Flight review: American Airlines Flagship First class from Dallas to Hong Kong on the 777-300ER
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During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. However, we are still publishing new flight, hotel and lounge reviews, from trips taken just before the lockdown, like this one. Please note that the route between Dallas and Hong Kong reviewed here is currently suspended due to the coronavirus and will resume on July 10, according to route-tracking site Airlineroute. When it does resume, you can expect a very different experience both on the ground and on board.
International first class may be a dying breed. Some airlines continue offering it, but as the gap between business and first class narrows, we’ve seen fewer airlines offer such an exclusive cabin.
American Airlines is bucking this trend among U.S. airlines, as all of its Boeing 777-300ERs feature an international first class product, dubbed Flagship First. American flies the planes only on the most premium routes, so, as a newly minted Executive Platinum member, I was really excited to fly the carrier’s best product on its longest route, from Dallas to Hong Kong.
So, how does the AA long-haul first stack up? It depends on your perspective.
American used to be good about releasing saver award availability in advance, but those days are long gone. There is an occasional award seat, especially when booking close to departure, but that’s far from guaranteed.
If you’re looking to redeem miles for the flight, you can use 110,000 AAdvantage miles or 206,000 British Airways Avios for the one-way ticket.
Note that American frequently runs web specials. We’ve seen sales where the first-class cabin is included, so be sure to do your research when booking flights.
Though there may not be many award seats, there’s plenty of upgrade space on this route. Since the upgrade inventory comes from a revenue fare class — “A” to be exact — you shouldn’t have much of a problem confirming an upgrade.
Note that you need to be ticketed on a paid business-class fare to upgrade. You can use 25,000 AA miles (and a cash copay) for the one-way upgrade, or use a systemwide upgrade (SWU), if you have one. Interestingly, almost the entire cabin on my flight had upgraded from business using a SWU.
My experience started with a decidedly non-first class check-in. Through American offers a private “Flagship Check-in” at five of its main hubs, Dallas, the largest, doesn’t have one.
Fortunately, there wasn’t much of a line in the priority queue when I arrived at the airport at 4:30 a.m. Within minutes, I had my boarding pass, and the agent invited me to use the Flagship Lounge before my flight. (The Flagship First lounge has since been closed due to the pandemic.)
Though my boarding pass was stamped with TSA PreCheck, the lane itself was closed. Again, it didn’t matter much since the airport was empty at that time.
I entered the Flagship Lounge, located next to Gate D21, just as it opened at 5 a.m. I was the only one there for about 45 minutes.
The space includes a long hallway and two larger rooms at either end of the lounge.
There’s a variety of seating, from individual armchairs to high-top counter seating to couches.
As you enter, you’ll find the buffet, as well as dining tables spread around a tastefully decorated room with vaulted ceilings.
I was there during breakfast, and I was quite impressed with the presentation and taste of the food.
There was an assortment of breakfast foods, both continental and more substantial American fare. The highlight was definitely the create-your-own omelette bar.
The self-serve liquor selection included a variety of wines and average Champagne plus a fridge stocked with assorted beers.
If you’re looking for non-alcoholic drinks, there’s plenty to choose from. Aside from the La Colombe coffee, there are a few Coke Freestyle machines, as well as canned soft drinks, boxed water and Perrier.
The long hallway connecting the two main rooms is a great place to relax and plane-spot, as the lounge boasts great views of the D gates and west part of the airfield.
The other area at the end of the hallway has a TV room and relaxation room, which don’t look too private.
The lounge has restrooms and 12 shower rooms, each equipped with C.O. Bigelow amenities.
I cut my visit short to review the newly-relocated Centurion Lounge — which is currently closed, like all Centurion Lounges worldwide — and then went back to the Grand Hyatt for a quick gym session before the long flight.
When I recleared security and returned to the Flagship Lounge, it was packed. So crowded, in fact, that there were lines to enter.
While Flagship Lounges are most definitely a step up from the ordinary Admirals Club, the relatively lax admission policies, coupled with the arranging of flights out of DFW in departure banks, means that lots of people have access. In this regard, I’d definitely prefer a Polaris lounge to the Flagship lounge.
When I came back to the Flagship Lounge, I decided to have breakfast at the exclusive Flagship Dining facility. Essentially, it’s a restaurant within the lounge, open to customers flying first class in three-cabin aircraft and to some of the airline’s top-tier Concierge Key elites.
The restrictive access policy meant that there were plenty of tables to choose from. I loved the bright and airy design of the restaurant.
There’s a host stand as you enter, then a bar and finally a dining room with an assortment of two-top and four-top tables, as well as some booths.
As I had a morning flight, they were only serving breakfast, but the full food and drink menus are as follows:
For breakfast, I tried the shakshuka with scrambled eggs, crispy potatoes and blueberry bowl.
Service throughout breakfast appeared almost overbearing and more personalized than what other diners were experiencing. Multiple servers kept coming by, introducing themselves and asking if there was anything they could do for me. My assumption is that they figured out I was reviewing the lounge after seeing me take hundreds of photos.
So, yes, the service I experienced was definitely well aboveaverage. However, this level of service is on par with what I’d experienced before at Flagship Dining locations,
Though they might’ve known what I was doing, that didn’t stop them from serving me moldy blueberries.
The rest of the food was quite tasty. Before long, it was time to head downstairs to Gate D23. Departure was delayed an hour due to the late arrival of the inbound flight, and the gate area was chaotic. Due to the strong winter winds and the amount of heavy cargo on board, which meant the plane would need to be lighter or make a fuel stop, American was seeking volunteers to take a later flight to HKG in exchange for a $1,200 travel voucher.
I had a connecting flight after DFW-HKG, so I passed on the offer. Before long, it was time to head onto the plane.
Cabin and Seat
Let’s start with this: Relative to other long-haul first-class products, AA’s is one of the worst. However, it’s a noticeable step up compared to the airline’s reverse-herringbone business-class seats.
“Suites,” as AA calls the armchairs, are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, spread across two rows.
Unlike most other “suites,” there’s limited, if any, privacy. Though I’d booked well over two months before my flight, all the window seats were already occupied, and none came up in an ExpertFlyer alert I set up (ExpertFlyer is owned by the same parent company as The Points Guy.) So I was stuck in a center seat.
The privacy partition between the seats is quite low, compared to, for example, another first-class seat that is not an actual suite — Lufthansa First. Furthermore, there’s limited separation from the aisle.
The seat does swivel into three different positions. The default for takeoff and landing is forward-facing, though once airborne, you should twist yourself inwards. You do get a bit more privacy this way, though it’s still exposed.
One of the unique features about this seat is that if you continue swiveling, you’ll end up in a desk chair. There’s even a foldable table for added working space.
My biggest gripe with the seat is the lack of storage space, especially considering all the bedding that’s waiting for you when you board.
Aside from the small shoe-storage compartment and the foldable mirror, there isn’t any enclosed storage space. Plus, flight attendants used the first-class overhead bins for their luggage, so I had to keep all the bedding on the floor of my seat.
A small four-inch retractable tablet is used to control the seat. There’s a variety of preset positions, like dining and sleeping, and you can make more granular adjustments or turn on a massage feature.
The bifold tray-table is plenty large, at 24 inches long and 20 wide.
The seat’s ottoman doubles as a buddy seat, so you can eat with a fellow passenger. The other nice thing about the large ottoman is the essentially limitless room for feet when sleeping.
The 82-inch bed was supremely comfortable, especially after I lowered the armrests to add about nine inches of width to my sleeping surface.
Since the cabin was kept quite warm, I appreciated that American elected to install individual air nozzles.
The two dedicated first-class bathrooms are shared with the pilots; one is a bit larger. Both offered C.O. Bigelow refreshing toner and Fresh+Clean air freshener. Unlike aboard top-tier first-class airlines, I did not find cloth towels here to dry your hands, and I noticed that the smaller bathroom had a broken changing table.
All in all, the seat was quite comfortable. It was a marked improvement from business class, especially when sleeping. I do wish that AA added more storage compartments and privacy dividers.
Amenities and IFE
The amenities on offer were the number one thing that reminded me that I was indeed flying in international first class.
Waiting at my seat during boarding was an assortment of goodies. To begin, there was a lot of bedding.
There was a Casper-branded thick and plush mattress pad, duvet, throw blanket and two pillows. Altogether, the bedding really helped me sleep like I would have on my bed in New York.The Saks-branded blankets distributed in United Polaris are softer, and the Casper pajamas offered by flight attendants during boarding were a bit scratchy, but the sleeping experience in AA first was still excellent.
There was also a pair of slippers at my seat. While cute, they were pretty flimsy and felt quite cheap.
Also waiting at my seat was a well-stocked This is Ground amenity kit. The bi-fold pouch was nicely designed and had a good array of products, including toothpaste, tissues, toothbrush, mouthwash, Allies of Skin facial moisturizer, hand lotion and lip balm. There was also a pair of ear plugs, pen, mint, thick socks and a comfortable and large eye mask. Props to American for giving me everything I needed during the flight.
Lastly, there was a pair of Bang and Olufsen headphones on the shelf. I still prefer the Bose ones that AA used to offer, but these were still great. Unfortunately, the connector was three-pronged, so I couldn’t use my AirFly to connect my AirPods Pro to the entertainment.
The console of the seat has two power outlets, as well as a USB port and video connectors to connect an iPod (yes, seriously, an iPod) or laptop to the video monitor. There’s another USB port along the ledge of the seat.
In terms of the actual IFE, the content was pretty good, though the screen quality could’ve been improved.
The 16.5-inch touchscreen barely worked, but it didn’t really matter since it was so far away from the seat. I instead used the retractable remote to navigate the menus.
There was plenty to watch, including 251 movies, 56 TV shows and 4 channels of live TV (BCC, CNBC, CNN and Sport24). Some of the new releases included the Lion King, Rocketman and Spider Man.
This was the first time I’d seen a digitalized version of an airline’s magazine. AA still prints its magazine as well, unlike most other U.S. major airlines, which have suspended publication amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Lastly, there was Panasonic Wi-Fi available for purchase, and an unlimited flight pass cost just $19. Speeds were quite good at about 8 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload. Contrast this to Singapore’s Wi-Fi offering on their longest flight, and you’re in for a treat.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Service began on the ground with a choice of pre-poured beverages — champagne, orange juice or water. There were no warm nuts or hot towels distributed with the drinks.
About 15 minutes after departure, the sole flight attendant performing service came through the aisle with a glass of water along with a few Terra chips and olives. She begrudgingly asked what I wanted to drink in addition to water, and I selected champagne, which showed up pre-poured about 10 minutes later.
The first bite was a (tiny) caviar tart and prosciutto. It’s great that AA serves caviar, but it could look to partner Cathay Pacific for how to serve it right.
The next course was a butternut squash and apple soup. It was served while I was still working on the caviar, but at least it tasted great. I firmly believe that more airlines should offer soup. It reheats easily and packs a lot of flavor at high altitudes.
Then, the flight attendant came through with my small plate. By the time she took my order, they were out of the poached Maine lobster (the cabin was full, and they’d only catered five of them), so I selected the tomato tart. The tiny dollop of arugula pesto sauce gave an otherwise pretty tasteless dish a kick.
I’d pre-ordered my main dish 30 days before departure, so I was delighted when the FA confirmed that it was loaded on board. The cedar-plank halibut was quite literally served on a cedar plank. Aside from the cool presentation, the fish was tough and overcooked.
Along with the fish, I ordered a side of potatoes, vegetables and rice. The potatoes were soggy, but the vegetables and rice were good.
At this point, I asked the flight attendant for some white wine. I asked for a glass of the Cortese di Gavi, though there was no way to guarantee that’s what I got since it wasn’t poured table-side.
After finishing the main meal, the flight attendant came by and offered me a sundae. There was no mention of the cheese plate or sticky toffee pudding dessert option. I can’t really complain, though: Haagen Dazs ice cream topped with some berries, hot fudge and whipped cream while passing over Canada at 30,000 feet — amazing!
The entire meal took two hours, which, all things considered, wasn’t too bad for such a long flight.
The flight attendants set up a snack cart in the forward galley about five hours into the flight. There was a selection of hard fruits, pralines, packaged snacks, vegetables and sandwiches. None of the prepared food looked all that appetizing, so I munched on some pistachios instead.
I got quite hungry before I went to bed, so I asked for a mezze plate from the mid-flight menu. Let’s just say that this was the only thing about my AA first-class experience that reminded me of Emirates first.
When I woke up one and half hours before landing, the flight attendant rushed to serve me breakfast. I was ravenous, but don’t eat shrimp or bacon, so I chose the continental option, with the smoothie being the highlight. On such a long flight, I’d really like to see AA offer a more substantial pre-arrival meal instead of breakfast.
Aside from the need to add more food options after the first meal, there was nothing bad about AA’s first-class dining, yet nothing was memorable. Except the ice cream sundae.
And this is where AA really fell short.
On the ground, service was almost over the top, but that’s thanks to the lounge agents who most likely recognized what I was doing — which is we haven’t factored it into this section’s score. However, once I got onboard, things really changed — for the worse.
At the boarding door, I showed the flight attendant my boarding pass, and she simply pointed me to my seat. When flying first class on other airlines, you’ll often get an escort to your seat, or, at the very least, a personalized welcome aboard, where you’re addressed by last name.
Though I wasn’t expecting a flight attendant’s help with storing my bags — only a few airlines do that — I was shocked to see that one of the overhead compartments was already closed because it was full with the flight attendant’s carry-on luggage.
When I settled into my seat, there was no personalized greeting or customized pre-departure beverage. Instead, it was “juice, champagne or water?” Furthermore, there was no explanation of the seat’s function or design.
When it was time to select meals, the flight attendant came through with her disorganized papers and scribbled my meal order down as fast as possible to get on to the next passenger.
I purposely boarded with a light jacket to see if someone would ask to hang it. Shockingly, no one did.
The hot towels that AA uses are small and thin. Additionally, there were no cloth towels in the restroom as you’ll find in other first-class bathrooms.These may be minor details, but they add up.
Throughout the meal, the flight attendants simply went through the motions. I was only once asked whether I was done with a course, in the form of “Are you done?” I drink lots of water on planes (one of the best ways to cope with jetlag), but it took the flight attendant three courses to refill my glass.
After lunch, I didn’t see the flight attendants again unless I rang the call button. But I certainly overheard them from the galley chatting about their routes and upcoming plans for their stay in Hong Kong.
When it came time for landing, headphones were collected 50 minutes before arrival. Couldn’t they just let the eight first-class passengers use them until landing? It’s not like most passengers have the required three-prong audio adapter to be able to use their own set. Oh, and I was never once thanked for flying with American.
Now, to be fair, there was a crew change overnight during the flight. The relief crew was a lot better (but still far from perfect). They checked on me every 30 minutes and were good about water refills. They even offered to do turndown service for me. It’s just too bad that this crew only served the cabin for a few hours.
So, how did AA do? The ground experience, especially Flagship Dining, was on par for first class and the inflight amenities were great. Other than that, the seat was uncompetitive, the food was unmemorable and the service decidedly not first class. That means an overall score of 74/100 points, below the average of 85 for our long-haul first-class reviews.
But that doesn’t mean you should avoid this product. Sure, American Airlines first class doesn’t stand a chance relative to the world’s best airlines, but it doesn’t necessarily need to. After all, it’s still better than business class. And, when almost the entire cabin uses a systemwide upgrade to bump from biz to first, there’s no expectation that AA first should be the world’s best.
My recommendation? As long as you’re not spending any real money on it, you’ll enjoy AA first. It’s more exclusive than business, and the seat is better. It’s a great use of a SWU, but I wouldn’t pay a mileage premium for it. Nor would I ever pay cash for the ticket. Why would you when Cathay Pacific offers a much better product at the same price?
All photos by the author.
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