For this year’s Phoenix Aviation Symposium, I was asked to moderate a panel about the customer. I’ve always enjoyed that conference, so I knew I’d go but didn’t book flights until a couple weeks out. Fortunately, I saw award availability on American’s Long Beach – Phoenix flights for the dates I needed (7,500 BA Avios each way) and jumped on it. The downside? Mesa is the still the sole operator of those flights, and the experience is subpar to say the least. Both of my flights were delayed for maintenance (though my return had a double bonus of also being delayed for crew reasons), but that wasn’t my biggest issue. I was mostly angry at how bad Mesa managed the delay information and how worn the aircraft interiors are.
I had to be in Phoenix for an evening cocktail event to kick off the conference, but I decided to go in earlier so I could spend some time with my nephew at the pool. (This was at the Phoenician and there’s a great kids area there.) Things were going well until my first delay notification came in. The airplane broke in Phoenix and they hoped it would arrive at 101p (scheduled at 1154a). With the hilariously-short 10 minute turnaround shown in the system, we’d be half an hour late. That sounded impossible, however, and I figured we’d leave closer to 130p.
Since our departure time was clearly a work of fiction, I continued to watch the flight from Phoenix to see how that was faring. Departure time slipped from 1035a to 1130a and then to 1230p. It quickly was moved up to 1210p and I figured maybe that meant they had solved the problem. By 1240p, the system was still showing a 1210p departure with no updates in sight. Then, the departure time moved to 1225p. (Yeah, that’s right. The estimated departure time was proactively moved to be 15 minutes before the current time.)
Finally it slipped again until 1250p and that proved to be accurate with an estimated arrival in Long Beach of 159p. Our departure? 201p. Give me a friggin’ break. If there’s one thing an airline can do to make delays more tolerable, it’s provide timely and accurate delay information. Mesa is the one that updates the system on its flights, and it failed miserably in this case.
The good news for me is that I’m so close to Long Beach airport, that I didn’t have to leave home until I knew the airplane was in the air from Phoenix. I figured we’d leave around 230p so I left for the airport at 130p. Once again, the Pre Check line was closed, but this time the area was pretty empty anyway. I got my silly laminated boarding card allowing me to keep my shoes on and then I had time to kill in what looked like a very empty gate area.
The airplane arrived and that’s when the Piedmont-employed ground staff stepped into high gear. As people started to deplane, the agents began boarding our flight. I wasn’t sure how that was going to work, but they just scanned our boarding passes and held us outside while the last people exited. Then they let us go and we headed up the ramp. There was a sense of urgency, and I really appreciated that. When the gate agents understand that delays are painful and try to hustle, it makes it easier to accept the situation. Kudos to the Piedmont staff (and yes, I told American they did a great job).
May 9, 2016
American Eagle 5687 Lv Long Beach 1240p Arr Phoenix 204p (operated by Mesa)
Long Beach (LGB): Gate 3, Runway 30, Depart 1h34m Late
Phoenix (PHX): Gate B19, Runway 26, Arrive 1h18m Late
N907FJ, Bombardier CRJ-900, Ugly Flag Tail, 25% Full
Seat 14A, Coach
Flight Time 58m
There was one smiling flight attendant up front when I boarded and then a grumpy looking one in the back as I went to take my seat. Once again the Mesa merry-go-round of configurations meant my assigned seat wasn’t what I expected. I had chosen 14A which, on the seat map, is a non-reclining seat in front of the exit. Instead, it turned out I was in the exit row on a different configuration. That may sound good, but I’m not a big fan of the exit row on these airplanes. Yes, there’s a ton of legroom, but the seat cushions are really terrible and the armrest doesn’t come up. (And as you could see above, it was broken.)
This airplane was vintage Mesa. It might have looked all shiny and American-y on the outside, but on the inside it was the usual scuffed and worn interior that makes you wonder how much money they’re spending on maintaining these airplanes. It’s pathetic, and I don’t know why American allows it.
I looked up and realized that this was one empty flight. As people hopped on, they announced there were only 38 people booked and everyone would have their own row. By the time boarding finished, I’d have been shocked if there were more than 20 people. Toward the end, they just told people to take any open seat. Like the gate agents, the flight attendants acted like they were in a hurry to make up for the delay. I thought about moving my seat, but I didn’t want to slow us down.
In the end, the turn took… 17 minutes! Yes, it wasn’t a full flight, but that was still impressive. The pilots were trying to make up time as well, and we seemed to be on the runway in no time. We took off and climbed through the scattered remains of the marine layer. It felt like the pilots were hand-flying and they were having fun with this extremely empty and light airplane.
The flight attendants came through and served drinks. American’s free snack was also handed out (pretzels). I know it’s a little thing, but I do like that freebie. I could see the Colorado River ahead of us when we started descending. That’s earlier than usual, but we did it gradually.
The captain came on and apologized for the delay. He told us they were trying to move quickly, they had asked for a couple of shortcuts and “eliminated some speed restrictions” to get us there faster. Then he said he thought it was one of the fastest flights ever between the two cities. That was definitely an overstatement since 58 minutes is no record. Though we did have to circle around and land from the east which adds time. Though it was only in the 80s in Phoenix, the thermals that were bouncing us around made it feel like it was the middle of the summer.
I had to take a self-imposed moment of silence as we glided in on final approach past the now nameless former America West and US Airways headquarters building (at left in the above photo). It just doesn’t look right. The pilots planted us firmly on the pavement and then apparently decided to run a test to see if the brakes worked. They did… very well. I’m guessing they were really just trying to catch an earlier turn-off to get us to our gate more quickly. It worked, and it helped that we had also landed on runway 26 on the north side. We parked at the gate only 1 hour and 18 minutes after schedule. That was far better than I expected thanks to the employees really trying hard to make it right.
It did, however, mean I missed spending time with my nephew. I headed to the hotel and got ready for the symposium. Two days later, it was time to come home.
I rode over to the airport with some other folks from the conference, and arrived a little more than an hour before my flight. I figured that Pre Check would be open here in American’s hub, but again, I was wrong. In Phoenix, however, TSA handles it in a completely different and moronic way. I was told I had to have my boarding pass and ID with me before going through the metal detector to prove that I was Pre Check and could keep my shoes on. My boarding pass was my phone (unlike in Long Beach where American still doesn’t allow mobile BPs), so I was really curious how this was going to work.
Right before the metal detector, that made me scan my boarding pass on a machine just like the one at the ID checker. Then I had to cut in line and drop my phone in a bin to run it through the x-ray machine. I walked through, they looked at my ID, and then I had to go to pick up my bags. This was a mess since many people had put their bags in between mine and my phone. I wasn’t the only one. People were milling around and clogging the area up. This took 10 to 15 minutes to get through the process when it wasn’t crowded at all. On my way to the gate, I took a look out the window and saw a lot of US Airways tails.
Once at the gate, I had a seat, waiting for boarding to begin. Right when it should have started, the Piedmont agent told us that our plane was on a maintenance delay and she’d let us know when we could board. There were no further details except that we should wait in the gate area for 15 minutes.
A few minutes later, she came on and changed her mind. She had clearly spoken to someone on the ramp or in the airplane and said it wasn’t a maintenance delay but in fact they were just looking for a flight attendant. There was no estimated time given, and the crowd just sort of laughed at the absurdity of this.
May 11, 2016
American Eagle 5619 Lv Phoenix 235p Arr Long Beach 351p (operated by Mesa)
Phoenix (PHX): Gate B20, Runway 25R, Depart 27m Late
Long Beach (LGB): Gate 3, Runway 30, Arrive 15m Late
N911FJ, Bombardier CRJ-900, Final US Airways colors, 50% Full
Seat 11A, Coach
Flight Time 54m
We did end up boarding maybe 15 minutes late, but nothing was said about the delay or that they had found their flight attendant. I hopped onboard and took my seat, 11A, which was a normal seat as expected this time around. But it was windowless, like so many of those CRJ-900 seats.
It was also in much worse shape than even the last airplane with all kinds of scuff marks, worn cushions, and chipped paint.
We finished boarding and the flight was maybe half full (or with a more positive spin, twice as full as my flight out). Then I saw something I’d never seen before. There was an elderly Asian couple sitting in the exit row. When the flight attendant asked if they would be willing to do their duties in an emergency, they either said no or didn’t respond. (I think one of them spoke broken English at best while the other wasn’t even that good.) Since the flight was half full, the flight attendant moved them up to the seats next to me.
A couple minutes later, they got back up and went back to the exit row. The flight attendant went to them and said they couldn’t sit there if they couldn’t handle the responsibility. They somehow conveyed that they didn’t like the legroom, so the flight attendant had them move to another row, this time with Main Cabin Extra.
As this was wrapping up I received an alert on my phone. Now it showed we were delayed half an hour due to maintenance. Shortly after, the first officer came on and said in a thick accent that “we were on a maintenance.” Not again.
A few minutes later, the captain came on and explained that everything was ok but we were waiting on paperwork. I don’t remember how many times he and the flight attendant kept saying they just needed to “cross their Ts and dot their Is.” For what it’s worth, the flight attendant working in the front of the cabin was excellent. He was cheerful, informative, and prompt with his updates. The estimated delay proved to be just about right, and we pushed about half an hour late.
The delay meant we were outside of the hub bank, and that meant the runways were ours for the taking. It took just a few minutes for us to taxi and get airborne. There were a few bumps on the climb out but nothing like what we had coming in two days earlier. Once above that, the flight attendants served drinks. I just stared out the window since we stayed just north of the 10 freeway all the way to Palm Springs. It was fun to look down on a route I’ve driven many, many times.
Over Palm Springs, we began our descent. It was a very hazy day until we reached the coast. We flew just north of the old El Toro base, and then north of Orange County airport. On final approach, I tried to snap a photo of all the beautiful blooming purple Jacarandas that dot Long Beach, but the window was so scratched up that I couldn’t get anything decent.
We taxied to the gate and parked 15 minutes late… just past the cutoff for what DOT calls on time.
Despite some employees doing great work to make the situation less painful, I continue to be disappointed by Mesa. Obviously I don’t like delays, but in general Mesa doesn’t do worse than most other regionals in that respect. They just need to do a better job at managing the information being given to passengers.
The bigger issue to me is how dirty and worn the interiors are. That doesn’t have anything to do with how they maintain the airplanes on the outside, but it doesn’t inspire confidence in the average traveler. It’s also not the kind of presentation American should want its customers to see. I compare that to the brand new Compass Embraer 175s and there’s no contest. Something needs to be done here.