American Airlines to Beijing
by Christopher Pittman
Airline: American Airlines
Flights: AA187, AA186
Routing: Chicago O'Hare (IATA: ORD)–Beijing Capital (PEK), and return
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200ER
Configuration: 16 First Class, 37 Business Class and 194 Economy class seats
PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER PITTMAN
Upon arrival at O'Hare I checked in at the International Kiosk located inside the terminal. As China requires US citizens to have a visa, the AA agent came to check the validity of my visa and confirm my check-in. Then the kiosk issued the business class boarding pass.
The agent also mentioned that First and Business customers travelling internationally have access to the American Admirals Club, the largest of which is between Concourses H and K. As the flight would not depart for another 90 minutes, I settled into the Admirals Club and used the Wi-Fi to check email. There was an announcement 60 minutes before departure time that boarding would begin soon.
I made my way to the furthest gate in Concourse K and found First and Business boarding just beginning. My seat (13J) was one of AA’s newer seats on wide-body aircraft. The seat features a large number of entertainment options, along with privacy divider, and converts to a nearly lie-flat bed for the 13½-hour journey to Beijing.
After all passengers had boarded, the cockpit announced that they had found a hydraulic fluid leak but hadn’t been able to quickly identify its source. After waiting about 15 minutes for mechanics to check out the 777, the pilot advised that another aircraft had been located and with this issue having the possibility of being quite involved, the airline had switched airplanes.
Passengers quickly began gathering their things and disembarking. We found that the gate was just around the corner and within a few minutes the replacement 777 was brought around from the hangar. Luckily, the week before, AA had begun its winter schedule, cutting one 777 to London-Heathrow, therefore leaving an extra aircraft at this late hour in Chicago.
Once re-boarded, we pushed out about 90 minutes past the STD of 2050. The cockpit advised that light winds would allow us to make up some of the time and we should arrive no more than an hour late.
Flight attendants offered Champagne, mimosas, and water as we boarded, as they had done on the first aircraft. Relatively quickly we were making our way to the runway and were soon wheels up and on our way to Beijing.
Once through 10,000ft, FAs began drink service, followed by dinner. Menus had been distributed on the ground and orders already taken. Choices for main dishes were beef, chicken, pork, and seafood. A mid-flight snack consisted of Chinese noodles or healthy wrap, with breakfast before landing.
American's business class is on par with any in the industry, with FAs setting up the tray with tablecloths, china and silverware, and, of course, real glassware. Dinner was served in several courses beginning with a smoked salmon appetizer, then salad, followed by the main course (entrée to US readers), and ending with a dessert choice of fresh fruit or ice cream sundae.
Dinner lasted 90 minutes or more after which most passengers settled in to do some work or watch their in-flight entertainment devices. In both First and Business BOSE headsets are provided after takeoff. I did some writing with the laptop plugged into the seat power outlets and then watched one of the scores of movies and television shows on offer.
After about five hours into the flight, it was time for some sleep. Pillows and duvets are provided and the seat transforms easily into a reasonable bed for the occasion. Most in the cabin had already retired and I found that I was able to sleep for almost five hours.
Once awake, I was offered the mid-flight snack which was light but enough until breakfast service began about 90 minutes before landing. The Chinese noodles were authentic and tasty.
Five hours was enough sleep for me, though many stayed down until the smell of breakfast began to invade the cabin. Breakfast consisted of eggs, biscuits or bagels, sausage, and fruit. At this point, I used the amenity kit that was handed out upon boarding to freshen up. The amenity kit includes eye-shades, socks, lip balm, moisture lotion, toothbrush, toothpaste, a mint, and tissues and a pen. I had dressed in comfortable clothes for the flight and changed before landing at Beijing Capital.
We arrived the night after departure just past midnight, less than an hour after our scheduled arrival time. At this late hour, we were able to breeze through immigration and customs making this communist nation much easier to enter than my own home country. There were no questions about the purpose or length of my visit. Usually, once immigrations officials see a short duration stay (only 30 hours in my case) there are questions, but not in Beijing. Entry into the country was easy and fast and throughout my visit I found locals to be very helpful and kind in helping me find my way.
The return trip was scheduled to depart at 0755 on Thursday morning, arriving in Chicago at 0530 the same day…with the trek back across the International Date Line and many time zones.
At this hour the airport was just beginning to awaken which made security and customs another breeze. American's oneworld partner, Cathay Pacific Airways, has a very comfortable lounge for AA First and Business customers located close to the departure gate. Food items, televisions, computers, showers, and seating areas were available.
Our flight pushed out a few minutes early and was soon en route to Chicago via northern China, Russia, Alaska, and the Canadian north.
The same Flagship service was delivered, with two full meals and a snack for this 12½-hour trip. Again, the food was excellent, and presentation was even better. The seats were comfortable enough to allow for several hours of sleep.
Our 777 touched down at ORD 30 minutes early and immigration and customs officers were not overly busy, making our arrival and processing rather fast. As mentioned before, there were far more questions and concerns about a US citizen arriving home than raised for an American arriving for a 30-hour visit to China.
American's Business product is comparable to that of any other US carrier serving China. The service to Beijing (which began in May 2010) is part of an important shift for American to focus on its hub cities and strengthen its international network, especially in Asia. Service between New York (JFK) and Tokyo-Haneda (HND) begins on January 20, 2011, and a Los Angeles–Shanghai (PVG) route is scheduled for April 2011, marking the first nonstop service between the two cities by a US carrier. Look for American to continue to expand its market presence in Asia as more new services are announced.
With thanks to American Airlines, Alan Philips, AA Corporate Communications (Weber-Shandwick).
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