Should you fly on American Airlines while its namesake country still doesn’t have this virus anywhere close to under control? After being on two of their flights yesterday, I’d say no. The risk is way beyond the acceptable level for your health. When I have to fly back home in a month or so, I’ll choose a different airline for sure.
[Editor’s note: this review of American Airlines flight experience is from the summer of 2020. Things have changed slightly in 2021, so scroll to the end to see a recent update.]
It feels strange to be a travel writer in these times. Some of my peers are irresponsibly telling everyone it’s just fine to fly again, to go see the world the minute foreign countries will let us back in again. Public sentiment is far more cautious, for a good reason. There’s still a high level of contagion, especially in countries led by populists who didn’t take this threat seriously at first (USA, UK, Mexico, and Brazil have “the lead” by far).
In surveys asking when Americans would feel safe flying again, those answering “not for at least a year” have ranged from 40% to 65% in the results I’ve seen. Most of the general public is far more comfortable traveling in a safe way this summer, like in their own car to a place where they can maintain their distance.
Many will rightfully ask, “So why were you on a plane then, dumbass?” Fair question, but it wasn’t for a vacation. Or a press trip.
My daughter has to move out of her college apartment at the end of this month and since her internship she got hired for with Disney is on hold, we are getting her moved out and bringing her back to Mexico for a while to live with us. Also, my wife’s visa needed to be renewed (which requires leaving the country). Even if we had a car, it would be a very long trip to try to drive from central Mexico all the way to Florida.
We are voluntarily quarantining for two weeks in an empty house in Tampa starting now, so this is not exactly a trip to the beach. We reluctantly booked a flight from Leon/Guanajuato to Tampa via Dallas to get to where we needed to be to take care of family affairs.
An airplane is an inherently tough environment for maintaining any kind of social distancing. Especially in this day and age when the bean counters have shoved as many seats as they can into a flying metal tube. Before all this happened, the legacy airlines were racing to the bottom to be more like Spirit Air, charging more money for the amount of legroom the worst budget airlines gave you 20 years ago. Otherwise, the idea was to cram you into an inhumane small space if you didn’t “upgrade.”
All airlines have not approached this problem the same though since the virus started spreading. Alaska Airlines, Delta, and JetBlue have kept middle seats blocked for unrelated passengers to cut down on the infection risk. Southwest is selling fewer tickets on each plane and since they have open seating, this should mean far fewer people in middle seats.
As I found out the hard way yesterday, American Airlines has done close to nothing.
From my experience, American has really only made two fundamental changes: no on-board food service and a change of announcements at the gate and in the cabin. What are they actually doing differently otherwise? Not much.
The Airport Experience: BJX, DFW, and TPA
I’d probably give American Airlines a C- or D grade for how they’re dealing with the health threats, but the airports are trying much harder, especially Tampa’s.
In Leon/Guanajuato they’ve made it harder on themselves by closing off the upstairs gate area and making everyone crowd into the smaller downstairs area. This was probably a financial decision because the departure flight board that used to show 20+ flights now shows 4 or 5. But it’s pointless to mark seats as not to be used then cram five flights’ worth of people into the same waiting area as before, standing room only. On top of that, some airport employees were not wearing masks or were wearing them with their nose uncovered. That’s kind of like taking a birth control pill every other day or wearing a condom “most of the time.” Not very effective.
There were announcements asking people to maintain their distance, but given the space issues, it wasn’t really possible. Volaris is obviously just saying “screw it” when they board their flights. It looked like the pre-virus days except for the masks. I’m glad we weren’t headed to Tijuana.
American’s boarding process was also a mess. While United, one gate over, was boarding by row starting at the back of the plane, American was still doing it the same way they did pre-virus. They are using the same haphazard priority number system that exposes everyone to far more interaction and close mingling than necessary. United had distancing markers on the floor, American did not.
In Dallas (DFW), the airport has clearly made a lot of changes, including distancing markers at security lines, many closed non-essential shops and restaurants, and new plexiglass shields for workers. It was odd that we had to push open doors with our hands to get to the immigration area from the gate though and for the first time since I’ve gotten it, Global Entry was close to useless. Everyone was routed into the same snaking, single-file immigration line to approach the counters, Global Entry or not, American or foreign. It was comforting to see someone wiping down the plastic bins at the security gate though.
Throughout the airport in Dallas, it seemed there was no universal policy about masks. (Update – this changed in January 2021 after Biden took office, with masks required in every federal building.) As in Leon, almost none of the guys pushing wheelchairs around was wearing one–even though they’re dealing with the most vulnerable passengers. Some of the food workers didn’t have it over their nose. I saw three American employees without masks on (though not at my gate). Many travelers were not wearing masks while moving around the airport, especially the portly Texans with camo Crocs and man boobs.
You have to take a train between terminals in Dallas and those cars get too crowded for comfort. Then a group of yahoos will come on in packs, talking loudly with no face coverings and acting like they’re in safe New Zealand instead of “we blew it” Texas.
I only passed through the Tampa Airport (TPA) on my way out after arrival, but that pic below is a good indication of how seriously they are taking the threat. #Floriduh may be getting international scorn, but Tampa Airport is doing more than most when it comes to making health and safety a priority. For one thing, all employees are required to wear facemasks. They have a chat box on their home page where you can ask about their procedures.
Announcements that aired while I was there emphasized the need to wear face coverings and asked people coming to pick up someone to wait in the cell phone lot, not in the terminal. I saw distancing markings on the floor all over the place. I’m less nervous about going back to TPA Airport than I am about a layover in Atlanta, Dallas, or Houston.
None of the airports took our temperature and there were no health screenings in the USA. In Mexico, we filled out a questionnaire saying we weren’t experiencing any symptoms before being allowed to check in and a person reviewing it later squirted us with hand sanitizer station before the security gauntlet.
Flying American Airlines During a Pandemic
To back up a little, why did we fly on American Airlines to start with? Well, originally we had booked Interjet flights way back in early February because they were the best Mexican airline when it comes to legroom. Interjet canceled all international flights in March though. They’re still not flying to the USA. [2021Update – it looks like they’re bankrupt and gone forever.] After they refused to refund the ticket charge (even though this is required by the DOT), I contested the charge on my card and got credited back.
I had more than 100,000 AAdvantage miles on American, thanks to some long flights but mostly from using a couple of their travel credit cards a lot. They were running a sale of only 10K miles to get from Mexico to Tampa, so we booked two flights for 20K miles and $148 in taxes total. In hindsight, we got what we paid for, except that instead of just getting less comfort, we also got more risk.
I was in a bad mood from the start since even though American advertises their credit card as always giving you one checked bag for free, sometimes the gate agents don’t honor it and I have to dispute the charge later. That happened when we checked in at the AA gate of Leon/Guanajuato. They made me pay to check a bag even though I paid the ticket charges with the AA card. So later I had to spend time on the phone to dispute it again. This company seems to love fighting with even their best customers to squeeze out another couple bucks. I’ve had an AAdvantage account since 1986, have both of their credit cards from Barclays and Citi, and have had elite status in the past. [Update – they amended their terms of service since my flight to change the checked bag “benefit” to domestic flights only. So either AA card is less valuable now unless you only fly domestic.]
As I mentioned before, the boarding process was by boarding number priority instead of row. So it was chaotic and illogical, with rows 2, 15, and 30 all boarding at the same time, 20 minutes of mixing and mingling in close quarters. The announcement said everyone had to wear a face covering, but nobody was actually enforcing it. Several passengers scanned their boarding pass and walked right on without one. We were advised to maintain a safe distance in the tramway, but it wasn’t marked or enforced and didn’t matter really since the boarding process on the plane itself was the same as it used to be pre-pandemic.
Business class was mostly empty on my first flight, but the rest of the plane was almost filled to capacity. There looked to be six empty seats. This was a 2 X 2 Embraer E175 plane though, thankfully, so there were no middle seats to deal with. The announcement touted their enhanced cleaning service, but we wiped everything down to be sure. American still has their inflight magazine in the pouch, though it’s looking much thinner these days, with no travel ads.
There was no food or beverage service and we only saw the flight attendants when they did the safety announcement and when they came through to collect garbage. They wore masks, but some of the passengers didn’t. An announcement said we would be disembarking by row, but this was another announcement that was just for show, with no implementation intention. It was the usual “jump up and stand around” process after the ding, everyone in even closer proximity than when they were seated.
The second flight from Dallas to Tampa felt riskier. Once again, American Airlines talked a good game in their announcements about how important our safety was and all the great things they’re doing in concern for our health, but it was all lip service. The actions didn’t back that up at all. There were no distancing markers at the gate and the same haphazard boarding process meant it was a free-for-all again. A trickle of people boarded in the early groups, then 90% of the plane was in group 5 or 6, so everyone stood up and joined the non-queue at the same time. On the plane, the same chaotic mess as we had pre-pandemic, but now with more of a health risk.
Once again, the gate announcer said masks were required and anyone who didn’t have one should see them, but some passengers openly defied this supposed requirement and walked right through without one. The gate agents did nothing. One flight attendant told us, “We can’t do anything. It’s company policy that we’re can’t enforce, only ask.” (Pilots and flight attendants are fighting the company about this, but the airline’s own statements show money matters more than the health of workers or passengers.)
On the plane, nearly every seat was full, with no seats blocked out by the airline. The only empty middle seats were the most expensive ones that nobody had paid $81 extra to sit in. My wife actually got us moved because two people in my row of three weren’t wearing a mask when we boarded. She has a respiratory condition and was seriously worried about the extra risk. Kudos to the crew for helping to diffuse the situation.
Upon takeoff, there was an announcement that passengers should wear a mask if not eating or drinking, but then an odd caveat at the end said to “be sensitive to those who may have a medical condition that doesn’t allow them to wear one.” How many people is that really? One in 100,000? It seems that could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis rather than making everyone think, “Hmmm, I guess I just need to get my doctor friend to write me a note and then I can be mask-free! Screw all y’all.”
Gate announcements had said we should buy our own food in the airport because there wouldn’t be service on the flight. They did hand everyone a little bag when we boarded though with water, pretzels, cookies, and a wet wipe. I don’t like the idea of all that single-use plastic from the little water bottles going into landfills and the ocean, but it’s a sensible move under the circumstances. As before, we didn’t see the flight attendants except for safety announcements and trash pickup. They don’t have much to do these days except mitigate disputes and seating issues. I bet they didn’t have “conflict resolution” and “health risk mitigation” at the top of their list when they signed up.
Next Time I’m Flying on Delta
Several airlines are walking the walk instead of just talking a good game like American. If I could fly Southwest back to Mexico I would, but they don’t go to my home airport. So next time we’re going on Delta instead. It often seems like all the legacy airlines suck equally, but I’m impressed with how Delta has stepped up this time. Instead of taking a government bailout from our taxes and then screwing us over with the same greedy practices, Delta is “Blocking middle seats and capping seating at 50% in First Class and 60% in other cabins to give customers more space.”
Thank you! That gets my business Delta, even if I have to pay more for our three return tickets.
As for American Airlines, I’m not flying with them again unless I have no other choice. Even then, I’ll find a way to get on a flight that’s clearly undersold before booking. It’s not worth dying for to get from point A to point B. Hopefully I can use their miles on OneWorld partner airlines instead.
Really though, I plan on flying as little as possible until the virus is under control, we have a vaccine, or there’s an effective treatment. There are just too many selfish people and greedy corporations creating an unsafe environment for travelers.
As someone who depends on the travel industry to make a living, it pains me to say this, but I can’t in good conscience recommend anyone to fly on a plane these days that isn’t blocking out seats. You’re better off finding another way to travel.
If you must fly, I can confidently recommend Delta Airlines, which worked out much better on the way back.
April 2021 Update on American Airlines
I went back on my word, kinda, about not flying American again during the pandemic. I flew with them again in April of 2021, as much of the population was getting vaccinated.
I had a “use it or lose it” credit from a canceled flight from April of 2020. Not knowing when and how I’d be able to use it otherwise, I saw a good deal on a one-way business class flight between Baltimore and Leon/Guanajuato and snagged it. I figured no matter how badly American Air was still bungling its virus response, I’d get more room and be the last one on, first one off to avoid the crowd. I had a $232 credit and only ended up spending about $110 more for biz class all the way, so it seemed like an easy choice.
Has anything changed? Yes, one key thing has: the airline is actually enforcing the mask mandate now. Passengers are repeatedly reminded that a mask is mandatory and the flight attendants regularly told people to cover up their nose and mouth unless they were in the process of eating or drinking. One guy with just a Buff scarf over his face was handed a disposable real mask and ordered to put it on in order to board the plane. I only saw one AA employee not wearing one and that was the baggage handler who came into the jetway to grab gate-checked bags.
The other change I saw was this notice below. Most airlines have ditched their magazine (for now anyway), but AA apparently found a way to allay anyone’s fears about catching a virus from a piece of paper.
What hasn’t changed? Everything else.
The first flight I was on was so full that there were people on standby waiting to board. I think the second leg had one or two empty seats. American never took the precaution of blocking middle seats even with the Covid-19 deaths were at their highest and they’re doing their best to cram as many people into the metal tube as possible all along. Unfortunately, they’re not alone in this as Delta is the last good guy standing and even there their policy will end soon.
What makes American Airlines worse than most others though is they have stuck to their chaotic boarding policy and have nine different priority numbers for boarding order that have nothing to do with where the seats are on the plane. So while United, Aeromexico, and others are boarding back to front and Southwest boards quickly because of their numbered system, with AA it’s a complete clusterf&%#. People are jammed up at the gate, with no distancing markers or instructions, and it took 25 minutes each time for our plane to board. All that time, passengers were on top of each other in the aisle and waiting for bags to get loaded in the overhead.
The lines to check in for flights in Baltimore were also a mess. I was in the supposed Priority line because I had a biz class ticket, but it sure didn’t help. Although there were just six passenger groups in front of me, it took 45 minutes to check in and hand the frazzled employee my bag. The regular line’s movement looked to be even worse–more than 200 people were snaking around the separators and 50 yards down the terminal, having a hard time staying distanced. I guess they haven’t brought back enough furloughed employees to keep the lines moving. Or their computer system just sucks.
My next flight will be in June, from Mexico back to the states in pursuit of a vaccination. After that I’ll feel better about an activity that still seems inherently risky. This one will be on Delta, United, or Aeromexico though. Now that I’ve used my credit, there’s no reason to get on an AA plane again unless I have to.