DIY Lie-Flat: American Airlines 787-8 Main Cabin Extra From Chicago to Beijing
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The first Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner was delivered to the first customer, ANA, in 2011 and quickly won over passengers with its large, dimmable windows and healthier design. American Airlines flew its inaugural 787-8 flight in early 2015, and now has 20 787-8's (the shortest variant of the 787 family) in service.
When my husband, TPG Points and Miles writer JT Genter, reviewed American Airlines' 787-8 Main Cabin Extra product in 2015, I was on board with him. Although many parts of that experience still ring true today, TPG decided it was time for an update almost three years later.
Here's my refreshed take on the American Airlines 787-8 Dreamliner in Main Cabin Extra from Chicago (ORD) to Beijing (PEK).
We booked our round-trip flights from Chicago O'Hare to Beijing through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Center with points and cash, paying one Ultimate Rewards point plus $500 per person. We used our Chase Sapphire Reserve for the cash portion to get the card's travel protections.
We checked the fare rules when purchasing our flight and expected that these would qualify as special fares. Less than 12 hours after landing in Beijing, we saw that the fares did indeed post as such.
As an American Airlines Executive Platinum elite, I could select Main Cabin Extra seats — economy seats with more legroom — for free at booking. Platinum and Platinum Pro elites can also select Main Cabin Extra seats for free, while Gold elites can select these seats for free at check-in. If you're not an elite member, Main Cabin Extra seats will cost you between $164 and $181 each way from O'Hare to Beijing, while the route is still around, that is. Make sure to check out TPG's beginner's guide to choosing seats on American before paying to select seats.
We arrived in Chicago after a whirlwind series of flights from coast to coast: New York-JFK to San Francisco (SFO), then San Jose (SJC) to Chicago O'Hare. Because of this, we checked in for the ORD-PEK flight at the San Francisco (SFO) Admirals Club. Checking in in person allowed us to complete the required documents check so that we could be added to the airport upgrade list for the SJC-ORD flight. But we still needed to visit the check-in counter in San Jose the morning of our flight to drop off checked baggage after picking up two Airmule suitcases each.
Although our passports and visas were checked at SFO, we were stopped during boarding in San Jose for another passport and visa check. And we were stopped for a third visa check while boarding the flight to Beijing in Chicago. I've flown AA to China many times, and this wasn't normal: Usually my China visa is only checked at check-in. It's unclear whether the system was malfunctioning or the agents were just being overly cautious.
I'd received an email from AA two days before my flight reminding me that, as an Executive Platinum elite member, I'd have access to the Flagship Lounge in Chicago (ORD) during my layover. So, during my layover in Chicago, I made sure to check out the space.
The Chicago Flagship Lounge was large (it's rated to hold almost 600 people at once), relatively new and sleek. We had a fresh, filling meal from the buffet and then worked at the window-side desks for a few hours.
The lounge also had a self-serve bar, quiet area, sleeping area, TV room and showers.
As seems to always be the case with AA, boarding began about 10 minutes ahead of time. Although the flight wasn't anywhere near capacity, the boarding agents still made an announcement offering to gate-check carry-on baggage for free before boarding began.
Overhead storage in the Main Cabin Extra section was marked for Main Cabin Extra passengers — but obviously this only works when passengers obey signage.
Cabin and Seat
The economy cabin was mostly 3-3-3 seating, although the last row or two of each section was 2-3-2. There was no premium-economy cabin, although it's coming soon to this aircraft type.
Main Cabin Extra seats were near the front of the cabin and had a 36-inch pitch. Standard economy seats had a 31-inch pitch.
There weren't any entertainment or power boxes under the seats, so there was plenty of room to store personal items and stretch our legs out under the seats.
My seat had 17.25 inches of width between armrests, which felt really tight, especially on such a long flight. And the armrests were so low that my arms couldn't reach them even when I slouched.
My assigned seat was 12J, an aisle seat. I picked this seat in hopes that I'd get a row to myself for the flight, but also so that I'd still have an aisle seat if the cabin filled up. The cabin stayed mostly empty, so I sat in 12K, a middle seat, for the majority of the flight.
Each seat had its own universal power outlet and USB port. The universal power outlets were designed to keep your charger from falling out if you slightly twisted the plug to the right. There was also a remote for the IFE, but I found that the just-under-9-inch touchscreen responded well to my touch. (Call it the Brendan Dorsey test.)
The headphone jack and USB right beneath the IFE lit up when you touched the screen, making them easy to spot in darkened cabins. Another headphone jack was on the end of each armrest.
The tray table at each seat was 16.5 inches by 10.5 inches. It folded in half before being stowed, so you could use the tray table as a 5.25-inch table as well.
The economy seats featured a surprising amount of recline, which was good for sleeping but uncomfortable for working on a laptop when the person in front of you reclined. I've found them comfortable enough to sleep in on past AA 787-8 flights, thanks to the bendable wings on the headrests, which could extend upward to better support tall passengers.
On this flight, I lucked into being the only passenger in my three-seat row, relatively common for this soon-to-be-discontinued route. So I slept flat on a poor man's business-class seat — no Skycouch necessary. The armrests went up completely, which was great, but slightly problematic was the fact that the seat belts weren't nearly long enough to comfortably secure me while I slept. JT found an easy solution, though: He asked the flight attendant for a seat belt extender.
Seats in the last row of each economy cabin couldn't recline much.
Bulkhead seats had ample legroom, but the window bulkhead seats looked especially cramped and didn't even have a window.
As this was a Dreamliner, the windows were plenty large. I usually enjoy the dimming feature on Dreamliner windows, but the flight attendants kept the windows locked at their darkest setting for the entire flight except taxi, takeoff and landing.
Row 26 had no windows on either side of the plane.
Dreamliner aircraft are supposed to be healthier. Between pushback and landing, my hygrometer registered humidity between 51% and 6% and temperature between 69 degrees and 76 degrees. I rarely see the humidity drop below 10% on Dreamliners, and it should hover around 25%, so the fact that it dropped to 6% on this flight meant the cabin settings were likely set incorrectly.
There were four lavatories in the middle of the economy cabin. I never had to wait long for a lavatory on this flight, since this flight wasn't near capacity, but it seemed like a line could quickly form on flights at full capacity.
A plastic-wrapped blanket and pillow awaited passengers at each seat. The pillow was small and wrapped in light paper. The blanket seemed relatively new and smelled clean. It was soft and warm enough for the 70-degree cabin.
Free Avis-sponsored earbuds were distributed 10 minutes before pushback. I took a pair and found that although they were better than nothing, my own earbuds and headphones were vastly better.
Each seatback featured a screen under 9 inches diagonally.
The IFE was pretty extensive, with 137 series (most with four or more episodes), 273 movies, four live TV stations, 573 music albums (most with 10 or more songs), 15 games and a Voyager 3D flight map
I've had multiple transpacific flights recently where Panasonic Wi-Fi was unusable for much of the flight. I figured I'd have the same experience on this flight, but, to my surprise, I found that the Wi-Fi worked for most of the flight. Wi-Fi cost $12 for two hours, $17 for four hours or $19 for the entire flight. I bought the entire flight package and was able to switch between my phone and laptop (logging into one would simply log me out on the other device).
Food and Beverage
Meal service began on the right note with warm, wet disposable towels being distributed 15 minutes after takeoff. Five minutes later, little bags of pretzels were handed out. Then, 10 minutes later, drinks were served. White wine, red wine and a variety of beers, as well as all the normal nonalcoholic beverages, were available for no additional cost. I enjoyed a Fat Tire Belgian White beer.
Dinner was a choice of chicken with orzo or pork with rice. Both meals came with salad, vegetables, a bottle of water, a roll and a churro-style cookie. The chicken was served in a mild barbecue sauce and with perfectly cooked orzo. The whole meal was surprisingly good, and I'd say that overall it was one of the better AA economy meals I've eaten. The cinnamon churro bar was particularly tasty, too.
JT ordered the pork with rice. The pork was breaded, fatty and sitting in an oily sauce. It wasn't bad, but not what passengers might expect. The sticky rice was bland, which actually helped offset the oily pork.
Seven hours after takeoff, snack boxes, ice cream cups and drinks were distributed. Most passengers were asleep, but flight attendants left snack boxes and ice cream on their tray tables, which meant many passengers awoke to melted ice cream.
The snack box included a bag of baked green-pea crisps and a packaged sandwich. The sandwich was as good as a cold sandwich can be, with soft but minimal breading and a spiced, cheesy filling.
Just under 12 hours after takeoff, and about an hour and a half before landing, we got our artificial cabin sunrise, and the final meal service began: an omelet or rice with vegetables.
I tried the omelet and got a tray with a few pieces of fruit, a bottle of water and a warm dish with an omelet, soggy hash browns, a cheese-and-spinach mixture and a tomato-and-pepper mixture. My favorite part of the meal was the tasty spinach and cheese, while my least favorite part was a sour piece of orange that still had most of its rind attached.
JT tried the rice and vegetables dish, which had an overwhelming aroma and taste from a spice neither one of us could identify.
Chips, cookies, small bags of pretzels, water, juice and Coke were openly available in the galley between the two economy cabins throughout the flight.
The flight attendants were friendly during boarding and meal services. Three drink services were provided during the departure meal, one during the midflight snack and two during the arrival meal. Trays and trash were collected multiple times after all three meal services.
Comparing the photos from this review with the one from almost three years ago, it's apparent that the economy seats on AA's 787-8 Dreamliners have aged. Although the seats look worn, they're still relatively comfortable. But they are narrow, and this alone may make the flight uncomfortable for many passengers. Plus, the armrests are too low to provide any support even when slouching.
The Dreamliner itself has large dimmable windows and lighting that can simulate sunrise and sunset, but the flight attendants can lock the windows to prevent passengers from making adjustments. I found AA's food and snack selection on board to be decent and ample enough to keep my hunger at bay during the nearly 14-hour flight. And I appreciated that the Panasonic Wi-Fi worked for most of the flight, so when I wasn't sleeping, I was able to work.