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American Airlines is doing premium economy right. Pros: More than just a larger seat with extra legroom, American Airlines delivers a solid soft product with improved catering, a decent amenity kit and decent headphones to complement the larger IFE screen. Cons: There was a lack of space when the seat in front was reclined, a lack of seat padding and poor communication during a delay.
In October 2016, American Airlines become the first major US-based airline to offer true premium-economy seating. After taking delivery of more aircraft, AA launched premium economy in May 2017.
Since then, Delta (in October 2017) and United (in June 2018) also introduced true premium economy, as US airlines began to realize that flyers desire something between the cramped conditions in economy and the pricey lie-flat options up front. And AA is at the forefront, with over 2,000 premium-economy seats installed on 85 aircraft by the end of May.
But there’s a question that dogs all products in premium economy: Is it worth paying more than economy? We’re asking this question of airlines crossing the Atlantic, with reviews for Aeroflot, Air France, British Airways, Iberia, Lufthansa, LOT and Virgin Atlantic already published. Now it’s time to judge American Airlines.
I found myself in Amsterdam looking for a return flight to the US. One-way international flights are rarely a decent price, and this was no different. A last-minute booking from Amsterdam to the US in American Airlines premium economy was over $6,000 one-way. But I was able to piece together an open-jaw itinerary from Amsterdam to Houston (AMS-LHR-MIA-IAH) with the return in British Airways premium economy from Montreal to Amsterdam (YUL-LHR-AMS) when I needed to return to Europe for $1,358 round-trip.
While partner premium-economy flights are a great way to earn bonus award miles and extra Elite Qualifying Dollars, the American Airlines-marketed flights were much cheaper than codeshares on partners British Airways, Finnair and Iberia. As it was booked with AA flight numbers, this ticket earned miles based on the price before taxes and fees.
One thing to keep in mind when calculating earnings for these tickets is that only the legs you fly in premium economy are going to code as premium economy. While economy legs on British Airways-booked premium-economy tickets have posted with discount economy-fare codes, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the economy legs on this ticket credited as full-fare “Y” economy. This difference meant I ended up with 982 more Elite Qualifying Miles than I expected from these three legs (2,946 instead of 1,964).
I arrived in London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 on my British Airways flight from Amsterdam. American Airlines, like most other Oneworld carriers, operates out of Terminal 3. Before you can take the bus to the new terminal, you have to pass through the US security checks on the ground floor of Terminal 5. While it seemed like other passengers were getting a full interrogation, my interview merely consisted of the agent reviewing my passport, boarding pass and his tablet screen — without a single question. I was able to catch the next standing-room-only bus to Terminal 3.
An AA premium-economy ticket doesn’t grant access to a lounge on its own, but Oneworld Sapphire (AAdvantage Platinum and Platinum Pro) and Oneworld Emerald (AAdvantage Executive Platinum) elites have a couple of incredible choices in Heathrow’s Terminal 3. I started at the new Qantas lounge, which just opened last November and was open to Oneworld Sapphire and Emerald elites. Considering its table-service meals, excellent buffet and top-notch bar, I’d have been happy to spend all day there.
Still, I figured I’d check out the Cathay Pacific lounge next door. My Oneworld Emerald status granted me access to the first-class section of the lounge, which included nice runway and gate views, table-service meals and a stunning look that reminded me of the Cathay Pacific The Pier lounge in Hong Kong (HKG). That said, it was a smaller lounge space and didn’t have all of the amenities that you’d find in an HKG Cathay Pacific lounge.
As is typical for Heathrow, my gate wasn’t revealed on the departures board until shortly before boarding. At the gate was a desk where staff checked my boarding pass and passport. Then, before I could enter the waiting area, a security agent checked my name against a list of those selected for additional screening.
We were stuck in this boarding area for a while with no news about how long the delay would last. For those who needed a bite to eat, the area was stocked with three vending machines (snacks, sodas and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream). As far as entertainment goes, there was a large flat-screen TV and a newsstand.
Once my boarding pass was scanned to let me into the waiting area, I was marked as boarded in the AA system, so there were no other boarding pass or passport checks. When boarding started about an hour after the stated time, gate agents called out group numbers but didn’t check boarding passes. Passengers quickly caught on, and this led to a rather chaotic boarding process. The upside to this was that we were able to board quickly and depart just 20 minutes late.
Cabin and Seat
My flight was on a 777-200ER (registration N792AN) that was originally delivered to American Airlines in July 2000. Inside, the plane didn’t show its age at all, having been through multiple retrofits recently. This particular aircraft was one of the last 777s flying with angle-flat business-class seats before it was retrofitted with B/E Aerospace Super Diamond business-class seats in Hong Kong in June 2017. Then it went back under the knife in October 2017 for the installation of premium-economy seats.
The premium-economy cabin was in a 2-4-2 arrangement with 19-inch-wide seats. This was a noticeable step up from the economy cabin, which had 17-inch-wide seats in a 10-across (3-4-3) arrangement. The four seats in the middle would feel crowded if the cabin were full, but it would be a great arrangement for a family or if you lucked into having an empty seat in your row.
The seat pairs at the windows were perfect for traveling couples.
The seats measured 37.5 inches from seatback to seatback. This wasn’t spacious, especially if the person in front of you reclined, but it was more than a half foot more than the pitch offered in economy.
Seat storage consisted of a well under the armrest between seats, a pocket for magazines or newspapers and a 10-inch-wide elastic pocket in the seat to the front. While bulkhead seats had legrests that expanded from below the seat, other seats only had extendable footrests.
In the middle section, the under-seat storage area was broken up by the leg supports into a bunch of small sections only large enough for a small bag. The window seats didn’t suffer from the same under-seat storage issues.
One downside of this cabin: The galley just in front of the cabin was dedicated to business class. This meant that premium-economy passengers had to duck through the curtain and pass through the forward economy cabin to use the bathrooms in the middle of economy. They were clean but nothing special.
At each seat at boarding were an amenity kit, headphones and a Casper-branded pillow and blanket, all bundled in plastic.
Inside the amenity kit, American Airlines provided a nice cloth eye mask, soft socks, mediocre foam earplugs, a toothbrush and toothpaste.
As far as I could tell, the over-the-ear American-branded headphones didn’t provide any active noise-canceling. The sound was good, but they certainly weren’t the Bose headphones you would’ve gotten in business class. They were, however, a huge step up from the earbuds in economy.
The seat’s headphone plug was three-prong, while the provided headphones were one-prong. At first I thought this might be an issue, but both the provided headphones and my personal headphones worked well without an adapter.
While American Airlines flight attendants are infamous for collecting business-class headphones well before landing, the cabin crew on this flight didn’t bother.
The IFE screen was crisp and measured 10.5 inches diagonally. It could be tilted so that you could see the screen even when the passenger in front of you was reclined. And AA seems to have realized that entertained passengers are less needy, so its IFE system was well-stocked with plenty of entertainment options.
There was a universal power outlet in the storage well underneath the armrest. Unfortunately, these power outlets suffered from the same issue I’ve pointed out in previous reviews of this seat: Since it was recessed into the seat, it made plugging in angled power plugs impossible. There was also a USB port, though.
The internet service on this flight was powered by Panasonic. Wi-Fi options were $12 for two hours, $17 for four hours or $19 for the whole flight.
The Wi-Fi speeds were generally awful. The Ookla speed test failed to initiate either on my laptop browser or my phone app. Using Google’s speed test, the connection tested as fast as a paltry 2.38 Mbps for downloads at one point of the flight.
But in practice the speeds were much slower, if the internet worked at all. I often received connection errors as I tried to work. I never was able to connect my laptop to the Slack server the entire flight, although I was able to connect via my phone. The low internet speed was especially concerning considering the flight was well less than half empty.
Food and Beverage
The one area where I was especially pleased with American Airlines’ premium-economy soft product was its meal service. It was a small touch, but premium-economy passengers got their own menus.
To pay tribute to our departure airport, I ordered a gin and tonic during the first drink service. It was served in its component parts: a cup of ice, a can of tonic and a miniature bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. But the flight attendant did ask whether I wanted slices of lime. (I did.)
For lunch, I chose the chicken breast. The four-course meal was served all at once, but was tastefully presented with white tablecloth, metal silverware and real plates: hummus, crudites, stuffed pepper and a pita; seasonal greens with balsamic vinaigrette; grilled chicken breast in cream sauce with lentils and green beans; and cherry crumble.
Since there wasn’t a dedicated galley for the premium-economy cabin, passengers had to pass through the entire economy section to reach the galley in the far rear to get a drink or snack (since you aren’t supposed to use the call button for that). There the crew had set up a decent selection of snacks as well as leftover bread and desserts from the economy lunch. Self-serve drinks included water and juice, but this crew was happy to oblige other requests.
The “almost there” meal service before landing consisted of a burrito bowl with rice, diced vegetables, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream with fresh fruit on the side. While it wasn’t much to look at, I found the meal to be fresh and delicious, especially paired with a Dos Equis beer.
I’ve flown enough AA flights — especially internationally — to know to come into a flight with low expectations with regards to service. I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of this crew, though. This crew was friendly and attentive both in the cabin during standard service and when I approached them in the galleys.
During the first drink service, I mentioned that my tray table was quite unstable, and the flight attendant said he’d write it up. When I approached the crew in the galley midflight to request a cup of coffee, the same flight attendant had a moment of horror as he remembered that he’d forgotten to record my issue. So he did it right there. Using iSolve on his tablet, he selected my seat and noted the broken tray table. We anxiously awaited the award that the system would provide … and we were a bit disappointed when an Executive Platinum elite received only 2,000 miles for a broken tray table on a transatlantic flight. That said, the crew’s genuine apology for the minor issue was more than sufficient.
When AA messes up, we say so. And when it does things right, we say so as well. So, credit where credit is due: based on my experience, American Airlines premium economy deserves praise. Currently priced at just a couple hundred dollars more than economy each way, AA premium economy provides a solid Goldilocks level between AA’s quite-tight economy seats and its (generally) great, and expensive, hard product in business class.
My seat only had moderate recline and the legroom could have been more generous, but the greatly improved catering, amenity kit, high-quality headphones and extra space certainly justified the price premium over AA economy for those who could afford the step up.
I didn’t really have issues with the seat itself, but rather with the airline: late departure with poor communication, and Panasonic Wi-Fi connectivity issues.
After weighing the reasonable price difference between economy and premium economy plus the 1.5x earning rate for Elite Qualifying Miles, I’ve decided this definitely won’t be the last time that I book AA’s premium-economy product.
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