Business Class to London — My First Premium Redemption
I recently flew my first premium redemption, and let's just say it was hard to go back to coach! The flight was from New York-JFK to London Heathrow on American Airlines, on board a 777-200 with the first version of their new interior retrofit.
(To read about how I booked a round-trip to London with a leg in business class for about $225, check out this post from back in late October. The short version: I made use of American Airlines miles acquired through a credit card bonus, a couple of flights, and dining/shopping rewards.)
Before the Flight
I got to the airport a bit early for my 10:05 p.m. flight, as I was keen to check out the lounge options in the terminal, since Terminal 8 itself isn’t that impressive in terms of food and drink options. That particular day, the terminal felt fairly deserted, which was kind of creepy.
American Airlines has two “Admirals Club” lounges at JFK, one in each concourse. The first one, just past security, is in Concourse B and has fairly limited seating and amenities due to renovations. I stopped by but left that one quickly and went to check out the other lounge, in Concourse C. At the door, when I showed my boarding pass to get entry, the agent handed me two “premium” drink tickets.
There was a fairly weak buffet section, with a handful of cookies, hummus, pita chips, a bit of soup, etc. However, the bar was well-stocked, there were plenty of seats, and there were sandwiches and other dishes available for order. I tracked down an attendant and ordered a turkey sandwich — it wasn’t complementary, but I was hungry! I don’t like eating meals on shorter red-eyes because it can make it too hard to sleep, so I usually have dinner in the airport.
My boarding pass showed that boarding would begin at 9:25, so I made my way to the gate a few minutes before then (after enjoying my “premium” drinks, of course). I got to the gate a minute before boarding was supposed to start, and the gate was deserted: pretty much everyone had already boarded. I guess they opened the door early thanks to “D0” practices. I was hoping to board first and get some pictures of the empty cabin, but it was admittedly pleasant not to have to wait at the gate. I walked right onto the plane and turned left to find my seat, 2L.
During the Flight
The business class cabin on American’s 777-200 (or “772”) is actually split into two mini-cabins, divided by a small galley and the aircraft door. There are actually two different types of business class seat on the AA 772. A few years ago, AA started replacing old, outdated cabins with seats manufactured by Zodiac. However, due to supply issues the contract was cancelled mid-retrofit, so some planes have seats made by a different manufacturer. I was in a plane with Zodiac seats. The way to tell the difference is that with the Zodiac retrofit, every other seat in business class faces backwards in a 1-2-1 layout, while on the newer ones all the seats face forward in a similar 1-2-1.
Seat 2L was a backwards seat on the right side of the plane. I chose it because the rear facing seats are actually a bit more private; when you’re in the flat position, your head is further from the aisle. I also thought it would be fun to take off and land backwards 😀.
I’ll be honest…it was pretty stellar.
Waiting for me at the seat were a blanket, a pillow, a menu, a bottle of water, a set of Bose headphones, and an amenity kit wrapped in plastic. I put my backpack in the overhead compartment and settled in. There was a small shelf in front of me for a few small things like a wallet, phone, etc, which included a power port. I had a tremendous amount of table space, with flat surfaces to my right and left, plus a foldaway tray table. There was an additional storage space to my left with magazines, the safety card, and a refuse bag -- I was also able to fit my iPad in there.
As I took a look at the amenity kit, a flight attendant came over with a tray of pre-flight drinks, offering me a glass of champagne, orange juice, or water. I overheard someone in a nearby seat ask for a glass each of champagne and juice so he could make a mimosa. Ha! I finished settling in and enjoying my drink, and within a few minutes we pushed back from the gate and the flight attendants came around to collect our empty glasses (well, plastic cups).
A short taxi later and we were in the air. Sitting backwards was surprisingly comfortable. It didn’t feel at all awkward — actually, it was the smoothest-feeling takeoff I’ve experienced. Maybe being up at the front of the plane makes a difference.
I wanted to maximize my sleep on the flight, but I was a bit too wired at this point. I decided to start watching a movie, have a nightcap, and maybe skip to the dessert part of the dinner service since I'd already eaten on the ground.
The flight attendants had taken drink orders right before takeoff, and brought those out once we were above 10,000 feet. Dinner service began shortly after that.
The dinner menu offered an appetizer, a salad, and a choice of four mains. It definitely looked better than anything I’ve had in coach. There were three choices for dessert, and I ordered the raspberry tart with almond cream custard. It was a perfect bedtime snack!
After I finished, I put my plate and glass (an actual glass this time) to the side, and put my chair into each of the reclining sitting positions to see which I preferred. Although I was in business class for the sake of sleeping, I can imagine that the seat must be a huge improvement during the day when you’re awake and either working, reading, or watching the IFE. It was definitely a huge improvement over coach.
Pretty soon I was getting sleepy, so I broke out the amenity kit and headed to the lavatory to brush my teeth. When I returned I sat in the seat and pressed the flat-bed button. I stretched out, pulled the blanket over, rolled over, and fell right asleep.
When I booked the flight I had been curious as to whether the seat would be too short to make an effective bed, or the foot area would be cramped. I’m around 5’9”, so there are definitely taller travelers, but I had plenty of extra room so I imagine a taller person would be fine. I also wondered if the seat would be too hard or formed to sleep on my stomach or side, but I didn’t find that at all. I got a good few hours of sleep, waking up once for a few seconds during some turbulence. I slept through breakfast service, and woke up just around when we began our descent.
One thing worth noting: I've seen some people complain that, because the seats are connected, they shake when one person moves and the other is sleeping. However, I didn't find that at all, even though the cabin was full.
After the flight
Because I landed before my friends, I planned to head up to the American Airlines arrivals lounge in Heathrow’s Terminal 3.
Don’t get me wrong. The flight was fantastic. But the arrivals lounge was a huge part of why I was able to fully enjoy the whole day after a red-eye to Europe, a flight which normally wrecks me.
We landed and taxied to a remote spot, where busses were waiting to take us to the terminal. It took a little bit longer than just going to the gate, but at least we got a cool view of the engine!
The AA arrivals lounge is a little tricky to find, and the directions I read online were a little unclear. The lounge is outside of the secure area, so you don’t have to worry about missing it and not being able to back-track. Shortly before landing, the flight attendants handed out customs cards and a paper pass allowing us to use the priority lane at passport control. After getting your passport stamped, you proceed to the right towards baggage claim. After finding your bag, you head towards customs — if you have nothing to declare, you stay to the right and don’t need to actually stop by a customs desk. At this point you walk through a door to the public part of the terminal. Make a right turn, and follow the signs from there.
American Airlines recently completed a multi-million dollar makeover of the arrivals lounge, and it really shows. Upon checking in, the reps direct you to the main lounge area, show you where you can stow your bags, and where to check in for a shower.
I showered first thing, and was directed towards one of the 23 new shower rooms, cleaned and reset after each use. Even if you're sleeping on a flat bed in business class, you still feel a bit gross after a redeye. Almost every time I fly to Europe, I land feeling sweaty, tired, and disheveled, and then have a whole morning and afternoon before hotel or hostel check-in. Having an excellent shower upon landing was incredible.
After showering and changing, I went to the main part of the lounge. There were three areas: main room, a small side room meant as a business center, and a dining “nook,” also off to the side, with a few tables, chairs, and tall seats.
There was a cold and hot breakfast buffet, a few refrigerators with juice, soda, water, mini bottles of champagne, etc., and a coffee machine.
There were menus with a few breakfast mains and bloody marys on each table, and you could order from any of the attendants.
I ordered the pancakes. There were only two or three other people in the lounge, so I had my choice of where to sit. There were also TVs and newspapers, as well as wifi and universal power outlets at every seat.
After enjoying some coffee, breakfast, and relaxation, I left to catch the Heathrow Express and head into central London to meet up with my friends over a pint. The next day, we headed to North London for the Tottenham Hotspur match we flew over for.
In the points, miles, and travel "hacking" community, people have different of goals and aims. Some people just want to fly and see new places as accessibly and inexpensively as possible. Some people want to have the most luxurious and extravagant experiences out there. Most people, I suspect, are like me: my aim is to travel more than I would be able to otherwise, and have more fun than I would otherwise be able to. While I would generally choose to travel more often in coach than less often in first/business, I still aim for the occasional bit of extravagance.
That said, this premium cabin flight was fantastic, and definitely won’t be my last. I’m glad that the points and miles game makes these cabins accessible to people who aren’t keen on spending $7,000 for a short flight.
Make sure to check back soon for a review of my return flight, in coach, on Norwegian Air!