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American Airlines-Biz Flyer
by Anne Spiselman
PHOTOS: FRED SWANSON
Flights: AA198; AA199
Routes: New York-JFK (IATA: JFK/ICAO: KJFK) to Milan [Malpensa]-Malpensa, Italy (MXP/LIMC); and return
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300ER
My connecting flight was late leaving Chicago. It was supposed to depart ORD at 1320 and arrive at AA’s new Terminal 8 at JFK at 1635, a comfortable hour before the departure for MXP. But as the scheduled departure time came and went, and we sat on the tarmac awaiting our turn to take off, I began to get anxious…
…But I shouldn’t have worried. We were able to check in for the JFK–MXP sector and get our boarding passes at ORD, which saved time at JFK, and was a breeze because we arrived early and the domestic leg was in first class (a separate counter with no line). In addition, the captain of the ORD-JFK flight promised to try making up some of the lost time, and even though we departed O’Hare 16 minutes late, we parked at Gate 34 in JFK’s Terminal 8 by about 1640. Then, it was merely a short hike to Gate 45 for Flight AA198, with no extra security checks to slow things down. My only regret was that there was no time to relax or enjoy the food in AA’s new business class lounge.
The desk agents were pleasantly cooperative in allowing time for early boarding and stowing my wheelchair in the cabin, but the flight attendants (FAs) weren’t particularly welcoming when we boarded. This was my first experience with AA’s 'Next Generation Business Class', which was introduced in 2007 on all 767-300s flying trans-Atlantic routes.
As I settled into my seat pod—after moving the ample cotton comforter and plumped pillow—I felt like I needed an instruction manual to understand the features. (There is an informational video, but the FAs didn’t mention it, and I didn’t discover it until the return flight.) Arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration with pull-up privacy dividers between each pair, the seats are designed by Recaro and have five motors that adjust them to a variety of positions, including transformation into 76in (1.93m) flat beds. Because the seats in reclined position slant forward, it is not a comfortable position for 5ft (1.52m)-tall me or my 6ft 2in (1.88cm) companion, but the positioning allows the foot section to slide into a large cubbyhole in front of each seat that also can be used for storage. Above this are a couple of shelves and smaller cubbyholes, where we found amenity kits, magazines, and suchlike. A little fold-down shelf interlocks with the regular tray that pulls up from the between-the-seats shelf/control panel, thus creating an expanded work space. In the upright position, each seat can be moved forward 10in (25cm), so it is offset from the one next to it for more privacy.
As departure preparations continued, the FAs offered juice or sparking wine in plastic glasses, and we listened to a barrage of announcements in English and Italian, often preceded by recorded AA theme music. We learned that the flight was slated to take 7hr 36min at a cruising altitude of 27,000ft (several hours later the monitors showed us at almost 36,000ft), and that it was rainy in Milan. The bilingual menu/wine list (with a Georgia O’Keefe-esque cover photo of a white flower by AA employee Lynn Hicks) was distributed, and a FA came around taking main course (entrée for US readers) orders. We watched the safety video while we taxied out for an on-time takeoff.
Once we were airborne, the FAs handed out the personal IFE (in-flight entertainment device) with AVOD (audio/video on demand), sliding the 10.6in (27cm) touch screen into a slot above the fold-down shelf, which could then be closed to hide some of the controls. With seven languages to choose from, the system offered dozens of movies, 18 hours of prerecorded television, 50 music CDs, and more. The drawbacks: the touch screens become smudgy; they’re hard for short-armed people to reach; the classical CD selection was limited to four albums; and the setup is a pain for the FAs. The real boon: the acoustic noise-canceling headphones are wonderful. Of course, anyone could watch the movies, TV, and route map (over Boston, Halifax, and the Atlantic Ocean) on the monitors at the front of the cabin.
Meal service began with drinks—I had the Champagne, Heidsieck Monopole Brut, which wasn’t quite chilled enough but came in a real glass—and a choice of warm mixed nuts or marinated feta chunks with pitted black olives. Water, hot towels, and tray set-ups followed, along with express ‘dine on request’ for anyone who wanted it right away. The appetizer paired slices of decent smoked salmon with a couple of gently grilled herb-marinated shrimp, while the salad consisted of dark greens, cucumber, sun-dried tomato, and canned artichoke with a choice of pepper cream dressing or little bottles of Sapori d’Arte olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Rolls and olive bread would have been better warmer, but no matter.
Of the four main courses, we passed on pork tenderloin with mango mojo and the lasagna roll stuffed with ricotta and spinach in favor of the beef and shrimp. When we requested the filet of beef rare, the FA said it came onboard already grilled, but he’d do his best. And indeed he did: the thick, tender cut was medium-rare, and although the cauliflower gratin and ratatouille sauce were very salty, only some of the baby vegetables—carrot, zucchini, patty pan squash—were overdone. Orange barbecue chipotle shrimp with corn-laced basmati rice and limp haricots verts earned points for smokiness and a spicy reddish sauce.
The menu made only one wine recommendation—San Patrignano 'Noi' Colli di Rimini Rosso DOC 2005 from Emilia-Romagna with the pork—but I liked the Val di Suga Brunello di Montalcino 2003 with the beef, and experimented with the two whites—Rusca Gavi di Gavi DOCG from Piedmont; and Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay—with the appetizer and shrimp.
The dessert was AA’s signature ice cream sundae: vanilla ice cream with hot fudge, butterscotch, strawberry sauce, whipped cream, chopped pecans—or all of the above. I received nuts even though I requested mine without them. Two cheeses with grapes were the other choice, hidden where almost no one saw them. Chocolates came last, and the box was left out in the galley if anyone wanted more. In a vain effort to sleep, I skipped coffee, put my seat part-way back, snuggled under the comforter, and donned the noise-deadening headphones.
Breakfast, served about an hour before landing, was a simple affair: mixed fruit (melon, papaya, orange), orange juice, fruity yogurt, cold cereal, milk, and a mug of coffee or tea plus passed-around bagels and croissants, both mediocre. Refills on beverages weren’t offered, and before we knew it, the entertainment devices were being collected and we were in for a slightly choppy descent and early landing. When we arrived at the gate, a wheelchair assistant was waiting to usher us to whatever mode of transport we preferred into Milan.
Just finding AA’s check-in at Malpensa’s sprawling Terminal 1 proved to be a challenge. After asking several people, we learned that to reach it we had to go through a passport checkpoint leading to a separate hall with Aisles 12-15. That took no more than ten minutes, and by 0730 we were at Aisle 13 being quizzed by an AA security person about who had packed our bags, and were warned not to leave them unattended—not part of the routine from ORD or JFK.
We also discovered, when our boarding passes were issued, that Flight 199 had been delayed. A wheelchair assistant was called to take us to the British Airways lounge that AA shares at MXP, so I sped through security’s fast check lane, but my companion was sent to the regular line. Another passport check followed, and by the time we arrived at the BA business lounge, it was 0830. Fortunately, this wasn’t a bad place to hang out for a few hours: lots of reasonably comfy couches and chairs upholstered in bright colors, separate smoking and quiet areas, a pleasant section with a fountain, work stations, a table with reading materials, secure storage cabinets, and plenty of food and drink (mini sandwiches, regular and chocolate croissants, salty and sweet snacks, fruit, wines and beers, soda, juices, self-service espresso/cappuccino, and teas) arrayed on long, curving counters. Wheelchair assistance arrived in plenty of time to get to the gate for preboarding.
There was a flurry of activity and announcements as everyone was seated. This time water was among the pre-takeoff drinks, along with juice and sparkling wine. Several newspapers were offered. As we waited for pushback, the estimated arrival time (for JFK) kept changing on the monitors. Despite the Italian departure point, the safety video was in English first.
Customs forms were handed out early, and unlike most amenity kits, AA’s include a pen to fill them out. The captain came on the PA (public address system) and explained that the delay had been caused by a mechanical problem. He also said our cruising altitude would be 32,000ft, and described the route in detail: over the Alps, Geneva [Genève], central France, northwest France, etc. The personal entertainment devices seemed to include the same options as outbound, and from the information video I learned about stuff such as how to ‘save’ your seat positions.
By this time the menus had been distributed, and the FA who took our main course and salad dressing orders addressed each of us by first name and introduced herself as Lynn. The drink accompaniments were marinated cheese and warm mixed nuts again, but the nuts seemed better. The same could not be said for the appetizer, a medley of strong-tasting shrimp, overdone little scallops, and a strip of exceedingly salty, peppered hot-smoked salmon served with tart roasted-and-marinated diced vegetables—that were the only enjoyable part of the dish. Shredded carrot, big broccoli florets (cold and soggy), and tasteless tomato slices, dressed up the salad of iceberg and romaine lettuces, and the Sapori d’Arte olive oil and balsamic vinegar far surpassed the overly assertive, salty roasted red pepper dressing.
From November 1, 2008, AA began featuring signature dishes by Chef Darren McGrady—who served Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana for 15 years—on trans-Atlantic flights originating in Europe, so naturally we had to try them rather than mushroom-filled pasta or beef fillet, the other choices. Alas, oatmeal-crusted pork loin conjured up English food in the bad old days: The three slices of rolled pork in murky brown sauce (called Drambuie juniper berry sauce) were simply too dry to eat, although the creamy cauliflower purée (that could have passed for mashed potatoes) and little peas with ham passed muster. An overdose of salt, especially in the Cumberland sausage stuffing, pretty much ruined McGrady’s chicken breast, but I liked the braised red cabbage, roasted potato, fennel wedge and carrot with it. The suggested wine pairing—the Rusca Gavi di Gavi—worked nicely, too.
For dessert, the ice cream sundae once again eclipsed the pair of cheeses with a date, raisins, and crackers. Indeed, I had to query three FAs to find out what the cheeses were: asiago and fontina. This time, though, the hot fudge was a little grainy, and there were no chocolates to finish.
Plastic bottles of water were passed out after dinner, and I relaxed and watched a couple of recent movies. More food started arriving about 1hr 40min before landing. First was a fresh-fruit cup—cantaloupe, orange, pineapple, kiwi—followed by a choice of lukewarm Uno’s Farmer’s Market Pizza (thick and doughy, with a few veggies, tomato sauce, and cheese) with a green salad or very firm soy-seared chicken breast with Asian slaw, grilled pineapple, and sweet-and-sour sesame dressing. The finale: coffee, tea, or milk, and warm chocolate chip cookies baked on board. The aroma surpassed the flavor, but who would be so churlish as to complain?
We touched down at 1502 and parked at the gate by 1515, but because we had to go through all the passport and customs formalities, as well as rechecking in and clearing security for our 1725 connecting flight to ORD, we didn’t have as much extra time as expected.
AA’s trans-Atlantic business class service rates well compared to that of other US carriers, but the food was no match for what I experienced recently on Austrian Airlines. I did, however, appreciate the effort that went into designing the cabin, especially the attention to providing adequate storage space. The ride was very smooth in both directions, and the pilots and cabin crewmembers were highly professional. I also gained a deeper understanding of why AA builds extra time into its schedule: with all the potential for delays, it’s helpful to have a margin of error.
PHOTOS: FRED SWANSON
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