Previously, I discussed the process and reasoning for using miles for an economy ticket on an American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER from Los Angeles to Sydney. In this story, I am going to share the actual flight experience, and discuss if this was the right call… or a huge mistake.
FLYING AMERICAN DOWN UNDER: Before the Flight
American Airlines Flight 73
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Sydney Airport (SYD)
Equipment: Boeing 777-323ER
Scheduled Departure Time: 9:50pm (actual 10:21pm)
Scheduled Arrival Time: 7:55am+2 (actual 7:31am+2)
Scheduled Flight Time: 15 hours, 5 minutes (actual 14 hours, 9 minutes)
The day came, and we headed out to dinner before going to LAX to catch our evening flight. While taking our dinner at a leisurely pace, I checked on our flight status and realized that I had confused the departure time as being 10:50pm instead of 9:50pm; fortunately I caught my mistake with enough time to rush through our meal and still make it to the airport comfortably.
Thankfully, there were no lines at American’s Priority check-in counters at Terminal 4, even with the bank of red-eye flights leaving that evening; apparently December 23 was an unpopular day to fly. We had no bags to check, but we couldn’t check in online; this was due to a new procedure being implemented for international flights, where additional data had to be collected in person and entered into our flight records. A bit annoying.
Thanks to the open and empty TSA PreCheck lane, we were through security in less than two minutes, without taking our shoes off. This gave us about 30 minutes in the Admirals Club (lounge access granted thanks to my Platinum status); less quality time than I had hoped for, but still enough for a quick shower and some snacks.
Pro tip: Taking a shower is absolutely one of the best things you can do to making traveling more bearable. I call it “hitting the reset button” and you’ll feel so much better before and after your flight. Many airports feature lounges that you can pay to use, if you don’t have access by virtue of travel class or elite status.
FLYING AMERICAN DOWN UNDER: Boarding Process
We could see our plane, N719AN, overhead from the lounge parked at Gate 43. It had arrived from Miami with a 1.5-hour delay, but our flight still showed as on-time, and boarding commenced as expected. We headed down about 20 minutes from departure; the Priority line had already boarded, and they were onto Group 2 of the Main Cabin.
We shimmied up through the Priority lane where the agent scanned my boarding pass and was promptly given a red-lighted “BZZZ!” My boarding pass was invalid, and in my experience this usually means one of three things: my ticket got canceled, I had been upgraded, or the check-in counter simply did something wrong.
After trying again, we were asked to visit the gate counter to see what the problem was. Apparently the check-in desk did something the system didn’t like, so the gate agent, in the midst of dealing with seat assignments, standby passengers, and upgraders, had to stop and reprocess our documentation. After several attempts, the light finally pinged green, and we were on our way down the jetbridge, still in our coach seats.
We boarded through Door 2L on this occasion, so no peek at the first class section, but there was an engineer who was just getting off… not something that usually bodes well for an on-time departure. Also no foyer or grandiose entryway, just a pragmatic galley area to service the business class sections.
Traipsing through business class (incidentally, 100% full of employees using their travel benefits… and I can’t blame them) and past our former seats in Main Cabin Extra, we make our way into the regular economy section, where the aisle is noticeably narrower from the additional seat in each row. We take our self-imposed 22J/23J assignments and start hoping for the best. Sure enough, most of the passengers proceeded aft past us, and a only a few took seats in our area.
While the Main Cabin Extra section boasts an extra 4-5″ (or more) of legroom and only nine seats across, regular economy had a standard 31-32″ of pitch with denser ten-abreast seating. At least each seat had a blanket and pillow, both more plush than what’s normally offered, perhaps to be on par with Qantas service levels (more on that in a bit).
Finally, the door closed and we were home-free: My wife and I each had secured our row of 3 seats. There was some mild reshuffling around as other passengers claimed empty rows, and most seemed to have a boosted level of comfort of some sort, thanks to the lightly-booked cabin. It seemed like our gamble of taking “regular” economy paid off!
FLYING AMERICAN DOWN UNDER: The flight experience
The mood was festive, no doubt because of all the holiday-seekers on board, as well as a few Australian families probably returning home. I slid over to the window seat, my wife joined me in the aisle seat, and our carryon bags were in the other row in front of us… with the center tray table down, I would label our setup as “faux” premium economy. The cabin lights dimmed as we pushed back just a few minutes late due to some maintenance paperwork being checked. We had a quick taxi to Runway 25R, on the same side of the airport as Terminal 4. With only two planes in front of us, we were airborne in just a few minutes, and with a slight turn to the left we headed straight over open water and towards Sydney, approximately 14 hours away.
The cabin crew was outstanding the entire flight; as soon as the seat belt sign was off, they were up to hand out immigration cards and printed paper menus… in coach! They were also efficient in getting meals served promptly to maximize sleeping time, which was much appreciated. The meal carts came through concurrently with the drink carts, each manned by two flight attendants. Focused on staying hydrated versus staying inebriated, I opted for some apple juice (boring!).
From the menu, my meal choices were:
Roasted sirloin steak with red wine sauce, roasted garlic mashed potatoes and broccoli, or
Pan-seared whitefish with tomato caper compote, steamed basmati rice and sauteed green beans, or
Black bean and corn quinoa salad with grilled chicken breast
Served with garlic butter infused roll and passion fruit mousse
I know, I know… you read that and heard in your mind, “Beef, fish, or chicken?” and I wouldn’t disagree with you… usually an airline menu attempts to sugar-coat what’s on the tray, and typically fails. I went with my “safe” option of beef, and the flight attendant happily placed my tray on my table. My wife was a bit more “adventurous” and went with the fish.
I’m happy to report that our meals were some of the best economy meals we’ve ever had. My sirloin wasn’t overcooked and was actually tender, moist, and full of flavor. I was blown away by the roll… think something like a jelly donut, but instead of jelly you got garlic herb butter, and instead of a donut you got a warm, crusty wheat roll.
My wife was also impressed with her fish… flaky and moist. She also quite enjoyed the rice, which was perfectly cooked. The passion fruit mousse was a great finish to our meals… light and not too sweet. I kid you not, I would give our meals an 8/10.
I confirmed with our flight attendants that this service was “enhanced” over the typical fare to bring the offerings more in-line with what Qantas does. I’m betting this was a condition imposed by Qantas in starting up their joint venture with American. As reported previously, other Sydney-specific service enhancements include pajamas in business class, and airport escort services for first class.
While enjoying our dinner we both watched Jurassic World (4.5/5 stars – great flick, especially to watch on the plane) on the excellent IFE system. American installed Panasonic’s eX2 on the 77W, with tons of new release movies as well as classics, plus music, games, and even audio books.
The user interface is pretty intuitive, though not as responsive as I would like. You can make your selections using the corded remote or by using the touchscreen, swiping to your next option. There’s also a USB charger and a universal A/C outlet provided; use the latter for the fastest charging.
WiFi is provided by T-Mobile using a Ku-band satellite connection (see my previous story on the upcoming 2Ku service provided by Gogo). I didn’t do a speed test, but I had adequate access to be able to check emails and search for award inventory while inflight, at speeds similar to using my phone’s 4G LTE service. Overall, I felt that it was worth the $20 cost for the duration of the flight.
The flight attendants came through again promptly to collect meal trays and offer additional beverages, and passengers quickly settled in for the night. With each seat getting a pillow/blanket set, my wife used all three in her row to build a nest and tuck in until breakfast.
For not being in the business cabin, it wasn’t so bad since we got to lie flat to sleep anyway (a poor man’s business class!), and we made out better than most of the elites in coach, who were all concentrated in Main Cabin Extra with at most one empty seat next to them if they were lucky.
I stayed up for a few more hours watching movies I would never pay to watch. I got up after my first (complete) movie to check out the mid-cabin galley. Two of the flight attendants were having their meals. A refreshment bar had been set up with water, juices, and a couple of snack choices, all higher quality than normal.
A mid-flight snack was served towards the end of my last movie, consisting of a piping-hot cheesy flatbread and a small cup of salted caramel gelato. I took a couple bites of the flatbread, which was okay, I just didn’t want to load up on that much starch and sodium. I did finish the gelato though.
Finally, I made my own bed and it was lights out for about 5.5 hours…
I woke up as nature called, just about 15 minutes before the crew brightened the lights and breakfast service began, fortunate because I beat the post-slumber rush to the lavatories. I fired up the flight map to see that we were still a little over two hours from landing. Even after 13 hours, the crew was still chipper as they passed out breakfast trays, featuring the following choices:
Traditional American breakfast of scrambled eggs, hash brown potatoes, grilled turkey ham, sauteed mushrooms and roasted tomato, or
Seasonal fruit plate
Served with Noosa fruit yogurt, granola and cinnamon apple muffin.
We were happy with the quality of dinner… I was downright impressed with breakfast. The scrambled eggs were perfectly done, still moist, tender, and savory and went great with the mushrooms and tomato. The muffin was warm and soft, and the yogurt was very good. Still being sleepy, my wife only ate half of her breakfast, so I finished hers off as well.
After breakfast, I put my personal items away and quickly filled out the immigration forms, which all arriving passengers must do (and visas are required for US citizens; $20 if processed online through the official government website).
Pro tip: If you’re willing to “pay it forward,” user Guy Betsy from the online travel forum FlyerTalk.com is doing a cool thing and offering to process visa requests for no cost, so long as the requesters pledge to donate $20 or more to a charitable cause. For more info, check out the thread on the forum here.
Then I sat back and enjoyed the views as we made landfall on the other side of the world.
Our final descent took us on an interesting winding approach into Sydney, and eventually we touchdown on Runway 34L, giving me a decent view of the control tower, domestic terminal, and the Sydney skyline off in the distance as we slowed down and turned left towards the international terminal.
It took us about 15 minutes to get to our gate. Another benefit to the light load was getting off quickly. As holders of US passports with RFID, we were eligible to use the SmartGate automated entry system; however, we didn’t see the gates and stood in the regular passport inspection line. No big deal, because we only waited about 10 minutes and we ended up getting our passports stamped, which wouldn’t happen at the SmartGate.
With no baggage to claim, we bypassed the carousels and head for the exit. Australia is very strict about the food items being brought into their country, so we had to answer “yes” to the broad question of whether we were carrying ANY food from overseas or from the plane itself. This meant having to walk through the customs lanes for those with something to declare, holding up our exit an additional 10 minutes or so. An agent asked us what food items we had, to which we answered snacks and other small things for personal consumption, and were directed to a special line we figured was an expedited inspection lines for those not carrying anything substantial and/or dangerous. We got a special inspection indeed…
Out came their secret weapon… a cute black Labrador whose sole mission in life was to find illicit food in exchange for treats. Unfortunately, we were also in a “no photographs” zone, so I couldn’t snap photos of him at work.
The lab found a few items in the bags of the family ahead of us; fruits for the baby they said. That was all quickly confiscated and the lab got several treats. He moved on to our bags and spent a good 20-30 seconds sniffing around; to his credit, he could have given a false positive to receive a treat, but since he truly didn’t find anything (no matter how hard he sniffed), he moved onto the next passenger.
We were cleared and head out into the wonders of Australia that awaited us…
A full trip report of our visit to Sydney, Melbourne, and places in between will be posted soon on my personal blog, VNAFlyer.