After a couple of days in Vienna, it was time to go back to the United States. I had originally booked an Austrian Airlines award flight to Washington Dulles and then on to Indianapolis, but a couple of days before departure, a First Class award seat opened up on American's London to Chicago flight. Since I hadn't flown on American's new "Flagship First" product yet, I immediately grabbed the seat.
Day of Departure
After arriving from a British Airways flight out of Vienna, I luckily did not even have to change terminals in London as BA flights to and from Vienna and AA use Terminal 3 at London Heathrow. After following the signs to flight connections, I was guided to American's Flight Connections center, where I obtained an AA-stock boarding pass and a sticker indicating that I had been asked the obligatory security questions.
I spent some time in the BA Galleries First Lounge and slowly made my way over to the AA gate, which was quite a hike. American really has a number of flights leaving from London Heathrow. At my departure gate waiting was a B777-300ER, which would bring me to Chicago.
American's B777-300ER fleet is the only aircraft type that will keep a First Class product, as more and more of the older B777-200 that American has, receive an updated cabin. Boarding was called and I have to say that American's First Class ground product is severely lacking. Now I really don't expect an escort or anything, which many carriers offer for international First Class passengers, but at least board your First Class passengers first - boarding was called for First, Business and frequent flyers so it was basically 100 people trying to board at the same time - this did not feel very premium at all.
As I entered the aircraft, I was directed to the left, where my seat was located on today's flight. American's First Class cabin is very intimate with only eight seats spread over two rows in a 1-2-1 configuration.
I was lucky enough to grab seat 2J, which is one of the single seats on the right-hand side. At the seat waiting were slippers and the amenity kit.
The amount of personal space for each seat was decent, but not very different from the space you get in business class.
In terms of features, the seat has a compartment with power ports and other outlets similar to the seats back in business class. The IFE remote is located just underneath that compartment.
One feature I really liked was this little area where you could presumably put your cell phone and charge it.
The seat controls were also located on the right-hand side and had all the usual functions.
There were an additional three buttons to access the TV, table and turn off a light (never used it so not sure which light it really controls).
The First Class amenity kit was Cole Haan branded and while it's marginally better than the business class kit, it's still somewhat disappointing for international First Class - I liked the kit that I got on my recent TAP Portugal flight better.
A somewhat more recent innovation is that American hands out PJs to its First Class passengers - they felt very cheap and I did not bring them with me after the flight. I still appreciate the fact that American now hands out PJs, but maybe improve the quality a little bit?
The table for the seat was extremely large and had more than enough room to fit food items and your laptop at the same time.
The flight attendant offered pre-departure beverages and passengers could chose between water, OJ and champagne. I found it nice that the drink was served in proper glassware, but I was thinking maybe American could offer full-PDB instead of limiting it to the usual three choices that you also get in business class.
While still on the ground, the flight attendant distributed the menu for today's flight.
The FA confirmed my pre-ordered meal while we waited for our departure. Eventually, we pushed back and taxied to the runway. Right next to us, another B777-300ER was parked, probably going to Dallas Fort Worth.
One thing I absolutely love about London Heathrow is the variety of aircraft one sees while taxiing. I snapped a number of pictures while we proceeded to the runway.
There were a number of aircraft waiting for take-off, but somehow we bypassed most of them, so we were soon on our way to Chicago. One last look at LHR Terminal 5 before we pierced through the clouds - this is clearly British Airways territory.
In what is very usual for U.S. based carriers, the seat belt sign stayed on for a good 25 minutes after takeoff. Service started with drinks and nuts. For the photo opportunity, I decided to get a glass of champagne - I forgot which kind it was but it was decent. The nuts were identical to the ones served in business - another opportunity for product differentiation lost.
The perhaps biggest difference in terms of soft-product is the table setup, which is a lot more sophisticated than what you get in business class. While the flight attendant just dumped all the stuff on my table, I set it up properly.
At this point it was confirmed that I had gotten a mediocre crew on my flight - I simply don't understand how you can have all the components of a nice table setup and then not do the final step of "assembling" it.
For appetizer, I had the goat cheese and picked beets, which tasted alright. I found that the presentation was quite nice.
Lunch service continued with tomato soup with crouton. I saw the flight attendants pour the soup from packages and the soup was Pacific's Organic Tomato Soup, which you can buy at every supermarket in the U.S. for about $4 - I would have hoped for something a little bit more exciting.
The salad course followed and once again I found the presentation to be very nice. The salad was very fresh and I really liked the addition of goat cheese.
As for my main, I had the "organic" salmon with bok choi and rice. The bok choi was nice enough but the salmon was very dry and the rice was of inferior quality unfortunately.
Now for dessert, my first choice was the brownie with vanilla ice cream, but the flight attendant serving my side of the cabin unceremoniously told me that they run out of it. I think that you should never run out of anything in international first class, even less so the dessert option. The cabin also had maybe a total of 4 revenue passengers, with the rest being Non-Revs, so I was pretty disappointed not getting my first choice.
I also felt like the flight attendant's attitude was somewhat disappointing - she clearly did not care at all that my first choice wasn't available and gave me that look of "what is it you want now?". I asked for the ice cream sundae and got it - the exact same thing you get back in business class.
Now I want to emphasize that I am a very easy customer and that I am very polite and not demanding at all, but the flight member serving my side of the cabin on this flight was clearly only interested in finishing up lunch service as quickly as possible so that she could retreat to the galley for the rest of the flight, which is exactly what she did.
Only after finishing my ice cream did I remember that American offers cappuccinos and espressos in its First Class cabin. Now on most flight I have taken, flight attendants would ask you if you wanted a coffee to go with the dessert, but not on my flight. I had to get up and ask for a coffee - so here it is. The coffee was served in one of American's usual coffee and tea mugs.
Now American theoretically offers turn-down service in First, but my flight attendant was nowhere to be seen and obviously did not proactively ask passengers for it so I just went ahead and set-up my own bed. The bedding provided is actually very nice and includes two pillows, a nice blanked and a decent pad.
I watched a couple of movies and took a short nap for the remainder of the flight. About 90 minutes prior to landing, a pre-arrival snack was served, which consisted of a Croque Monsieur sandwich and a potato salad- the sandwich was alright.
The flight attendant also offered some fruit and a cookie as dessert. This time I did not forget to order a coffee so I had an espresso with the cookie and the fruits.
Passengers received a duo of Lily O'Briens pralines just before we commenced our final descend - a small gift that was certainly appreciated.
We landed in an overcast Chicago and taxied to the international terminal.
There must be very few arrivals in the mid-afternoon that day as immigration was essentially empty and I was through in just under 10 minutes and on my way to the rental car place just 20 minutes after landing.
American Airlines certainly offers a state-of-the art First Class seat on its B777-300ER. Now the important question for me and many others is whether First Class is worth a premium over business class on this particular aircraft type. My answer to that question would be a firm no based on my London to Chicago flight. The seat in business class is very comfortable and offers nearly the same amount of personal space. Theoretically, service should be better in First, but that was certainly not the case on my flight. Lunch service felt rushed, the flight attendant did the bare minimum and did not check on passengers even once between lunch and the pre-arrival snack service.
American is currently trialing an improved First Class soft-product on its LAX to Sydney route and I certainly hope that this improvement gets rolled out throughout the fleet. With that improved soft-product and maybe more consistent service, I may have to revisit the "is it worth it" question again, but as of now, the differentiation between business class and first class is very small and not worth more miles or cash.