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Miles for Style Around the World — Part II

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Miles for Style Around the World — Part II

Miles for Style Around the World — Part II
December 28
11:00 2016

Airlines are generally making frequent flyer mile redemption more difficult by reducing the number of seats available and raising the number of miles required for free travel.   I like to save my American Airlines frequent flyer miles for long-haul flights on business or first class and have had some very enjoyable and memorable experiences, especially being able to go around the world in first class in 2003 with Oneworld Alliance partners American Airlines, British Airways, and QANTAS Airways.

In the first part of this adventure, I completed four legs, starting in Rio de Janeiro, and continuing to Miami, Los Angeles and Sydney with American Airlines, followed by a flight from Sydney to Johannesburg with QANTAS.

Now, with four legs completed, we wrap up this odyssey with the final four segments.

Johannesburg to Cape Town – British Airways – operated by Comair – Domestic First Class (25,000 miles)


My next segment was aboard British Airways subsidiary Comair on a one hour and 45 minute domestic flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town.  I found Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport to be a very modern and beautiful facility.  Check-in via kiosk was a snap, and after security I explored the domestic terminal and took some pictures of the various aircraft at the gates.

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I also decided to check out the SLOW Lounge, which caters to Comair premium and elite customers, as well as other corporate partners.   This facility also impressed with comfortable seating areas, great views of the ramp, and various drink, snack, and small meal options.

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Our Boeing 737-400 that was supposed to fly us to Cape Town has a mechanical problem and we had to wait about 90 minutes for a replacement.   Once the spare 737 pulled in, boarding was quick and efficient.

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Comair’s fleet wears the British Airways livery and the Club business class retains the domestic and European seating arrangement used by British.  This configuration is a 3-3 with a partition in the middle seat, so that it is only 2-2 in terms of seated passengers with 31 inches (78 cm) of pitch and a seat width of 17 inches (43 cm).

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While the seating model is far from fancy, the service was very good.  The friendly South African crew offered welcome sparkling wine drinks, and once we were airborne, they showed three different dishes for lunch.  Comair does not have IFE. I went with penne pasta and beef accompanied by a salad and roll.

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Aside from the delay, the Comair experience was very good.  The airline is slowly replacing the 737-400s with used 737-800s.  Hopefully British Airways reconsiders the seating layout with larger seats for a genuine 2-2 business layout.  Not counting the smaller seat and lack of IFE, the rest of the service is comparable to some of the domestic flights I have experienced in the U.S. aboard the “Big 3” – American, Delta, and United.

Cape Town to London – British Airways First Class (100,000 miles)


The Queen of the Skies beckoned again, this time for an 11-hour overnight journey to London on British Airways First Class aboard G-BNLP delivered December 17, 1990.  Cape Town International Airport is another stunning piece of work. Like Brazil, South Africa invested heavily in airport upgrades before hosting a major sporting event, in this case the 2010 World Cup. Check-in again was a quick kiosk stop, and after security, I headed to the British Airways Lounge.

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Like the other lounges I experienced during this trip, this one offered Wi-Fi, various drink, snack, and hot meal options.  The staff announced boarding at Gate A4 and after passengers with children and those needing special assistance or extra time boarded, it was our turn.  I immediately loved the new first class cabin, with features such as blue mood lighting and moving blinds on the windows, British introduced this revamped cabin last year.  I felt like I was inside a brand new aircraft, despite its 26 years.

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This flight also had a truly first class staff composed of two very professional and courteous attendants and a customer service manager who personally greeted each passenger before takeoff and who later sought feedback during descent.  I was seated in the very front nose on seat 1K. The seat is very modern, and turns into a fully-flat bed with controllable ambient lights.

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Like American and QANTAS, this service included an amenity kit, headset, and pajamas.  We left Cape Town at 19:25 local for the 11-hour flight to Heathrow. This flight also did not miss out on great dinner and beverage choices.  I started with a Galician Castro Martin Sobre Lias Albariño red wine and seasonal salsas, and went with a delectable slow-roasted breast if Guinea fowl main dish.  A raspberry tartlet wrapped up my fabulous meal.

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One major disappointment on what was otherwise a fantastic passenger experience was the outdated IFE made by Rockwell Collins that dates back to early last decade.  The personal screen was large and modern, but movie choices were very limited, mostly recent releases.  Television options also were few.  I left the moving map display on and went to sleep after dinner.

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After seven hours of sleep, I awoke as the sun was rising over the Mediterranean coast of Europe with two hours to go.  I ordered a an “energising smoothie”, fresh seasonal fruits, and South African hotcakes with berry compote, and crème fraîche (fresh cream) for breakfast; and of course what would a British Airways flight be without some great English breakfast tea?  Our scheduled arrival time was 6:15 local, but we entered UK airspace at 5:40, which meant at least a 20-minute holding pattern until Heathrow’s curfew was lifted at six sharp.

We exited the hold northwest of London. This meant getting a beautiful view of London at sunrise as we headed East on downwind, South on base, and West on final.  We were the first aircraft to land at Heathrow that morning.  This is one of the few British Airways flights that parks in Terminal 3, as opposed to the airline’s Terminal 5 home, which meant my connecting American flight to Miami would be in the same terminal.

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After bidding farewell to the super cabin crew, I followed the transit signs to a security recheck and proceeded to American’s First Class lounge. The front desk staff offered me the choice of their lounge or that of British.  Since I was now on an American itinerary, I again wanted to see what the airline had to offer, and I was not disappointed as another staff member greeted me with an offer of champagne or orange juice.  Like the other lounges I experienced, this one was stocked with various drink and breakfast options, had Wi-Fi, and the seating was ample and comfortable.

London to Miami – American Airlines First Class (100,000 miles)


After a very relaxing three hours at the lounge, I proceeded to Gate 42 about 45 minutes before our 9:45 local time departure for the eight and a half hours to Miami on N721AN, American’s second 777-300ER, and was among the first to board.  We pushed back a few minutes early but had an unsurprising wait for takeoff clearance on runway 27L.  Since I was facing the runway on First Class seat 1J, I got great views of the wide variety of international traffic departing and some arriving on that runway, which is mostly used for takeoffs.

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Once in the air, I watched a movie and waited for another culinary delight consisting of roasted lamb chops and a French Pascal Jolivet Les Terres Blanches white wine.  For dessert, I went with a savory mixed berry plate with fresh cream.  I did not change into the complimentary pajamas, but still feel asleep for about four hours and woke up somewhere between Bermuda and the northern Bahamas.  The flight attendant offered a snack service, but I just went with another fruit plate since I was not too hungry.

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This was my third trip of my journey on American’s Flagship First Class cabin, and the experience was as enjoyable as the previous two.  American also offers grab and go snack and drink service in the galley throughout the flight.   The comfort and features of the seat really made me feel in no rush to land on all three trips on the 777-300ER.  Also, compared to my previous long-haul legs from Los Angeles to Sydney, Sydney to Johannesburg, and Cape Town to London, this flight felt short.

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We landed in Miami at 13:20 local, 29 minutes early.  With the convenience of Global Entry, I was already on the “MIA Mover” to the rental car center less than 15 minutes after leaving the aircraft.  At this point, I had fully circumnavigated the globe in nine days.  I still needed to go to Brazil, where I currently reside, but my flight would not be until late venting at 22:30 local.

Miami to Rio de Janeiro – American Airlines Business Class (50,000 miles)


I was already expecting the relative disappointment of missing out on a refurbished 777-200ER product on American since the shift in fleet utilization resulted an aircraft with the older business class.  After a quick check-in from a pleasant agent at the counter, I went to the Admirals Club near Gate 30. Compared to the one at Gate 15, this one was just beginning to get its refurb.  Snack and drink options were very limited compared to the other offering, but American had already presented plans to improve this service.

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During my flights on the -300ER I gave the business class cabin a careful look and could tell it was very modern and comfortable with fully lie-flat seats and direct aisle access for all customers.  This made my 8J angled lie-flat window seat look boring and uncomfortable for my neighbor, whom I would have to gently step over whenever I needed to get up. For this flight, I decided to go straight to sleep and asked for breakfast service, if I was awake 90 minutes before touchdown.

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I woke up with about 50 minutes to go and the crew still wanted to offer me breakfast I took them up on the older and had fruits and cereal with plenty of time to spare.  Touchdown in Rio was 26 minutes early at 7:19 local   My round-the-world adventure was complete and I felt truly satisfied, accomplished, and ready to rate these services.

The First Class Verdict: American Airlines vs. British Airways


Check-in:  

I used Miami’s Flagship check-in for my flight to Sydney via Los Angeles.  This area is behind opaque glass walls next to the other check-in counters.  The staff is very courteous, had me sit down while they checked my passport and printed the boarding passes.  A very nice agent then escorted me to the front of the TSA security line.

The Flagship service in Los Angeles is truly amazing. The staff made contact with me three days before the flight to offer meal options; sent me a text upon touch down in Los Angeles telling me an agent would greet me at the jetway; confirmed my check-in; escorted me to the Flagship Lounge; and took me to back to the aircraft when it was time to board for Sydney.

I’m a big fan of convenience and efficiency, so with British Airways I only opted for easy kiosk service.  Besides, I was not at Heathrow to get what I would imagine to be a very personalized check-in service.  Therefore, it would not be fair to make a comparison between the check-in experiences.

Lounges:  

American and British are even In terms of First Class lounge quality.  In Los Angeles and London, American’s Flagship Lounge was stocked with plenty of food and drink options; Wi-Fi was available, and there was plenty of comfortable seating.   British had a virtually identical product in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

In Miami, American does not have a Flagship Lounge.   First, Business, and Elite flyers use the Admirals Club.  Clubs are undergoing a modernization, and American plans do offer more food options, but it falls very short of what the airline offers in Los Angeles.  American still charges for alcohol at the Admirals Club and could benefit and be more competitive by having Flagship lounges at all of its international hubs.

Cabin crew:

American’s crews are hired based on seniority, while those of British were young and probably went through a very rigorous election process to serve in the First Class cabin.  On my three 777-300ER flights, American’s flight attendants displayed an informal, friendly attitude.  British’s attendants were very formal almost in the style of a stereotypical butler, but also with lots of warmth.  If anything American’s crew seemed a bit more distant than their British counterparts.

IFE:  

American hands down takes the prize on this service leaving British Airways very far behind.  American introduced its new IFE in 2013, while That of British dates back to the early 2000s.  With hundreds of hours of entertainment on American, it is impossible to become bored.  For connected people like myself, American’s international Wi-Fi is great to have.

For those who bring entertainment on their personal drives, they might not even notice the vast difference between the two offerings.  If I had to rate IFE on a scale of one to five, American gets a five without a doubt, while British earns a three.

Comfort:

American and British have modern fully-flat seats for sleeping.  They also have various positions for eating, using IFE, or just relaxing.   Crews offer a padded sheet on top of the seat at bedtime for additional comfort, and passengers have the option to turn on a message feature or adjust lumbar support at any time.   Both devices get a well-deserved five out of five rating in this aspect.

Post-flight:

Both airlines displayed their eagerness to hear from me in the form of an email survey after the flights.  Outdated British Airways IFE aside, I responded with very rave reviews for both First Class offerings.   The Oneworld alliance includes other renowned premium services from carriers like Cathay Pacific and Qatar Airways, so it behooves American and British to stay sharp and on their toes.

The Business class verdict:  American Airlines vs. QANTAS Airways


Check-in:

My American Airlines check-in from Rio to Miami was on a fast, easy to use kiosk, and my return to Miami was wth a counter agent, who was very friendly and efficient.   With QANTAS, I used the counter in Sydney staffed by another firefly and efficient agent.  Both lines were dedicated to business class and elite members.   I noticed no significant differences.   Both were fast and courteous services that need no improvement.

Lounges:

QANTAS takes business class lounge service and quality by a long shot.  American is modernizing in Rio and Miami, but food options will still be rather limited and alcoholic beverages are for a fee.   Meanwhile, in Sydney, QANTAS has a lounge comparable to American’s Flagship and British’s First Class lounges.  Small snack and hot meal options were plenty with a sit down dining area.  All beverages were complimentary too.

QANTAS also has a dedicated First Class lounge in Sydney.  I last used that one in 2094 and recall a similar service but more exclusivity and privacy since there were less people.  My grades for the Admirals Club in Miami and Rio and the QANTAS business lounge in Sydney would be thee out of five for American and a perfect five for QANTAS.

Cabin crew:

Both American and QANTAS had business cabin crews from the senior ranks.   They displayed a more laid back friendly informality, but as I compared in the first class rating, American falls a bit short on overall warmth.  The friendliness and personalized feel from the QANTAS attendants was more obvious.   For this part of the passenger experience American gets a four out of five, while QANTAS earns a five.

IFE:

I can only rate the service I used, meaning I missed out on the American business revamp.   American’s old business class IFE and the “iQ” entertainment on QANTAS date back to at least the mid-2000s.  Movie, TV, and game selections are ample, but not even close to what American offers on the IFE introduced in 2013.  They both offer the map display, which never gets old for me.   Neither airline offered Wi-Fi on these services.   This is an overall tie and average at best since today’s IFE offerings are far superior.

Comfort:

I mentioned The QANTAS “Sky Bed” can easily be confused with a long international first class offering.  The airline was among the first to offer fully lie-flat business comfort over 10 years ago.  The attendants also offer a padded sheet over the seat for those wanting to sleep.

On the other hand, American’s angled lie-flat seats fall behind, and I am glad the company’s retrofit of the entire 777 fleet is almost done.  I only regret missing out on their new business offering.   American gets a three out of five, while QANTAS gets a four.   If QANTAS offered direct aisle access to all business passengers, it would get a five out of five.

Post-flight:

Neither American nor QANTAS offered any post-flight questionnaires for business class or fast track immigration access.

Final thoughts


To make this journey possible, there were two key factors to bear in mind.  First, compared to my first round-the-world miles redemption 16 years ago, this one definitely required more planning ahead.  American Airlines has “miles saver” and “miles anytime” option when booking, and usually the latter will be available closer to the flight dates but cost twice as many miles.  By planning eight months in advance, I was able to secure these eight legs.

Second, I have always tried to maximize ways to earn miles.  I get to travel quite a bit with my line of work and love leisure travel too, hence accruing miles is relatively quick, and with elite status, bonus miles also come into play.  I also use a credit card affiliated with American Airlines, put most of my monthly expenses on it, and always pay it on time.  Finally, I apply car rentals and hotel stays to my account.  Miles gurus will say there are many other ways, which is true, but his method generally helps me get plenty of miles relatively fast.

The end product is well worth it!   The comfort on the long haul services never gave me an “are we there yet?” feeling.  A couple of readers in the past have mentioned we report too much on premium passenger experiences when most passengers fly economy, but I hope this report demonstrates the possibilities available with miles redemption, especially since most of us cannot afford those business and first class international tickets.

When I made my reservations on American’s website, I noticed that not all Oneworld Alliance partners participate in this miles redemption.  Besides British and QANTAS, I can reserve with Finnair and Royal Jordanian.  To experience great airlines like Cathay and Qatar, it is still possible with American Airlines with my miles, but that requires a little extra work with those Airlines and American over the phone.  Lastly, the realist in me sees airlines continuing to make redemption more difficult, but I intend to take advantage of these great opportunities while they are still around.

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Luis Linares

Luis Linares

LIFETIME COMMERCIAL AVIATION ENTHUSIAST, FORMER U.S. AIR FORCE, WRITER, SPOTTER, PHOTOGRAPHER, WORLD TRAVELER (OVER 50 COUNTRIES), AND AIRWAYS COLLECTOR SINCE ISSUE #1.

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