A convenient, comfortable, and cost-effective way to hop through the Northeastern United States.
In a very, very crowded field of competitors all vying for the customers who transit the lucrative Northeast Corridor, American Airlines has perhaps the most robust offering. Just about every hour on the hour for fifteen straight hours — from 6am to 9pm to be precise — every single day, you can fly AA between Washington, New York, and Boston. It couldn’t get more convenient than that and, if you’re running late to the airport, no worries! You can just get on the next flight without changing your schedule too drastically. This level of flexibility is great for the business travelers who frequent these routes, and the comfortable seats and relatively cheap fares are just icing on the cake.
Purchasing tickets for American’s shuttle is straightforward, but the pricing has the tendency to get a bit funky. For a process that’s so consistent from start to finish, how much you’re going to pay is a lone, noteworthy exception. You might get an incredible deal if you leave at 10am for example, but two hours prior to that and you might be on the hook for nearly 600 percent more. I get that the rules of supply and demand apply, but wow, they exert a lot of influence in these markets!
There’s another interesting wrinkle for higher flyers to consider when they’re searching for and booking these itineraries. Sometimes, usually on flights departing in the middle of the day and late at night, first class costs marginally more than economy. Take the screenshot above and notice that at 10am, First is only $69 more than Main Cabin. That’s not bad!
If you’re looking to save considerable amounts of actual money, the shuttles are easily attainable with points too — you can use American’s AAdvantage miles or British Airways’s Avios without much trouble — but the prices range from “meh” to atrociously poor. There’s regular availability, but you can also do so much better and get a lot more bang-for-your-buck/point elsewhere. You’ll be lucky to find a fare in which your cents-per-mile ratio (CPM) is higher than the currency’s value. In other words, if AAdvantage miles AND British Airways Avios are worth around 1.30 CPM, you’re likely to squander your purchasing power because most of these redemptions will net you 1.0 to 1.3 CPM… if even that much. It’s not uncommon to see ratios below 0.5 CPM.
The one time it might make sense to redeem points is if you’re booking last-minute and/or the dollar rates are astronomically high; that’s common on these routes, so be sure to buy in advance if you can. Otherwise, unless you have tons of AAdvantage miles or Avios burning holes in your pockets, you’re better off just paying cash.
The airport ground experiences, both before and after your flight, are designed to maximize efficiency. You’re allowed to check in up to a mere 20 minutes before departure — that’s a much shorter window than the standard 45 minutes mandated on other domestic itineraries — and if you’re in a premium cabin or hold elite status with American or one of its oneworld partners, then you’re entitled to use priority security lines. It’s not unreasonable to expect that you can go from curb to seat in under 15 minutes, but tread carefully! If you’re scheduled to leave during rush hour, the streamlined operations, as great as they are, don’t confer immunity to long lines.
Once you’re airside and at your gate, you’ll be subjected to AA’s controversial, nine-stage boarding process. Those in First Class, as the name suggests, are the first to go. They’re followed by status and co-branded credit card holders, and then by everyone else on the plane; Basic Economy passengers round out the crowd. Some people like this fragmented style and others hate it, but it works decently enough. You might have to fight your way through gate lice, but the ground crew at least is pretty diligent about turning around line jumpers.
American Airlines AA 2119
Boston Logan International (BOS) – Washington National (DCA)
Scheduled Departure: 16:00 (16:07 wheels up)
Scheduled Arrival: 17:52 (17:24 wheels down)
Aircraft: Embraer E-190
American Airlines relies on a series of mid-sized regional jets to operate its shuttles. While there’s always the chance of an equipment swap, you can reasonably expect to fly an aircraft as small as an Embraer E-175 or as big as an Airbus A319; those two are the most commonly utilized types on these routes. You might also encounter the occasional Bombardier CRJ 900 or Boeing 737. My ride on this particular day, an Embraer E-190, has since been retired from AA’s fleet, but that’s no big deal in the grand scheme of things. The passenger experience is pretty consistent across the board.
If you’re debating whether to upgrade from economy class to first class — routinely cheap fares and post-booking buy-up deals are quite common — the hard product should be your most important consideration. How much do you value a wider cushion and a few more inches of legroom on a segment that’s, at most, an hour-and-a-half long? American delivers these perks admirably, and if you’re scheduled to fly on an Embraer (or Bombardier) aircraft like I was, your calculus could be more complicated than usual. You see, their first class cabins are in desirable 1-2 configurations…
…and economy is in a still-good 2-2 layout (as opposed to 3-3 on the larger A319s). You’re guaranteed either an aisle or a window no matter what, and while the pitch (30 inches, or 34 in Main Cabin Extra) is nothing to write home about, these are comfortable accommodations nevertheless.
As someone who’s 6′ 3″, I’ll gladly pay more to stretch out, but thanks to a complimentary status upgrade, I could save my money on this late-afternoon flight between Boston and Washington DC. How lucky! Better yet — or so it seemed at the time — I was able to reserve 2A, which is one of the plane’s three coveted solo seats AND a bulkhead (despite its row number that suggests otherwise). However, while sitting at the front of the cabin is ordinarily a good thing, it’s not on AA’s regional jets; the floor space is regrettably restricted by forward walls, and this is especially true on the E-190s.
Your knees are practically stuck at a 90 degree angle as a result of the design — you can’t slide your feet very far forward — and such limited flexibility grows old really, really quickly.
Granted, you don’t have to worry about the person ahead of you reclining in to your lap, but that doesn’t make up for sacrificing your ability to stretch out under the seat in front of you. That’s a privilege that passengers in economy have, let alone those in the other non-bulkheads.
It’s frustrating — especially if you paid for an upgrade with the hopes of more legroom — but because these flights are so short, you probably won’t be stuck in an intolerable position for a very long time. And, as disappointing as the bulkhead can be, most everything else about the seat is smartly designed and otherwise pretty comfortable. Despite being relatively old, my chair’s padding was still good and supportive, and the recline was surprisingly deep, if not borderline unnecessary… but who’s complaining?! Pre-packaged “polar fleece” blankets for everyone complement the respectable hard product too.
Even though there’s only a single seat per row on the left side of the aircraft, there are two air vents and two reading lamps installed above each. No, neither of those are particularly groundbreaking features, but they’re still nice to have.
The chairs also house two extendable surfaces in their armrests. The first, most-obvious one is a full-sized tray table that folds in half, has dedicated cutouts for drinks, and is sturdy and stable enough to hold laptops and/or food without sagging.
Then there’s a mini-cupholder nestled (read: hard-to-find) in the opposite armrest. It’s ingenious because it allows you to keep a liquid close without obstructing the bigger table. Furthermore, your computer/your paperwork/you whatever won’t be in the “splash zone” should something go spilling.
Too bad that the two surfaces were appallingly grimy, with residue rings and unmovable dirt particles everywhere, but the general filth wasn’t the most egregious shortcoming here. Instead, that dishonor belongs to the in flight entertainment situation. You’d think that on routes catering predominantly to business travelers, the planes in service would be equipped with wifi and/or in seat power. This Embraer E-190 had neither, but to American’s credit at least, management is rectifying this by installing the former on its Airbus A319s and Embraer E-175s. The latter isn’t as big of a priority, but if you want to prevent a dead battery at 38,000 feet, charge your device(s) before you board!
Anyway, once all eleven first class seats were filled, Ashley the lead flight attendant came through the cabin to welcome everyone — she recognized elite status holders by name too — and to serve, as she referred to them, predeparture aperitifs. She initially offered water, orange juice, and champagne, but happily agreed to fetch other beverages from the galley. I chose the champagne, and it tasted about as good as you would expect from something that’s presented in a plastic cup onboard a domestic carrier!
The door closed right on time at 4pm, and as we began to taxi, the cabin crew performed a manual safety demonstration. Admittedly, it was hard to pay attention. Boston’s Logan Airport is only a few miles away from the city’s center, so if you’re lucky, you’ll get treated to/distracted by skyline views while you navigate to and from the runways.
When the briefing was complete, Ashley returned to collect/confiscate the drinks — you can’t keep them for takeoff unfortunately — and take a round of orders for when we reached cruising altitude. Her proactiveness in that moment foreshadowed the service she provided from start to finish.
In the meantime, our flight plan had us departing to the east over the ocean, so we got Massachusetts Bay instead of urban sprawl. The views were pretty, albeit in a grim, wintry way, and the first 20 minutes or so were incredibly bumpy.
As soon as we broke through the thick cloud layer and in to a brilliant sunset, the turbulence subsided…
…And Ashley sprung to action to fulfill the outstanding drink orders. I ordered a Szarlotka (“Apple Pie” as it’s called in Polish; contains vodka and apple juice and is delicious) and she didn’t skimp on the liquor. Fly higher?
Fifteen minutes later, she came through the cabin with a basket of snacks, and then again after another 15 minutes had passed. There were fresh apples and bananas on the healthy side, salted packs of nuts and granola bars for those craving something hearty, and potato chips and chocolate candies if you needed a guilty pleasure. She also offered refills both times but, uh, one was enough for me!
Having finished munching and boozing, I went to the lavatory to tidy up. There’s one exclusive to the first class cabin as well as the crew, but it’s prohibitively small and not well-maintained. I’m of average build and had trouble turning around without bumping in to the toilet seat or some other unsavory surface. Yuck! Talk about a hygienic nightmare.
The sink, with weak water pressure and a hard-to-control faucet, was like any other on a plane. But, there was at least some pleasantly-scented CO Bigelow-branded hand soap.
Everything here was, for better or for worse, unsurprising for a regional jet. That is except for one eyebrow-raising placard…
The 87 minute flight was more than half over after this bathroom trip/discovery, and I spent the remaining time gazing out the window and at the three complimentary magazines, American Way, Nexos, and Celebrated Living. The first is the standard publication, the second is written in Spanish, and the third is unique to AA’s premium cabins.
We started our descent about 20 minutes before landing, and Ashley, for the last time, came through the cabin to collect garbage and help prepare passengers for landing. The conditions in Washington were similar to those in Boston, with dense clouds, high winds, and wicked turbulence. The seat belt sign correspondingly was turned on in a hurry.
When you fly in to Washington National Airport from the north, you’re treated to an incredible approach that culminates with a low pass over the National Mall and the many landmarks nearby. Sit on the left side of the plane if you want to fully enjoy one of the best views of the city (for the record, I always sit on the left when I fly in to DCA). If you come in from the south though, this advice is moot and you’ll instead get to see lots of suburban apartment buildings. If you squint hard enough you can pretend you’re at Kai Tak.
We touched down smoothly at 5:24pm nearly 30 minutes prior to our scheduled arrival (5:52pm). That was a welcome surprise, but American Airlines squandered any good will when, after pulling in to a gate, there was no ground staff to receive us. We sat on the tarmac for 20 minutes as we waited for a jetway operator to appear. That’s typically no big deal, but the plane’s heater was malfunctioning and the cabin’s temperature proceeded to rise to a sweltering 94 degrees Fahrenheit (34.5 degrees Celsius). Despite the captain’s best efforts to calm everyone down, people still got hot (har har har). There couldn’t have been a worse lasting impression, and it’s a shame that something so consistently solid and reliable left its passengers in such foul moods. Alas, maybe next time.
The shuttles serving the Northeast Corridor are typically indistinguishable from one another, irregardless of the carrier that you choose to fly. The service model is tried and true and effective — it’s hard to botch such a simple, short leg — but American Airlines improves over its competition. For the most part, it nails the first class basics: there are plenty of comfortable seats, the soft product is as good as it can be, it’s not terribly expensive, and, most importantly, there’s a flight operating every hour on the hour. It’s a tailor-made experience for the business travelers who frequent these routes en masse, although the lack of onboard power or wifi is puzzling. Nevertheless, if you can forgive these omissions, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better, more convenient value proposition than American’s.
The good, the bad, the ugly of American Airlines First Class Shuttle
- The Good
- AA’s shuttles are scheduled so conveniently. You can fly every hour on the hour all day long.
- The seats were well-padded, supportive, and could recline pretty deeply. It was an impressive showing for a plane that would soon be retired.
- In-flight service was kind and attentive, complete with proactive refills and ample amounts of snacks.
- The Bad
- For a market that’s dominated by business travelers, the lack of in seat power and onboard wifi is a glaring shortfall.
- Despite SeatGuru suggesting otherwise, the legroom in the bulkhead is limited and greatly reduces mobility.
- If you’re bigger than average-sized — measured vertically or horizontally — then the lavatory will be too cramped for comfort.
- For a cabin that features a respectable hard product, it’s not maintained as well as it should. There were a lot of grungy surfaces!
- The Ugly
- Why is there a “Do not flush while seated” sign mounted across from the toilet? Have there been horrific accidents in the past?!
- Just like on the flight from Madrid to New York onboard an AA 767, the joy of an early arrival was quickly extinguished by a delay; there was no ground crew working the gate. How does this happen?!?
Have you flown American Airlines First Class on one of its shuttle routes? What are your thoughts?