A First Class Experience on American Airlines (Trip Report)

As usual, we had a fun but short weekend in Indianapolis. After having my fill of good food and hanging out with the inlaws, I was ready to head back. I actually was looking forward to these flights since we Champagne and Scotch Before Departurehad booked First Class on American. They did not disappoint.

Back when we were looking at holiday flights over the summer, the prices were pretty high for the return on this peak day. So, we looked at mileage availability. American was our first choice since we could use one way awards and the outbound flight was cheap enough to buy. Sure enough, they had a perfect flight in the afternoon going through St Louis. While coach was only available at the higher 25,000 mile one way level, First Class was able at the saver level. That required the same number of miles as coach. Needless to say, we flew up front.

We arrived at the airport in a light snow. When we tried to check-in online the night before, we were told we couldn’t. Not sure why, but we just checked in at the kiosk when we arrived at Indy with no trouble. It spit out our coach boarding passes right away – no First Class on this little plane.

The airport was fairly empty for such a big travel day, and we parked ourselves at the gate waiting for the flight. Our plane was a little late getting out to Indy, probably because of de-icing, but we didn’t mind. Our layover in St Louis was long.


December 27, 2009
American #5049 Lv Indianapolis (IND) 1220p Arr St Louis (STL) 1220p
IND: Gate B7, Runway 23R, Dept 43m Late
STL: Gate C9, Runway 30L, Arr 40m Late
Aircraft: N376SK, Embraer ERJ-135, AA Connection Colors, Mostly Full
Seat: 4C
Flight Time: 39m

I thought we were supposed to be on an ERJ-140, but instead an ERJ-135 pulled up. This was also operated by Chautauqua, just as our Midwest flight was, but this one still had its American paint. That Deicing in Indianapoliswon’t last for long as American continues its St Louis hub downsizing.

We boarded early and took our seats, just one row behind our seats on the flight from Milwaukee. There was very little to distinguish this flight from our last except for the big Eagle bolted on to the front bulkhead.

We ended up being even later because we had to de-ice ourselves before taking off into the muck. Once on our way, drinks were served and we sat in the clouds for much of the ride. Toward the end, we peaked out briefly and then we stared our descent into a cloudy and snow-covered Landing in Snowy St LouisSt Louis.

When we landed, it was overcast, and we taxied to our gate. Soon, we could see the sun peaking out. I was excited to be in St Louis once again after a long absence. When I was in college in DC, I used to fly Southwest between Baltimore and the West, and at least one of my usual two stops involved St Long Walkway to Frontier's D Gate - St LouisLouis.

What we arrived to find was a very sad, declining airport. American has settled its remaining flights in the front of the C concourse. Concourse B now only has AirTran with the rest of the gates shuttered. Concourse D has one Frontier gate and a couple of flights for Great Lakes and Cape Air with their little puddle jumpers. The rest of the long concourse has actually been boarded up and you can’t even go down there Concourse D's Abrupt End - St Louisanymore. If only those TWA-red walls could talk . . .

Lots of businesses were boarded up and there were very few people anywhere except for at the beginning of C concourse where American was clearly having a good day. I saw flights to places like Wichita and Jacksonville, knowing that those would all be gone in a matter of months. You could probably fit all remaining St Louis carriers on a single concourse, except for Southwest which remains in the East Terminal, separated from everyone else.

[See all my photos of St Louis Lambert’s sad decline]

I found myself a power outlet to plug in for a full charge as we waited. I spent the rest of the time trying to help some clients who had the potential of missing a connection in Chicago. (They got an earlier flight and made it.)

Soon, it was time to board.


December 27, 2009
American #1727 Lv St Louis (STL) 210p Arr Los Angeles (LAX) 430p
STL: Gate C6, Runway 30L, Dept 30m Late
LAX: Gate 48B, Runway 25L, Arr 10m Early
Aircraft: N553AA, Douglas MD-82, Silver Colors, 100% Full
Seat: 4D, First Class
Flight Time: 3h36m

As boarding started, there was a pretty good squall passing through dumping snow on the airport and reducing visibility significantly. We took our seats in First Class and the flight attendant came by and took our coats. This MD-80 was nearly 20 years old, and it looked a little worse for wear.

Immediately after we sat, our flight attendant came by and offered us drinks. Kirsten had champagne and I had a very generous helping of scotch. The rest of the plane boarded and soon it was time to take off.

In the few minutes between boarding and departure, the squall had moved out and a low partly cloudy layer took over. Thankfully, that meant we didn’t have to de-ice, so we made our way to the runway and took off. Here’s the video. (And yes, I know I’m not supposed to have my camera out . . .)

I was excited to sit up front in an MD-80 for the first time, because I had heard it was so quiet. It was certainly quieter than in the back, but I didn’t think it was anything special. The service, however, was, thanks to our flight attendant Robin.

I was bummed to find out there wasn’t any internet access on this flight, but I still had my computer with me to do plenty of work. Robin immediately showed up with a hot ramekin of nuts and asked for drink orders. I lost the contest so I was the designated driver to get us home. I stuck with water after my generous helping of pre-departure scotch.

I browsed through the inflight mags, and that didn’t take very long. In addition to the usual American Way, American also has Celebrated Living for premium class passengers. This is a magazine for the rich, and it had very little content. My guess is that most people sitting up front on this flight weren’t interested since it didn’t appear to be a big money crowd (though maybe Jenna Fischer from The Office was interested; she was two rows behind).

After wolfing down the nuts, I went to work, but Robin came by and refilled me. Mmm, delicious. Then she came through asking for meal choices. The options were steak salad or a chicken sandwich. I was very happy to get the last of the latter.

The sandwich was basically a piece of chicken and a bunch of cheese – you can’t really go too far wrong with that. There was also a very crisp salad which, yes, had the legendary olive that disappeared in the height of cost cutting days in order to save money. There was also a bag of pita chips which I saved for later.

After lunch, Robin came through with a warm chocolate chip cookie that really blew the Midwest cookie out of the water (I know, I know – American doesn’t give you a cookie in coach so it’s not a fair comparison), and then I kicked Snow-Covered Rockiesback to do some more work.

The snowy terrain made for an amazing view all the way across the country. The Rockies were absolutely spectacular, as were the red rocks of Utah and Arizona. We hit some bumps west of the Rockies, and about an hour before landing, a high overcast layer showed up to dampen the thrill of the view.

Robin came through to refill our drinks one more time, and then it was time to descend. We sat in a murky cloud layer for awhile before breaking out over the Inland Empire. Robin came through and returned everyone’s coats. Her friendly smile had everyone in a good mood. It was a nice ride in as the sun set and we taxied to the gate. Soon after, we were home.

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30 Responses to A First Class Experience on American Airlines (Trip Report)

  1. Allan says:

    American’s FC on the MD-80 is okay. Why the plastic cup for your Scotch? That’s one inconsistent thing I don’t like about AA in FC, the pre-flight drink… Sometimes it’s there; most often it’s not.

  2. Andrew says:

    Another great report Cranky, thanks. Makes me pine wistfully for the only two times I’ve sat up front with the landed gentry (once as a child when I was flying alone, and the single time I managed an upgrade as a NWA elite). Both times I remember being sort of overwhelmed by the sheer amount of *food* thrown at you up there. It’s such a uniquely American (as in the country, not the airline) experience: HERE! EAT SOME MORE! MORE MORE MORE!

    Regarding your observations of St. Louis: With the decline of airports like STL, CVG and PIT, and the overall state of the industry, can you envision a day when a major airport contracts to just regional status, or even closes? It hardly seemed possible years ago during the boom of massive airport building and expansion, but I’ve been through some pretty empty airports lately.

    Perhaps that’s just empty theorizing, but I’m genuinely curious how a huge airport like STL adjusts when it’s city is in likely irreversible decline, and the major airline that services it bails? I would think Southwest adding a few cherry-picked routes like they’re so fond of doing won’t make up for AA’s drawdown.

  3. David SFeastbay says:

    I liked your comment on the magazine “American also has Celebrated Living for premium class passengers. This is a magazine for the rich, and it had very little content.” I sure it doesn’t get much use since aren’t most ‘First’ class passengers upgraded coach passengers.

    I never cared much for First class on a narrowbody. The bigger seats and getting off the place faster are nice, but it natually can’t compare with first class on a jumbo jet on an international flight. The times I’ve been in first class I always make sure I’m next to the window, it’s safer. Since coach passengers always back up into the first class section, sitting in an aisle seat subjects you to much to butt crack smell and a few other smells I won’t get into, but you know the ones. They should really have first class passengers board last to make it more pleasant for them.

    It’s hard to think that those STL terminals are so empty without TWA around anymore. The only time they were sort of empty at least for awhile was when you arrived on a night flight from the west coast, but soon they would fill up with people for the morning departures.

    It’s been a long time since you could watch those jumbos boarding for nonstop flights to LGW, CDG, FRA and 747’s to HNL, LAX, ORD (and on to LHR). It would be sad to see the death of an airport and it’s people who worked there for many decades. But American killed Reno Air and Air Cal so why did anyone think they wouldn’t do it to TWA, it just took longer since they were bigger.

    To bad you didn’t have an ‘orange juice’ event on the flight, it would have been fun to read about you in the headlines……lol

  4. mwg25 says:

    I did my first AA F flight ever (an award ticket booked for the same reasons as yours) two weeks ago, LGA-DFW-DEN. Similar experience. The MD-80 was a little old, but really comfortable and quiet. The service was lovely and I had two mainline flights with meals. Lunch was either salmon salad (YUM) or bbq chicken pizza (sounded good too); dinner was steak (so-so but fine) or pasta. Lots of warm nuts but no pre-departure drinks (which I get without fail on Continental). Overall, it was a very nice domestic first class product.

  5. Hunter says:

    @ Allan:

    Most pre-flight drinks are served in plastic cups.

  6. Emily says:

    I fly almost exclusively American and really enjoy getting an upgrade in the afternoon when they serve the cookies. Sometimes if you’re lucky, they bring milk too. :)

  7. CF says:

    Allan wrote:

    Why the plastic cup for your Scotch?

    I’ll take Hunter’s word for it, because I don’t fly American enough to know. It didn’t really bother me.

    Andrew wrote:

    With the decline of airports like STL, CVG and PIT, and the overall state of the industry, can you envision a day when a major airport contracts to just regional status, or even closes?

    We’re really almost there. I mean, Pittsburgh is clearly the furthest along in that regard. US Airways is basically non-existent there anymore. St Louis is on its way as well. I doubt we’ll ever see something like this close completely unless the city becomes abandoned. St Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati still have plenty of people to support some service levels, but just not as much as they had before. It’s easy to argue that they have always been overserved and now they’re just coming back down to what they should have.

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    I sure it doesn’t get much use since aren’t most ‘First’ class passengers upgraded coach passengers.

    On domestic flights, yeah, that’s my assumption. International is a different story. At least they only publish the mag quarterly, so it can’t take up that much resource.

  8. Nick B says:

    @CF

    Both of your Chautauqua flights were on ERJ-140s. Officially the ERJ-140s are certified as either an ERJ-135KL or ERJ-135KE, but Embraer markets them as an ERJ-140LR or ERJ-140ER respectively.

    The easiest way to tell an ERJ-135 from an ERJ-140 or an ERJ-145 is to count the windows behind the overwing exit. The 135 has 4, the 140 has 5 and the 145 has 6 between the overwing exit and the engine.

    Having flown Delta’s MD90s in first class several times, the MD80/90 series are indeed quiet upfront. In fact, on the MD90 I don’t really notice the engines at all until the pilots go for takeoff power. However, while the engine noise is almost gone, there is still a bit of wind noise, which can be just as annoying to some.

  9. Nice trip report Cranky.. It reminds me of DAY. I never saw it in its heights as a Piedmont hub, but I watched US Air(ways) pull back, then continue to pull back. I never made it into Concourse D, but walked by it all the time on my way to Concourse C..

    “We ended up being even later because we had to de-ice ourselves before taking off into the muck.” That must’ve made a mess of the cabin, all that glycol fluid sloshing around on the passengers….

  10. CF says:

    Nick B wrote:

    Both of your Chautauqua flights were on ERJ-140s. Officially the ERJ-140s are certified as either an ERJ-135KL or ERJ-135KE, but Embraer markets them as an ERJ-140LR or ERJ-140ER respectively.

    Huh, thanks for clarifying that, Nick. I had no idea the designations were so screwy, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Then again, nobody can have a screwier designation than Bombardier for their CRJs.

    Nick B wrote:

    Having flown Delta’s MD90s in first class several times, the MD80/90 series are indeed quiet upfront. In fact, on the MD90 I don’t really notice the engines at all until the pilots go for takeoff power. However, while the engine noise is almost gone, there is still a bit of wind noise, which can be just as annoying to some.

    I love the MD90. The MD80 didn’t really have any engine noise, as you said, but the slipstream noise was certainly there. I’m not complaining. I love those birds, especially since they were built here in my backyard.

    Nicholas Barnard wrote:

    “We ended up being even later because we had to de-ice ourselves before taking off into the muck.” That must’ve made a mess of the cabin, all that glycol fluid sloshing around on the passengers….

    On the contrary, people were happy to get a “pre-departure drink service” while we were waiting.

  11. WJ Boll says:

    Cranky, You missed one major point abut the service. Most of AA’s FA’s in and out of STL are former TWA employees (one way to tell is of they served you via a tray rather than the cart). TWA services still rocks!!!

  12. Simon says:

    The Chautauqua planes flying for American Connection aren’t going anywhere.

    Thirteen of them will be based out of O’Hare starting April 5th.

  13. Wonko Beeblebrox says:

    You travelled on Dec 27…. how did you find the security processes?

  14. CF says:

    Simon wrote:

    The Chautauqua planes flying for American Connection aren’t going anywhere.

    Thanks, Simon. I thought some planes were leaving, but I can certainly be wrong.

    Wonko Beeblebrox wrote:

    You travelled on Dec 27…. how did you find the security processes?

    Not an issue at all. The place seemed empty and there was nothing out of the ordinary. Took less than 5 minutes to get through.

  15. Neil S says:

    The main benefit to flying in First on an American carrier is not being in economy.

    Having flown a lot of UA, AA, BA, and ANA for business – usually in First or Business, I can’t think of a time or plane that was better with the American carrier. Some seats are better than others, sometimes the food isn’t horrible – but give me a fully flat bed, pretty good food, and drinks in glasses on BA or ANA any day.

  16. Eric says:

    Great report Cranky! I havent been thru STL for a while…but those pics are just downright depressing. Talk about ‘ghost airport’…WOW.

    Best to you and yours in the New Decade…lets hope things start looking up…or sucking a little less.

  17. CF says:

    Neil S wrote:

    but give me a fully flat bed, pretty good food, and drinks in glasses on BA or ANA any day.

    Except you won’t find any of that on a short haul flight on BA. Instead, you’ll find that Euro business class where they just block the middle seat. So in those cases, I’d rather be up front on an American carrier.

  18. AirlineWONK says:

    Cranky, aren’t you afraid to fly on those little regional aircraft in winter, icy weather? You wouldn’t catch me on one of those things even in clear weather, and even if I had to drive through a blizzard.

  19. CF says:

    AirlineWONK wrote:

    Cranky, aren’t you afraid to fly on those little regional aircraft in winter, icy weather? You wouldn’t catch me on one of those things even in clear weather, and even if I had to drive through a blizzard.

    Well, I wouldn’t want to be flying through a storm in an ATR, but the RJs don’t bother me any more than any other jet.

  20. myriam says:

    Just an update to earlier discussion on here —
    I flew United today and they did, in fact, have channel 9 turned off. (Or rather, it played “light jazz”, which is even worse than nothing.) Don’t know if that was a precise security-related decision, or if for reason it just didn’t work on my plane… but I’ve never had that malfunction before on a UA flight.

    Oddly enough, they announced how far we were till landing, repeatedly, so I have no idea why they would take out channel 9 but still let the pilot tell us (more or less) where we are.

  21. Darkwater says:

    I flew UA a lot in the 90’s and Channel 9 would be turned off about 20% of the time. My understanding is that it’s totally up to the pilot whether to have it on. Given that there were a substantial number of pilots who didn’t turn it on pre-September 11th, I’m not sure you can attribute Channel 9 availability to a security mandate.

  22. myriam says:

    Ah, I guess I’ve been lucky to have it so frequently! Didn’t realize that but it makes sense, thanks darkwater.
    They had talked about not telling pax where the plane is (thanks to delta terrorist) but I wasn’t sure if that ridiculous idea had been dropped or not.

  23. myriam says:

    Very sad to see St. Louis in that state. I lived in PIT for years and still fly through but have never seen it look that bad. Anyone know if they’ve closed off any sections of PIT like this?
    Not sure how great St. Louis is, but PIT is the single best designed domestic airport in my opinion. It deserves more traffic — so easy to get around and pretty comfortable and pleasant to boot!

  24. CF says:

    myriam wrote:

    Anyone know if they’ve closed off any sections of PIT like this?

    Oh yes, it’s really bad in PIT. Concourses A and B have both been walled off halfway down. So instead of 25 gates each, they now have only 12. The E gates, which were the ones attached to the landside building, are all gone. There were 22 of them.

  25. Mark in CO says:

    Cranky, I missed you by two days in STL. I was there Dec 29. Would have been great to catch up with you after our “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader” Day at Southwest Airlines in Dallas back in March. However, even if we had been there the same day, we could not have seen each other as I was on SWA and those barriers on the D concourse in STL would have kept us separated. I had hoped to walk from the E (SWA) concourse down to B and back but that appears to be a thing of the past now, effective 12/8/2008.

    At the far end the D gates, which are still called “E” gates, there is USA3000 and a small commuter called “Air Choice One” that flies a single engine Cessna 208 from STL to places like Decatur, IL and Kirksville. The aircraft had tail number N732MD.

    Can’t blame you for taking AA when you could get first class for 45k miles. SWA was completely full on two flights from STL to LAS. I got a VDB bump on my SWA flight which made for a nice profit.

    It is sad what is happening to STL, but it is a result, I think, of the general contraction of airline capacity. SWA seems to be adding flights to cherry pick what is profitable — can’t blame them for that. STL also just built that new runway 11-29, which now seems to be really under utilized. But, it should prevent flight delays there in STL, so it makes a good connecting point for SWA.

  26. CF says:

    Sorry that I missed you, Mark! So close. I agree that this is the right thing to do – St Louis was overserved before. But I know we agree that it is very sad to see this happen to any airport.

  27. Consumer Mike says:

    In years past I flew mostly TWA as one of their Frequent Flyers. I prefered stopping/connecting in STL avoiding DFW or OHare. It was/is sized right for connections and passenger comfort. It has now been years since I have been there as AA has slow but sure “killed” this asset to over utilize DFW. I remember all the promises AA made to STL when they took over TWA, and the tax concessions they got from city and state. Actually, they never really planned on staying or fully utilizing STL, they just milked the poor local tax payers for all the concessions they could grab. I wish that more lines would consider STL as a hub, or good connection point. DFW and Denver are too big and crowded for easy connections and are not traveler friendly – in my opinion. Finally, TWA First Class was very good. Better then AA, most of the time. AA decimated the TWA personel during the first of many cut backs. layed off or offered jobs hundreds or thousands of miles away from home, mostly for the senior TWA folks they could not redily get rid of due to years of service. AA was ruthless to TWA survivors mostly favoring the AA employees. Yes, STL brings back many memories to this old FF.

  28. David SFeastbay says:

    Consumer Mike wrote:

    I wish that more lines would consider STL as a hub, or good connection point. DFW and Denver are too big and crowded for easy connections and are not traveler friendly – in my opinion.

    Very true, with STL being in the middle of the country it makes for a smooth connection no mater which direction you are traveling.

  29. aj says:

    strange question, but ive never flown first class and was wondering, do the flight attendants refer to FC passengers as “sir/mam”, or do they make an effort to refer to them by last name?

    • CF says:

      aj – It’s a mix. Personally, I like when they use names but sometimes they just use a generic sir or ma’am.

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