Serve Yourself: American Airlines (787-9) in Business From Shanghai to Los Angeles

Oct 30, 2018

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To The Point

American Airlines’ 787-9 features one of my favorite aircraft types and one of American’s best business-class seats: the B/E Aerospace Super Diamond. Pros: spacious seats for working and large IFE selection. Cons: poor service and Wi-Fi.

Of the 787s American Airlines currently flies to China, some routes are served by the -8 variant, while others have the -9. But what a difference that last digit makes, especially for business-class passengers.

The business-class cabin on AA’s 788s have rocking Zodiac Concept D seats, while the 789s have B/E Aerospace Super Diamond seats. Although I know a few passengers who prefer the privacy and forward-facing service provided by the Zodiac Concept D seats, I prefer the spaciousness and stability of the B/E Aerospace Super Diamond seats. So when I was booking a flight to Shanghai Pudong Airport (PVG), I purposefully routed through Los Angeles (LAX) to ensure I’d be on a 787-9 with my preferred seat type in business.

Although this review will focus on the leg from Shanghai to Los Angeles, I flew this product round-trip, so I’m also going to include some experiences from my flight in the other direction.

In This Post

Booking and Check-in

My husband and TPG writer JT Genter and I are doing a few mileage runs in order to qualify for AA Executive Platinum status for another year. This status is invaluable to our nomadic life, as we frequently take advantage of the free cancellations and redepositing of award flights that this tier provides.

For this mileage run, we booked economy flights for just 1 Citi ThankYou point and $437 per person through the Citi portal in hopes of this combination triggering the fares to code as special fares (we’ve had great luck booking special fares through the Citi portal before) — no fare information was showing up on AA either at first or when the 24-hour free-cancellation period ended. But as I was looking through my upcoming reservations on AA’s website a few weeks later, I noticed fare information was showing up. I hadn’t tried to apply systemwide upgrades in either direction yet, as doing so sometimes triggers fare information to appear, but since the fare information was already showing, I asked to apply systemwide upgrades both ways. These upgrades cleared us into business class about four days before departure.

Online check-in wasn’t available for the flight from LA, presumably because AA needed to look at our Chinese visas. Check-in in Atlanta was a slow but smooth process. For the return, online check-in was available, but mobile boarding passes weren’t allowed when departing Shanghai. We easily got boarding passes and lounge invitations from the check-in desk when we arrived at the airport about four hours before departure.

Lounge and Boarding

American contracts with Air China to provide lounge access for its eligible business-class and elite passengers in Shanghai. I could have visited Air China’s First Class lounge as a Oneworld Emerald, but I decided to visit a better-looking Priority Pass lounge instead: China Eastern’s Plaza Premium lounge.

American seemingly never boards flights at the posted time. Flights in both directions began boarding significantly earlier than scheduled, with the flight from Los Angeles (LAX) announcing final call — complete with terminal announcements — just three minutes after boarding was scheduled to begin.

Cabin and Seat

American’s 787-9 aircraft had business class, premium economy, main cabin extra and economy. The business cabin was configured with seven rows of 1-2-1 seating. The seats were a compact version of the B/E Aerospace Super Diamond seat, one of American’s best business-class products. They were 22 inches wide and had a large tray table that folded and retracted to a locked position right beneath the IFE screen. The table was 18.5 inches at its widest and 17 inches long.

The seat had three preset positions: upright, reclined and lie-flat. But the legrest and back could be manually adjusted from any of the preset positions, as could lumbar support.

Lie flat mode with Casper bedding.
Lie-flat mode with Casper bedding.

Two compartments were on the window side of the seat. The smaller compartment, which latched closed, was 8 inches at its widest, 6.5 inches at its longest and 1.5 inches deep.

The larger compartment, which didn’t latch closed, was 15.5 inches at its longest, 6 inches at its widest and about 4 inches deep. This compartment contained a three-prong headphone outlet that worked fine with headphones with one prong, one USB plug, a remote for the IFE system and one universal power plug. Cables could run from this compartment easily even when it was closed.

When closed, these compartments helped form a nice surface for placing items. It was 38 inches long by 15 inches at its widest, though most of it was just 8.5 inches wide. I especially like being able to place my laptop here while eating meals.

There was a literature holder by the smaller compartment that couldn’t fit much additional material. Next to the holder was a reading light.

Each business-class seat had a shoulder strap that needed to be worn for taxiing, takeoff and landing. Unlike shoulder straps on some business-class seats, this strap wasn’t particularly uncomfortable.

There was a deeper compartment under the aisle-side armrest. This compartment latched closed and was 9 inches deep, 5 inches at its widest and 11 inches at its longest.

This armrest could be lowered to the height of the seat cushion by lifting the lever on the front of the arm rest and pressing down on the armrest.

There was also an open, triangular well on the window side near the footwell. This 4.5-inch-deep space initially held the provided slippers, but I didn’t keep anything in this well, since it was small and relatively out of the way.

The IFE screen was just over 18 inches wide diagonally. The screen didn’t tilt, but there was no need — the screen was crisp and clear regardless of the angle of the seat.

The window seats felt relatively private, as you couldn’t see any other passengers when sitting. Sure, you might see the top of a few passenger’s heads, but there wasn’t any awkward staring while seated — which is what happens in AA’s 787-8 business-class cabin.

Seats in the center section were much less private, since you could see your seatmate out of the corner of your eye. American didn’t install dividers on these seats, so your best bet was to leave up the compartment covers if you wanted slightly more privacy. Needless to say, these seats were best for friends and couples.

There were ample overhead bins, with most seats getting their own bin. But the middle seats in the first two rows didn’t have overhead bin space over their seats, because these bins were blocked for equipment.

There were three lavatories surrounding the business-class cabin. One lavatory was in the front of the aircraft next to the cockpit door. The other two were between the premium economy cabin and business cabin. One of these was handicapped accessible, but none included any additional amenities besides the expected hand soap.

If this review seems like déjà vu, it is in a way. I reviewed this exact same product in August 2017 and recently reviewed a different version of American’s B/E Aerospace Super Diamond seat on the 777-200. If you’re wondering how the B/E Aerospace Super Diamond differs between the 787-9 and 777-200, this table should help:

American 787-9 American 777-200
On all aircraft? Yes No, some have Zodiac Concept D seats
Shoulder strap? Yes No
Relative size of counter space and compartments Smaller Larger
Latching larger compartment? No Yes
Number of Rows 7 10
Single Cabin? Yes No

Amenities

Waiting at each seat during boarding was a Cole Haan amenity kit, Casper comforter and full-size pillow, Casper slippers, Bose noise-canceling headphones and a 0.55-liter water bottle.

The plastic-wrapped green and navy Cole Haan amenity kit included an eye mask, socks, toothbrush and toothpaste, C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries-branded lip balm, body lotion and mouthwash, earplugs, tissues and a pen.

The Casper blanket and pillow were plastic-wrapped separately. The Casper comforter was warm and relatively soft, and the pillow was not as firm as I would’ve liked. The slippers were also from Casper. They came wrapped in plastic and fit my feet (women’s size 10) perfectly. The slippers were warm, comfortable and durable — they’ve lasted through multiple subsequent long-haul flights and are still going strong.

Casper slippers on on another flight.
Casper slippers on on another flight.

The Bose noise-canceling headphones provided quality sound but were collected 60 minutes before landing in Shanghai (PVG) and 35 minutes before landing in Los Angles (LAX). It’s worth noting that the headphones on these flights weren’t the same type, or quite as good quality, as the ones I received on my American 777-200 business-class flights to and from Hawaii recently.

Shortly after boarding, a flight attendant passed through the cabin offering a selection of newspapers in Mandarin and English.

The IFE system had ample offerings, including four live TV stations, 273 movies, 137 different TV shows (many with multiple episodes available), 573 music albums and 15 games. There were also many e-reader magazines available, as well as my favorite, the Voyager 3D flight map.

The aircraft featured Panasonic Wi-Fi, which cost $12 for two hours, $17 for four hours and $19 for the entire flight. I bought the $19 package but found the Wi-Fi unusable for most of the flight. I had multiple issues on both my laptop and cellphone, including getting errors on the connection page and the network being “offline” before I could even reach the login page.

Food and Beverage

A choice of sparkling wine, orange juice or water was served before departure. Menus were distributed shortly after boarding finished, and preorders were confirmed before takeoff.

Warm mixed nuts and a departure drink were served first.

A small plate of roasted cauliflower with ponzu, golden raisins and ginger tahini as well as a salad with seasonal greens, pickled pumpkin, red quinoa and feta were served about 10 minutes after the departure drink. The salad came with a choice of Shaoxing wine vinaigrette or Asian vinaigrette. I tried the Shaoxing wine vinaigrette but found it to be overwhelmingly strong. The cauliflower dish had well-balanced flavors and perfectly cooked cauliflower.

There were four choices of main plates: grilled beef filet with mushroom-herb crust, snow peas, sweet corn mash and peppered port wine jus; char siu chicken with Yunnan-style long-grain rice with mango, roasted Brussels sprouts and plum sauce; crab-stuffed shrimp with curried vegetable Singapore noodles, silken tofu and toasted sesame seeds; and Chinese scallion-pancake lasagna with mushroom, cabbage, mozzarella and hoisin sauce

I ordered the vegetarian Chinese scallion-pancake lasagna. The pancake, which served the place of noodles in the lasagna, was delicious when combined with the mozzarella. JT ordered the grilled beef filet, as he’s found that this is a true test of a flight’s catering. The filet was cooked perfectly to his medium-rare preference.

There were three choices for dessert: traditional ice cream sundae with vanilla ice cream and a choice of hot fudge, butterscotch, seasonal berry toppings, whipped cream and pecans; gourmet cheese plate with an assortment of fine cheeses with garnishes; and chocolate ginger tart with vanilla mascarpone and crystallized ginger

I opted for the sundae with berry toppings and whipped cream. The sundae was tasty, but the ice cream was too solidly frozen to be easily eaten.

The midflight snack was served about four hours into the flight. There were two choices, both of which came with a dish of fruit: ham-and-brie sandwich with cranberry-horseradish spread or chilled Shanghai-noodle salad with fried chicken and oyster sauce.

I opted for the cold sandwich. Although the fruit — blueberries, watermelon and cantaloupe — was fresh, the ham was too fatty for me to eat.

There were two choices available for the light arrival meal: warm roast-beef-and-cheddar sandwich with focaccia bread and horseradish spread or dim sum (steamed pork wonton, shrimp shaomai, glutinous rice dumpling and vegetable rice noodles).

Although I asked to be woken for the arrival meal service, I was not woken for this meal. JT tried the dim sum and found it underwhelming — he said it tasted reheated and that I shouldn’t be too upset that I missed it.

Six wines chosen by master sommelier Bobby Stuckey were available: De Venoge Cordon Bleu Brut Champagne (France), A to Z Wineworks chardonnay (Oregon), Ara Single Estate sauvignon blanc (New Zealand), Benziger Family Winery certified-sustainable grape-growing program merlot (California), Susana Balbo Signature malbec (Argentina), and Quinta do Portal LBV port (Portugal). Other drink options included: three types of spirits, five types of whiskey, three types of brandy or liqueurs, eight types of beer, eight sodas, three teas, five types of juice and water, milk and coffee.

Snacks, fresh fruit and leftover nuts and desserts were available at the front of the business-class cabin. I’d avoid the middle seats in Row 1 unless you want people standing by your seat while they select snacks throughout the flight.

Self-serve drinks and rice crackers were available between business class and premium economy.

As I stayed in Shanghai on this trip for just 26 hours, the same flight attendants staffed both flights. On both flights, the greeting and service through the first meal was decent: Welcome drinks were provided, menus were distributed, meal preorders were confirmed, and the departure meal was served in a timely manner. However, the flight attendants did the bare minimum they needed to for the remainder of both flights.

Here are some examples of situations on both flights. For the sake of this review, I often sat back and waited to see just how long some things took, since some passengers may not choose to take the DIY approach:

  • My departure drink glass remained at my seat for the entire flight from LA to Shanghai. On the flight from Shanghai, my empty departure drink glass remained at my seat for hours until I returned it with my midflight snack tray.
  • My midflight meal remained with a napkin on top beside my seat for about three hours on the flight from LA. I eventually took it to the galley myself. On the flight from Shanghai, it took about 30 minutes to be removed after I finished the meal.
  • I asked to be woken up for the arrival meal on the flight from LA, yet no one did. I woke up on my own as a landing announcement was made, so I received no arrival meal.
  • The passenger in Seat 2D was allowed to make multiple Wi-Fi calls throughout the flight from Shanghai while most passengers were trying to sleep. Although a flight attendant agreed inflight calls weren’t allowed according to AA’s regulations, she didn’t push the man to stop making these calls.
This tray sat beside my seat for hours before I took it to the galley myself.
This tray sat beside my seat for hours before I took it to the galley myself.

Overall Impression

At 13 and a half hours to Shanghai and 11 and a half hours to Los Angeles, these flights are some of American’s longest flights. And, they feature one of American’s best hard products, the B/E Aerospace Super Diamond seat. Although it’s not the most comfortable for side-sleepers, I enjoy working in this seat. The nonservice soft product is pretty middle-of-the-road — the Casper amenities are nice, but the catering wasn’t great. The main drawback on both of my flights was service: The flight attendants simply checked out after the departure meal on both flights and — perhaps to dissuade passengers from visiting the galley — the flight crew kept the seat-belt sign on for most of both relatively smooth flights.

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