A recently-refurbished plane remains retro thanks to an underwhelming premium product

Across its expansive fleet, American Airlines features eight different kinds of business class seats.  Naturally, as you might expect, some are better than others.  On one end of the spectrum you have excellent reverse herringbones found on its Boeing 777s and 787-9s.  On the opposite end, on its Boeing 767s, you have staggered seats that would’ve been state-of-the-art 15 years ago.  Of the these two extremes, they share unlikely commonalities:  AA installed them on its planes only as recently as a few years ago, and it typically charges comparable, astronomically-priced fares for both.  If the airline brings the goods — so tasty dining options and warm, amicable service (among other things) to complement a comfortable chair that reclines 180 degrees — then it can get away with this pricing model.  If it doesn’t, well, such a poor value isn’t “higher flyer” and it probably isn’t worth your time.  By those metrics, the business class experience on AA’s 767s is, while more pleasant than economy, probably one to avoid.

Setting all that negativity in the opener aside, it’s important to remember that just because something is expensive doesn’t mean that you should write it off entirely.  As mentioned in the introductory post of the trip report, this leg was paid for with 50,000 Iberia Avios and about $40 of fees.  That’s a relatively cheap price to pay — most every other loyalty program operating in this market would charge more than 55,000 points for the same route — and it pales in comparison to the cost in dollars…

2019 american 767 business google flights
You too can fly business class on an AA 767 for the eye-popping amount of $5,398!

Yes, American sells a one way business class ticket between Madrid and New York for $5,398.  $5,398!!!  That’s absurd and that’s highway robbery for what you get — you’ll see why later on — but spending 50,000 Avios is easier to stomach.  THF values Iberia’s currency at 1.25 cents per mile, so this redemption went for the dollar equivalent of about $625.  That’s good for roughly 10.8 CPM!  Because I was able to purchase something valued at $5,398 for the equivalent of $625, that means that my purchasing power increased by 863 percent.  Not a bad use of points, not bad at all…

Related reading:   “On perceiving ‘good’ value”

If you want to get outsized value like this out of your award points but don’t know how, consider hiring THF Consulting to plan your next adventure!  You don’t have to be rich to travel like you’re rich.

Spanish flag carrier Iberia and its oneworld partners — including American Airlines — operate out of Terminal 4 at Madrid’s Adolfo Suárez Airport.  Having opened in 2006, this relatively new building has an aesthetic that’s “tranquilly grand” and “uniquely satisfying.”  With rolling bamboo ceilings and towering walls of windows, this is a beautifully pleasant place to wait for a flight; actually transiting it though is a time-intensive hassle.  My own experience was easy by Madrid-Barajas’s standards and that still warranted its own entry in “Another Weekend to Europe.”  There were no horror stories, no unruly travelers, no extraordinary sights (aside from the striking architecture)… no nothing.  There was just lots and lots and lots of hurried walking.

To recap the previous installment, my flight to New York was scheduled to begin boarding at Gate S5 at 10:15am.  The door would close at 10:45am and departure would follow at 10:55am.  I arrived at the airport about 90 minutes in advance of wheels up — you’d think that’d be enough time — but despite never waiting in a line longer than five minutes, it soon became clear that this was going to be too close for comfort.

Look at how well-designed the ceiling is… and how endless this hallway is!  Both are common sights at Madrid-Barajas’s Terminal 4.

Early on during my trek to the “S” section of gates — which is where most intercontinental flights operate out of — I passed a sign suggesting that it would take me a whopping 22 minutes to get from that point to my destination.  Long story short:  it was pretty accurate.

Lots of steps (literally and figuratively) between entering the airport and getting to your gate.  Notice the estimated times printed on the sign in the top right of the frame…

After going through security, a series of escalators, and a train ride…

Choo Choo!

…Then passport control AND a mandated march through a cramped, stuffy, and too-warm duty free section…

This place regrettably doesn’t fit in with the aesthetic.

…I finally found myself in the “S” section, but S5 awaited near the end of another “endless” hallway.

This is great until you realize that you have to walk the length of this.  Just keep going toward the light!!!

Just as the sign previously predicted, the gate and the plane came in to view after 20 minutes.  Per my fitness tracker, that worked out to more than a mile’s worth of walking.  Say what you want about Madrid-Barajas’s sprawling Terminal 4, but it’s nice to get some exercise in and stretch your legs before leaving on a long haul flight… provided that you’re not running late!  Then it’s just a nuisance.

Who knew the promised land was a nearly 30 year old Boeing 767?

Boarding our New York-bound Boeing 767 was smooth and straightforward, especially when juxtaposed with the preceding journey through Madrid-Barajas.  In what should give everyone hope for humanity, most everyone obeyed the ground crew’s directions and the aircraft was all set to be loaded up well before the scheduled departure time.  This was accomplished in part because there were no gate lice or line-jumpers to complicate the affair.  What a serendipitous treat for once!

American Airlines AA 95
Madrid-Barajas (MAD) – New York-JFK (JFK)
Scheduled Departure:  10:55 (11:45 wheels up)
Scheduled Arrival:  13:40 (13:20 wheels down)
Duration:  7:35
Aircraft:  Boeing 767-300
Seat:  2A

American Airlines’s 767s are outfitted with full-sized exits at each end of the fuselage and four hatches overwing (for a total of eight).  Therefore, when boarding these birds via jetway, everyone enters through the front door, turns right, and then finds themselves among a sea of staggered seats.  There are 28 total to be precise, and they’re arranged 1-2-1 abreast across seven rows.  They offer each passenger direct aisle access and a lie-flat bed, but they’re far removed from being considered a state-of-the-art product (Delta, for what it’s worth, debuted this on its 767s in 2009).  First impressions are positive nevertheless — the cabin is clean and smart-looking — but closer inspections reveal a gray, plasticky utilitarian style that quickly eliminates any air of higher-end luxury.

There’s nothing wrong here, but nothing about this is exciting or distinct.

There’s just not a lot of character — that’s too bad! — but trading glamour for functionality is a fine, if not common practice in international business class.  I’m not going to criticize this aspect of the hard product any further, but do remember that AA typically charges north of $5,000 for this on one way legs to and from Madrid.  You’d be forgiven if you felt underwhelmed after spending that kind of money.  At that price point, who wouldn’t expect more?

Lots of shades of gray and not much else.

In order to keep the cabin as space-efficient as possible, each footwell/ottoman is tucked underneath the seat-in-front’s side table.  For this layout to work properly, the chairs alternate between being closer to the window and closer to the aisle like so:

This picture explains how staggered seats work better than any written description.

That’s how this configuration gets its “staggered” moniker, and each seat type has its own set of pros and cons.  The ones adjacent to the windows are more private (with side tables serving as buffers), the ones closer to the aisle feel more spacious (thanks to greater head, shoulder, leg, and foot room), and the ones in the middle have neighbors (which may or may not be a good thing).  There are also four spots in the bulkhead and, if any are available, they’re undoubtedly your best options.  Seats 2A and 2J specifically are both bulkheads — there’s no Row 1 on AA’s 767s — and are what’s known as “true windows.”  This means that the passengers sitting in these two are treated to more privacy and better views, as well as wider-than-normal footwells.

It’s hard to beat 2A!

I was fortunate enough to reserve 2A during the booking process, and while this chair is one of the best on the plane, its dimensions are no different than the others.  There’s a respectable 60 inches of pitch, but the cushion measures 19.8 inches across.  The latter is well below average for international business class, but given that Boeing 767s have relatively narrow fuselages, there’s only so much that can be done.  There’s no point in getting angry about something you can’t control, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel disappointed by this showing.  The seats installed in British Airways’s old-school, 2-4-2 configured Club World business class, as a point of comparison, are 20 inches wide… and those cabins have the ambiance of a sardine can!  Hell, Cathay Pacific’s recliners in premium economy are also 20 inches wide!  Premium economy shouldn’t be outperforming a product marketed as “Flagship Business,” but here we are.

This is packed in pretty tight.

Most seats have two windows assigned to them (not including middles for obvious reasons), but 2A and 2J offer three apiece.  They appear more spacious and airy than they really are thanks to the extra natural light, and such perceptions can help take your mind off the otherwise cramped environment.

This light makes a difference believe it or not…
…See, 2A looks quite huge from this angle!  What 19.8 inch narrowness do you speak of?!

But these illusions are nothing but mirages.  If you have broader-than-average shoulders or if you like to sit with your legs crossed or if you stretch during the flight or whatever, you’re bound to feel more-constrained than you would in another airplane’s/airline’s premium cabin.  There’s just no physical workaround to limited personal space; everyone’s affected by it in some way but some have it better than others.  The bulkheads (unsurprisingly) are among your best choices because, with all other design elements constant, their footwells/ottomans are comparatively huge.

This ottoman is wide by this plane’s standards.

Don’t be deceived:  this is, unlike the third window(s), more than just a distraction.  Because there’s nothing but walls ahead of them, these seats’ footwells can afford to extend their width by a few inches; those located further back are constrained by the rows in front of them.  On paper these extra inches might seem like they could be negligible, but they genuinely and significantly enhance passenger comfort.  You’ll notice this immediately when you want to stretch out and/or go to sleep.  Seriously, it’s the difference between resting in a natural position and experiencing the sensation of being trapped in a coffin.

There’s not a ton of footspace, but it could be worse.

Those sitting further back aren’t so lucky.  In order to properly fit in to forward rows’ side consoles, their footwells narrow to the point of being restrictively tight.  When you’re reclined in to the lie-flat position, you can barely move the lower half of your body… provided that you can even fit your legs inside.  Tiffany Funk from One Mile At A Time noted that when flying Delta’s near-identical product onboard its own 767, she couldn’t fit her 5′ 7″ frame and size 9 feet while laying on her side.  Her experience is a valuable data point and a warning that all higher flyers should heed.  You won’t suffer Tiffany’s fate if you’re in a bulkhead but comfort shouldn’t be exclusive to those seated ahead of everyone else.  Functional spaciousness should come standard in international business class, and American Airlines doesn’t deliver this on board its 767s.

Aside from these distinctions, the front row is no different than the rest. You, along with everyone else, sit across from imposing-yet-plasticky blobs of consoles that are, uh, completely lacking any sort of personal in flight entertainment systems.  There are a few ceiling and wall-mounted displays interspersed throughout the length of the plane and that’s it.  Not a single passenger on board — those flying in coach don’t have it any better either — has a personal television.  After growing accustomed to what’s now an integral part of longhaul air travel, not seeing these in any of the seatbacks is kind of jarring.

Is there something about this image that’s not-quite-right to you?  Perhaps it’s the fact that there’s no personal TV screen.

When the initial shock passes, you’re left wondering “Why on Earth would they do this?”  Well, American’s corporate management says that it’s because of “power supply issues” (apologies for a less-than-official source) but it seems far more likely that this is a shameless cost-cutting measure.  Yes, American Airlines’s 767s are really old (they’ve been flying for, on average, about 30 years) but so have United’s AND United doesn’t skimp on such a fundamental aspect of the passenger experience!  This set up is unacceptable for international business class, let alone one that costs more than five thousand dollars.

As an aside:  if you find yourself in economy on one of these 767s, God bless you and prepare yourself for nearly non-existent IFE.  There are a few overhead monitors that cycle through videos on a loop, plus there are a few “radio stations” accessible via headphone jacks in the armrests… in theory. They were all out of commission on my plane, and so AA issued frequent flyer miles as compensation.  You can also stream media to your personal devices, but you won’t be able to keep those charged because there aren’t any power outlets to speak of.  This all borders on being offensive.  Norwegian Air, a low cost carrier, has more to offer its customers than American Airlines does!!!

AA, for all of its Boeing 767-related shortcomings, at least proffers a remedy to this unamusing, unimpressive situation to its premium customers. Prepare to be underwhelmed by some certifiable jankiness though.  You see, directly across from your chair is what appears to be a tray table… but it’s not!

This isn’t what you might think it is!

Pull firmly at the top to open this up and you’ll reveal an awkward space with an outlet, brackets, and a shelf.  If AA had elected to install in flight entertainment units at each seat, this is where the screen would have been mounted.

This is just really unappealing.

Instead flight attendants, usually once boarding is complete but before wheels up, come around to each business class passenger to issue a Samsung tablet pre-loaded with content.  You’ll also get an all-important charger, and it’s on you to plug in the device and set everything up properly (or not).  During takeoff you’re responsible for closing up and securing the console too, but the crew will collect your device prior to landing.

Plug in the machine, coil the cable, and tuck it all in to the designated storage space.
In hindsight, this here doesn’t warrant a thumbs up.  No matter how hard you squint, this isn’t the same as “real” IFE.

Once you turn the system on, it functions — for the most part — like it would if it were actually built in to the seat.  It even includes lengthy advertisements that stream before the feature presentations (LAME!!!).  Do make sure though that it’s connected to power at all times, otherwise you risk a dead battery interrupting your show.

Nice smiles don’t make up for the mediocrity.

If you’ve flown a longhaul American Airlines flight before, you’ll be familiar with the programming and how it’s organized.  The extensive library of movies, TV shows, and audio selections is easy to navigate, and the devices themselves are zippy and responsive to touch.  Talk about a saving grace!

There are a few more shortcomings beyond the regrettably tacky infrastructure.  For one, the tablets’ displays are dark, high contrast, and extraordinarily glossy.  If there’s any sort of ambient light in the cabin, you’re guaranteed annoying reflections; despite my best efforts to limit them, they’re visible in the previous three photos.  Secondly, the tablets don’t have moving map software installed on them.  That’s lame!  The ceiling and wall-mounted monitors periodically display navigational information at least, although constant, uninterrupted, and individual access to this information would be far more preferable.

If you’re in a bulkhead you’ll have no trouble seeing the moving map.  If you’re further back, you might have more trouble…
Some basic information that’s, rather curiously, written in French.  You’d think that on a flight to Spain, you’d get some Spanish language functionality… but nope, just French (and English of course).

All things considered, business class passengers flying American Airlines’s 767s do get on demand entertainment, but it barely passes muster.  Everything does what it’s supposed to do, but it’s clear that AA made lots of compromises in delivering this product.  The one exception to that is the standard-issue Bose noise-cancelling headphones.  They are excellent through and through, and really the only thing about the IFE that’s remotely close to high quality.  The rest looks like it belongs in premium economy, domestic first, and/or on a low cost carrier AND NOT as part of something that costs $5,000.

…Are you detecting a theme here?

But the Bose noise cancelling headphones definitely warrant the expensive airfare!

Beyond that hot mess, the front section of the seat is unremarkable and nondescript; there aren’t a lot of quirks or surprises here.  There is, for instance, an easily accessible, jam-packed literature pouch adjacent to the tablet cupboard (or whatever you want to call it).

This is pretty standard right here.

There’s the usual safety card and air sickness bag in there, plus three separate magazines stuffed in too:  American Way and Nexos, which are AA’s respective English and Spanish-language publications, as well as Celebrated Living, which is geared towards members of the bourgeoise.  Go figure, the latter is exclusive to American’s premium cabins.

Read Celebrated Living for some groundbreaking journalism like “Miami’s New Style Nexus”… or not.

And there’s another, more practical storage pouch sandwiched above the ottoman and beneath the pull-out IFE shelf.  It’s wide, deep, and stretchy enough to fit a laptop, an iPad, and a travel wallet all at once… if not more! It’s handy for sure, but there’s an uncomfortable question worth asking: how frequently does this pocket get cleaned out?  Proceed with caution!

The down-and-away-angled design of this has all the makings of a classic crumb/random crap trap!

Down below and adjacent to the footwell is a convenient, mesh-covered cubby that you can use to stow your shoes…

A convenient feature, but notice all the scuff marks nearby.

….And there’s a small coat hook up top that’s notched in to the console’s rim…

Don’t worry, the “No stowage” refers to the forward bulkhead shelf and not the hook itself.  That’d be ironic if it did, huh?

While these improve the passenger experience only modestly, they’re all nice to have nevertheless… even if the coat hook obstructs the literature pouch when it’s in use.  Anyway, there’s more to be found in the quite-substantial, chair-flanking side console…

There’s lots of room to spread out here.  Remember though that someone reclines in to a hollowed out space beneath the surface of this.  Suddenly it doesn’t seem so big.
The side console in all of its glory.

…that’s also home to questionably-designed features.  The seat’s touchscreen-based controls for example are technically part of the armrest; not only are they so prone to glare and so badly scratched that they become near-unreadable…

Depending on the angle that you look at this, you might not be able to see the screen and/or what you’re doing.

…They’re also positioned in a place that invites a lot of unwanted input.

If you ever feel your chair reclining and you don’t know what’s going on, perhaps this is why.  I’m applying enough force here to trigger the system.

The light “switch” on that panel — seen in the bottom right corner of it — isn’t used to control the overhead reading lamp, but rather ambient lighting in the footwell.  Okay, cool, and if you want to turn the “spotlight from above” on, then you have to use a different remote that’s embedded underneath a flip top further back in the armrest.

More seat controls can be found under here.

Talk about a relic!  It probably won’t surprise you to learn that only two of these buttons worked.  How unfortunate that you’re limited to flipping a light switch and calling a flight attendant with this (and not toggling the moving map… or literally anything else).

This controls lights, the call button, and the complimentary audio entertainment.

The tray table too is built in to the side console, and getting that to eject and fold out properly requires a college degree.  I kid of course, but it’s not user-friendly at all.  You gotta firmly push a button to trigger a spring-release…

Unlike the seat controls, this requires the user to exert a lot of force.

…Pull the half-tray out across your lap, and then flip the top half over.

This isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

After that you’re supposed to line up some cogs and pull upward in order to elevate the table in to a more comfortable position, but this was broken at my seat.  I couldn’t figure out how to do this and neither could a flight attendant.  That’s when you know that this whole set up is utterly messed up.

This isn’t right, but it also didn’t get any better.  Urgh!

Along the back “wall” of the seat is another international power plug, plus a USB jack that can charge your mobile devices, a non-functioning headphone jack (“non-functioning” because — *eyeroll* — there’s no audio feed), and a small storage nook.

This is all located above the side table at near-shoulder height.

This is where you’ll find your amenity kit when you first get to the seat. Unlike the rest of the utilitarian cabin, the presentation of this is quite luxurious…

The amenity kit in all of its glory.


This plastic wrapping is unappealing but it guarantees proper sanitation.

In what could best be characterized as “gym bag-chic,” this is a sterile, generic, and uninspired offering that’s manufactured under the Cole Haan label.  Like the in flight entertainment, it’s not that this is bad per se — I’ll gladly take this over nothing at all — but the problem is that AA considers something so cheap-feeling appropriate to include with its $5,000 product.

How… “practical.”

Fortunately, AA has since introduced new kits.  These appear to be much more becoming of something that’s so expensive, so hooray for progress.

What’s the opposite of “stylish?”  See above.

And, while the amenity kit looks and smells like it’s made from industrial-grade tarp, its contents are perfectly serviceable.  The toiletries are courtesy of CO Bigelow, and everything that you could want — a toothbrush and socks and creams are the like — are all present and accounted for.

All the usual suspects, and also coupons for Casper bedding and Cole Haan.

And lastly to wrap this section of the review up, there’s a “nothing-out-of-the-ordinary” armrest opposite the behemoth side console.

There’s not much to write about this other than “this is an armrest.”

As I was settling in and getting my bearings at seat 2A, Marisol the purser came by to offer a lunch menu and a choice of predeparture beverages. She had water, orange juice, and champagne with her, but she cheerily noted that she would be happy to go get something else from the galley.  It was a warm, welcoming start to the service, and her caveat — which is unusual by U.S. legacy carriers’ standards — was much appreciated (even if the bubbly was more than enough for me).

Champagne it was!

Once drinks were served, another flight attendant pushed a literature cart through the cabin.  There were plenty of fresh, complimentary copies of the New York Times, the Financial Times, and El País available for the taking.

The New York Times it was for me!

The remaining supply of newspapers were later arranged on the forward-center bulkhead shelf for self-service.

If you were sitting directly underneath this impromptu stockpile, you might be a little bit irritated.

Everything so far was going smoothly, but those flying in economy class were faced a rather significant problem:  the overhead bins were completely full about two-thirds of the way through the boarding process.  Perhaps this is an unintended consequence of introducing basic economy fares (which discourage passengers from checking bags), but that’s a rant for another time.  With so many carry-on carrying passengers yet to set foot in the cabin, the flight attendants and gate agents were forced to seek solutions on the fly.  Some suitcases were crammed in to coat closets, backpacks were relegated to “under the seat in front of ‘you,'” but the vast majority of them had to be stowed away in the cargo hold.  Oof.

Meanwhile the crew reshuffled the luggage, First Officer Keith explained on the public address system that “the plane’s ‘check engine light’ came on” and that would “need attending to before wheels up.”  We missed our takeoff slot while the mechanics worked on the engine, and this induced a 30 minute delay.  Talk about frustrating, but this is what happens when you regularly rely on outdated aircraft types.  At around 11:25am, Captain Wayne announced that we were all set and, sure enough, we were pushing back within 90 seconds.

Pushing back next to an Iberia A350.

American’s safety video played over the wall and ceiling-mounted televisions while we started to taxi.  There’s not much to report from that showing, but right before the briefing concludes, the main actress/narrator proudly declares “Great is what we’re going for!”  That rings a bit hollow.  Sure, business class is nice and all, but is this really the best AA can do?  “Great” isn’t the first word that comes to mind…

This monitor was the lowest of low-def by the way.  Not that this matters much, but still.

Because Madrid-Barajas is so sprawling, going from Gate S5 to the active runway, 36L, took nearly 20 minutes.  It also didn’t help that we got caught in some traffic, but at least there were some plane spotting opportunities.

Not pictured:  about six other jets all waiting to go too!

Finally at 11:44am, 49 minutes past our scheduled departure time, we began our takeoff roll.  We were airborne a minute later.

Let’s go!!!

The views immediately after wheels up featured some of the most picturesque I’ve ever seen from an airplane.  We first flew adjacent to the quaint Old World town of Alcobendas that, since its founding in 1208, has evolved into a suburb of Madrid.

Alcobendas, in all of it’s charming glory.

We initially headed northbound for about two minutes before banking sharply to the west; those seated on the left/port side got to see the airfield in all of its expansive glory.  Fun fact:  Madrid-Barajas covers 3,050 hectares/7,536 acres, which makes it the 11th largest airport in the world and the second largest in all of Europe by surface area (source).

Madrid-Barajas is, as shown here, really, really spread out!

As we gradually made our way to the Iberian coastline for our transatlantic crossing, we passed over rolling hills of farmland that sporadically gave way to jagged mountain ranges.

Look at the cute towns and the extremely blue lake and the rolling hills…
…And impressively rocky and rugged snow-capped peaks!  Amazingly, these are all #nofilter.

This was truly incredible and easily the highlight of the flight.  The scenery was far better than anything that the janky in flight entertainment could provide, but then the cabin crew asked us to close our blackout window shades indefinitely.  We sat in darkness until about 15 minutes before landing — that was a bummer — but it’s not like there are a lot of noteworthy vistas in the middle of the ocean anyway.

The seatbelt sign was turned off ten minutes in.  Following that, Marisol walked down the aisle to formally welcome passengers by name, recognize AAdvantage and oneworld elite status holders, and encourage people to look at the menu in advance of lunch.

The menu for “Flagship Business” dining.
Gee!  Such a warm welcome from a faceless corporation!

She took drink orders first, and there was a decently-good selection to choose from. There were 19 different non-alcoholic options in addition to liquors, beers, and wines.  The hard stuff was all good stuff, but aside from five kinds of whiskey, there wasn’t a lot of variety.  No big deal though; quality over quantity, right?!

Lots of non-wine options when you fly AA’s Flagship Business.

American, like any good U.S. carrier, offers Bud Light and four other brews, but the real draw is the wine list.  It has a respectable collection consisting of two reds, two whites, one bubbly, and, for dessert, one Port.

The first section of the wine list.

With an average retail price of just about $20 per bottle, these wines aren’t terribly expensive.  They still taste good though and that’s ultimately what matters the most.  They won’t ever rival the Veuve Clicquot in Thai’s Royal Silk class, but they can appease discerning palettes nevertheless.

More delicious, good-value wines!

Despite the numerous choices available, I had another glass of the predeparture sparkling wine, the Charles de Cazanove Traditional Brut champagne.  It was presented with warm nuts and some still water about thirty minutes in to the flight, and then two minutes later a flight attendant appeared to drop off a not-so-warm towel which, for the record, was really gross!  Hot OR cold towels are both fine, but the lukewarm middle ground is a sensual nightmare.

A timeless image representative of higher flying.

Marisol came by five minutes later for lunch orders.  You’ll hardly ever go wrong with pasta on a plane — it’s far more reliable than any meat dish — but it doesn’t have a particularly high ceiling or “wow!” factor.

The main lunch menu.

Accordingly, when I originally asked for the “Whole-Grain Penne,” Marisol politely scoffed and explained in a sing-song voice “But we have delicious sea bass on the menu instead!”  Was this a polite way of saying “we’re out of that, try again?”  Maybe, but I was the first person to order and she’s the purser.  You’d think that’d put me in a good position to get my first choice, but I figured why not take her fun-spirited recommendation?  What’s there to lose?  So fish it was, and that was served about an hour in to the trip on a single tray alongside a “sliced smoked chicken” appetizer, a “gem lettuce wedge” salad, a pretzel roll, and a healthy refill of champagne.

Here comes lunch!

The presentation of the meal was “okay” at best.  The sauces were hastily applied and spilled all over the chinaware entirely, and as someone who doesn’t eat fish skin, the crispy layer of it on top wasn’t appetizing (but easily removed).

Does it look good?  Ehhh, but don’t judge a book by its cover!

All three dishes tasted quite good, although none were particularly memorable.  My personal favorite was the “sliced smoked chicken” small plate with fresh Asian slaw and a soy plum dressing, but the main course packed in a lot citrusy-but-nicely-balanced flavors and textures too.  In-flight fish is prone to being quite dry, but this sea bass — in part due to the excellent mustard vinaigrette sauce — was an anomaly.

There was a choice between a cheese plate, a slice of caramelized orange cake, and a sundae for dessert.  As this review reflects, dining in a premium cabin on a U.S. airline is a generally fine-but-not-out-of-this-world experience, but the ice cream is an exception that holds its own.  It’s not fancy or all that elaborate but damn is it satisfying!

A truly excellent way to round out the meal.  It doesn’t get much better than this!

There was plenty of time to savor this treat, as it took the crew nearly 30 minutes to clear the tray table.  We had wrapped up and cleaned up completely about two hours after wheels up, and that was, all things considered, pretty fast.  Then again, the single-tray deliveries are hallmarks of redeye, eastbound transatlantic legs during which flight attendants hustle in order to maximize passenger rest.  Lengthy dinners, in which the cabin lights are on and there’s a lot of movement in the aisles, come at the expense of uninterrupted sleep.  During the day though, this is less of a priority and other airlines will draw the main meal out; it’s unclear which format is better.  One on hand, quickly eating allows you to focus on other things, but on the other, such speediness can feel unpleasantly hasty.  It all comes down to your personal preferences I suppose, but even those can change given the circumstances.

Anyway, after lunch I went to brush my teeth in the sole lavatory that services the entire business class cabin.  Let’s just say that it was in as much need of a refresh as the inside of my mouth was.

What a grimy sink!

The size of it was fine and nothing was extraordinarily filthy — the floors weren’t covered in fluid nor were there other horrifying surprises — but the WC was definitely past its prime.  AA needs to deep-clean it or, better yet, replace it entirely if it wants to offer a perma-grime-free place for its premium customers to use the bathroom.

The seat was up when I got there.  That’s kinda gross…
The actual, honest-to-goodness toilet handle dates this product — “flush buttons” have been the standard for years now — and the smudges around it suggest heavy use.

Aside from a bottle of CO Bigelow-branded hand soap, there were no special toiletries or amenities to write home about.  Like so much else on this plane and this flight, everything here does exactly what it’s supposed to and nothing more.

A relatively-bougie bottle of soap.  Notice the grime around the water faucet controls too.

The door to the lavatory is right across from the galley, and that positioning isn’t ideal to say the least.  The dining menu advertises “Mid-Flight Snacks” available in between the two meal services, and the crew delivered on this and arranged them all in a conveniently accessible spot that’s perhaps a bit too close to the toilet.  The spread today included what you might expect, like high quality dried goods such as crackers, dips, and chips…

…And also what appeared to be every single unwanted leftover from lunch. There’s a lot of variety to be had, and most every offering looked appetizing!

THANK GOD these are all covered in plastic wrap! Otherwise this could be a biohazard given its position relative to the bathroom.

Still full from the fish, I admired the food but passed on it.  With a stuffed belly and heavy eyelids, it was time for a post-lunch siesta.  Marisol, in a move that went above and beyond, kindly offered to turn down the bed.

For all the hard product complaints, this is a rather appealing set up!

As mentioned earlier, having the extra few inches in the footwell is definitely noticeable when you recline the chair in to bed mode.  I’m a 6′ 3″ side sleeper, and I had no trouble getting in to a comfortable, natural position to nap.  Those seated in non-bulkheads don’t have this luxury.

This is the most important benefit that bulkheads offer in action!

I slept comfortably and solidly for a couple hours, but then gradually woke up to the sound of overly-chatty flight attendants in the galley.  Ugh, if there’s a downside to bulkhead seats, it’s that there’s always a risk of being disturbed by commotions from the other side of the forward walls.  This slumber-interrupting conversation was particularly animated, with one male crew member gossiping loudly about a sibling who “first was my brother but now is my sister!” I’m all for loving and supportive families, but in this moment, I was grateful to have noise cancelling headphones and a movie to watch.

Show timeee!

For the next few hours, the 2011 new-classic Bridesmaids — starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Melissa McCarthy (among others) — kept me laughing and entertained, as did the reasonably-priced, high speed in-flight wifi.  $19 for a full-flight pass with no data limits works out to about $2.50 an hour, so if you need to do business or whatever, you can do so and you don’t have to break the bank (or the corporate charge card).

The internet was (relatively) cheap and the connection was good.  What more could you want?

About two hours before landing, the cabin crew reappeared — largely for the first time since lunch — and invited passengers to peruse the “Light Meal” menu.

The “Light Meal” menu.

Marisol began taking orders in our aisle and, after previously suggesting the tasty fish dish at lunch, I sought her recommendation.  Her endorsement couldn’t have been stronger:  “The mini pies are SUCH an easy choice!”  Let it be so then!

The drink’s deliciousness makes up for the tacky plastic cup it was poured in.

Another flight attendant dropped off a delicious fruit smoothie, and then Marisol returned within fifteen minutes to deliver a single tray.

A simple but satisfying snack.

The “entrees” were everything that Marisol had hyped them up to be.  One contained chicken and leeks and the other mushrooms and spinach; both were delicious.  They, like everything else they were served with, epitomized comfort food.

The seasoning on top just made this all the better!

The pies however weren’t the only thing “mini” about this meal.  While the quality was good across the board, the included five-piece fruit salad…

Would it have killed AA to spare a third grape? Another slice of melon maybe?

…And the chocolate ganache (that even had “little” in its brand-name)….

Whelp, no one can accuse this “little pot of 70% chocolate ganache” of false advertising.

…And the bag of cheese and onion potato chips (that had more air than chips in it)…

This is a tiny bag to begin with…
…And there’s a piddly seven and a half chips inside.  Sigh, some things never change no matter how premium the cabin.

…Were all a bit too small.  Everything at least was delicious, so, like the hard liquor selection, this snack gets a pass because it features quality over quantity.  Then again, you shouldn’t have to compromise for minuscule portion sizes when you’ve bought such an expensive business class fare. Alas, AA, alas…  When Marisol cleaned up the tray about an hour before landing though, she noted an opportunity to participate in a survey loaded on to the IFE tablet.  If composing a seven thousand word review doesn’t suit your fancy, here’s a simpler way to communicate your opinions/frustrations.

There was no choice for “This is all outrageously expensive for what you actually get.”  Good thing I can write this extensive blog instead!

Our descent, which started 50 minutes in advance of wheels down, was unusually gradual.  As we had for the past six-and-a-half hours, we sat in darkness as the crew collected entertainment units (sadly you can’t take the Bose headphones with you), cleaned up the cabin, and prepared for arrival. Then with about 20 minutes to go, passengers in window seats were asked to reopen their shades; the compelling views on the other side of the ocean apparently made the trip with us, and we were treated to beautiful coastal views.

Talk about cloud porn, wow!
Ships sailing to the New World!
Never has Long Island looked so pretty!

7 hours and 35 minutes after leaving Madrid, we touched down smoothly in New York at 1:20pm local time.  We got in 20 minutes ahead of schedule — how convenient when you consider the predeparture delay — but that was fleeting and the only easy part of our arrival.  Captain Wayne took to the PA to announce that there was no gate for us to park at, so we would instead taxi around the airport until one became available.  The 20 minutes that we had just saved immediately evaporated, but as a tiny, tiny consolation prize, we got to see interesting air traffic as we aimlessly rolled about.

An Air China 747-8 preparing to go to Beijing.
A Cathay Pacific 777 all boarded in advance of its trip to Hong Kong.
One of the special, premium-heavy American A321s bound for the West Coast.

Finally Gate 43 opened up, we pulled in, and then we just sat there.  After about five minutes of not-so-patiently waiting, Captain Wayne explained to everyone, with an air of exasperation in his own voice, that there wasn’t any ground staff working the gate.  It would take another 20 minutes before a crew could be pulled together to receive us.  Audible groaning ensued.

Staring at an unmoving jet bridge is tortuous when you just want to go home.

“WHY?!?”  I thought to myself while walking off the plane 45 minutes after wheels down, “Why does it have to be like this?!?”  In hindsight, that final impression couldn’t have been more appropriate for this underwhelming flight.

Flying American Airlines’s business class on its Boeing 767 fleet, and then subsequently reflecting on it, is an exercise in perspective.  You’ll get all the luxuries that you’d expect, like a lie-flat seat and higher-quality catering, and you’ll travel to your destination in relative comfort.  All that doesn’t come cheap though, and it’s not uncommon to see a typical fare for this cost more than $5,000.  At that price point, there’s not a lot of room for error or compromise.  AA’s 767 “Flagship Business” technically delivers on what it should, but it’s hard to recommend it because it does so in such an underwhelming fashion; the experience feels half-baked yet still demands an arm and a leg.  Sure, you can cheaply and easily redeem points for this product — that’s a perk in and of itself — but you can also fly something so much better almost just as easily.  These birds are slated to be retired in May 2020, and that can’t come soon enough.  Here’s to better lives as freighter planes!

The good, the bad, the ugly of American’s 767 Business Class

  • The Good
    • The crew was fun and engaging (but perhaps a bit too chatty).
    • The seat was lie-flat and well-padded…
  • The Bad
    • …But everything else about the seat left a lot to be desired.
    • The excuse for in flight entertainment was a glaring shortcoming.
    • This is an unacceptably expensive product when paying cash…
    • …And AA does little to justify the extraordinarily high price tag.  The whole experience from beginning to end reeks of missed potential.
  • The Ugly
    • Scenic views, as great as they can be, aren’t acceptable substitutes for built-in IFE.
    • The Cole Haan amenity kit feels like a gym bag.  It’s not luxurious nor appropriate for such an expensive international business class product.
    • The fact that there was no ground crew awaiting at the gate at JFK was remarkably on brand for American Airlines.

“Another Weekend to Europe” Trip Report

Have you flown American’s Business Class on its 767s before? What are your thoughts?