American Airlines Just Served Me Caviar. No, Really!

What-Gif

Okay, it might have been a small quantity of caviar, but I’m impressed. Not by the caviar as such, but rather by how far a little bit of effort can go in transforming the customer experience.

Let me explain.

A few weeks back, American launched daily Boeing 777-300ER flights between Los Angeles and Sydney. These flights are being operated as part of a joint venture with Qantas, and as a result, American also spruced up the service on these flights, to match many aspects of the Qantas experience. For example, American has added pajamas in business class on this route, among other things.

American already had a fantastic reverse herringbone business class hard product. It’s my favorite business class hard product in the world, and when you factor in that American also has wifi, it would probably be my preferred business class product for a transpacific flight.

But I’ve never really understood why American bothers with first class on the 777-300ER, given that the first class hard product is barely better than business class, and the service typically isn’t much better either. American is really shrinking the number of international first class seats they’ll have, as they’re eliminating the first class cabins on their 777-200s. Long term only the 777-300ERs will have first class, with only eight seats per cabin.

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I just got off a Sydney to Los Angeles flight and was so impressed by the product. So, so, so impressed. It’s amazing to see what a US airline could be with a little bit of effort. While I’ll have a full trip report soon, I can’t help but share my initial thoughts.

American first class out of Sydney: pre-flight

A couple of days before departure I got an email from someone in American’s “Premium Customer Services” at Sydney Airport. He confirmed my seat assignment and that I pre-ordered my main course, and also asked if there was anything he could do for me.

I asked if there was any possibility of having a spa treatment scheduled in the Qantas First Class Lounge Sydney. This is the lounge American first class passengers can use, though historically only Qantas first class customers can pre-schedule treatments (everyone else can try to book one on a space available basis). I figured since American and Qantas have a joint venture (and therefore revenue sharing/metal neutrality), it couldn’t hurt to ask.

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He contacted Qantas, who told him he couldn’t get me an appointment in advance, but he promised to try again the morning of my trip. Sure enough, at 7AM he emailed me to tell me I had a massage confirmed for 11AM. Amazing!

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Perhaps the best surprise was that when I finished my spa treatment he was waiting outside the spa in the first class lounge to escort me to the gate.

When we got to the boarding gate he took me to the very front of the line so I could board right away.

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I couldn’t believe I was on a US airline. Seriously, how long could his total interaction with me have taken, including emails? Maybe 30 minutes, at most? But what a difference it made in terms of the overall experience.

American first class from Sydney to LA: onboard

The thing I’ve found frustrating about American first class in the past is how little effort they put into differentiating the product from business class. The food, service, etc., are all nearly identical. And it’s not like the first class seat is all that much better than the business class seat, in my opinion.

This Sydney to Los Angeles flight was the perfect example of how small touches can differentiate a product.

On the ground I was offered a glass of champagne (yes, an actual glass, not a plastic cup) with warm almonds.

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After takeoff I had another glass of champagne, which was served with olives and crisps.

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Then I was offered a caviar tartlet and an heirloom tomato gazpacho. Admittedly it was a really small portion of caviar, but what a classy touch nonetheless!

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Then I had a delicious smoked celeriac soup.

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After that I had my choice of five small plates — I chose a Western Australian rock lobster with mango and citrus salsa. It was really good.

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For the main course I had the “surf & turf,” which consisted of a beef filet and some prawns. While the beef was overcooked, it was still one of the best steaks I’ve had on American. But perhaps what impressed me most was that you could customize your meal and choose which of the four sides you wanted to have — I selected the pea risotto.

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In true Australian fashion, I was served a salad of baby gems with lemon vinaigrette along with my main course.

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For dessert I decided to mix it up — rather than having the traditional ice cream sundae, I had the warm sticky date pudding with vanilla ice cream.

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Then after the meal the crew came around with a selection of chocolates.

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Why I was so impressed

Small touches can make such a huge difference in the perception of the overall product. Even things as small as having your choice of sides, or a caviar tartlet, or nuts with your drink on the ground, or a large selection of small plates, can “make” an experience.

There’s another side effect of this, which I think airline management should consider as well. The crew on this sector was a class act to begin with. Truly top notch. But it was also clear that they were proud of the product they were offering. I can’t count how often I’ve flown American international first class and had the flight attendants embarrassed by the product offerings. That wasn’t the case here. They clearly loved being able to offer this new service, even though it was more work for them.

How much do all of these service improvements cost on a per passenger basis? I’d guess well under $50 per person. But it made a huge difference in the overall experience. Was the experience quite to the level of Cathay Pacific or Etihad? No. But it was actually a globally competitive first class product, one which was markedly better than what’s offered in business class.

Bottom line

American: even if you were forced by Qantas to make these improvements, it really is worth considering expanding this service to other markets, especially as long term there will only be a dozen planes with international first class cabins. I don’t know what impressed me more here — the shockingly good ground service, or the nicely improved onboard experience. When you combine the two, this is the most impressed I’ve ever been by a US carrier.

The little touches make all the difference, so kudos for what’s happening on the Sydney route. It would be great to see it expanded.

What do you make of American’s improved service on the Sydney route? Does it make sense for American to expand it to other routes?

Comments

  1. Do you think your ground treatment was because of who you are? Any non-famous bloggers have similar experience? If so, I am very impressed, good to see them trying!

  2. I wonder if your file at AA has ‘”VIP blogger, influential on social media” on it.

    Let’s see if they are doing this in 12 months for Jane Blogreader…

  3. By attending recent American Airlines press conferences the team is really focusing on providing a much better on board service. The AA executives and President of AA Mr.Kirby mentioned to me that they are truly striving to offer something else and enhance the customer experience and the major focus for them has been the SYD route while also trying to expand things to new markets which I strongly agree with you Ben as this will give American a new buzz because I know some can say that their AA on board experience has been “blah”. I am happy to see that you had a great fight – i am booked on this service February 6 so I am keen to see the improvements made and see what American has done. I strongly encourage AA that they step-it-up on their DFW-HKG flight which is also a powerful one within their network. Cheers Ben!

  4. I really have to agree with what you mentioned on how WHAT employees have to offer often does impact the WAY in which they offer it. Yes, every airline has its bad apples (and there’s certainly a fair amount of that on longhaul flights operated by US airlines), but often, I do feel that if you give employees in a service industry a product to be proud of, it will provide extra motivation to provide good service to the customers.

  5. “In true Australian fashion, I was served a salad of baby gems with lemon vinaigrette along with my main course.”

    I’m confused as to how that’s Australian.

  6. “While the beef was overcooked, it was still one of the best steaks I’ve had on American.”

    LOL. Quite the compliment there, Ben.

    Dear AA, your steaks suck. This one, however, totally sucked less.

  7. @Mark- the flight loads leading up to Jan 1st going LAX-SYD were WIDE and I mean wide open. 100-200 seats on the plane. Coming back after Jan 1st SYD-LAX the flights were pretty full, maybe 10-20 seats.

  8. This is really great to read! I recently did a red-eye from DFW-LHR in first on a 777-200 and, honestly, was pretty impressed with the crew’s attentiveness too. Champagne was offered in a real glass as well and the FA working my aisle refilled me at least two times without even asking! During the flight my wine glass was never empty and the FA even worked to convince me to get some port with my sundae. Most impressive of all was the FA noting that I was going to change into pajamas and turning my seat into a bed while I was in there. It feels so dumb to note these things that would be considered bare minimum on an international carrier, but, it gives me some hope that AA is working on trying to improve the soft product – cant wait to get on this SYD route in the near future!

  9. Hi Ben,

    Do you think EX Plats would have access to the lounge as well even if flying on business?

    How was the spa treatment?

    Thanks

  10. I admit I had to google “baby gems”…had never heard of that before. And also LOL’d at the American calling chips “crisps”. 🙂

  11. AA is in joint venture with QF! That’s standard QF First service! Who want to pay QF and end up on AA flight otherwise? Good on AA lift up the game! Make sure improve your lounge service in Dallas as well AA!!!! It’s terrible you have to pay for food at your lounge! Maybe QF should charge all AA passengers for food in Australia!

  12. @Kris

    “Do you think EX Plats would have access to the lounge as well even if flying on business?”

    Since EX Plats are all OW Emeralds you would have access to the Qantas First Lounge regardless of the cabin you fly (as long as it’s in a OW flight of course!)

  13. I have only ever flown business but I love the little touches that first class brings, one day I hope to sample it. Thanks for the review as always.

  14. Some of this is slowly leaking onto other AA transpac services. I was on DFW-HKG and NRT-DFW in F this month – and on both flights pre-departure champagne was in a proper (non-plastic) flute. The meals were ok – not as many choices as you described above – nor the ability to mix and match. I will say – due to an 11 hour departure delay on the DFW-HKG leg – I asked to hold off on dinner until 8 or so hours into the flight (so I could sleep). They were willing to do this and did prepare the meal for me once I woke up and asked for it.

    Not perfection for sure – but moving in the right direction. Now if they would just keep F on the 777-200s that is something we could all cheer about!

  15. @Arcanum “true Australian fashion” refers to the salad being served with the main course. In the US the salad is not served with a main course but is served on its own.

  16. Just agreeing with the 3-4 folks above that I’d like to hear Lucky’s take on whether this was ‘joint venture’ service or ‘blogger service.’

  17. Lucky what was the champagne being poured in F class? also was there a marked improvement in the wine selection? In my opinion QF offers one of the best wine selection of any airline, they really showcase the best of Aus wine. It is shame the US carriers do not do the same, as you guys have some great wines, Oregon Pinots, Napa reds.

  18. As nice as the food looks, as an improvement over what you were getting before…it still looks like top business class food as opposed to what you’d get in first class on other leading airlines.

  19. First of all, thank you for the tip. I got match to the Hilton Gold Elite.
    I have a question and am seeking any suggestions: as you know, United has made getting to the United Gold, Platinum of 1 K very very difficult with the qualifying dollar requirement. This year, all dollar amounts for all status have been increased. My issue is not that I don’t fly enough miles, but in many cases, I have to choose United alliance partners and therefore not a United ticket, hence no qualifying dollar.

    Question: other than spending $25,000 with my Explorer card to get waiver for qualifying dollar requirement, is there any other smart way to bypass this qualifying dollar requirement, if it is impossible to have a United ticket?

  20. As an AA Intl FA (Purser) I am l, yes, mostly embarrassed by our presentation. It is a much better product when presented properly (no over cooked steaks…depends on who is in the galley). At the Purser conference last year, we were assured that if the new service does well on the SYD route, then it will expand to everywhere else. The service is different in ALL classes. Did anyone get a chance to experience BC or Coach (Y)?

  21. They removed my 57,000+ FF miles because I couldn’t fly for a year but they’ll treat the people in these 8 seats like royalty………unbelievable. Treating all passengers like you appreciate their flying your airline would go 100% further!

  22. @kathie
    Expiring miles is a fact of life, and while it sucks you lost all those miles, there’s nothing you can do about it. You sign up for these programs, you play their rules.

  23. Salad service in Australian restaurants and homes is AFTER THE MAIN COURSE to clean the palate, unless it has changed since I was last home a few months ago.

  24. We are flying syd-lax in Sept, looking forward to reviewing AA BC.
    Flying with “open mind”.
    (Not that it is important but I cannot find any Australian, including myself, who has ever heard of Salad after main, at home or in any restaurant. Yes enough about salad!)

  25. Just flown AA 73 in Seat 2A, and like you, highly impressed!
    I did AA 117 Transcon then AA 73, JFK-LAX-SYD and was equally impressed with the Flagship Lounge’s reception and fresh food offerings at JFK as the service at LAX, where I was met and helped all the way by Karyn from AA Premium Customer Services ( and I’m nothing special).
    Can’t report on the Flagship Lounge at LAX because I was recommended the Qantas F Lounge (We’re working on making the FL as good!)
    The flight and food were as you described, and breakfast superlative, topped by two impossibly good triple shot latte/ espresso.
    The seat was much roomier than I expected and in sleep mode (with TWO mattress pads and TWO large pillows) very comfy, provided you lowered the 4 inch arm rests on each side (the FAs did not know this!).
    In short you review was spot on, they are really trying (the senior FA seemed anxious about getting things right), and this is 4 months later.
    Oh, and the flight was full. 21 waitlisted for Y, no upgrade requests, 20 happy Y pax (hope the last one got on!), 16 happy Y pax sitting in J, and 4 happy J pax sitting in F!

  26. Quit yer bitchin’ about First Class on American, and “I don’t know why they bother.” You make a lot of great points, I like what you have to say overall, but not everyone cares about champagne and caviar. Some of use just like a nice big First Class seat. I actually was really looking forward to First on American to Hong Kong via Dallas, but I was able to change both departure and return to the non-stop on Cathay Pacific and who can beat a non-stop. I think the CEO of Cathay was actually on my flight. Oh and at HKG they let Business board through First, the horror! And at The Wing some rude guy claiming to be a former president at Philippine Airlines (as if that says much) complained and demeaned the poor front desk ladies into letting him into the lounge.

  27. I have spent hours reading your blog. It’s extremely helpful! As I stated in an earlier comment, I’m just so disappointed with the way the SWU’s are handled. I understand it is part of the business and now I understand even more why it’s taking so long to get off the wait list (party of 6 flying from MIA to LAX to Sydney on Wednesday, May 18th.) it’s just very frustrating to have no clue whether we will be upgraded or not. And, we booked last fall and we were first on the wait list. We were chairman for 10 plus years on US Air, it just seems slightly unfair that we have to wait in limbo until we literally walk on the plane. Anyone with any advice on how to get off the wait list for an upgrade? Sorry for writing twice about the same thing. I’m just so frustrated and it feels good to get this off my chest.

  28. The exceptional ground staff in SYD you mention can be attributed to Qantas (an exceptional airline in its own right). There are a few factual inaccuracies in your article I look forward to reblogging.

  29. This service is now available on the Dallas to Hong Kong flight as of July 4th (I was on the debut flight for the new menu service) but does not include the ground service offered to first class passengers on the Sydney route.

  30. I flew AA72 2 weeks ago in F class and the service improved even more from this one in 2016.

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