This is part two in my trip report series from my July 2016 trip to Spain. For an introduction, visit this post.
I was scheduled to fly from DCA to JFK on a Tuesday evening, then on Wednesday evening fly JFK to Madrid on American, followed by Madrid to Barcelona on Iberia. Not an ideal route, but not terrible for an award. I had set an alert on Expertflyer, though, for AA’s JFK-BCN, CLT-BCN and PHL-BCN flights, and sure enough, on Monday availability opened up on all three. DCA-PHL-BCN all on Wednesday was a no-brainer to switch to; it wouldn’t be on AA’s newest business class product, but the pre-merger US Airways Envoy A332 seating is perfectly fine, as I had flown it last summer on PHL-ATH and MUC-PHL.
Arriving at DCA was frustrating. I was checking a bag, so appropriately went on the First Class line. Unfortunately, it was not moving at all after 7 minutes, as there was one agent and one customer who seemed to have a complicated problem. The for-some-reason-separate Priority line was moving at a normal pace, though, with two agents, and only 3 customers in line, so I switched to that queue. Although she hadn’t approached anyone else, an agent came over to me and said “Can I see your record locator?” How friendly. I had checked in on my phone so pulled up my boarding pass, and she said “Come with me,” and then just pointed me to the self-service kiosk.
If I had wanted to use the self-service kiosk, of course, I would have. But I didn’t. And there’s no reason an agent should have forced me to do so (it wasn’t like it was a long line on the Priority queue). Moreover, I was the only one she pulled out, and she was rude in doing so. Had she said “If you’d like to save some time, you’re welcome to use the self-serve kiosk,” that would have been totally fine. I asked “Why do I have to use the kiosk?” “That’s the first step in the process.” Incorrect. It is the first step in a process, but not the only first step and one I was entitled not to use.
So I went through the whole check-in process with the computer, which eventually spit out a bag tag. I suck at putting bag tags on, one reason I didn’t want to do this. Then I waited in line for the bag drop – which I shouldn’t have had to do– and produced my passport and boarding pass yet again. The agent had to take my bag tag off and retag it with the priority tag, since of course the kiosks don’t have those. All told, the people who had gotten in the priority line after me and not been singled out by the rude agent were done well before me. I can only guess I was singled out because I was wearing a tee shirt and khaki shorts and was 20 years younger than the other passengers in line, but that’s silly as there are plenty of high AA spenders who dress like me and are in their mid-30s. It certainly wasn’t because of AA policy.
(I’ll also note that because of this, no one told me that my bags were checked through to Barcelona, asked me if I knew where the lounge was, or the sorts of things you should rightly expect upon checking for a transatlantic business class.)
Anyway, I made it to the pre-merger US Admirals Club, which was actually for once not supercrowded, though there was still a surprising amount of dirty dishes strewn about the lounge. I got to the gate for my flight to Philadelphia about 10 minutes before scheduled boarding. The gate area was a bit chaotic and loud, so I never heard any announcements until about 15 minutes after our scheduled boarding time, when First Class was called to board. As one of the shortest flights in the network, the service is never much to write home about on the short leg. The flight had a ton of non-rev passengers deadheading, in addition to one Flight Attendant working the front of the cabin who had a very dry sense of humor, though he did offer pre-departure drinks. (When he asked someone if they’d like anything and the passenger said, “I’m good for now,” he responded, “I like that answer.”) There were also a lot of kids on the flight. The 11-seat first class cabin was full, as expected for a summer flight. The seats were fine for the 25-minute flight, which though pretty turbulent, took off and landed early. I actually dozed off for the majority of the flight.
In the past when I’ve flown this flight, it’s been on a CRJ Express plane out of a bus gate at DCA (the dreaded 35x), but this was actually a mainline E190 flight, which meant we arrived at the main terminal of PHL instead of the commuter terminal F. So instead of the bus I’ve taken in the past, it was a fairly long walk to the international departures area, the A-gates.
There are both AA Admirals Clubs and BA Galleries Lounge in the A-gates, and my preference is for the BA lounge. It’s not particularly fancy or large, but still a lot nicer than an AA lounge. The food and self-serve liquor is a little better, and it’s just a little calmer. Some folks have reported being turned away when they are not flying BA, but I haven’t had a problem either time I tried, when I properly qualified based on Oneworld policy.
The lounge has a separate first class area, and a dining area for BA flyers, so I was in the main room, which had a small food buffet with cheese and tea sandwiches and a counter with junk food snacks, hard liquor, tomato soup, and soft drinks. There was a separate area with wine (I couldnt find champagne, oddly), and a coffee station with the standard BA cookie jars.
I sat for an hour or so and had too many cookies, a diet coke, and three glasses of wine. #vacation
I got to the gate for my flight to BCN about 7 minutes before scheduled boarding, and as I approached, heard the boarding announcement for business class. Almost immediately after, they moved onto the next boarding groups, as if they were in a rush. I know AA has been attempting to make up for its abysmal on-time arrivals this summer, so I wasn’t surprised. But the tiny number of people in the waiting area suggested it wasn’t going to be that full a flight. (Indeed, once airborne, I noted that coach was about 65% full – not good for July; it seems AA doesn’t need service to Barcelona from three cities, in addition to its and Iberia’s service to Madrid (and London to BCN is a pretty easy connection).
The old Envoy class reverse herringbone seats on the A332 are good, but basic — they used to be among the best seats used by a domestic carrier across the pond. You can’t watch the IFE during takeoff and landing due to its position, and it’s a fairly small screen for business class. The seat has a lot less storage than some newer business class cabins, and, given its age, the seats are a bit worn. The table is a bit smaller then on some newer planes, about the size of a standard domestic first table. But the bones are good, as the seat isn’t as constricted as many other lie-flat seats. There’s a handy in seat AC plug, as well as a USB port.
On the seat were a blanket and pillow, and the new Cole Haan amenity kit, with very basic contents: socks, eyemask, earplugs, dental kit, and a sealed packet with body lotion, lip balm, and mouthwash. The cabin filled up, but about half with nonrevs, not surprising given how many seats had opened up a few days earlier.
A bit longer after boarding than I would have expected, flight attendants came by to offer sparkling wine, orange juice, or sparkling water. I never understand why AA can’t do a real pre-departure beverage on a transatlantic flight with 2 flight attendants when it can with a similarly sized cabin with one on a flight like DCA-PHL. The sparkling wine was undrinkable.
I changed into my PJ pants, and soon the purser came by with the shpiel on Bose headphones (to be collected one hour prior to landing blah blah) and newspapers, followed by menus. I had actually pre-ordered my meal, the halibut, as it seemed light and appropriate for a trip to the coastal regions of Spain. Soon after, meal and pre-dinner beverage orders were taken.
We taxied from the gate, before an announcement from the captain that there was a backup for departures due to weather to the west. We waited for about 30 minutes, before finally getting the go-ahead and getting airborne around 7:50pm. Once airborne, I loaded up “Hail Caesar,” the newest Coen Brothers film, on the IFE and waited for service.
It’s only a 7 hour flight from PHL to BCN, so prompt service would be appreciated so I could get sleep. It wasn’t super quick, but it wasn’t that bad either. Drinks and nuts came at about 8:05pm, and the meal service at 8:20pm. The in-the-air champagne was a lot better than the pre-departure swill. The first course was meh, a standard green salad, bread basket, and a strange appetizer of cold chicken breast pieces, pineapple, and flavorless watermelon. The main came out next, and was plated quite nicely for AA. The halibut was good, but the rice was gummy and overcooked, and the vegetables were flavorless and textureless.
I finished the main about 90 minutes into flight, and waited for dessert, which came about 15 minutes later. The choices were mint chocolate chip ice cream, chocolate mousse cake, or a fruit and cheese plate. (I never understand why they always serve mint chocolate chip.) The mousse looked good, but I figured it had a high likelihood of looking much better than it tasted, so went with the ice cream as I finished the movie (disappointing) and then turned in for the night.
I got a solid 4 hours sleep, waking just as breakfast was about to roll out. It was the strata and chicken sausage and potatoes I’d had a few times before, along with a choice from the bread basket. Unfortunately I was only able to get two cups of coffee before service ended, which was accompanied by an episode of Togetherness. Then we were on the ground, about 20 minutes early.
In all the crew was pretty friendly (though AA should splurge for new aprons that don’t have the US Airways logo… it’s been awhile now). I got as much sleep as can be reasonably expected on a flight of that length, which is the key for business class on an East Coast-Europe flight.
Bus to immigration, deplaned from front and back, bus with business class was actually the second bus to get to the terminal, but it wasn’t a long wait at immigration at all. It did take a long time for bags to come, though – about 20 minutes after I exited immigration. In the meantime, a Vueling flight from St. Petersburg’s bags arrived on the same belt, and I found a woman frantically speaking at me in Russian, before I finally realized she was asking me to take her suitcase off the belt.
Once in the terminal, I headed to the Crystal electronics shop, where there was a line of people trying to buy Vodafone sim cards. I’m not sure why so many people were having such problems or why it was taking so long, but when it was my turn, I was able to get a prepaid card with 20 minutes of local calls and 1 GB of data for 10 Euros, and the whole transaction took under 5 minutes. (I later got a text from Vodafone saying that as a promo my 1GB had been doubled to 2GB, which I’d hoped would last me 10 days; spoiler alert, it didn’t- the problem of the Democratic Convention when you’re on vacation with long Youtube moments.)
And then, a staggering 90 minutes after landing, I was finally on my way to Sitges….