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

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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