towels. This was a nice touch before meal service, which started just a few minutes later.
However, after dinner was served and collected, the FAs dimmed the cabin lights and wouldn’t pass through the cabin again until lunch over nine hours later. During the night, I went the back galley to stretch and ask the FAs for some water. I was shooed away rather rudely, being told that they left out drinks and snacks in the middle galley.
A few hours later, I tried my luck again in the back galley, asking for a glass of wine – since I knew this wasn’t in the middle galley. This group of FAs was friendlier, but I still didn’t exactly feel welcome. I ended up with not one but two full-to-the-brim cups of wine. It seemed that they were really desperate to get passengers to just go to sleep.
The IFE system was active from the beginning of boarding. This seems to be a wise move by American, as it helps to get passengers seated, entertained and generally placated — while still allowing the crew to make announcements directly to passengers’ ears.
Most people utilized their own headphones or earbuds, but the FAs did pass through the cabin before pushback with decent earbuds for anyone who forgot their own.
One nice thing about the IFE screens installed on the Dreamliner: They’re designed so that they appear bright and very clear if you’re watching your own screen, but your neighbors’ screens appear frosted and dimmed.
The IFE boasted an incredible amount of movies, from new releases to classics in a variety of languages, as well as a wide selection of tv shows. All of this is available without an underseat equipment box, allowing passengers to fully utilize this space for feet and bags.
Each seat had a seemingly universal power plug, which was welcome for everyone’s phones and computers.
Wi-Fi options were available on this flight: $12 for two hours, $17 for four hours and $19 for the length of the flight. I opted to work offline, but I heard a nearby passenger ask the FAs the few times they passed by about the Wi-Fi. He never seemed to connect, although it may have been “user error.”
Dinner choices were announced soon after takeoff — but only in Chinese. From the two English words spoken, it seemed Chinese passengers were being instructed to say “one” for one option and “two” for the other option. English-speaking passengers found out the food choices “chicken or beef” only once the FAs were in earshot.
I chose the chicken, which ended up being sweet and sour chicken with sticky rice. While it didn’t look especially appealing, it was fairly good.
Katie had the beef and was rather disappointed to find that the meat was rather fatty and the carrots were nearly raw.
Both meals came with an appetizer, salad, bread and yogurt dessert. The appetizer consisted of two tasty slices of turkey on top of a curry-flavored potato and carrot salad. While the salad was past its prime, it was passable with the balsamic vinegar dressing. The bread came plastic-wrapped and not warmed, but at least it tasted fresh. We wrapped up dinner with the semi-sweet yogurt dessert.
One annoyance about how the meals were served: Due to the tray being rather small and overcrowded with the water bottle served on the tray, the FA unceremoniously plopped the warmed meal on top of our uncovered appetizers and desserts.
While the FAs didn’t pass through the cabin between meals, snacks were left in the middle galley. Initially, there were two choices: bags of “Sweet and Savory” snack mix and Chinese crackers.
The crackers were similar to a flat, sweet rice cake. Based on how quickly they disappeared, they were a passenger favorite. One passenger I spoke with — who currently lives outside of Shanghai — spoke fondly about growing up eating these crackers.
Mid-flight, boxes containing plastic-wrapped sandwiches appeared in the middle galley. However, I couldn’t stomach more than one bite of the one I tried.
Passengers awoke to a gradually lit cabin around 2:50pm Dallas time (4:50am Shanghai time), about two hours before landing.
The peaceful silence was shattered by a seemingly unnecessary-timed announcement about reading glasses being found in a bathroom. Although the announcement seemed out of place, it turned out that it was indeed time to wake up, as lunch service began 15 minutes later.
Lunch choices were announced as choice of chicken fried rice or a ham and cheese croissant. I chose the chicken fried rice and Katie got the croissant.
The croissant wasn’t much to look at, but it tasted surprisingly good. Meanwhile, the chicken fried rice was larger, although it consisted of mostly rice. The few pieces of chicken that were included were good. Both entrees were served with a side of sliced fruit.
Drinks were served along with lunch and included the standard options: sodas, juices, coffee or tea. The coffee that I had was surprisingly some of the better coffee that I’ve had on a long-haul flight.
I wanted to like this flight. After all, flying on the Dreamliner in Main Cabin Extra was one of the draws for us to book this itinerary. However, our experience was certainly a mixed bag.
The Dreamliner seats are too narrow and the armrests and headrests are too low for me — and probably many others. However, the seats reclined surprisingly far and we were both able to sleep comfortably. We both arrived feeling surprisingly good, despite the time difference and sleeping “overnight” on the plane. On reflection, these could’ve certainly been due to the advanced design of the Dreamliner.
The IFE system was top-notch, providing a never-ending variety of movies and tv shows for any taste. And with some notable exceptions, the food was reasonably good. And, despite boarding in Shanghai without knowing that our bags had made the transfer, our bags did arrive in Dallas on this flight.
However, the biggest drawback from this flight was the lack of service. I’ve now flown economy on over 171 segments on 25 different carriers in the last decade (including 19 long-haul flights on nine carriers). This experience certainly lands toward the bottom. I know that the FAs are there “for your safety,” but their surly attitude toward passengers and utter lack of service for a majority of the flight was hard to justify. With long-haul flights on American Airlines in my future, let’s hope that this was a fluke!
Have you flown in Main Cabin Extra on American’s Dreamliner? Share your experience in the comments below!