Tuesday, June 7, 2011

American: Love it or leave it

I have endured four plane flights of over eight hours* in the last two weeks, and I feel like I had a rare chance to directly compare the current state of a few of the major carriers. Or at least the type of experience that their customers can expect. The first two legs were American from Dallas to Honolulu and back, the third was KLM (Royal Dutch to old farts like me) from Atlanta to Amsterdam, and the final leg was a Delta return from Amsterdam. The middle two were overnighters, which I found the most telling.

In the interest of full disclosure, I swore after several experiences in the late 70's that I would never fly American Airlines again if I had a choice. The general erosion of service in the airline industry led me to adopt the view that all of the domestic carriers are pretty much the same, but this last experience may cause me to renew my earlier vow.

Our first overnight adventure started at the Honolulu American counter, where we stood in line for almost an hour just to drop our bags. I will never understand how it took so long, but it set the tone. They told us at the gate before we boarded the American Boeing 767 that the flight was completely full, so we had that to look forward to. I was in seat 33C on the left aisle in the center section, and was struck not only by how little legroom there was in front of me, but how the footroom for the aisle seats was narrower than the others. I would inevitably have either a foot or a knee projecting into the aisle. It was not going to be a comfortable flight. Which is when the 750 pound couple (split more or less evenly) sat down in front of us. He pushed the seat onto my knees without even touching the button to recline, but of course he would recline the seat as far as it would go once the plane took off, crushing my legs unless I twisted sideways in my seat. I felt like I should be shampooing his hair, and there was no way for me to sit normally.

The flight attendants offered to sell us earphones so that we could hear the entertainment that would be displayed on the screens mounted every dozen rows or so in the center of the cabin ceiling. We were also given the option of purchasing snacks, from a $10 Boston Market sandwich to $3.50 for the one tennis ball size can of Pringles. Blankets and pillows were also available for purchase ($8.00), as well as beer, wine, and the right to board the plane early (which I would have to have selected at check-in). After serving the obligatory soft drinks -- with not so much as a tiny bag of pretzels -- they showed Cars II and a couple of episodes of some sitcom (I forget which), and shut down the entertainment for the duration. We are now about three hours into an eight hour flight.

Other than being admonished by the flight crew to keep our window shades down lest we see the sunrise, we didn't see or hear from the crew again until about an hour before landing. On the one occasion (about five hours in) that I extricated myself from my seat to wait 25 minutes for one dude to get out of the bathroom**, I found the flight attendants ensconced in the galley, gossiping merrily away. They looked at me as if I might be disturbing them, and I got the distinct impression that no one was going to vacate the jump seats for me cross to the starboard lavatory, no matter how long I stood there.

When we were about an hour from Dallas, the flight attendants came through the cabin winging little 3 oz. foil-topped containers of juice at everyone. I got two, but they were still frozen pretty solid. Biscuit only got one, but her's was at least liquid all the way through. They had a quick round of trying to unload the leftover snacks from the night before, and then turned on the seat belt sign and returned to the galleys. I'm not sure what they were doing back there. Maybe preparing to cross-check, whatever that is.

During the entire flight, I'm not sure I saw one of the flight crew smile, or say or do anything particularly nice to any of the passengers. In general, they seemed bored, tired, and a little pissed about the whole situation.

We landed without incident, flew home on a blissfully uncrowded commuter jet, and prepared to do it all over again.

Next Time: Dutch Treat

* Plus eight shorter legs of one to two hours thrown in for good measure. But it's the longer trips that really tell the tale.

** I was afraid to go in after he came out, lest some foul vapors overwhelm me. But this was not the case.  Actually, I don't know what he was doing in there for so long. I think he may have been joining the Mile High Club: Solo Edition.


  1. Yep, That's American. American, Delta, and "Scare-ways" are three airlines that should fail -- as they particularly fail in customer 'service.' However, they are nothing if not consistent, in that they always lost our bags. The last straw for me for Delta was when I was flying to MD for brain surgery. I was in a wheelchair but my drs have admonished me to walk when I can or I'd get 'stuck,' so after the crew watched me take 15 min. to walk to the bathroom and back while waiting to board (unsteadily with a cane), they must have decided I was faking b/c boarding early is SUCCHHH a big deal...and they made Excy wheel me in a pushy line juggling three carry-ons, and then the seated passengers got to enjoy my falling against them as I stumbled for a seat down the aisle....

  2. Having taken at least ten intercontinental return trips (that's at least twenty longer-than-seven-hours one-way flights, plus the smaller, domestic connections), and being the 6', long-legged, non-skinny movie-lover that I am, I can tell you that Continental is by far the best for convenience, leg-room, food, *and* entertainment. I have rarely, if ever, left a Continental plane feeling pissed off.

    I have left several Delta, American, and US Airways flights in knots of pain, hungry from the lack of adequate (or edible) food, and generally unhappy with the flight crew. But I find Continental to be awesome, generally.

    Also, as a tall person, I have never - ever - reclined my seat on an airplane. I have had far too many people do that to me - some of them children, or otherwise small people - and it crushes my knees every time and is incredibly uncomfortable, for hours on end. Maybe two or three times, I've had the nerve to ask the person in the seat in front of me not to recline, that it's hurting me, and I have never once had a positive reaction to that request.

    People are mean.

    Because of that, I have never even considered reclining an airplane seat I was in. Even if there was a kid behind me. I still won't do it.

  3. i am a >50K mile / year air traveler. i will NOT fly on an American Airlines plane.

    and Jane: i love you. i'm short, but i won't recline, unless i am on a redeye, and only then, do it just an inch or so until i can find a reasonable angle for sleep.

    try these: http://www.kneedefender.com/

    i have them. and use them. you have to be a little sneaky, and get that tray table down just as the plane takes off, as many fatassed flyers recline at wheels-up.

    chris - i know your pain. and flying used to be cool. now? it's a bus with wings.

  4. Wonder: That may be the thing that upsets me the most. These people seem to lack any sense of basic human decency anymore.

    Jane: as a fellow tall person, I am also very careful about reclining my seat. But there are a lot of people who just don't seem to give a shit about anyone else. They seem to be evenly split between airline employees and the seat in front of me.

    Daisyfae: the seat defender is a cool concept, though it wouldn't have helped in this case. Homeboy had his seat back as soon as we started to roll down the runway. I think a better option would be if the seat cushions moved forward, like on trains, instead of the backs reclining on a fixed seat. That way, you can recline, but using your own legroom instead of the person's behind you.

  5. I flew with some appalling company once between Miami and Orlando - sounds like it was American Airlines. It was so tatty, the whole thing felt like travelling by bus back in the 70s.