Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

American Airlines' New International Business Class Is A Big Disappointment

Just before Thanksgiving I admitted apprehension in regard to our family's then impending trip to Germany and Austria. I was worried about the shrinking dollar and the mighty expensive Euro. Turns out I was right about both, but the high costs did not mar our weeklong vacation. In fact, it was one of the most pleasurable family trips together ever.

I will be writing about various aspects of the trip over the next few weeks, but today I want to focus on American Airlines' disappointing new international Business Class which we experienced for the first time on the way over to Deutschland from O'Hare.

I've used AA's current Business Class on quite a few overseas trips, and I liked it very much. That ineffable quality of comfort on airplanes is firstly about the seats, and AA's existing (older) Business seats have been very comfortable indeed, and laid out in the cabin very spaciously. The front-to-back distance between seats (pitch) is especially good. Every passenger has quite a bit of privacy. For me, private space and distance from my fellow travelers on a long flight is the optimal premium.

The second most valued premium (for me) is individual seat comfort, which is a variable independent of privacy. AA's pre-existing Business Class seats certainly didn't recline flat, but they were nonetheless conducive to resting and sleeping well--as long as you are able to sleep on your back. Like all airlines' so-called "near lie-flat" seats, it's difficult to find a comfortable position lying on one's side in one of them. Having made that qualification, and speaking as somebody who prefers to sleep on his side, I attest that American's older Business Class seats nonetheless had that je ne sais quoi that induces comfort and sleep in me.

With that set-up, let me say that for months I had been relishing the prospect of experiencing the new generation of Business Class seat heralded by American Airlines: True lie-flat! More privacy! Bigger TV screen! Greater comfort! You WILL sleep! And so on. The photographs in AA advertisements looked enticing, too.

However, now that my family of four has been subjected to the new AA seats, all I can say is: I should have known better. AA's new Business Class seats are cramped, claustrophobic, and uncomfortable.

I guess at 59 that I am just as gullible as I was at 20, because I believed the American Airlines hype touting the new seats. Sure, AA has plenty of times disappointed me in any number of ways related to service and schedule reliability, but never in seat comfort and seat privacy in International Business or First.

But American Airlines has now joined the ranks of Delta Airlines in providing one of the most uncomfortable and claustrophobic Business Class seat designs and cabin layouts in the recent wretched history of flying. Worse, they are blatantly lying about its supposed virtues.

Even the very experienced Flight Attendants serving on board AA's flagship international flights were direct and highly vocal about how horrible the seats are. I had several FAs apologize to me for the seats' inherent discomfort and then apologize again for their company's claims that AA's Business Class patrons laud the seats and prefer them over the old ones. The Flight Attendants I talked to were embarrassed that American insists the new seats are preferred, saying that they'd heard nothing but negative feedback from experienced passengers like me who'd tried them.

One look--not even a sit-down--at the new seats puts the lie to the marketing claims by AA. Simply put, the seats are extremely cramped front to back, and they are too narrow. The lack of width is especially apparent on the 767s, where AA has retained the 6-across seat configuration that has ALWAYS been too cramped for the narrow 767 cabin tube. Anyone flying on domestic 767s in First Class will say "Amen" to that.

In my opinion, these seats are no improvement over the former AA Business Class product; they are, instead, a setback for you and me.

Another lie from AA: They claim the seats are "lie-flat." But they are not; they recline to 171 degrees, not to 180. That 9 degrees makes a huge difference. In fact that 9 degrees makes all the difference in the world when trying to sleep on one's side. Because the seats do not really go flat, they are no better for sleeping than the previous Business Class seat model.

(For clarification of terms, I offer this note: One trusted colleague has suggested that there is a distinction in airline marketing new-speak between the term "lie-flat" and "full-flat." "Lie-flat" is supposed to mean the seat is not angled in relation to your body but is still angled off level from the floor, as in AA's 171 degrees rather than prone. In the murky parlance of airline marketing mavens, so-called "lie-flat" seats are much different from traditional armchair seats shaped vaguely like a "V" even if they don't recline to parallel the floor. "Full-flat" is supposed to mean that the seat itself is both not angled in relation to your body and is perfectly parallel to the floor--180 degrees. To me, however, flat means flat, and if an airline says you will sleep flat in their new seats, it should mean that your body'll sleep like it does in your own bed at home: FLAT!, with no asterisks pointing to gobbledygook to the contrary.)

Ironically, the new American Airlines seats' extra recline is the source of the loss of privacy and comfort. AA crammed the new seats into the pre-existing Business cabin area without spreading out the seats front to back. Because the new seats recline more than the old ones did but are limited to the same space as before, they feel as though they are pushed closer together front to back. In the fully reclined "sleep" mode, your feet now slide down under the slightly raised heads of the passenger in front of you. Think sardines in a can, and you'll get the picture, because that's how the seats are layered into Business cabin on American airplanes. Try to imagine a gnawing feeling of claustrophobia that does not abate until you exit the cabin at the end of your flight with great relief.

The inability to turn sideways in the 171 degree recline seats is made worse, too, by the extreme narrowness on 767 aircraft (as mentioned above). We flew ORD/FRA on AA84, a 767, which had no First Class, just Business and Coach. Even my scrawny 9 year old son, sitting next to me in one of the new Business seats, complained that he could not turn over without hitting some part of his body on the armrests.

There are other negatives intrinsic to the new seats. Because of the way AA configured the sardine layering of seats, there is no longer any extra room in front of your seat or elsewhere to put your shoes, briefcase, books, etc. At least not if you want to recline your seat. As soon as you attempt to recline fully, or almost completely, whatever you have stored at your feet is in the way of your encroaching seat's footrest and legrest. Yes, you can then move those personal items and place them under the rising legrest, but if you do, it begs the question of what to do with those items when you lower the legrest to get up. You must move them again.

And moving them back and forth again and again every time you get up or lie down is not only a nuisance, it's cumbersome and embarrassing, because it unavoidably disturbs your neighbor. If the companion next to you is your 9 year old son, that's OK; but if it's an adult-size perfect stranger, well, let's just say that I witnessed some grumpy remarks and dirty looks among other Business Class passengers as their seatmates tried to rearrange their shoes and belongings, inadvertently bumping into them in the process.

Pity anyone who gets the window seat in the new AA Business Class cabin, because if your neighbor has gone down for the night and you suddenly need to stretch your legs or answer nature's call, it's impossible to avoid committing a battery against the person seated on the aisle as you attempt to hurdle his or her outstretched legs. There is simply no extra room to maneuver politely around or across.

The AA Flight Attendants on our flights complained to me that the new Business Class seats have swallowed up aisle space, making it difficult for them to navigate the cabin with their serving carts. This is once again more acute on the 767 airplanes due to the 6-across configuration in the extremely narrow tube. God help any aisle-seat passenger who has a hand or arm carelessly flopped over into the aisle when the carts come through, for crushed extremeties or even amputation seem a distinct possibility. The FAs on our Frankfurt-bound 767 were definitely challenged to get meals and drinks served to us.

I can't think of a better way to sum up this report on American's new Business Class seats than to relate the question my son asked me just before we left the plane in Frankfurt. He has flown all over the world in First and Business on many airlines and airplane types, and he was even the star of a WALL STREET JOURNAL story a couple of years back on children flying in First Class with their parents. So he has a great deal of experience already in the so-called premium cabins of airlines.

"Dad," he said, looking thoughtfully back at his cramped seat in the Business cabin as we waited for the door to open, "Did American put us in coach by mistake?"


Blogger Mary said...

Another reason NOT to fly the legacy airlines. I do not fly first class or business class so I can only wonder what new horrors AA has visited upon their international coach passengers if they are willing to inflict crowding and discomfort onto business class passengers in the name of new and improved. My trips to Europe are on Lufthansa and Air France in economy class. While there is not a lot of room, the food is reasonable and the service is polite. It has been a very long time since I experienced that on international flights on American Airlines. Frequent flyer miles may be nice - but I am not willing to suffer at the hands of the legacy airlines just to collect miles if I can fly on a good international carrier.

11/29/2007 5:21 PM  
Blogger Jauq Dewtersp said...

Having flown in the new 767 seats I would have to say that you brought up some good points, especially about the window seats but some of the facts you stated are wrong. No offense intended, but on the 777, all they did was remove a closet to put 2 more seats in, not a whole 6th row--nothing was squished; there are still 5 rows of 7 (2-3-2) and now a sixth small group of 2 up ahead on the right. There is even more pitch on those aircraft than on the 767. As for the lie-flat disclaimer, while I am not defending that they may be uncomfortable for some (I personally could sleep just fine on our trip from JFK to Zurich) most airlines, including Lufthansa, currently rated as the best European airline for business-class, also chose the same seat design with an even greater angle (I think it was about 13-14 degrees). Eva Air, JAL, Iberia, Finnair, Swiss, Northwest, Air France, and El Al Airlines (Israeli) all have chosen the same angled lie flat as American.

On the 763, while they are cramped together 6 abreast, so are BA's and United's new business classes--and United is advertising 23.5" wide seats instead of American's 20"--I can't imagine how cramped that cabin is. Speaking of United, their new Business arrangement on their 777 has 2-4-2 with the same 23.5" wide seats!

Otherwise a good lengthy review--much better than some of the fluff I read on forum boards from people who haven't even ridden some of the airlines they complain about.

11/29/2007 7:44 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

To Mary: Thank you for your comment. I agree about preferring international carriers over US carriers. You probably saw the WSJ article earlier this week on that very subject.

To Jauq: Thank you for your comments. I modified my blog entry based on your clarification to correct the extra row mistake. Putting the new seats in the same footprint as the old business seats explains why there is such a feeling of loss of room and privacy.

11/29/2007 10:29 PM  
Blogger cedric said...

Totally agree with you Will. I flew back from UK in one. Quite awful. Do the AAA folk ever try them before buying? I cant believe they do. Anyone who could sleep in the old ones will probably sleep in this. Those of us looking for an improvement will think.."what a waste of money"
Crew were totally dismissive as well. Do the decision makers talk to anyone

11/30/2007 11:16 AM  
Blogger cedric said...

I should have said that it was on the GTW-RDU route. We fly it as we live in Chapel Hill, but if domestic flying was less than awful we'd always fly EOS out of JFK . Best transatlantic for the (any) price.
Just gives yourself the heebie jeebies about the leg down to RDU on your return, as for JFK!!

11/30/2007 2:13 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

To Cedric: Thank you for your comments. I keep hearing great things about EOS, and I want to try it. Like you, though, the one hour connecting flights to and from JFK fill me with trepidation. That is, unless I schedule several extra hours of connection buffer time, and who wants to do that?

11/30/2007 3:14 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

I agree completely with your review. I have flown on both the 767 and the 777 with the new seats and I do NOT find them to be an improvement over the old seats. The loss of underseat storage (if you want to sleep) is a big problem, especially if you're in a window seat and can't get to your belongings if you store them overhead. I also don't like the "coffin" feeling of sinking so low relative to the armrests.

12/04/2007 11:27 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

To Bruce:

Your description of the new seats feeling like a coffin rang a bell with me! Yes, that's exactly what they are like.

The fact that the new seats are devoid of storage space, even for one's own shoes, mystifies me. The AA decision-makers obviously never fly on their own planes and thus have no real-world experience with their own product. But their ignorance doesn't impede them ruining our experience.

12/05/2007 9:53 AM  
Blogger Fast and Fabulous said...

We flew Northwest's new Business Class to Europe and coach back recently. All of the problems mentioned by Allen exist on the NWA BC seat. Not "full flat", packed like sardines, full of marketing bs, etc. In addition, the NWA BC seat is like sitting on cardboard! There is little to no cushion. In the coach seat we were cramped but since we don't sleep on the return we were happy to have a relatively soft seat beneath us!

12/05/2007 11:05 AM  
Blogger Adrian said...

I definitely agree with you. I flew on the so-called new seats between JFK and BRU, and I can't even get a bit of sleep. I can't believe I am saying this but I definitely prefer the old sleeper seats.

Out of all the angled lie-flat seats, China Airlines rates the worst on my book, and AA is the second worst.

I don't know how the new seats will work out on the new 777s, but currently have no plan to fly AA because of this awful new seat.

12/06/2007 12:54 AM  
Blogger Steamboat Lion said...

The new seats certainly feel more closed in that the old ones but in every other respect they are superior in my experience, including for sleeping (always on my side). I've flown business class with Qantas, Cathay and Air New Zealand as well this year and I'd rate the new AA seat as second only to the Air NZ seat which is truly flat and with it's herringbone layout means everyone has an aisle.

12/06/2007 10:58 PM  

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