I flew long-haul economy on both American Airlines and British Airways to see which was better | Digital Asia

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  • With dozens of flights a day operated by several major , the New York-London route is a fiercely competitive one.
  • American Airlines and Airways operate a trans-Atlantic joint venture, and together offer the most flights a day between the two cities.
  • I recently flew a round-trip with one flight operated by American Airlines, and one by British Airways. Here's how they compared.

American Airlines and British Airways have been relatively tight-knit partners since at least 1999, when the Oneworld airline alliance launched.

They became even more intertwined in 2010 when they formed a trans-Atlantic joint venture – along with fellow Oneworld member and Spanish flag carrier Iberia. Unlike alliance or code-share partners, joint venture partners collaborate to set routes and prices, and operate specific routes together as one business with immunity from anti-trust regulations.

Effects of the joint venture are seen more clearly on the high-demand New York City – London route than almost anywhere else. Flown dozens of times a day by at least seven different airlines, the route is a competitive one, attracting both cost-saving leisure travelers looking for the most cost-effective way to fly families across the Atlantic, and business travelers who book high-cost last-minute tickets for urgent meetings and conferences.

However, despite competition from other airlines flying the busy New York-London route, the American Airlines and British Airways joint venture dominates, partly because of the number of flights they operate on the route – about 15 on an average weekday, which is more than any competing airline offers.

The joint venture is tight-knit and seamless enough that when you search for flights on one of the airlines' websites, results from both airlines appear, indistinguishable from each other aside from a tiny note staying that the flight is operated by the partner. That's how my wife and I ended up with an outbound flight operated by American Airlines, and a return flight on British Airways metal. I bought the tickets through British Airways during a sale.

Not only did we fly a leg on each airline – we had a chance to fly the same exact type of plane, a Boeing 777-200. Although I usually fly between New York and the UK once a year or so, I hadn't flown a long-haul American Airlines flight in economy in a while, and my last flight on British Airways, which was a few years ago, was on a different type of plane – a 747-400. So, I was curious to see how the experiences compared.

While both the American Airlines day-time flight to Heathrow, and the British Airways afternoon flight out of London Gatwick were pleasant, here's how they compared in a direct head-to-head.

Check in: American Airlines

David Slotnick/Business Insider

Check-in for American Airlines was so fast that I forgot to take a photo. Admittedly, the morning flight wasn't the busiest time for American's international routes, although plenty of domestic flights leave from JFK's terminal 8 throughout the day.

After we got our boarding passes and dropped off our bags, we ended up stuck behind a (surprisingly large) Cathay Pacific crew at security. We also had TSA PreCheck, which sped the process up.

Check-in: British Airways

David Slotnick/Business Insider

British Airways at Gatwick was…less speedy. There were only two agents working for the entire economy queue, and even if you checked in online, you still needed to have your passport inspected at the desk. It took us 45 minutes to get to the end of the line, and security added another 10 minutes or so before we reached the main terminal.

I've had better experiences at Heathrow, which is more of a hub for international business travelers than Gatwick, but the whole process here was jarringly inefficient.

Check-in winner: American Airlines

Lounge experience: American Airlines at JFK

David Slotnick/Business Insider

International first and business class passengers flying American have access to new flagship lounges and dining options at certain airports. But even if you're flying coach, you can access the Admiral's Club lounges by holding a membership, certain credit cards, or high-level elite status. We enjoyed complimentary coffee, breakfast, and comfortable reclined seats overlooking the tarmac.

The lounge was only sparsely filled, likely because most of American's long-haul flights depart later in the day. This particular lounge, in JFK Terminal 8's B-concourse, is set to close in September, so that the Flagship lounge can expand. There will still be a regular Admirals Club in the B-concourse, though.

Lounge experience: No1 Lounge at LGW

David Slotnick/Business Insider

British Airways offers a lounge at Gatwick for passengers flying in first or business class. Economy flyers who hold a Priority Pass membership, on the other hand, can access the third-party No.1 Lounge. It offers complimentary food and drinks, including alcohol, and has premium drinks available for purchase.

This was my second time in this lounge, and unfortunately – likely due to the fact that it was peak travel time – it was packed to the point that attendants were turning people away at the door. To be fair, Admirals Club locations can get extremely crowded as well. While there's a restaurant in the terminal that a credit for Priority Pass members, we chose to reserve spots in the lounge online – for £5 each – the previous night.

Crowding aside, the lounge is a solid place to relax, with ample comfortable seating with power outlets. However, American Airlines has a slight edge here. The food was better, and the lounge was renovated last year, meaning it has a fresh look and great design.

Keep in mind that this is a tough comparison to make between the two airlines, as the London lounge was operated by a third-party, and lounge access rules vary significantly between airlines. That said…

Lounge experience winner: American Airlines at JFK

Boarding: American Airlines

David Slotnick/Business Insider

We left the lounge and got to our gate a few minutes before the listed boarding time…and found it almost empty.

American Airlines has an intense focus on on-time departures as a metric (this is referred to internally as “D0,” according to aviation blogger Gary Leff), and consequently boards flights early. This was fine in this case, since it meant we got to walk right on and settle down. But it can be annoying if you miss out on overhead bin space if the plane boards early.

Boarding: British Airways

David Slotnick/Business Insider

In London Gatwick's south terminal, gate areas are totally enclosed. You show your boarding pass and passport when you go through the door to your gate, instead of when you board, so you can get settled and organized in the gate area. There's a ton of seating, and boarding is remarkably calm and organized thanks to the enclosure. We were in the last boarding zone, but the whole process was quick and efficient.

Boarding experience winner: British Airways at LGW

Seats and cabin: American Airlines

David Slotnick/Business Insider

American Airlines has a fairly diverse, non-standardized fleet, owing partly to its acquisition of US Airways and absorption of its brand in 2015. That's meant that some older, less-comfortable planes are still floating around in service.

However, the 777-200s and 777-300ERs that fly its flagship routes, including between New York and London, have recently been refreshed with new, clean, modern interiors, even in economy. Seats are pretty comfortable, about 18 inches wide with 32 inches of pitch.

A major perk: the first few rows of the main cabin are laid out in a 3-3-3 configuration, although the rest of the cabin is a tighter 3-4-3. This won't be the case for long: as American installs a new class of service, Premium Economy, the entire main cabin will be cramped into the tight 10-abreast layout. This particular flight – which, unlike the majority of Europe-bound flights, left in the morning – was only half-full, so we had an empty middle seat between us.

The seat was comfortable and well padded, and had a useful tray table that you could choose to open just halfway, and slide towards and away from you.

Each seat had a universal power outlet as well as a USB port, with an intuitive in-flight entertainment system that could be controlled by touchscreen or with a pop-out remote. There was a solid mix of TV shows and movies, including recent Oscar nominees.

Seats and cabin: British Airways

David Slotnick/Business Insider

The economy cabin on British Airways' 777 was less polished, and certainly not new.

While the entire cabin was in a desirable 3-3-3 layout, with about 17.5-18″ of width and 31″ of pitch, according to Seatguru, the cabin felt outdated. The seats were old, with pilling fabric and loose padding – the seat-back, meanwhile, felt like it was missing all of its stuffing.

There was a vaguely yellowish hue to the plastic on the walls, bulkheads, and overhead compartments. Each passenger got a pillow and blanket, which I used as padding for my seat-back. Our flight was about 3/4 full, and we lucked out and got an empty middle seat again.

There was just one thing that I liked about the seat: the headrest. It was comfortable and supportive, with “wings” that flipped down so that you lean your head on either side.

It's worth noting a few things about this cabin, though.

First, it's similar to what I've experienced on British Airway's primary New York service out of London's Heathrow, which is operated by larger 747 planes. However, the 747s are in the process of being retrofitted with an updated interior, according to the website London Air Travel.

Additionally, the 777 I flew is also scheduled to be refurbished with a new cabin, although it will be changed to a denser 3-4-3 configuration. While the new seats and design will be an improvement, the tighter quarters won't be. Whether the new cabin with it's 3-4-3 layout beats American's new cabin remains to be seen.

Cabin winner: American Airlines

Food and drinks (catering): American Airlines

Food and drinks (catering): American Airlines
David Slotnick/Business Insider

Drink service started on the flight about half an hour after take-off. I ordered a vodka and tomato juice – the flight attendant told me that wine and beer were complimentary, but there was a charge for spirits. She was nice, though, and said that my first round was on her.

The lunch service started a few minutes later. We had a choice of balsamic chicken or pasta with cheese and pesto. I went with the chicken, which was surprisingly tasty, without the rubbery texture of the airplane food of years past. It came with pearl couscous with basil, as well as shredded carrots, peppers, and mushrooms. The lunch entree was served with a whole wheat roll, a small salad, a wedge of cheese, and a brownie. Everything was good, especially compared to the low expectations I have for airplane food.

Shortly before beginning our descent into London, the flight attendants came through with a second, smaller meal – a stromboli roll filled with zucchini, chickpeas, tomatoes, peppers, and onions – and another drink service. Everything was tasty, and the flight attendants came by quickly to take our trash.

Food and drinks (catering): British Airways

David Slotnick/Business Insider

On my British Airways flight, drinks service started about 45 minutes after take-off. I've had some fairly clinical flight attendants on British Airways before, so I was very pleasantly surprised by the cabin crew I had this time. The flight attendants were incredibly friendly, and spent the whole flight joking and laughing with passengers. I asked for a scotch, and got two airplane bottles of Glenlivet – on British Airways long-haul flights, spirits are complimentary, and everything's a double.

Dinner service started about 45 minutes after the first drink cart came through, and there was a bit of confusion at first. The cabin crew had a few special dietary meals for people, but were having trouble figuring out which seats they were in. The dinner carts moved down the aisle very slowly – I was about halfway back in the coach cabin, and it took about 30 minutes for them to get to us.

First came the drinks cart, with a few different wines prominently displayed. I went for red, and chose from two different types – then the flight attendant gave me a mini-bottle of each, saying “why don't you try both, see which you like best?” Yep, this was destined to be a boozy flight.

British Airways recently announced new catering in its long-haul economy (“World Traveller”) cabin, and although my flight was about two weeks after the new catering began to be rolled out, my flight had the older service.

Although I'm looking forward to trying the new meal service on my next BA flight, I found dinner perfectly tasty. We had a choice of chicken casserole in ale sauce with kale mashed potatoes, or farfalle pasta in tomato and mascarpone sauce – I went with the chicken. It was really good – not something I'm used to saying about airplane food, unless I'm in international first class.

It also came with a small water bottle, a cup for coffee or tea (which followed), a roll, a shockingly good side of grilled vegetables, and a wheat berry salad (although I noticed some people got a fruit salad instead). There wasn't any dessert with the main meal.

About an hour and a half before arrival, the flight attendants came through with a tea service – a small tuna sandwich, a mini Toblerone bar, and your choice of tea, coffee, or whatever booze was left on board.

Food and drinks winner: British Airways

In-flight entertainment: American Airlines

David Slotnick/Business Insider

Sadly, at least in my view, seat-back screens are becoming less common on planes, as airlines move to a “Bring Your Own Device” model – with Delta as an exception. While not everyone cares about having an in-flight entertainment system, since many people bring a tablet or laptop loaded with movies, it's something that I like to have – maybe I want to multitask, or save battery on my device (since not every plane offers power outlets at every seat).

The in-flight entertainment system on American's 777-200 was impressive. It could be controlled through a touch screen or a pop-out retractable remote control, and was modern and responsive. There were a few different map views available under the flight status menu, as well as plenty 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.

The system was quick and responsive, easy to navigate, had plenty of entertainment options, and had a USB charging port and universal power outlet built in so you could keep your personal device charged if you chose to watch that instead. Really, there isn't much more you could ask for, aside from live TV. There was also Wi-Fi available for a fee, but I didn't use it.

In-flight entertainment: British Airways

David Slotnick/Business Insider

The seat-back entertainment system on British Airways' 777-200 was on the same level as the cabin. It was fine – I'd rather have any seat-back entertainment as opposed to nothing – but old and outdated.

The selection wasn't bad, and included some recent movies and a few TV shows, but it was pretty clunky to navigate. Each time I tapped the touch-screen or chose an option on the remote, I'd have to wait as a “please wait” dialog box popped up. I probably spent more time waiting for menu options to load than I did looking through the system.

The screen was lower definition than what American offered, and it was hard to see darker colors and shades. One other gripe: the remote control was located in my right armrest, and I spent the entire flight accidentally pressing buttons with my elbow.

While the flight-show screen was less sophisticated than American's, it offered all the essential information: a moving map, ETA, time, distance traveled, speed, and altitude.

It's worth noting that the in-flight entertainment system is due to be replaced when the plane's cabin is refurbished, so the clunky old system won't be around for too much longer.

In-flight entertainment winner: American Airlines

You may have guessed it so far, but the overall winner for best flight experience was…

Flickr/Eric Salard

…American Airlines.

When it came down to it, both airlines did a perfectly fine job flying between New York and London. Seats were adequately comfortable, the food options were tasty, and passing the time was easy enough with plenty of new releases and older classics loaded into the in-flight entertainment systems.

However, the American Airlines cabin experience was simply better. The newer seats were more comfortable, the in-flight entertainment system was superior, and the plethora of power outlets was welcome. The cabin design and interior lighting was more modern and ultimately made for a more comfortable flight. Plus, the fact that the forward half of the main cabin was in a 3-3-3 layout, rather than a tighter 3-4-3, meant that at least some of us got to stay comfortable.

Alternatively, the British Airways cabin was just subpar compared to what you'd expect from a flag carrier on a flagship route. Admittedly Gatwick is less of a major business hub than Heathrow, but the in-flight product is similar enough on planes leaving from the two airports bound for New York.

That said, the catering on the British Airways flight was superior to what American offered, and it's set to get even better as the newest dining options are rolled out across its long-haul route network.

It's worth noting that for better or worse, these cabins – and consequently, these flight experiences – won't be around for too much longer. American is continuing to roll out premium economy across its 777 fleet, which will mean that the handful of rows that have a 3-3-3 layout are not long for this world. Once the new cabins are rolled out, I'm looking forward to booking another mixed American/British round-trip to see how the newest products stack up.

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