As mentioned in my teaser post from Wednesday, I had the privilege of being on American’s inaugural 787 flight from Dallas to Chicago on Thursday morning, along with fellow UPGRDrs Rocky and Daniel. I live in the DFW area, and when the announcement came out that the inaugural would take off from DFW Airport to Chicago O’Hare, there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity – not just to sample American’s newest product, but to also experience my very first launch flight of anything.
Daniel was able to enjoy the ride in First Class, and Rocky had the unique experience of flying both the Dallas (coach) and Chicago (first) launches of the #AADreamliner, with his trip up in Coach and the return in First. I didn’t have the money or miles for a seat in First on the inaugural, so I made the ride in Coach. I had toyed with the idea of taking the 787 both up and back, but the price was prohibitive for the return flight, and after considering things for a while, I thought it might be fun to book the return on one of American’s oldest aircraft, the MD-80 a.k.a. the “Mad Dog”, to do a compare and contrast. Plus, I had already booked a revenue seat in First on the 787 for the 16th to try out that product. In the end, I stuck to the original plan, even though a same-day change to the 787 was available for $75.
American Airlines (AA) Flight 2320
- May 7, 2015
- Depart: Dallas-Ft. Worth International (DFW) Gate D25, 07:10, on-time
- Arrive: Chicago O’Hare (ORD) Gate L10, 09:32, 6m early
- Main Cabin (economy class), Seat 27A
- Equipment: Boeing 787-800
The (very early) morning initially started with a bit of dread when I was awakened to the unmistakable sound of heavy rain pounding my roof around 4:30. Nooooo…please no thunderstorms right now! Thankfully, our house, on the north side of the Metroplex, was just getting clipped by the southern end of a line of thunderstorms, with no issues at the airport. Arriving at the gate at about five minutes to 6, the plane was already there, and a small gate party was already in full swing, with a light breakfast spread and a photo booth where you could have a photo taken with a 787-themed backdrop.
Celebratory sign at the gate
The obligatory cheesy photo, complete with UPGRD hat
Pardon the poor quality of the plane photo – the sun wasn’t out yet
While waiting in line for my photo, I spoke with a guy who was going to be flying 14 segments in two days between Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, and several points in between just to be on this flight. Yeah, I got nothing. It took me 35 minutes to get to the airport. Anyway, about 20 minutes before boarding, a couple of Boeing and American execs gave a short speech, followed by a quick recognition of the pioneering flight crew.
Recognition of the first 787 revenue flight crew
Instead of the usual boarding by group, they just called everyone at once, but it was still remarkably orderly. That was probably because quite a few folks were still milling around and socializing and having photos taken. While boarding, I had perhaps the highlight of the experience. I thought I saw a familiar face behind me, and quickly realized it was Terry Maxon of Airline Biz Blog fame. I said hello, and Mr. Maxon proceeded to interview me about why I was on the flight while we walked down the jetbridge. I ended up getting a mention in Friday’s edition of the Dallas Morning News, but with all the noise on the jetbridge, my name got lost in translation. I go by “Ram”, but my name ended up being “Ron” in the story. I had a good laugh with the UPGRD crew and friends/co-workers about that one. If you’d like to relive my 15 seconds of fame, click here Mr. Maxon’s article about the inaugural, and then scroll down towards the end (you can decide for yourself whether my wife is right, and I really am crazy). My few seconds of fame over, I worked my way back to the Bob Uecker seats and settled in to 27A, a window on the left side four rows from the back.
Initial Impressions of the coach cabin
NOTE: I did not take any photos of the First Class cabin, or the lavatories. As mentioned, I have already scheduled a trip in First in about a week, and will do a detailed review with photos. Both Daniel and Rocky (links above) reviewed the F cabin, so please read their posts if you want to see the front cabin now.
There are a lot of things to like about the Dreamliner. Among them, besides the new plane smell: the larger overhead bins, the adjustable lighting, and the availability of both a power port and USB charger at each seat at seatback level. This is a big improvement, as it avoids the problem of getting your feet entangled in and/or tripping over your charger plug, as well as fighting with a tight space to get the plug in the socket in the first place.
Larger overhead bins
Seatback TV with power and USB ports
Lighting in flight vs. after flight
I also like the new look of the seats, with dark blue cloth and grey headrests. There is also a surprising amount of legroom given the 31″ seat pitch, probably due to the thinner “slimline” seats and the seat pocket moved upwards. My major complaint with slimline seats is the lack of butt and thigh support, but I actually found these seats reasonably comfortable in that regard. However, this is only a 2 hour, 22 minute flight, so I can’t say if the same would hold true on longer flights.
New seat design
Surprisingly generous legroom
But…and this is a big one…I found the 9-abreast configuration cramped. I’m a small guy, roughly 5’7″/145, and my neighbor in the middle wasn’t a large man, either. Yet I still felt an acute lack of elbow room. It was difficult to move around and grab things from my laptop bag, or tilt myself to take a photo from the window, without worrying that I was going to jab my neighbor in the ribs. This is clearly going to be an issue on longer flights, probably just as bad as the awful 10-abreast configuration proliferating like unwanted weeds on the 777. (For reference, I stayed in my seat from boarding until landing, just so I could get a good sense of the seat’s overall comfort.)
Impressions of the flight
You’ll hear this repeatedly in any review of the 787 – yes, it’s quiet, certainly quieter than most long-range aircraft like the 737 or 777. I didn’t really see a noticeable difference in cabin comfort or humidity, but as this was only a 2-hour flight, it’s also probably not long enough to really be representative. On the other hand, I have real problems with my ears, especially during descent, and I did seem to have less ear popping than on other aircraft, which is certainly positive. And yes, the larger windows do make photography a bit easier, for those that enjoy taking photos while looking out the window.
We taxiied back from the gate on time, and a couple of fire trucks lined up to give us a water cannon salute. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work, as the truck on the starboard side misjudged the distance to the plane, barely even getting us wet.
Take-off was smooth and quiet, and it wasn’t long before we climbed out of the low cloud layer. It’s hard to tell in this photo, but there was a little light chop in this area, and if you were watching closely, you could see the cool curved wing flexing up and down.
T-storms that affected the northern Metroplex in the morning off to the northeast
Once we passed 10,000 feet, I started playing around with the touch screen. There is a large selection of TV shows, movies, and games available, along with an in-seat chat feature and national and world news headlines. I didn’t have time to browse the full selection, but there did seem to be a wide enough variety to keep you busy for a while if you don’t have your own entertainment with you. Speaking of which, the USB connector is supposed to let you watch movies and listen to music on your device through the in-seat system. Unfortunately, despite several attempts, I wasn’t able to get the system to work. Not sure if it was a glitch, or if it had just been disabled for this flight. Additionally, while satellite WiFi is available, I couldn’t get that to work, either. I suspect it was slowed down considerably by the large number of fliers onboard trying it out.
And of course, for the hardcore avgeek, there is a new moving map feature, one that can be configured for several different pre-programmed views or even a custom view. The map was decent, and the “midair flight” feature was pretty cool, but zoom seemed to be significantly limited. I prefer the Google Maps-based system on Virgin America where you can zoom in almost down to street level.
“Midair” view of the flight map
I also used this opportunity to check out some of the trinkets handed out in the goodie bags we received upon boarding, and played around with the window shade. The dimmable shade is an interesting feature; while the darkest setting mimics having the shade drawn, if you are in a window seat, you can still see outside, although with a noticeably tinted view. You’ll see what I mean below.
Boeing-branded portable charger
787 inaugural commemorative silver coin
Window in the lightest setting
Window in the darkest setting
Most of the flight was pretty smooth, with some occasional chop. I did notice that when the 787 hits turbulence, you feel the motion side-to-side more than up-and-down, so it isn’t quite as unsettling. That will probably be a selling point for nervous fliers. Service-wise, the crew, as you would expect on a special flight, were unusually attentive and interactive with the passengers. The cabin crew showed off their sleeping quarters at the back (Rocky has photos in his post), and the captain provided much more information than usual, such as take-off weight, landing weight, and pounds of fuel to be used. One captain also walked to the back of the plane to talk with passengers who had questions about the new bird.
Captain interacting with passengers in the next row up
Before we knew it, it was time to descend into Chicago. I had booked a seat on the left side in the hope that I would get lucky, and planes would be landing to the west, causing flights coming in from Dallas to overshoot the airfield, turn around over Lake Michigan, then do a fly-by past downtown before landing. The bet paid off, and I got several spectacular photos of the skyline under the curved wing (sorry, I am obsessed with that wing). We landed a bit hard (guess the captain wanted to test out the brakes), then unevenfully taxiied to the gate and parked a few minutes early. I was surprised to see not much going on as far as commemorations, except for a few balloons and snacks as we exited. Guess the party ended by the time those of us in the Bob Uecker seats could get off.
Chicago skyline under the wing
The beautiful new bird parked at Gate L10
Balloons, water, and popcorn at the gate
I had a short turnaround in Chicago, with a little more than an hour and a half before my flight home would start boarding. That gave me time to post a few things to Instagram and Twitter and check e-mail, but not much else. The return home would be on the old workhorse of American’s fleet, the McDonnell-Douglas MD-80. I’m a grizzled veteran of the Mad Dog, having flown on it extensively during my seven years as a frequent flier, but it would be interesting to see how it would compare after just having stepped of a brand new airplane.
AA Flight 2323
- May 7, 2015
- Depart: ORD Gate K3, 11:46, 7m late
- Arrive: DFW Gate A14, 14:10, 1m early
- Main Cabin, Seat 17F
- Equipment: McDonnell-Douglas Super 80
Boarding started on time, but proceeded more slowly than normal for some reason. For a while, it looked like I might hit the jackpot and have an empty middle seat next to me, but at the last second, a deadheading flight attendant headed back to DFW took the seat. No worries, she was actually very nice and I got to share some tips about cruising. This Mad Dog was fairly clean and well-maintained inside, but compared to the showroom new condition of the Dreamliner, it’s certainly a night-and-day kind of experience. Perhaps the starkest contrast was the complete lack of in-flight entertainment. You’ll have to bring your own, and make sure you have enough battery life to last the flight, unless you have a DC charger. And of course, the overhead bins are smaller.
Older seats with no in-seat screens
Legroom is roughly the same as on the 787, though with the traditional position of the seatback pocket at the bottom, knee room does feel a bit more restricted. One other thing that’s immediately noticeable – the ceilings in the 787 are higher than the MD-80. I realized this the hard way when I bonked my head into the overhead bin when getting to my window seat.
Importantly, though, Main Cabin seats in the MD-80 are approximately one inch wider than in the 787. That doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a substantial difference. It was definitely a more comfortable ride in terms of elbow room, and I didn’t feel quite as constricted when reaching for something in my bag or turning my body to take a photo. On the other hand, I found the comfort of the seat itself a bit better in the 787, particularly the bottom cushion and the headrest. Another advantage of the MD-80 is the 2-3 configuration in Main Cabin, which allows you to avoid a middle seat entirely if you plan ahead, and is ideal for couples traveling together.
As mentioned above, the 787 is a quiet airplane throughout, but AA veterans will probably agree that one of the quietest rides in the air is the pointy end of a Mad Dog, thanks to 25+ rows between you and the engines. In the Main Cabin, though, it is noticeably noisier than the Dreamliner, more so as you head towards the back. When those engines spool up for take-off, you definitely notice, though the Mad Dog does feel like it has more oomph as you rocket up towards cruising altitude.
Most if not all MD-80s have at least been equipped with GoGo WiFi, though on this flight, it was quite expensive at $17 for a flight pass. There was no way I was paying that much, so I paid $5.50 for a 30-minute pass instead. It was fine for checking Outlook web access, Twitter, and Facebook, and frankly, it was faster than the free WiFi on the ground at O’Hare (which was terrible). It’s a good thing that these planes at least have WiFi, because otherwise, your entertainment consists of looking out the window or browsing through the Sky Mall.
The flight was mostly smooth, with sunny weather allowing for some nice flightseeing over the Midwest and Southern Plains.
Beautiful day in the western suburbs of Chicago
Livin’ on Tulsa Time at 35,000 feet
Grapevine Lake on final descent into DFW, full again after 4+ years of drought
You do notice a few vibrations here and there in an older airplane, but I was actually a little surprised at how smooth this particular Mad Dog was. Some in the American fleet have gotten noticeably rough around the edges over the years. The most noticeable difference occurred as we passed through some turbulence while descending through the stratus layer approaching DFW. The MD-80 is a sturdy airplane, but you definitely noticed the vertical pitching during turbulence than in the Dreamliner. The descent also confirmed that the 787 truly is easier on the ears than other aircraft; the familiar trouble keeping my ears unblocked reared its ugly head as we started down over southeast Oklahoma.
Comparing service on these two flights isn’t really a fair fight – the 787 inaugural was a special flight after all – but we received the average service I’ve come to expect over the years with American. The FA who served our row was reasonably pleasant, and was nice enough to give me a full can of ginger ale and a replacement plastic knife after I accidentally dropped mine on the floor. But they did their drink service, then disappeared. Then again, they weren’t rude, which was more than satisfactory for me on a 2-hour flight in coach.
Following a smooth landing to the south, we had a short taxi to the gate, clocking in a minute early. Unlike our morning departure though, there was no gate party to welcome us back to Dallas.
So how do I think the newest and oldest members of the AA fleet compare to each other? On the one hand, there is no comparison. The Dreamliner is a state-of-the-art bird, and blows away everything else I’ve sampled in terms of bells and whistles and overall ride quality. I especially like the configuration of the power and USB ports. I didn’t really notice the cabin pressure difference, but the 787 was much easier on my ears, an important issue for me. However, I do have misgivings about the 9-abreast configuration in Main Cabin. This is a tight squeeze, and I’m struggling to see how those seats are going to be comfortable on 10-14 hour flights, especially if you’re stuck in the middle. In that category at least, the good old Mad Dog wins.
***Un-Disclaimer: aside from a few tweets wishing me a happy flight, I received no compensation from American Airlines for either of these flights***