After a 13-year hiatus from flying American Airlines, and in part to achieve Platinum status through February 2012 via a challenge, I flew AA this past Saturday from Los Angeles to Chicago to Los Angeles. I was excited to compare my experience as a top-tier elite with United Airlines to that of being a non-elite “nobody” with American and interested to see what had changed since last flying them.
First up was the online check-in experience. Whereas United’s email to announce check-in is available 24-hour hours before your flight generally arrives within minutes of that mark, American’s took more than an hour to reach my inbox. Not a big deal, though. Also, being “programmed “as a United flyer, I checked in right at the 24-hour mark assuming I could come back later in the day and check-in for my return flight. That was a mistake. For non-connection itineraries operating on the same day such as mine, American doesn’t allow you to check in for such flights until that first coupon (flight segment) is shown as “used,” or scanned at the gate as having boarded, if you have checked in for an earlier flight in the day.
I called AA.com support and was advised I needed to check-in for the return in Chicago at a kiosk, but only up to one hour before flight time. After that, I’d need to see an agent to manually check me in because I technically missed the cutoff. Given I had exactly one hour from scheduled arrival to departure, I asked if they could offload me, or un-check me in, to which they responded no it wasn’t possible. Not satisfied, I called back to another agent who told me the same thing. Okay, not a big deal, but good to know for the future.
Upon arriving at the airport, I reprinted my boarding pass at the lobby kiosks just to experience that process and was given the opportunity to buy up to Zone 1 boarding for $9. I passed as I was in Zone 2 and only had my laptop bag, so overhead space wasn’t a concern to me necessitating boarding earlier.
Next up was non-elite security and although I had a brief wait in line, I was fairly quickly through and on my way to the gate. This was the first time in years I haven’t had lounge access, so instead visited Starbucks where I got coffee & surfed the net on my iPhone for a while. Not bad, but I did miss the lounge bathrooms as the ones in the terminal have a higher “ick” factor for me.
Boarding time arrived and after waiting for First Class, Executive Platinum, Platinum, Gold, Priority Access, and Zone 1 to board, I was one of the first among Zone 2 passengers to be scanned for boarding. I settled into aisle seat 22C and immediately noticed the legroom. As you can see from the picture, my knees flushly touched the seat in front of me. I now have a much greater appreciation for United’s Economy Plus. It was tolerable for a 3-1/2 hour flight, but I wouldn’t want to fly much longer, let alone on an international flight, with only 31” of seat pitch being 6’1″.
The United “rush” to have the doors closed at 10-minutes prior to departure didn’t seem to be present on American, where doors closed a minute or two before. A pre-recorded announcement for cell phones & other devices to be turned off was made (other boarding announcements were also pre-recorded & standardized), and the aisle flight attendant went through the cabin activating the flight attendant call button above anyone she saw with phones still in use or on. Pretty clever procedure, actually. Moments later, a flight attendant did make the announcement, “we can’t close the cockpit door until all mobile devices are turned off and put away.” One by one the aisle attendant confirmed each row was compliant, deactivated the lights, and the flight deck door was closed & we pushed back.
Once airborne, the standard service announcements, cabin policies, welcome from the flight deck, and others were made. It was primarily a drink service flight, and although light snack items were available, the breakfast options were not. I asked a flight attendant about it & she replied, “Oh, it’s too early of a flight for those.” Interesting. Although I’ve flown United many times from Los Angeles to Chicago on the 6am flight, I’m usually in First and don’t recall the economy choices, however on the 6am flights to Washington Dulles airport United does cater the breakfast options in economy. Just a data point.
I’ll get into my impression of the flight attendants overall later, but for now, I’ll summarize that it was a fairly comfortable and non-eventful flight. We arrived early into O’Hare and I had enough time to visit a kiosk and check myself back in for the return trip to Los Angeles. Not having an Admirals Club membership, I got a bite to eat and walked the concourses to stretch my legs.
The inbound aircraft for my return to Los Angeles was late coming in, but I was thankful for that since it gave me a chance to get a photo of it arriving at the gate. Thankful because it ended up being the 737-800 “Astrojet” retro livery aircraft painted as such in part to commemorate delivery of American’s 50th next generation Boeing 737-800 aircraft. Since I geek out on those types of things, I was happy to be flying on it.
Boarding time quickly came & I noticed a gate agent enforcing the carry on size rule by standing next to the sizer and pulling people aside after they’ve been scanned to board if they had questionable bags. She did end up tagging a couple. Missing from American’s boarding announcements, however, is the rather frequent United announcement, “If you’re in Seating Area 4, we will (may) have to check your carry on luggage.” That was a refreshing change.
ORD Gate H11A
When it was time for me to board, the agent scanned my ticket and even addressed me by name, a rare occurrence on United even for me as a 1K. I appreciated it, and went on my way this time to window seat 12A. It was a full flight, and here again noticed the lack of legroom that seemed more so because I was in the window seat without an aisle to stretch into. This aircraft was equipped with Wi-Fi and in-seat power, which are a major benefit although I didn’t have a need for them this trip.
Again the pre-recorded announcements played although the flight attendants this time seemed less interested in enforcing the mobile device policy. “Full” service was available on the flight and included the snack items, as well as sandwich selections with the standard beverage service. We were fairly quickly airborne and on our way. I started working a bit on my laptop and listened to music. Had I desired it, a movie played on both flights, along with some television programming and audio selections. We landed early in Los Angeles and were quickly to the gate.
Now let me discuss the flight attendants. I was positively blown away with their service and genuine interest in their jobs from both crews, an incredibly refreshing change from the inconsistency at United. Both crews had “senior” attendants on the flights, and unlike United where I’ve often received incredibly indifferent and sometimes rude service from the senior attendants, the ones I encountered on these two flights were exceptional. Now I know I can’t assume all F/As at American are as outstanding, but it was incredible for me to witness and experience. Job well done American!
Wingtip to wingtip
I have about 10 more flights with American before the end of July, so will better be able to provide a meaningful comparison between American and United at that time. This first experience, however, was a very positive one with no delays or other irregular operations. My report might have been different had I been “stranded” or misconnected with no elite status, but for now I’m very happy with American Airlines except for the seat pitch. Exit row seating awaits me though, once I climb the status levels.
Stay tuned for continued reports on American as I travel with them over the coming months, including on the premium transcontinental run between Los Angeles and New York’s Kennedy Airport.