American Was Fine to Atlanta, But Not Quite as Good as Delta Coming Home (Trip Report)

American, Delta, Trip Reports

I had to head out to Atlanta for a friend’s wedding, so I’d fly Delta, right? Wrong! Ok, half wrong. I did fly Delta on the return since nobody else had a mid-day option that worked at the time. For that, I snagged a nonstop to Orange County for $383.90, but that was later schedule-changed, so I ended up at LAX… but let’s not worry about that until later. Going out, I took the one, lonely, American Airlines flight since I had leftover credit to use and it was a relative steal at $223.90. Both flights were good, but I have to give the edge to Delta.

I had checked in on my phone and with a 10:10am departure, I planned to leave my house about 2 hours prior. It took about 40 minutes to get to LAX and then another 20+ just to make my way to Terminal 5 inside the horseshoe. Oh, LAX…

In the terminal, things weren’t terribly busy, but there was a mess in Precheck land. I got in line and waited for about 5 minutes when they decided to take people from the back half of the line and create another line just for kicks. This led to mass confusion, a very angry woman in front of me barking at the people to stop cutting, and general frustration all around.

Eventually it got sorted, but it still took me more than 10 minutes to get through. By the time I got to the gate, it was 9:30am and they were getting ready to board.

Gate 53A is one of those weird wedge gates that goes behind the concessions in Terminal 5. It, combined with 53B, has a seating area that is far too small and people spill out into the hallway. We got lucky that 53B had just boarded so we could stretch a little, but it was still too small to fit everyone on our A321neo.

Once it was time to board, I realized that I still had Group 5 on the boarding pass. I canceled my American credit card a month or two ago, so I figured my priority boarding would be gone. But there it was. Airline tech is the best tech.

American 990
May 10, 2023

From Los Angeles
➤ Scheduled Departure: 1010a
➤ Actual Departure: 1011a
➤ From Gate: 53A
➤ Wheels Up: 1029a
➤ From Runway: 25R

To Atlanta
➤ Wheels Down: 522p
➤ On Runway: 9R
➤ Scheduled Arrival: 536p
➤ Actual Arrival: 531p
➤ At Gate: T12

➤ Type: Airbus A321-253NX
➤ Delivered: February 1, 2019
➤ Registered: N400AN, msn 8647
➤ Livery: Ugly Flag Tail

➤ Cabin: Coach (extra legroom) in Seat 9A
➤ Load: ~90% Full
➤ Flight Time: 3h53m

Upon boarding, I saw a sticker on the door showing that this was American’s first delivered neo. (I, of course, knew that since I looked at the registration like the nerd that I am.)

I treated myself to Main Cabin Extra on this flight. It’s not because I was willing to pay for it, but remember how American decided to end all of those Flex Fund waivers and favors as part of its plan to gut travel agent programs? We had a bunch left over to kill before the program ended, so I used them to sit in seat 9A. I never would have done that otherwise, but they would have just disappeared.

I still think the gray and blue look weird together, and the red highlights denoting Main Cabin Extra don’t really improve the situation.

There was a woman on the aisle with a lap child and then, miracle of all miracles, we had an empty middle in between us.

We pushed almost on-time and made our way slowly to the runway. It was a nice but hazy morning as we climbed our way toward altitude for our trip across the empire.

I first put my phone in the little clip on the seatback and turned on movies. As usual, I picked something truly terrible, starting with Easter Sunday and moving on to 80 for Brady. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Annoyingly, I couldn’t get my bluetooth headphones to connect to my phone, so I had to use the plug-in which meant I couldn’t charge while watching. Technology. Bleh.

My plan was to work on this flight and there was “fast” wifi onboard. Unfortunately, every time I tried to pay, I kept getting an error that rotated. This was one of them.

I tried multiple cards, and that wasn’t the issue. Frustrated, I took the 20 minute free option if you watched some promo video from American.

The wifi was fastish, but that was good enough for what I needed. After 20 minutes, my time was done, so I went and tried to pay again. It still failed.

The flight attendants came through with drinks, and I just had water and a Biscoff. I asked if they had heard of any issues getting online and they said no. I tried a couple more times and then… MAGIC. It worked.

I had been so focused on getting online that I didn’t think about whether I SHOULD have gotten online. American charged me $25 for access on the full flight (or a bargain $19 for one hour), and by this point there were only about 2.5 hours left. I shouldn’t have done it, because it was not worth it.

And now, a question… When I had my phone in the clip, there’s a piece of the clip that flips down and partially obscures the top of your laptop.

Obviously I had to take the phone down to take the photo, but you can see the overhang. Am I using this wrong or is this just bad design?

Anyway, once we got toward eastern Oklahoma the weather arrived. We spent much of the last hour and half dodging around storm cells.

The seatbelt sign was on much of that time, and flight attendants were told to be seated for a good chunk of it. Knowing the situation, I was beside myself seeing the woman next to me letting her child just roam around freely in the empty middle seat. There was no restraint at all. I had visions of this kid smacking into the ceiling if we hit some rough air, and it was making me anxious.

Fortunately, it never did get too rough, and the child lived. As we got toward Atlanta, the weather broke up though we did have a choppy arrival. It was so choppy that the flight attendants had to deeply and sincerely apologize for not being able to hand out all those credit card applications that clearly everyone desperately wanted. (Their original pitch was that they were telling us about the card because so many people had asked about it earlier. Riiiiight.)

The nice part about flying American into Atlanta is they use the T gates which make it easy to get in and out. There isn’t much to them, pretty spartan and crowded, but no train is needed. I left the secure area, and that led me to the ticket counter area and through a long corridor past security. They are doing some ceiling work in this part of the airport, apparently, and it looks… precarious.

After a long walk, I made it to the train to the rental car center which eventually led me to getting the heck out of the airport so I could sit in bad traffic.

After my first visit to Truist Park and other shenanigans, the wedding went off without a hitch on Saturday. I had been debating whether to get home earlier on Mother’s Day Sunday since my original flight wasn’t until 12:45pm. On the bus ride home from the wedding reception, I paid $75 to change to the 8:10am.

The collective AvGeek braintrust at the wedding told me to expect pain and suffering at TSA Sunday morning, so I really should arrive 2 hours early, even with Precheck. I did just that and after getting gas, dropping the car off, and taking the train back to the terminal, I was ready to face TSA hell with 2 hours to spare.

That did not turn out as expected. Though the regular line was busy, there was nobody in the Precheck line. I sailed right through, only tripped up for a couple more minutes waiting for the hilariously-named new Analogic machine to slowly spit everyone’s bags out.

I was on the other side and walking toward my gate — T3 this time, luckily still on the T gates — wondering what I’d do for the next 2 hours.

As I passed by gate T4, I paused. They had just started boarding the 6:25am flight to LA, so it was clearly running a little late. Could I get moved up again? It couldn’t hurt to ask.

I asked if the flight was full, and I was told it was not. The agent asked a colleague if she could still move me so close to departure, and he said if I didn’t have bags checked then I could do it. I had no checked bag, so I moved up again, asking politely for a window if one was available. The agent said “no problem” and told me to get in line to board.

Once I got to the front of the line, I asked him if he had a new boarding pass since my app still showed the next flight. He told me to scan that boarding pass and said “trust me.” So I did, and the scanner spit out a little piece of paper with my new seat assignment on this flight, 21F. I walked onboard.

Delta 712
May 14, 2023

From Atlanta
➤ Scheduled Departure: 625a
➤ Actual Departure: 640a
➤ From Gate: T4
➤ Wheels Up: 655a
➤ From Runway: 26L

To Los Angeles
➤ Wheels Down: 750a
➤ On Runway: 25L
➤ Scheduled Arrival: 810a
➤ Actual Arrival: 805a
➤ At Gate: 23A

➤ Type: Boeing 757-351
➤ Delivered: February 3, 2003
➤ Registered: N588NW, msn 32988
➤ Livery: Standard Delta livery

➤ Cabin: Coach in Seat 21F
➤ Load: ~70% Full
➤ Flight Time: 3h55m

All three of the Delta flights I had planned on taking that day were on the 757-300. These airplanes are all around 20 years old, and they showed some wear and tear in common areas but the seats were newish and clean. And even if the -300 is stupidly-long and awkward looking, it is still a 757 and I love it dearly.

I took my seat and was very happy to find the door closing with nobody next to me in the middle or aisle. There’s nothing better than scoring a coach flat bed.

We took off to the west and climbed through the still morning air until we found our perch at 36,000 feet. A lot of people wanted to sleep, so windows were closed and it was dark. I, obviously, kept my window open and enjoyed the view.

The flight attendants were busy, doing a service at the beginning and end of the flight along with making multiple passes in between with water and for trash collection. They were working hard, and it was noticeable.

I once again settled in for some bad movies, but somehow I ended up watching a good one, Confess, Fletch. I later made up for it by watching an absolutely unwatchable movie called Leap Year.

I had the screen next to me set up with the moving map while I stretched out, so my command center was set up well. I thought about going online, but Delta’s much-promoted free wifi doesn’t work on the 757-300s. They still have old Gogo wifi which would have cost $20 for the flight or a much-more-reasonable-than-American $6 for an hour. I could have gotten my T-Mobile access for free, but I was really just curious about the free wifi login process. Since that wasn’t an option, I passed and decided to try to enjoy my Sunday morning.

We had a light chop much of the way, but it was never enough to convince the pilots to put the seatbelt sign on, something rare in the US that I always appreciate. As we got into California, we began our descent. After a brief trip through the very low marine layer, we ended up touching down early, albeit on the wrong side of the airport.

After just a few minutes of waiting for traffic to clear, we were at the gate 5 minutes early. After a warm Happy Mother’s Day wish from a flight attendant, we were off the airplane and I was heading home.

Both flights arrived on time and I had at least one empty seat next to me both ways, so there really isn’t much to complain about, is there? If I had to pick a winner, it would be Delta thanks to the in-seat video and far superior moving map option which really does make a difference, all else being equal. Had free wifi been available, that would have been another point toward Delta versus the overly-expensive American option.

I also appreciated the more frequent but non-intrusive service from Delta and the lack of a dedicated credit card pitch as compared to American. Of course, American flight attendants were dealt a bad hand since weather may have prevented them from doing a full service, so it’s hard to compare exactly. But Delta does get the edge overall.

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38 comments on “American Was Fine to Atlanta, But Not Quite as Good as Delta Coming Home (Trip Report)

  1. The write-up shows how generic flying legacy US airlines has become. The product is all the same.

    1. I agree with you to a certain extent, and would say that the product is similar, but that the difference in the margins matters to some. The lounges/seats/entertainment/food/WiFi can differ between many of the major airlines, as Brett pointed out. On a broader level, the “service” (as hard as it is to define/quantify that) and employee attitude definitely differs some across major airlines (and ESPECIALLY when ULCCs are brought into the mix), though very few people fly enough on different airlines to really have a reliable samples of that.

      Serious question: Were the major airlines really THAT different before de-regulation, or even in the 90s? How, specifically?

  2. I was a PLAT on AA and was a loyal flyer forover 25 years. But the poor service, the maintenance issues, the comments from many flight crews about a proposed “work action” and last but not least their credit card pitches pushed me over to Delta. I have never looked back.

  3. Couple of random thoughts from an American Elite in Texas: 1) You’re right about AAinflight being creaky, although most of the time I have no problems logging in on large jets. The Regional Jets suck, nearly all of them are virtually impossible to get connected. 2) The “Seatback Clip” is primarily designed for Tablets, which have a thicker border around the screen so there is no obstruction. I’m agreed that some also use it for phones, and if you don’t have a thick phone case, it will obstruct the screen. 3) Speaking of AAinflight, my guess is that American will have to reprice the Internet service to remain competitive with other carriers (as you point out, Delta offers it free on some aircraft). 4) Regarding the Bluetooth Earbud issue, you may want to get one of those slick “Lightning Jack Tee Connectors”, which allow you to both plug in wired earbuds and simultaneously charge with a charging cable. If you use an iPhone case, be sure to get Tee long enough to bridge the case, or you’ll need to remove it every time you want to use the Tee. 4) The new Analogic X-Ray Machines are an absolute disaster, as they move about 1/2 the speed of the older machines. In my home airport in Austin, I’ve never seen the line in TSA Precheck exceed 20 feet or so (usually it’s shorter), but with the new Analogic X-Ray Machines it wrapped around into the terminal and was close to 100 feet in length. All good stuff, like your column !

    1. TexasTJ – 2) The issue wasn’t obstructing the view on my phone. It was that the clip flops down so that it blocks the computer screen that was on my tray table.
      4) I should look into that to both charge and listen, I still miss the 3.5mm headphone jack

  4. Hope you had a great time at Truist Park and The Battery. Braves really knocked it out of the park (no pun intended) with that one.

    1. DiscoPapa – Yeah, it was a really nice park. The only thing that I don’t like is that it’s in this corner of two freeways, so if you’re in the Battery it’s great and walkable. Coming from anywhere else is a mess. I stayed at a Hyatt Place nearby and tried to walk. That was a mistake.
      It’s definitely not walkable out there, and no public transit either.

      1. Suburban Atlanta doesn’t really like walking. The Battery is a self contained, fully insular project. And Cobb county definitely doesn’t hold public transit in high regard.

        How much differently would you feel about the whole experience if there was a MARTA stop at the Battery and you could have zipped right up there from the airport?

        1. Bill – That would have been delightful for my trip from the airport, but it still doesn’t help with the walk from my hotel. It’s just what happens when you build in the ‘burbs like this. It’s also why I prefer ballparks in town.

      2. I agree about downtown ballparks being far better than out in suburbia like there, Milwaukee, etc.

        But, I didn’t have any issues walking over and back for a game when I stayed at the Hyatt Place on Spring Hill Parkway. It was about a 3/4 mile walk, but I park that far away on purpose at other stadiums sometimes. The cops did divert everybody crossing 41 to the next light north from Spring to keep cars moving faster, but that still wasn’t bad.

        1. Eric – Funny, I was at the Hyatt House over on Cumberland, so I came from the other side. Definitely more precarious coming from there.

  5. The most terrifying book I ever read was “Flight 232”. It describes how all the mothers were instructed to place the children on the floor. You know whats going to happen and they have NO Choice. It’s terrifying.

    If I ever had kids I would NEVER fly them as a lap child because of this book.

    Also, FYI watching every episode of Airline Disasters has convinced me to always wear my seatbelt no matter what.

    1. I won’t lie, it’s my favorite show. By far. Not sure what that says about me

      However clear air turbulence is the main reason everybody should keep their seatbelts on, even if they haven’t watched all 21 seasons of Air Disasters like we have!

  6. Curious – if the moving map gave DL the edge, what’s the criteria used there? What do you look for in a superior moving map?

    1. Jace – Well, the AA moving map wasn’t really much of a moving map, unless I missed it. It was just a very basic display of how much time you have left. Delta’s was the usual that I expect with a variety of views, the ability to zoom in and out, and the ability to see all the metrics like altitude, speed etc. Did I miss AA’s existing somewhere?

  7. RE: AA phone clip
    I would have worried about the person in front me reclining and smashing your phone and/or your laptop.

    1. Claire – Definitely a concern for the laptop but the way the phone is clipped in, nothing would happen to it if someone reclines.

  8. Your assessment of DL offering a better product than AA generally aligns with most data-driven and subjective reviews of the airline industry. While there are differences with how DL people relate to customers, it really is the amenities and better on-time that turns a commodity into something different from everyone else.

    DL offers Biscoff cookies like a lot of airlines – a larger one than on AA – but also offers at least one other choice on every flight and often has 4 choices. It is little stuff like that which makes a difference in how they are perceived compared to other airlines.

    Sorry you didn’t get to experience DL’s free Wifi. It is not only far faster than what it was before but consistently at a good speed and downright fast for considerable periods of time. I have used it on both my laptop and cell phone (not at the same time – you apparently can only sign into one device at a time w/ the same FF number).

    As for the seatback AVOD on DL and not on AA, there will be people that will argue both sides but the simple reality is that my observation is that more than 2/3 of people on flights that have seatback AVOD use it on a flight of 2 hours with nearly all people using it for some period of a flight on flights over 4 hours. You still have the choice to use your own device with seatback AVOD and the majority of people that aren’t actively using seatback AVOD are using it even for the moving map are watching their own content on their own device – so there really doesn’t appear to be a large population that uses their own device to watch airline content other than live TV doesn’t seem to be what I am seeing.

    For both the free Wifi and seatback video, it is hard to see how AA hasn’t seen the value that B6, DL and now UA sees in those products. It isn’t that AA isn’t capable of delivering any of that but that AA doesn’t seem to believe that making its product as good as or better than competitors matters. And that is frustrating to see in flying w/ AA.

  9. I flew AA 2 weekends ago… was really surprised that while they had no snacks for sale on the flight (departure 7:50am) – apparently they only have them after 9:46am! This info is no where I found online … and since they don’t have magazines anymore there is no info in the cabin. On my return flights – asked about beverages for sale – was told it was in the tri-fold entertainment flyer (it wasn’t) but then that plane didn’t even have those!

    BUT WOW – they do spend a lot of time & focus on pushing that credit card!

  10. I don’t even acknowledge AA as a legitimate carrier anymore and largely just fly UA and DL. The United app is outstanding and the cabin overhauls on the fleet have improved things massively. I do get annoyed about the boarding process when 3/4 of the plane have some level of priority boarding on UA.

    1. I’m glad to see you call out the UA app. I’m simply a flyer but I’m sometimes shocked by what I can do on the UA app that I can’t do with other airline’s apps. UA really has done a great job investing in their tech (at the expense of their long haul inflight soft product).

  11. Brett, that little device holder flops down right in front of my laptop screen and it’s annoying. But I think they figure that people are either working on a laptop or watching their device, and not both at the same time.

    You also got the trick for having the best odds of having an empty seat beside you. A middle seat in the extra room row is the last plane seat to fill. No one wants to pay extra for a middle seat. So the only people that sit there are people that didn’t pay and get stuck there at the end.

    Oh I pay the monthly fee for the Wi-Fi service, and with that it is easier to get in and out of the service. It is very cumbersome if you don’t do it all the time and don’t know what you’re doing with it.

    I have flown all three major legacies plus Southwest in the last few months, and Americans Wi-Fi is superior… When it is working. When it’s working, it is faster than anyone else’s. But that is only on planes that don’t still have the old gogo system, which is all the regionals and some of the older airbuses.

  12. You really should upgrade your bad movie watching to episodes of Air Crash investigations. It’s sorta surreal in a fun way watching a show about a plane crash while on a plane.

  13. If I want to put my phone in the clip, I just raise the spring-loaded bar and put my phone between that and the top of the plastic, keeping the clip flush against the seatback.

  14. What we apparently have here are two airlines performing their basic function as airlines rather well. Both carriers transported the author to and from Atlanta safely and on time. The only differentiators between them seem to be small things which really aren’t the main reason why an airline exists.

    1. Simply getting people from point A to point B reduces air transportation to a commodity. While there are people that are happy to buy the lowest possible level of service at the lowest possible price, that model is done best by the ULCCs including NK which flies ATL-LAX. Legacy/global carriers cannot compete across the systems for the lowest price so get higher fares by 1. dominating their hubs and 2. differentiating their products to be better than their competitors. UA’s decision to put seatback AVOD on its fleet after not doing so is because they recognize the value in differentiating their product, esp. against WN which is their largest direct competitor by metro area.
      Brett could have flown NK but did not and chose just legacy carriers says that price was the primary factor in one direction while schedule was in the opposite direction. DL does the best job of dominating its hubs and getting a revenue premium for it and so “won” Brett’s business on the return home because of DL’s very strong schedule (ATL-LAX is one of DL’s top markets by local market revenue so they will fight to defend it.)
      AA’s retreat from LAX is because they are not perceived as offering similar levels of service esp. by corporate passengers which is where DL does better in the domestic market than any other airline. That has led to lower fares compared to DL and UA which is why AA has outsourced large parts of its previous west coast and NE network with the former legally sustainable and the latter ruled not permissible under US laws, so AA could end up much weaker in the NE than it has been in decades.
      AA does have a very strong and well-performing southern US network and is growing its hub dominance there so they are offsetting what they are losing on the two coast – and then some – in terms of revenue.
      Simply providing commodity level service isn’t a winning formula for legacy carriers – both AA and DL (as well as UA) combine their strengths in different ways but AA is increasingly retreating to its strength markets while DL is proving that it can compete not just against AA and UA but also in low cost strength markets which is why its growth in BOS, for example, has been so strong.

          1. @Nick

            Bad analogy. Restaurants are restaurants regardless of the amenities or atmosphere. The main differences around them are part of their core business. They don’t take you from one place to another as you eat your meal. Airlines aren’t restaurants. They serve food, or something that’s supposed to pass for food, but their main business isn’t serving food – it’s transportation.

            1. A Chevette and an M3 will both get you to where you want to go – both are at their core just transportation machines.

              Face it.

              Some people do pay for a better experience that just getting from point A to point B – which Fedex Ground can do for you.

              Some airlines just do a better job of providing differentiated service that customers are willing to pay more for.

              It really isn’t a difficult concept to understand in a free market economy.

            2. I don’t think my analogy came through. It’s irrelevant if an airline serves food for the analogy. It is a good analogy because like restaurants, airlines are trying quite hard to differentiate.

              The core part of being a restaurant is feeding people. The core part of being an airline is transporting people. I’m sure Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London doesn’t want to be called the same as McDonald’s, but they’re both restaurants and they both feed people.

              Delta is probably horrified that you’re trying to put them in the same category as Spirit. On the other hand they probably like being in the same category as Singapore Airlines.

              Airlines can use food as a differentiator, but as you say it’s not core to the business.

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