FLIGHT REVIEW: AMERICAN AIRLINES AA38 MIAMI TO LONDON

Plane type: Boeing 777

Class: Economy

Date taken: 9th February 2014

Flying can't always be a joy ride.....

Flying can’t always be a joy ride…..

I was looking forward to this return flight on AA like a hole in the head. On two occasions in the past, the airline has managed to misplace my luggage in transit. It’s reputation as a long haul carrier is somewhat lower than an insect’s dangly bits. And, to cap it all, I was flying from Miami, an airport synonymous with all the warmth and efficiency of a Dalek convention.

All in all, the omens were not good. Which made what followed a very pleasant surprise.

I arrived hours early at MIA and, unlike at many European airports, I was able to check in my luggage way in advance, leaving me free to head off to South Beach for a Sunday brunch, blissfully unburdened of all my travelling tat. And the AA staff- both in the lines and at the check in desk- could not have been more courteous, pleasant or helpful.

Needless to say, the security line was a forty five minute nightmare, but this is nothing to do with any airline. And, in all fairness, this time I found the TSA people on duty to be pleasant, efficient, and determined to make the process as painless as possible. Credit where credit is due here.

Embarkation was on time, prompt, and once again enabled by a personable gate staff. The welcome on board was pleasant, and not at all like some of the more brusque previous encounters with AA personnel.

This 777 had seating in a 2/5/2 configuration in economy, and the plane seemed to be in pretty good shape. I had pre booked  seat 41B, an aisle seat on the left hand ‘2’ side.  While the seat was a little hard, it had more than enough legroom for someone of my frame (5′ 6″). The recline was also more generous than anything I’ve experienced for some while, and I soon settled into it.

This flight encountered the most severe and sustained turbulence that I can ever recall in its early stages, lasting a full two and a half hours. Throughout all this, the staff on board were the height of care, concern, and professionalism. I was truly impressed with them, and their bearing in what was a far from comfortable or easy environment.

Drink runs were somehow made during this maelstrom; American Airlines now offers free beer and wine in economy, as well as soft drinks, plus tea and coffee. The fact that my wine was almost jolted into the ceiling says a lot about just how rough this portion of the flight was.

Food of a sort followed, with the usual choice of either chicken or pasta as a main course. The chicken was partly concealed in some kind of simmering, bubbling gloop that looked more than a little sinister, but that chicken itself was actually quite tasty. The carrots that came with this were crunchy, in a teeth clenching sort of way.

The bread roll that accompanied this was hard enough to hole a pocket battleship at twenty miles. It must have been easier cutting through the Siegfried Line than it was to wrestle with this brute. But this, in all fairness, is typical of most international airlines across all classes. We should just remain forever grateful that the late Adolf Hitler never got his hands on a stash of the damned things.

Being tired beyond any reason, I did not avail myself of the seat back entertainment, but there was certainly no shortage of films, television channels or music entertainment on offer. as well as games that could be played. And, once the turbulence abated, the plane settled down with lights out for the night and, to my surprise, I grabbed a good four hours’ sleep.

This cost me a light continental breakfast, but it was a worthwhile trade off to arrive at an unfeasibly sunny Heathrow a few minutes early. Disembarkation was quick and easy and, once again, the crew carried through what needed to be done with quiet, pleasant efficiency. And, to make it even better, both my luggage and myself enjoyed a highly emotional reunion.

I cannot commend the crew of this flight highly enough. We were kept constantly updated from the cockpit about the flight situation at all times. That, combined with the pleasant, ‘can do’ attitude I encountered at all levels across the American Airlines ground staff at Miami, has gone a long, long way to restoring my faith in an airline that I was previously very reluctant to touch at all. And yes, I would consider using them in the future, at least as a long haul option. Pleasantly surprised and impressed all round.

TAKING FLIGHT; THE GREAT ESCAPE

Exchanging this....

Exchanging this….

As I write this, rain is thumping in vengeful torrents against my living room windows, just as it has done for around two hours. The wind is howling and shrieking like a Justin Bieber wannabe. Outside, the sky is grimmer than a gargoyle’s jockstrap. And yet here I sit, grinning like a proverbial village idiot. Oh, yes.

For the great escape is on. Ssshhhh…..

In a scant five days, I’ll be exchanging this grotfest for the warm, sunny skies of Miami and the Caribbean. Thanks to the lovely folk at Carnival Cruises, I’ll be pottering sedately around a quarter of sun splashed, Caribbean idylls. Hopefully, the only ice to be encountered will be in my lunch time margarita. Peachy, non?

This contrast between grim ‘now’ and glorious ‘next’ had the unexpected effect of making me ponder just how truly miraculous long distance air travel still is.  If all goes to plan, I’ll be touching down in balmy Miami just nine hours and forty minutes after departing from the unalloyed joy that is Heathrow. That thought alone warms me on some deep, inner level.

I’m on British Airways for my flight out; that airline usually does a fine job of getting me to where I need to be. In fact, I have used this same flight quite often. Coming back, I am at the tender mercies of American Airlines. And I don’t even want to think about that.

We all know the minuses of air travel, especially if you turn right at the cabin doorway. And the airport experience is never a joyride, no matter what class you fly. And yet, the sheer adrenaline surge of such an escape seems nothing short of miraculous right at this moment. The negatives can be dismissed with a casual shrug- for now at least.

They can be dismissed because the journey itself is a means to an end- a progression from dismal to delightful days. A bridge to the sun, if you will.

For this.....

For this…..

After all, if God had meant me to spend winter in such conditions as we’ve got right now, then he would hardly have put two airports within thirty miles of my front door now, would he?  That’s my rationale, and I’m clinging to it like a banker, hanging on to his last bonus cheque.

The idea of being able to get back to somewhere at once warm, welcoming and familiar, fills me with a kind of subtle, wonderful warmth. Oh, the joys of shedding four layers of clothing. To feel the warmth of the sun again.

In a sense, the journey has already begun. Anticipation is always the most sublime of appetizers out there. It won’t be long now.

And- my word- it just stopped raining. Quite literally.

TWO BECOME ONE; AMERICAN AIRLINES AND US AIRWAYS TIE THE KNOT

Up in the clouds? Is the AA/USAir merger pie in the sky?

Up in the clouds? Is the AA/USAir merger pie in the sky?

So, after long months of ‘will they. won’t they’ musings and no shortage of subtle, subversive wooing, the merger of American Airlines and US Airways is finally a done deal. Some think it not so much a marriage as a shotgun wedding; both of these gargantuan airlines have filed for bankruptcy in the past. But what does it mean for commercial air travel and, principally, for the average passenger? Here’s my take on what I think will transpire.

I’m talking mainly in a transatlantic sense here, rather than a domestic one. Other, more knowledgeable experts on the airline industry have a far shrewder grasp of that scenario that I do. And my comments are, invariably, flavoured by my previous experiences of both these carriers as independent entities.

There’s bound to be consolidation on the transatlantic routes. At present, US Airways operates direct services from Manchester, Gatwick and Heathrow to American hubs in Philadelphia and Charlotte, North Carolina, with connections across the US and the rest of the world from there. It has traditionally flown A330’s on this route, operating in a two class- business and economy- configuration.

American Airlines, by contrast, has always majored out of Heathrow, with some subsidiary services from Gatwick and Manchester, It uses hubs in Raleigh, Dallas Fort Worth and New York’s JFK. In the main, it flies the Boeing 777 in three classes- first, business and economy- and sometimes older 767’s on the Manchester-New York route.

There is bound to be some culling of services here, and I’m guessing the casualties will be the AA services out of Manchester and Gatwick. That said, the airline will want to remain fully competitive with the new Delta/Virgin tie in that gives them access to the affiliated KLM/Air France network.

Of course, American Airlines is part of the Oneworld Alliance, a strategic tie in that sees the American giant locked into codeshare agreements with both British Airways and Iberia.  Word is that all US Airways passenger benefits, such as elite status and air miles, will be transferable to the new conglomerate. Let’s hope so.

What’s interesting here is the fact that BA in particular operates as a four class airline. Will the former US Airways fleet be upgraded with premium economy products, or even a first class? Not necessarily, because direct rival Virgin offers no dedicated first class, something that has always marked it apart from British Airways in particular.

In terms of style and service, I think there will be very little change in terms of what is on offer, with a uniform standard of product offer rolled out across both airlines. Pricewise, anyone expecting to see any benefits is probably deluding themselves. Consolidation will bring more advantages to shareholders than to potential travellers.

This in large part in the UK is down to the catastrophic level of APD (Air Passenger Duty), a series of prohibitive, government prescribed taxes that have rocketed skywards since around 2007. Transatlantic airline ticket prices are anything between forty and sixty per cent higher now than they were then. The shotgun marriage of the two airlines is intended to try and negate the worst effects of this, together with the rising cost- and potentially uncertain availability- of aviation fuel in the future.

This set of circumstances is not unique to the AA/USAir marriage of convenience, of course. All of the airlines are up against it, and consolidation is seemingly the only way forward. With the market volatile and uncertain, there seems little material prospect of an improving level of service- especially across the grey ranks of economy style cabin seating- any time soon.

No matter what shape and direction this lumbering new bird takes, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that both airline and passengers alike are stuck between a rock and a hard place, at least for the foreseeable future.

FLYING TO MIAMI? A FEW ALTERNATIVE ROUTES TO CONSIDER

British Airways will generally get you to and from Miami in more style than most

British Airways will generally get you to and from Miami in more style than most

Caribbean cruise coming up? Nice. Getting to Miami? Not so much. The airport has a reputation for warm welcomes and prolonged, agonising stays that makes the Tower of London look like the Toronto Four Seasons. It is not famous for friendliness. Or efficiency.

But it will almost certainly be a necessary evil. And, if the cruise line is not arranging your flights, what are some of your options for getting to and from Miami if you are UK and Northern Ireland based? Here’s a few ideas to consider.

British Airways is the obvious choice for many. With a good range of regional flights connecting through the airline’s hub at Heathrow’s Terminal Five, BA offers a brisk, efficient daily service. There’s up to four direct flights a day. Flying time from Heathrow to Miami is around nine hours and forty minutes.

Caveats: BA operates codeshare flights with both American Airlines and Iberia. Check your flight numbers carefully once you have booked. For instance, an Iberia flight will almost certainly mean a second change of flight, usually in Madrid.

KLM/AIR FRANCE

The joint Franco/Dutch conglomerate has the best network of regional connections in the UK. Operating over their respective Paris and Amsterdam hubs, they offer a good inflight product, and the inestimable advantage of avoiding Heathrow.

Caveats: Not all of the flights are direct-especially on KLM. Either airline might route you through a third airport; typically, New York, Chicago, or even Detroit. And again, watch out for the codeshares. And while Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport is usually a breeze to transit, Charles De Gaulle at Paris can be a bit of a scrum.

VIRGIN ATLANTIC

An excellent product from Heathrow, their big problem was a lack of connecting regional flights. Something that the airline has now largely redressed, although more need to be added from the north east. The lounge at Heathrow is the best of it’s kind; an outstanding pre flight experience.

Caveats: Still not enough regional connections to be a truly viable alternative to BA.

CONTINENTAL/UNITED AIRLINES

Operates on the theory- thus far unproven- that bigger is better. Offers departures via seven UK hubs- Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast, Manchester, Birmingham, Heathrow and Gatwick, with onward connections typically via Washington DC, Newark and Chicago, as well as Houston. Lots of availability.

Caveats: Nothing to really entice those in north east England away from BA. Continental also operate Boeing 757s on many routes that hardly stack up for comfort with the opposition. Unlike their rivals, they do not offer even the basic luxuries of free beer and wine in economy. And Washington’s Dulles Airport is a shocking experience to try and change through.

DELTA

Now part of a strategic alliance with Virgin Atlantic, Delta is also tied in with partner airlines, Air France and KLM.

Delta flies Boeing 767 aircraft from Manchester and Heathrow to connect over it’s hubs in New York, Boston and Atlanta. Free beer and wine is on offer. The 767 is generally comfortable for a long haul flight, but not up there with the A340 or the Boeing 777. Prices are generally pretty competitive.

Caveats: Once again, a lack of regional connections for most of the British Isles. A good option for those airports close by, but otherwise not so much. Not the greatest reputation for punctuality or baggage handling either, to be fair.

US AIRWAYS

Flies to Miami from both Manchester and Heathrow, via it’s hubs in Charlotte and Philadelphia. Uses comfortable A330’s on the main routes, although beer and wine is again at a charge.  Philadelphia International Airport is one of the best transit airports anywhere; great dining options at reasonable prices.

US Airways also flies into Miami’s new Terminal J, which feels like an alternative universe compared to the disjointed and unfriendly mess that is Miami. Genuinely helpful and welcoming staff and- whisper it- an efficient system and set up that actually leaves you wondering; is this really Miami?

Caveats: Still, not good regional connectivity over the great bulk of the UK. Some of their Boeing 737 connecting flights down to Miami are truly horrendous experiences.

A COUPLE OF LEFT FIELDS OPTIONS….

TAP; AIR PORTUGAL The Portuguese national airline operates a service to Miami via it’s Lisbon Portela hub. You can fly into here from both Manchester and London. The airline flies both A330’s and A340’s. Hit the timing right, and you might get some really good prices on TAP.

AVOID MIAMI ALTOGETHER… and fly instead into Fort Lauderdale’s smaller, less stress inducing Hollywood International Airport, just twenty fives miles to the north. i used this on an Air Canada round trip service from Heathrow, via Montreal outbound and Toronto Pearson on return. If the schedules work for you,  I definitely recommend this one as an option.

This is not a definitive list of course, and never claimed to be. I’m just hoping that, by throwing a few options out there, I might just make your journey that bit better and, who knows, maybe even save you a few quid? Whoever you get out there with- Bon Voyage!