Ramon is the creator of Travelling Companion. He focuses on flight reviews, hotel reviews, and helping stretch your travel dollars, miles, and points further while traveling in comfort.
In this series of five reviews I focus on the experience flying American Airlines in First Class domestically and Business Class on flights to the Caribbean. The posts compare American Airlines First Class and Business Class across four different aircraft on medium-haul flights between 3-4 hours where meals are served.
American Airlines First and Business Class Reviews
American Airlines CRJ-900 SBA-DFW First Class Review
American Airlines 737-800 DFW-DCA First Class Review
American Airlines E-175 NAS-DCA Business Class Review
American Airlines E-175 DCA-MSY First Class Review
American Airlines A321 SJU-CLT Business Class Review
Multiple errors by American Airlines gate agents led to us receiving an operational First Class upgrade which we really appreciated on this 3 hour regional jet flight. We left the flight unimpressed by the CRJ-900 First Class Experience.
Pros-Great Legroom, Hard Working Flight Attendants, Good and Substantial Meal
Cons-Incompetent Gate Agent, Low Ceilings, No First Class Amenities, No Seat Back IFE or Device Holder, No Seat Power , Limited Supply of Meals and Insufficient Supply of Ice
Check-In and Boarding
The adventures on this flight began at check-in when were unable to check-in because we did not have sufficient 500-mile upgrades, which I outlined in my previous post, in either of our accounts. We needed 10 500-miles upgrades to upgrade our journey from Santa Barbara (SBA)-Dallas Forth Worth (DFW)- Washington Regan National (DCA) but Christina had 5 and I had 9 since neither of our accounts had the full allotment we couldn't check-in. I called American Airlines to cancel the 500-mile upgrade request from SBA-DFW and little did we know that we would end up riding in First Class despite not requesting an upgrade.
I have flown out of SBA on several occasions and I have been impressed by both the architecture of the airport and the ease of the ground process. The architecture evokes the Spanish missions of the Central Coast and makes for a very warm welcome to the airport. I have never waited to check a bag at this airport and usually clear security with Pre-Check in 5 minutes. This is the case despite the growth at the airport which now served by six airlines, with the addition of Delta's service to Salt Lake City and will serve 12 non-stop destinations starting in June 2020 with the addition of United non-stop flight to Chicago.
When I arrived at the gate it was full. Passengers were waiting for the flight and there were four elites on the upgrade list for two available First Class seats but the gate agent ended up clearing no one. Throughout the process the gate agent did not spend a lot of time at the gate and seemed focused on getting the plane out on time rather than answering passengers' questions or clearing upgrades. I am all for getting the plane out on time but this doesn't mean the gate agent should ignore all other duties and if American Airlines gate agents are having trouble doing both then they need to staff gates with at least two staff members. About nine minutes out from boarding our plane had just arrived. Shortly after all of the passengers finished deplaning the gate agent started the boarding process. We proceeded down to the tarmac and boarded via a walkway instead of a jet bridge. This afforded us stunning views of the mountains surrounding the airport.
Plane and Seats
SBA-DFW is currently the longest flight out of SBA with a distance of about 1,316 miles, which will be eclipsed by United Airlines flight to Chicago O'Hare (ORD) in 2020, and has a flight time booked at approximately 3 hours. Despite the distance American Airlines utilized a CRJ-900 regional jet operated by Mesa Airlines for our flight. Since this flight in 2018, American Airlines has changed to a E-175 operated by Envoy Air. The CRJ-900, like vast majority of regional jets, required larger bags to be gate checked which meant we collected them plane side in Dallas and were able to carry them on our connecting flight. This was annoying since it slowed down our exit once we arrived in Dallas.
About six hours before the flight we changed our seats to the bulkhead seats which made me happy since this was the longest regional jet flight I had experienced and I was nervous about spending it in economy. However, when we boarded the flight we found our seats occupied by a woman and her traveling companion. She told us that one of the flight attendants had told her to take the seat and she refused to move since she said had just pulled a hamstring and needed the extra legroom. I did feel bad for the woman but I was annoyed because she chose not to buy an extra legroom seat which was available up to a few hours before the flight and the gate agent, who was nowhere to be found during much of the time leading up to boarding, had once again showed his incompetence.
Not wanting to slow down the boarding process but unclear where we should sit we proceeded to the back of the plane and spoke with the flight attendant working economy. She let us know that she was frustrated at the gate agent for not solving this situation and that there were two available seats in First Class and she operationally upgraded us to First Class. Once she said this we were very happy and proceeded to sit in the very back row of economy until the boarding process finished and she moved us to First Class. What was funny about this situation is that there were four other elites on the upgrade list that did not clear yet we did not use our 500-miles upgrades and ended up in First Class. If the gate agent had cleared the other elites into First Class then there likely would have been a Main Cabin Extra open for us or the woman and her traveling companion to sit in. I am sure the other elites who were not cleared were mad but the gate agents incompetence worked out well for us and we were really happy to be sitting in First Class on this approximately 3-hour flight.
First Class on American Airline's CRJ-900s has either 9 or 12 seats arranged in a 2-1 configuration. Our plane had 12 seats and we were both seated on the single seat side with Christina in seat 1A and myself in seat 4A. While I was annoyed that I was unable to sit next to Christina, I appreciated being in First Class and that my seat offered both a window view and aisle access. This is something that is not common flying domestically in First Class. The seats in this configuration had 37 inches of pitch and about 20 inches of width. I found the seat to be comfortable and well padded.
While I was certainly appreciative of being in a First Class seat I did not like the CRJ-900 cabin. The cabin had very low ceilings and I generally felt claustrophobic on the plane. At 5 feet 10 inches I had to watch my head to make sure I did not hit the overhead bins and going to the First Class bathroom required craning my neck. After three hours I was ready to get out of the plane and move around freely.
We took off 15 minutes late and I loved the beautiful ocean views as we climbed. It was a beautiful day and having a seat with a window afforded me beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
When I sat down at my seat I realized that there were no blankets or pillows proactively offered on this flight despite the three hour flight time. This is something I have received on substantially shorter American Airline's flights. The CRJ-900 had no in-seat power and no seat back in-flight entertainment (IFE) which was really disappointing. During the meal service the lack of seat-back IFE or a device holder became even more annoying since I could not eat and watch the IFE at the same time. These are both things that make a flight this long more enjoyable and I would expect on such a long flight in First Class. The plane did offer streaming in-flight entertainment and I accessed it via my tablet. While the streaming IFE was less substantial than on American's narrow-body jets there were a few good options. On this flight I ended up watching Deadpool 2 which I found to be a good way to pass the time.
We were not offered pre-departure beverages I assumed due to the late departure. About 8 minutes after takeoff the First Class flight attendant came around to take our drink orders. She returned a few minutes later with my drink in an American Airlines branded glass which I put on the plastic cup holder which I really liked since it allowed for more space on the tray table.
After serving the drink she returned with a cold towel which I found refreshing but really thin and poor quality.
The flight attendant continued the meal service by offering most First Class passengers a choice between two meals, however, by the time she reached the last row the only option remaining was a salad. While I lucked out since I like a good salad I was disappointed that American Airlines had not loaded enough meals to allow for a choice for the three passengers in the back row of First Class. This wasn't even the only thing that American Airlines ran out of on this flight. About 30 minutes before landing the plane ran out of ice. Once again it is a same that American Airlines does not provision sufficient ice on such a long flight.
The salad included lettuce, tomatoes, olives, corn, and feta cheese. The chicken was cold, since American Airline's regional jets do not have ovens, and served on the side along with olive oil and vinegar dressing, mixed nuts, key lime pie, and sea salt crackers. I was quite impressed by the substantial size of the meal and the presence of real cutlery. The salad was quite tasty and I really liked that it had feta cheese. I also enjoyed the mixed nuts, even though they were served cold, and the sea salt crackers. I am not a fan of key lime pie but it had been many years since I had any so I thought I would give it a try. As a result, I found out that I still strongly dislike key lime pie but I can't blame that on American Airlines. Overall, I think that American Airlines put a good foot forward with this meal. It was both a good and substantial cold First Class meal.
On this flight we had very different service from the First Class flight attendant than the economy flight attendant. When we had an issue with our seat assignment the economy flight attendant was very friendly and handled the situation calmly. When I gave her two coupons for great service she shared one with her colleague who I think did not deserve it. The First Class flight attendant only provided average service. While she worked hard with a full First Class cabin she was unable to keep her patience under stress. For example, during the first drink service order Christina ordered two drinks and the First Class flight attendant was visibly annoyed. While she was never rude during the service since was not friendly.
We really lucked out receiving a First Class upgrade without requesting one which made this three hour regional jet flight manageable. However, the errors that led to the upgrade demonstrated the incompetence of gate agent. Moreover, while the meal was good and substantial the overall First Class experience of the CRJ-900 was not impressive. The plane had no seat back IFE or device holder, no seat power, low ceilings and American Airlines provided no amenities limited supply of food and insufficient supply of ice. My advice is if you find yourself on a three hour or more American Airlines flight and have a choice avoid the CRJ-900 even in First Class.