American Airlines, Chicago to Helsinki
by Anne Spiselman
Flight: AA 130
Route: Chicago, Illinois (IATA: ORD)–Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300ER
American Airlines launched seasonal (May 1-October 29) nonstop service from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Helsinki-Vantaa Airport in 2011. It’s the second nonstop route from the USA to Finland, complementing oneworld partner Finnair’s existing JFK-HEL flight. In 2012, ORD-HEL service resumes April 1 and continues through October 30.
AA’s premium class international check-in is almost at the opposite end of Terminal 3 from the main cabin international check-in, but once we got to the right area, there was no line, and everything went smoothly. Or almost. I wanted to carry on my new suitcase, but the ticket agent made me put it in the sizer, and noticing it was about an inch too tall, insisted I check it, even though I assured him it would fit in an overhead bin. He said that stowing my wheelchair in the cabin wouldn’t be a problem, however.
(On the return flight, when I was in economy class and the airplane was much fuller, the ticket agent let me carry on the bag once I explained that only the wheels made it too tall and said it would fit in the overhead.)
After a wait of 15 or 20 minutes for the wheelchair-assistance person to show up, we trekked to the other end of the terminal again to the only security check point that accommodates wheelchairs. I got a very thorough pat-down from a TSA agent (rather intrusive), and my boots, leg brace, and wheelchair all were tested for explosives.
Then it was on to the Admirals Club located in the crosswalk between gates H6 and K6. After showing our boarding passes at the first-floor desk, we took the elevator to the third floor, where there’s another help desk, which was manned by three people. One of them advised my companion to let her know 30 minutes before we wanted a wheelchair assistant to take us to the gate and gave us two drink tickets (for complimentary beverages). Renovated a couple of years ago, the spacious lounge has several seating areas, plenty of work stations, and a café. Sandwiches and other food and drink are for sale; the only freebies are salty little snacks, cookies, and whole fruit (apples and/or oranges). We used our drink tickets for splits of J Roget Brut Champagne and toasted the trip to come.
Deciding to forego the bother of waiting for wheelchair help, we headed to gate K9 about ten minutes before the 1505 time listed on our boarding passes. Gate agents called the wheelchair service to take me down the Jetway for preboarding, explaining that we weren’t allowed to do it ourselves—even though the wheelchair was mine―because of insurance issues. Once we’d settled into seats 2D and 2G (bulkhead center), Fred tried to take a photo of the cabin (as he usually does) but was told he couldn’t for security reasons.
The two-class Boeing 767-300ER has 30 lie-flat Business Class seats (oversize pillow and ample comforters on them), configured 2-2-2, and 195 seats in Economy Class, configured 2-3-2. I find the forward tilt of the flattened Business seats uncomfortable (I feel like I’m going to slide off) and the electronic controls a little confusing, though I’ve gotten used to the latter. The pod-like seat compartments have slide-up screens between them and some storage space, but it never seems like enough.
Pre-takeoff announcements were in English, followed by Finnish. The FAs distributed amenity kits (socks, eye mask, toothbrush with toothpaste and flosser, Burt’s Bees lip balm and body lotion, moist towelette and packet of tissues, pen), menus, and newspapers (The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.), as well as individual audio-visual screens/devices and noise-deadening headsets (one of the carrier’s best perks). The movie, tv, and music selections were fairly extensive, though there were only four classical music albums to choose from, and I wish there were more (Bach, please!). Sparkling wine, juice, and water were offered. The purser, Anne, came around taking main course orders, and when I asked if I could have the beef rare, she replied that John, the “boss in the galley,” was good at that. After some more announcements, pushback was at 1545, the scheduled departure time.
The captain got on the PA and filled us in on the route: over Canada, Greenland, and Iceland, then past Norway and Sweden and into Helsinki, where it was currently 48 degrees F (+9 degrees C). The flight time was 8hr 19min, and the cruising altitude 35,000ft. Flight information and our progress were displayed intermittently on cabin monitors. (Oddly, this was not the case on the return flight, AA131, during which no information was given.) The safety video also was shown, along with information about cell phones and so on.
Once we reached cruising altitude, meal service started with our choice of drinks accompanied by warm mixed nuts and/or marinated fresh mozzarella balls with bell peppers, sundried tomatoes, and truffle oil (better than the marinated feta last time I flew AA). We opted for the Champagne, Pommery Brut non-vintage, and also tried the wine specially selected for this flight by wine consultant, Ken Chase, which turned out to be a nice, dry Alsatian Riesling. Once our tray tables were set with black cloths and real dinnerware, the wine went well with the appetizer, a simple composition of smoked salmon and a pair of herb-marinated shrimp accompanied by creamy dipping sauce. The two regular white wines, Château Magneau (a blend of sauvignon blanc, sémillon, and muscadelle grapes) from Graves in Bordeaux and Groom Lenswood Sauvignon Blanc from Adelaide Hills, Australia, were pretty good matches, too. A couple of kinds of rolls were neither memorable nor warm.
Generous salads are an AA mainstay, and this one included bell pepper strips, mushroom, and tomato, as well as mixed greens. The little bottle of balsamic vinaigrette was better than the rather overwhelming, salty Caesar dressing.
Of the four main courses, the boursin-crusted grilled tenderloin of beef arrived closer to medium-rare than the rare requested, and the soft stuff on top was more like a blanket than a crust. But the peppery meat was reasonably tender, and I liked the wilted spinach (well, a little more cooked than ‘wilted’), the balsamic-grilled tomatoes, and the whipped potatoes. Red Thai curry chicken, a tender breast in a mildly piquant coconut-milk curry, earned points for creativity, even if the jasmine rice was overcooked. The other two choices were oven-roasted halibut with mixed lentils, haricots verts, and roasted tomato-harissa chutney, which sounded intriguing, and cheese tortellini with romano sauce, which did not. A Finnish specialty would be a welcome addition. Both the Deep Sea Cabernet Sauvignon and the Cyan Prestigio, made from tinta de toro grapes from the up-and-coming Toro region of Spain, were fine with the beef. We never settled on a right wine for the chicken.
Hidden on the bottom of the service cart, the cheese plate (two cheeses the FA guessed at plus grapes) is AA’s neglected stepchild for one simple reason: Everyone goes for the ice-cream sundae. Made with Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream nowadays, it’s assembled seat-side with your choice of hot fudge (my favorite), butterscotch, and and/or berry toppings, whipped cream, and chopped pecans. At this point, I was fantasizing about an onboard espresso machine, but no such luck.
Bottles of mineral water were handed out for the long stretch before breakfast, and I settled in to listen to Mozart, watch movies, and try to sleep (with no success). Except for a couple of bumpy patches, the ride was quite smooth. We’d opted for the full breakfast at the outset, so the tray tables were set up again about an hour-and-a-half before landing. The hot choice was a mediocre cheese omelet (it looked like a machine dispensed it) with a petite filet mignon (medium-well) and O’Brien potatoes (pan-fried with bell peppers; I have no idea who O’Brien is). Creamy fruit yogurt and cereal with milk were the other options, and all came with juice, a fruit plate (very cold, under-ripe cantaloupe, kiwi, papaya, and a strawberry), coffee or tea, and ‘breakfast breads’, among them the worst croissants ever.
Anyone who doesn’t view dining as an agreeable way to pass onboard time can up for Dine Upon Request, a dinner main course served with an appetizer and dessert all at once, and Express Breakfast, breads, fruit, and beverage served 45 minutes before landing.
The airplane touched down at 0800, half an hour before the scheduled arrival time, but had to wait ten minutes for its gate to become vacant. The wheelchair assistant, who spoke excellent English, was at the jet’s door and whisked us a very long distance through the very quiet Helsinki airport to passport control, where there were no lines, and then to baggage claim, where my suitcase arrived in a jiffy, and finally out to a taxi. The whole process took less than 15 minutes. The only miscalculation: He estimated the taxi into Helsinki would cost 25-30 euros and it turned out to be 50 euros.
Our return flight was in Economy, but we did get to check out the Finnair non-Schengen Lounge available to AA business flyers. Opened in 2009, the spacious, spiffy facility won the 2011 Priority Pass award for Lounge of the Year, beating out 600 other lounges worldwide and becoming the first ever winner outside the Americas in the award’s seven-year history. And justly so. A showcase for Finnish design combining classics like Eero Aarnio’s Swan and Double Bubble lamps from the Sixties with contemporary couches, chairs, and tables (lots of wood and white), the 250-seat lounge has everything: a variety of comfortable areas, work stations with computers and complimentary Wi-Fi, free drinks including a wine corner (like a little wine bar) and a self-serve espresso machine, a free buffet that changes throughout the day, private shower rooms, and an adjacent full-fledged spa and sauna (for a fee). We enjoyed a lunch of chicken tandoori soup and couscous salad with various hearty Finnish breads, followed by mini brownies, cookies, Fazer chocolates, and espresso.
AA130 gets an A for on-time service, an A- for comparatively good in-flight food, a B+ for the better-than-average entertainment system (those noise-deadening headphones mean a lot), and very high marks for the professionalism and considerateness of the flight attendants. On the ground, HEL surpasses ORD by every measure. Outbound, I felt the AA desk agent should have been a little flexible about the suitcase size in Business, but the biggest hassle at ORD was the long, long lines at passport control on our return trip.
(Many thanks to Mary Frances Fagan of American Airlines for making this trip possible and to Pia-Maria Papadopoulos of Finnair for the time she spent showing us the Helsinki airport and Finnair Lounge.)
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