Flight Review: International Business Class on American Airlines

Michael Garko, In Airline News

Getting from my base in Raleigh, N.C. to London is a very simple process compared to most mid-sized airports in the U.S.  Raleigh/Durham International is the smallest airport in the country, by passenger count, with daily transatlantic service thanks to American Airlines’ service to London.

The 767 puts most aircraft to shame at RDU.

The 767 sticks out compared to most aircraft at RDU.

American has been flying from RDU to London (initially Gatwick, but later transferred to Heathrow) for nearly two decades thanks in large part to the large number of pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline with bases in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina.

This year, I decided I would take a trip to London for my birthday.  As an AvGeek, I decided to book my trip on the only airline currently offering widebody service at RDU.  This would be my first mainline experience on American, so I booked a Business Class seat to LHR, and an economy seat for the return leg to compare the two.

The flight departing RDU was briefly delayed (typically a 6:30PM departure) as a substitute crew was flown in from O’hare due to the significant (for North Carolina at least) amount of snow and ice.

The flight would be operated on a Boeing 767-300 aircraft, a model which averages over 20 years in age in American’s fleet. The interior of the aircraft on the initial leg of my journey reflected this.

Enjoying being spoiled in Business Class.

A pre-takeoff welcome.

I boarded the plane by squeezing into the cabin via a galley area.  Once through the galley, the interior of the aircraft instantly came across as drab and musky.

After taking my seat in one of the 30 angle-flat seats onboard, I was greeted by a stewardess with a friendly welcome and a glass of champagne.  She took my coat to store in a closet, and I settled in with my pillow, blanket, and amenity kit including socks, a toothbrush, lip balms, soap, and a pen.

Instantly, I noticed that the majority of the crew was not dressed in typical international flight attire.  Also evident was the amount of confusion among the crew preparing for the journey.  Upon conversation with a few crew members during the flight, I discovered that this would be the crew’s first international flight.

Prior to takeoff, I discovered that there was no WiFi onboard (which I found out later is currently only available on Boeing 777-300ER aircraft on international flights, or 10 aircraft in American’s fleet).  With flights to LHR averaging around seven hours (eight and a half hours on the return leg) and a significant number of passengers on the flight for business purposes, this was a disappointing fact for any long-range aircraft in the year 2014.

The empty seats across my aisle.

The empty seats across my aisle.

Despite the lack of WiFi capability, Business Class passengers were provided entertainment pads after takeoff that featured movies, music, and select NBC television shows.  I jumped at the opportunity to catch up on a couple of movies I have missed, and tried out an NBC series that I had not watched in the past.

As the flight progressed, I gave my meal selections to the attendant and continued watching my movie.  As cocktails began to be served the seat belt sign abruptly came on, followed thirty seconds later by severe turbulence for roughly ten minutes.  Similar to a Hollywood movie scene, bottles and glasses fell to the floor, beverage carts slid around the aisles and overhead bins jarred open.  This scene would be repeated multiple times over the duration of meal service, as we crossed into the Northern Atlantic region.  Each time, attendants would check on passengers to ensure there were no injuries, and handing napkins out to those who spilled drinks.

Once we were able to find some smoother air, and meals completed, I was able to catch a couple hours of sleep before attendants came around collecting the entertainment devices distributed earlier in the flight.

There was not much visible outside the aircraft due to the darkness and rain, but the path in was only slightly choppy and uneventful compared to the rest of the flight.

Flight 174 would land near our scheduled time of 7AM London time to a dark and quiet London Heathrow.  I passed through customs smoothly, and received my first European stamp in my Passport on my birthday.

Final Grades:Entertainment: C+.  Though I enjoyed my own personal tablet, having a seven hour flight with no ability to connect to the outside world is a huge drawback.

Comfort: A.  My angled-flat seat was quite cozy as I snoozed for a couple hours.  The pillow and blanket provided were of respectable quality.

Food/Beverages: A-. American gets props for carrying Coca-Cola and Pepsi products, but losses a bit from me personally for not carrying Coke Zero.  My cheese appetizer, filet entree, and ice cream dessert were all plentiful in flavor and portion amounts by airline food standards.

Service: A+. The flight crew did an outstanding job considering it was their first international flight.  Enough to the point where I contacted American after I landed to ensure kudos went out to the crew for their efforts.  The two experienced crew members offered assistance when needed, and coached their coworkers as needed.  Passenger interaction was among the highest and most pleasant I’ve had on any flight on any airline as well.

Environment: B.  The image and smell of the aging interior is still in my head.  Lighting and temperature was appropriate for the entire red-eye like flight.

Overall: A-. With weather and turbulent air out of the crew’s control, the attitude of the crew ensured expectations were met for those onboard.

COMING SOON: International Economy on American Airlines