How Hollywood flies: MailOnline tries out American Airlines’ VIP services on an astonishing £12,500 return trip from Heathrow to LA via New York, with first class cabins, private terminals and HELICOPTER transfers
- Have you ever wondered how A-listers, CEOs and the world’s movers and shakers negotiate huge airports?
- MailOnline’s Ted Thornhill finds out on a journey to Los Angeles using American Airlines’ Five Star Service
- This is a pick ’n’ mix of VIP add-ons for the well-heeled – and some of them are absolutely sensational
- Here Ted describes each leg of the journey to Los Angeles and gives each a VIP-O-Meter reading…
American Airlines is the largest airline in the world by fleet size and passengers carried – so we know that it’s good at shifting lots of people from A to B.
But does it have anything to offer those who want to get from A to B in style – and quickly and discreetly. What’s it got for the Hollywood elite, the CEOs, the movers and the shakers? Quite a lot, as I’m about to find out.
I’m trying out American Airlines’ most VIP services, stepping into the shoes of an A-lister on a journey from London Heathrow to Los Angeles and back, via New York. And as I’m about to reveal, it’s a frankly astonishing world of secret lifts, SUV shuttles across the tarmac, first-class Champagne-filled cabins, private departure terminals and helicopter transfers.
Read on for a stage-by-stage breakdown of the £12,537 ($16,129) trip, with VIP-O-Meter ratings for each leg.
The International First Class Lounge at London Heathrow and Five Star Service
Ted’s first taste of American Airlines’ top-tier offerings is the International First Class Lounge, pictured, at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 3, pictured
I’m flying to New York’s JFK Airport first class with American Airlines – Flagship First to use the carrier’s nomenclature – from Terminal 3 and that means I get to check-in at an exclusive first-class desk that lies behind a discreet dark screen in a corner.
Queue? Zilch people. Staff? Chirpy.
And it’s here that I meet my bonhomie-infused personal AA ‘greeter’, the first of several on the trip.
They are part and parcel of the extra layer of luxury I’m experiencing – American Airlines’ Five Star Service, which is a pick ’n’ mix of VIP add-ons for the well-heeled.
Some are spectacular. More on those in due course.
The greeters, I discover, make all the stress of negotiating an airport disappear, as if by magic. They carry bags, guide you through security, usher you to lounges, whisk you through secret entrances and exits and into hidden lifts.
When it’s time to board the plane they collect you from wherever you’re lurking and escort you onto the aircraft – first, last or whenever you fancy.
In American Airlines’ International First Class Lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 – there is help-yourself Moët & Chandon (pictured left). On the right is the tasty pan-fried sea bass that Ted eats there
After security, I’m shown into AA’s International First Class Lounge, one of the perks of having the most premium of premium tickets.
Here the VIP levels wobble slightly though. I have a nicely cooked pan-fried sea bass, two pleasing glasses of Champagne – Moët & Chandon – and a scrumptious panna cotta.
The service? Slick and gracious.
However, the lounge’s décor doesn’t inspire – a tad too dreary and functional to feel fully VIP.
Ted’s scrumptious first class lounge panna cotta, left. The image on the right is a grab from Ted’s GroPro footage of his chauffeur-driven electric cart ride from the lounge to the gate at Terminal 3
My flight is at 17.05 and at around 4.15pm I’m introduced to the next perk – riding in an electric cart to the gate.
What superb larks.
My ever-smiling greeter, Daniela, guides me through the gate check to my seat – 1J – and says cheerio as I settle in.
VIP-O-Meter ratings: Five Star Service – 4/5. First-class lounge – 3/5
First class to JFK
Ted flies first class with American Airlines from Heathrow to JFK. Pictured is one of the enormous suites in the first cabin
Ted settles into the VIP way of life in seat 1J on his flight to JFK
The plane is a 777-300 and has just eight first-class suites at the front. An exclusive club.
Upon boarding each one is festooned with a bountiful supply of luxurious Casper bedding – a mattress pad, a pillow, a duvet, a day blanket, a lumbar pillow, plus slippers (a flight attendant offers me pyjamas too).
The seat itself I discover, once I’ve moved the mountain of linen aside, is very comfortable, with chunky armrests, and it’s a whopper – measuring 6ft 8in in lie-flat mode and 21.5 inches across.
There’s also a nifty feature – it can be swivelled to face the window and a small fold-down table, creating a mini-office environment, and angled towards the TV screen.
The first class suite affords plenty of room for the stretching of legs (left). The suite comes with a staggering volume of luxurious Casper bedding (right)
The a la carte menu Ted chooses from on the flight to JFK (left). The first class wine list on the JFK leg
HOW TO ARRIVE AT THE AIRPORT IN THE BEST POSSIBLE STYLE
When one is flying from Heathrow in VIP-style, there’s only one way to arrive there – like a VIP. So I turn to elite chauffeur company iChauffeur. What an experience. My driver, Rosen, arrives 15 minutes early in an epic S-Class Mercedes, texts me politely to say that he is waiting for me, loads my bags into the back – and then gives a masterclass on professional chauffeuring. He’s chatty, friendly, courteous and I feel totally relaxed in the back – even amid aggressive traffic. Rosen remains as cool as a cucumber at all times. And the car is a gem – it almost seems to float along the road. Want maximum VIP-O-Meter ratings? Ask for the Rolls-Royce or Bentley…
VIP-O-Meter rating: 4.5/5.
A return iChauffeur experience from central London to Heathrow Airport starts from £110 + VAT each way in an S-Class Mercedes. To book email [email protected], call +44 (0) 208 400 4829 or visit www.ichauffeur.co.uk/airport.
Chauffeur also offers clients bespoke tours, close protection, special event co-ordination and exclusive experiences in the UK and in over 100 cities worldwide.
Praise must also be dispensed for the seriously classy Bang and Olufsen headphones (which you also get in business), the excellent This is Ground amenity kit featuring products from top beauty brand Allies of Skin, the handy touch-screen control panel at the side you can use to adjust the seat to pre-set positions and much of the food and beverage offering.
The welcome glass of Prosecco is really delicious – well-structured and fruity, and bonus points for the chief stewardess for not pretending it’s Champagne – the Lavau Blanc Chateauneuf-du-Pape white (£21/$27 a bottle retail) and Maison Bouachon La Tiare du Pape red (£22/$28 a bottle) I try later are both very good, my crab starter fresh and moreish, my main-course of braised leg of free-range chicken succulent and the pre-landing ‘gourmet cheeseburger’ is basic, but tender, fresh and tasty.
The ice cream sundae and sizeable pre-landing cookie hit the mark too.
But there are blemishes.
Let’s start with the TV screen and the hand-held controller for it – both are patchy in their responsiveness and the screen size is a tad undersized for a first-class cabin at 17 inches.
For comparison, ANA recently unveiled a 43in first-class TV screen, Emirates’ is 32 inches and BA’s A380 first-class screen is 23 inches.
Once the movies are up and running I’m immersed and the angle of the screen is such that you can still, pleasingly, watch it even when it’s stowed – but the entertainment system on AA’s 777-200 in business class is superior. Bigger (18 inches), sharper and easier to use.
Then there’s the second-course salad – ‘seasonal greens with pear, endive’ – that’s bland and bitter (and contains some of the same leaves from the crab dish) and the main-course lettuce portion impaired by a chunk of tough, inedible stalk not even worthy of a school dinner.
And the service.
Firstly, the welcome glass of Prosecco arrives after I’ve been seated for about 20 minutes – and after I’m offered a newspaper.
It’s late afternoon, why would a morning newspaper be a priority? I don’t want to hear the rustling of newspapers, I want to hear the popping of corks!
Surely it’s fizz o’clock when the first customer enters the cabin.
Delightful dining: The cabin crew convert Ted’s suite into a mini restaurant table in the air
Ted’s ‘fresh and moreish’ crab starter (left). And on the right, the second course – aromatic squash soup
Ted’s third course – ‘fresh seasonal greens with pear’ – which he describes as ‘bland and bitter’. And note how it contains some of the same leaves as the first course
Braised leg of free-range chicken with red wine sauce and truffled spelt (left). The chicken is succulent, writes Ted, but the lettuce leaf top left not so good. On the right is a traditional ice cream sundae, which ‘hits the mark’
Ted’s pre-landing ‘gourmet cheeseburger’, which he describes as ‘basic’ – but ‘tender, fresh and tasty’
The seat position is controlled by this intuitive handset, which has pre-seat options for ‘take-off/landing’, ‘desk’, ‘movie’, ‘relax’, ‘bed’ and ‘dine’
I am also slightly shocked that the chief stewardess – the purser – completely forgets my red wine order later on.
I give her ample opportunity to remember, letting her walk past me twice before summoning one of her colleagues, who takes my order again but appears not to have heard of the varietal and has to take the list away to work out what’s what.
Hiccups aside, the crew are pleasant enough and efficient enough – I’m addressed as Mr Thornhill, my jacket is hung up for me and so forth – but that shouldn’t be my verdict for a crew in a top-tier cabin.
What’s lacking are first-class flourishes.
The pre-take-off scene at Heathrow – with Ted’s menus, Prosecco, headphones, slippers and amenity kit laid out
The first class amenity kit is by This Is Ground, and contains products from top beauty brand Allies of Skin
The suite comes with a fold-out mirror and all manner of ports
For example, I’m not shown the bottle and offered the chance to taste and check it’s not corked when I order a glass of wine, something that happens in BA’s first-class cabin.
And no one checks in on me during the flight to ask if I’m ok, or at any stage if I need help with the suite’s features.
More subtly, there’s no put-you-at-ease, nothing’s-too-much-trouble warmth on display.
It feels like this particular crew, at times, are going through the motions.
I’d rate the service I had in AA business class earlier in the year more highly.
Lastly, a couple of grumbles with the hard product. Yes, it’s a big suite, with tonnes of legroom, three windows and room to swing several cats – but it’s a wee bit open. I’m fairly exposed to my fellow first-classers.
My brow also furrows at the lack of storage – there’s just a small water bottle holder, a cubby hole for shoes and a tiny tray to one side that’s big enough for a phone.
VIP-O-Meter rating – 3/5
Five Star Service arrival greet and helicopter transfer to downtown Manhattan
Ted’s view of Manhattan as his helicopter transfer descends for a downtown landing
For the next stage of my weekend sojourn across the States I’m put in the capable hands of AA greeter Patty, who is waiting for me on the air bridge at JFK as I disembark.
She’s clearly memorised my passport photograph because the moment she sets eyes on me she greets me by name.
And she’s an utter joy to boot. Chatty and full of beans.
She escorts me through border control in minutes, making sure I press all the right buttons on the automatic visa machine whatsit, then whisks me to the front of the queue for the border agent and out to a presidential black American Airlines’-branded Cadillac Escalade SUV.
The door is opened for me, my bags are put in the trunk and off we go to the helipad.
Yep, the helipad. (The VIP-0-Meter needle is twitching dramatically.)
American Airlines has partnered with helicopter service Blade and now offers transfers by air to and from JFK and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
It’s a masterstroke.
Not only does it knock massive chunks off transfer times – but it’s got gargantuan dollops of wow-factor too.
American Airlines has teamed up with Blade to offer transfers to and from JFK and LAX
The car pulls up at the Blade terminal, out I get, the pilot joins us and a helper carries my bags to the helicopter.
Within two or three minutes I’m inside and the engine is being fired up.
I’m as giddy as a schoolboy.
The pilot deploys some banter.
‘I’ve got a fire extinguisher up front,’ he says during the pre-flight safety briefing. ‘And I’ll do you a deal. If I’m on fire, you put me out, if you’re on fire, I’ll put you out.’
I like him.
And off we go, swooping over Brooklyn to the Statue of Liberty, with me in the back in a state of dumbfounded shock and awe.
It’s a truly thrilling way to arrive.
I’m mesmerised by the lights of the city as we swoop past Lady Lib to a waterfront landing pad.
The whole journey has taken no more than about 10 minutes.
VIP-O-Meter rating: 5/5
Five Star Service departure greet at JFK, Flagship Lounge and Flagship First Dining prior to LAX flight – then car service to plane
The Flagship First Dining area at JFK is sleekly furnished and offers tables with prime taxiway views
Exclusive: Flagship First Dining is available to first customers only – no riff-raff from business allowed
Ted’s Flagship First Dining spicy cheddar breakfast sandwich
At 9.45am the following morning I’m back at JFK for more Five Star Service shenanigans.
I’m greeted kerbside as I step out by greeter Eileen, who’s from the same awesomeness mould as Patty from the previous evening.
She ushers me through frosted-glass doors to a very swish Flagship First check-in area, where one is relieved of one’s checked luggage by assistants who then process it.
No unsightly conveyor belts here.
Next, I’m taken to a TSA agent who checks my passport and the pair of them guide me to a security lane.
Eileen even holds a tray for me while I shove my phone and keys into my rucksack.
We’re in firm VIP-land here.
Then it’s off to the Flagship Lounge and its Flagship First Dining area. Both of these are a definite step-up style-wise from the London lounge.
It’s a world of statement lampshades, warm wood panelling, troughs of Champagne and wine, shower rooms and designer seating with amazing views of the airport and the city beyond.
JFK’s AA lounge, pictured, is a definite step-up style-wise from the London lounge, writes Ted
The JFK lounge’s groovy seating, left, and on the right, one of the lounge’s shower cubicles
After his breakfast, Ted is chauffeured to the gate for his LAX flight on board the extraordinary AA A321T (pictured
In the hushed first dining area, which has a bar at one end, I feast on a spicy cheddar breakfast sandwich served on a brioche bun and avocado.
The waitress is charming.
Sated, it’s time to reacquaint myself with the AA SUV.
Thrillingly I’m driven across the tarmac head-of-state style to the gate for my flight to LAX.
Eileen asks if I’d like to board first ‘to get settled in’. And why not.
She shows me on to the plane for the next exciting VIP instalment.
VIP-O-Meter ratings: Five Star Service – 4.5/5. Lounge – 4/5
Flight to Los Angeles (LAX) – first class on an A321T
Ted’s seat for the JFK to LAX leg – 1A. This is a full lie-flat seat with all the bells and whistles, including Casper bedding and Bang & Olufsen headphones
Suite life: It’s all smiles on the A321T
The six-hour LAX flight is being operated by an Airbus A321T, with the T standing for ‘transcontinental’.
Though perhaps it should carry an E designation, for epic.
It’s one special plane, with just 102 seats instead of the usual 180-odd and an incredible (for the size of plane) first class section at the front comprising just 10 suites, arranged in an all-aisle-access reverse herringbone 1-1 configuration, 20 lie-flat business class seats behind these in a 2-2 pattern, and 72 economy class seats, half of which have extra legroom.
In other words, it’s half-way to being a private jet.
My berth is seat 1A. Top left. And I love it.
What I’m ensconced in is a business class suite that’s very similar to the one on AA’s 777 – with all the bells and whistles.
The seat, easily manoeuvred with a small control panel to the left, is 6ft 7.5in long when fully flat (so just half an inch shorter than the 777 first-class seat) and I feel nicely cocooned, thanks to the wrap-around seat shell.
All the goodies present and correct on the A321T – Prosecco, headphones and an amenity kit
The A321T lemon shrimp and tomato feta salad starter (left). It’s scallops with panko for the main course (right). And the hilarious Galaxy Quest on the entertainment screen
The transcontinental Athletic Propulsion Labs amenity kit contents
In-flight entertainment is viewed on a (responsive) 15.4in screen, the Bang and Olufsen headphones are back – excellent – and the service sparky, sincere, friendly and efficient.
I’m told ‘the bar is open’ just two or three minutes after boarding and so I opt for a Prosecco.
And the two glass of De Venoge Cordon Bleu Brut Champagne (around £38/$50 a bottle) I quaff later are very pleasant too.
The menu, meanwhile, is another a la carte bonanza. I feast on lemon shrimp, mixed baby greens, classic beer cheese soup and scallops with panko and a roasted red pepper sauce – and another ice cream sundae.
The transcontinental wine list, left, and on the right is a picture of the a la carte menu
Other perks include an amenity kit by LA shoe company Athletic Propulsion Labs with skincare products by Zenology – which is easily repurposed – and Casper bedding (a pillow, lumbar pillow, duvet and blanket).
I really enjoy the flight – and that’s not the Champagne and Prosecco speaking.
Perfection isn’t quite attained though. The aforementioned salad is dull – I’d rather eat the cutlery – the screen can’t be seen when it’s stowed, which is annoying, and the armrest on the right is too far away for my arm to rest on.
But do I feel like a VIP? Oh yes.
Five Star Service arrival greet – helicopter to downtown LA
Ted poses in front of his ride to downtown Los Angeles – a Blade helicopter. The service departs from the southern edge of the hub
The Blade helicopter and Ted’s head-of-state style AA ride from the gate at LAX
And the VIP-O-Meter needle isn’t about to descend.
I disembark in Los Angeles and am greeted once more by name the moment I step off the plane – this time by AA’s Five Star Service greeter Tricia.
As my fellow transcontinentals stroll across the air bridge, I’m shown to a side door and a flight of steps leading straight to a Cadillac SUV waiting on the tarmac.
VIP? I feel like a Hollywood star.
A grin is fixed to my face as we cruise along the taxiway and onto LAX’s bizarre inner highway that runs parallel to one of the runways and loops around to cargo hangars and a helicopter base where my Blade transfer to downtown LA is waiting.
I try to play it cool, as if I’m used to this. Who am I kidding? The pilot and Five Star team wait patiently while I take selfies and shake my head in disbelief at the sheer out-there-ness of it all.
The surreal levels escalate when the pilot tells me that he’s originally from High Wycombe, near London, and that his dad was in The Professionals TV series.
We take off almost vertically as an A380 rumbles past, then loop behind the airport and head east, before flying north to a downtown helipad, flying at just 300ft above the freeway.
This is a snap of Ted’s view from the Blade helicopter as it flies 300ft above the city to a downtown helipad
The chic Blade bar at the downtown helipad – and the nifty car-friendly sippy cup you can have your drink served in (left). One of the best things about helicopter flights is being able to listen in to air traffic control commands through the headset (right)
The experience is, quite simply, sensational.
And as a bonus, there’s a very chic pop-up Blade bar next to the car park helipad, where I sip a refreshing Provence rosé out of a groovy transparent sippy cup with a wine glass inside it – so I can drink it in the taxi to the hotel.
The Private Suite at LAX and Flagship First Dining
The Private Suite, pictured, at LAX makes for an astonishingly VIP start to a journey
The Private Suite is stacked with freebies, from wine and Champagne to pharmacy products
There’s no let-up in the exclusivity levels when I return to LAX for my return flight to Heathrow.
Instead of mixing with members of the public before boarding the aircraft, I’m dropped off at The Private Suite, an extraordinary ultra-exclusive terminal.
We pull into a discreetly signposted driveway on the outer edge of the airport and a security guard wearing a bullet-proof vest steps out and asks my driver who’s in the back.
Once the all-clear is given plain grey industrial gates slide open and in we go.
Access to the Private Suite is via a very discreet entrance on the outer edge of the airport
The Private Suite operates its own fleet of BMWs to chauffeur passengers to the gates
On Ted’s visit to the Private Suite, he has the ‘grinding hassle’ of sharing the lounge with one other person
Those using the Private Suite are processed through the terminal’s own private security lane. The queue? Whoever your travelling companions are…
Three Private Suite staff members are standing outside waiting to greet me.
I’m ushered inside to a chic en-suite lounge area that I have to share with one whole other person.
Ugh. The grinding hassle.
There are freebies galore – free Champagne, free wine, free beer, and in the bathroom, all manner of pharmacy products there for the taking, from vitamin tablets to nail clippers.
And here in the Private Suite, wait for it… I get my very own dedicated TSA agents who check my passport and put my bags through an X-Ray machine before I’m driven to the gate with greeter Tricia in the faithful AA Cadillac SUV.
American Airlines drives Ted from The Private Suite to his gate – where he sees his Heathrow-bound 777 roll in (pictured)
American’s Flagship First Dining serves up a superb burger (pictured) and fine Champagne – by Krug
By happy coincidence, the 777-300 that I’ll be flying in back to Heathrow pulls up right next to us just after I clamber out into the bright sunshine – a sight to behold.
I’m bowled over by the enormity of it.
Tricia takes me to Flagship First Dining via a staff-only lift, where I indulge in two glasses of lovely Krug Champagne and one of the best burgers I’ve had all year.
The final photo: The views from the AA lounge at LAX are amazing. Pictured is Ted’s 777 being prepared for the flight to Heathrow Airport
TRAVEL FACTS – AND WHAT TED’S LUXURY AMERICAN AIRLINES TRIP COST
1x $350 (£270) at LHR – Five Star Service
1x $350 (£270) at JFK – Five Star Service
1x $1,770 (£1,375) at JFK – Blade helicopter movement (charter)
1x $350 (£270) at JFK – Five Star Service
1x $350 (£270) at LAX – Five Star Service
1x $1,770 (£1,375) at LAX – Blade helicopter movement (charter)
1x $1,200 (£930) at LAX – Five Star Private Departure
1x $350 (£270) at LHR – Five Star Service
Private charter: (what Ted took) roughly $1,770 (£1,375) each way, $3,540 (£2,750) for Ted’s two charters.
Pay per seat airport schedule: $195/£150 seat (each way) available in both New York and Los Angeles.
Total excluding AA flights: $6490/£5,050.
Total flight cost for Ted’s itinerary including return in business class: $9,639/£7,487. American quotes £3,600 for the Heathrow to JFK leg and £1,800 for the LA leg, but these are approximate. Prices vary according to date, class, routing and booking window.
Grand total: $16,129/£12,537.
For more on American airline services in general visit AA.com – and for its VIP services, including Blade and The Private Suite, visit AA.com/luxury.
For more on things to do in LA – discoverlosangeles.com. Top NYC hotel – www.thewilliamsburghotel.com (review to come). Top LA hotel – Montage Beverly Hills (review to come).
Ted was a guest of American Airlines throughout.
After a few minutes in the lounge – which has incredible views of the parked aircraft – it’s time to board.
Tricia sees me off after escorting me past the gate agents – I don’t even need to go to the trouble of reaching for my boarding card or passport.
She shows them a pass that proves I’m pre-checked in all departments.
Time now to pack the VIP-0-Meter away. After all, I’m slumming it in business class – and that doesn’t even register.
VIP-0-Meter reading: Private Suite – 5/5. First Class Dining and lounge – 4/5
Here’s an at-a-glance guide to the pros and cons of American Airlines’ top tier luxury services.
Five Star Service, including Blade and The Private Suite
Pros: Military-operation-grade organisation, dynamite staff, stress-busting way to negotiate airports. Blade is simply epic, and The Private Suite experience is astonishing, with head-of-state levels of service.
Cons: Nothing, except the cost.
First class 777-300
Pros: Huge suite, comfy seat, good wine, superb headphones, great bedding, top amenity kit, air of exclusivity.
Cons: Service and food hit and miss, privacy and storage poor, TV screen with patchy responsiveness.
First class A321T
Pros: Amazing suite for a short-to-medium-haul aircraft, great service.
Cons: Bland salad, TV can’t be viewed when folded away.
Pros: Comprehensive facilities, stylish, First Class Dining delivers – great burgers and Champagne at LAX.
Cons: London lounge a tad functional in appearance.
Overall VIP-O-Meter rating: 42/50. Hiccups and blemishes aside, the trip is astonishing. American Airlines’ luxury adds-on are superb and Hollywood stars can rest assured that if they sign up for them, they’ll be in for a trouble-free journey.
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