Best business class to Europe: Some will argue on a technicality that the best transatlantic business class belongs to Singapoe Airlines — they fly New York to Frankfurt with an Airbus A380 on a flight that continues to Singapore (not to mention their 777 flight from Houston to Moscow). But I’m not sure even that would be true.
Believe it or not, and with some caveats that I’ll note below, American Airlines probably has the best business class between North America and Europe right now. Wait before jumping out of your seat and just hear me out on this.
About six weeks ago American Airlines reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in flying on their new 777-300ER aircraft in business class when it began serving New York – London Heathrow. American believes it’s a great product and wants as many folks as possible that would be talking about it to see it, and I can understand why.
I’ve been very excited to try out the new product ever since it was announced, but to be clear (and since this has been a recent topic of discussion in the travel blogosphere) I didn’t accept a free ticket. They chose specific dates to propose for the trip since they were expected to be light loads and weren’t expected to trade off with paying passengers (and in fact my return flight – on a Wednesday at noon – was better than half empty in business class). So at the time I went ahead and purchased tickets and used my Executive Platinum “eVIP” confirmed international upgrades to get into business class.
While I paid for the ticket myself, I did have the extra opportunity to board the plane a few minutes early in New York in order to snap some photos, and also to sit down with some executives from American Airlines in London to see their strategy presentation (which didn’t contain much that was new).
Mostly I got to fly the new seats roundtrip, see the lounges in London (and I used the British Airways first class lounge on the way home, rather than American’s Flagship lounge).
Back in December I wrote that business class is all about the seat. I explained the important elements of business class:
The key elements, to me, are that the seat is lie flat. And that the seat is lie flat. And that the seat is lie flat. And within that framework, it helps when the seat is lie flat. (I also want the seat to be a bit wider so I can turn over or stretch without hitting the side, and so I feel a bit less claustrophobic. I want an extra pillow and an extra blanket so that one can serve as a mattress pad. And a bit of actual storage space helps. But these are all distinguishing features that matter only once the seat is lie flat.)
And American hasn’t just put in a new lie flat seat, they’ve put in the best lie flat seat. It’s based on Cathay Pacific’s seat, and US Airways has an earlier generation of it. Not just true flat, but wide and private. Some airlines do eight seats across in business class, the previous American Airlines configuration was seven seats across. This is just four. Every seat has direct aisle access… two window seats and to seats together in the middle, each an aisle seat.
And the seats are gorgeous, comfortable, great for relaxing and for sleeping.
There’s also plenty of storage space — in the side of your seat down by your feet, underneath the ottoman, and in this cabinet at shoulder level. It’s a great place to store your headphones (you plug them in inside of here as well) ad your amenity kit. There’s a mirror in it too, which I found strange at first but you don’t have to wait for the lavatory for every little thing.. I actually like it.
Here’s the audio/video controls, seat controls, seat power, and a/v input jack in case you want to play your own entertainment over the inflight system at your seat.
And here it is in true lie flat mode. I grabbed an extra pillow from an empty seat, an extra blanket too. There’s no “bedding” in business class, but I made my own — I laid out a blanket over the seat for extra padding, and I used the second blanket on top of it as my covers. Two pillows, and I had a perfect bed that’s as good for sleeping as most I’ve had in first class.
The only knock I have on the seats, and it’s really more of a question mark, is how well they’ll wear over time. My seat on the outbound was pristine, but on the way back the light showing the seat was in full upright position would never display and a panel by my feet dangled off. Both easily fixed I’d imagine, and perhaps a fluke but these planes are new enough they should be perfect. Time will tell.
The Competitive Landscape
US Airways pioneered these seats and doesn’t really get enough credit for that. The American seat, based on the Cathay Pacific seat (arguably the best long haul business class in the world) is an evolution of that seat.
Delta uses the Sicma Aero Cirrus reverse herringbone seats in its 747s which mainly operate on Asia routes. Delta’s 777s use a standard herringbone configuration which aren’t as good, and the 767 seats (flying JFK-London) are a mish-mash at this point. I thought they had all been converted to lie flat seats of an earlier generation, but apparently 1/3rd are still recliner-style seats that I didn’t realize any major airlines were still flying on premium routes across the Atlantic (ugh, and I hadn’t really internalized that anyone was flying worse seats than the old angled American business seats.. I was wrong). Delta’s A330s will be receiving the Sicma Aero Cirrus seats, as I understand it, but I don’t follow Delta nearly as closely as American, United, British Airways, Lufthansa, etc.
While I do think American’s new business class is the very best across the Atlantic (with effectively the same seat as Cathay Pacific, I’d contend Cathay’s overall product is better and of course Cathay doesn’t fly Atlantic routes), the major drawback is that they simply don’t have it in very many planes yet and it’s going to take a while to roll it out.
Until American reaches critical mass with the product the top business offerings out there are the latest ex-Continental BusinessFirst seats, the Delta herringbone seats, and the Virgin Atlantic seats.
United’s legacy 777s are eight across in business (compared to four across with the new American 777s) which is just crazy. British Airways has you playing footsie with your neighbor downstairs on their 747s as well, though BA gets a shout out for really pioneering fully flat business. Swiss has a really good new seat, and Lufthansa’s new seat on just a few aircraft is decent enough. Air France is a real laggard with all angled seats (as American had until recently) though they’ve announced top shelf business seats coming, and KLM has announced new seats though not industry-leading ones.
American’s Rollout of Their New Seats
Each new 777-300ER entering the American fleet will have these seats. They’ll be operating six by summer, all on London routes, and expect 10 aircraft by the end of the year. Flights scheduled as 777-300ERs (often signified as “77W” on schedules as opposed to “777” for the 777-200s) will all have these seats and they’re operating on designated routes which should make booking flights on these aircraft generally reliable.
Their 767s will get fully lie flat seats, but it will be a different seat (presumably because the 767 is much narrower) and American hasn’t publicly announced what seat it will be.
Retrofitting of Ameican’s 777-200s and 767s won’t begin until 2014. The 772s are mainstay of the international fleet, and will be losing their first class cabin. The 767s operate the thinner routes.
The amenity kit at my seat was spot on for a business class offering — some skin care products, I’m happy with just lip balm personally. A single use tooth brush with tooth paste. There were socks ancks and ear plugs, though for my outbound flight slippers weren’t provided (fortunately I happened to bring my own – a very strange happenstance but there you go). And a moderately-reusable case.
I thought the lavatories were attractively adorned. And the lav on the right hand side of the business cabin was huge, perfect for changing in and out of pajamas (bring your own, those don’t come standard for business class passengers!)
American’s 777-300ERs are equipped with inflight internet. At this point it’s free, which may have been the problem I ran into on my return flight (on my outbound I just slept) — service was as good leaving London as I’ve ever experienced on a flight but then it slowed to a crawl and wouldn’t function at all. I wondered if it was everyone on the flight trying to use it since it wasn’t costing them anything. For a couple of hours in the middle of the flight for all intents and purposes the internet just didn’t work. But it got a little better, and I realized just how revolutionary this would be. I normally get off a long haul completely overwhelmed by the work and correspondence I’ve missed. For a Westbound transatlantic that’s during the business day even. This changes all that. They need to get the bandwidth up to speed though.
The business class cabin has a bar area where flight attendants put out midflight snacks. I missed it completely on the outbound, choosing to nap instead, but I paid it a visit on the return and I was really impressed by everything they had on offer — much richer and more extensive snacks than I’ve seen in business class before.
The overnight service from New York to London starts with dinner after takeoff and ends with breakfast. I was asked whether I wanted to be woken for breakfast and after looking at the menu I decided not to be. It’s a short flight, they don’t need to serve two substantive meals, and breakfast is very much light fare.
That’s consistent with what you get on British Airways and on Air France. Although any time I hear ‘breakfast’ I really do want a hot option, and in my perfect world not just eggs. But then I remind myself that this is business class, and my meal expectations reset somewhat.
The menu for the outbound was as follows:
Smoked salmon with spring pea blinis and cream cheese
Seasonal greens with fresh vegetables feta and pepperoncini
Sour cream and herb dressing or Premium extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Assorted gourmet breads
Crusted in Boursin cheese served with wilted spinach, balsamic grilled tomatoes and whipped potatoes
Red Thai Curry Chicken
Accompanied by jasmine rice
Chip Crusted Halibut
Served with thyme red pepper sauce, parsley, caper cream sauce, pan-roasted paprika potatoes, haricots verts with shallots and vegetable medley
Brie and Leek Ravioli Pasta
With San Marzano tomato sauce and vegetable medly
Dine Upon Request
You may choose one of the featured entrees to be served with an appetizer and dessert, presented all at once, at any time you wish.
Traditional Ice Cream Sundae
Vanilla ice cream with your choice of hot fudge, butterscotch or seasonable berry toppings whipped cream and pecans
Gourmet cheese plate
An assortment of fine cheeses with garnishes
Fresh seasonal fruit
Kellogg’s cereal with milk
Served 45 minutes prior to landing to allow you to sleep as long as possible
Warm breakfast breads, seasonal fruit, and your choice of beverage
I had the salmon appetizer which was perfectly good. I thought about having the express dining option but wanted to see it in courses. I skipped the salad though I was just too tired and really not that hungry even though it had been quite awhile since I’d eaten.
My entrée choice was the chicken, and I admit I was expecting a bit more red curry and a bit more spice. It was fine, some might even consider it good, but relative to what I was expecting from he description of a Thai red curry chicken I was sort of disappointed.
I can’t turn down an ice cream sundae though. But it came out too frozen, I enjoyed the topping and the outer edges of the ice cream, but I simply gave up on the rest which is probably for the best since the scoop of ice cream was gigantic.
For the return trip lunch began with a tandoori shrimp appetizer.
And one of the best steaks I’ve eaten on a plane, at least that I can recall. (I wonder if I was grading on a curve for business class, and from an American carrier, but I don’t think so — It was cooked absolutely perfectly.)
My Flight Experience – Weather Delays, Inconsistent Crew, Great Sleep, and Total Comfort
I shared the outbound flight with Lucky from One Mile at a Time and Seth Kaplan from Airline Weekly. Which actually turned out to be a lot of fun, because we had a good deal to chat about over the course of what became a really long weather delay.
We were scheduled to be the 7pm departure out of New York, but there was a pretty bad storm passing through and the plane was icing up. We had to wait awhile to push back and get de-iced. At our gate we were boxed in by Air Berlin, and they had their de-icing ahead of us.
Once that was done we finally taxied out, but the congestion on the ground at JFK was pretty bad and it took too long for us to get to the runway. Once we passed 25 minutes of taxing we had to return to the gate to be de-iced again. But given the likelihood of long taxi times still, we had to wait things out a bit. The temperatures were rising so once we de-iced a second time there wouldn’t be a time limit within which we had to takeoff.
Each time we waited at the gate they opened the doors and allowed folks off. This also made the wait time longer, but it kept resetting the clock on the four hour tarmac delay rule. Some passengers got testy, some left the plane voluntarily and one left the plane… not voluntarily. Apparently she was berating flight attendants for their failure to anticipate the delay better. Four Port Authority officers came onboard to escort her off.
Meanwhile we were chatting away. I felt a little self-conscious, immediately after boarding I changed into a pair of American Airlines pajamas. They don’t offer PJs to business class passengers of course but I’ve held onto the same pair and flown with them to Brazil in American business, to Paris with Air France, they’re one of my favorite pairs of airline pajamas and they wash well and last. So there I was in my PJs…
Except Lucky was in his American PJs as well. And so was Seth. We had all brought our own, and it wasn’t planned or coordinated. Given that I didn’t feel that self-conscious about it, though it probably was a spectacle for the other passengers.
All in all I was actually happy for the delay. I had really wanted to try out the seat on a flight much longer than New York – London. I wanted to know how it would fare on a transpacific flight. And more or less I got that — the delay and flight time meant I was onboard nearly 12 hours.
Once in the air I ate dinner and promptly went to bed. I found the crew a bit testy, and I had to ring the call button a couple of times during the flight to get water, but this was business class and all about the seat. Which was great — I slept four hours.
I don’t like 7pm transatlantic departures from the East Coast since I’m not tired enough yet to fall asleep, and the flight is so short that if I can’t fall asleep right away I won’t sleep very long. Since we wound up pushing back for the last time just after midnight I was ready for bed. I got a true solid rest, and true to their word the flight attendants didn’t wake me for breakfast. I got up about 30 minutes out from London, changed out of my pajamas and back into street clothes, and soon enough we were on the ground.
The return flight was a different experience entirely. It was a day flight — a noon departure which meant I wouldn’t be sleeping. I’d have a chance to try out the onboard internet, eat, snack, and watch some movies. And see how comfortable the seat was for relaxing, not just sleeping. And I had one of the best flights of my life.
I returned on a different flight from Lucky and Seth. And I’m glad I had the flight that I did because the cabin was mostly empty and the crew was in fantastic spirits. The flight attendant serving my aisle, Vanessa, could easily have been working Singapore Airlines first class and would have been a standout there.
That’s the thing about crews with US-based airlines — there are some really wonderful flight attendants, there are some really surly ones, and it’s luck of the draw and there long seems little that the airlines can do about it. But on this one I scored. She was attentive, kept my drinks refilled, kept encouraging me to eat things and try things. She was there just the right amount and at the right times. And her colleagues were equally welcoming and engaging. Whereas the crew on the outbound was a little bit grumpy even before the delay, on the return it was a party.
And as if to underscore that very idea, the lighting theme they selected on the touch screen controller was the pre-programmed “AA Party”
The flight passed almost too quickly, we got into New York a bit early. And I left truly looking forward to giving the product another spin.
What This All Means Going Forward
I slept as well in American’s new business class seat as I do in British Airways first. The seat offers excellent privacy, good inflight entertainment, and though connectivity was a bit glitchy having internet across the Atlantic was amazing (American is hardly the first with this, I think Lufthansa has it on the most aircraft).
It’s going to take way too long to roll out the product. But they begin by focusing mostly on the London market with their new aircraft. Before, Delta’s 767s were the worst regular frequency New York-London but American was certainly a carrier to avoid as well compared to British Airways, Virgin, and United. Now American’s 777-300ER is the preferred service and business travelers will be angling with their travel departments to get onto those flight (the usual game of being very very specific about flight times and coming up with excuses about why other options just don’t work).
The good thing is that all 777-300ERs, designated as 77W in schedules, have the new seats since they’re brand new aircraft delivered fresh. And there shouldn’t under normal circumstances be aircraft swaps to other planes. If you’re booking far in advance there’s risk of course of a schedule change, including change of aircraft type. But for the most part booking the new business in the new plane is a safe bet.
On most flights most days American has been conservative about releasing upgrade seats far in advance, they’ve seen the new seats selling well. But in most cases and on all but the most popular flights they should clear some upgrades and that makes American’s Executive Platinums happy. Currently Executive Platinums receive 8 upgrades annually that are valid on any American flight from any fare. With these seats those certificates are the most valuable perk in the world of travel
American wasn’t the first with these seats and they don’t have enough of them yet. But it’s the best version of the seat, I think, and there are really three competitors –two of which are flying the seat almost exclusively over the Pacific (Cathay Pacific, Delta) and the other (US Airways) is a slightly earlier generation of the seat and incrementally behind in other areas as well.
Which gives American the best business class product between US and Europe. A title I find strange bestowing on them, but that they’ve earned with this seat. Now they just have to make it available on more planes and more routes.