I feel like I need to preface this post with a lot of background.  First, while I used to travel internationally on a fairly frequent basis, my recent trip to Rome was the first international trip I’ve taken in nearly 10 years, not counting an adventure to Iceland in 2004.  In that span of time, international premium class seats have advanced light years from where they were.  Lie-flat beds, once reserved for First Class customers, are now standard in the Business Class cabins flown by the world’s leading airlines.  I share that with you to let you know where I’m coming from when I share my thoughts on American’s Next Generation Business Class (NGBC) seat.

I’ve read quite a few comments on the seat since they were introduced, and frankly, not a lot of them have been positive.  Words like “cramped,” “doesn’t really lie flat,” and “pitch too tight” are frequently mentioned in the various reviews I’ve seen.  One article I read even described the NGBC experience on American as just slightly better than coach.  With “glowing” comments like that, I promised myself I would keep an open mind as the date for our AA flight to Rome approached.

Eastbound Crossing – Boeing 777 (June 28, 2010)

Through a cruel twist of fate, we found ourselves not making our 767-300 nonstop from Chicago to Rome, and instead were rerouted on AA to London and then BA to Rome to begin our holiday.  One good thing that did come from our misfortune, I am able to compare AA’s NGBC product on the 777 and 767 as our flight to London was aboard a 777.

Having actually sat in the 767 NGBC seat on several domestic flights, I did have some prior experience to work from.  Upon boarding our 777 flight and settling into my seat, I immediately noticed the wider seat that the 777’s more spacious cabin provides.  A quick check of seatguru.com indicates that the 777 seat is 1.5″ wider than those on the 767.  Doesn’t sound like a lot, but I could certainly “feel” the difference.

Pre-departure champagne was served in plastic “champagne glasses” soon enough.   (Note: real glassware is used during flight.) I suppose I get why American uses those from an economy/efficiency standpoint, but I wondered silently if other airlines would serve pre-departures in plastic?  (I hope readers will comment about their J class experiences on other airlines.)  After a second pour of champagne, and a 20 minute delay waiting for late connections (a luxury AA could not afford us for our nonstop to Rome), we pushed away from the gate.  After what seemed like a really short taxi for ORD, we were rolling down the runway.

Once in flight we were offered American’s “Late Night Supper Service” given our 9:20PM departure from O’Hare.  This meant that all courses of the meal were served at once, I assume so we could get to sleep as soon as possible.  No worries, it seemed to work given the late hour.  On earlier departures, one has the option to take your entire meal at once, or be served in courses.  The meal was preceded with warm mixed nuts.  Entree choices included Mango Chili Beef, Seared Balsamic Chicken, Cheese Ravioli, or a Fruit and Cheese Plate, and were accompanied with a mushroom consomme’ and seasonal salad.  Dinner was followed by a dessert of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch ice cream, which wasn’t half bad.

With dinner behind us, it was time to really settle in, finish the movie I’d started shortly after takeoff, and hopefully, get some sleep.  The inflight entertainment system on the 777 is a permanent part of the seat (unlike the 767 NGBC seat), and offers what I thought was a generous selection of movies, television shows, and various other diversions to pass the time.  I lowered the seat into the bed position, and nested in for the night.  I never finished the movie I’d chosen because the next thing I knew my eyes opened to find my fellow passengers being served breakfast!  I’d managed to get nearly 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep, a feat that would really help make our long sit in London and late arrival in Rome more tolerable.

My thoughts on the seat?  OK, it’s a lot better than coach!  It’s not perfect, and I still think American will find itself making these seats fully flat rather than the 170-something degree recline they are currently at.  The market will demand it.  That said, I did not find the slightly less than fully flat angle to be any kind of impediment to getting a good night’s rest.  I didn’t feel like I was sliding out of the seat and the extra width of the 777 seat really seemed to make a difference as far as feeling a little crowded.  The service?  It was not over the top, but certainly was OK.  Our F/A made an effort to engage us in light conversation pre-departure, and I never had to search for her if I needed anything (at least while I was awake).

Westbound Crossing – Boeing 767 (July 18, 2010)

We spent the evening prior to our flight at the Hilton FCO Airport which I will review separately. This made for a reasonable walk to the terminal, and no transfer drama the morning of our flight.  The only wrinkle being that we had to take a shuttle from Rome’s Terminal 3 to Terminal 5 which has the appearance of being some kind of afterthought satellite terminal that was strangely reminiscent of the Dulles United Express Terminal G days (but not quite that bad).  Anyone remember those?  Once you get through checking in and security, you then take another shuttle back to the Terminal 3 satellite.  Ugh.  In any event, I’d not done my homework or I would’ve been aware of this in advance….so be advised.  It definitely added some time to our whole check in experience.  But back to the subject at hand.

Soon enough we boarded our 767-300 flight back to the USA.  For our return, we were flying to JFK, and then connecting to American Eagle for our flight to DCA.  We were among the first to board, and immediately settled into seats 4A and 4B.  I immediately missed the extra 1.5″ of seat width that’s available on the 777, but I was certainly not uncomfortable.  I could stand to lose a couple of pounds, but I fit in a coach seat just fine, so sitting in Biz was great!  Pre-departure champagne was again served, and we actually shut the door right on schedule.  We sat at the gate a bit waiting for ATC clearance, but certainly not a long time.  Soon enough, we were rolling down the runway and saying goodbye to our 3 week vacation.

When American removed first class cabins from its international 767’s, they added some enhancements to their typical business class service that you don’t get on the 777.  Wine is served in full size glasses and a marinated cheese antipasto was available along with the standard mixed nuts., and the meal is served in courses.  There was an appetizer of grilled shrimp, smoked salmon, and poached white fish as well.  It wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever eaten, but it was better than it sounds.  There were also 2 salad dressing options as opposed to just 1 on our flight to London.

Lunch entree options were Beef Fillet with Shallot Sauce, Chicken Provencal, Scallops with Lime Champagne, and Rigatoni with Cream Sauce.  I went with the chicken while Mrs MJonTravel chose the Scallops.  I thought Chicken was a safe choice, and it turned out to be quite tasty.  Mrs MJonTravel let me try her scallops, and I’ll say they weren’t bad at all.  I was a little nervous about reheated seafood, but the scallops were pretty tasty….but I still thought my chicken was better.  A notable area of product differentiation between was the dessert cart.  Instead of standard ice cream, we were served sundaes from a cart.  Topping choices were hot fudge, butterscotch, or berry, along with whipped cream and nuts.  Very tasty.

After lunch, I had the opportunity to try out the seat, and inflight entertainment.  I wasn’t interested in sleeping at this hour, so I played around with American’s portable inflight entertainment device.  In contrast to the 777, American offers portable media for entertainment on its 767’s.  It worked great, but it’s library of entertainment options was noticeably more limited than what is available on the 777.  Even still, I managed to watch 2 movies and a couple of TV programs on the way home.  While I wasn’t tired, I wanted to try the seat in “bed” mode for comparison purposes with the 777.  It was comfortable enough, and I’m fairly certain I would sleep nearly as well in it as the 777 seat if I were on a night flight.  That said, it seems a bit “tighter” in every respect, and I prefer the 777 seat hands down, even with the small service touches that are better on the 767.

I was a tiny bit disappointed in the feel of the service on our flight.  The flight attendant on our side of the airplane seemed OK at first, but once the meal was complete, I was not once offered a refill of my wine glass, and in fact, the glass was simply taken away while I was watching a movie without an offer for refill.  Yes, I realize that I could’ve said something, but should a business class customer have to?  I don’t think so.  Our F/A made a few passes up and down the aisle, but as far as I could tell, never once approached a customer to ask if they needed anything else.  They had to approach her.  At some point during the flight, the purser came by to check on us, and both Mrs MJonTravel and I asked for more wine which was cheerfully provided.

I enjoyed the wine at a fairly slow pace, but did eventually finish the glass.  At some point, the purser again came by and asked “did no one else come by and refill your wine?”  I told her the truth, one…I didn’t really need anymore…but no, no one had been by to check on us in quite some time, (perhaps an hour or more?) and certainly not offered a refill.  She apologetically corrected that oversight.  A pre-landing snack of either a turkey sandwich or cheese pizza was offered.  I enjoyed the sandwich which was quite good.  It was accompanied by a small salad and baked on board cookies.

All-in-all, I found American’s NGBC seat to be relatively comfortable, and certainly not as horrid as some reviews have made it sound.  That said, the seat’s lack of a true lie-flat recline, detracts from its competitiveness with business class products offered by most airlines, even United.  At least American offers a “flat” product across its entire international fleet.  While Delta and United (even US Airways’) new seats appear to be better than American’s NGBC seats, these airlines have not completely refreshed their business class cabins.  You might walk on a Delta flight and a great new J-class seat, or you might find an old recliner.  That said, American is going to need to offer an improved product eventually, which I assume will happen at some point in the next few years, certainly with the arrival of its Boeing 787’s, if not well before.

I really feel that the biggest challenge American faces with its premium product offering in the near term is not the “hard product,” the seat.  If American could address its “soft product,” or the service its employees provide on the ground and inflight, it would go a long way towards addressing the slightly less competitive seat it offers.  To be sure, many (if not most) American flight attendants are terrific, but some leave a bit to be desired in the service department.  American managers must find a way to ensure its employees provide consistent, caring service to its premium customers.  Frankly, I think the apparent indifference of our flight attendant on the return flight from Rome negatively impacted my impression of the overall product.

So, those are my impressions of American’s NGBC product.  I’d love to hear your comments on your NGBC experiences, especially in comparison to other airline products.  Comments are always welcome.