The Good and the Bad of the Old Aircraft Experience on American (Trip Report)

American, Trip Reports

It’s been a long, cold, rainy winter (by Southern California standards), so I was thrilled at the prospect of joining some of my old America West friends at our annual spring training game in Phoenix. While the wind and cool weather kept it from being a shorts day, it was still well worth the trip. This ended up being a nostalgic ride on some older aircraft. On the return, it was a pleasant memory. On the way out? Not so much.

I was going to use a friend’s buddy pass to get out to Phoenix, but as the day crept closer, the numbers started looking worse and worse. The night before, I was left with a decision to make: take my chances or bite the bullet and buy a ticket. I went with the latter and snagged one of the last seats on the morning flight from Long Beach for just shy of $225. The return was much easier with award space plentiful into LAX. I used 7,500 BA miles and $5.60 for that.

I got a bit of a late start the morning of the flight. I didn’t leave home until 40 minutes before departure, but I was only slightly nervous. It was Long Beach, after all. I sailed through the Pre Check line (the non-Pre Check line was lengthy) and was at the gate more than 20 minutes before departure. There was quite the lineup outside the window, including a Southwest MAX. This was obviously when they were still flying.

They had already opened up boarding for all 9 groups, so I just got in line and walked onboard. From the outside, our airplane looked nice and new, but on the inside it was a different story.

March 8, 2019
American Eagle 5805 Lv Long Beach 645a Arr Phoenix 915a (Operated by Mesa)
Long Beach (LGB): Gate 3, Runway 30, Depart 1m Early
Phoenix (PHX): Gate A1, Runway 25L, Arrive 5m Early
N910FJ, Bombardier CRJ-900, Ugly Flag tail colors, 94% Full
Seat 5A, Coach
Flight Time 58m

This airplane was one of the first CRJ900s when it went into service all the way back in 2003. That may not sound old, but for a CRJ900 it sure is. Despite the welcoming crew (something I find to be a regular occurrence on Mesa), I was instantly annoyed upon boarding.

Even though the seat map showed it being in a newer 76-seat configuration, this one was actually in the old grandfathered 79-seat configuration. That meant my seat, 5A, which is blocked for elites only, was actually a garbage seat with no window.

As I’ve come to expect with these older Mesa aircraft, the airplane looked to be in pretty bad shape on the inside. The seats were re-covered a few years ago and there was finally some padding added, but that has since eroded. And the position of the seat is incredibly uncomfortable.

It looks like someone just came into the cabin with a paint brush and tried to cover up all the blemishes in a very sloppy way. I tried to find a good photo, and this look at the back of the armrest in front of me sums it up well. You can see the dark gray paint that has bled over to the light gray metal.

You can also see it on the tray table latch on the seat back.

Or there are the cracks in the casing around the windows.

It’s harder to do it justice in photos, but it just looks shoddy in person.

Fortunately, Mesa’s operational problems didn’t plague us, and we pushed back on time. I really hate that American schedules this flight for a 6:45am departure since it can’t actually get in the air until 7 thanks to the noise rules. So we taxied out and then sat around waiting.

It was a beautiful morning as we climbed out with the now-shuttered C-17 manufacturing plant on our left.

The seatbelt sign didn’t go off the entire flight even though it wasn’t bumpy. The flight attendants came through with a Biscoff and a drink. Shortly after crossing the Colorado River, we started descending.

We found ourselves in between a high and low cloud layer through most of Arizona. There were uncharacteristic winds coming out of the west, so even though it was a morning flight that usually lands straight in, we had to circle around and land from the east.

The low clouds meant we didn’t get to see the ground until we were on our base leg into the airport. We touched down and went straight to our gate, A1, which used to be a fixed jet bridge that I seem to recall only could serve 737s. That’s now been fixed.

Unlike last time, this year I opted to stay the night in Phoenix. The game was fun, and then we grabbed a beer afterwards. I had dinner with my brother and then spent the night at my parents’.

There were a ton of options with award space coming back that next morning. I first checked the 737s in my never-ending quest to get on an Oasis-configured aircraft, but all the ones I saw were in one of the older configurations. So, what to do? I opted to pick the rare bird.

It’s awful to think that a 757 counts as a rarity, but outside of thin Transatlantic routes and Delta’s network, 757s aren’t easy to find domestically anymore.

My airplane was one of the few legacy US Airways 757s (actually, this one was originally ATA’s) that mostly handle Phoenix to Hawai’i flying until the A321neos ramp up later this year. I guess right now they have enough downtime in the morning to squeeze in an LA turn.

When I went online, I picked a seat in row 10. It isn’t Main Cabin Extra, but it’s in that mini-cabin in front of the boarding door. The middle was open, so I thought it was a good choice. I could have done Main Cabin Extra further back (the first time I’ve had that as a good option as a Gold out of four tries), but I decided not to do it since the legroom doesn’t matter all that much to me, especially on a 1 hour flight.

Ground traffic at the airport was pretty light for Phoenix in March, but the lines to check bags were insanely long. This is only half of it – they broke and then started up again on the other side of the escalators.

Non-Pre Check security had a long line as well, but Pre Check was easy and I was through with time to spare.

Over at the gate, our aircraft was waiting.

It was a little startling to hear the automated boarding announcements that American has started using in Phoenix. It’s a weirdly-robotic voice that calls people up by group. That didn’t matter for our flight, however, since it seemed like the whole plane was just crowding the gate hoping to get on and find some precious overhead bin space. The 757s don’t exactly have huge bins, so space was at a premium.

March 9, 2019
American 1702 Lv Phoenix 937a Arr Los Angeles 1024a
Phoenix (PHX): Gate A26, Runway 7L, Depart 7m Late
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 50B, Runway 25L, Arrive 5m Early
N204UW, Boeing 757-23N, Ugly Flag tail colors, ~99% Full
Seat 10F, Coach
Flight Time 1h5m

Onboard, I turned left (not often you can do that and still sit in coach) and took my seat.

Boarding was total chaos. There must have been a bunch of nonrevs, because while the seat map looked fairly empty the day before, I think we went out full. My empty middle ended up getting filled toward the end of boarding.

The bigger issue was with bags. The flight attendants were working hard to please, so they took many of the non-rev bags and tried to find places for them at the opposite end of the airplane. Then some people just started taking any open seat. At one point, there were nonrevs standing in the jet bridge, and they just called them on once they found an empty spot for them. That’s why we were late pushing back.

While this was going on, I tried to log on to watch something on the wifi network, but it’s Gogo and it didn’t work on the ground. (At least, when I tried, it just went to the Gogo homepage.)

I do have to say that the seat was really comfortable. Maybe it was just because I was comparing it to my seat on Mesa the day before, but this one felt good. It was an older, non-slimline seat. Legroom wasn’t anything special, but it’s fine for my 5’8″ frame.

The runway gods weren’t cooperating as we had reverted to the normal Phoenix morning operation and had to taxi all the way down to the west side to depart back to the east. We passed the new Terminal 3 gates on the south side, the first time I’d seen them in action.

As we lined up on the runway, it was like being reunited with a long-lost friend. The confident whine of the Rolls-Royce RB211s pushing us down the runway brought back many memories from years past. As you do in 757s, we launched into the sky and climbed quickly toward the heavens. Every turn to bring us back west pushed me further into my seat. There’s nothing quite like feeling the power in the sports car of the sky.

Eventually the whine settled back into a rhythmic hum that began to lull me into relaxation. It was a perfectly-smooth morning to fly as we climbed our way toward cruising altitude. We settled in just abeam of a long, narrow layer of cirrus that we followed all the way until descent. You can see the shadows in this photo.

The flight attendants came through with pretzels and drinks. Then they went pretty quickly into the credit card pitch. They seemed quite motivated to earn their commissions on this flight.

We glided along through the tranquil morning, only beginning our descent as Big Bear and the surrounding snowy peaks came into view.

Closer to LA, a low layer of clouds appeared. It made for a briefly turbulent descent but it more importantly left us with some dramatic views of the currently very green Los Angeles area.

I finally found myself on the right side of the airplane to see progress on the new Rams’ stadium.

Shortly after, we were on the ground. They parked us in Terminal 5 at a tow-in gate, but despite the delays involved with that, we still blocked in 5 minutes early.

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29 comments on “The Good and the Bad of the Old Aircraft Experience on American (Trip Report)

  1. Hi Brett: I’ve been reading your trip reviews for years; you have never wavered in your thrill for flying passenger jets. I am with you every time, all the way down to the Biscoff. Love your reference to the “sports car of the sky,” and regret that you have not grown to appreciate the design brilliance of the American livery. I’m still planning my round the world trip with miles which I hope you will design for me when it’s time. I’m not getting any younger! CJTaylor

  2. Regarding seat comfort; that’s what I’ll miss about those MD80’s when AA retires them later this year. Those big padded seats!

  3. Love the 757! Why, oh why, didn’t Boeing choose that to be the airframe that would live forever!!!

    1. +1

      I was always a fan of the 757 and, even 15 years ago, would go out of my way to fly them over 737’s or the A300s that AA used at the time. Fantastic aircraft. What a darn shame that Boeing didn’t use it as the basis for the MAX, as opposed to the 737. If they had, they wouldn’t be having the problems that they are now.

    2. If we club together, maybe we could get this puppy:

      1991 Boeing 757-200F Original Boeing factory Freighter TT: 98,900 Hrs TC: 28,088 PW 2040 Engines. Ready for delivery.
      For Sale Price: USD $5,500,000

      No seats, standing room only. I’m happy to put in $100 to get it started…

    3. Agreed…..Flat love to fly a 757 when I can. Nothing beats those Rolls-Royce pushing you down the runway like a Greyhound.

  4. “I do have to say that the seat was really comfortable. Maybe it was just because I was comparing it to my seat on Mesa the day before, but this one felt good.”

    The older seats are nicely padded. Padding makes a difference. The seats are just far more comfortable than slimline seats.

  5. I, too, love the 757.

    Taking off from Phoenix can be a crapshoot; I remember doing that long taxi to the end of the runway, THREE times before taking off, as the winds kept changing. The consolation was that it was on a UA 727, just before they got retired.

  6. Cranky:

    I don’t know how you can say that “757”s are hard to find domestically anymore”

    United uses quite a few flying ORD to SFO and on their PS routes of SFO to EWR and LAX to EWR.

    Since I fly out of ORD, I always look for the UA 757’s when I book because they have 24 seats up in first so my chances of getting upgraded are much better! :)

    1. You just answered your own question. This is the definition of hard to find domestically. That’s not much.

      1. United also flies the 757 from SAN to EWR

        Also to/from MCO to SFO and EWR.

        That is just me doing a quick check.

        In my book… that is a little more than “not much”. :)

        1. It’s irrelevant to me if a 757 happens to fly from Newark to San Francisco if I live in LA. The reality is that 757 flying is increasingly rare for me and for many others.

          Delta is the only one doing significant domestic flying on the 757, and it has several flights in LA to its hubs, Hawai’i, and a few other spots.

          For United in LA, only 6 of the 10 flights to Newark are on 757s today. Boston has 2 and the hubs have some (757-300s). Of all the Hawai’i flights, only 2 today are on 757s. That’s a huge change from previous years.

          For American, all Hawai’i flying is now on A321s, so 757s are non-existent outside of the 1 or 2 Phoenix trips.

          I would not consider that to be a lot of 757 flights.

        2. I’m with Brett.

          According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, US carriers flew 8.39 million domestic flights in 2018. What percent of those flights were on 757s? Someone with better access to data can probably obtain the answers, but I’d have a hard time believing that 757s accounted for more than a few percent of the total scheduled passenger flights.

          1. I love questions like this! I pulled the statistics from DIIO Mi. I see 8.43 million domestic flights (so pretty close to the number you said) with 178,241 on 757s (of any type) for a total of 2.1%.

            For completeness:
            737 types: 28.9%
            A320 types: 18.1%
            MD-80/90/B717: 6.6%
            CRJ types: 18.2%
            Embraer E-jets: 11%
            Embraer RJs: 6.7%

            The rest (~9%) is comprised of random widebodies and small propeller planes.

  7. All of the cold wet weather this winter (at least by Arizona and California standards) has lifted both states out of a severe drought. I’m looking forward to your future flight on a MAX or Oasis plane. From reading your posts for a number of years, I’m confident you’ll be fair with your evaluation.

  8. Why do you say 757s are hard to find? United consistently operates them on transcon flights, some ORD-LAX/SFO flights, and others.

  9. Not to belabor the 757 point but American has just 34 757s left according to its annual SEC report that was just filed a month or so ago. All of them are either with a small first class cabin and are used for Hawaii or are in international configuration.

    United has 56 757-200s left and none are configured in a standard domestic configuration.

    Delta has 100 757-200s left and most are in a standard 199 seat domestic configuration with 20 first class seats. The only difference is use with some used to Hawaii while others are not.
    Delta and United both have 757-300s which have standard domestic configurations.

    With A321NEOs and 737MAXs becoming the longest haul narrowbody domestic fleet, 757s will increasingly be replaced to/from Hawaii. Delta will use them increasingly just for high capacity continental US flights.

    CF is right that finding a 757 between AA hubs is a rarity and fits their use to/from Hawaii and rotating them between their LAX and PHX hubs.

    Despite being the same size tube as the 737 and 727, the 757 always felt more spacious and certainly had performance that no other narrowbody aircraft could replicate.

  10. Oh, those ceiling TV’s on the 757! I was a United FA in the early ’90’s and would hit my head on the front 2 or 3 much to the entertainment of my passengers!

  11. I love sitting forward of the engines on the 757. Such distinctive sounds on takeoff, final approach and touchdown. Takes me back to childhood flights on the L1011.

  12. I still remember back around 1996 when Mesa flew from ABQ-LAM (Los Alamos NM) on prop planes. Not fun.

  13. Your flight log for LGB-PHX states you landed on 7L at PHX. I think you mean 25L, since your narration mentions having to do the fly past with a turn-around to land from the east.

    BTW–who gets to use 08/26 at PHX nowadays? It always seems they use the 07/25 pair for landings and takeoffs.

    1. oldies – You’re right, I just fixed it. Thanks.

      As for 08/26, I haven’t used that on in a long time, but I assume it’s because I’m coming from the south. I presume that people going to/from the north use that runway. Just looked at Flightradar24 and a plane from Columbus just landed on 8.

  14. Read thru all the comments and damn I thought it was just me who loved to fly the 757 . And looked for specific ways just to get another flight before they all get retired.

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