Better Than the Acela: A Review of AA’s Shuttle Service on the ERJ-190 From NYC to Boston
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With TPG‘s home office in New York City and my school in Boston, it’s not uncommon for me to commute between the two cities. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of ways to do so — fly, take the train, take a bus or even Uber.
There’s no question that American Airlines’ A321T with lie-flat seats is the most comfortable way to fly between the cities. But it only flies once a day, and it operates out of New York’s JFK airport, which is about an hour away from Manhattan. Instead, I typically choose to fly from the much closer LaGuardia Airport (LGA), as I did for my most recent trip. While there are no lie-flat seats between LGA and BOS, the inflight experience is still different than most domestic routes since American — along with Delta and JetBlue — offer its shuttle services with enhanced amenities. For American, that means shorter check-in cutoff times, hourly departures and free snacks, beer and wine in Main Cabin.
The fares on this route are usually right in between what it would cost to take a bus and Amtrak’s Acela Express, typically ranging from $49 to $197 one-way. Since I booked my flight just a few days before departure, cash fares were on the higher end. So, as any points and miles enthusiast would do, I looked at my award options. Luckily, there was an abundance of saver availability for the days I needed.
American Airlines charges 7,500 miles — worth $105 based on TPG valuations — for a one-way saver award between the cities. However, since I was booking a round-trip ticket, I was much better off booking my award through Iberia for just 11,000 miles. Although I’ve never flown Iberia before, I had Iberia Avios from a recent 40% Amex transfer bonus I took advantage of. (Unfortunately, Iberia’s Groupon offer for Avios was not available at the time.)
In all, my round-trip ticket cost me just 8,000 Amex points — worth $160 based on TPG valuations — which I transferred from my American Express® Gold Card plus $20.20 in taxes and fees, which I paid for using my Chase Sapphire Reserve so I’d be covered by the card’s excellent travel protections. Considering the round-trip ticket would’ve cost me $300 had I paid cash, this redemption yielded me a value of nearly 3.8 cents per point — well above our current valuation of 2 cents per point. Even better, although American typically doesn’t let elites add their AAdvantage numbers on partner awards, I had no trouble doing so when I called and asked. Alternatively, I could have added my AAdvantage number using Oneworld partner Finnair’s website. This meant that I was able to get my usual elite benefits such as a free checked bag and preferred seating.
Getting to LaGuardia from Manhattan for my morning departure took roughly 20 minutes, but it often takes twice as long with traffic. Just like Delta, American had a designated check-in area for shuttle passengers. It was located where the Priority desks were so when you’re getting dropped off outside the terminal just follow the Priority Check-In signs. There was no line when I visited and the agent was efficient.
The minimum check-in time for shuttle passengers without bags is 20 minutes prior to departure and 35 minutes if you’re checking a bag, instead of the usual minimum of 45 minutes. A perk of the route’s hourly departure schedule is that if you’re very early for your flight, you might be able to switch to an earlier flight. Although complimentary same-day changes are typically only available to premium-cabin and elite passengers, I’ve noticed them being offered to other passengers as well.
Thanks to TSA PreCheck, I was through security in five minutes and ended up just steps from my gate (shuttle flights have dedicated gates located right by security checkpoints).
The dedicated shuttle gates aren’t in LaGuardia’s new concourse in Terminal B, so apart from the Centurion Lounge that’s located pre-security, the most exciting amenity in the concourse was Jabbrrbox — a tiny mobile workspace you could rent by the minute. Like Delta, American had free magazines at the shuttle gate, but there’s a good reason it doesn’t advertise that as an amenity.
Boarding began right on time, exactly 30 minutes before our 9:00am on-time departure. Both boarding and deplaning were just like any other American Airlines flight. Shuttle flights are supposed to deplane from the front and rear doors, though the latter was never an option any of the times I’ve flown on this route. (In fairness, I’ve only flown it during colder months so that could have played a role.)
Our Embraer E190, registered N953UW, was a former US Airways aircraft, delivered to the now-defunct airline in 2007. American has just 20 of these in its fleet and plans to retire all by 2020.
Cabin and Seat
The E190s are the smallest aircraft in American’s mainline fleet, with 11 seats in First, 8 in Main Cabin Extra and 80 in the main cabin. Much like a train, economy seats were in a 2-2 configuration.
But with 31 inches of pitch, legroom wasn’t as generous as the train, rather more on par with a bus. On this route, there also wasn’t much of a difference in pitch with Delta and JetBlue, which offer 31 and 32 inches, respectively.
The tray tables were sizable, so as long as the person in front of you doesn’t recline their seat — which hopefully they won’t do since it’s such a short flight — you should have no trouble working comfortably on your laptop.
If the person in front of you does recline, however, it could get tight.
Fortunately for me, that never became an issue as my elite status landed me a Main Cabin Extra seat — in this case, 5F, a window seat in the bulkhead row. Unlike most American Airlines planes, there wasn’t a dedicated Main Cabin Extra section — the only other Main Cabin Extra seating was in the emergency exit row. These seats were just as wide as regular economy seats, but featured 34 to 36 inches of pitch.
While I usually find emergency exit row seats to be more spacious than bulkhead, I often pick the bulkhead row on short flights like these as it means that I get to deplane sooner. The only (minor) drawback of sitting in the bulkhead row was that there was basically no storage to speak of. So, if you plan on using your laptop, you’ll have to hold on to it during take-off and landing as the seatbelt light is illuminated for the majority of the flight.
The seats themselves were comfortable enough for the short flight, though many of them had an awkward gap between the seat-back and headrest.
Amenities and IFE
Not that much was needed for such a short flight, but there weren’t many amenities to speak of. There was no seatback entertainment and no power ports. As a point of comparison, the E190s JetBlue flies on this route have personal TVs and the E175s Delta primarily flies have neither, though Delta’s new A220s have power ports and seatback entertainment.
The plane did have ground-based Gogo inflight Wi-Fi, along with American’s extensive streaming entertainment library. The entertainment portal showed live TV streaming as an option, though it only works on aircraft with satellite-based Gogo 2Ku Wi-Fi installed. The Wi-Fi was priced at $10 for the entire flight or an hour (aka the entire flight) free for T-Mobile customers.
Most train and bus services offer free onboard Wi-Fi and power outlets. Some bus services, such as MegaBus and Greyhound, even provide streaming entertainment.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Despite the very short flight time — 35 minutes to be exact — there was a full beverage service as soon as we were in the air. Just like Delta and JetBlue do on this route, all passengers were offered free beer and wine.
I ordered a cup of orange juice, which was accompanied by a Biscoff cookie. In addition to the free beer and wine, the airline specifically advertises free snacks on shuttle routes, so I was hoping it’d be something a bit more substantial. Delta, for instance, offers shuttle passengers free bagels in the mornings and enhanced snacks the rest of the day.
Although service on American Airlines flights can be a mixed bag, it was mostly good on this one.
Due to the short duration, the flight attendants were on their feet the entire flight. Nevertheless, they maintained smiles the entire time and even cracked jokes with some of the passengers when passing through the aisle.
Despite the limited time the crew had to prepare the cabin for landing, when a flight attendant noticed that I hadn’t finished my drink when they were collecting trash, the flight attendant told me to take my time — in a genuine way — and came back at the end of their rounds.
All in all, although it skipped some of the bells and whistles the other airlines offer on this route, American still provided a good shuttle experience. And while I know many will disagree with me on this, I do consider it to be a better option than taking the Acela Express.
Including the horrendous traffic in and out of LaGuardia, flying to Boston takes about three hours door-to-door. Before even considering the time it takes to get to Penn Station and check in, the Acela would take a minimum of three hours and 40 minutes — and it can be as delayed as a flight. An Uber from Midtown Manhattan to LaGuardia costs ~$40 and then it’s ~$20 from Logan Airport to Downtown Boston. However, you can use public transportation for ~$3 in both cities (the Silver Line is free from Logan Airport to South Station and includes a free transfer to the Red Line).
Whether you should pick American Airlines over Delta or JetBlue, however, will depend on your personal circumstances. In this case, American offered me the most bang for my buck, but if price wasn’t a factor, I might’ve gone with Delta for the additional amenities or JetBlue because it uses the much-less-congested Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia and offers free inflight Wi-Fi.
All photos by the author.
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