My trip to Dallas last week involved my first flight with American Airlines in six years. And that trip to Oahu six years ago was the break in another six-year hiatus. As you can tell, I don’t fly American very much, not to suggest I dislike them but only because it doesn’t really make sense for my travel patterns.
On the West Coast, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, many American-marketed flights are actually operated by Alaska Airlines. In fact, the SFO-HNL flight I took with them last time is no longer offered, and I would have to take an Alaska flight to LAX first if I wanted to use an eVIP for an upgrade to Hawaii. I still have all 8 eVIPs from my Executive Platinum status match, and we’ll see whether they get used or not.
Airlines offer status matches on purpose in order to lure customers from competing carriers. I would never have flown American this year without the match. As it is, I won’t be flying enough to keep my status, but I might still make a try next year. Maybe. Traveling with American a week ago and with United just a few days after that, I had an opportunity to directly compare their economy class as well as their overall service and operations.
Domestic economy class is always how I compare airlines because most of my travel is domestic and also first class is more than enough for an unemployed, recent graduate student like me. I’m not going to complain if my free meal and booze aren’t perfect, even if some might be better than others.
Both airlines offer seats 17.2 inches wide in economy class, but I made the mistake of choosing the exit rows. The tray tables, itty bitty tiny ones smaller than my MacBook Air, were in the armrests. They took away another precious inch, but even on the return flight (I changed our seats) I still felt cramped. For whatever reason, I’ve always felt that United’s economy class seats were a bit spacious. The extra 5 inches of legroom or more from EconomyPlus certainly helps, but that’s in the other direction. So what gives?
Beyond the cramped seats, I have to give American credit for in-flight power and WiFi. I get power on United’s newer, pre-merger Continental planes, but there’s still very little WiFi rollout. With a few free GoGo passes courtesy of my American status match, I really enjoyed being online. I’m not sure I was more productive (I tend to focus better when all I can do is write and not read), but it was fun.
We were not upgraded because American does not offer complimentary upgrades for companions. It was never an option since Megan wouldn’t let me pay for some 500-mile vouchers. Maybe I should have used an eVIP. But when Executive Platinum members like me don’t get upgraded, we do get a free snack and alcoholic beverage in economy. This worked great on the return flight. The flight attendant ran up to first class to find me TWO bottles of Glenlivet, plus gave Megan a free glass of wine. On the way there, however, I had to argue just to get a single bottle of Dewar’s for myself. For whatever reason I keep hearing this argument that Glenlivet is only for the first class cabin. That’s fine, I understand the policy, but why advertise it for sale at $7 a bottle? I can’t imagine they’re charging first class customers.
It was this mixed message that really turned me off the most toward American. When you interact with a person, generally the service is quite good. Better at least than the experience on United. More often than I would like, I sometimes get the impression from United’s flight attendants that anyone outside the first class cabin is not worth their time. American’s employees actually sought me out as a top-tier member, something that has never happened to me on United.
Employees Well-Versed in Customer Avoidance
But American’s employees also like to hide behind the screen, so to speak. Our flight departing Seattle was delayed an hour. We were supposed to board at 2:55 PM. At 3:20, the monitor still said we were on-time, but there was no plane at the gate. Not even an announcement. We did make up the time in the air, but come on, you got to admit that looks fishy to customers left in the dark.
Once on the plane, I almost never heard the flight attendants unless they spoke to me directly during beverage service. Make sure you put your bags in handle first, wheels out? The television monitors would flip down to make the announcement. Captain turned on the fasten seatbelt sign? The television monitors come down again. Every possible announcement was made by a computer instead of a human. I am convinced that only 1 out of 10 United employees actually knows how to speak over a public address system, given their halting and garbled commands, but I still appreciate the gesture.
So do I hate American Airlines? No. Overall it was a decent trip. But there is a very real culture clash. I have become so used to United Airlines that I know how to make it work for me, and the little hiccups that annoy everyone else are anticipated. Maybe the same is true for you American loyalists. If I do decide to go for top-tier status with both carriers next year, it will take some time yet before I can find myself equally comfortable flying with another airline.