Mr Cranky Goes to Washington on US Airways (Trip Report)

As mentioned yesterday, I was in DC last week to speak on a panel. Transportation was provided on US Airways, so it gave me an opportunity to do a few things I haven’t done in a long time. First, I flew Mesa. (That’s not something I’ve done in a long time.) Second, I flew US Airways long haul. And third, I flew into National. I love that airport.

Landing at DCA 2

So why did I fly Mesa? I needed an early flight, and knowing that I would only be back for less than 24 hours from my previous trip, I couldn’t justify an even earlier wake up call just to go to LAX. I needed every extra minute I could get. It turns out, I almost took a couple minutes too many.

As usual, I checked in online and then left home an hour before my flight. Only this time, I got there and saw a long security line snaking back into the terminal, almost as far as the ticket counter. This wasn’t good. There were a lot of nervous faces in line. I was curious what the heck was going on, and I found out when a Transportation Security Officer (TSO) came by to check on America West Interior on Mesathe line’s length. Apparently, another TSO was late so they could only open up one lane instead of the normal two. Great.

It took nearly 30 minutes for me to get to the front of the line when the guy checking IDs stopped me. I’m not sure why, but any time I print out a US Airways boarding pass (my wife has flown them a lot recently), the top part is blacked out except for the barcode while the bottom part shows everything. (Yes, I’ve tried this in multiple browsers.) This time, the TSO decided it wasn’t a valid boarding pass. I disagreed. So he called his supervisor over who said that since it didn’t have my name on it, it couldn’t be valid. I politely but firmly pointed out where my name was. She then decided she had to go to the gate to ask the US Airways people if it was valid.

She finally came back and said it was ok, so I made it through. With five minutes to spare, I walked on to the airplane, but I wasn’t the last. We took a five minute delay while others behind me ran to the airplane.


February 22, 2011
US Airways 2762 Lv Long Beach 645a Arr Phoenix 910a
Long Beach (LGB): Gate 21, Runway 30, Depart 5m Late
Phoenix (PHX): Gate B9, Runway 7R, Arrive 3m Early
N915FJ, Bombardier CRJ-900, US Airways White Colors, 100% Full
Seat 3A
Flight Time 55m

This flight was a blast from the past. The first thing I noticed when I boarded? All the America West “bug” logos still adorned the bulkhead and the seats. I thought Mesa was supposed to update its interiors? America West hasn’t existed in over five years, so clearly this airplane had seen better days. The seats were worn, the cushion had lost a lot of its, um, cushion, and the elastic was gone in the seatback pockets. Combine that with the fact that Mesa’s seats Misaligned Windoware almost all misaligned with the windows, and you have a pretty nasty interior experience on this airplane.

Fortunately, the airplane itself worked just fine. We jumped up into the morning sun and winged our way toward Phoenix. The flight attendants came through and served drinks. I promptly spilled my ginger ale all over the only pair of jeans I’d brought on the trip. Great. Now I looked like I peed my pants and it felt awful. Once we landed, I got up and immediately headed toward the bathrooms. Even though I only had a 45 minute layover, I had to try to dry off a little better. Somehow, Phoenix is the only airport on earth that doesn’t have dryers in the bathroom. It was paper towel-only. So my saggy pants and I headed toward our connecting gate.

When I arrived, I saw that someone I knew from my America West days was working at the gate. We talked for a couple minutes until the last few people boarded, and then I hopped on.


February 22, 2011
US Airways 44 Lv Phoenix 947a Arr Washington/National 359p
Phoenix (PHX): Gate A19, Runway 7L, Depart 19m Late
Washington/National (DCA): Gate 42, Runway 1, Arrive 17m Early
N832AW, Airbus A319-132, US Airways White Colors, ~99% Full
Seat 14A
Flight Time 3h26m

I wish I could say that we were on our way and airborne within a few minutes but it wasn’t that easy. The captain came on and told us that maintenance was on its way. That was followed by a collective sigh throughout the cabin. He did, however, tell us not to worry since they’d probably just write up the problem and order the part from Toulouse, or some place like that. Funny guy. Turns out one of the plastic Onboard Foodwindow rims had seen better days, so they replaced it and we pushed back.

Then we sat. And sat. This is rush hour in Phoenix and the taxiways were jammed. It was actually frustrating that the pilots didn’t tell us anything during our 40 minute taxi delay. We could see airplanes passing us on parallel taxiways and we weren’t moving. Having already had maintenance on the airplane, there was concern that there was some more work to be done. But it turns out that they were just using two taxiways. They filled ours up and then filled the next one up. We soon enough passed in front of all those airplanes that had passed us on the parallel taxiway earlier and we headed off toward DC.

This is a route that I know well. Before Senator McCain worked his magic to get America West a couple of nonstops from Phoenix, I used to go back and forth to school at GW via America West’s Columbus mini-hub. This flight brought back a lot of memories.

We had a quick flight time with a stiff headtailwind, so it made the fact that there was no movie on this flight (or any US Airways domestic flight) slightly more palatable. (It still bugs me a lot, though.) The only thing I wanted to do was eat, but they ran out of the sub sandwich way in the front and even the cheese plate was gone by the exit row. The rest of us in the back half of the plane were forced to forage for leftovers. I had pretzel M&Ms and chips and salsa.

The one New DCA Terminalthing I can say is that the service was excellent. The flight attendants were constantly going up and down the aisle with water and collecting trash. It was actually some of the most attentive service in coach that I’ve seen in a long time.

Soon, we were descending into Washington. I had picked my left-side window with the hope that we would do the river visual approach from the north, but the winds forced us to come from the south. I missed the great views of the District and instead just stared at farmland.

Less than 2 days later, it was time to come home. I got to National very early so I could spend time at one of my favorite airports in the world. In fact, I may write another post about the airport soon. After spending a while roaming the halls, I went to board my packed flight home.


February 24, 2011
US Airways 267 Lv Washington/National 1030a Arr Phoenix 140p
Washington/National (DCA): Gate 39, Runway 19, Depart On Time
Phoenix (PHX): Gate A28, Runway 26, Arrive 10m Late
N823AW, Airbus A319-132, US Airways White Colors, 100% Full
Seat 11A
Flight Time 4h54m

The jet bridge was overflowing with people and the line was barely crawling. Not long after boarding began, it was announced that the bins were full. They at least had printed out barcoded bag tags so that when bags had to be View of Main Terminal Waiting Areachecked, people could feel comfortable that they were in the system. I opted to keep my bag with me and either hope for an overhead space to squeeze in or just stick it under my seat. There were a couple crevices for my bag up top, but none near my seat, so I just stuck the bag under my feet and killed my legroom.

A storm was coming but it hadn’t hit DC yet. We took off into the clouds and didn’t break out for about 2.5 hours. It was a little bumpy so the captain kept the seatbelt sign on that whole time. We finally broke out and I was able to run to the bathroom.

Once back at my seat, we had about an hour of calm before the seatbelt sign came on, the engines were throttled back, and we started descending at the same time. With 1.5 hours left, we weren’t close enough to Phoenix. Either we were diverting or this was a turbulence-evasion move. Fortunately, it was the latter, and our descent from 36,000 to 30,000 feet must have been to find smoother air. It worked, because we just had a few small jolts along with some light chop.

The next time we descended, it was for our uneventful landing in Phoenix. I spent the weekend there and drove home with my wife afterwards, so that was the last flight on this trip.

37 Responses to Mr Cranky Goes to Washington on US Airways (Trip Report)

  1. dan powers says:

    typical example of what the TSA has become…a monster bureacracy….their JOB is to hunt down and capture terrorists…not decide if a well known personality used the right browser to print a boarding pass…THAT is Usair’s job…to verify if this guy is a stowaway or not. I hope they cut TSA budget in 1/2….they are nothing more than an annoyance….not to mention their productivity rate is not much better than pre-9/11

  2. An almost coast to coast nonstop from PHX to DCA and they couldn’t have enough (main) food for all passengers, sounds like poor planning. But now a days it’s just the cheap normal way of airlines doing business. Don’t have much food that can spoil or not purchased and just let the rest have packaged candy or dry staples that can be kept for a year.

    Interesting how airlines are using their ‘express’ partners on more and more routes, but not caring how shabby they may look to the public.

    • Hunter says:

      Interestingly, my experience has been that the other mainline carriers care very much about their regional partners’ aircraft appearance. DL and CO are very strict with their partners, and most of the planes are updated to current branding standards, etc. UA is a little less freaky about it, but still pretty pushy. I think US is the only one where “anything goes.”

    • CF says:

      Everything I hear is that the demand for food is all over the map. So some flights run out quickly while others don’t. It does make for tough planning, I’ll give them that.

      My understanding is that part of the deal with US Airways agreeing to extend the contract with Mesa was that Mesa would have to clean up its interiors. Guess it hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

  3. Brett, I’m sure a “tailwind” helped push you to DCA. As always, enjoy the trip reports. Being in a Mesa city, I have seen the shabby interiors first hand. Maybe when their Chapter 11 is complete they will have $’s to fix them up. Didn’t they recently sign a new contract with US Air ?

    • Mesa announced that they are out of Chapter 11 effective today and they have extended their USAir codeshare until Sept2015. This also elminates 100 excess aircraft, so maybe some of these old interiors are due to leave the fleet so were never updated.

    • CF says:

      Well, it was someone’s headwind, right? Heh. Thanks for pointing that out – it’s fixed.

      Also, now that they’re out of Chapter 11, I would really hope they’ll clean these up.

      David – The CRJ-900s were never meant to leave the fleet. There have been 38 and nothing will change, so that’s definitely not the excuse.

  4. ptahcha says:

    I’ve been the AW logo on US-West mainline flights as well, so that’s not news. Obviously, if only 1 cranky flier catches it per flight and no one else cares, why would they spend the extra money to refurbish the plane for one lousy logo? Heck, the flight crews are not even integrated….

    RE: Boarding pass printing issue – could it be your printer? Maybe it needs a software upgrade by reinstalling the printer driver.

    Also, have you tried to print it to a PDF and print from there instead so you don’t end up wasting all the ink?

  5. james says:

    I was in DC recently and flew DCA for the first time and loved it, having previously only used United’s lovely C/D concourse over at Dulles.

    I flew US Airways back home to Denver, with a connection in Charlotte, allowing me to maximize my hours in the city. Even with an hour connection it was still more convenient than hiking out to IAD or even BWI on a weekday afternoon. The airport is a perfect size, and only 15-20 minutes on the metro from downtown DC.

  6. Jon says:

    Nice post. Do you know why US switched from the 757’s to the A319’s for the PHX-DCA route? Seems like these flights are always full and warrant something larger…

    • BW says:

      As DCA grows (especially if the LGA slot transfer with Delta ever happens) I think you’ll see more A320’s and A321’s like the PHL and CLT routes.

    • CF says:

      The 757s are now exclusively used for Europe and Hawai’i. The fleet has shrunk dramatically to reflect that, so using them domestically isn’t an option. In the winter, I wonder if the A319 is the only airplane that can consistently make it westbound without a stop? With the short runway, it’s possible that bigger airplanes can’t hold enough fuel to combat the headwinds.

  7. Chuck Mann says:

    I love when TSA agents decide what is and isn’t valid for getting through security. As a dispatcher, I sometimes jumpseat so I don’t have a formal boarding pass. It’s less of an issue now that I’m at a big airline but I have had a few people at security over the years give me a hard time.

  8. Bobber says:

    Empathise totally with the love for DCA (a vastly more pleasant airport than IAD and a doddle to get to from central DC), and also with the irritation that is PHX; I can remember taxiing up and down the runway THREE times in an old UA 727, as by the time we reached the end of the runway, the wind changed direction. Three times. Not funny.

  9. ancdude says:

    An early morning flight out of MIA. The TSA agent did not want to let me pass because she could not find the date on my recently printed boarding pass. I tried to point it out to her and she shoved my hand out of the way. She finally took it to another agent and together they finally found it – approximately 10 minute delay. My impression is they do this BS because they can – sort of like dogs licking their genitals.

  10. ancdude says:

    Printed at the hotel before departure – online checkin. Sorry for not making that clear.

  11. DAB says:

    Ok, you hit all of my complaints against US Air except one. Whenever I fly on US Air on an A 319, they make some goofy noise (whirrrrr-whirr-whirr-whirr ; whirrrrrrrr-whirr-whirr-whirr) that I do not hear on other A319s (limited sample size granted with only a couple of United flights to compare…). That is just uninspiring to start your trip. Also, they fly those Mesa-America West-Old Interior planes to San Antonio and Oakland all the time. If I am SAT to OAK round-trip on US (probably a half dozen times in the last year), I am going to hit one Mesa and one A319 making the goofy noise… But, when you want to book Star Alliance a week out, and you want cost effective, I would be surprised if you aren’t going to end up on US…

    I am with you on the boarding pass, except for me it prints with the spinning graphic that it populates while the website is theoretically doing something. It has always printed for me though with the graphic, and not with whatever the theoretically correct boarding pass might be. I have no idea what the correct boarding pass on US might look like; I’ll let you know if it prints properly for my Friday flight…

    I always print my boarding passes, though, since the TSA people seem to like to write on them rather than scan the phone, and I am all for keeping them happy and being inconspicuous…

    • CF says:

      Different than a normal A319? If you’re on the ground and you hear it, it’s probably because they are taxiing on one engine. There’s a pump that sounds like clubbing a baby seal when it’s on and only one engine is running.

      If it’s in the air, are you in the front of the airplane on old America West aircraft? If so, it could just be the whine on the IAE engines. That’s normal and goes away after a few minutes.

      • DAB says:

        Ground. It is the taxiing and the pump, and still highly uninspiring… The only other time I end up on an A319 would be United rarely, and I specifically listened for the noise twice recently and didn’t hear it.

        • CF says:

          Ah, I see. There are a couple reasons that might be the case. It’s possible that on your United flights, they have a different procedure for when they turn on the pump versus when they start or stop the engines. I’m told that you can’t really hear it in the cockpit so the pilots don’t know it’s happening.

          Whatever the reason, it’s annoying but that’s all. Fortunately it isn’t a problem, though I think a lot of passengers probably think it is.

        • Frank says:

          maybe it’s the hydraulic pump?

    • DAB says:

      Best yet, when I went to print my boarding pass for my flight yesterday, it printed three pages of advertising and junk, and nowhere to be found was my name or anything to do with the flight. At least I managed to get seat 10C on the A321. That seat rules.

  12. CP says:

    I love DCA, too — my “home” airport! I’d love to see you write about it. And, by the way, please write about IAD too. You’ve written about DL’s terrible terminal at JFK, but in my opinion UA’s terminal at Dulles is WAY worse. And, unlike DL, UA has done nothing to make it better.

    My love for DCA declared, you flew out of the USAirways terminal at DCA. The “A” concourse (the old part) is an intriguing piece of aviation history, but a lousy terminal. Thankfully all of the major carriers are in the “new” buildling after NWA moved post-merger, so unless you’re on JetBlue, AirTran, Spirit, Air Canada, or Frontier, you don’t have to worry about it.

    If you write about DCA, write about gate 35A. This is the gate USAirways uses for the non-E70 Express flights. It’s a small slice of hell, only recently made (a little) better by USAirways actually having flight information monitors that show the (dozens) of flights going out of that one gate. It’s still a constant buzz of announcements, however, along with a lot of very confused people wondering when they should ride down the escalator to then board the bus that takes them to the CRJ.

    And, all of us DCA folks wonder — when CO and UA combine gates, what will happen? (Right now, UA has three gates on the middle tier, mixed with AA and some additional US gates; CO has some gates in an otherwise Delta-filled tier.)

    In my experience, USAirways often runs out of the buy-on-board food. I’ve never had it happen on a cross-country UA run out of IAD, but it’s happened many times to me on the USAir DCA-PHX, CLT-SEA, etc. routes. Super annoying, especially since the self check-in machine reminds you that buy-on-board food will be available.

    • CO/UA at DCA will be a good question. they’ve managed to reshuffle all the decks successfully for past mergers and alliances but they’ve run out of single gate airlines to move around. probably can’t force AA to take the current CO gates as i think they have five and CO has four, plus its a serious downgrade in the quality of space. not enough room for UA to move over by CO either.

      of course all of this should probably be on hold until we see if DL/US Slot Swap Part Deux is confirmed. if so, DL will be giving up gates to US. in which case, UA could move into DL gates to be near CO and give US the UA gates on the central pier. problem solved!

  13. I always look forward to your trip reports and insights into the passenger experience. Keep ‘em coming, Cranky!

  14. Tony says:

    Always find it weird, the reference to ‘long haul’ flights within the states, lots of people us it. But then i’m australian and long haul for us is over 7 hours! love your trip reports btw.

  15. Ron says:

    “A storm was coming but it hadn’t hit DC yet.” — I had good luck with that about a month and a half ago: I was scheduled to return from National to Long Beach via Cincinnati and Salt Lake, but the first leg, a 6:00 AM flight, was canceled the day before due to impending weather. Delta automatically booked me on the next best itinerary to Long Beach, which was no good at all, but upon my request they put me on the Alaska non-stop to LAX, which meant I could leave DCA at 9:00 and still arrive at LAX around the same time I was originally scheduled to arrive at Long Beach. When I originally booked my ticket, the non-stop return was something like $900, but given the weather cancellation I got on it for free (well, for the price of my original 2-stop itinerary, and I was on the hook for the LAX–Long Beach ground portion).

    There was also a strange computer glitch in the rebooking process: Delta has a fairly reasonable web interface for rebooking canceled flights, which allowed me to change co-terminals and consistently showed the Alaska non-stop option (as a Delta codeshare). But when I tried booking it, it kept bouncing me back to Delta’s original rebooking. After 4 or 5 attempts I finally called Delta, and the agent explained that they have to wait for a response from Alaska’s reservation system which takes about 2 minutes; Delta’s web booking interprets this as lack of availability. The flight (booked by the agent) ended up being on Alaska’s code.

    • i love that DCA-LAX flight on alaska! love it even more now that it’s tied in w/ skypesos, er, skymiles!

      • Ron says:

        Yes, I love that flight too and have taken it several time. Does anyone know how come Alaska of all carriers got the LAX exemption to the perimeter rule?

        • CP says:

          I’m not sure the exact history, but the first owner was TWA. I think AA was required to give the slot back when they acquired TWA, at which point it was assigned to AS.

          • CF says:

            That is the exact history – you got it. When it went back into the pool, Alaska was the one that came up with it.

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