4 November 2013 by David Warne
Dave Warne experiences the 'new' American Airlines Business Class on a flight between Heathrow and New York and reports on the experience, reviewing the service and seat he enjoyed.
There is an old adage in the airline industry that economy class pays the bills, business class generates the profits. So the introduction of a new business class cabin is a particularly important moment for any airline.
This is particularly true of the major US airlines, which since 9/11 have been on a journey that has taken them from a fight for their very survival to a recent renaissance through mergers, refinancing and investment. Most US airlines had been playing catch up with European and Asian carriers, and only recently introduced fully flat 'beds' that are the norm elsewhere in business class. American Airlines is the last of the big US players to introduce a fully flat business class seat as part of a huge investment in new aircraft. Several services from Heathrow to the USA, including the all-important New York route, now feature the new cabin, aboard a number of brand-new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft.
I recently had chance to experience the 'new' American between Heathrow and New York to see whether the new business class was worth the wait.
On boarding the aircraft, my initial impression of the cabin is that it is more like a First Class layout than Business Class; indeed anyone familiar with British Airways First will see parallels. The aircraft is brand new and the cabin looks spotless, which adds to the impression of quality.
The colour scheme of grey and cream with wood veneer-style trim feels corporate, suggesting the cabin is aimed primarily at the business traveller. The robust seat design and muted colours suggest that the fixtures should resist the inevitable wear and tear better than some other airlines.
Seats are in a 1-2-1 layout with each seat angled diagonally. Every seat offers direct and unrestricted access to the aisle so there's no need to climb over your fellow passengers to get out. The seat area has lots of space and feels private without being enclosed. A 'wing' at the open side of the seat effectively takes passengers across the aisle out of your eyeline. Similarly, in the pair of seats in the centre your adjacent passenger is out of sight unless you learn forward; a small 'locker' between the seats hides amenity kits and Bose noise cancelling headphones and some useful space for smaller items. The locker doors can also stay open for extra privacy between the centre seats, should you need it. Inside the locker door is a mirror, which is a nice touch.
Alongside the locker are the remote control, seat controls, power points and USB connection. The headphone socket inside the locker took some finding and whilst this may seem odd at first it is actually rather well designed, as there's space for the cable when the locker door is closed and it saves the headphone jack getting knocked or pulled out when you move about in the seat.
There's also plenty of storage space around the seat for bottles of water, laptops, books etc, and there's a useful shelf area to the side of each seat.
The seat cushioning is on the firm side but immediately comfortable. A couple of features provided by some other carriers are absent, such as adjustable lumber support and a button to store your favourite reclined position, but otherwise the range of adjustments allow plenty of comfortable seat positions, from upright to fully-flat-bed.
The foot rest under the TV screen seems a long way away, testament to the amount of space between seats; my feet couldn't actually reach it unless the seat was partially reclined. However, I discovered that the entire seat can be moved forwards at the touch of a button, a nice feature of the previous American Airlines' Business Class seat that has been retained in the new version. Moving the seat forward can also be helpful when creating a good working position, or if you wish to chat to the person next to you in the centre.
Right handed people may be better with the open side of the seat to their right (i.e. choose the left side window seat or the right side of the centre pair of seats); there's more space for using your right arm for typing, writing or using the controls as the arm rest at the other side of the seat is higher and not adjustable.
So, ultimately, a very positive first impression and one that appeared to be shared by other newcomers; I heard one passenger comment to a companion that another US carrier's seat was rather, 'like a coffin' in comparison and this new American Airlines seat was superb.
The cabin on my flight was full as the aircraft doors closed, either a sign of early success or perhaps of informed passengers making a deliberate choice to travel on the new B777-300ER as opposed to other aircraft. However, the cabin didn't feel 'busy' due to the private design of the seat.
As the aircraft pushed back from the stand it dawned on me that there had been an unusual absence of crew in the cabin during boarding. This may have been due to the fact that Business and First Class passengers are invited to board first and then Economy Class passengers board through the Business Class cabin, and the cabin design may be problematic for the crew to interact with passengers at the same time. However, it meant that there wasn't the immediate personal welcome that you get on some carriers (this may be unique to Heathrow as on the later inbound journey from New York the crew were very much in evidence when boarding).
Leaving Heathrow, pre-departure drinks were only served once we started to taxi to the runway. I was offered a choice of champagne (Gosset NV - nicely chilled) or orange juice. There was a marked difference between the service offered by individual crew members; my drinks were delivered efficiently but without a word, or even a smile, yet on the other side of the plane crew were joking and chatting whilst serving their passengers. This trend of inconsistent approach to customer service continued throughout my American Airlines experience both on the ground and in the air: most were efficient rather than genuinely welcoming, one or two couldn't do enough for me and one or two were rather off-ish.
The all-new entertainment system is a joy to use. Screens are large with a sharp image and simple touch screen navigation that makes it easy to scroll through the wide selection of entertainment options. The genuine Bose noise-cancelling headphones are superb and comfortable, even during longer periods of use. In flight internet access is also available in every cabin, costing from US$12 for two hours.
The amenity kit has everything I tend to look for on a flight, with moisturizers for both hand and face, lip balm, toothbrush and paste, eye-shades and socks, all in a contemporary zip-up pouch.
Outbound from Heathrow the meal service started around 90 minutes after take off, preceded by a drinks service. The 1700 departure time from Heathrow to New York lends itself perfectly to the relaxed meal service. Most of my fellow travellers seemed to be business travellers, the majority of whom appeared to be ready to relax and enjoy the meal after an hour of or so of working onboard.
Plates for each course were individually delivered by hand (no trolleys) with almost the perfect interval between courses. A dine-on-demand option exists allowing passengers to dine any time during the flight but none seemed to take advantage of it.
A starter of salmon cheesecake was nicely presented and tasty, and followed by a choice of four mains - all were available - from which I chose a grilled fillet of beef. This was served relatively rare, with porcini mushrooms and grilled vegetables. I chose a cheese platter over the traditional ice cream sundae for dessert.
Two red and two white wines were offered, with rather brief descriptions in the menu (no mention of the country of origin, for example). The Colores del Sol Malbec (almost certainly Argentinian) made the perfect accompaniment to my steak, and I continued to enjoy it with the cheese course.
Inbound from New York to London the meal service included an exceptionally tasty prawn and scallop curry main course. The three-course meal service was delivered at a similarly relaxed pace to the outbound. I would have expected it to be served more quickly on the inbound to allow more time to sleep on the relatively short flight - just 6 hours and 8 minutes in this case - although many travellers appear to have dined prior to departure and reclined almost immediately after take off.
Completing the onboard enhancements is an onboard walk-up 'bar' for Business and First Class passengers. Unlike Virgin Atlantic's on-board bar, for example, it isn't a focal point of the cabin and doesn't offer bar seating; think of it more as a useful self-service area for drinks and light snacks and somewhere to go to stretch your legs mid-flight.
Of course, the key test of a business class seat is arguably how well you can sleep in it.
When fully reclined to fully flat and the arm rest lowered there is noticeably more space than on many other business class 'beds', particularly around the midriff, arms and knees area. I tend to sleep on my side with knees bent so this extra space felt immediately comfortable, aided by a cosy blanket/duvet and comfortable pillow.
I was too busy enjoying the service and entertainment system on the outbound flight to snooze but returning overnight I reclined around two hours into the flight and was left to sleep until just 20 minutes before landing. Given the relatively short flight I probably only slept for three hours but I seemed to sleep more soundly than I would usually for such a short overnight flight.
So, has American Airlines done enough to woo premium travellers to its new business class?
On this evidence, almost certainly. Introducing the new cabin later than other US carriers has obviously been an advantage and it feels like American has made a concerted effort with the design to put some distance between itself and its major competitors. The seat is probably the best that I have experienced across the Atlantic, and I particularly like the privacy and space offered when reclined. In fact, I see no reason to update my first impression that the seat is closer to First Class than Business Class.
Although the service isn't as consistent as the leading Asian carriers, for example, it was efficient overall, which would probably suit the business travellers at which the service is principally aimed. However, that shouldn't put off leisure travellers looking for a premium transatlantic option - the additional space, comfort and entertainment system should appeal to all premium travellers.