The plan was to conduct our widest ever road test of American Airlines’s economy class but nobody anticipated it would include a monster hurricane that would see us “stranded” at sea on the day we were scheduled to fly home.
Our travels included economy and extra-legroom economy flights on a variety of aircraft operating international and domestic routes ending with a Miami-Los Angeles leg.
Then came Hurricane Dorian.
Dorian closed the Port of Miami while we were on a Royal Caribbean cruise and meant we were unable to get back to take our flight home.
Not that we were complaining; the storm meant our eight-night cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas was extended to 11 nights at no extra cost with two destinations added to an already busy schedule.
Once the cruise company had confirmed the extension it provided passengers with 24 hours of free Internet access and complimentary ship-to-shore calls to allow them to re-arrange travel.
US carriers are proactive when it comes to announcing fee waivers ahead of severe weather events —better than airlines in many other parts of the world — and American is no exception.
An email to our travel agent in the Australian coastal town of Woy Woy a couple of the days before the original flight was due to leave quickly saw new flights arranged for a later date at no extra cost.
It was one of the several aspects of the US giant that helped revise a somewhat dim initial view prompted by the challenge of a rocky booking experience.
Aging fleets and grumpy flight attendants have given international travelers a jaundiced view of US airlines but our foray on American backed up recent surveys showing improvements on US full-service carriers.
The US giant was specifically chosen because of its deepening associations with Australia’s Qantas and my wife and I paid for the six economy class sectors we took.
This was a “big guy” test utilizing the not inconsiderable frame and height (197cms) of yours truly.
The journey began on a Boeing 787-9 flying from Sydney to Los Angeles, continued with an LA-Chicago flight and then a trip from Des Moines, Iowa, to Dallas/Fort Worth to connect to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
On the way back, we traveled from Miami to Los Angeles and back to Sydney.
Aircraft flown in addition to the 787-9 were the 737-800, the Airbus A321 and a Bombardier CRJ700 regional jet operated by American Eagle.
American offers both normal economy seats that it labels “Main Cabin” seats and “Main Cabin Extra” seats with more legroom,and other perks such as reserved bin space, at an additional cost that varies with sector length.
The exit row aisle seat I booked on the Sydney-LAX journey, 24J, cost an additional $US129 but was worth it for the extra legroom. Other main cabin extra seats are also available and offer an additional four inches of legroom for a slightly lower fee.
Boarding was efficient and in groups. Oneworld ruby frequent flyers and above get priority boarding and I was in group four while my wife varied between six and eight.
We had both weighed our cabin baggage, just in case (pun intended), but it was not checked on this or any other flight.
The seat on the 787, as is generally the case in the nine-across seating on these planes, was tight in terms of width at just over 17 inches. But the unlimited legroom and comfortable cushioning made it bearable.
One downside (or upside when nature calls) was that the seat was near the toilet.
But here comes a dire warning: the relatively painless outbound trip lulled me into a false of security and prompted me to pick a “window” exit row seat, 24A, on the way back.
Not only was there no window, but this extremely cramped seat turned the Dreamliner into a “tightmare” and made for an unpleasant 14 plus hours.
You are also confronted with a bulge in the exit door that means you have to angle your legs when you stretch out.
American’s seat map notes there are hip-crunching seats with a width of little more 16 inches in economy and this may have been one of them.
My wife found the equivalent seat on the other side of the cabin so uncomfortable she used her feminine wiles to engineer a move to a normal economy aisle seat which she described as “much better”, despite the 31-inch seat pitch.
Alas, my attempts to drop thinly-veiled hints to cabin crew such as “this seat sucks” came to no avail.
Essentially, the extra legroom did not compensate for the cramped conditions and these window exit row seats should be avoided. I would advise even Hobbit-like people against forking out $US129 for one.
Other reasons I preferred the outbound flight included the service and the food.
For example, the crew offered a hot towel service, pretzels and a drink shortly after take-off from Sydney but not on the overnight LA-Sydney flight.
The surprisingly good open bar had a big beer selection, premium spirits such as Bombay Sapphire gin and Courvoisier VSOP as well as a limited choice of inoffensive wines.
The inflight entertainment system was also impressive with a sharp touchscreen, well-designed interface and a handy, easy-to-spot headphone socket underneath the screen.
A good selection of movies and TV shows — including the final season of Game of Thrones — came with one of the better categorization systems I’ve seen as well as an interesting selection of music.
This was available on all the domestic flights we took except the CRJ which, I believe, had wireless streaming.
Offsetting this for economy passengers were the inferior earbud headphones supplied by American. I heard the name Bose mentioned for people in the premium seats but the cheap economy efforts were a definite incentive to bring your own “cans”.
Other things to bring include eyeshades and earplugs.
The food was reasonable, although better on the outbound leg, and we were fed three times in both directions.
There were three main course choices and on the Sydney-LA leg, I opted for a passable beef Stroganoff with herb potatoes, green beans and carrots for lunch accompanied by an impressive chocolate mousse and a roll with butter.
About seven or eight hours into the flight the crew rolled out a strangely elongated Angus beef pie with a Weis ice cream bar and as we approached LA, there was a choice of a fruit plate or a traditional American breakfast of scrambled eggs, roasted potatoes, bacon and grilled tomato.
The long-haul crew went about their business with varying degrees of enthusiasm — a couple looked like they’d much rather be somewhere else — but we were fortunate to have a gregarious and engaging flight attendant near us. Crews on the domestic flights were younger and chirpier.
At LA, we switched to an A321 and the additional width of the seats was immediately noticeable. We were in the main cabin on this flight but were pleasantly surprised by the legroom.
The aircraft had seatback screens that differed only slightly from the versions on the B787 and the flight from Los Angeles from Chicago was not arduous.
Food and alcoholic beverages were available for sale at what we considered to be fairly stiff prices but there was free stuff that included soft drinks, juices, pretzels and small packets of somewhat addictive sweet biscuits.
It was not until after the CRJ-700 flight from Des Moines that we discovered the benefits of being ruby status with oneworld and the power of gate agents.
The regional jet has a two-two seating configuration and my wife was of the opinion that the seating in the CRJ was more comfortable than the 787.
I might not go that far but it was certainly not onerous, particularly after the obliging cabin crew allowed several of we bigger types to move to empty pairs of seats.
However, they drew the line at upgrading us to Main Cabin Extra. That, they told us, had to be arranged before boarding with the gate agent.
It turns out people with oneworld ruby status can put in a bid for Main Cabin Extra seat in the 24 hours before flying and the ground staff at the gates are the people who can accommodate this.
When we got to Dallas/Fort Worth we decided to give it a go and we were pleasantly surprised when we were able to secure an extra legroom seat.
The same thing happened in Miami (where we got two seats that also came with free booze) and on the way back to Sydney. We had actually paid for MCE seats on the original LA-Sydney flight but lost them when the flight was rebooked.
The friendly gate agent offered a couple of alternatives but I unwisely opted for the exit row window seat.
We found most ground staff throughout the journey to be obliging and willing to help where they could, particularly when approached with a politely hopeful request rather than the angry demands we saw from some passengers.
I didn’t use American’s app but the airline kept us well informed with emails about flight status and connecting gates before and during flights. I didn’t pay for inflight wi-fi so these popped up when we landed and saved the usual airport search for the arrivals/departure screens.
One other thing worth mentioning for people flying in from outside the US is the luggage allowance.
People flying economy from Australia and several other countries get a luggage allowance of two 23kg bags. Stick with the same airline and this follows you throughout your journey, allowing you to avoid some hefty bag fees.
However, it may not apply if you change airlines.
We also used the kerbside check-in in Miami, which proved quick and efficient while allowing us to avoid inside queues. It was worth the tip.
I began this journey fearing for the worse about flying with American and ended by conceding I could well book with the US carrier again.
It‘s not quite as good as some of the international flights I’ve had at home in Australia but it has some advantages and it’s not as far from those carriers as I expected.
It may have even been better than some domestic flights and it was ahead of a couple of recent experiences in Europe.
Pricing and convenience could well tip a future decision in its favor.