Hello everyone! So I had a bit of a wrench thrown into my late winter travel plans…but through luck and award miles, I managed to avoid a Christmastime crisis.
For Christmas, I had originally planned to visit family in Hong Kong. It would have been my first time in HK in three years, and I was excited to see my extended family for the first time post-COVID. That was until one key family member tested positive for COVID…and I began to second guess my travel arrangements. Hong Kong has strict rules surrounding COVID and quarantine, and the thought of being trapped overseas in a foreign country with a positive case didn’t sound too dandy. I was originally planning on staying with family, but now that there was COVID, our weeklong dinner plans and outings and gatherings were put on pause.
I had originally ticketed an LAX–Tokyo open jaw award ticket (215K miles in business, which was an interesting find): LAX to HND on AA’s 789 and then NRT to LAX on JAL’s 789. And to get to Hong Kong, I had booked a Cathay open jaw with cash: HND to HKG to NRT. But with COVID throwing a wrench into plans, that was off the table.
I have family in Sydney, and my dad was already in Sydney for an extended visit (family as well). So Sydney seemed like a logical alternative. I originally looked for a HND to SYD to NRT routing…but interestingly, there’s no service from Australia to Tokyo Narita. Knowing that I could cancel my AA award and receive my miles back, I looked for a LAX to SYD direct award ticket. Now this was a crazy ask! Last minute award availability on the LAX to Sydney route seemed like a pie-in-the-sky type of ask. But there was indeed a business class award available on American, which had recently upgraded the 787-9 on the Sydney route to the 777-300ER, which I guess made more award seats available. Simple Flying notes that the 77W will stay on the LAX to SYD route until January 15 for winter demand to Australia. A business class round trip was 315K points, which was steep, but better than the $9.8K cash fare. So I booked it.
GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
I had a 10:30PM departure, but I was hoping to use my Oneworld Emerald status to gain access into the recently reopened (August I think) Qantas First Class Lounge, where I was looking forward to a meal, a nice coffee, and a preflight shower. I had a prebooked a Yellow Cab taxi from West Los Angeles to LAX for $42.50, which I thought was a pretty good rate. I checked Lyft’s pricing around 5:00PM (the time I booked my cab) and found that Lyft wanted around $77 for the same ride…no thanks.
The cab arrived at 5:00PM, rush hour in Los Angeles, which means freeway gridlock and general pain to anyone behind the wheel. But thanks to Waze and some nifty backstreet driving, my cab arrived at Terminal B (which is what they now call Tom Bradley International Terminal) at 5:43PM. The departure hall was packed! There was a delayed British Airways flight to Heathrow. Plenty of Singapore-bound, Tokyo-bound, and Australia-bound passengers checking in simultaneously. I knew I could get my mobile boarding pass using the American Airlines app, so I headed to the TSA Precheck line, bypassing the 300-person deep standard security line. Security moved quickly (thank goodness for Precheck) and I was in the Qantas First Lounge by 6:10PM.
I’m an American Airlines Platinum Pro, which is the lowest status on American that qualifies for Emerald (which I think is a huge deal!). One of the biggest perks of Emerald is first class lounge access for international travel. The Qantas First lounge at LAX is a basically a long, uninterrupted, well-lit room with marble floors, nice wooden panelling, and interesting mottled carpet patterns. I walked over to the dining area and was seated immediately, getting asked for my preference of sparkling or still water (I asked for still) and then handed an extensive a la carte menu. The very kind waitress commented that the portions might be small for me and that if I was hungry, I should order extra food (I’m 6’3” and large).
I ordered a cauliflower soup, which I believe was dairy free, came with an almond crisp topping and a tasty oil drizzle. Very good! I got the salt and pepper squid, which I’ve heard is good. It came with a nice garlic aioli and a refreshing but spicy green chili dip. Very good as well! I tried the burrata and tomato salad, which was very fresh (tomatoes were super sweet and flavorful). Then, I got the minute steak, which came as a razor thin slice (cooked perfectly medium) with a nice chipotle butter and fries. Very good. Then cheesecake, which was really great! And a nice flat white to finish.
I asked the front desk where the showers were, and headed to the back of the lounge. I was offered a stall immediately, and was glad to take a nice, warm shower before my flight. Boarding was to begin at 9:40PM, so I wrapped up my shower at 9:15PM and made my leisurely way over to my gate. LAX has done a great job with the interior of the international terminal. I still remember the days of the old, cramped, dingy international wing. Now all they need to do is alleviate drop off traffic upstairs…
Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD)
Arr 9:00AM +2
Actual Dep 11:05PM
Actual Arr 9:10AM +2
People had already begun crowding the boarding area. Tonight, we would board through automatic gates, where we’d have to scan our boarding passes for the automatic gate to swing open. The gate agent (the drill sergeant, basically) barked at the crowd to have our passports ready and that we “wouldn’t be able to board unless we showed her our passports.” She was one lady…and examining passports for passengers entering five automatic gates instantly proved to be too much for her to handle. Preboarding came first, followed by Concierge Keys, then Group 1 and then Group 2 (me!).
I had some problems scanning my mobile boarding pass, but on my third try, the gate swung open. Down the jetbridge I went, and I settled into 12D, where a Casper mattress pad, full-sized pillow, thick blanket, lumbar pillow, thin blanket, and slippers were waiting. An amenity kit, headphones and a trifold menu were waiting on the table. American uses reverse herringbone seats on the 777-300ER, a great 1-2-1 product, which offers much more privacy than the 2-2-2 configurations of some airlines like Lufthansa or Hawaiian. These seats on the 777 are a little order than the 787-9 (which offers digital screen seat controls, versus the button based seat controls on the 777).
Boarding completed by 10:25PM (so I thought). The flight attendant working my aisle confirmed my meal preorder (beef tenderloin), and handed me an ice cold bottle of water. The crew on board was in an ultra festive mood. Some FA’s wore reindeer antlers, others had Christmas lights wrapped around their necks.
The captain announced a 14 and a half hour flight time and that we were waiting for connecting passengers. Within five minutes, four stragglers boarded (from Phoenix I heard) huffing and puffing down the aisle. The door closed once they were seated and we pushed back. After a short taxi to 25R, we had a very, very long takeoff roll westbound, and then turned southwest for our long transpacific journey.
Drinks (I had a ginger ale) and mixed nuts were served 35 minutes after takeoff. The appetizer tray arrive 60 minutes after takeoff, which featured two (wow!) cajun spiced shrimp, a little mushroom tarlet, a hot bread roll, and a crisp salad. Me and my seatmate on the other side of the aisle exchange glances...the vinaigrette was frozen.
The main course arrived 75 minutes after takeoff: beef tenderloin with a peppercorn sauce, spinach with garlic, and fried potatoes. Well…the beef was overcooked, as most airplane beef is, but it was easy to cut and surprisingly tender. The potatoes were waterlogged. The spinach, heated in the galley, emitted a boatload of water (as spinach does!), which pooled at the bottom of the plate.
The highlight of the meal was the ice cream sundae. American uses vanilla Haagen Dazs ice cream, which I really like! I got my sundae with hot fudge, chopped nuts, and whipped cream. Very good.
After dinner, I took a restroom trip. According to Aerolopa, it seems like there are six bathrooms serving the premium cabin. Two in the front galley, two in the middle galley, and two between business and premium economy (two are curtained off for business and two are curtained off for premium economy). There was foaming handsoap in the lavatory and a square sink. There were cutouts in the cabinet for hand creams or a flower, but this crew didn’t use any of them. AA’s 77W has a mega large bathroom on the starboard side of the aircraft, between rows 4 and 5 in business.
AA has an extensive inflight entertainment system. I mostly slept and read a book on my iPad, but I took briefly took a gander through the system. There were plenty of new movies, like Top Gun: Maverick, The Black Phone, Bullet Train, and more. There was a cool Nat Geo doc about a famous freeclimber who scaled El Capitan in Yosemite. And there was a wide selection of games, TV shows, and a nifty moving map.
Upon returning, I setup my mattress pad, unfurled my blanket and pillow, and hit the sack. Miraculously, I managed 8 hours of sleep (I set a stopwatch on my phone to see how much sleep I’d get). I woke up with my mouth dry as cotton and my nose feeling like the desert. I meandered to the galley area, where the FA’s had setup a little buffet of mini sandwiches, mezze platters, chips and crackers, cheese plates, little desserts and more. One FA had setup the buffet area with strings of “snow” (cotton balls) and had taped Christmas lights around the buffet area. Festive! I grabbed a berry smoothie and a mega bottle of water (which the FA let me grab) and went back to my seat to do some work.
American has switched to a dine-on-demand concept for the second meal. I asked the FA’s sitting in the galley about it, and they were telling me it’s a new addition to their service. They told me that there’s twelve FA’s on the 77W in total, and four FA’s assigned to the 52 seat business class cabin (sounds like too few to me). I asked for a burger (the breakfast of champions) which made its way to my seat in about 15 minutes. There were two sliders, served with ketchup and dijon mustard, with melty American cheese, and lettuce, onion and tomato. The buns were well toasted and the burger was very flavorful. Somehow, all the veggies were crisp: the lettuce and onion and tomatoes were still delightful, 11 hours into the flight. The burgers just tasted great, and really hit the spot after a nice rest. About thirty minutes later, the FA’s distributed immigration cards for Australia and then passed around a tray of Christmas themed candies. I took a dark chocolate Kit Kat.
The passengers around me gradually opened up their window shades, and the cabin was lit with overcast morning light. I played a couple minutes of Plants versus Zombies, a classic 2010’s iPad staple, and looked out my seatmate’s window as we descended into the Sydney area. We flew past the airport and then turned south, landing towards the ocean. It was a fairly quiet morning at Sydney’s international terminal, but thankfully, I noticed that we had arrived at our gate much earlier than Delta’s A350, also from Los Angeles (saving us time at immigration and customs). I took a quick pit stop, and noticed that they had recently renovated the bathrooms in the area before customs.
Since I hold a US passport, I was able to use the electronic passport control, which involved the machine reading my passport, printing out a little ticket (almost like a parking ticket, I guess), which I then input into the automated customs gate. It swung open, and off I went. I didn’t check in a bag, so I headed straight to agriculture, past a sea of baggage carts, and since I had nothing to declare, I was directed out of the airport. I bought an Opal card (Sydney’s transit card) from the arrival area's convenience store and headed to the international terminal train station. Within minutes, I was onboard, and headed to the city!