SÃO PAULO — This week, American Airlines (AA) launched its first scheduled International Premium Economy service aboard its new Boeing 787-9 fleet. The airline became the first US airline to introduce the premium cabin product, and joins a club of major international airlines offering a four-class international service.
Join us on this long-haul Dreamliner flight from Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW) to São Paulo, in order to experience how AA’s new International Premium Economy Service measures up.
In mid-July, American announced its international 787-9 service would start on November 4 from Dallas/Ft. Worth to São Paulo and Madrid. Moreover, premium economy would be available for the price of economy through early 2017.
I booked a restricted fare round trip from São Paulo for $1,1186.50 USD on American’s website and chose seat 9A on the bulkhead of premium economy.
I was a bit disappointed when AA rearranged its official 787 international schedule by moving the inaugural date a day before to November 3. Other commitments, and the restricted fare made it impossible to switch, but I was still looking forward to the experience, even if it was a day late. As an elite member of the airline, I checked in at the business class counter.
There were four agents and a bit of a line, so I waited over 15 minutes for the next agent, who quickly confirmed my Brazilian visa and printed my boarding pass.
With “TSA Pre,” security was quick and smooth, and I went to the gate and try to take some pictures of the Dreamliner at the gate while there was still daylight. Unfortunately, the Gate D30 parking position was barely visible from the waiting area, and I also realized the airplane had not pulled in yet. Next, I made my way to the Admirals Club to relax and enjoy the view of the Terminal D ramp and DFW’s western runways.
A new amenity at the lounge was a walk-up guacamole bar where a nice lady was making fresh guacamole and serving it with chips. Over the past months, American has been advertising a facelift to its lounges, and this new service appears to be part of the improvements.
Having been at the Admirals Club in London Heathrow, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, I noticed very different standards between US and overseas facilities. Clubs overseas offer complimentary alcoholic beverages and hot meals, while those in the US do not.
An hour and ten minutes before the flight, I received a delay notice via the American Airlines mobile app indicating a departure change from 19:00 to 21:00 local time. I walked back to the gate to see if the aircraft was even there, and the gate agent said it was not. He went on the explain that there was a maintenance issue, which I hoped would be the only inconvenience of the evening.
I returned to the gate at the new 20:20 local boarding time only to find out the new departure was set for 23:30. The agent explained the maintenance crew needed to run tests after the fixes including engine runs, which sounded to me like software issues reminiscent of the tumultuous first few years of Dreamliner service. There was another push to 23:00 local and also an announcement from the lounge staff that the Admirals Club would close at 22:15 local.
At 22:00 the Admirals Club staff announced a major delay that pushed departure to 8:30 local the next day. They immediately offered hotel vouchers and has us lineup to get them. The lounge staff worked overtime with a very friendly and positive attitude to get us accommodated, and an hour later I was on a shuttle to a nearby hotel to get some sleep.
I was back at DFW the next morning and used my voucher for a light breakfast before heading to the Admirals Club. I proceeded to the gate at the scheduled boarding time, and used the priority lane with the business and elite flyers. In the pecking order of boarding, Premium Economy comes after Business Class and elite customers. I then found my way to bulkhead window seat 9A on the Premium Economy section.
The amenities of the service include a pillow and blanket, noise cancelling headphones, earplugs, socks, and eyeshades.
The seat also has three push button controls for its three positions that include recline and a footrest, and there is a small space under the armrest to store small items like books or smartphones.
Since I was in the front row, the IFE screen was pop-up rather than seat-back.
One of the flight attendants welcomed us aboard and mentioned we were on a brand new aircraft. She apologized for the lengthy delay, and said it had to do with the seats, which had not been fully certified and that this was the aircraft’s very first flight. I found that very hard to believe and hoped the captain would go into more detail.
This new class of service did not include welcome drinks. Our section consisted of three rows in a two by thee by two arrangement for a total of 21 seats. We finally pushed back at 08:48 local, the 18-minute delay a result of more post-maintenance checks in the flight deck.
For this nine hour and 26 minute flight, the cabin crew announced there would be lunch service after takeoff and a snack 90 minutes before landing. Among the highlights during takeoff were the noticeably quiet engine noise and the progressive wing flexing as we gained speed and altitude. The captain made a welcome announcement after takeoff but did not mention the delay.
I connected to aainflight.com to buy a US$19.00 international WiFi pass for the entire flight. I also deployed my IFE screen and was very happy to have 219 movies, from classics to new releases at my disposal. The IFE also has television shows, music, e-books, games, and an airshow available, which makes for a very enjoyable passenger experience.
Our flight attendant handed out what was now the lunch menu. Appetizers included shrimp rémoulade and seasonal greens, while the main meal choices were peppercorn-crusted beef tenderloin or classic vegetable lasagna. For dessert, the menu listed lemon coconut layer cake.
Prior to lunch, the crew offered drinks and a small bag of chips. I went with the tenderloin for my meal. The overall presentation is much better than that of standard international economy of most airlines.
In terms of taste was average at best, particularly the main course, and it left me wondering if they just reheated the dinner from the previous evening.
After lunch, as we passed Cancun, the attendants dimmed all the windows to a medium setting between transparent and dark, but fortunately we could still adjust them to our desired taste. I was halfway through my first movie and relaxed in the reclined position enjoying a complimentary Baileys on the rocks.
One of the benefits of the composite materials of the Dreamliner is the lower cabin pressure. Our initial altitude was 35,000 feet, and my altimeter watch displayed 5,000 feet of cabin altitude, 30% less than in other aircraft. I was looking forward to finding out if this meant feeling more refreshed by landing time.
The premium economy seat has 19 inches of width and a generous 38 inches of pitch. At the bulkhead window, I didn’t have to bother my neighbor in the aisle seat when I got up. Furthermore, the non-bulkhead seats in the section also have enough room to make getting up as least disruptive as possible.
Four hours into the flight, the cabin crew locked the window dim to its darkest setting to allow for sleep. I found it a bit frustrating, especially with the beautiful scenery of the northwest coast of Colombia on the outside, but I understood at the same time the need for passenger comfort. The plane encountered some of turbulence, which required the seatbelt sign, yet the turbulence suppression technology on the Dreamliner made the bumps relatively negligible.
Two and a half hours before landing, the flight attendants handed out immigration cards. The snack service 90 minutes before arrival was really a breakfast plate, since the flight would have arrived early morning on schedule, consisting of a croissant, fruits, and yogurt. This was tasty and very comparable to American’s fruit plate service in Flagship First and Business.
With 45 minutes left, the cabin crew collected the headsets in Business and Premium Economy and played a video to familiarize passengers with customs and immigration at São Paulo Guarulhos International Airport. As descent began, I asked myself if the increased cabin humidity made any difference, and I can confidently say it did with less fatigue and dehydration. I never slept, not because of discomfort, but because I was wide awake enjoying the IFE and internet access.
Landing was smooth. Since delays were the theme of this experience, we of course had to wait 10 minutes for an aircraft to clear our assigned gate.
We parked at 21:54 local, 13 hours and 46 minutes behind schedule. I chuckled when I saw the schedule indicating the aircraft would be ready the return to DFW in one hour.
Because I was one of the first people out of the aircraft, and as our flight was the only international arrival at that hour in Guarulhos, passport control was a breeze. With no checked bags, I was waiting for my Uber less than 10 minutes after deboarding. The massive delay did not ruin a very memorable and comfortable flight.
This week, AA became the first of the US “Big three” to offer a Premium Economy product as part of its long haul international service. Delta Air Lines also announced plans for the product this week, and I’m sure that United eventually will follow suit. American’s oneworld Alliance partners, such as British Airways and Qantas, introduced this product early last decade, and many passengers will welcome this step.
This year I had the privilege to sample American’s newer international Flagship First Class and Business Class long haul services and was very impressed. The airline will install Premium Economy on the Boeing 777-200ER, 777-300ER, 787-8, and the future Airbus A350-900 over the next few years, which will give passengers four discernable classes of service. Without a doubt, Premium Economy is a much more comfortable experience, which the Dreamliner further enhances with its advanced cabin environment.
As someone who has been a loyal customer since 1990 with 1.8 million air miles, I am very pleased at the steps American has taken to become a competitive international airline. Perhaps one drawback of Premium Economy, from a selfish perspective, will be no longer being able to upgrade from Economy to Business with miles or cash, now that Premium Economy sits between them. Regardless, this new class is a very pleasant and distinct product overall in the ever competitive international long-haul realm.
Finally, I have to give American Airlines customer service and relations a mixed review. I think with the 13-hour delay they should have switched eating options from dinner and light breakfast, to lunch and light meal. I have no doubt I ate the meals originally going out on the night flight.