I previously covered the exciting inaugural flight of American’s 787 Dreamliner on May 7th, reviewing the Main Cabin (economy class) product. My original intention was to fly both economy and business class on the same day to compare and contrast the products, but unfortunately, scheduling didn’t work out. However, thanks to unusually low fares in the DFW to Chicago market this spring, even in the premium cabin, I was able to book a regular revenue flight in the 787’s business class cabin (domestic First Class fare) at a reasonable price during the brief period where the Dreamliner would be plying the skies between DFW and Chicago O’Hare. Since this would probably be my one and only opportunity to try the J-class cabin, I decided to jump at the chance.
American Airlines (AA) Flight 2320
- May 16, 2015
- Depart: Dallas-Ft. Worth International (DFW) Gate A23, 07:09, 1m early
- Arrive: Chicago O’Hare (ORD) Gate L10, 09:31, 7m early
- Business Class (domestic First), Seat 4L
- Equipment: Boeing 787-800
Compared to the boisterous party atmosphere at the gate on the morning of the inaugural, things were much more low-key on this Saturday morning – exactly what you’d expect at 6 A.M. on a Saturday. I arrived a little over an hour before departure, but quickly found that the Priority Access security line had ground to a halt. Turns out one of the TSA ID checkers had decided to take his break, thus leaving one agent to handle all three queues, regular, priority, and Pre-Check – and she had apparently decided she was going to ignore the priority line altogether until her co-worker came back from his break. Gotta love the ruthless efficiency of the TSA…
Anyway, even with the delay, I had about 20 minutes before boarding was scheduled to begin, so I decided to walk around and check out the progress of the Terminal A reservations. Currently, everything below Gate A24 has been completed, Gates A25-A33 are shut down, and everything above Gate A34 is “old” space that has not yet been renovated. The first two pictures show the old layout near Gate A37, along with the temporary tunnel connecting Gate A24 to Gate A34.
These photos show the refurbished gate areas near A23. There’s really not a whole lot of difference, except for new carpet, new floor tiles, and new work benches with power outlets. It would have been nice if they’d taken a page from Dallas Love Field and installed more outlets in the seating areas themselves, but oh well.
The biggest improvements, though, are to the check-in areas and the parking garages. In the check-in areas, there’s a lot more light, and you can see the new self-service kiosks with self-tagging technology for baggage. The ticket desks themselves have been significantly scaled back in footprint.
My favorite part of the renovation, though, is what’s been done inside the parking garages. In what has to be considered the greatest invention ever, the renovated garages contain light globes above each space indicating whether it is free or occupied – green for available, red for occupied. That makes it very easy to scan down a row before deciding to move on to the next one or not.
Anyway, back to the flight review itself. Unlike on inaugural day, boarding was done in the traditional manner by group number, and First Class boarding started right on schedule. I was a little surprised to see that the flight was completely full, even in First, especially on a Saturday morning. I later overhead a couple of people saying they had intentionally booked this flight, even booking an extra connection with an overnight stay in DFW, to try out the 787.
First Impressions of the Cabin
My seat, 4L, was a rear-facing seat on the right-hand side of the aircraft. The 1-2-1 configuration definitely feels more spacious than the typical 2-2-2 setup on the 777, and the new seat looks smart in its new gray upholstery. Daniel posted a thorough review of how to select the best 787 business class seat for your needs, and I think his recommendations generally hit the mark. The all-aisle configuration is great, though for couples traveling together, your only feasible choice if you want to talk to each other in-flight is one one of the middle sets of two. I also found the lack of underseat storage annoying. This means having to keep your laptop in the overhead compartment until the seat belt sign goes off, which is irritating if you need to get to work quickly. I’d suggest picking one of the seats with an extra storage compartment (1A/1L/5A/5L/7A/7L per Daniel’s report) if you really need to keep your laptop with you.
Although you aren’t exactly eye-level with the person seated diagonally across from you in the rear-facing seats, you are still very much in the direct line of vision of that person, which I found to be a little disconcerting. That feeling only increased further when I could tell the lady sitting in 4H was visibly amused when she saw me trying to use a tape measure to determine the width of the seat in the lie-flat position, all to satisfy fellow UPGRDr Brad’s curiosity. Oh, and you’re welcome, Brad.
Business class seat in full upright position
Ottoman and seatback TV
View forward towards the nose of the plane
Wider view of the 1-2-1 layout
Two things I particularly liked about the seat: one, the dual power ports AND dual USB ports, at arm level instead of on the bottom part of the seat, and the double armrests, one at the aisle and one at the window. The power and USB ports up high are especially useful if you need to work on your laptop; similar to my comment on the setup in the Y cabin, this makes it much easier to keep your computer plugged in without getting your legs all tangled up with the wires. A small detail that I think has significant utility. The double armrests, meanwhile, come in handy if you’re trying to multitask, such as working on your computer and your phone at the same time. I could comfortably keep my computer on the tray table, while conveniently keeping my phone handy but out of the way on the window-side armrest (see photo of the upright seat above to see how the two armrests are configured).
If you’re short like me and are afraid you won’t be able to reach the TV screen, fear not – a parallel controller is located on the aisle side that also controls the seatback entertainment system. Seat controls are housed in an iPhone-looking contraption next to the TV controller. NOTE: if you want to use one of the four pre-set positions, you have to keep pushing the virtual button until your seat reaches the desired position and stops moving. Of course, you can customize the seat any way you wish if you don’t like one of the default settings.
Power station with phone holder
In-seat entertainment controller
Seat position controller
Impressions of the Flight
Since this was just a Plain Jane Saturday morning revenue flight, we didn’t have a fancy send-off or water cannon salute. I counted four FAs serving the front cabin, and they came through during boarding to offer a pre-departure beverage of water or orange juice, and to confirm meal selections for breakfast.
I’d mentioned in my coach class review that yes, the 787 is a quiet airplane, at least from the Bob Uecker seats all the way back. Seat 4L is essentially directly in front of the engine (you’ll see what I mean below), so I was initially expecting the ride to be a little noisier. To my surprise, it was just as quiet up front as in the back. On the takeoff roll, the engines spool up with more of a “whoosh” then the roar you might be used to in an older plane like the MD-80. For the first time in what seemed like forever, we had no bad weather in the vicinity of the Metroplex that morning, so there wasn’t much chop as we ascended – just some nice views of the Mid Cities before disappearing into the low overcast.
Staring at an engine and the way-cool curved wing never gets old
I spent the first little while as we were climbing playing around with the entertainment system to see what was in there. I stopped counting at 80 movies – I hadn’t even gotten to the “G”s – so I think it’s safe to say you can keep yourself entertained on a flight to Beijing or Buenos Aires. In addition to on-demand movies, there is a mediocre selection of syndicated TV programs and a decent selection of games. Most importantly, the game selection includes In-Flight Pac-Man. Yes, you heard that right – Pac-Man. Woot!
One interesting feature is that the TV screen is duplicated on the handheld controller. As mentioned earlier, this comes in handy, as you don’t have to stretch to reach the screen to change the channel. My only complaint is that the touch screen on the controller is a little tough to modulate and slow to respond to touch commands.
Of course, for die-hard avgeeks, there is the same flight map I talked about in my coach class review. If you’re a flight map kind of person, you probably share my consternation that it’s not possible to watch both the flight map and a TV show or movie at the same time. But a great feature of AA’s system is – you can now have your cake and eat it, too! There is an option to display a movie, TV show, or game on the main screen, but a miniature version of the flight map on the hand-held controller. AA, avgeeks everywhere thank you.
The 787 also comes installed with American’s new International WiFi service, a satellite-based system that should be available from start to finish on all flights. Even on these short runs, it is available for $12 for a two hour pass. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t even think of paying $12 for maybe an hour and a half of usable WiFi, but I wanted to try it out to see how it worked. It wasn’t bad, certainly faster than the land-based system by GoGo that you see on most AA flights. Google Maps, Instagram, and the Dallas Morning News all worked just fine, though the website for Chicago’s public transit system was very slow. Go figure.
The seat itself looks narrow at the shoulders in lie-flat position.
But I didn’t find it cramped at all, as the perceived narrowness seems to be an optical illusion. The tape measure showed seat width of slightly under 21 inches at the shoulders, and this was with me pretending to be tall by keeping my head all the way up on the headrest. I tend to be a side sleeper, and I didn’t feel the slightest bit uncomfortable lying down on my sides, either; in fact, there was still plenty of space to move around. I’m thinking it should be plenty comfy for the long-haul flights the plane is designed for – it was certainly comfortable enough for lounging on this morning that started too early.
No, I did not ask someone to take a picture of me sleeping. I put my camera on a few stacked magazines on the outer armrest, and set the self-timer.
Watching TV from the lie-flat position
Shortly after taking that photo, breakfast was served. The pre-order choices were quiche and steel cut oatmeal. I’m not a quiche fan, so I went with the oatmeal, though I was apprehensive after hearing Daniel’s less-than-stellar reports from the inaugural. Indeed, it’s not much to look at, appearing like a giant Rice Krispies treat.
But I have to say, once you mix it up a little with the spoon and add in the brown sugar, it looks a lot better.
It didn’t taste half bad, either. The buttermilk biscuit was soft and flaky, and the oatmeal, while not the best I’ve ever had, was hot, moist, and nicely sweet with the addition of the brown sugar. What I didn’t get was providing both fresh and dried fruit (in the bag behind the oatmeal). I’ll eat either at any one point in time, but the two together don’t really mix. Overall, though, this was a decent airplane breakfast.
I did spend a couple of minutes checking out the lavatory. I was a bit underwhlemed here; it felt tighter than the business class lav in the 777, and the motion-activated flusher takes some getting used to.
l was also able to verify on descent that indeed, the 787 is easier on the ears than other aircraft, just as I originally thought from my inaugural flight in coach. There was a very noticeable difference when compared to my return flight later that afternoon on a 737-800; my ears kept blocking up even several hours after returning home after the return flight, compared to no issues at all after flying the 787. I’m guessing it has something to do with the better air pressure, but I’m not sure.
One issue I did note – this plane seems to be suffering from some teething pains. The sound on my IFE didn’t work at all (not sure if it was the system or faulty headphones), and I overheard another passenger saying that their seat electronics didn’t work at all. Hopefully these are just minor glitches that will get worked out as American gets more experience with the aircraft.
Service on this flight was – shall I say underwhelming? The FAs in the front cabin weren’t rude or anything, but a lot of the little things were missing. Passengers weren’t greeted by name, and when my breakfast was brought out, at no time was I asked if I wanted something to drink, not even when the FA came by later to see if I was finished with my tray. I flagged down another FA, who did bring me a glass of water promptly. Honestly, I don’t really care about those sorts of things very much, but given that American will be facing some heavy competition on the DFW-Beijing, DFW-Shanghai, and DFW-Buenos Aires routes, they need to step up their game. Perhaps they were just harried from trying to complete a full service for a larger-than-normal cabin on a short flight. On the other hand, you could tell the crew was proud of their new bird. Both the captain and the FAs mentioned more than once how happy and excited they were to have the Dreamliner in the fleet.
My flight home was in coach on a 737. I’ve reviewed American’s Main Cabin product several times, so I won’t review the return in this post. Our flight arrived a little after 9:30, and my return flight wasn’t until 2:10, and I didn’t want to just sit around at O’Hare. So based on some intelligence gathered from my $12 worth of WiFi, I decided to head over to Hot “G” Dog for a red hot and some cheese fries for lunch (I’ll post a restaurant review later). That meant roughly 3 hours to catch the “L”, get to the restaurant (a few stops north of Wrigley Field), eat, then turn around and catch the train back to the airport. I don’t recommend trying this unless you’re comfortable walking and eating fast. But boy, did that meal ever hit the spot…
I concur with Rocky’s thoughts that this is a well-done premium product. Despite the perception of narrowness, I found the seat quite comfortable, and predict it will remain so even on long-haul flights. The modern entertainment system should keep passengers occupied, and small items like the dual, raised power ports should prove to be very helpful for busy travelers. The Dreamliner is also a quiet bird, and having experienced it a second time, I do think the superior cabin pressure will prove to be a positive selling point on longer flights. The lack of underseat storage is an irritation, and I did find having to look right at your diagonal neighbor a bit disconcerting. The big question I have, though, is whether American can step up their game service-wise to compete with other carriers on the EZE, PEK, and PVG routes. I’d still consider the 787 Business Class a superior product to other long-haul options like the 767 or 777.