I survived driving my mom and her cat 1,200 miles across the country, but I wouldn’t have much time to rest, as I’d already booked a trip to visit mom at her temporary home at my sister’s place in Florida over Labor Day weekend. AA does offer nonstop flights from Dallas to Ft. Myers, but they are often considerably more expensive than to other cities in Florida. In this case, it was cheaper to fly in and out of Orlando, even with the added cost of a rental car and gas to make it down to Ft. Myers and back.
As I was checking in for my flight on Friday, an offer popped up to upgrade our coach seats to First Class for $99 each (I had already booked a published F fare on the return due to the negligible price difference). Ordinarily, I don’t go for same day upgrades, but in this case, it was only $99, and more importantly, upgrading would give me the opportunity to compare and contrast AA’s domestic First meal services both before and after the September 1 service change. What travel geek would pass up that opportunity? So I paid for the upgrade, and off we went.
NOTE: if you’d like a compare and contrast with regular AA Economy Class with a buy-up to Main Cabin Extra seats, you can read my previous review of AA Main Cabin Extra from DFW to LAX.
American Airlines (AA) Flight 1456
- August 30, 2014
- Depart: Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW) Gate C16, 09:26, 4m early
- Arrive: Orlando (MCO) Terminal A, Gate 14, 12:59, 1m early
- First Class, seats 5A, 5B
- Equipment: McDonnell Douglas Super 80
The subject of day-of-departure upgrades is a thorny one among elite fliers. I’m honestly not a fan of the practice, either; they basically allow non-elites who have booked cheap tickets to jump the line ahead of elites waiting for upgrades. AA didn’t use to engage in this practice, but after – surprise, surprise – the takeover of the airline by US Airways, they’ve joined the club as well, creating a rather underhanded devaluation of the carrier’s elite benefits. Anyway, as I mentioned above, I normally don’t do these types of upgrades, but I really wanted to be able to compare AA’s before and after meal services. Plus, we had a roughly 3 1/2 hour drive after landing in Orlando, and I really didn’t want to have to stop either at the airport or on the way to grab lunch. On the downside, taking the upgrade meant I would flush the $58 I’d already spent for Main Cabin Extra. Moral of the story: if you’re the type that gets tempted by cheap upgrades, don’t buy MCE in advance.
We arrived at the terminal a little over an hour before our flight, cleared security in under 10 minutes, and still had about 25 minutes to spare before boarding when we arrived at the gate. Shortly after sitting down, though, the gate agent announced that the front cabin coffee maker was busted, advising those sitting in first to grab a coffee from the terminal before boarding. Irritating, but at least they were nice enough to give us fair warning, which we took advantage of.
Once on board, the FA welcomed us on board, and offered a pre-departure beverage of water or orange juice. The FA then came by and took lunch orders, today a choice between an open-faced turkey sandwich or a dinner salad with sliced chicken breast. While taking orders, she also asked each passenger for their name (she didn’t have a list?), but then never addressed anyone by name the remainder of the flight. Very, very strange. She was non-surly and took pretty good care of the cabin in terms of food and beverage service throughout the flight, though, which was the important thing.
We pushed back a couple of minutes early, then took off to the south through the early morning low overcast.
Looking southeast towards Las Colinas
Threshold of runway 17R
Climbing through the low overcast
The Super 80’s cabin was well-worn, but pretty wel maintained. Personally, I find AA’s domestic first seats to be quite comfy, with a generous amount of back and posterior padding. Definitely superior to the “Slimline” seats making the rounds these days in coach.
The Mad Dog has long been a source of derision for AA, and is gradually being phased out, but personally, I’ve always been fond of the plane. The 2-3 configuration is great for couples traveling together, if you can get seats together on the left side of the plane. And, you won’t find a quieter, more serene ride than the front cabin of an MD-80.
Lunch was served about an hour after takeoff, with the typical AA sequencing – warm mixed nuts, main course, and freshly baked cookie. I had to drive after this flight, so went with ginger ale instead of an adult beverage. We both ordered the turkey sandwich, which came with cream cheese, some sort of fig compote, and a slaw on the side. The sandwich itself was alright; it was a little soggy, but tasty enough, though the slaw was indeible (thankfully it was served on the side). The cookie – choice of chocoloate chip or cranberry, raisin, and white chocolate – was delicious, though mine wasn’t baked all the way through. Still, I would be nostalgic for even this average on-board meal after our return trip…
It was a quiet flight to Orlando, and we began our descent over Central Florida right on schedule.
Typical bog lakes of Central Florida
The sprawling eastern suburbs of Orlando
We deplaned quickly after reaching the gate, and made our way to the Dollar rental car counter, only to find ourselves staring at a horrible looking line. That’s what you get for booking somewhere that’s half the price of everyone else. As another guy in line wisecracked, standing in line 45 minutes is the price we were all paying for being cheap. We did eventually get our car, and hit the road for the 176-mile trek to my sister’s house, about halfway between Ft. Myers and Naples. We’d spend the weekend taking my nephew to Legoland, and then having some quality time with my wife on Bonita Beach. I’ll eventually put up a post about both.
We left back for Orlando about 12:30 on Labor Day, and made it back to the airport around 4:15, after filling up our rental car with gas. Note to those renting cars at MCO: many a rental car agent will attempt to scare you into pre-paying for a tank of gas by claiming there are no stations near the airport, something not hard to believe given that MCO is out in the middle of nowhere. In fact, there is cheap gas available on Semoran Boulevard, on the approach to the north entrance, and at a Circle K on Boggy Creek Road about a mile and a half south with the intersection with the Central Florida Greeneway near the south entrance. All are within 10 miles of the rental car return, in case the attendant demands a receipt upon return.
AA Flight 1132
- September 1, 2014
- Depart: MCO Terminal A, Gate 14, 17:59, 4m late
- Arrive: DFW Gate A35, 19:40, on-time
- First class, seats 2E, 2F
- Equipment: Boeing 757-200
I actually booked this leg under a published First Class fare. A round-trip in Economy would have run $334, but coach on the outbound and first on the inbound was available for $466, or an upgrade “fee” of only $132. That seemed like a no-brainer, especially since, at the time, it meant a meal on board, which would have saved us having to chase down dinner after coming home. As Matthew noted, it always pays to check the price difference between coach and first, especially if you’re flying last-minute and/or on a heavy tourist route. The difference often isn’t very much, especially since first includes priority security and boarding, meal service, and additional qualifying points towards elite status, among other benefits.
Despite having priority security courtesy of our first class tickets, I wanted to give plenty of time to get through security. Orlando has a reputation for long security lines, and I figured Labor Day evening would be especially bad. While these weren’t the worst lines I’ve been in, the process at Orlando International isn’t good, either. Although elites and premium class travelers ostensibly receive a priority lane, it’s only “priority” as far as having your ID checked. After that, you’re herded into the exact same long lines as everyone else. It took about 25 minutes to clear. I did have a few minutes to take photos of MCO’s Terminal A.
I have to assume MCO utlizes a monorail system to connect its terminals to the security/baggage claim area to get tourists acclimated (and the kids excited) about visiting the House of the Mouse over at the other end of the Central Florida Greeneway. I’ve not a fan of this kind of set-up, though. Similar to DEN, the “chokepoint” security system results in excessively long wait times during peak hours, as everyone is forced through a single set of checkpoints.
We boarded on time again, and this B752 had been recently refurbished, with A/C power ports and new overhead monitors.
Legroom also seemed unusually generous, even for first class. According to Seat Guru, seat pitch on the 752 is 40 inches, but it should looked and felt to be more than that. I could stretch my legs out almost completely.
We were once again offered a pre-departure beverage of water or orange juice. We were not, however, asked for dinner orders, which in hindsight should have been the first hint of trouble. Our travel day was the first day that AA rolled out its “new and improved” meal service in domestic first class, aka the “Douggie Diet” as Rocky likes to call it. You can refer to last week’s story where I compare and contrast AA’s meal service changes in detail, so I won’t spend much time critiquing here – but suffice to say, both my wife and I were disappointed in the offerings.
I like Milano cookies and all, and while I appreciate the attempt to provide healthy options by providing fresh fruit (and the banana was delicious), this simply doesn’t cut it for a nearly 3-hour flight. The obvious cheapness is bad enough, but while AA claims to provide “hearty” offerings like sandwiches, the “sandwich” in this case was a joke – a tiny square of bread with a little processed meat and cheese – and it simply wasn’t very good. My cat Hercules was equally peeved when told about the meager offerings on-board.
Are you listening, Mr. Parker? A cat with very large teeth is not pleased about your meal downgrade. So there!
Anyway, what I immediately noticed about the cabin crew was how unusually young they were for an AA crew – none of the three FAs could have been more than 30. And they were simply wonderful, a friendly, eager, energetic bunch that went the extra mile to serve the front cabin well. Drinks were kept nicely topped off, with refills even being offered as we began our initial descent into DFW, and second helpings from the snack basket were offered (though tellingly, there weren’t many takers). It’s really too bad that the disappointment of the new meal program overshadowed what truly was an exceptional crew, one of the best I’ve encountered on AA in a long time. I don’t know, maybe they felt bad about the new catering and were trying extra hard to be nice…
Our flight was mostly smooth, though we did encounter some bumps both during takeoff and about an hour or so before landing over central Louisiana. The culprit – summer thunderstorms, which were typically active for a late summer afternoon. They also provided some excellent photo ops, especially the second set, thanks to a stunning vertical rainbow (if you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a weather geek, in addition to a travel geek).
We approached Dallas from the southeast, probably passing over my old hometown in East Texas in the process (I was too engrossed in spider solitaire to notice, or I would have taken a photo or two). Probably due to gusty southerly winds over North Texas that evening, we took a somewhat unusual route to the airport, passing south of downtown, then turning due north through the western part of Plano and Frisco, before finalling turning southwest over Lewisville and Grapevine to line up for a northerly approach. As we passed south and then west of downtown, we were afforded some spectacular views of the downtown skyline and Love Field airport, enhanced by the setting sun on this clear evening.
We had a pretty short taxi to the gate, deplaned spot on-time, and we made it home by a quarter to 9.
Back to the title of this post – I call it “First Class on the Cheap” for two reasons. One, we just didn’t pay much money for the experience, with the total fare clocking in at $565 roundtrip. No, that isn’t exactly cheap, but at only $229 more than coach fare, that’s about as cheap as you can get it unless you’re an elite and can upgrade a cheap fare for free. Definitely not a bad price if you wanted to treat yourself and/or a special someone with a first class experience without completely breaking the bank. But second, the journey gave the impression that, unfortunately, AA’s domestic soft product is being cheapened by the takeover by US Airways, as many AA frequent fliers have long feared. The cheapening was apparent on two counts – the downgraded meal service, obviously, but also the selling of cheap day-of-departure upgrades. I’ve been on 3 AA round-trips this year, and have been offered the cheap upgrade on each one, I’m sure much to the chagrin of elites who can’t get their upgrade requests confirmed in advance.
So if you’re not an elite, is an upgrade to AA first worth it? Even with the old meal system, I find domestic upgrades to be of questionable value, but with the new downgraded meals, the answer is definitely “no”, at least on flights under 1,000 miles. You’ll get almost the same amount of legroom and Group 1 boarding by buying a cheap coach fare and paying for Main Cabin Extra, which is available for $50 or less each way for most routes out of DFW (or about half the cost of a First upgrade). You can use the savings to buy a crappy fast food meal at the airport and an adult beverage in the air. Your stomach will be far more satisfied, and you’ll still come out ahead.