Welcome back to my first actual travel series on here. As the rest of the year is somewhat difficult for me in terms of finding time for a vacation, and that my last stay in the USA was cut short abruptly for reasons everybody is sick and tired of hearing from by now, the decision where to go was made very quickly. That the only other attractive goal for my trip - Japan - is still closed off to the world as I'm writing these lines, and the US lifted their immigration ban for Schengen area inhabitants last fall made the decision even more easy to make.
I had specific reasons for choosing the first three stops of my little tour of the United States but Houston was more or less chosen because it was expedient. Speaking of expediency, this was also part of the reason why I chose the airlines I chose for this trip. Trip times were good and the prices too. For American Airlines, I was even able to use some travel credit leftover from 2020. Plus, I had wanted to try Delta's long-haul product for some time now and the opportunity was there. The routing for my vacation this year is as follows:
If you have followed how the domestic AA product developed over the last years, especially since Covid and with the new cabins aboard the A321neo and the likes, you might ask yourselves why exactly I've chosen this airline for this flight. The answer is threefold: a) trying new airlines and planes is (almost) always fun, b) they had rather good prices on this route, and c) I still had travel value left from 2020 because they weren't willing to refund the price. I mean they weren't required to do that in any way, but it still would have been very nice, especially as I know first-hand that other airlines did exactly that out of goodwill. Anyways, this flight was originally supposed to be two flights, with a layover in Chicago. However, at some point they just switched my booking to a direct flight, which is normally more expensive. On the one hand, this was good news, as it cut down the travel time and saved me from a connection in ORD, which I later heard isn't a good experience in many cases. On the other hand, it meant getting up earlier, but again, I'm not complaining that I received an objectively better product at no extra cost.
So I hope you'll have fun reading this review and that you'll be finding it to be helpful. Let's go.
I chose to arrive at the airport a tad ealier than I would have normally had (2,5 hours before departure). This was because the day before I had received a mail from American Airlines, stating that they were facing issues with the security lines, leading to longer wait times. Also, I expected further holdups as I had not been able to check in for my flight the previous evening, always getting an error message from the system. I could check in only in the morning of my flight.
However, this additional buffer time turned out to be completely unnecessary. Expect for some serious crowding in the public part of the airport where also the self-check in and bag drop areas were located, the baggage drop and the security check itself went quickly and smoothly.
The airside part of PHL airport is divided into several smaller terminals, labeled A to F. Most of these are connected via walkways, some of them of the moving variation. In my opinion, this creates a rather pleasant experience, as it combines the advantages of smaller areas with the benefits of a larger airport with its multitude of shops, seating areas, and lounges - but you need to be careful at which part of the airport you arrive, otherwise you might need to walk a long, long way! Speaking of shops, there was a good selection of them, even though I don't think there's any kind of real variation compared to what is on offer at other major US airports.
Some impressions of the terminal area. And yes, parts of it were quite empty that day.
I'm also pleased to report that a water bottle refilling station exists in the Terminal E area. Ordinary water fountains can be found at the entrance of every restroom block. There was an adequate number of restrooms, even in the parts of the airport that were busier, and they were also adequately clean from what I can tell.
Quite a lot was going on at the airport in terms of aircraft movements. Note the PSA livery AA A321 in the third photo to the extreme right.
Today's gate, C28, is located at the very end of the C gate area. There were a lot of seating spaces - certainly more than can be seen in the picture below. Seating with power plugs, however, was scarce and limited to one single bar-counter-like place.
Having arrived way too early for the flight, I grabbed a bite at Dunkin' Donuts and waited… Meanwhile, let's talk about the plane that would carry me to San Diego. (I know the plane down below isn't even an A321neo, but it was impossible for me to get a good shot of the plane on this day.)
Today's ship: N412UW, an Airbus A321neo delivered new to American Airlines in December 2019. Built in Mobile, Alabama.
Information courtesy of Planespotters.com.
Boading began on time at 9.20am for a 9.55 departure. One thing I noticed about how the boarding was conducted was the ridiculously large number of boarding groups. If there was any hope that this would solve the problem of people just lining up whenever they feel like it - that was promptly demonstrated to be totally unfounded. Also, the announcements the airline representatives frequently made to keep everybody up to date were totally drowned out by the high volume of the generic airport PA concerning unattended luggage and the federal mask mandate.
As AA decided to stuff 196 people into their A321neo, I expected delays in boarding and indeed, there were several times in which it seems as if nothing was moving anymore. To be clear, AA is not the only "legacy carrier" doing something like this, by far. However, 35 minutes turned out to be a suitable-ish time for boarding this plane.
Another thing about the A321neo: I'm sure that somebody at the corporate headquarters took a careful look at what the competition was doing and turned around every penny twice to see how this plane could be operated with maximum profitability. But from a paxex perspective, this configuration on an A321neo is awful. I will tell you more about the reasons for this statements later, but at this stage I will just write that it's no wonder that boarding takes so relatively long and there are problems with the overhead luggage compartments, if a) so many people are boarded on a single-aisle plane via a single jetbridge, and b) checked baggage costs extra for most coach passengers, leading to those persons frequently using their cabin baggage allowance to the max. Economics is not just about bean-counting and squeezing the last cent out a business with radical short-term measures; it's also about incentives and the unintended consequences they might produce.
While the staff at the gate was fairly efficient, boarding moved at a snail's pace due to congestion of the one central aisle of the A321neo. The first time while flying in the (post-) covid era, flight attendants didn't give out sanitizing towels upon entering the aircraft.
Photo number 4: A rainy day in Philly, viewed from seat 29F.
This is the Main Cabin and Main Cabin Extra (with red stripes) product on AA's A321neo, pictured after arriving in San Diego. Except for the red stripe, the seats are identical, as far as I can see. The added legroom of Main Cabin Extra might not be obvious at first glance, but I'm sure on a long flight like this it could make a difference.
The seats are equipped with personal device holders, a literature cubby above the small folding table, and a pouch for other small items below. Headrests are moveable and feature moveable wings. There's an entertainment box below the middle seat, but it was fairly small in my book. All in all, they were fairly standard. The cabin was cleaned quite well between flights.
Seat 29F in all its glory. Plus impressions from the changing ambient lighting throughout the flight. I find it interesting that American Airlines went for a less "subtle" way of implementing it, choosing to have their conventional lights to change color instead of having indirect ambient lighting. I think I prefer the latter, but kudos for trying to be different, AA :)
Load factor: 95%+ in all classes.
At 10.01am, the captain made an announcement that there was one plane "behind us" and when that had moved, it was our turn for pushback. Also, he stated that due to the rain and the freezing temperatures at lower altitudes experienced while arriving into PHL, a deicing would take place. It happened at a central deicing facility towards the Southwestern end of runway 9R/27L. In fact, I had never seen this from the inside of a plane, so that was quite interesting. Partly because of this procedure, however, we incurred a delay of about an hour at the destination. Still, the captain kept us informed about what's going on and provided updates multiple times, which was good. Also, while delays aren't pleasant, I think there's no reason to complain about the part of the delay that was due to safety concerns, i.e. the deicing.
While the deicing pad is located at the Southwestern end of the runway, takeoff would happen from the 27L end of the runway. That meant taxiing for a little bit longer along the runway.
In no time it was time for our takeoff. We promptly accelerated and were swiftly lifted into the very gray skies over the City of Brotherly Love around 11.05.
Traversing the thick cloud cover over Pennsylvania's largest city (but not capital)…
… and off to bluer skies.
As you might have noticed, there are no seatback entertainment screens. Instead, entertainment is provided by the airplane's wifi system. To power your device while doing that, a USB socket is located at every seat, with additional 110V power outlets between the seats in Main Cabin. Rudimentary inflight information is provided as well. The selection of movies and other content was decent, although it took multiple attemps to get to the TV Show section without ending up with a blank screen. Other than that, the UI was fairly easy to use.
I'm not typically an airplane wifi person, but $29 for the whole flight (6 hours) without any possible membership discounts etc. seems like a pretty good price to me.
Speaking of memberships, AA is sort of famous for its relatively aggressive marketing of its credit card products. And true to that, a first automated ad was aired through the aircraft's speakers shortly after takeoff, and it wouldn't be the last one.
The first half hour of the flight was somewhat bumpy, but then it was pretty smooth other than a few unexpected, slight turbulences around 3 hours into the flight. The first and only (!) service came to my row at about 12.20, consisting of a drink and a snack some passengers got to choose, others not. I and my fellow passengers on seats 29D and 29E were stuck with Biscoff to go with my orange juice (yikes). By the way, buy-on-board service is still suspended. So do plan ahead if you're intending to take a flight like this with AA in the near future.
(I can't say anything about possible additional snacks and/or drinks available in the galley, though).
To be fair to the crew, though, they came around a few times during the flight, offering cups of water. Still, I'm not entirely sure what the competition is doing on similar routes (let alone AA's own flagship transcontinental routes), but I found the level of service to be woefully inadequate for a flight this long on a so-called full-service airline. Maybe the term "legacy" would be closer to the truth here.
Regarding bathrooms, I visited the mid-cabin bathroom located near row 26. While it looked small from the outside, I actually found it to be just useable. I went around the mid-point of the flight, and while it wasn't downright dirty, it definitely made the impression that is was heavily utilized and could use a good clean-up.
The truly best entertainment for this flight, however, was provided by the windows of this plane and the changing beautiful landscapes we were flying above during our transcontinental trip.
The landscape started to change bit, becoming mellower and more urban. Gone were the snow-capped mountain peaks of the Rockies, making place for increasingly dense suburbs and freeways.
Closing in on Lindbergh Field in an ever lower approach over Balboa Park, the Cabrillo Bridge, and the San Diego Freeway. The captain informed us that we will arrive an hour later than scheduled due to delays that couldn't be made up during the flight, e.g. because of the deicing.
Touchdown in San Diego at 14:02, the unremarkable end of an unremarkable flight. The crew had provided us with gate and baggage carousel info before, so that was a plus. The Philadelphia and Dallas based crew made the usual post-landing announcements and thanked us for the day.
The taxi to the gate was short, and a fueling truck arrived at pretty much the same time as we did.
Deplaning took quite a while. Below: random impressions of the terminal building.
A short walk later, you go down a set of stairs/escalators to the left and find yourself in the entrance/exit and bag carousel area. Note the Spirit of St. Louis replica hanging from the ceiling, fitting to the airport's name of "Lindbergh Field," paying tribute to San Diego as the place this noteable aircraft was built in.
The delivery of the baggage itself happened promptly, and in no time was I out of the terminal building and got my ride into the city.
All that's left for me today is thanks a lot for stopping by. I hope it's been an enjoyable read so far, and that you also like the photos. See you in the next installment in this little series of mine!
AA: An unremarkable flight in general. Seeing a product like this on a "legacy carrier" makes me wonder why I should choose it over a low-coster (board service, hard product - both however would have been fine for a shorter flight of up to, say, 2,5-3 hours). The entertainment provided was adequate; though I'm not a big fan of the BYOD concept, I need to concede that at least there's power for everyone, the UI is pleasant enough to use, and that I like the idea of the device holder. There wasn't much interaction with the cabin crew. The cleanliness of the cabin was generally alright, but the lavatories could have needed some love after about the half-time marker.
PHL: A good experience in general. The check-in/bag-drop area was somewhat crowded, but processes were efficient and many different stores/eateries available. For an American airport, the connection to SEPTA regional rail is definitely a plus. But even by car, getting there is not as much as a headache as it is at JFK.
SAN: Also a very efficient airport with reasonable cleanliness and services. The weak point of this airport, though, is access to the city. Even though rental car shuttle bus services and ride-share pick-up places are clearly marked, there is basically no public transportation option that makes sense to an average tourist. And that even though the airport is fairly close to downtown.