Tried & Tested

American Airlines B777-200 first class and MD-80 economy class

21 Jan 2011 by BusinessTraveller

CHECK-IN American Airlines serves the city of Albuquerque in New Mexico via either Dallas Fort Worth or Chicago from London Heathrow (LHR). My departure was at 1025 but I arrived at Terminal 3 a little later than I meant to (0845) because of delays on the Tube. AA’s check-in was in Zone B, with desks B1-18 (five open for bag-drops and about eight for check-in) assigned to economy passengers.

B44 was dedicated to first class. There was a family of five ahead of me that took about ten minutes to process, and the line at the business class desk (B45) had about a dozen people in it, so there was a bit of a wait. Before getting to the desk a security officer asked me a few questions about who packed my bag, when and where, what electronic gadgets I had and if they been repaired lately, and if had been asked to carry anything.

I wanted to try mobile check-in so the night before I used the AA iPhone app to access my flight information, checked in and downloaded my boarding pass. (For more information on which flights you can use this on click here, and for details on AA’s apps click here.)

But when the woman at the desk tried to scan the barcode for my electronic boarding pass on my phone, it didn’t work, so she had to issue me with a paper version instead. Once I had done this and dropped my case off, I was ready to head upstairs to the lounge. The fast-track security lane was up a set of escalators in Virgin’s check-in Zone A, and then on the right.

There were about nine passengers ahead of me but a member of staff ushered me through to a quicker lane where only two people were in front so I was through within five minutes – although I was given a pat down and then, after I had collected my laptop, boots and jacket, and was about to walk out of the security area into airside departures, I was asked to be given a random full body scan. This only took a couple of minutes and involved me going into a semi-private room, standing on a mat, holding my arms up and turning around on the spot in front of the machine.

THE LOUNGE I followed the signs to Lounge H, five minutes away from security, which is where the American Airlines facilities for first and business passengers are located. Both underwent a revamp in May last year. (Click here for more details.)

The first class lounge is to the right of reception, where a very friendly and welcoming assistant checked my boarding pass and showed me in, using his key card to open the door. Inside, the lounge was peaceful, with plenty of seating available. Given that it was 0930 by this point, I didn’t have long to relax before boarding started, so I helped myself to a coffee, juice and croissant before choosing a spot by the window overlooking the tarmac.

The lounge sports brown and cream décor, which looked far from glamorous, but the overall effect was smart and business-like. Free wifi, a selection of magazines and newspapers, one shower, two PCs, a printer and fax, were some of the amenities on offer. There were also recliner chairs for snoozing, armchairs with power sockets, and a bar with a modest range of drinks and snacks. Although there was wine, spirits, jugs of juice and small cans of soft drinks there was no champagne or small bottles of mineral water to take away. Food included bacon rolls that didn’t look that fresh, yoghurt and granola, fruit and pastries. There was no à la carte menu or savoury vegetarian option.

BOARDING Flight announcements are made and there was one screen by the entrance to the lounge. Boarding was called at 0945, and as signs said the gate (36) was a 15-minute walk away I set off shortly after, but it was actually only about ten minutes away. There were more security questions when I arrived, and out of curiosity I attempted to use my mobile boarding pass, but again it would co-operate when being scanned so I had to dig out my paper one.

The waiting area was somewhat chaotic, with most people attempting to form a queue and others milling about. At 1010, first and business class passengers were called, so I then had to push my way through the crowds to get to the front and over the airbridge on to the plane.

THE SEAT I was in my seat (2J) by 1015 and offered a choice of water, champagne (Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Réserve Particulière) or a mimosa. I put my hand-luggage under the ottoman seat in front of me and my jacket in the overhead locker (there was no offer of it being hung). A member of crew then came around with menus, customs forms, and a selection of newspapers including the The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

All seats in first class offer direct access to the aisle as they are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration across rows one to four on this B777-200, which is the only plane in AA’s fleet to have fully flat beds in first. The product offers a 64-inch (162cm) pitch, 30-inch (76cm) width, 78-inch (198cm) length, and 180-degree recline. The business class cabin is in a 2-3-2 layout with angled lie-flat seats, while economy is 2-5-2 – great if you are in one of the pairs of seats but awful if you are stuck right in the middle.

Before take-off, a friendly member of crew came round to talk me through how to operate the seat, which swivels inwards to align you with the table and the ottoman, and is upholstered in navy blue fabric and leather. A button releases the table, which folds out of the side shelf, and the IFE (in-flight entertainment) system was AVOD (audio-video on-demand) with a remote in the armrest or the option of touchscreen. Unfortunately the display is quite small (8.5 inches) – the ones in business are actually bigger (10.5 inches) – and there were some crumbs and coffee stains on the seat.

There was a US power socket and a data port built into the side, plus a set of Bose headphones, a blanket and pillow but no amenity kit. Later on in the flight I asked a member of crew if they had one and she said she would take a look. When she came back she said there weren’t any left but one gentleman kindly offered me his.

WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? There could be some disturbance from the galley or washrooms if you go for seats in rows one or four, but other than that, they are all very comfortable in first so it will simply come down whether you prefer to be able to see out of the window as well as having direct aisle access, which all seats have.

THE FLIGHT The safety video was shown before departure, and informed passengers that seat cushions could be used as flotation aids in emergencies. Take-off was delayed for almost an hour as the plane couldn’t even leave the stand for 35 minutes, but the pilot kept us informed and said he hoped to make up the time en route. He estimated that we would land in Dallas at 1425, there would be a seven- to ten-minute taxi to the gate and an arrival of 1435.

Hot towels were handed out at 1150 followed by a choice of warm mixed nuts or marinated cheese and olives to accompany a pre-lunch drink. As I had requested a vegetarian special meal I was not able to select anything from the menu, so was given a starter of mushroom salad and a main of couscous and roast vegetables. These dishes were both very average and not up to the standards I would have expected from this premium cabin.

However, the other passengers got to choose items from lavish salad cart piled with fresh seafood and vegetables, and the non-veggie hot options also sounded more exciting – Chateaubriand seared fillet of beef with mushroom sauce, rack of lamb with Merlot sauce, and foie gras-stuffed chicken with black peppercorn sauce.

There was actually a vegetarian option on the menu – a tasty sounding Pecorino gnocchi, but I was not allowed to have it as I had already pre-ordered a special meal. This annoyed me because I am not vegan, yet was given a vegan meal with no flexibility to opt for anything else.

The wine, however, was excellent. I opted for a glass of the Fabre Montmayou Malbec Réserve, but other options included a Château Teyssier Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, a Groom Lenswood Sauvignon Blanc from Adelaide Hills in Australia, and a Joseph Drouhin Rully Chardonnay. Dessert was a very decadent-sounding ice cream sundae with hot fudge, butterscotch, seasonal berries, whipped cream and pecans or a gourmet cheese plate.

My table was cleared at 1415 and I spent most of the rest of the flight reading or watching films (I used my own in-ear headphones as opposed to the large Bose ones provided). Supper was served at 1840, with my special meal being a tomato and red pepper pasta, a side salad, some red grapes and apple. It looked and tasted like an economy class meal that had simply been served on a white china plate as opposed to a plastic tray.

Again, the other passengers seemed to be getting a better deal – with options being a Chicago-style deep-dish market pizza topped with mixed vegetables, three cheeses and basil pesto, or a gourmet salad with fresh seasonal greens, grilled chicken, sliced beef, asparagus, tomatoes, Brie and balsamic vinaigrette.

ARRIVAL Headphones were collected at 1940, water offered, and the arrival video played. At 1955 there was also a collection for UNICEF, and the pilot informed us that we would be arriving at Gate D25, baggage would be on carousel D5, and my connecting flight to Albuquerque from Gate C28. We landed at 1430 local time and disembarked quickly and efficiently over an airbridge into the terminal. As my connection was scheduled for 1620, and I had to clear immigration, collect my bag, clear customs and transfer to a different terminal, I was concerned I wouldn’t make my flight in time so walked as quickly as I could.

THE TRANSFER It took six minutes to get to immigration – the green form isn’t needed anymore as those travelling under the Visa Waiver programme complete the ESTA application online, but as I was travelling as a journalist and had an I visa I needed to complete the white one. There was a very long queue of hundreds of passengers and the staff on hand were rather brusque. I had to wait for an hour before I made it to one of the few desks that were open, and was processed speedily (fingerprints scanned and questions answered) by a very friendly immigration officer. But he warned me I probably wouldn’t make my connection.

I ran to baggage reclaim and grabbed my case that was waiting for me, but then had to wait in line for another ten minutes to exit and hand in my customs form. On the other side, in the transit area, I immediately handed my case back to a waiting baggage handler and then dashed up the escalators to the Sky Link shuttle. The journey took about ten minutes and once there I had to go down another set of escalators. Once at the gate I was told I had just missed my flight, but was issued with a new boarding pass for the next one departing at 1755. In a way this worked out nicely as it gave me a chance to check out the lounge located upstairs on level three.

THE LOUNGE There are four American Airlines business/first class lounges at Dallas, one in each terminal. The one in TC is open 0530-2130 Sunday-Friday and until 2200 on Saturday. At reception I was given a voucher for one free alcoholic drink. the lounge was large and bright with windows allowing plenty of sunlight to pour in. Facilities included free wifi, a business centre with PCs and printers, showers, a kids’ area, conference rooms, plenty of comfy seating and food for purchase.

I was surprised only to find a few free snacks laid out (pretzels, nuts and some sad looking carrot and celery sticks with a creamy dip), but I got myself a complimentary gin and tonic and sat down to catch up on some emails. There were no announcements in the lounge and the screens didn’t show my flight was boarding, even when the time got to 1740, so I went to ask at the desk and was told that it was on its final call. After again rushing to the gate, I was asked if I was “Southan” by a very terse member of staff and told that everyone had been waiting for me. When I tried to explain what had happened she remained looking distinctly unimpressed. 

THE SEAT I was on the plane – an MD-80 (or S80) – and in my seat (19B) by 1750. The front four rows were curtained off for business class passengers, and this section was in a 2-2 layout, while economy was 2-3 (A-B, D-E-F). The blue fabric on the seats was fairly worn. 

WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? Avoid middle seats E. If you need extra legroom book one in row 20. Aisle seat 28D feels like it has a bit more space around it as there is an exit on the left-hand side of the aircraft next to it. Avoid window seats between rows 18 and 24 as the view is obscured by the wing. Other than that, the seats are much the same in economy.

THE FLIGHT We pushed back at 1800 and the captain came on to inform us that the flight would be one hour, 20 minutes. No snacks were offered but passengers were given a choice of soft drinks. I slept for most of the short journey, waking as we started the descent at 1910. Landing was at 1925 (1825 local time) and disembarkation was very quick. As it was an internal flight there was no customs or immigration to clear and my suitcase was waiting for me when I got landside. I then caught the Sandia minibus shuttle service to Santa Fe, about an hour away.

VERDICT American Airlines’ fully-flat product in first feels very private and comfortable. The IFE screen was small and seemed a little out of date but the system had a good selection of movies. Crew were welcoming and organised, and the wine offering good. However, I was a bit disappointed with my vegetarian meals, and due to a tight connection and a lack of on screen information in the lounge in Dallas, I missed one flight and nearly missed the second, which was far from ideal but this wasn’t the airline’s fault.

PRICE Internet rates for a first class return flight from London to Albuquerque via Dallas Fort Worth started from £8,568 in March.


Jenny Southan

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