Review: American Airlines business class, New York JFK to Madrid aboard the Boeing 767-300

American Airlines flight 94 from New York to Madrid was one of the very first flight reviews I wrote for WTF, flying economy class back in 2016, so I was excited to return to this flight in business class up front. American is planning to retire these aging airplanes over the next several years, but I feel that enough travelers between the U.S. and Spain read this blog to justify a review of a product that won't necessarily be around forever. Overall impression is that of an enjoyable enough experience aboard an aircraft that is rapidly feeling more and more out of date. 

Flight: American Airlines #94
Date: 10 November 2017
Origin: New York (JFK), USA
Destination: Madrid (MAD), Spain
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300

Further reading: Our definitive guide to the world class wine, food, history, and energy you'll find in Madrid, Spain

Ticketing Scenario

I booked a roundtrip in economy from JFK to Madrid, and then back about ten days later from Madrid to Philadelphia, with a quick hop up to New York LGA, all on American. Then, dreading the idea of another trans-Atlantic red eye in economy, I called American and got myself on the list to buy an upgrade should one become available (which, is available to me as an AAdvantage Platinum member). When the seat opened up, I was automatically moved to the front cabin and docked 25,000 miles from my American account + a $350 copay that I charged to my American Express Platinum card. AMEX counted this as an "airline fee", and credited me back $200 of this because I had not yet used any of my annual airline fee credit on that card. I also have the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select card (not to be confused with having actual Platinum status on the airline... for the love of God, American, make your product naming less confusing), so American credited me back 10% of the points I used, making my total point draw 22,500 instead of the normal 25k for this type of upgrade. I am sure my strategy for picking up this ticket will draw some criticism from hardcore points and miles folks, but my attitude here is that I do not need business class on the daytime flight crossing the Atlantic the other way, so I find this to be the most effective way to get a business class seat on the only leg of my flight where I find it valuable.

Airport Experience

All American flights arrive and depart to JFK Terminal 8, to which I prefer to arrive via the AirTrain from the Jamaica train station that is reachable by both the Long Island Railroad and the subway's E train. The checkin and pre-security hall is big, bright, and airy, though the security line itself can often be an ordeal even for TSA PreCheck passengers. Allow yourself plenty of time. The terminal is arranged in two piers, one in the main building, and another as a midfield terminal to which you walk below ground. Be aware of where your gate is so that you allow enough time to make your way there.

The real in-airport highlight of flying business class is access to American's Flagship Lounge, an experience that I covered in a separate review. Suffice it to say, the Flagship Lounge is far and away better than most any domestic U.S. airline lounge experience with which I am familiar, almost on par with what you can expect from the Centurion Lounges operated by American Express in some airports around the country. Find it on a platform to the left as you clear security and begin walking towards the gates. Inside you'll find a large lounge area with a buffet located to your left past the check-in desks, or (my preference) a smaller atrium type dining room to your left wherein you can order from a limited but tasty menu with table-side service typical of what you'd expect in a restaurant. The atrium space was quiet and peaceful in the early evening when I dined there. The burger was profoundly delicious, the rosé surprisingly good, and the service excellent. You won't be charged for anything here, but do remember to leave a tip to show your appreciation for good service.

Further reading: Review: American Airlines Flagship Lounge at New York JFK is a winner on wine, food, ambiance (yes)

Gate and Boarding

Nothing out of the ordinary here. Business class customers board first, followed by passengers with American and other OneWorld airline status, American credit card holders, and the remaining passengers. Standard fare.

Aircraft Interior

I was more favorable when I reviewed this same aircraft on the same route back in 2016. I've flown both economy and business in this very flight several times since then, and my opinion has worsened each time. Overall, the plane feels like a relic of a bygone era in serious need of refresh. The business class cabin, though, is somewhat modernized. 

Business class seats are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration where each side of the plane is lined with single seat with an aisle separating them from the two paired seats in the center of the cabin. These are "meh" for business class, i.e. not the best, not the worst. There's not a lot of privacy for the folks in the center of the cabin, and not terribly great window access for half the folks on each side. Single travelers will have the best experience in seats A or J in rows 4 / 6 / 8, followed by A or J in row 2, followed by A or J in rows 3 / 5 / 7, and then finally anything in the middle. Couples should go for a shared middle or for their own single seats if they don't mind a little separation.

Overhead bin space is just fine in business, terrible in economy (the bins are literally different hardware from different decades). You'll pretty quickly realize that there is no seat back entertainment screen in these seats, so bring a tablet to keep yourself company (I usually work on my laptop, eat, and then try to sleep). American has fashioned a bizarre tablet-propped-in-seatback situation for which I was unenthused. I do really appreciate that American loans high quality Bose noise-cancelling headphones to its business class passengers, though. The amenity kit from Cole Haan is pretty standard, nothing to write home about; let's just say I abandoned mine in a shower in the airport lounge when I arrived. Its greatest utility is for those who did not bring their own sleep mask.

Otherwise, leg room is fine and the seat is comfortable enough when laid flat as a bed. I am about 5 ft 10 in, and I didn't have any complaints. Again, there's nothing particularly special about the hard product here when compared to other business class offerings, but it's certainly better than some, and it's of course worlds better than the back of the plane. It's simply a setup that is past its prime on an older aircraft.

Crew and Communication

I have generally had very good luck with the quality of the crew on American's JFK - Madrid route, standing in contrast to the crew on the Philadelphia - Madrid route where I've had uniformly bad experiences. They are friendly, helpful, and communicate well with both English (of course) and Spanish speakers.

Food and Beverage

Lanson Black Label Brut Champagne (from France, of course) was served as the pre-departure beverage. I'd have liked to see a Spanish Cava offered on this route, though I admit that's the wine (and Spain) snob talking. Actually the only Spanish wine on the list was an Albariño from Rías Baixas, which was a sold choice that took me through much of the evening. Of course I took a tasting note...

Pazo de San Mauro Albariño (Rías Baixas, Spain)
Slate, apricot, lychee, oh and also slate (yes, twice) dominated the nose. Very juicy in the mouth, with vibrant acidity that massages the tongue but lingers on the finish. Nose notes carry through to the palate. The first sip was cause enough to whip out my phone to jot down this tasting note.

I was disappointed that of six wines on the list, only one was from Spain, with a further breakdown of two from France, one from California, one from Italy, and one (the Port, for dessert) from Portugal. What can I say? American isn't quite as into their Spanish wines as, well, Iberia ;-).

...but I digress. Most of the cabin had their choice of main course between surf (shrimp) and turf, Jamaican jerk mahi mahi, southern barbecue chicken, and roasted cauliflower orecchiette. I'd have gone for the mahi mahi, but surf and turf was all that remained by the time the order taking reached me at the back of the cabin in seat 8J. Alas, it was tastier than what I'd have had in economy, but uninspiring in comparison to the glances I stole at the mahi mahi across the aisle. I'll not dwell on this because -- scratch your head all you want at this -- I've learned since this flight that I am allergic to shrimp, which answers a lot of questions about some rough nights throughout my life. Not American's fault.

Aircraft and Destinations

American is generally my preferred U.S. airline because (1) I live so close to one of their hubs (DCA) that I can get from the couch in my living room to the seat on my plane in 13 minutes, and (2) its trans-Atlantic joint venture with Iberia, British Airways, and Finnair form the best way to get to Spain (my most common European destination). What this means in practice is that the four airlines sell tickets on one another's planes, allowing you to book itineraries with your preferred airline that may have you actually flying on the planes of any of the other four, as well as to share terminals, connections, and a sharing of many frequent flier benefits. Given a choice, I'll take Iberia's service aboard the Airbus A340 on the JFK-Madrid route over American's on the Boeing 767, though I think that this will even out once American gets new planes on this route in a couple of years. Both American and Iberia are far more comfortable than British Airways, and I'll let you know in about a month how Finnair treats me.

Bottom Line

I am actually not as much of a downer on the flight aboard this old plane as other reviewers I've read. Those who always fly up front are bound to take issue with the experience, but if your goal is a better meal and a better night's sleep en route to Madrid, only Iberia is going to do better. I'd book it again in a heartbeat, and, in fact, almost certainly will.