Six months ago I booked a trip to visit my family in Australia after my daughter was done with school. I’d booked American Airlines business class to Sydney at reasonable redemption pricing, then would meander up to Japan via a long weekend in Fiji. I had several of the best omakase meals reserved in Tokyo, along with a confirmed suite on points at the Park Hyatt Tokyo.
One of the reasons I love redemption bookings is their flexibility. I can just cancel most bookings and refund the points. After a series of challenges came up (Stalin once said that there are decades when nothing happens, and then weeks where decades happen) I cancelled the summer trip. And then life changed again and I put together a last-minute trip to Oz, sans Fiji and Japan.
There’s high variance in American Airlines redemption prices for Sydney. Most of the year I’m seeing 450,000 miles each way for business class – whereas months ago the standard was 175,000 on off-peak days and 195,000 peak. 450,000 miles was a new top price established just before the pandemic, the highest unpublished level that was only supposed to be for last seat availability on the most peak of peak dates.
In fact from September 17 onward the cheapest business class award price for 2 passengers Los Angeles – Sydney is 386,000 miles one-way through end of schedule with most dates 450,000 miles per person each way. That’s genuinely shameful.
However close-in lightly booked flights were as low as 78,000 miles per person each way for first class. And where first class redemptions are available, American often charges just a 10,000 mile premium over business (though when the one-way business price is 450,000 miles first class is a 40,000 mile upcharge). American’s first class isn’t much better than business, especially if you can grab the forward mini-cabin in business on the Boeing 777-300ER, but it’s certainly more spacious.
And I was actually excited to fly American Airlines Flagship first class. It’s been been several years since I’d done so. And with the introduction of new business suites with doors on new Boeing 787-9s, American will be eliminating Flagship First Class retrofitting their Boeing 777-300ERs to offer just business class. I knew this roundtrip might be my last time flying American Airlines long haul first class ever!
I had checked in earlier in the day. I returned to the airport with my wife and daughter, stopped by Flagship check-in for their boarding passes, and then took the T4-Tom Bradley Terminal connector to the Qantas first class lounge where we had just a short visit before it was time to board our American flight (leaving from the international terminal) to Sydney.
We made our way down to gate 157 just prior to the start of boarding.
They began by calling for Concierge Key passengers, and there was one on the flight. She boarded first, and would eventually be seated across the aisle from me. Then they called for group 1. And every first and business class passenger plus any Executive Platinum members and their companions are group 1. That mean maybe five or six dozen passengers coming forward all at once.
We boarded somewhere in the middle of this group, but were the second, third and fourth passengers in the first class cabin which offers eight seats, arranged as two rows of four seats (1 at each window and two seats together in the center). We were seated in row 1.
American’s first class seats are completely open. These aren’t suites and there are no doors. Even when they were introduced a decade ago they were fairly uncompetitive. There’s also virtually no storage space at the seats, and the center seats at row 1 (right below crew rest) lack overhead bins as well. That’s inconvenient since you may need to get up during the flight to get things down from an overhead bin… that’s above another passenger who’s probably sleeping.
What the seats are, though, if plenty spacious. You get more room per passenger than in business class.
Just before boarding there were still two seats open in the cabin, the two middle seats of row two, and there was nobody listed for an upgrade from business to first class. Shortly before departure two passengers came into the cabin to occupy those seats, and though I never took a peak at the manifest I assume they were nonrevs.
At my seat was an amenity kit and bedding for the flight, including blanket, mattress pad and pillow. There were also slippers at the seat. I love having slippers (and will sometimes bring disposable ones with me in my carry on bag on flights where they won’t be offered) so that I don’t have to put shoes back on to walk about the cabin. I’m not going to go to the lavatory wearing just my socks.
Predeparture beverages were offered, and they were clear that we could have anything we wished – this was not just a water, orange juice and champagne service – so I knew it would be a good crew.
Champagne was Drappier were is perfectly nice, and the best bottle of wine on the flight’s list which was otherwise populated by business class-caliber bottles.
We were then offered pajamas in a choice of two sizes (‘small-medium’ and ‘large-extra large’). Since they didn’t have anything small enough for a four year old, I asked if I might take a second pair for myself for later and was told I cold have “as many pajamas as I wanted.”
The purser then suggested using the mattress pad over the seat right away for cleanliness, rather than waiting to make our bed – the seat would still be upright for takeoff, just fully covered in something that had been laundered and wrapped in plastic.
This made sense to me. On boarding I could see trash still left at one of our seats.
And my seat was clearly showing wear.
I had a look about the seat. A bottle of water had been placed there. It was fine where it was, but literally nowhere I might have stored it. There’s a small place for reading materials, like a menu. And there’s a compartment with a mirror, power outlet and USB socket (and also USB power beside you at the seat, mine was inoperative), that isn’t for storage (but that you can fit eyeglasses and earbuds in), and then there’s space below the ottoman at your seat.
Two things about the seat that I do like are the seat belt on the ottoman, so that you can dine with someone, and that the seat swivels. You can turn 90 degrees, and there’s a separate table that comes out. It’s nice from a window seat to face the window, and for passengers at the middle to turn towards each other if traveling together.
While waiting to depart I had a look inside the amenity kit. The 2019-era ThisIsGround kits were much better, but at least there’s still a pen which I appreciate for filling out customs forms. The Shinola bag was fine, and there’s a toothbrush and tooth paste, eye shade and socks, ear plugs, and some lotion and face cream. I felt like comb; tissues; hand sanitizer; perhaps cologne; and mouth wash were missing.
After a short unexplained delay we taxied out. Once we were in the air the purser began asking for dinner orders, detailing the menu, assuming none had been loaded. Then she realized she hadn’t even checked, found some, and brought them around to passengers.
The first thing that struck me looking over the wine list is that the whites were $15 bottles at best, the South African red not even that. If American still paid for a wine consultant, rather than simply outsourcing selection to their supplier Intervine, there’d be an actual person to be embarrassed. The Malbec and Pinot, at least, would be nice wines in business class. Still, it was a roughly 11 p.m. departure and I decided to skip it.
I selected the shrimp to begin, skipped the salad, and always try the soup. Soup reheats well so works out nicely (most of the time) on a plane. And I had pre-ordered the salmon and crab cake.
Service began with a warm towel.
Then one highlight is the olives that accompany mixed nuts. I polished off the olives.
The shrimp was nice, though not especially memorable.
The crab cake and salmon weren’t dishes I’d have been happy with in a restaurant. The crab cake was mostly breading and the salmon overcooked. But they were… fine.
For dessert I decided to try both the sticky toffee pudding and an ice cream sundae (for science, of course). You can choose your toppings, it’s not pre-dressed the way you might receive on a longer domestic dinner flight. I chose the caramel sauce. And I accompanied it with a glass of amaretto.
The sticky toffee was fantastic. The ice cream toppings were nice, but the ice cream itself was just cheap vanilla, not even Häagen-Dazs in quality. So after a bite or two I decided to give the rest of it a miss.
After dinner I put my seat into bed mode. Since the Casper mattress pad was already on the seat, I didn’t ask for crew assistance in making the bed. Instead I just opened up the package with pillow and blanket and laid it down. I wound up sleeping for about four hours.
There was a midflight setup with packaged snacks in the galley, but I requested the sliders which were fine. It would be nice if they were accompanied by something other than packaged chips. Even United is trying french fries on board nowawadays.
I wanted to get some work done since the business day was starting on the East Coast. I hadn’t expected great Wifi – American’s Panasonic service hasn’t ever been very good – but internet was completely inoperative throughout the flight.
I had also managed to leave my usual ear buds out on my desk when I left the house, so I couldn’t watch anything on my cell phone. Realizing this, I’d purchased a $40 pair in the airport. It turned out that only one of the two ear buds worked, and it would disconnect about every five minutes.
I was left with the airline’s selections, and things stored on my laptop (since I had a pair of plug-in headphones to use). Fortunately I had downloaded a couple of seasons to L.A. Law off of YouTube onto my laptop, since it’s a show I haven’t seen in decades and have fond memories of (and isn’t on any streaming service in the U.S. that I’m aware).
About two hours out breakfast orders were taken. I chose the American breakfast. While completely unoriginal, it was tasty enough, though the roll that was referred to as a croissant wasn’t warm. I did appreciate that I could order a double espresso as my coffee – that we weren’t limited to drip.
A hour before landing flight attendants collected headsets. In fact, one crewmember was especially eager – annoyed that I didn’t have mine out when he came around. He harumphed “we made an announcement.” Actually, they hadn’t yet! The announcement literally came 5 seconds later, right after I handed mine to him. Since I wouldn’t be able to watch a show on my laptop, or on the airline’s entertainment system, for the final parts of the flight that’s when I was regretting not having working ear buds.
As we went into final descent chocolates were handed out as a parting treat, which was nice. And other than the crewmember collecting headsets everyone I interacted with on board was was fantastic! I have to say that the crew really made the most of what they had to work with.
American Airlines clearly stopped caring about its international first class product a long time ago. Between a meal service that’s nearly identical to business class (plus a soup course), flatware that’s pre-plated on a tray wrapped inside of a napkin instead of placed on your table, and wines that are in some cases half the cost of what the airline used to serve this isn’t something worth spending much extra for.
However it does mean access to the Qantas first class lounge in Los Angeles, which offers nice pre-flight dining (American never re-opened their own Flagship First Dining at LAX) and means more space at each seat even if there’s very little storage. First class is better than business class! And we had a good crew, which often isn’t the case flying American’s long haul.
It’s a bit odd, especially given American’s current shortage of Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, that they’re running the Sydney flight with their largest plane – during the off season for travel to Australia. And odder still that come late October, as travel between the U.S. and Australia heats up, American downgauges to a Boeing 787-9. But if you’re looking for travel to Australia over the next four months, especially close-in, American’s first class product can be had fairly reasonably.
I’m glad for this roundtrip in American Airlines first class, and just wish they’d decided to keep the product. It wouldn’t actually take much to improve it. The seat isn’t great but it’s spacious. They have a fantastic lounge product in first class dining (Miami, Dallas, and the Chelsea lounge at JFK) to go along with first class check-in and could easily pair it with their paid Five Star concierge ground service (they bundled this free with Los Angeles – Sydney departures when the first launched). Then just a modest investment to differentiate meal service from business class and there’d be a real offering. Sadly that’s not the direction they’ve chosen to go.