American first shows promise for future biz soft product

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Most international first class travellers wouldn’t immediately pick American Airlines as their go-to carrier on account of its historical reputation. American’s first is more “upgrade class” than the rarefied elegance of Singapore Airlines, the unapologetic bling of Emirates, the multi-room options of Etihad, or the je ne sais quoi of Air France.

Indeed, when I flew from Hong Kong to Los Angeles on board American’s flagship Boeing 777-300ER, only one seat in the cabin was occupied by a paying passenger. The rest were non-revs or upgrades, myself included: American’s PR team upgraded me to first from a paid business class ticket in order to experience the product. This “upgrade class” is one of the existential issues with international first, and indeed American is the last US carrier not to have either cut (Delta) or be sunsetting (United) this class of service.

The writing’s on the wall at American, too, with only the 777-300ER equipped with first in the current generation of product, and even that not standing up well in terms of privacy in particular. But as carriers remove first in favour of an improved (and often renamed) business class offering, they draw both inspiration and direct soft product from first. To that end, American has a great platform on which to build its next-generation business class. I’d heard about a few improvements to trans-Pacific service in the pointy end, so my expectations were slightly raised coming into the flight — and they were met.

The first sign that American’s service was going to be enjoyable was on boarding, when I was presented with a sizeable slug of a very decent Champagne. It turned out to be the Category 4 Philipponnat Clos des Goisses from 2006, and I was delighted to make its acquaintance in a tumblr alongside a large ramekin of almonds. (Note to the stemware crowd: yes, a more elegant glass might snazz up the feel a little, but like many lovers of good Champagne I am on team larger glass rather than team skinny flute. Indeed, here it opened up the aromatics well.) Refills were generously and proactively offered before we pushed back from the gate.

After takeoff, I continued enjoying the Philipponnat with succulent mixed olives for some salty-sour goodness (the sprig of fresh thyme was a lovely touch) and some very interesting vegetable crisps.

Rotation
Service for the main meal was most impressive, with the purser serving in the cabin and a senior flight attendant working the galley like it was a short-order kitchen. Each course came out well-paced, well-presented and well-cooked (with the exception of the steak, which was overdone; I later learned that catering had loaded steaks of very varying size, making the cuisson much more complex). Given that all eight seats were filled, I was very impressed.

To amuse, a demitasse of a hearty, surprisingly thick gazpacho matched well with the caviar and sour cream blini, which was a smart way to add luxury without the cost of a full-sized serving per passenger.

The crab salad starter was well-dressed sauced with a light herbed mayonnaise, and the perfectly ripe mango was some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

I thoroughly enjoyed the hot and sour soup, which was of a very pleasing thick texture and quite spicy.

The salad, however, was a little disappointing, with assorted leaves and a few slightly crunchy pieces of apple. Having just enjoyed a tasting of six truly interesting salads at Gate Gourmet’s Hong Kong facility, I know that there are better options available out of HKG.

Rescuing the aforementioned overcooked beef were a creamy béarnaise and tart cherry sauce, which added moisture for a reasonable mouthful.

The signature American ice cream sundae was as delicious as ever, although I couldn’t help wondering if a few more toppings might have added some first class fun to the bowl.

But the pièce de resistance was the cheese board. I have never had a selection of cheese on an aircraft that was as good as this, even if the list could use a bit of geographical help (Savoie is on the Swiss border, for example).

The rest of the wine list, too, was impressive, showcasing both American classics like a Beringer Chardonnay and one of my favourite Sauvignon Blancs from Craggy Range in New Zealand. The white Burgundy was decent enough for those who like a lighter white, though not to my palate. On the red side, the Blackbird Bordeaux blend was very good, while the Saintsbury Pinot Noir was complex and well suited for both the airline environment and the Pinot-loving local market in Hong Kong. The Amarone was beefy on the nose but lacked a little punch in the air, but both the sticky wines were truly excellent. Overall: a better wine list than many airlines offer in first class.

Breakfast was solid but it felt a little odd to see British-style bacon on an American breakfast plate. The mango, again, was utterly divine.

Apart from the food, I liked the Cole Haan amenity kit and the assorted duvet and blanket combination. The seat could have used an actual foam mattress like Air New Zealand and others offer, though, rather than just a slightly quilted sheet topper — which I think is the same as business anyway. There’s scope for a soft product upgrade for the future business class there, in any case.

All in all, though, the experience was well above even my raised expectations. American’s soft product design team and suppliers have done an impressive job taking first class back to a competitive point, and are setting the airline up well for the inevitable evolution of business.

Airlines can avoid the comfort issue with seat cushion seams by using foam mattress toppers. Image: John Walton

American Airlines upgraded John Walton from a paid business class fare to first class to enable this review, but as ever all opinions are his own.

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