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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris IS AMERICAN AIRLINES STILL
SOMETHING SPECIAL IN THE AIR?


BY CHRIS BARNETT

July 8, 2004 -- A year before ace aviator Charles Lindbergh made history by soloing across the Atlantic in 1927, he set a lesser-known record: He piloted American Airlines' first flight hauling mail from Chicago to St. Louis. Buffeted by stormy weather, plagued by mechanical failures, Lucky Lindy took off in a single-engine biplane, but had to land and switch aircraft at least once during his flight.

American Airlines, the world's largest air carrier today and the offspring of nearly 80 different mergers and acquisitions, still has some of Lindbergh's luck.

With main rival United Airlines bankrupt and No. 3 carrier Delta Air Lines threatening to file for court protection, money-losing American is surviving by battling the nation's scrappy discount carriers with lower ticket prices, a massive frequent-flyer program, sack meals on flights over four hours and flight attendants and gate agents who can still muster up a smile in tough times. The staff's friendliness is remarkable despite deep, demoralizing cuts in their paychecks and health benefits, shorter rest periods between flights and the widely publicized ouster of a chief executive who hid management bonuses while calling for rank-and-file concessions.

American made a smart strategic decision going nose-to-nose with the discount airlines. It has stuck with its own instantly recognizable brand name and heritage, retained first-class cabins on almost all jet flights and has been repositioning itself as an upmarket airline offering lower fares. On the other hand, American is jeopardizing its enviable lead in the airline "space race" by eliminating its trailblazing "more room in coach" seating on Boeing 757 and Airbus 300 jets. More seats have been installed in both aircraft, shrinking the 34-inch legroom to a noticeably cramped, industry-standard 31 inches. An American spokesman insists that no other American jets will be reconfigured, but industry wags wonder how long American can survive with a schizophrenic fleet and such divergent passenger comfort levels.

To sample American's current service, I recently ponied up $457 for a roundtrip coach flight between San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin. That price included a four-day layover in Chicago. It was steeper than I was expecting, but still $200 below United and only $20 more than zero-frills American Trans Air.

On my four flight segments that included three airport check-ins, I only encountered one unpleasant staffer, a testy American Eagle gate agent at Chicago/O'Hare named Venus. But her supervisor sincerely apologized for her rudeness when I brought it to his attention. Otherwise, American's ground and in-flight service was extremely professional, much friendlier and responsive than when I flew the same route six months ago.

My trip started off smoothly. At SFO, I checked luggage curbside with the skycap and was given a boarding pass even though I didn't have my E-ticket confirmation slip. It was a busy Thursday morning and that courtesy saved me 15 or 20 minutes of standing in a long ticket-counter line during prime time. I flew American's roomier Boeing 767 outbound to Chicago and a Boeing 737 home, so I had the "more room" configuration and plenty of legroom in both directions. Three more inches of legroom make a huge difference and I worked on my laptop without worrying that the passenger in front of me would lean back in his seat.

Another tip: If you're flying on an American 767-300, avoid the coach aisle seats on the left and right rows of the aircraft. Those aisle seats have a metal box underneath that houses electronics linked to the in-flight entertainment system so you can't slide carry-on gear under the seat in front of you. Plus, it's uncomfortable on your feet. A flight attendant told me that passengers who booked an aisle seat for extra comfort and convenience are howling mad. The aisle seats in the middle rows don't have the obstruction.

American has plenty of hard-core loyalists who haven't jumped ship to the discounters. Steve Grey, executive sales director for Hub Group Logistics West, has flown American for 20 years. He's a monthly regular between San Jose and Chicago and he usually upgrades to first class for 15,000 AAdvantage miles.

"American's flight attendants are great," he says. "They're friendly and cooperative, but I sure miss the hot meals." (In fact, American's cabin crews are usually seasoned, worldly folks. On one of my test flights, I ran into Ken, a 7-year flight attendant who was previously a casino manager in Lake Tahoe and had a small acting part in The Godfather II.)

John Mamer, a professor of management at UCLA's Anderson Graduate School of Business, flies American because "I've had good experience with them and no cancellations." He says he often stands by for an earlier flight and almost always gets an assigned seat rather than having to wait nervously until just before takeoff to find out if he'll make the flight.

As for fares, American is aggressively pricing its tickets to fill up flights so shop hard on AA.com plus the major online-travel Web sites. I spotted my fare on Orbitz.com, but booked it by calling American's central reservations number. At first, I encountered an annoying automated voice-recognition program: It asked me for all sorts of flight details, but couldn't understand what I was saying. To bypass this time waster, hit zero. I did and wound up with a delightful human agent who ticketed me quickly.

Hungry? American still hands out its often-lampooned Bistro Bag. On my flights, the bags held a small turkey-and-cheese sandwich; baby carrots; a brownie; and potato chips. Bring your own vittles if you want something healthier.

Free full-length films are shown on flights over three hours, so bring a single-prong headset or buy one for $2 from American. American Eagle flights, which I flew on the Chicago-Madison legs, are claustrophobic, 50-seat regional jets with scant stowage and tight seating. They tend to be crowded, too, so try to avoid any Eagle flights longer than an hour and don't expect to get much work done in flight.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.