Recently (late January) I had an opportunity to fly with my wife in AA’s new Premium Economy cabin RDU to London Heathrow and return. Here below are the notes I drafted in real time going over and returning.
I am a latecomer to appreciating real Premium Economy (PE) airline offerings. I’ve been lucky to fly often in international First and Business Class for decades, and I certainly prefer Business Class over any kind of coach cabin. However, I have discovered that PE can be very comfortable—not just more tolerable than regular economy—and the price difference between Premium Economy and Business is gigantic. PE is usually about $500 more than coach, whereas Business is thousands more.
To date, I’ve sampled and blogged about my experiences on PE aboard Cathay Pacific (twice), Air New Zealand, Delta, and Singapore Airlines. This post records my impressions of what American Airlines has put together for Premium Economy.
First impression: Quite roomy and comfortable. Light years better than coach.
American’s Premium Economy seats are, to me, way more comfortable than ones I’ve experienced on Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, or Delta. Frankly, I am surprised to be saying that because the other four carriers have installed very comfortable PE seats. I didn’t expect AA to have a noticeably better chair.
Seats in PE on this 777 are 8-across (2-4-2), two fewer across the fuselage than the 10 stuffed into coach (3-4-3). 2-4-2 seems to be the standard Premium Economy 777 configuration for the airlines that offer it. Each seat is plenty wide, nearly comparable to 737 domestic first class seats.
By comparison, consider how narrow and cramped are the ten seats across in economy.
Seat pitch seems roomier than on the other four airline offerings I’ve flown, too. If the actual dimensions are the same, then American has somehow made it feel more distant from the row ahead than other airlines.
Well, the seat, at least, was superior to previous experiences. Boarding was not so hot.
PE was called as Group 4 (of 7 groups), though it was actually Group 5 because the super-duper-elite “Concierge” level people on AA are called ahead of everybody else (I was shocked that 15-20 Concierge folks pushed forward to clamber aboard—that’s a big number of tippy-top tier elitists even for this big plane).
Then Group 1 (Business Class), Group 2 (the next level down AA super-elite tier, but still above most people), Group 3 (AA Executive Platinum and Platinum: several tens of passengers; I thought they would never stop coming), and finally our Group 4, Premium Economy and AA Gold. I swear that a third of the plane had boarded ahead of us, and I was worried the overhead space would be gone by the time we found our seats (13A and 13C).
Sure enough, a lot of the luggage space was taken, but we still managed to get our bags and backpacks stowed overhead quickly. Just in time, for the hordes followed after us.
We are in the first row of PE on the port (left) side, 13AC. Lots of privacy and lots of space (my feet don’t reach the bulkhead, a lot more legroom than in the bulkhead row of domestic first class). We also have two windows, which feels like a real luxury and is better than most Business Class seats.
Disappointingly, there was no boarding beverage of any kind in Premium Economy, let alone my hoped-for Champagne. Because we are cheek-by-jowl behind Business Class, I had a literal front row seat watching the puny boarding beverage service to the privileged flyers up front. It was a choice of coolish-but-not-chilled Champagne (so I overhead someone complain) served in flimsy plastic glasses or warmish orange juice, both distributed frenetically and impersonally by the cabin crew with frozen smiles (I observed): the very picture of perfunctory.
No hope of a refill, either, as the Business Class flight attendants never went back to their flock. Jeez, $6000 for Business Class, and the poor saps in sharp end couldn’t even get a second glass of lukewarm Champagne before takeoff.
So much for being at Concierge level, too. Board first, but then you are just a peon.
On my long-ago 1989 Concorde flight between JFK and London, British Airways poured unlimited quantities of properly chilled Dom Perignon and offered several first growth Bordeaux in superior vintages (at the time, the superlative 1982 and the softer, but delicious, 1983).
You know, I have a home video I transferred to DVD of that Concorde flight with me and a friend in seats 1A and 1B, and I should post it to YouTube for posterity, though it does show us in our cups by the time we hit the tarmac at Heathrow. It was a remarkable experience, both going over and returning.
Back to what you get these days in the supposed premium cabins of American Airlines, flight attendants did bring us bottles of water just before the door closed. Not Champagne, but at least we would be hydrated.
Once off the ground, a miracle: Beverage carts appeared in the PE cabin as soon as we leveled off.
Champagne, please, we pleaded!
Alas, AA doesn’t deem PE passengers worthy of even a cheap but satisfying Cava ($10 retail) or a modest but tasty Prosecco (a mere $6 at Costco). Bereft of bubbles, I ordered two Bombay Sapphire G&Ts to quench my thirst. The cabin crew obliged my request for lime to do it right, and I was, at last, on my way to properly celebrating our vacation.
The advanced-selected chicken, mushrooms and pasta dish arrived. I couldn’t honestly tell you whether it was better than just okay, because by then the gin had hit my system. I was hungry, and the stuff tasted pretty good.
After dinner was cleared, I discovered there is but a single mid-cabin lavatory on our portside aisle between Business Class and the tail. That’s stingy and not good on an International flight. PE customers must traipse back though the poor folks jammed into cattle class to reach a bathroom.
It’s a short flight, just 6.5 hours, so I need to get some shut-eye, with just 4.5 hours to go (already passing Sydney, Nova Scotia headed for Newfoundland, and then Greenland, and later Ireland). This flight seems so tame compared to Singapore Airlines’ 19 hour flight Newark to Singapore nonstop (see last week’s post).
More later when they wake me for a breakfast tray of fruit and Greek yogurt. Maybe the gin taste will be out of my mouth by then.
American Airlines must have a lot of fluff built into the Raleigh/London schedules because we pushed back from RDU 7 minutes late and arrived Heathrow about an hour early. I am not complaining. I was worried about making our 90-minute connection to British Airways London/Vienna, and now we have ample time.
Leaving the aircraft, my fleeting last thought of the flight was efficient, painless, and comfortable (well, in the Premium Economy cabin, at least). Only complaint was the AA flight attendants. They did their jobs well, but coolly, just going through the paces. No sign of warmth, joy, or happiness in their profession like I see on Emirates, Singapore, and even on Delta.
Our Raleigh flight left from Gate 42 at Heathrow’s Terminal 3, as far as one can go to a gate. Luckily, we were connecting from a British Airways flight from Vienna that arrived at Terminal 3 (about which more in a future post), but it was still a long walk. Once there, I was assured our flight (AA173), scheduled to depart at 1235pm, would begin boarding at 1145am. The crew didn’t arrive until about that time, though, spoiling our chance to settle in early.
When Gate 42 staff did finally call for boarding, we in Premium Economy were again merely Group 4. Concierge Key customers (the tippy-top tier AA elite category) boarded first–and with proper attitude–followed by groups 1, 2, and 3. So once again we were actually the fifth group to board. Due to the light load, that meant that almost all passengers boarded ahead of Premium Economy customers. My AAdvantage Lifetime Gold status, earned from being a Million Miler (not quite two million) on American, didn’t buy me any respect, either.
I felt slighted again, just as I did when we left RDU, given PE is touted as a product vastly superior to coach, and it costs more. However, the truth is that plenty of overhead luggage space was still available by the time we plopped down in our wonderful bulkhead seats, 13AC, the same ones we claimed on the eastbound leg.
Since PE gets no boarding drink service, what was I worried about, anyway? We didn’t miss a damn thing by boarding last. It’s just the principal to me, a Rodney Dangerfield can’t-get-no-respect kind of thing, plus my obsessive-compulsive nature acting up.
We left the gate early and were soon taking off,. Once more I reveled in having two windows adjacent to seats 13A and 13C, a luxury if you get a thrill looking out while flying, as I always have.
American Airlines provided perfunctory service again, just as going over, on the London-Raleigh leg, but efficient. The crew must have quaffed double espressos, so fast and fidgety were they to distribute drinks and meals and then to clean up as soon as we reached altitude. The flight attendants disappeared for 5 hours on an 8.5 hours flight right after the meal service except for once coming around with tiny little paper dishes of chocolate ice cream.
Very, very light load. Business Class was totally full of upgraded Concierge Key customers, Premium Economy a bit more than half full, with economy a barren wasteland of empty seats. This would have been the time (late January) to buy a cheap ticket and fly in coach.
Mid-flight, I went to the rear galley to get a Diet Coke since nobody came to me, and while there I asked about the empty coach cabin. The very senior flight attendants (they looked close to my age, and I’m ancient) said this flight is lightly booked from after New Year’s until Spring Break, and then fully booked all year until after Christmas.
I assume they know. The FAs are all Raleigh-based and hold enough seniority to consistently win the RDU/LHR flights in their monthly bids. Raleigh to London and back is a good run (called a “line of flying” in airline parlance). No going all over the place staying in a different city every night.
If I was looking for the least-worst seats in coach on this 777-200 configuration, they would be the two bulkheads seats on the left and the right immediately behind the three rows of Premium Economy. Most of coach is a miserable 3-4-3 setup of ten seats across. The bulkhead row right behind the PE cabin, however, has just two seats on the left and right sides. Still horribly narrow and uncomfortable, but the least worst, as I said, and with a bit of extra legroom.
American’s configuration of the 777-200 aircraft used on this route has a single lavatory on the port side in the coach mid-cabin and two on the starboard aisle, something I missed when we were flying over. Since our seats are on the port aisle, and since Premium Economy passengers are not allowed to go forward to the business class toilets, we must compete for the one on this side halfway back in economy or try to cross over to reach the other two.
On this flight, the portside mid-cabin lav had an overflowing trash container and was never serviced during the flight, another sign this crew is coasting. It also had a broken grab handle, which I didn’t report to the cabin crew for fear they would close the toilet as “out of order” due to the loose handle being a safety hazard.
Back in my nice big Premium Economy seat, I watched a movie and charged my phone, but had trouble finding and then using the plugs for the charger and the headset. It is a mystery why, in these brand new Premium Economy seats, AA put both outlets waaaay in the back of the inset book/phone holder. It is totally dark and impossible to see how to plug stuff in without using the flashlight on my phone.
Even a helpful flight attendant had trouble figuring it out and then reaching the outlets. Why would such a poor design be part of brand new chairs? It’s a typical airline mistake.
American provided an impressively large, over-the-ear headset for PE passengers, but it is not noise-canceling like the Bose sets provided to Business Class travelers, which makes it hard to listen to movies and music. I retrieved my own Bose noise-canceling headphones from my backpack and thereafter had a pleasant movie-watching experience. I advise anyone who books AA in PE to bring your own noise-canceling headset.
Thinking about the difference between Premium Economy on American and PE on Singapore, in my opinion AA has the superior seat with so-so service, while Singapore shines in top-flight service with a passable seat.
In sum, I would definitely book AA in PE again. The seats alone are worth it despite the mundane service. Business Class it ain’t, not by a long shot. But neither is it Sardine Class. It is a very comfortable in-between, and American Airlines’ Premium Economy is off to a good start.