First Flyer: American Airlines trans-Pacific
by Christopher Pittman
PHOTO: DENNIS LAU
Airline: American Airlines
Sector: Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas (IATA: DFW/ICAO: KDFW)–Tokyo-Narita, Japan (NRT/RJAA); and return
Flights: AA175, AA176
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200ER
Against the background of a tug-of-war for the loyalties of Japan Airlines (JAL) by its current and would-be partners—American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, respectively—Airways sampled AA’s premium-class service between the USA and Tokyo, and experienced the Oneworld alliance’s operations at Narita.
Two flights operate daily from DFW to Narita; ours was the first of the day, with Flight AA175 scheduled to depart from the impressive international terminal at DFW at 1010, arriving the following day at 1440.
After exchanging some US dollars for Japanese yen I made my way to the Admirals Club. As a member I have unlimited access, but any business or first class international customer has entry to the lounge to enjoy its amenities that include computer work areas, bar, showers, snacks, or even the opportunity to simply relax by watching activity on the west side of the airport.
Hearing the announcement that our flight would be boarding soon, I made my way to the gate and found the agent calling for business passengers, so I made my way onboard and settled in. Flight attendants offered water, juice, or Champagne while the other passengers boarded.
After the doors were shut at 1004, six minutes ahead of schedule, the airplane pushed back, and we were soon taxiing to the east side of DFW’s runways. The captain greeted passengers and announced that, with favorable winds, flying time would be 12hr 28min, about an hour less than the scheduled trip time. By 1018 the 777 was climbing out over the northern suburbs of DFW; the seatback map display showed the route taking us north over the US states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Montana, and Washington, before crossing the Canadian border to head for Vancouver, British Columbia. After Vancouver we turned further north to skirt the coast of Canada, and then Alaska, before traversing the Bering Sea and the International Date Line. From there we were off the coast of Russia, with a direct run into Tokyo.
American’s ‘Flagship Service’ began soon after takeoff with the distribution of menus, showing three US-style entrée (mains, to non-US readers) choices including filet of beef, cheese ravioli, and Japanese pan-fried noodles. In addition, there was a complete Japanese ‘winter menu’, which was traditional cuisine. From the outset the flight had an atmosphere authentic to our destination. Tea was served from traditional Japanese teapots and into Japanese-style teacups.
In addition to the main course choices, a chicken-and-radish appetizer and salad were served along with an assortment of breads. Wines from Japan were staples of the trip. Once appetizer, salad, and dinner were consumed, passengers were offered a choice of fruit plate or ice cream, accompanied by chocolates.
After the excellent food service was completed, passengers settled in for the long night flight. In American’s business cabin on the 777 seats are in a 2-3-2 layout, and offer a nearly lie-flat seat. Each passenger has access to Bose headseats and a large selection of videos ranging from US sitcoms and dramas to full-length movies, as well as a constantly updated flight plan and location.
I moved the seat into the bed position and was able to sleep for several hours. When I awoke the first time a flight attendant was there to offer a mid-flight snack of a turkey wrap or Japanese noodles. After ‘snacking’ this down, I settled back for another two hours of sleep.
Upon waking from my second nap the cabin crew offered a lunch of pizza or sesame chicken—another excellent meal before our arrival at Narita.
Landing on Narita’s short runway, we taxied quickly to Terminal 2’s satellite. Scheduled arrival was at 1440 and we blocked at the gate at 1355.
Terminal 2 at Narita, which has been dedicated primarily to Oneworld partners, offers seamless transfers to other Oneworld flights. American reports a noticeable increase in transfer passengers since it relocated to T2 in 2007. My seat neighbor on the flight over was connecting to a JAL flight to Korea. With all Oneworld operations at T2 (except for British Airways, which remains at Terminal 1 for now), particularly JAL, passengers are able to make their onward connections within the same terminal, with the added convenience of through-checked bags. If Tokyo is the final destination, the trek through customs and immigration is quick and painless. Either way, T2 is a well-designed building and a great option for connecting from North America to Asia, Australia, or even the Middle East, and from other points in Asia to Europe.
Flight 176 from Narita to DFW is the first flight of the day to the USA, at 1300lt. AA’s other US-bound services, including the second DFW flight, leave early in the evening, arriving in the USA around noon the same day.
I took the Narita Express from downtown Tokyo, a one-hour ride which drops passengers off in the basement of either Terminal 1 or Terminal 2—a very convenient and efficient option for travel to and from the airport.
PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER PITTMAN
Arriving two hours before departure provided plenty of time. Check-in was fast and efficient at the first class counter, followed by a ten-minute wait in the security line and no wait at all for passport control. Only a few steps from the customs counter is American's Admirals Club, built specifically for AA's relocation to T2 and which is very well equipped with showers, quiet spaces, bar, and plenty of work space.
Boarding for AA176 began 45 minutes before departure and proceeded quickly. After I was settled in seat 9J in business, the purser advised me that I had been upgraded to American First Flagship Suite. While business class is great, first class is a special experience.
The first class cabin has a 1-2-1 layout with individual pods that include fully lie-flat beds, an ottoman for companion dining, desk space, and a seat that swivels to face the window to use the built-in desk.
Our flight pushed back five minutes early, at 1255. Takeoff, for the 10hr 41min trip to DFW, was from Runway 34L at 1318.
The menu consisted of both Japanese options and traditional American cuisine, with two pages of wine choices. Passengers are offered a pre-meal selection of warm nuts and marinated cheese antipasto. Starters (entrées for non-US readers) comprised smoked salmon and shrimp, a salad cart, and bread basket, with a choice of beef filet with mushroom sauce, salmon with linguini, or chicken and scallops noodle bowl for the main (entrée for US readers). Either ice cream sundae or fruit and cheese tray followed.
In addition to this substantial meal early in the flight, a mid-flight snack is offered, then—an hour-and-a-half before landing—a choice of spinach and cheese omelet or cereal and yogurt, with warm breads and fruit.
The cabin crewmembers were impeccable in their service and attitude, offering everyone individual attention. A customer intended to propose marriage to his girlfriend, so the crew joined in the surreptitious planning by placing the ring in one of the boxes of chocolates offered after dinner and dessert. The proposal was accepted and the flight attendants joined in the celebration for the newly engaged couple.
After dinner, with much of the remaining journey being overnight, most passengers settled back to rest in the lie-flat beds.
Scheduled to arrive at 0910, the 777 touched down at 0902 and arrived at the gate at DFW’s international Terminal D at 0911. This is in time to connect to flights throughout North and South America. Immigration and customs had an unusually long line that day with another 777 from Seoul and at least one flight from Mexico City. US rules dictate that those connecting to other flights must retrieve their bags, re-check them, and go through re-screening at the security checkpoint.
American’s premium service between the USA and Asia is superb. Both business and first class cabins are well-appointed, with excellent catering. The airline’s location at Narita’s Terminal 2 and JAL’s Oneworld membership leaves both airlines, and Oneworld, in the ideal position to offer the ease of not only travel to Tokyo, but also the convenience of transfers to other flights throughout Asia, almost as one carrier.
An open skies agreement between the United States and Japan, expected to come into force in October 2010, would cement the relationship. The staff and crew at both airports, the Admirals Club, and in-flight ensured that each passenger felt important and travelled in security and comfort.
The first class portion of this report appears in the March 2010 issue of Airways, on sale in North America on February 2. Subscribers should receive their copies several weeks earlier.
(Airways thanks Ryan Mikolasik, AA corporate communications, Weber-Shandwick; Wesley Stockstill, AA regional director of marketing, Pacific; and Tim Loecker, AA corporate communications, Weber-Shandwick, for making this report possible.)
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