Tokyo and Seoul: Part 2 – AA 167 JFK-NRT 777 Purportedly First Class; Narita Express

My driver picked me up at 8:45am, on time, for my 11am departure.  We made it to JFK in about three quarters of an hour.  Being Sunday morning, and Super Bowl Sunday at that, traffic was quite light.

There was some pretty significant police activity at the far end of T8 (near the premium check in area), so my driver let me off in the middle of the terminal.  I made my way over to the premium check in area to find only two agents working, and neither in the First Class check in area.  I joined the First Class queue, but switched over to the Business Class queue, as the two agents seemed to be calling passengers from that queue, ignoring the First Class queue.

Indeed, I was completely checked in through the Business queue before one of the agents thought to start calling First Class passengers over for service.

JFK Flagship Check-In

I had used one of my expiring System Wide Upgrades to upgrade this flight from Business to First.  While AA’s First isn’t that great, you do get more room than Business – and the coupons were expiring anyway, so this was a no-opportunity-cost upgrade.

I took the lift up to the Admirals’ Club in the main terminal, which also houses the Flagship Lounge.  For those not familiar, the Flagship Lounge is a club-within-a-club at select Admirals’ Club locations.  You can’t buy membership, and access is limited to certain passengers (depending on their ticketed class and destination and/or OneWorld status).  Importantly, drinks are free in the Flagship Lounge, and they have a self-service bar.  Photos of the Flagship Lounge can be found in this recent post.

The bar refrigerator door holding the (simulated) champagne was locked, but the doors with the beer were unlocked.  I was able to reach in through the beer cabinet to get out the bottle of champagne – and enjoyed a few mimosas before I departed.

About 25 minutes prior to departure, I headed down to my gate.  Thankfully, my flight was departing from the low-numbered gates, so I didn’t have to go through the tunnel to get to the satellite terminal.  Boarding was underway, but I was able to avoid the relatively modest queue and use the premium line (which had no queue).

Boarding on the 777 was through door 1L.  This always frustrates me, as using 2L for boarding avoids having hundreds of people coming through the First Class cabin and makes the time on the ground so much more pleasant.  There clearly is room to make 2L boarding work at JFK on 777s, based on what I’d later learn about the ground staff at JFK, I suspect the jet bridge operator simply couldn’t be bothered to re-position the bridge.

I made my way to my assigned seat, 4A.  The cabin of 16 seats was a little more than half full.  After getting out my camera, iPad, some magazines and a notebook, I stowed all my bags in the lockers above and got settled.  A few minutes after I got settled, a flight attendant came up to me and said that I should move to 2A.  (This was more of a directive than an “if you’d like to” suggestion.)  Largely indifferent, I did ask why and was told that 4A is a really noisy seat due to the Business galley right next to it.

Fair enough, so I packed up my things and moved up to Seat 2A.  Once I moved to 2A and got settled, a different flight attendant hollered at me from the starboard aisle, asking “Why did you move?  This is not your assigned seat.”  When I told her I moved at the direction of her colleague, she told me seat 2A was reserved for crew, and I needed to move out of the seat “immediately.”

I’m not sure which is more unbelievable –

  • That one FA would have a passenger move to one of the two crew seats
  • That an FA would holler across the cabin telling a passenger to move immediately (while on the ground, in a non-security or safety situation)
  • That AA blocks two First Class seats for flight crew

In any event, I grabbed my belongings yet again and moved back to 4A.

A few minutes after I was back in 4A, yet a different flight attendant came by and dropped a plastic bag (with AA pajamas) on the footstool of my seat area while she was walking (and she kept on walking after she dropped the bag, without so much as telling me what it was).

You may recall that late last year, AA announced they would offer pajamas and bed coverings for [most] international First Class services.  While the delivery was quite poor (just dropping the bag at my seat), I was pleased that they had pajamas.  I examined the bag, and found, unfortunately, that the size of the package left for me was Small/Medium.  I am 6’ 4” tall, and haven’t worn men’s small/medium since I was 10 years old.  As we were still on the ground, I took the bag with the pajamas up to the forward galley and asked if larger sizes were available.

The FA in the galley said she would check, and asked where I was seated (an odd question in a cabin with perhaps ten passengers?).  She indeed came to my seat a few minutes later today say that “Since this is a weekend departure, they don’t stock the planes as well as normal.”  She went on to say that, “The weekend ground staff at JFK is very poorly treated and doesn’t really know how to take care of these international flights.  You’re lucky we have the smalls, on some flights we don’t get catered with any pajamas!”

Wow.  I didn’t know how to respond to this tirade.  I ultimately just said, “I’ll stick with these” and focused my attention elsewhere.  (I'll have a contest to give the unworn pajamas to a reader in the coming days...stay tuned!)

From gate to take-off took only a few minutes.  Mid-day Sunday at JFK is a relatively uncongested time.  There is always some interesting plane-spotting at JFK.

A plane landing at JFK

While we were taxiing and taking off, my seat started swiveling freely.  AA has some unusual seats that swivel 90-degrees.  They normally lock into one of three places – facing forward, a 25-degree (or so) angle for laying down, or directly to the window (or for the middle seats, to your companion).  My seat however pivoted fairly freely, without having to unlock the control holding the seat in place.  I tried to check if the swivel lock was jammed, but it didn’t appear to be the case.  I didn’t notice this till we were just about to take off, and didn’t mention it at the time.

The meal service began surprisingly quickly after we took off.  How come the flights to Europe – where time really matters – it takes forever; yet on a flight were time isn’t an issue the food is served quite promptly?

The meal choices were in varying degrees of being uninspirational.  I selected the Chicken dish, which included purple potatoes.  This, and the salmon starter, were relatively tasty – though each presented in such bulk to be a bit of a turn off.  I eat only half of the meal offerings in the AA forward cabins these days, as they seem to emphasis quantity over quality.  I skipped the salad course.  AA offers sliced chicken on their salads which could be enough for a meal unto itself!

Dirty table (from prior passenger) was not offered to be cleaned

Plenty of salmon!

Chicken and purple potatoes

I did save room for ice cream at the end, but did not photograph it.

After the meal, I put my seat out flat, and asked one of the FAs for a bed topper (one of the other new features added to the First Class offering late in 2011).  Not unlike the pajamas, she told me I was “out of luck,” as there were only two toppers catered for the flight, and both had been given out.  (I jokingly wondered to myself if they were given to the flight crew in seats 1A and 2A, but didn’t ask the question.)  I simply said thank you.

About 15 minutes after lying down, I decided to flip over to my other side.  In doing so, I must have jarred the seat a bit out of its normal 25-degree angle position (recall this seat swiveled almost freely), and the backrest of the seat went into some sort of failsafe mode, and immediately went from flat and started moving to the upright position.  I pressed one of the seat control buttons, which stopped the ascent, and I put it back flat.

This happened again a few minutes later, so I switched to seat 4D, which was unoccupied.

Later, the flight attendant asked me why I moved, and I explained it to her.  Her response was, “I guess I’ll have to write it up.”  No, “I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience” or “Did you get hurt” or anything like that – just focused on the work she then had to do.

I watched a movie on my iPad, read a little (also on the iPad), then was able to sleep the bulk of the balance of the journey.  Thankfully, 4D stayed in place, and didn’t un-recline!

The pre-arrival meal was a corn chowder.  Soups usually do well on planes (compared to meats, etc), and this one was indeed fine.  I don’t recall if there was a choice.

Pre-arrival meal

Landing into Narita was also without issue.

There was a queue of about 10 passengers deep to clear immigration, but it moved quickly.  Once I cleared customs and immigration, I made my way to the train station at the airport.  I bought my usual ticket on the Narita Express (the “NEX”) in the Green Car (the premium car).  The NEX takes about 55 minutes to get to Tokyo, dropping you off right in Tokyo Station.  Whereas the Kensei Skyliner now offers a shorter ride to the central city (38 minutes), the NEX brings you to the station much closer to where the financial companies are located.  The incremental transit time from Nippori Station to the area where I need to be offsets any savings on the train ride time.

When you buy a ticket, the NEX assigns you a specific seat.  The platform is clearly marked, and exactly where to stand on the platform is also clearly marked.  Since my last visit to Tokyo a few years back, the trains have been updated and the Green Car was very crisp.  The seats are now leather, versus they were cloth on my last visit.

NEX Platform - Immaculate

Stand exactly here

They communicate to the conductor (electronically) which seats are taken.  So, as long as you are sitting in your assigned seat, there is no need to present your ticket on board.  That is very thoughtful.

Upon arrival into Tokyo Station, I found my way to the taxi queue more easily than in times past.  (I’ve had trouble navigating Tokyo Station before.)  While I had to walk in the rain about 50 meters to get to the taxi stand, it felt like the signage was improved.

Once in my taxi, it was a short ride to the completely unchanged Okura Hotel.

 * * * * *

I can’t say enough of how disappointed I was with the on-board First Class experience on American.  While I know domestic carriers offer a lower level of service compared to their foreign counterparts, I was amazed at just how far the service had declined.  Despite all the ballyhoo about the new enhancements to First Class, for my flight, apparently due to the weekend departure, they were not to be.  Perhaps American should put a footnote on the page on their website describing the enhancements to also say, “Services offered at the convenience of our ground crew.  Not available on weekends.”

AA's website