Review: Flying Business Class Backwards on American’s 777-200
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To The Point
While American’s 777-200 business is a huge improvement overall, you might want to avoid the plane with rear-facing seats. Pros: entree pre-orders, friendly flight attendants, Bose headphones, decent award availability at times. Cons: limited entrees boarded, awful Wi-Fi, headphones collected too soon, limited storage, narrow seat and footwell.
Earlier this year, I took advantage of a fantastic business-class fare from Germany to the US. The first portion of the trip got me home from an event in Berlin, on British Airways’ special Airbus A318 flight from London City (LCY) to New York JFK.
The return was booked on American Airlines, British Airways’ alliance partner, from JFK to London Heathrow (LHR). I opted for a rare Sunday daytime flight to Europe, which allowed me to attend an event near NYC on Saturday while still arriving in the UK the night before the show kicked off.
I was actually a bit nervous about working on another American Airlines review, given my experience in 2015, but fortunately I didn’t encounter any issues.
As I mentioned, I booked my business-class flight as a round-trip beginning in Europe in March. In total, the round-trip cost $2,125 — or 106,250 Amex Membership Rewards points, since we paid with TPG’s Business Centurion card, which still comes along with the otherwise defunct 50% Pay With Points rebate.
For my outbound legs, I earned 7,778 Elite-Qualifying Miles, 998 Elite-Qualifying Dollars and 6,920 redeemable AAdvantage miles (thanks in part to a 40% Gold elite bonus). Meanwhile, the return flight to London netted me 6,904 Elite-Qualifying Miles, 840 Elite-Qualifying Dollars and 5,880 redeemable AAdvantage miles.
While I never saw award availability pop up for my flight, and the cabin went out completely full, the one-way business-class leg would have run me 57,500 AAdvantage miles, plus just $5.60 in cash. It’s not uncommon for AA’s daytime flight to London to have award availability, though, so it’s worth checking before you book a paid ticket.
Airport and Lounge
After a drive from the Catskills and an easy rental car return and AirTrain ride to Terminal 8, I made my way to the premium check-in counter, which was almost entirely deserted — not a huge surprise early on a random Sunday morning. The economy check-in line was a bit longer, but the wait seemed negligible there, too.
Where I did hit a snag was at the TSA PreCheck line. AA offers a special program at JFK called Flagship First Check-In, specifically for Executive Platinum elites and passengers traveling in international or transcon first class on a three-cabin aircraft. There were quite a few travelers eligible, apparently, and they were all able to walk directly up to the front of the otherwise-short PreCheck queue. Flight crews did the same, so what would have ordinarily been a minute-long wait ended up taking several minutes as a handful of Flagship First passengers and an entire Cathay Pacific 777-300ER crew made their way ahead of our small PreCheck group.
Once I was through security, I made my way directly to AA’s new Flagship Lounge, located right next to the refreshed Admirals Club.
American now offers a total of four Flagship Lounges in the US, accessible to passengers flying in Oneworld first or business class on transcon and select international flights, or Oneworld Sapphire elites and above departing on or connecting to a qualifying international Oneworld economy flight. Flagship Lounges are now available in New York (JFK), Chicago (ORD), Los Angeles (LAX) and Miami (MIA).
They’re designed to compete with United’s new Polaris Lounges, which have far stricter access requirements — my business-class flight to London would have gotten me into United’s new lounge at Newark (EWR), had it been operated by United or a partner, but transcon flyers or elites in long-haul economy don’t have access. That helps to curb overcrowding. I was surprised at how packed AA’s Flagship Lounge felt early on a Sunday morning.
The AA lounges simply can’t compete on the food and beverage front, either, though AA does offer a far superior dining option to its most premium passengers, through Flagship First Dining.
As a business-class flyer, I had access only to the buffet, though. At breakfast, that included a mix of pastries and spreads.
There were also various fruit and vegetable salads.
And a few fairly ordinary hot items, along with a fun twist on an egg in a basket — egg in a piece of crispy ham, let’s call it. It seemed to have been sitting out a bit, but it was flavorful nonetheless.
The Flagship First Dining room was positioned just off to the side of the buffet. To get in, you need to be flying in American Airlines Flagship First on long-haul international or three-cabin domestic flights. International passengers get to bring a guest, plus any children under the age of two. I didn’t have access as a business-class flyer, but you can take a peek behind that door in Nick Ellis’ preview post here.
I then wandered around the lounge looking for the bar, but I couldn’t find one. I gave up pretty quickly given that it was about 9:00am, though.
I went hunting for a quiet place to get some work done, instead, and stumbled upon a room separated by glass doors, which totally fit the bill. It was almost entirely empty, too.
There was also super-fast Wi-Fi, accessible throughout the lounge.
Before making my way to the gate, I stopped by one of the eight showers.
The shower room itself was clean and quite nice overall, but the water pressure was surprisingly poor — it kinda just trickled out.
Ultimately, while I was a bit disappointed, given that I had been hoping for an experience akin to United’s Polaris Lounges, the new Flagship Lounge is a huge step up from the old Admirals Club that used to occupy the same space.
About 50 minutes before departure, a lounge agent made an announcement that our flight was boarding, so I headed over to the gate. AA was already on Group 7 when I arrived, so clearly boarding had begun before the announcement, and ahead of the scheduled boarding time. I would have been pretty bummed had there no longer been enough space for my overhead bag, but that wasn’t an issue on our 777.
After a minute or two in queue, I made my way onboard N751AN, the 17-year-old 777-200ER that would be taking us to London.
Cabin and Seat
Following a fleet-wide 777-200 retrofit, AA now operates two versions of the plane, with entirely different business-class seats. My particular 777 had the problematic Zodiac seats. AA later decided to abandon that particular contract, opting to install a superior lie-flat seat from B/E Aerospace, instead.
I was hoping my 777-200 would be swapped for one with the newer seats, but I got stuck with the same Zodiac seat Eric Rosen experienced in 2015.
This version of the plane has 45 seats spread between two cabins, compared with 37 on the newer retrofit version. Oddly, some of the seats even face backwards — these also seem to offer more privacy, since they’re positioned closer to the window, so I decided to take my chances with 11L, which faces toward the rear.
11L was fairly private, though it was hard to avoid making eye contact with 11H across the aisle, since that passenger faces forward, albeit slightly angled toward the center of the cabin.
The seat itself looked clean, and it was reasonably comfortable. Storage was the biggest issue, really — there wasn’t much to speak of, aside from a pocket to the side of the seat, which was barely large enough to accommodate the supplied headphones and water bottle. I did find a reasonable solution though! (More on that in a bit.)
Other seat features included an LED reading light, and a wired touchscreen remote.
The seat control was also a touchscreen. It was fairly intuitive, but I didn’t like how bright it was, especially once the cabin lights were dimmed later in the flight.
The seat felt a little tight as a bed, with an especially narrow footwell — given that this was a daytime flight, I only tested it out for a few minutes before moving into a reclined position. I asked about the new Casper mattress pad, but I was told it wasn’t available in business class on the JFK-London route, which didn’t seem quite right. The pillow and blanket were comfortable, though, and I never felt too warm, thanks to the dedicated vents above each seat.
There were three lavatories — one on each side of the center galley, and another behind the cockpit. They were fairly well-appointed, and kept somewhat clean, even a few hours into the flight.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
AA has new amenity kits from Cole Haan, which I really like. Mine was waiting at the seat, and it was loaded with the usual items, plus coupons for $100 off a Casper mattress, $100 off a $300 Cole Haan purchase and 20% off C.O. Bigelow products.
Best of all, the amenity kit contents came in a tote bag, which I used to store all of the loose items I’d otherwise need to keep in the overhead bin, given the limited space.
AA also hands out Bose noise-canceling headphones, which are fantastic. The issue here is that flight attendants are required to collect them before landing, so passengers don’t take them off the plane. From my experience, they’re collected about an hour before landing, which was the case on this flight as well. I’ve seen flight attendants offer cheaper headphones at that point in the past, but not on this flight, so I got my own Bose earbuds out of the overhead, instead.
Each seat has a 15.4-inch pop-out touchscreen display. It looked decent enough, but I quickly became annoyed with the animations — each icon does a little dance when you tap it, so it takes a couple seconds before content loads each time. Perhaps I’m being overly critical, but it felt unnecessary. Some icons, like Hospitality, didn’t seem to lead anywhere.
The content selection was fairly robust, though. I counted about 50 new releases, in addition to a whole bunch of older films.
AA also partners with HBO, so there are episodes from a handful of HBO shows loaded as well. I was happy to have the option, but keep this in mind if you’re traveling with kids, since you might want to steer them away from HBO’s often adult-only offerings.
There’s even live TV, including BBC, CNBC, CNN and Sport 24, though it wasn’t working on the ground and I forgot to try again later in the flight.
The system also offered an interactive map, which was a bit slow to load but worked well otherwise.
There was one glaring issue: the screen was especially difficult to see when reclined significantly or lying down, since the viewing angles were quite limited. Not the end of the world, but it did affect the experience quite a bit.
AA also offers satellite Wi-Fi on its long-haul flights, however as I’ve experienced with other carriers in the past, the Panasonic service was almost unusable — I was able to send and receive email right after takeoff, but attempts to browse the web were a spectacular failure. I wasn’t able to complete a speed test, either. It was decently priced — $19 for the full 6.5-hour flight — but it only worked shortly after takeoff and again about two hours before our arrival in London.
Food and Beverage
I found our crew to be especially friendly — flight attendants were greeting passengers with a smile at the door, and came through the cabin during the board process to offer orange juice or Champagne. AA serves De Venoge Cordon Bleu Brut in business class, which I enjoyed.
We ended up taking off about an hour late, around 11:30am, due to the typical ground congestion at JFK. The service began shortly after we were in the air.
About 30 minutes after takeoff, a flight attendant came through with tablecloths. Mine had a large black hair off to the side — it was easy enough to remove, but I was surprised the flight attendant didn’t spot it when she set up my tray.
10 minutes later, we were offered nuts and a drink. I quickly set my phone to UK time, which meant it was roughly 5:00pm at that point — a much more acceptable time for a glass of Scotch. I requested the 12-year-old Glenlivet, which was served promptly with my choice of water (sparkling) and a dish of mixed nuts.
Moments later, the flight attendant returned with a second Scotch. I wasn’t about to object…
The appetizer and salad arrived about an hour after takeoff. I liked the smoked salmon roll — if anything the portion was too large, but I wolfed it down. The romaine salad with mango, radish and sunflower seeds was quite good as well.
I was also offered my choice of bread, and was pretty excited to see warm pretzel rolls!
Two weeks before departure, I got an email inviting me to pick my entree for the flight. Passengers in business and first class can reserve a meal beginning 30 days in advance of most flights, up until 24 hours before departure. Since I hadn’t flown AA in a while, I asked Twitter for recommendations. Most suggested that I order the short rib, but I decided to hold off so I could see what was still available by the time the flight attendant got to the second-to-last row of the plane.
The menu ended up being identical onboard, and since the roasted cauliflower orecchiette appealed to me most, that’s what I requested. There weren’t any left though, so I went with my second choice, the crab and shrimp cannelloni. I asked how many entrees had been boarded, and the flight attendant went down the list:
- 21 beef (short rib)
- 10 chicken (southern BBQ)
- 5 fish (crab and shrimp cannelloni)
- 4 veggie (my pick, the orecchiette)
That adds up to just 40 entrees for a total of 45 passengers. I’m guessing that means a handful ordered in advance, and some special meals had been boarded as well — in fact, the flight attendant came back a few minutes later to say that she had an extra Asian vegetarian meal and I could have that if I wanted, but I said the fish entree was a-okay.
And a-okay it was indeed — the flavor was good, even though the presentation left a bit to be desired.
A flight attendant came through with dessert about 15 minutes after the entree, some 90 minutes after we left JFK.
I ordered the ice cream, which was listed as Haagen-Dazs on the menu but ended up being Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. It was a bit too frozen, but fine after it melted a bit. I also asked to try the cheese plate, and the flight attendant said she’d bring one by if there were any left. It was fine but certainly not memorable.
After lunch, the crew set up a walk-up snack bar between the two business cabins, with water bottles, fruit, sandwiches and more.
I ended up helping myself to a couple water bottles and a wrap later in the flight, along with a Stroopwafel from the basket “to go.”
Just after that dreaded Bose headset collection, about an hour before landing, we were offered a pre-arrival meal. The options on the menu included a chicken, apple and brie sandwich or a chopped salad, but the flight attendant suggested a third item — a “cold wrap” — which, while vague, sounded more appealing than the other two. It was a little bland but tasted healthy.
With several other staffers focused on Oneworld reviews, I hadn’t had an opportunity to fly American long-haul since my last transatlantic adventure in 2015. While I didn’t love the seat, and the awful Wi-Fi performance was certainly a big downer, I had a great flight overall, thanks to a friendly crew, decent food and some solid entertainment options. I wouldn’t hesitate to fly AA across the Atlantic again — I’m just going to do my best to avoid this particular configuration, and especially the rear-facing seat.
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