All Business: The American Airlines Shuttle in First Class From New York to Washington
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="81" ground-experience="7" cabin-seat="23" amens-ife="5" food-bev="22" service="24" pros="Excellent service, convenient timings for business travelers." cons="No in-seat power, inoperative Wi-Fi." /]
If there's one thing I've learned since starting my dream internship at The Points Guy just a few weeks ago, it's that things move fast. Like, really fast. I accepted my internship, and just moments later I was getting calls from TPG team members to collect my full name as it appears on my passport, passport number and expiration date, date of birth and, of course, my frequent flyer numbers. Oh yes, I was going to be doing some flying. Just two days later, I was on the Amtrak Northeast Regional train, heading up from Washington, DC, to TPG HQ in New York City to meet the team, pick up a computer and some camera equipment and, well, to get flying.
As they say, you have to walk before you can run, so for my first batch of reviews I would get my feet wet with a few short-hauls and low-cost-carrier flights before getting to the really good stuff. I'm an AvGeek through and through, so I wasn't at all fazed when TPG reviews editor Nick Ellis told me that I'd be starting with several flights with Frontier and Spirit -- one of them even a cross-country trek.
The next several reviews to publish over the course of this week will be from this first batch of flights, which brought me from New York to Washington to Miami to New York and then finally to Las Vegas. Next up is a whole lot of flying to, within and from China -- stay tuned for those reviews in the next couple of weeks. For now, here's what it was like to fly on American's Shuttle service between New York's LaGuardia and Washington's Reagan National airports.
Given the volume of high-yield business travelers who frequent this shuttle route, cheap weekday flights between New York City and Washington, DC, are hard to come by unless you book at least a month in advance. Delta and American -- the route's two largest players -- often charge identical fares across their combined 25 daily flights. For the day I was looking to fly, coach fares were $474 across the board, while first class started at $533 and peaked at $566.
We then turned to mileage alternatives. American tends to be more generous than Delta with rates and availability on this route. AA awards typically start at 7,500 and 15,000 miles for economy and first SAAver awards, respectively. Because I was booking the day before departure, though, the only SAAver awards left were in first class, effectively making these the cheapest seats on the plane. The only economy awards available were at the AAnytime level, meaning American was charging an astronomical 35,000 one-way for a coach seat.
American’s SAAver availability is usually (but not always) a good indicator of British Airways Avios inventory, which proved to be true in this case. The only seats bookable with Avios were in first class, requiring 15,000 miles, worth about $225, according to TPG’s latest valuations. Plus, you can easily transfer points from both American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards to your British Airways account, which is a no-brainer if the cash fares are high, which is exactly what happened when we went to book my flight.
If you’re short on Avios and looking to transfer points from Chase, there is currently a 30%-transfer-bonus promotion through June 17. Under this bonus program, you’d only need slightly over 11,500 Ultimate Rewards points to book a first-class seat with a cash value of $566. This yields a value of almost five cents per point, an excellent redemption value over TPG's valuation of two cents apiece.
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As LaGuardia Airport (LGA) undergoes an $8 billion renovation, its resident airlines have been forced to shuffle around terminals to make way for the new construction. American now operates exclusively out of Terminal B, which makes connections significantly easier, at least for the time being.
I arrived at LaGuardia around 8:15am for my 10am departure. I found American's check-in area to be fairly empty for a peak travel day. There were over 30 kiosks available for checking in, issuing boarding passes and printing bag tags. Overhead monitors directed passengers toward the counters for bag drop when finished.
I made my way to the security checkpoint for Concourse D. I was the only person in the TSA PreCheck line, so I breezed through quickly. The entire process from the curb to check-in to airside took under five minutes.
Because I had some time to spare before boarding, I decided to check out the Admirals Club near gates D1 and D2 for a quick breakfast. I was able to enter the club using the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, which grants both primary card-holders and authorized users access for themselves and up to two guests (though beginning later this year, you’ll need to present a same-day boarding pass on Oneworld metal to get in). Because American doesn’t offer complimentary access to domestic first-class passengers, the lounge experience does not have any weight in the scoring of this section.
This location is definitely one of the better ones in American's system: It was spacious and even featured the avocado-toast station found only at a handful of their 50 or more locations despite the fact it's considered a signature of the club.
Around 9am, I made my way to my gate, D8, toward the end of the D pier.
Our 99-seat Embraer E190 had just pulled in from DCA and was quickly cleaned and catered in advance of our 9:30am boarding time. The 11-year old aircraft, originally delivered to US Airways, was acquired by American Airlines in the subsequent 2015 merger. Despite classifying as a regional jet, these planes operate under mainline American Airlines rather than American Eagle, as the slightly smaller Embraer E175s do.
The flight was only about 60% full, so the gate area remained fairly empty. American observes a tight 20-minute check-in cutoff for its shuttle flights, so it’s probably a safe bet a notable portion of the passengers were not present at the gate yet at the time of boarding. After a few welcome announcements, the gate agent commenced the boarding process exactly on time, at 9:30am.
Overall, I think that American Airlines provided exactly what it promised for this shuttle route: a very quick curb-to-airside process and on-time boarding. The score here reflects that -- American did a good job with the things in its control, but the overall experience lost points because of what happened after boarding.
Even with the frustrating traffic at LGA, once you get to the curb, you can be at your gate in just a matter of minutes, which is critical for a well-run shuttle service. That being said, traveling from LaGuardia will -- at least for the time being -- rarely be a pleasant experience. And, though it's out of the airline's control, sitting on the taxiway for almost an hour is certainly not something that business travelers with meetings to get to want to endure. Though we pushed back right on time, after all the delays on the ground, we arrived about 20 minutes late at DCA, even with the generous time padding that airlines build into flights from LGA.
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I was really looking forward to experiencing the 1-2 configuration found on the majority of Embraer first-class cabins. As I stepped aboard the aircraft, my first impression of American’s interior was definitely positive. The cabin felt clean and well-kept -- minus a few pen markings on the back of the leather chair in front of me, it was virtually spotless.
American provided a plastic-wrapped blanket for all first-class passengers, which was waiting on my seat upon arrival. My seat, 4A, was one of the single “throne” seats on the left side of the aircraft. These seats are particularly great for solo travelers, as they are both a window and an aisle, providing flexibility to get up and use the restroom without sacrificing awesome views out the window.
While 19 inches is not a particularly wide seat by mainline first-class standards, the seat offered a generous 37-inch pitch that made for ample legroom. The underseat storage was large enough to fit a standard day backpack without any legroom constriction.
The tray table was in the armrest and folded out in two parts. It was sufficiently large for me to comfortably work on a laptop while still having room to spare for a drink or snack.
I went to check out the bathroom at the front of the aircraft near the flight deck before departure. In an age of industry-wide bathroom shrinkage, I was pleasantly surprised by how spacious it felt, especially on a regional jet.
It didn't have any special amenities, though, and was indistinguishable from the economy-class bathroom.
There were no predeparture beverages, although this tends to be hit-or-miss with American. The flight attendant did, however, walk around to take orders for our inflight beverage service prior to departure. She also offered to hang any coats or suit jackets as needed.
Soon enough, the gate agent closed our forward boarding door, and we pushed back exactly on time at 10am.
As we began our taxi, the captain announced we’d have a flight time of only 55 minutes. Before anyone could get too hopeful for an early arrival, he went on to note that we'd be likely lined up in the takeoff queue for the better part of an hour. And he was right -- it wasn't until 47 minutes later that we were finally cleared for takeoff on Runway 13.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="5" tpg-rating-max="15" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" headphones="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
It’s no secret that American adheres to a rather controversial philosophy when it comes to inflight entertainment: They're doing away with seatback screens across the majority of their fleet except international wide-bodies. In return, in an effort to remain competitive, they've spent the last few years developing a bring-your-own-device program, promising high-speed satellite Wi-Fi and streaming.
I was surprised by the lack of in-seat power in the first-class cabin. Nearly every other competitor -- whether it be Delta, Amtrak, or even Megabus -- offers power outlets, which is a critical amenity for business-heavy routes where customers value productivity and connectivity above all else.
On the topic of connectivity -- through no fault of American's -- the Wi-Fi was inoperative for the entire duration of the flight. Due to strong storm cells scattered along our flight path between New York and Washington, our flight plan had us cruising at unusually low altitudes of between 5,000 feet and 7,000 feet for the entire 57-minute journey. The problem was that the majority of Gogo Wi-Fi systems only function above 10,000 feet.
No announcement was made regarding this circumstance, although I did notice some passengers were asking the flight attendant. Only after we landed did I realize that we had never crossed the 10,000-foot mark, as per FlightAware's speed and altitude graph.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals-purchase="No" comp-alcohol="Yes" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Shortly after takeoff, the flight attendant came through the cabin with a basket of a variety of salty and sweet snacks. After one pass, she made another round insisting we take seconds and thirds, and I happily obliged her.
A few minutes later, she was back in the aisle delivering our beverages. I had a cup of coffee to accompany the pair of snacks I chose from the basket. The coffee was decent, and the brand-name snacks provided plenty of sustenance for a short hop of less than an hour.
For the remainder of the flight, the flight attendant made several more passes through the cabin topping off any drinks as needed.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="24" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="The service was top-notch, even on this very short flight." /]
Despite American's pitfalls when it comes to amenities, I've always found that when their flight attendants are good, they're phenomenal, as was the case for this flight. Our flight attendant engaged every passenger in some way or another, starting at the boarding door and continuing friendly conversations throughout the service. She made sure we were all taken care of and had everything we needed when it came to food and beverages, and always delivered with a smile. I could tell she was happy to do her job and genuinely thankful for our business with American.
Though it was short, I had a great Shuttle flight with American. Like I mentioned previously, the airline did what it was supposed to do very well, and the experience was only tarnished by factors that were really out of the airline's control. Once construction wraps up at LaGuardia, the experience should only improve. For the business traveler, nothing's more important than time, so the ability to show up at the terminal a half hour before departure is really unbeatable. Plus, if you can land one of the "throne" seats in the first-class cabin, you're going to have a great ride down to the nation's capital -- just hope that the Wi-Fi is working.
All photos by the author.