The day began with a contingent of press crawling around and photographing the cabin, more on that later. The 2 Boeing 777-300ERs were at Gate D-23 (our inaugural aircraft) and another unpainted at D-24 for an employee event and to be used as backup. For an inaugural, the gate events were remarkably low-key. Missing were the obligatory ribbon cutting, cake cutting, ice sculpture, and balloon canopy.
Downplaying the event seemed intentional because in this transition period with so much “up in the air”, AA had to strike the right tone in not wanting to seem extravagant or over-the-top. With this being mostly a revenue flight with very few VIPs, many in the gate weren’t even aware of the significance of the moment.
There was a small snack buffet including 777 commemorative cookies, some “New American” signage, and a few words from American CEO Tom Horton and Chief Commercial Officer Virasb Vahidi with a particular shout out to the onboard products design team led by Alice Lieu. With that, the boarding began of this entirely sold out flight.
American chose to not only introduce a new aircraft with this flight and aircraft, but an entirely new passenger experience, maybe even the most beautiful 777 cabin in the world. Upon entry, we are immediately struck by the 787 Dreamliner inspired dynamic LED lighting illuminated in red and blue with stars ala Emirates and the dramatic entry archway and ceiling treatment which is a 777-300 first. In another first for a U.S. carrier, there is a fully stocked walk-up bar in First and Business flanking a plasma monitor. According to Virasb Vahidi, American chose to build a customer-centric product “inspired by the luxury touches and trends of high-end cars, hotels, and restaurants”.
Vahib admits American “took a gamble in reducing capacity but says this was a cabin designed for its customers not Excel spreadsheets.” He terms the new service as “Life uninterrupted. Customers want an experience that’s the same in everyday life.”
The 777-300 is 33 feet longer then the 777-200 and the new aircraft carries 304 passengers in 4 classes and 6 cabins, 61 more than the 3 Cabin Dash 200’s 243 passengers. The ultra-exclusive First Class cabin features 8 Zodiac UK seats with an almost unimaginable 80” of pitch and 36” width in a herringbone 1-2-1 configuration. These seats become 6’ 8” beds with a drop-down armrest further enhancing sleep.
All suites have electrically powered privacy dividers, two universal AC power outlets, one USB outlet, two large tray tables / desks, a swivel seat and a many other creature comforts including American’s trademark Bose® QuietComfort® 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling® headsets with charges built into the headrest, and an enlarged 17-inch touch screen IFE. The amenity kits have received a major upgrade as well.
Additional unique touches include swiveling seats and an ottoman so a guest can join the First Class passenger for dinner or a face-to-face conversation; a “do not disturb” electronic sign (just like a hotel), a secondary remote for the IFE so the passenger can use it without even facing the monitor, and a unique iPod looking display for the seat controls. The “Tom Horton” lamp nicknamed after the CEO, gives these suites an additional high-end touch evocative of a Pullman train car. Vahidi’s nicknamed pet contribution is the “Virasb Espresso Machine” which serves up a really nice latte.
The cabin is very elegant with its high-end interior trim and finishes. American has set the bar very high that no other U.S. carrier is matching at the moment, and vaults it into the realm of the highest echelon airlines in the world. In fact, the seat product is similar to American’s One World alliance member, Cathay Pacific.
With First Class cabins becoming ever smaller and more rare (and rarefied), the real important action is in Business Class. Many say Business Class is the New First Class, and this new configuration bears that out. The New American Business Class cabin, the first redesign since the unloved 2-3-2 2006 era product, is upgraded to an incredibly roomy for Business Class 52 75” pitch and 26” lie-flat seats in a 1-2-1 configuration.
This is what I would be traveling in, in seat 4J. In a pre-flight boarding, I sampled some of the Sicma Aero seats new features. Highlights include a very tasteful and warm new look unlike the dark, dark cavern feel of the old cabin. In addition, every seat has aisle access. The arm rests fold down so you don’t have to remove your table to crawl out for aisle access, which is a real nicety.
American is the first U.S. carrier to claim this in Business and First Class. This herringbone configuration echoes the Delta layout. Every part of the seat, including the seat back, headrest, and leg rest, can be adjusted. The seats feature a large tray table in addition to a work surface so you can eat and work at the same time, which given the nice, extended meal services is a productive and nice touch.
Each seat also has a water bottle holder and “cubbie hole” headset stowage for the Bose headsets offered to all Premium passengers. There’s even a vanity mirror on the storage door. Seat controls, power ports, USB’s, and a reading light are located to the right within arms reach. Two of my favorite features are the folding armrest and pivoting table that allows an easy exit from the seat without removing everything off the seatback table.
The Business Class Cabin for the 777-200s and some 767-300s, due in January 2014 will reportedly be a further upgrade, as it will be a hybrid between the Flagship and Business. This new cabin will be very key to the airline as the First Class Flagship suites will be removed from these particular aircraft.
The Panasonic eX2 IFE is much improved and enlarged over the old system that I always found particularly poor. It’s new touch screen user interface is much more responsive the catalog of 120 movies, 150 TV shows, and more than 350 audio selections is much more impressive. Tom Horton points out that there are enough entertainment options for 15 trips around the world.
The GUI has a fluid, user-friendly operation similar to Apple’s Cover-flow. The system currently operates on the Linux Platform but will be switching to the Android Platform in November 2014. The Moving Maps are the main area that will be improved with ultra-high resolution user controllable Google Maps.
The Ku-Band Satellite Panasonic Wi-Fi, so highly touted, functioned intermittently on the flight. Normally priced between $12-$19 USD, the Wi-Fi was free and once we entered Brazil it functioned more reliably. American, who ran a special test flight for connectivity, can’t be happy nor were the social media folks American had in the back tweeting the flight. American had even run a special proving flight over Mexico, Gulf of Mexico, and Miami just for the IFE and connectivity but this new route into deep South America was new for the technology. Panasonic actually had crew onboard the flight troubleshooting the problem. The flight crew apologized on the P/A for the service issues.
Even the Main Cabin received some love with Main Cabin Extra Weber seats boasting a 17” width, 35” pitch, and a roomy 9 abreast configuration in its 30 leather seats, similar to JV partner British Airways offering. The standard Economy Cabin’s 214 seats were also leather-clad but remained at 31” pitch and 10 abreast. New seatback 9” touch-screen AVOD IFE’s using the Panasonic Eco monitor and personal 110 Volt power ports are located at every seat. By swiping your hand in front of the monitor, the controls illuminate. Both seats have a higher pivot providing increased knee room and an articulating seat bottom, which provides a greater, recline angle. The new Main Cabin is a major improvement over the status quo.
For an inaugural, our flight AA 963 is a late night flight. This flight, the 2nd daily departure to São Paulo GRU, normally operated by a 777-200 pushes back on time at precisely 8:35pm CST for the projected 9:06 trip from Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport International Concourse Gate D-23 to São Paulo Guarulhos Airport. This flight would is scheduled to take us 5,161 miles well within the 777-300ER’s maximum range of 7,930 miles.
Our payload is 698,000 pounds well below the 777-300ER limits with 198,000 pounds of fuel taken aboard. As we push back, we are saluted by a nighttime water cannon salute. At 8:46pm, we begin our rotation on DFW’s runway 18L. V1 is 164 mph, Vr is 170 mph, and after just 30 seconds of a very quiet roll, V2 comes on at 174 mph at around 5,000 feet and we are airborne to the obligatory boisterous applause.
Even though115,000 pounds of thrust is available on the GE engines, the takeoff is de-rated at around 70%. We climb effortlessly to our initial cruising altitude of 31,000 feet though light to moderate turbulence dogs us throughout the first third of the flight. To take advantage of favorable winds and weather, Flight 963 is on a route from DFW southeast over New Orleans, The Gulf of Mexico, Miami, The Dominican Republic, Eastern Caribbean, Venezuela, and the Amazon River Basin of Brazil (where we deviated around a lot of weather), and into São Paulo.
Our very senior flight crew consists of 3 Captains on the flight deck under the command of Captain John Hale, the VP of 777 Flight Operations who is joined by Captain Bill Elder, Fleet Training and Familiarization, and Captain and 777 Examiner David Schelener. Typical flights have a Captain, First Officer, and International Officer. Schelener, who has flown every widebody in the AA fleet dating back to the 747 remarks that the 777-300 is basically a “very smooth sports car, similar to the 777-200 but with more mass, more thrust, and a fasting cruising speed of .89”. The iPAD equipped, roomy flight deck is a pilot favorite made all the more spacious with the absence of the 42 pound brain bag.
55 minutes into the flight American’s top 2 executives CEO Horton and Chief Commercial Officer Vahidi serve champagne to the entire flight. With the bubbly served, Horton makes a toast “I really like to fly as a passenger and a weekend pilot, but I won’t be at the controls. I am an aviation geek but I won’t be flying”. He offers a few neat stats: The 777-300ER has 134 miles of wiring enough to stretch from Dallas to Austin, it accelerates from 0-60 in less then 6 seconds, and the Wi-Fi will connect to 3 different satellites. Even with the airline’s status up in the air, he proclaims this flight as “the beginning of the New American with lots more to come”.
Nearly 90 minutes since take-off. The LED lights are dimmed to American’s unique blue ceiling and red side-panels display signaling the beginning of the meal service. This isn’t just any meal service; this is the launch of American’s new International Premium Service, which replaces the Flagship Service. Yes, the Sundaes are still there (a favorite of founder C.R. Smith), but everything else is new.
Explains Flight Service Manager Leland Hinley: “The customer has changed. They want lighter and more universal options in a more elegant setting. We have no logo on our new china, new white linen, full sized flatware, all meals plated in Premium Cabins, and soon even real stem wine glasses in Business. We are going for a 5-Star dining experience of a fine restaurant in the air.” The only hitch is that the wrong Business Class menus are on our flight, but no matter – the selection is still extensive.
I chose a shrimp and lentil starter, a Curry Chicken and Rice entrée’, and a side of pretzel bread. Being sadly lactose intolerant, I now have to pass on the famous Sundae’s. Flight attendants are given 1 day training in the new service, and are clearly working very hard but they are still efficient and very friendly in spite of the stress of seemingly being short 1 or 2 people. By now, this article must seem like a gloat fest but I was very impressed by the entire service. It was the best service and food I have ever experienced on a U.S. carrier, one that compares very favorably with the world’s premium carriers.
With the meal service completed, the action shifts over to American’s new 777-300 standup bars, a first for a U.S. carrier since the 1970s. It’s stocked with wine, soft drinks, snacks, and water. It quickly becomes a popular place to congregate in spite of the very late hour. With our conveyance approaching South America, the lights are dimmed with 5 hours left to go to allow everyone to sleep.
The seats become very comfortable flat beds, but with the stormy ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) in full force, the flight was quite turbulent most of the way, but though the 777-300 isn’t immune from Mother Nature, she handled the weather with aplomb. Stepping the Dash 300 up to 37,000 feet, the flight crew skillfully earned their keep tonight and deviated around all sorts of weather that is common in the Amazon Basin.
One hour before landing we were served a light breakfast consisting of cereal or an asparagus omelet with a lovely apricot sauce accompanied by fruit and potatoes. This was a very brisk service. The only hitch is when one of the galley ovens failed causing the meal to be lukewarm. The meal trays were quickly picked up and we were in our descent into smooth air (finally!).
After 9 hours and 18 minutes in the air, at 10:06AM local time, we touchdown smoothly at São Paulo GRU’s to another round of thunderous cheers. After a quick taxi, we were treated to a water cannon salute just short of our gate in Terminal 2. Even with all the deviation for weather, and the water cannon salute, we arrived 1 minute ahead of schedule. The entire flight crew and some fellow journalists would have just over 14 hours before turning around back to DFW but even though everyone seemed exhausted, I got the feeling that they all were excited to do it again!
There are still many unanswered questions for American Airlines but if this flight and the new product are any indication, this Eagle is rising from the ashes just like a Phoenix. Whether a certain Phoenix based carrier is part of this future isn’t known yet. From a passenger perspective, this is one of the very best flights I have ever been on regardless of airline, aircraft, and destination. Just taking this particular flight, American leaps up with the best of its One World partners such as British Airways and Cathay Pacific.
Even though I am press, I chose to pay for this flight entirely at my own expense. I am a very frequent traveler on American, given my Miami home-base, so my expectations were high and hopeful that they would live up to all the hype. I am happy to report my expectations were exceeded on virtually all accounts. Reiterating this was just one flight and service, the true measure of success and changing public perception will be how these changes affect the entire experience from 777-300ER Flagship service all the way to an American Eagle ERJ-145 Main Cabin flight from Amarillo to DFW, and flight on the system. American has made it clear that the goal is a fundamental change encompassing every part of its operation and in-flight experience. As a customer and journalist, I am keenly interested in this story as it unfolds. Stay Tuned…
This post is dedicated to NYCAviation Co-Founder and Co-Owner Matt Molnar who tragically passed away last week at the age of 33. Matt embodied the best qualities in all of us: passion, smarts, wit, and he was a gentle soul. #AvGeek or not, if you knew Matt, your life was better for it. If anyone would’ve enjoyed this trip and covered the Hell out of this story, it would have been him. God Speed Dude.
Special Thanks to: American Airlines’ Andrea Hugely, Kent Powell, Lauren Mungula, and Dori Robau Alvarez for their assistance in this article.
|This story written by…Chris Sloan, Correspondent.Chris has been an airline enthusiast, or #AvGeek, since he was 5 years old. Over the years, he has amassed an extensive collection of aviation memorabilia and photos that he shares on his site, Airchive.com. He is the President and Founder of the TV production and promotion company, 2CMedia.com and Executive Producer and Creator of “Airport 24/7” Travel Channel series.|