Flight Review: American Airlines (777-200) Business Class From New York to London
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US airlines get a lot of grief for not being competitive with foreign carriers when it comes to premium-class service and seats, and that criticism is often well-warranted. But in recent years the "Big 3" US legacy carriers have put significant resources into improving their products. American Airlines in particular has spent the last few years rolling out multiple retrofits across its fleet and now has several different business-class products featured on its aircraft, some of which are significantly better than others.
So which version of business class does American fly on its high profile route between New York (JFK) and London Heathrow (LHR) and how does it size up against its competitors? Find out as we continue our Business-Class Battle between Oneworld partners American and British Airways with a look at AA's 777-200 and its Zodiac Aerospace seats.
Unlike British Airways, which passes along absurd carrier surcharges on what are supposed to be "free" award tickets, American doesn't have them for award redemptions on its own aircraft. That means a one-way business-class award between the US and Europe on AA can be had for a relatively reasonable 57,500 AAdvantage miles, plus $5.60 in taxes, so long as you're booking more than 21 days in advance and can avoid the $75 close-in booking fee.
However, the flip side of the coin is that American has become notoriously stingy at releasing award space, especially for its premium cabins. And on a high profile route like JFK-LHR, it's extremely tough to find an available award seat at the lowest MileSAAver redemption level, which also means you wouldn't be able to use partner miles such as British Airways Avios or the like to book on American. Here's a look at AA's current nonstop business-class award space between New York and London on its own metal in September 2017 — it's actually more availability than we've seen in recent years.
Fortunately, we were able to book this ticket as the return leg on my British Airways round-trip between London and the US and used American Express Membership Rewards points to pay the $3,000 round-trip airfare with the 50% Pay With Points rebate that was in effect at the time via the Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN. While that rebate is now only 35%, it can still be a good way to get solid, if not spectacular, value from your Amex points, though you'll have to wait a while to see the rebated points show up in your account.
I took the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station in Manhattan to Jamaica in Queens, then transferred to the AirTrain directly to Terminal 8 at JFK — note that the trip from the city this way takes about an hour. American shares Terminal 8 with roughly half a dozen other airlines, but is the primary tenant with the largest presence there.
As a business-class passenger, I was eligible to use the priority check-in line, which had little to no wait with more than enough agents available. I don't believe I've ever flown to Europe on a daytime flight — the vast majority of transatlantic flights from the East Coast are red-eyes — so I was interested to see if there would be heavier crowds or longer waits leading up to my 10:00am departure. Within minutes, I had my boarding pass in hand and with TSA PreCheck, I cleared security relatively quickly.
AA passengers traveling in first or business on international flights have access to the brand new Flagship Lounge at JFK, though you do not get access to Flagship First Dining unless you're traveling in first class. The lounge is located at the start of the concourse to gates 1-12, which is to your left a few yards after you pass through security. While this was a really beautiful and spacious new lounge that was nearly empty when I was there, it has quickly become very popular.
Luckily, there are a number of different seating areas — some with views of the tarmac — so even with a crowd, you should be able to find some space.
There was an impressive breakfast spread when I was passing through.
I spotted cold options, including fruit, salad, plenty of breads and the makings of bagels, lox and cream cheese (one of my favorites).
There were also several breakfast-oriented hot items, such as eggs, sausage and potato hash.
If you're looking to relax with a drink before a long flight, you'll find plenty of alcoholic options.
There were also an impressive number of non-alcoholic beverages available.
Personally, I just wanted a simple glass of white wine before I headed to the plane and there were a multitude of choices.
I took my drink and found a nice spot where I could plug in my laptop. Outlets are plentiful and close to most of the seats in the lounge.
Since I was departing from my home city, I didn't need to take advantage of the lounge's shower facilities. But if I was connecting from an overnight West Coast flight and wanted to freshen up before my next leg, the brand new showers in the Flagship Lounge are impressive, with eight private rooms available, four of which are handicap accessible.
Boarding and Cabin
My flight to London was departing from gate 3, which is a short walk from the Flagship Lounge, so I was able to head over about 45 minutes before my scheduled departure time, walk to the gate and essentially stroll right onto the plane using the priority lane since boarding had already commenced.
There are currently three different business-class cabin layouts on American's 777-200 airplanes. Two of them feature seats manufactured by Zodiac Aerospace in a 1-2-1 configuration, with reverse-facing seats alternating row-by-row with forward-facing seats. Newer 777-200 retrofits are using B/E Aerospace seats — thankfully, the last of the 777-200s, which still had angle-flat seats in business, was just sent off to be retrofitted last month.
This particular 777-200, which was built in 2006, was one with the Zodiac seats, which, unfortunately, don't exactly have an illustrious history. By design, each pair of front-facing/rear-facing seats are connected to each other at the back, and as a result, the seats have gotten a bad reputation with customers, who complain about feeling vibrations every time the passenger in the attached seat gets up or moves. AA claims the problem is worse on the 787-8 versus the 777-200 due to "the different width and the positioning of the seat track within the aircraft." But regardless, the seats have gotten more than their share of negative reviews on the 777-200.
To top it all off, American canceled its seat contract with Zodiac in 2015 as a result of the manufacturer's failure to deliver them on schedule. Translation: the seats that were installed on AA aircraft are the only Zodiac business-class seats likely to ever be installed, making them both unpopular and "orphan" seats in a way as well.
If you're flying on an American aircraft with Zodiac seats and you're concerned about the vibration issue, the key is to select one of the few seats in the cabin that aren't connected to any others. As you can see from the SeatGuru map below, seats 1A, 7A, 7L, 12A and 12L are all disconnected from the seats around them in this version of the 777-200. I made sure to choose 12L at booking to ensure a vibration-free experience.
Having avoided the Zodiac seat-shaking issue, I settled into what was otherwise a pretty good business-class seat, which featured a significant amount of space and storage. Although this 360-degree view makes the side table look somewhat larger than usual, it's still pretty substantial with plenty of room for drinks, snacks and my laptop when I didn't want to have it immediately in front of me. Note that the pull-out tray table was very generous and I measured it to be 21" by 18", which was substantially bigger than the British Airways version.
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Interestingly, the seat itself is roughly the same size as the narrow British Airways seats, at 21" wide and 72" long — including the 8" footrest — when extended into lie-flat mode. But it's the room around the seat that makes it so much more comfortable, since you don't have a partition immediately on your left side and plenty of space before the windows on your right.
Above the head of the seat is a relatively deep storage area, which I used to keep my sleeping accoutrements when I wasn't using them.
Down on the floor in front of the seat is the footrest that becomes part of the length of the seat when you're in "lie-flat" mode. You can also use the space under it to store items, though you have to be extra careful not to get them trapped when you're extending the seat.
Directly in front of the seat, you'll find the in-flight entertainment screen, which folds flat against the divider whenever it's not in use.
To my immediate right were the controls for both the seat itself and the IFE system.
When I first arrived, the seat controls — which are virtual and located on a touch screen — weren't there and the screen was dark, but they became available after the system was rebooted by a flight attendant. In the event that there's a problem with the controls that can't be rectified, note that there are also two physical backup buttons that can move the seat between upright and lie-flat modes. Of course, the touch screen controls offer a lot more variation and fine adjustment than the two basic physical buttons.
Finally, farther right and forward of the seat controls is another small storage area that includes two USB ports and two standard AC outlets. This is clearly designed to be a perfect place to store your phone nearby and charge it at the same time.
Food and Beverage
Before take off, a flight attendant stopped by with a tray of pre-departure beverages, offering a choice of orange juice, Champagne or water. I asked if it was okay to take both an orange juice and a Champagne so I could make myself a mimosa, and the flight attendant was happy to oblige.
After take off, I took a look at the lunch options on the business-class menu. I must admit that under normal circumstances, I would probably have chosen the chicken with tikka masala sauce, but since I'd had the beef dish on British Airways, I wanted to be able to make an apples-to-apples comparison, so I chose the tamarind ginger filet of beef on AA as well, along with the strawberry cheesecake ice cream for dessert. Here's a peek at the menu:
I have to say both presentations of the starter and main courses were done quite well, and of course you'll note the delicious pretzel roll I chose to go along with my meal. Give me a pretzel roll and I'll give you my heart. The salad wasn't my particular cup of tea though I did find elements of it to pick at, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the melon manchego carpaccio. I though it was an unusual dish but a tasty one.
As I mentioned in my British Airways business-class review, beef is difficult to do well in the air and unfortunately, the American version of this dish was no exception. While I appreciated having the sauce on the side — which kept the plate from drowning in it like it had on my BA flight — the beef itself was bland and fairly tough. Also, I, along the rest of America, hate Brussels sprouts, so including them did not help matters, though the basmati rice was fine.
On the other hand, AA is known for its great dessert sundaes, and the strawberry cheesecake ice cream did not disappoint. It was absolutely delicious, and I paired it with a Maison Bouachon Pierrelongue red wine from France. Yes, I realize that's not exactly a dessert wine, but that's what I was in the mood for and as far as I'm concerned, it was a perfect match.
As with other transatlantic business-class cabins, between meals you can go to the galley for a selection of self-serve snacks and drinks.
AA's options were actually pretty extensive, with sandwich wraps available alongside cheese and fruit plates and a number of additional dessert choices.
Finally, a little more than an hour and a half before landing, the cabin crew came around to offer an additional light meal. The choices were either a southwest salad or turkey sliders. I've been meaning to turn over a new leaf and start eating better when I travel, so I decided that before that happens, I'd better try the turkey sliders while I still had the chance. And man, was I glad I did, because the turkey sliders were fantastic! They were served with a red curry soup and were as deliciously greasy and cheesy as they look. Even the side salad couldn't ruin how unhealthily wonderful they were.
Every business-class seat features a personal IFE system with a 15" screen that folds out and locks into place so it's directly viewable from the seat. The one on this plane was truly excellent — it was highly responsive to the controller, which made it incredibly easy to use, and featured movies, TV shows, games, music and much more. I counted a total of 275 movies in the system, many of them first-run films that had just recently left the theaters, but with plenty of other classics mixed in as well.
AA also distributes Bose headphones that can be used with the IFE system. The noise-cancellation system on these is quite good — even without any actual sound playing from the IFE, if you put them over your ears and turn them on, the sound of the plane will practically disappear.
Amenities were distributed in a small Cole Haan bag that seemed appropriate, if not particularly fancy, for an amenity kit. There weren't really any noteworthy products inside, but you'll find most of the basics, including dental supplies, mouthwash, C.O. Bigelow lotion and lip balm, tissues, socks, covers for your Bose headphones, a pen and an eye mask.
This 777-200 also had satellite Wi-Fi service by Panasonic. Note that this is not the same as Gogo, so as the splash screen warns you when you connect to the Wi-Fi, you won't be able to use a Gogo subscription package with it.
The Wi-Fi service costs a fairly reasonable $19 for the entire flight and offered slow but usable speeds. Unfortunately though, for some reason it completely gave out on me about two-thirds of the way through the flight and I never could get it back. As far as I know, there shouldn't have been any coverage area limitations since it's a satellite service, but perhaps there were. In any case, there was no warning that the service would cease to function at some point.
The cabin crew on this flight did a fine job but nothing that I would call "above and beyond." The service was timely and the attendants were all pleasant, but they mostly disappeared from the cabin between the two meals. When I wanted an extra beverage, I had to get up and go to the galley to get one, though they were happy to retrieve one for me once I got there.
On the other hand, the American Airlines crew easily passed my "gin and tonic" test. The drink, which I ordered before lunch, arrived with AA's patented mixed nuts dish in tow and tasted like a gin and tonic should. It was much better than the British Airways crew, who had simply handed me a can of tonic water, an airplane-sized bottle of gin and a glass.
I must admit, I rather preferred this daytime flight to the usual red-eye transatlantic schedule. I really dislike red-eyes, especially since most flights to Europe simply aren't long enough to get a full night's sleep, even in a lie-flat seat. Of course, a daytime flight isn't for everyone as we landed in London around 10:00pm at night, which means the flight basically takes up the entire day. Business folks may prefer to arrive in Europe at the beginning of the day and push through any lack of sleep, but I personally work better with a good night's rest.
In any case, American Airlines is providing a more-than-competitive business-class product on the New York to London run. Even if you get stuck with a 777-200 that features the less desirable Zodiac seats and aren't able to pick one that's detached, the overall experience is still vastly preferable to what British Airways Club World is offering. AA might not be able to match the service on some of the other European airlines like Lufthansa, but the carrier has definitely upped its game and I think you're getting your money's worth for the premium price. It's a transatlantic business-class experience that I would absolutely consider again.
So, how did British Airways stack up to this American Airlines business-class flight? Check back Friday evening to see the head-to-head comparison between the two. Or, see how Lufthansa’s 747-8 compared with United’s 777-200 in last week’s Business-Class Battle.
Have you flown in business class aboard British Airways’ 777-200? Tell us about your experience, below.
All photos by the author.