My favourite way to fly New York to London: A review of American Airlines business class on the day flight
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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 if you fly during the coronavirus pandemic, you will encounter a very different experience, both on the ground and on board, from what was experienced during this review flight.
At the beginning of March, I found myself in New York on a long-planned business trip when, within the space of a few days, the world of travel changed.
In hindsight, it seems crazy that back then travel was still considered normal. I am not a risk taker when it comes to health and had thought carefully about whether I should travel to NYC, but given various governmental advice — the UK government advice with regards to COVID-19 at the time was to merely ‘wash your hands regularly’ — it didn’t feel like I was taking a risk for myself or others by travelling as planned. Halfway across the Atlantic on my outbound flight, the main reason for the trip, a team strategy event, got cancelled. So I changed my return flight from a Saturday overnight flight to the American Airlines day flight on the Thursday.
We had booked this ticket as a cash economy airfare for just over $1,100 and used an AA systemwide upgrade expiring at the end of March to upgrade to business class. At time of booking, there was the required C-class (meaning business) availability for the first flight out on Monday morning and an overnight flight back on Saturday. Once in NYC, given the fast-moving events of the COVID-19 pandemic, C-class availability had opened up on almost all flights and an agent was quickly able to rebook me on the Thursday day flight from JFK to LHR.
I am a fan of day flights between the US and Europe. No matter in which class one travels, and even if one tries to go to sleep as soon as airborne, even getting three hours of good sleep is ambitious on the NYC to London route, which often clocks in at under six hours of actual flying time. Cabin noise for the dinner service and then for breakfast will disrupt the sleep even of passengers who opt to skip meals.
Twice every year for two weeks, the time difference between the US East Coast and London shrinks by one hour to four, due to the US and Europe changing clocks at different times. This trip fell into one of those windows, meaning the departure time was adjusted from its normal 10.20 a.m. to 11.20 a.m., but arrival time in the UK was still scheduled at 10.15 p.m.
Given this wasn’t a normal day of travelling, I wasn’t going to risk missing my flight. Unsure whether there would be any additional checks at the airport, I arrived in good time at JFK’s Terminal 8 which is used by American Airlines as well as select Oneworld partners. I was immediately struck by how quiet it was, even eerie. Yes, 9 a.m. may be past the initial morning rush hour, but there was not a single car outside the terminal, and inside it was practically deserted. Staff outnumbered passengers almost everywhere.
Being the home of American Airlines at JFK, T8 has ample check-in options including self-serve kiosks, priority check-in areas for business-class passengers and Flagship First check-in, which is ‘guarded’ by an agent who checks eligibility.
There were no queues at any of them. I had already checked in on the app (which I am a fan of — it’s one of the better airline apps out there in my opinion) and wasn’t checking any bags. I still picked up a printed paper boarding pass on my way to security. Through my Global Entry membership, I have TSA PreCheck, though all other security lines were also pretty empty, so I was through security in no time.
Airside, the picture was similar: an eerily empty terminal.
I made my way to the American Airlines Flagship lounge, one level up just after security in the main part of Terminal 8. American has recently undertaken a major refurbishment programme of its Flagship lounges and I am a fan of what they’ve done, both in terms of the space and facilities but also the food and drink offering. Until a few years ago, business-class passengers only had access to the Admirals Club where the food offering consisted of cheese cubes and carrots with a salad dressing as dip. (During the coronavirus pandemic, the lounge is closed.)
Since then, I have seen oysters, scallops, prime beef and in general a food offering that is actually both tasty and something I enjoy eating, unlike many other airline-lounge buffets which offer food I might eat because it’s there or because that’s the only option. (Lounge buffets are, currently, also closed due to infection concerns.)
It’s worth noting that international first-class passengers (or those flying first class on three-class transcontinental services) get access to an even better Flagship Dining lounge in most of AA’s hubs — when lounge dining returns, that is.
The JFK Flagship lounge is a big open space with various sections catering to those preferring to relax, work or eat. The floor-to-ceiling windows give clear views not just over the parked planes but on a clear day, also the skyline of Manhattan. I found my favourite corner with said views and made myself comfortable. The attentive staff wiped down my seats and table and did a good job wiping down various surfaces of the lounge on a regular basis. Again, staff outnumbered passengers when I arrived, though the lounge got busier later on as the departure of my flight — the only international service at that time of the morning — approached.
Despite COVID-19 dominating the news, the lounge buffet was still open and given how few people were in the lounge, I helped myself to breakfast. As much as I have praised AA for upping the standard of food and the variety of the offering, a breakfast buffet is often — across airlines and hotels — on the less exciting end of the spectrum and that was the case here: the hot food consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon and sausages.
Various yoghurts, fruit and cold options complemented the hot offering, though I’d still describe the offering as basic.
The lounge offers various self-service bars including a range of spirits, soft-drink options from a machine and of course — slightly more appropriate for the time of day — a full coffee machine.
In the middle of the lounge is also a wine and champagne bar where passengers can help themselves to a choice of drinks. There’s also a snacks section for sweet or savoury snacks.
Other areas of the lounge include a corner with booths providing a table and a quiet space to work, with printers. Wi-Fi in the lounge is good and available via a password changed monthly and displayed throughout the lounge. The selection of newspapers and magazines is decent.
There are eight showers. Spacious and offering good amenities, they are also cleaned and turned around efficiently; I have never had an issue getting a shower here, no matter the time of day.
I headed to the gate relatively early, again through an empty, eerie terminal.
When I got there, boarding was well underway, and I was on board in no time using the empty priority lane. The Boeing 777-200ER flying to London that morning was registered N772AN, a tail code identifying it as a jet that’s been grounded since late March, according to flight-tracking site Flightradar24, as American Airlines cut capacity to deal with the effects of the pandemic.
Cabin and Seat
American Airlines has invested heavily into both hard and soft products across its fleet over the last decade. Gone are the days of those dreaded and bizarre rotating angled-flat business class seats in a 2-4-2 layout that I would try to avoid at all cost. Instead, today, they have pretty industry-standard lie-flat seats in a 1-2-1 reverse herringbone layout that gives every passenger direct aisle access.
Though the seat manufacturer and product used to vary across some aircraft types, the airline is in the process of refitting business class seats and moving away from versions that had alternating seats facing backwards to a more traditional layout with all seats facing forward. Only the Boeing 777-300ER features international first class. The top premium product on the Boeing 777-200ER (which I flew on), as well as the Boeing 787-8 and 787-9, is business class.
On the B777-200ER, the business-class cabin is split into two sections with five rows at the front of the plane and a further four rows behind a set of toilets, galley and the self-service area for business-class passengers. I had chosen a window seat in the front section which is where I’d generally recommend sitting. The first row or two can be noisy due to the front galley, and the back row is next to the toilet, so rows 3 and 4 are likely to be the quietest.
The back section is separated from the premium-economy cabin by a relatively thin, see-through curtain. Besides the possible noise issues, there also may be more through traffic from cabin crew than in the forward section.
The seat itself is comfortable for work, eating, relaxing or sleeping. The seat controls are to the side and allow easy adjustment. Though I try to avoid sleeping on day flights from the US to Europe to ensure I am as tired as possible by bedtime, usually not long after landing, I reclined the seat to its fully flat position later in the flight. Though not leading the way in terms of space by the feet, there is more room than with many other ‘cubby hole’ seats and I’ve never had any issues sleeping on this product.
The seat also has all the features you’d expect of a modern business-class product. There is plenty of storage both in the large bins above the seat and around it. There are two bins to the side of the seat that can be opened and are good for general storage (though laptops are unlikely to fit). Inside are also the remote control for the inflight entertainment system as well as two USB charging points, a traditional multi-country power socket and the socket for headphones.
In addition, to the side of the seat, there’s a magazine holder (which could also fit a laptop) where the reading light can also be found. A lower side compartment held the amenity kit and water bottle upon boarding, and a further storage compartment is in the armrest.
When folded out, the table is big and sturdy. Folded up, it’s good for additional storage or drinks and is stored under the TV screen when not in use.
There are three toilets available for the 37 business class seats (loads were light on my flight, with business class around a third full). The one in the middle galley on the A side of the plane is wheelchair accessible and thus provides a lot of extra room. There were no special bathroom amenities but I like the wooden-finish look.
Overall, it doesn’t have bling but it delivers everything a business-class seat needs to deliver.
Amenities and IFE
American Airlines’ inflight entertainment system offers a good range of films, TV shows and news. It is housed in a big touch-screen at every seat. The selection of films includes new releases, favourites and classics, and I particularly like the large range of shows and series which includes a number of box sets from HBO and others but also British classics. Add to that documentaries and recorded news and it’s a good offer that should keep anyone entertained for the duration of the flight. Again, it feels strange to think that back then Italy going into lock-down was big news — little did we know what was coming!
The screen is big enough and responsive. The remote control is in the side bin. The headphones themselves are from Bang & Olufsen and are amongst the better business-class headphones I’ve come across — and look very sleek too!
American Airlines recently changed their amenity kits and moved from essentially what were plastic bags (despite being designer) to something classier. Like many other improvements to the hard and soft product, I like it. It has all the basics you’d need though I personally always bring my own eye mask and earplugs with me on flights.
The Casper bedding for each passenger is individually sealed in plastic cover and awaits passengers upon boarding. I have had a good night’s sleep on the big pillow, and I like the blanket too.
Wi-Fi on-board is another strength of American Airlines, particularly if compared to its partner British Airways, who are still rolling out Wi-Fi across their fleet. AA’s offering is simple, good and good value — it costs $19 (circa £15) for the whole flight for unlimited usage. I’ve always found it of decent speed to work and browse.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Before takeoff, the crew handed out menus for lunch. If you are looking to enjoy business-class service and food, the day flight is again a much better option than any night flights between New York and London where crew typically try to serve any meals as quickly as possible as most passengers are looking to maximise their sleep. Some may have therefore already eaten in the lounge.
The starter was cold chicken on a bed of hummus which tasted nice and refreshing, and I like the fact that AA serves a salad as well.
The choice of main was beef fillet, chicken breast, sea bass or vegetarian pasta. I am always torn about beef on flights — it usually comes completely overcooked — but I have had some great, tender, medium beef, including on AA actually. The chicken sounded very unexciting as did the pasta, and I typically don’t go for fish on planes.
Given the choice, I went for the beef. Unfortunately, it was very much on the well-done side and the presentation of the dish looked a bit messy.
The dessert choice was Haagen Dazs strawberry ice cream — rather than the well-known AA sundae ice cream — a gourmet cheese plate or a Belgian chocolate cheesecake tart, and I went for the latter. I am not really convinced there was much ‘cheesecake’ in the chocolate tart, and unlike American’s usual portion sizes, it was tiny and quite dry. I asked if I could have the ice cream as well, and together it was a decent dessert.
The wine list included a choice of two whites, two reds, a Champagne and two dessert wines. Other beverages included a number of whiskeys, brandy and liqueurs, spirits (all branded, though interestingly the gin was just ‘gin’ on the menu), beers as well as of course the full range of soft drinks you’d expect. I like that American Airlines has big glasses — though often ask them to go easy on the pour, which is usually generous as often in the US — and I personally also like that the crew often leave the full-sized can with me. I am not a fan of having to ask every half an hour or so for another tiny Diet Coke.
Just over an hour before arrival into London’s Heathrow airport, there was a second ‘light meal’ which consisted of a grilled vegetable couscous salad and then a choice of a toasted chicken, apple and brie sandwich or a chopped salad, finished off with key lime cheesecake.
Though I usually eat a little bit in the lounge before a flight and then the main meal on board, I often can get hungry again towards the end of the flight and on the day flight between the US and London, given the arrival time of 10 p.m., I do value that second meal and the fact that on AA it’s a decent size given that that’s the last meal of the day.
I went for the sandwich, tasty and juicy with lots of chicken, and though the salad was on the bland side it worked well together. The cheesecake trumped my earlier dessert.
Usually, there’s also a self-serve area in between the two business-class sections with a choice of drinks, snacks, fruit and small sandwich wraps. That wasn’t the case on this flight. I suspect it was a combination of COVID-19 safety around leaving things ‘buffet style,’ as well as possibly the very light load factor.
Service was generally uneventful. It was a quiet flight during a time that already felt strange. When I pressed the call bell button to ask for the ice cream to go with my rather dry dessert, it took a few minutes for someone to come to my seat. Admittedly, the seat belt sign was on but the crew were still carrying out service and moving around the cabin.
Meal services were quick and efficient (both the serving and the clearing of the plates) and I like that American Airlines crew seem generally pretty present in the cabin, so getting refills was mostly easy and quick. I wasn’t greeted by name except for when the meal order was taken so the service overall didn’t feel hugely premium, nor did I feel particularly recognised as an elite customer.
We landed at Heathrow at 21.48 after a 6 hour and 7-minute flight, a good 20 minutes ahead of schedule, and were at the gate a few minutes later.
Crew had handed out fast-track immigration cards before landing, though these lanes are open only in the mornings during rush-hour arrivals. Immigration was very quiet though given not many flights arrive into Terminal 3 that late at night. American Airlines has an arrivals lounge for business- and first-class passengers, but it’s open only in the mornings, when most transatlantic flights arrive.
American Airlines has come leaps and bounds since the days of strangely angled rotating lie-flat seats in a 2-4-2 configuration and cheese cubes in the Admirals Club being considered appropriate premium food for international business class.
I am a big fan of their new lounges and the food offering available, particularly outside of breakfast hours. The hard product, seat, bedding and cabin layout are now up to the international standard. On board, the inflight entertainment system is very good, as is the Wi-Fi. Food and service is decent.
Still, it doesn’t overly ‘wow,’ and maybe that’s exactly what one would want from a business-class product. I am certainly not a fan of bling or gimmicks. The best word to describe it might be ‘solid,’ and I suspect a bit more personalised and attentive service could push this easily into ‘very good’. As it is, this flight fell perfectly in line with the 79-point average of our long-haul business-class reviews.
Day flights from New York to London are my favourite way of heading back from to avoid exhaustion and help with jet-lag, and out of the airlines that fly during the day across the pond, I’d probably pick AA over BA these days given the seat is better than BA’s Club World product — at least until Club Suite is fully rolled out.
All photos by Christian Kramer/The Points Guy
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