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In late-January, TPG Contributor Katie Genter completed an Austin (AUS) — Johannesburg (JNB) — Houston (IAH) mileage run. For the final long-haul leg, she flew on an aging American Airlines 777-200 from London-Heathrow (LHR) to Miami (MIA). Here’s her review of the economy experience. (All photos are by the author).
This review is part of a series of long-haul flight reviews from my AUS — JNB — IAH mileage run. As such, more of my booking details are available in my first long-haul review of American’s 777-300ER Los Angeles (LAX) to London-Heathrow (LHR) in Main Cabin Extra.
For $804, I stretched the mileage of my run to 23,510 miles, which yielded a cost of just 3.42 cents per mile. I earned 23,820 elite-qualifying miles and 49,640 redeemable miles, which are valued at $745 under TPG’s current valuation of 1.5 cents per AAdvantage mile.
I booked my mileage run with my British Airways Visa Signature Card, so I earned three British Airways Avios per dollar spent. I earned a total of 2,412 Avios on this trip, which TPG values at $36 since April’s valuation shows Avios are worth 1.5 cents per mile.
My British Airways flight from JNB to LHR landed in Terminal 5 so I needed to get to Terminal 3 for my next leg of the trip. This connection required a tram ride, a walk, a bus ride, more walking and then a stop at a special American Airlines ticketing desk before I finally entered the security area of T3. The American Airlines ticket desk was — per the sign on the door — scheduled to open at 6:00 am. I arrived shortly before then, but the office didn’t end up opening until around 6:15 am. I was then asked security questions by an agent before being allowed to approach the ticket counter and obtain my boarding pass.
Fast Track security — available to Oneworld Sapphire and Emerald members, as well as first-class and business-class, passengers — wasn’t open at 6:25am, in fact, only one security line was. Nonetheless, security was quick for me, however the eight people whose bags had been flagged for additional screening didn’t look happy as they were stuck waiting until additional security agents arrived to begin processing them.
Although there were many lounge choices, I opted to visit the Admirals Club Flagship Lounge in the Lounge H area. This lounge was much nicer than other domestic Admirals Clubs and had all of the amenities one would expect from an international lounge.
The lounge was almost completely empty upon my 6:30 am arrival. As I was deep into the third stage of mileage running, I wanted to take a nap, but after searching the entire lounge, I found no place conducive to sleep. I settled on a high-backed chair, but abandoned the idea of sleeping after waking with a really sore back 90 minutes into my nap.
After waking, I moved to the “quiet area” to charge my electronics and eat some breakfast. I was pleased to find both UK and US power outlets available. For breakfast, there was a wide variety of cereals, breads, fruits, juices and hot food. I opted for scrambled eggs, a small granola bar, hash browns and a tasty fruit smoothie.
After breakfast, I went to take a shower and was immediately assigned a shower room, which was stylish and well designed. I liked the long bench for sitting and storing belongings as well as the fact that a wash cloth was provided.
The room also featured multiple well-placed hooks, a clothes hanger, pleasant smelling towels and a touch-less toilet flush. My only complaint was that the shower didn’t drain well.
It was a long walk from the lounge to gate 40. Unfortunately, the crew didn’t gain access to the plane until boarding was scheduled to begin, which delayed the process by about 30 minutes. Despite this delay, the electronic board at the gate showed “Boarding” and “Closing” messages as originally scheduled, which caused concern for many passengers, especially those who initially arrived at the gate when the screen showed it was “Closing”.
Once boarding began, it proceeded in the normal American Airlines order of first class, business class, elite passengers and then the various numbered boarding groups. The whole thing was very orderly, perhaps due to the small number of passengers waiting in the boarding area.
There was a pillow and a plastic-wrapped blanket waiting for us on each seat. When the boarding door closed, the 2-5-2 configured economy cabin was only about 10% full — most of the middle 5-seat rows were completely empty, as were many of the 2-seat rows along the sides of the plane. Some passengers moved into the 5-seat center rows to construct pillow fortresses for sleeping, but I opted to remain in my chosen 37J window seat.
Cabin and Seat
The plane for this flight was an older 777-200 that had not been retrofitted. As such, the economy cabin was configured in a 2-5-2 layout and there was no Main Cabin Extra section.
Although the seats looked older, they were comfortable and featured good head padding and back support. There were thicker-than-average armrests between seats, which could be a positive in that two passengers could actually share an armrest. The armrest was also at a reasonable height for me.
For my 37J seat, I found that the cabin wall came inward between two windows right at my shoulder. This unfortunately made my seat feel narrower than its 18 inch width but could be seen as a benefit for those who prefer to sleep against the wall.
I’d purposefully chosen seat 37J as this row was shown on SeatGuru to be one of the few rows in the rear economy cabin to feature “regular AC power.” Since I was expecting to be able to charge my laptop, I was very frustrated when I looked under my seat and found a DC power outlet! To make matters worse, there were also no USB charging ports, but — amazingly — there were “fax” outlets available. Since a cable would’ve been needed to connect, I didn’t check what type of connection — if any — the “fax” outlet provided.
Economy seats have a 31 to 32 inch pitch, but some seats — the window seats and the second and fourth seats in the middle rows — have large entertainment boxes that significantly impede legroom. These entertainment boxes make it difficult to extend one leg and stretch all the way to the seat bottom so you can’t even rest your foot on top of the box. Some planes feature prominent entertainment boxes that don’t significantly affect in-flight comfort, but the boxes on American’s 777-200 do affect comfort and I recommend not choosing one of these seats if you can avoid it!
The IFE system was limited both in selection and performance. The screen was tiny — with a height of less than four inches — and the system itself had few options. For movies, there were only one drama and nine new releases to choose from. For television, there were seven comedy episodes, 15 drama episodes, five HBO episodes, four documentaries and two Disney Channel episodes. In terms of games, there were 15 choices ranging from mini-golf to sudoku. The music selection had 16 different pre-mixed options.
One of the strangest and most irritating things about the entertainment system was having to either join a program “in-progress”or wait for its next showing. This occurred every 25 minutes, but the start times of the various shows and movies weren’t synced. Once you joined a showing, it was impossible to pause — this meant that when watching a movie, you were almost certain to miss a few sections it.
Despite choosing English as my language, the circa 2002 Airshow 420 flight path map still showed me information in both English and Spanish. Additionally, the system couldn’t handle playing music while watching the flight path map.
The handset for the entertainment system was stored in the top of the arm rests, but the light button and the flight attendant call button were smartly regressed so that it would be difficult to accidentally press either. Other buttons — like channel and sound — were not regressed and my sound button became permanently stuck in the down position partway through the flight.
There seemed to be four flight attendants working our 24-row economy cabin — they were pretty attentive during dinner but then didn’t offer drinks in the cabin aside from one mid-flight beverage service almost six hours into the flight.
For the first half of the flight, the flight attendants consistently walked through the cabin to check that all our seatbelts were fastened when the sign became illuminated. For the second half of the flight, however, they completely abandoned these checks. As a result, most people in the cabin began completely ignoring the seatbelt sign, instead standing in the aisles and talking.
The flight attendants did set up snack boxes and drinks with cups in the back galley for those who were hungry or thirsty during the flight. Snack options included crisps, shortbread with caramel on top and a nut bar as well as some left over items from lunch like cheese, crackers and apple crumble cake. No flight attendants were in the galley during any of my visits though, so there was no opportunity to ask for drinks that weren’t already left out for self-service.
The flight attendants I interacted with seemed unmotivated and grumpy. With the very high flight attendant to passenger ratio, I’d definitely expected better service on this flight. Instead, most of the flight attendants seemed to wish they hadn’t shown up to work that day.
Food and Beverage
Departure drinks and snacks were served just 20 minutes after take-off. I chose sparkling wine after learning that four mini-bottles are stocked on each American Airlines long-haul flight — and they tend to go quickly. Small bags of mini-pretzels were served with the departure drinks.
Dinner was served 40 minutes after take-off and included a choice of chicken and rice or cheese pasta with red sauce. I opted for the pasta, which was exactly what I expected — decently cooked pasta with bland sauce mixed in and cheese sprinkled on top. Both main course options came with a crisp salad of tomato slices, carrots and spinach, soda crackers with soft cheese spread, a sunflower seed roll and butter, an apple crisp cake that was more like a cobbler and a bottle of water. All of the food was adequate, but nothing was really above (or below) my expectations.
There was one mid-flight beverage service where most passengers were also offered a mini ice cream cup. Although I received a drink during this service, I was disappointedly never offered an ice cream cup. Sure, I could’ve asked, but that’s not the point.
The arrival snack was served less than an hour before landing. It was indeed just a snack — a spinach, red onion and feta cheese empanada as well as a mango, apricot and coconut sponge cake. Both felt fattening. The empanada had great filling, but the crust was too oily and heavy. The sponge cake smelled wonderful but tasted too sweet.
The stereotype of American Airlines not providing as good of a product as its Oneworld partners was confirmed on this flight. Out of my four long-haul legs during my mileage run to JNB and back — including a disappointing economy hard product on a British Airways 747-400 — this was certainly the worst.
The many negatives — limited legroom in some seats due to a huge entertainment box, grouchy flight attendants and a tiny screen on the limited in-flight entertainment system — led to a long flight despite having plenty of room to spread out in the almost empty economy cabin.
All in all, I’d recommend steering clear of American Airlines 777-200s that have not been retrofitted if there are other reasonable options for your itinerary. If not, be sure to bring your own sources of entertainment — as well as extra batteries or a DC power converter — and snag an aisle seat!
Have you flown in economy on an AA 777-200 that had not been retrofitted? Tell us about it, below.
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