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TO THE POINT: American Airlines’ 777-300ER economy product is an efficient way to travel between the US and Brazil — that is, if you have no other options available. The pros: friendly service, especially from the AA staff at JFK. The cons: teeny-tiny bathrooms, cramped seating and a super-skinny aisle that made it difficult to walk around.
American Airlines, like many of its competitors, is making a big effort to improve its premium-class products. But as premium passengers are getting better seats, meals and amenity kits, what’s been happening back in economy? To find out, my family and I flew from New York (JFK) to São Paulo (GRU), with a return trip from Rio de Janeiro (GIG), on American Airlines, pulling back the curtain on the carrier’s economy cabin.
It all started last year with a TPG Deal Alert for a $480 round-trip airfare to Brazil, a terrific deal. When I discovered we could fly into one Brazilian city and back from another by sticking to an open-jaw itinerary, we were set. Having already been to Rio de Janeiro the summer before, we decided to fly into São Paulo this time around and plan our return flight from Rio.
I booked our trip with my Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express, which yielded me 3x points on flights — the Citi Prestige and Citi Premier cards also give you 3x points on airfare, have multiple airline transfer partners. Another great card option for booking flights is the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which lets you earn 3x points on travel and dining worldwide.
When we tried to check in via AA.com, we got a message saying that we’d have to wait and do it at the airport “for security reasons.” As we found out, this meant nothing more than the airline needing to verify our travel documents since it was an international journey (why didn’t the website just say so?). Oddly enough, this was not the last cryptic message we’d receive on this trip.
At JFK, we were pulled out of the main check-in line and instructed to go to one of the kiosks at the end of the airport instead. The kiosks required us to have an American Airlines employee verify that our passports contained valid Brazilian visas.
Though we’d been issued TSA PreCheck boarding passes, the designated PreCheck security area was closed by the time we arrived at 8:30pm — instead, we were funneled through the regular security line.
I’d like to offer special commendations to the extra-nice AA employees at JFK, including the woman who inspected our visas and the gate agent, who hugged my wife when she wished her a Happy Mother’s Day. How full was the flight? I asked the gate agent. “Fuuulll,” she sang back to me.
Cabin and Seat
On entering the aircraft, we were struck — as was everybody we bumped into — by how narrow the aisles were.
Seats were laid out in a 3-4-3 configuration, and as tight a squeeze as anything I’ve ever been smashed into. According to Seatguru, the seats are only 17 inches wide — just an inch more than the narrowest seats in the world, an honor currently held by the “tiny furniture” in ANA’s 777-200ER). The pitch is a reasonable 31 inches, providing adequate legroom, but only just so. It helped a lot that my wife, in the seat in front of me, was nice enough not to recline her seat throughout our flight.
Immediately after sitting down, I noticed that the headrest, even when pulled up, wasn’t high enough to rest my head on. Fortunately I’d booked a window seat, so I at least had something to lean against.
It was at this point that the flight crew made one of the strangest announcements I’ve ever heard: “For any passenger who would not like to go on this flight with us, please let us know now.” Why would you have to ask this question? Are you afraid that once we cram ourselves into these tiny seats, you’ll need a crane to get us back out?
Takeoff was very steep but not uncomfortable and the mechanics remained smooth for the rest of our flight and landing — we didn’t even experience any real turbulence the whole way.
American Airlines’ safety video features a succession of employees smoothly edited together conveying a unified welcome. They don’t cast callow, pretty actors in this video, but rather friendly, competent, veteran professionals and I quite like it.
The illustrations on the safety card, on the other hand? Not so much.
Food and Beverage
Because we usually fly in economy — and usually take foreign airlines for international flights — I’d kind of forgotten that US-based airlines serve food at all. And guess what? They really don’t.
Dinner choices were chicken or pasta, so my wife and I shared both. The tortellini was smothered in cheese with a sweet tomato sauce that was not altogether unpleasant. The whole thing was overcooked in an American-comfort-food style. Chunks of chicken breast still retained their tenderness, covered with an old-fashioned cornstarch glaze flecked with some herbs. Frankly, it was as bland as could be. The chicken was served with mashed potatoes reconstituted from dry mix and chopped carrots and string beans that, surprisingly, were not overcooked.
The salad was essentially just a little romaine lettuce — my wife’s was wilted — with julienned carrots and no sign of any other vegetables. The dinner roll was served with a product called “Land O’Lakes Fresh Buttery-Tasting Spread,” and no, it didn’t taste like butter. Sticking to the theme of artificiality, the double-crunch brownie was packed with such quality ingredients as corn syrup, mono and diglycerides and natural butter flavor. What ever happened to that thing we used to call butter?
Breakfast weighed in at about 50 grams of sugar, with a sticky-sweet blueberry muffin, a horrible jelly-like yogurt with cornstarch as the fourth ingredient and actual orange juice.
Free in-flight Wi-Fi was restricted to an AA feed that contained news and sports headlines, as well as some destination information, although Wi-Fi became inaccessible for much of the time. Liberation from the confines would cost you $19 for the flight, with shorter segments available for a little less. The carrier also offers a monthly pass for $50. Pass, you say? Excellent suggestion.
The seat-back IFE touch screens were small (8.9″) but bright and clear, with a terrific selection of free films. AFI’s “100 Years…100 Movies” was a featured attraction, and included bona fide classics like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and All About Eve. Multiple films in French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi and Portuguese were also offered. Each seat-back featured an AC outlet just below the IFE screen, which was much handier than the ones mounted under the seat.
It was our first time in São Paulo, and as we descended it was impossible not to be blown away by this incredible city — few places on earth can make a Manhattanite feel like his own hometown is small and spread-out. It’s a seemingly endless procession of 30-story buildings that for sheer continuing density outstrips New York, Hong Kong or even Tokyo. The landing was smooth and easy, and the pilots were quite friendly.
Though I was impressed with the pilots, the IFE screen and AA’s team at JFK, I cannot recommend traveling in economy on this long-haul flight to anyone who has another option, especially one on a non-US-based airline.
As airlines become more and more intent on upgrading their premium products, they haven’t merely neglected their economy passengers — they have actively downgraded them. The seats, aisles and lavatories may all be the smallest Boeing has ever produced for commercial flights.
According to a recent study on air rage, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study found that the presence of a first-class cabin was a trigger for such incidents — they got worse when economy passengers boarded through first class, which only helped to rub in class distinctions. While I don’t think the solution is to board economy passengers through the rear door so they don’t see the premium classes, it should be to improve the level of comfort in economy in general so passengers don’t have reasonable cause to be angry about it.
American Airlines needs to do something drastic to improve its economy-class space — or really, to undo the drastic things it has already done. Human beings simply need more room to sit, walk and breathe — the majority of passengers can’t be boxed into smaller and smaller spaces while increasingly vast chunks of real estate are carved out for the premium classes. And real food would be nice, too. Until those changes are made, I would not travel in the carrier’s economy class on a long-haul flight unless I had no other choice.
Have you flown in economy between the US and Brazil? Tell us about your experience, below.
Featured image courtesy of American Airlines. All other photos courtesy of the author. Visit Mitch and Kofi Lee-Berman’s photo blog for more.
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