- With dozens of flights a day operated by several major airlines, the New York-London route is a high-traffic, competitive route.
- American Airlines and British Airways, which operate a transatlantic joint venture, offer the most flights a day and are considered one of the most prolific operators of the route.
- I flew in American Airlines' economy-class cabin from New York to London this month to see what it was like.
American Airlines and British Airways, partners in a transatlantic joint venture, offer about 15 flights between New York and London on an average weekday - more than any of their competitors on the route.
Though United, Delta, Virgin Atlantic, and Norwegian Air Shuttle, a low-cost carrier, offer numerous daily flights, the partners are among the most prolific carriers on the route.
When you search flights on one of the airlines' websites, results from both airlines appear, virtually indistinguishable from one another. That's how, after booking steeply discounted tickets through a British Airways flash sale, I found myself with a round trip between New York and London featuring both airlines.
My outbound flight on American Airlines was originally a red-eye, but I had to change to one departing at 10:20 a.m.
I usually fly between New York and the UK once a year or so, but I hadn't flown a long-haul American Airlines flight in economy class for a very long time. (I did have a red-eye in business class on a frequent-flyer award ticket last year.)
I also hadn't flown this route during the day before, usually opting for the red-eye - and the fitful sleep that comes with it in coach, making this a fairly new flying experience for me.
Here's what the flight was like and what I'd recommend to any traveller.
After dropping off our checked luggage and making a quick trip through security -- thanks to TSA PreCheck being valid on international flights with participating carriers -- we headed to the American Airlines' lounge. Even if you're flying coach, you can access Admirals Club lounges by holding frequent-flyer elite status or being a cardholder or authorised user on some American Airlines credit cards.
We went to the gate a few minutes before the scheduled boarding time. Our plane was there ...
... but hardly any other passengers.
American Airlines has an intense focus on on-time departures as a metric, and it has been known to start the boarding process early to try to meet the scheduled departure time. Most of our fellow passengers boarded before we got to the gate, though there wasn't any announcement that boarding was starting early. It was almost eerily empty as we walked toward the jet bridge.
We would be flying on a Boeing 777-200. American Airlines recently refreshed the cabins of those planes, so the interior was clean, fresh, and modern.
There were a ton of empty seats on our flight -- I'd estimate that, at most, the plane was only half full. Our row and the entire row in front of us were empty.
By economy standards (though American calls it the "main cabin"), the seats were pretty comfortable, well padded, each about 18 inches wide with about 32 inches of pitch.
It was enough that it didn't feel cramped.
Each passenger had a plastic-wrapped blanket and pillow -- which was fairly plush and nice -- waiting at their seats. Shortly before takeoff, the flight attendants came around distributing earbuds to anyone who wanted a pair. Pretty soon, we were in the air.
I really liked that you could open the tray table just halfway, giving you somewhere to put a drink or snack without taking up all your space. I could even get out of my seat to use the lavatory easily without putting up the table.
Drink service started about a half-hour after takeoff, and I had a bloody mary -- it was a vacation, after all. The flight attendant told me beer and wine were complimentary (as are soft drinks), but there was a charge for spirits. Then she said this one was on her. Cheers!
Just a few minutes later, the flight attendants came through with lunch service. We had a choice of balsamic chicken or pasta with cheese and pesto. My wife said the pasta was tasty, though she didn't taste any pesto.
I had the chicken. It was pretty good, with a nice texture and flavour, though I have no idea why it was described it as "balsamic" -- it tasted more like a gravy. It came with pearl couscous with basil, as well as shredded carrots, peppers, and mushrooms.
Lunch also came with a whole-wheat roll, a small side salad, a mini water bottle, crackers, a wedge of soft cheese, and a caramel-flavored brownie. It was all decent, though the cheese was pretty weird and rubbery and the roll was dry. All in all, though, it was better than you would expect from aeroplane food in coach.
After lunch, the cabin lights were dimmed to make way for relaxing purple mood lighting.
Each seat had a universal power outlet, a USB port, and a seat-back in-flight entertainment system that could be controlled by a touchscreen or a pop-out remote control. I found it to be nice and fast.
The opposite side of the remote had a Qwerty keyboard that worked with a cool seat-to-seat chat system. It felt more gimmicky than useful, but I guess if you're travelling with friends seated elsewhere, it could be fun.
You could choose among a few map views on the flight-status screen. I was a fan of this imitation cockpit head-up display.
There were a ton of movies, including recent Oscar nominees, plus TV shows, music, and a few games. You could change how movies and shows were displayed, cycling through a text list, small icons, or a movie-poster-like display. Eventually, I settled on the latest "Thor" movie, which I somehow hadn't seen yet. (I'm sorry, Chris Hemsworth!)
Shortly before our descent, as we were over Galway, Ireland, the flight attendants came through with a second small meal and a final drink service. The meal -- a stromboli roll filled with zucchini, chickpeas, tomatoes, peppers, and onions -- was pretty tasty. The flight crew came through to collect trash quickly and prepare the cabin for landing.
Soon enough, we were on the ground, about 45 minutes early. Here's how I thought American Airlines fared on my first long-haul economy flight with the carrier in a long time.
Flying a busy route in economy class can be an exercise in managing expectations.
Flight attendants can end up being stretched thin, and, depending on the airline and plane, you might find yourself in uncomfortably tight quarters with other passengers, knocking elbows with your neighbour with your knees digging into the seat in front of you.
I found American Airlines to offer a much better experience than that. The fact that my flight was unusually empty almost certainly played a role in how attentive the flight attendants were and how peaceful the cabin felt, but the cabin and the airline's soft products were also key.
The recently refurbished cabin felt nice and clean, with a pleasant colour palette and a relaxing environment. The seats were nicely padded and comfortable, and while they may not be the widest or offer the most legroom, it was certainly enough by economy standards.
Though many airlines are phasing out seat-back entertainment in favour of a bring-your-own-device approach, American's modern, responsive in-flight entertainment was a treat. There was plenty of programming to choose from, and the system just worked. It can be so incredibly frustrating when the touchscreen doesn't react to your swipes and taps - or jabs - or when the screen takes a nice long break before responding to the button you pressed on the remote.
Passengers can also access WiFi for a fee, but I didn't need to use it.
It's worth noting that American doesn't offer seat-back entertainment in its fleet of Boeing 767 aircraft, which operate many other routes between the US's East Coast and Europe. Both Delta and United have personal in-flight entertainment systems on their long-haul 767 fleets.
The crew members on my flight were also fantastic. The pilot gave us a few updates on our progress, and the flight attendants were friendly and helpful throughout.
My only complaint was that the entire meal-and-drink service felt rushed.
There was a second drink service immediately after lunch, but I was still working on my first drink. Garbage collection happened about 15 to 20 minutes after lunch, and there was a third drink service right behind it.
I would guess that was the case because the cabin was so empty - it probably didn't take the flight attendants very long to finish each task.
Overall, I would absolutely fly American on this route again, as well as take the daytime flight. While you end up losing a day to travel, I think it's worth it to avoid feeling groggy and miserable for the entire day - and sometimes for a few days - after a red-eye.