Just Premium Enough: American Airlines’ Premium Economy on the Boeing 777 From New York to London
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American Airlines recently introduced a true premium-economy product. Previously, the airline had a Main Cabin Extra cabin, which essentially gave passengers in the first few rows of the economy cabin extra legroom. It was not a distinct product, though.
Having recently flown British Airways World Traveller Plus, I was keen to also try out the AA product and see how it compared. A day flight from New York City is a good way of avoiding those just-too-short red-eyes into London — especially when not travelling in a lie-flat seat.
On my day of travel, the jet stream was particularly strong, and our flight took a mere five hours and 50 mins!
We booked this flight as part of a return journey from Madrid (MAD) to New York-JFK and from New York to London Heathrow (LHR) for €1,251 (about £1,077). American regularly charges 110,000 (or more) AAdvantage miles and about £62 in tax for one-way premium-economy flights on its own metal, which is frankly absurd. Luckily, you can book through British Airways at much more reasonable rates: 40,000 Avios each way, though it’s likely going to increase to 41,250 at the end of the month.
American Airlines has its own dedicated terminal at JFK, Terminal 8. Though I’ve seen it busy in the mornings, it was quiet and calm when I arrived around 9am for my 11:05am flight. There are two day flights between British Airways and American Airlines, with BA operating the earlier one (currently scheduled at 7:55am) and American the later one (usually scheduled for 10:10am). I was flying during that window in late March when the clocks had already gone forward by an hour in the US but not yet in the UK, and thus all departures were an hour later given the time difference is only four hours during said two-week window.
Given my British Airways status, I was able to use the Flagship check-in area, which had no one else waiting. I have Global Entry for the US, which also gives me TSA PreCheck security, and was through check-in and security in less than 10 minutes.
Terminal 8 is essentially two parallel long buildings connected via an underground walkway. For those with status or travelling in international business class, there is a flagship lounge in the main building (which houses check-in and security), as well as an Admirals Club in the same building and the outer building. Though walking distances can be big, there are moving sidewalks to help make the journeys, and I liked the simple layout, design and views from Terminal 8.
Boarding commenced a good 45 minutes before scheduled departure time, and I was amongst the first of the premium economy passengers to board.
Cabin and Seat
My flight was operated by a 19-year-old Boeing 777-200 that had recently been refurbished to include the premium economy cabin. That cabin seated 24 passengers over three rows in a 2-4-2 layout.
The seats were 19 inches wide with a pitch of 38 inches between them.
My first impression of the cabin was positive: It looked fresh, and I liked the look and feel of the cabin and the seat. There is something classy about leather seats (compared to British Airways’ World Traveller Plus seat).
I had chosen a seat in the front row to avoid climbing over others or being climbed over. All window seats were taken, but I was happy enough with my aisle seat in Row 13. Legroom was essentially unlimited, and there were a wall and curtain between the premium economy cabin and the business-class cabin.
Each seat had a fold-down footrest, which worked slightly differently in the front, as it came out from the seat itself rather than the seat in front. I have never found those to be comfortable — it doesn’t stretch out far enough (and I am by no means overly tall).
The recline of each seat was quite decent, and there was a good amount of storage space in the overhead bins for all passengers in this relatively small cabin.
The tray table folded out of the armrest and could be folded to half the size for holding drinks.
My left armrest, the one by the aisle, also folded down into the seat, to provide handicap access.
The seat had a small remote control and three simple seat functions, which worked fine and as expected.
The toilets for premium economy were shared with economy passengers. There were some halfway through the economy cabin as well as at the back of the aircraft.
Walking back to the toilets brought home just how tight a 10-abreast configuration on a 777 is. Passengers (and crew) walking down the aisle had to at times walk sideways to avoid bumping into others, as the aisles have become very narrow in the 3-4-3 economy-class layout.
Amenities and IFE
I liked American’s inflight entertainment system. I found it responsive, the screens came in a decent size, and the selection was attractive.
In the front row, screens folded up out of the side armrest, whilst in other rows they were in back of the seat in front.
There were charging points between each seats, as well as Wi-Fi, which, though it took a while to get going, worked fine throughout the flight. I liked American’s pricing structure ($19 for the duration of the flight, compared to the other end of the spectrum, where Swiss charges around £50 for 250 MBs!) and their Wi-Fi in general.
There was a blanket and pillow on each seat, as well as a bottle of water, a basic amenity kit and very decent headphones (better than some airlines’ business classes offer). The pillow and blanket were of good quality.
My only criticism — and this applies to business and even international first class on American Airlines — is that I am not a fan of the plastic Cole Haan amenity bags. Not at all. Plastic just looks and feels cheap and nasty. I’m told that American is in the process of upgrading their amenity kits, but that first they are using up their old plastic stock.
I had difficulty finding where to plug my headphones into the seat (as did my neighbour) The answer: under one of the armrests, right at the back. It’s difficult to reach unless the armrest is flipped open. Otherwise, all in all, the amenities and IFE offerings were very good.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Menus were on the seats as passengers boarded, though they turned out to be the wrong ones (covering a night flight rather than a day flight).
I have had bad experiences in past flights with AA where I haven’t gotten my first meal choice, though that has usually been when flying on domestic US flights in first class (and sat at the front when services starts from the back). But, I’m not a fan of their second- or even third-choice breakfast options. So, I tend to preorder online (even though this wasn’t a breakfast service) — this time I selected the slow roasted beef option.
Generally speaking, I find AA’s food offerings to be quite decent in premium cabins, though stay tuned to an upcoming AA flight review where I received the worst airline meal I’ve ever had. Portion sizes are bigger and tend to be more Americanised, but more often than not, I like the food.
Lunch on this particular flight was decent but bland. The salad dressing could have been more exciting, and the potatoes with the main course were borderline undercooked. The beef was tender enough, though there wasn’t much of it. The cheesecake was good if generic.
The second meal was a ratatouille stromboli. Without a picture on the box, I would have had no idea what to expect. Essentially, it was vegetables in a pasty, and though it tasted OK, it neither looked nor tasted particularly premium. My understanding is that the premium element was that it was a hot meal, whereas economy-class passengers got a cold one.
I found that the cabin crew and service in general on this flight were good, though nothing stood out from a service perspective.
Service on this flight was not memorable or overly attentive, but I never struggled getting a refill of my drink (I like that passengers get proper-sized cans of soft drinks on American, though I always have to tell the crew to go easy on the ice to avoid a tumbler full of ice with not much room for a Diet Coke.
American Airlines was late to the premium economy market, but that means that they have a fresh, sleek-looking and generally very good hard product.
The soft product has been significantly improved over the recent years, too, and I am a fan of AA’s IFE and Wi-Fi. Whilst food and service was not the most premium experience ever, it was good and significantly better than in economy.
To some extent, whilst not directly comparing it to economy, which has a very different price point, the densification of the economy cabin across many carriers (with many, including American Airlines, now being 10-abreast) can make economy-class travel much less comfortable than it used to be. Thus, premium economy, by comparison, is a nice haven of space and comfort without you needing to pay the premium of business-class travel.
All photos by the author.
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