I’ve now taken a dozen domestic American Airlines flights since the end of May in both first class and coach and offer my opinions below as compared to my 62 flights on United Airlines this year. I’m a top-tier elite in Mileage Plus with United and only just Saturday rolled over to Platinum in AAdvantage with American, so some comparisons might not be exactly apples-to-apples, but most are regardless of elite status.
- Online Reservations: Both sites are fairly intuitive and show similar options although laid out differently. American has the smallest “Go” button on each of the pages, which is annoying, and I also dislike that flights aren’t sorted by time of departure. The latter is definitely due to how they are normally viewed in a GDS system where American pushes the most popular flight times to the top so they appear first, but it still irritates me. United’s side-by-side display of outbound and return options is more appealing and you can quickly see pricing changes when selecting different flights. Winner: United.
- Telephone Agents: Okay, here’s where the difference in status comes into play, but one incredibly welcome thing about American is I’ve never been connected to an offshore center, even as a general member. United’s service is consistently inconsistent in service and accuracy (I’ll have a separate blog post on that soon), and the few times I’ve called American things went smoothly and all agents were friendly and answered calls with much more enthusiasm than many of United’s agents normally do. Winner: American
- Airport Experience: I’m pretty programmed when I fly United knowing what to expect, but I still make noted observations when I interact with their agents. I’ve had fantastic and not-so-fantastic experiences with United this year at check-in, the Red Carpet Club and at the gate. From nearly ignoring me to efficient & friendly service, United has been inconsistent. I have been blown away by my interactions with American’s agents this year and have been acknowledged by name at least seven times at the gate (maybe twice with United). Also, the American agents have seemed more genuinely interested in whatever my request or issue was. Winner: American.
- Boarding Process. Ignoring United’s brief change to boarding by rows, both carriers effectively now have nearly identical procedures. Agents at American and United enforce the process & turn away “line jumpers” and actively scan for oversized bags to check. Winner: Tie.
- Flight Attendants: Again, I’ve had great, good and bad flight attendants on United this year (notice the trend?). With the exception of one indifferent F/A on American, the rest have been absolutely stellar. They’ve been attentive, smiling, engaging when appropriate and seem more pleased with their jobs. I’ve never heard “shop talk” among American’s attendants, but have frequently this year among United’s. Some of the conversations I’ve heard on United are perhaps deserving given the merger, but others were position-specific and unnecessary to be vocalized to nearby passengers. And no, I wasn’t eavesdropping. Winner: American.
- Seats: In coach I prefer American’s seats for two reasons, seat pitch aside. First the headrests where available are larger & form fit more snugly. Second, the 737-800s feature the slide-forward recline which sort-of negates intrusion when the person in front of you reclines (for which I still maintain is their absolute right). Winner: American. In first class, United has a consistent product having recently overhauled all seats. The leather is comfortable and I like the upper pocket along with the full sized headrest (although it sits uncomfortably against my shoulder blades when in the down position). Winner: United.
- Inflight Meals: In coach, United offers more options for snacks and light meals, so when flying frequently you’ll have several choices available to avoid constantly repeating the same ones. I’m already kind of tired of American’s carver sandwiches or Caesar salads without having options for unique snack boxes a la United. Winner: United. In first class, both carriers offer decent choices, but I notice a marketed difference in quality with American’s catering being seemingly fresher and tastier. Also, the sundaes on American are a much more substantial dessert (even on mid-cons) than United’s chocolate chip cookie. Also, how cool is it that American offers both Coke and Pepsi products (in both cabins, of course)? Winner: American.
- Inflight Amenities: The video entertainment on both carriers is nearly identical (I think I’ve seen virtually the entire “The Office” series without having watched it on TV at home), so I’m giving that a wash since I’m excluding legacy Continental Airlines in this comparison. On United. Wi-Fi is available currently only on p.s. flights and one other 757 whereas American offers more aircraft spread across the network with Wi-Fi (and in-seat power!). Winner: American.
- Mobile Notifications: Once again the inconsistency at United comes into play with technology where EasyUpdates are either immediate & spot-on, or completely absent. So far, my American updates have been timely & accurate without one going missing. I also like their baggage claim notice sent nearly immediately after you land. Winner: American.
- Aircraft Fleet. Can I just start this by saying that I hate MD-80s?! Maybe because I flew on them twice weekly in 1998 for six months between Chicago and Philadelphia, hated them then and hate now that they’re so bare boned in features. Again keeping Continental out of the picture, I’m very much an Airbus guy vs. the Boeing 737s, so United by far has a more attractive fleet in my opinion. Winner: United.
So there you have it. I’m not a member of the Admirals Club and really wished I had jumped on the discount offer when it appeared during the 30th anniversary of the AAdvantage program promotion to compare it against United’s clubs. Anyone want to share their opinion here? By the numbers, American scored 8 wins to United’s 5 (each got a nod for the tie), and I absolutely agree my flying has been far more enjoyable on American this year than United.
Four things prevent me from outright switching allegiance from United to American based on my experiences. First, I’m so vested in Mileage Plus that I’m nearly to a million miles flown on United and will hit that mark in 2013 (or 2012 if I’m aggressive). Second, American’s international route network on its own metal doesn’t line up with my preferred destinations as much as United’s. Next, the financial outlook for American is rather grim which brings their long-term sustainability into serious question. Finally, United’s Economy Plus seating. That said, thank you American for impressing this hard-core United flyer to seeing that sometimes the grass actually is greener on the other side.