It was finally time for my long-awaited fall getaway, kicking off with a flight in American Airlines Premium Economy. As Business Class products continue to grow ever more impressive, coach has relatively stagnated. As a result, many airlines have responded by introducing Premium Economy cabins to slot between business and coach. American kicked off the arms race among domestic carriers, launching international Premium Economy to Sao Paulo and Madrid from DFW last week. I had the privilege of traveling on the Madrid flight, the first American Airlines Premium Economy flight to Europe on a brand-new 787.
Premium Economy officially goes on sale in April, 2017, but in the meantime, seats are sold as Main Cabin Extra. As mentioned in the introductory post, I redeemed 47,500 AAdvantage miles for an off-peak Economy Anytime award. Yes, yes, I know. Anytime awards are a waste of miles, especially to sit in coach. However, I had two reasons for doing so. First, I decided early on against a round-trip, and one way fares were simply too much to justify. Second, Anytime awards entitle passengers to Main Cabin Extra seating, whereas Mile Saver awards do not.
- American Airlines (AA) Flight 36
- Date: November 4, 2016
- Depart: Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW), Gate A23, 18:32, 47m late
- Arrive: Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD), Terminal 4, 09:22 (+1), 27m late
- Duration: 8 hours 50 minutes
- Equipment: Boeing 787-900
- Seat: 11A
My flight departed at 5:45 P.M. Wanting to visit the Admirals Club first, I headed to the airport early, arriving around 3. The Terminal A PreCheck lane was a breeze at that time of day, and I made it through in less than 5 minutes. Following a little relaxation in the club, I headed to the gate about a quarter to 5. As I reached the gate, I spotted our gorgeous, new Dreamliner already waiting for us.
Boarding began more or less on time, and like a kid in a candy store, I eagerly awaited the chance to check out the interior of the new plane.
American Airlines Premium Economy Seat
As we boarded, the purser announced that this was the first revenue flight for this 787-900. And indeed, you can practically see that new plane smell in the grey leather seats.
Personally, I’m not a fan of the color scheme. I find the monotone grey rather cold and drab. The 2-3-2 configuration, however, is reasonably spacious. The 38-inch seat pitch is roughly equivalent to domestic First Class. Measuring 19 inches wide, the seats fall roughly between coach and domestic first.
Legroom is definitely more generous compared to coach, with plenty of room to stretch my legs completely. Even while working on a laptop, there’s still plenty of room to sit and work comfortably. Needless to say, this is a significant improvement over regular Main Cabin, where it is often practically impossible to work on a computer if the passenger in front reclines.
If you read American’s promotional literature about Premium Economy, you’ll notice a leg rest that extends out from the bottom of the seat. Be aware, however, that leg rests are only installed in the bulkhead row (Row 9). The remaining two rows feature drop-down footrests instead. If you have a strong preference for one or the other, plan accordingly.
As far as seat comfort goes, it rates as fair overall. Although the extra legroom helps, the lack of an adjustable headrest makes for an uncomfortable neck when trying to sleep. In addition, the footrest really just got in the way; eventually, I just put it back up to give my feet more room. On the other hand, for a slimline seat, cushioning was adequate, providing decent back and thigh support. I managed about 5 1/2 hours of sleep.
Sneak Peek at Main Cabin
I did sneak a quick peek at the regular Main Cabin section. The Main Cabin layout includes 198 Main Cabin and 36 Main Cabin Extra seats in a 3-3-3 configuration. I sampled Main Cabin on American’s 787-800, and 9-abreast seating makes for a tight fit. My guess is it won’t be particularly comfortable on a 9-hour flight.
American Airlines Premium Economy Amenities
I expected the soft launch of Premium Economy to feature the enhanced seating, but not the extra features. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found an amenity kit, pillow, blanket, and noise cancelling headphones at my seat. The kit contained an eye mask, earplugs, socks, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. Bare bones, but better than nothing.
Though the headphones don’t compare to the Bose headphones AA offers in Business Class, they offered decent enough sound quality.
All Premium Economy seats are equipped with LCD video monitors in the seatbacks. Similar to the systems in American’s 787-800 and new A321 aircraft, the screen clarity is pretty good. However, I found the touchscreens overly sensitive. Just a slight swipe left or right would overshoot the intended target. Perhaps this is a teething pain on these new aircraft. In addition, the IFE system included a generous selection of movies, TV shows, games, and a moving map. The movie selection was fair, and included some classic hits like Blazing Saddles. The screen also contains a USB charging port.
A small handheld controller is located below the armrest. The location makes it difficult to retrieve, as the button needed to release it is somewhat hard to reach. On the other hand, I preferred using the simple directional controller to move between programs, due to the glitchy nature of the touchscreen.
All Premium Economy seats include power ports, located behind the armrest. Unfortunately, my power port failed to work the entire duration of the flight. I don’t know if this was an issue with my seat, or a plane-wide issue. Nevertheless, electrical bugaboos on a first flight aren’t a good sign. Fortunately, I planned to sleep most of the flight, so no harm-no foul this time.
American Airlines Premium Economy Meals
American promises enhanced meal service in Premium Economy. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised to find enhanced meals on this flight. Dinner featured a choice of cheese lasagna or beef. At Dr. Womack’s suggestion, I asked for the lasagna. If it looks familiar, it should – it’s the same lasagna making the rounds in domestic first.
The copycat main course notwithstanding, the meal was decent. Fresh salad, tender, well-seasoned shrimp, and decently cooked lasagna noodles added up to a reasonably tasty meal. Although served all at once on a single tray, American even uses real plates to serve the meal. That definitely exceeded expectations, especially using coach as a baseline. Premium Economy also includes a wider selection of complimentary alcoholic beverages. I kept it simple and went with white wine.
Of course I always appreciate free wine. But wine in a plastic cup is always a pet peeve of mine, and quality-wise, it appears to be the same one offered in domestic first. In other words, not very good. Oddly, the dinner tray included a proper wine glass, but when I asked for a refill, the FA poured it into another plastic cup. Our flight attendant also provided each passenger a bottle of water to keep during the long overnight portion.
Only one choice was provided for breakfast, a continental breakfast featuring assorted fruit, yogurt, and some kind of pastry.
It’s not that this meal was bad; it just wasn’t particularly imaginative. You’d think they could at least offer bread and butter or something.
American Airlines Premium Economy In-flight Experience
Our scheduled departure time of 5:45 came and went, yet we didn’t push back. The captain announced on the PA that they were experiencing some teething pains with the cargo loading system. Eventually, we pushed back about 45 minutes late. Gloomy weather made for an interesting scene at DFW that evening.
Dinner service began approximately 45 minutes after take-off with a beverage and bag of peanuts. Roughly 45 minutes after that, dinner itself was served, with all plates cleared roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes after departure. Meanwhile, breakfast service began approximately an hour and 15 minutes out of Madrid. Both services, particularly dinner, were performed efficiently. I especially appreciated the efficient dinner service, as it allowed plenty of time to sleep. As for the service itself, I suppose “perfunctory” is the best description. The two FAs serving our section were pleasant enough, though not particularly proactive. In other words, pretty typical coach service on American.
As the clock approached 8:30, a beautiful sunrise greeted us somewhere off the coast of Portugal. I’d forgotten just how late the sun rises in Europe in November. The scene also demonstrated my favorite feature of the 787 – the dimmable windows. You can see the contrast between the dimmed window in the first photo, and the fully brightened one in the second.
As we neared the Portugal-Spain border, a few rain clouds appeared.
And sure enough, as we broke through the clouds on final approach to Barajas, a rainy morning awaited us. Just as you’d expect, the rain in Spain fell mostly on the plain.
We enjoyed a smooth touchdown, followed by a short taxi to the gate at Terminal 4S. Due to the late arrival, American arranged to personally escort connecting passengers to their gates, which was a nice touch. Since my connection left from Terminal 1, I was on my own. Transiting at MAD between terminals is somewhat chaotic, which I will detail in a future post.
American Airlines Premium Economy Final Thoughts
Overall, I enjoyed my experience on American Airlines Premium Economy. The most apt description is a much longer version of domestic First, with a similar seat and almost identical meal service. Obviously, seat comfort doesn’t compare to Business Class, but it was comfortable enough to sleep 5 1/2 hours. In addition, I was pleasantly surprised to find full Premium Economy amenities at a regular coach price. If you’re interested in trying the product, I highly recommend doing so before next April, as the regular Main Cabin Extra upcharge is a great value. Of course, the question remains, what will pricing look like once Premium Economy sales officially begin? It’s tough to judge the ultimate value proposition until that becomes clear. My gut reaction is that I’d be willing to pay a premium of $300-500 each way over Main Cabin, but not much more than that.
Note: this post is part of a multi-part trip report series covering my short trip to Europe in November, 2016. Click here for the introductory post and trip report index.