MIAMI — Qatar Airways has, once again, been named World’s Best Business Class Airline at the 2017 World Airline Awards. Not surprisingly (to some), none of the U.S. “Big Three” legacy carriers – American, Delta, and United – even made it into the top 20.
Having flown 14 segments with Qatar over the past 16 months, and four segments with Emirates last month, I can attest to just how good these airlines really are in business, both, on the ground and in the air!
That said, I cannot help but feel that the U.S. legacy carriers are getting a bit of a bad rap here. American, for example, has made terrific strides of late in their Business Class cabins, especially with their Boeing 767 and 777-200 lie-flat retrofits.
I would honestly choose American’s reverse herringbone seat on their Boeing 77W over both Qatar’s Boeing 777 and Emirates’ Boeing 777 seats (the latter of which is in the dreaded 2-3-2 configuration), and certainly above Etihad’s Airbus A340 seats.
United’s Polaris is getting very high marks from frequent flyers and travel writers alike, and the Delta One suite will undoubtedly raise the Business Class bar even higher when it debuts on their Airbus A350s this fall.
I flew two segments last month on American’s 77W, both from Heathrow’s LHR to Dallas’ DFW in seat 4A, and one segment from DFW to Amsterdam’s AMS in seat 2A on a Boeing 767 retrofit.
My experience on all of these flights got me thinking: Why isn’t American (or any of the other U.S. carriers, for that matter) getting more love from the flying public when it comes to industry awards? Was my experience really THAT far behind Qatar, Etihad, and Emirates, or any other of the top 20 World Airline awardees?
The simple truth is, it wasn’t. The hard product on the 77W was fantastic! I haven’t slept better on a plane, anywhere. Even the new Thompson Vantage lie-flat seats on the Boeing 767 were über comfy.
However (uh oh, here comes the inevitable, however), there were a number of things that fell short during my nine or so hours across the Atlantic that, collectively, added up to me leaving the plane feeling a little disappointed and frustrated.
And the infuriating thing is, all of these ‘disappointments’ are pretty easy fixes – or at least they should be – that would have made all the difference in the world.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a loyal AAer with Lifetime Platinum status, approaching 3 million miles in the program, and enjoying the benefits of Executive Platinum status this year.
I have been flying AA for over 25 years and almost feel as though I am cheating when I board another carrier!
I certainly don’t have any axe to grind with American. The truth is, I would love to see the company get the recognition I think it deserves when it comes to airline awards.
So, here it is my beloved American Airlines, my seven fixes to an improved (and perhaps award-winning?) international Business Class experience.
- Quality control. I know it is standard practice these days to bash airline cuisine. There are clearly challenges to serving quality food at 35,000 feet. But I have yet to have a bad meal on Qatar or Etihad, and Emirates is, in my opinion, often a notch above those two. American does produce some good nosh – their ice cream sundaes are still terrific, and the snack bar on the 77W is well stocked with good sweet and savory treats, but there were some really marginal dishes on my flights: a carrot appetizer where the carrots were wilted and basically inedible; a steak entree which was simply raw (and, trust me, I like ‘em rare); a bizarre salad with butternut on a bed of sour lettuce; and a Mediterranean appetizer that was simply bland. Simply put, there was a lack of consistency with AA’s food. They can undoubtedly do better.
- Attentive service (or lack thereof). I realize that this is the 800- pound gorilla in the room: American’s flight attendants (FAs). I’ll be completely honest here: I have had some TERRIFIC FAs on American but, for the most part, those on my trans-Atlantic segments this year were just not particularly engaged. For example, my wife was never offered a drink refill – not once – after takeoff on the LHR-DFW leg, and I ended up taking plates, napkins, and coffee cups back to the galley on two separate occasions as the side table at my seat started overflowing. It all came across as a “bare minimum” approach: serve the drinks, serve the food, and retire to the galley. To be sure, the FAs were never rude, and one on the DFW-AMS route was utterly delightful. Nevertheless, after flying the ME3, I found the FAs lack of attentiveness on American quite shocking.
- Stop the ice hacking. I have yet to board an AA flight without hearing the bashing of ice coming from the First or Business Class galley. It sounds as if someone is trying to ascend the South Col of Mt. Everest. Just stop! It cannot be that difficult to load pre-separated ice cubes, surely? Drop the bag on the tarmac before it is loaded. Anything.
- Pre-takeoff plastic cups. The tone for a flight is set early on, and nothing says tacky like champagne served in flimsy, plastic cups. It might sound trivial, but all of the ME3 carriers serve champagne and/or orange juice in real flutes or glasses, which is a sophisticated touch right from the outset. And while you are at it, upgrade the champagne to what is served inflight.
- A personal welcome. Every flight I have taken on an ME3 carrier, as well as British Airways, started with a warm personal welcome from the purser or cabin service director. It is thoughtful and takes very little time. What it does do, however, is make you feel truly welcomed onboard. In fairness, I have had AA do this on occasion, but very rarely. The very best pursers do – again it is about consistency.
- Upgrade the hot towels. A refreshing hot towel is always welcome prior to takeoff, but the AA towels are not much larger than the palm of your hand. Invest in some large, quality cotton towels. And, while you are at it, why not offer both hot and cold towels, which is really a great touch that many other carriers do, especially mid-flight?
- Dispense with the trays. American does begin the meal service by laying down a small (albeit wrinkled) grey tablecloth, but dishes, the salt and peppers shakers, the cutlery, etc. are then served on a tray covered with a small white tablecloth. The overall layout of this is fine (Emirates does the same minus the wrinkled tablecloth), but what a statement it would make to set the table with the crockery and cutlery sans tray and on an ironed tablecloth, like Qatar does. This would undoubtedly be more work for the crew, but it would also elevate the dining experience considerably.
I know much is made of the crew on the ME3 carriers. They are cosmopolitan, engaging, and entirely focused on the customer experience. My FAs on British Airways in January, albeit in World Traveller Plus, were also superb. Nothing ever seemed to be too much trouble.
However, on American, it just seemed too hit-or-miss, which is a shame because the hard product changes that the carrier has invested in, which makes them really competitive in the Premium cabin (in my opinion), is not being matched by the service on a consistent basis.
What comes down for me is this: I truly look forward to a flight on Qatar, Emirates, or Etihad as I know it is going to be great. I have never had one that wasn’t. With AA, it is cautious optimism.
I know I will be comfortable, but whether or not it is a great flight is going to come down to the FAs and the food, and both have been too hit-or-miss on the multiple flights I have had in the past year.
Our U.S. legacy carriers are never going to compete with the lavish lounges in Dubai, Doha, or Hong Kong. You are not going to be picked up or delivered to your destination by a limousine, nor offered an overnight stay at a five-star airport hotel anytime soon.
However, with a few small changes onboard, and a much greater focus on the customer from the FAs, American would have a business class product that would rival many of those on the World Airline Awards Top 10. I know they would get my vote 2018!