It’s not very often you get to see a wide-body aircraft operate flights between a hub and a non-hub city. You occasionally see it as a one-off thing. Yet, for the past few years, US Airways (and now American) have been flying an Airbus A330-200 between Charlotte and San Juan, and Philadelphia and San Juan. Granted, this is only a seasonal operation. It runs usually between the first week of December (plus or minus one week) until the end of March (plus or minus another week).
Since I live in Houston, but my family lives in Puerto Rico, I decided to take advantage to route the longer way from IAH-CLT and then on to CLT-SJU on the A330. On this post, I will review both flights, but focus more on the A330 experience, since I had not flown on a legacy US Airways A330 since around 2010, on a hop from CLT to PHL.
AA A321 (fmr US)
American’s terminal in Houston is quite boring, especially if you are departing on the earliest flights out. The food options do not open until 4:30am (in the case of Starbucks) and 5:30am in the case of Chili’s (the food court was being remodeled for the first half of 2016). I arrived at around 3:45am for our 5:15am departure. Check-in was quick as usual, but the TSA Pre-Check lane would not open until 5am, so I was escorted to the front of the normal line.
Once past security, I wandered around the terminal, and bought the only possible food available at 4am: snacks and candy from a store. I knew I would get breakfast on the flight, but alas, my hunger got the best of me and I ate a whole bag of gummi worms. Around 4:30am, the gate agents asked if there was anyone who would be willing to give up their seat as the flight was oversold. It seemed strange to me as the gate area was mostly empty.
When boarding was called at 4:40am, I proceeded down the jet-way, hoping that this A321 would be one of the newer ones US Airways had received (as those have better headrests). No surprise, I was disappointed when I boarded: it was one of US’ oldest looking A321. The seats were worn, legroom was the most restrictive I could remember on a US Airways First class and the whole aircraft seemed to show its age. Nonetheless, the flight attendant serving F was very nice and tried to make the experience better.
The first class FA was a lady in her early 50s, and was as charming as you could be at 4:45am. She asked each passenger what they wanted as a pre-departure beverage, and promptly served us. I ordered a glass of orange juice and sent a few final emails before the boarding door was closed. Frist class had 16/16 seats taken, and two of which were last minute upgrades. American’s terminal at IAH is the closest terminal to the runway, so about 5 minutes after pushback we were in the air.
When the seatbelt sign was turned off, the FA gave each passenger a hot towel. She then asked each passenger what they wanted for breakfast. The options were either a French toast strata or a cheese omelet. I had pre-reserved the French toast and was reminded when the FA asked me if I still wanted that option.
The meal was served with a side of fruit and a biscuit or a croissant. As is the norm on morning flights, there was no snack mix or nuts served. After breakfast I decided I would take a short nap, given that this flight usually isn’t longer than 2 hours. I was woken up by the captain’s updated arrival information. About 20 minutes after, we landed in CLT.
Once on the ground, we had to wait about 20 minutes before a gate opened up, since the airport was quite congested. When at the gate, I asked from where my next flight would be departing and I was told Terminal D. I walked over to the gate, and had I had enough time I would have visited the Admiral’s Club at CLT, but given the tarmac delay, I only had 20 minutes before boarding.
Once at the gate, the scene was short of chaotic. As is the norm on flights to Puerto Rico, people were crowding the boarding lanes, and paid very little respect to the priority signs. (A note on the ground crew at CLT: I find them to be consistently rude and very inefficient, and for this flight, the only one who seemed to abide by the rules was the man checking boarding passes, as he turned away all passengers who were not in Business Class).
I was raised in PR. I always enjoyed the way people act at an airport. It reminds me of the film La Guagua Aerea (The Aerial Bus). I was about the 5th person in line to board the aircraft. When they called for boarding, the few people in front of me rushed to the agent. When he checked all their boarding passes, he told them that they had to wait as they were in group 2. The agent was very cool and controlled, but the passengers got angry and demanded they be let on board first. I heard the expression by the likes of “I am Mr.xxx, the Representative from xxx, I deserve to board first.” I found that quite funny, since being a state representative does not make you better than anyone else. The agent told him to wait aside and that he would board them when group 2 was called.
At this point I handed the agent my boarding pass, and went on board, I am till curious to see what happened with Mr. Representative.
Once on board, I was greeted by the purser of the flight. She welcomed me aboard and pointed me to my seat: 2H. The US A330s have great finishes. They are all wood and look very classy. The seats were also revolutionary (back in the day). US Airways was one of the first airlines to install reverse herringbone seats, and although they lack privacy are still better than United’s current product. The seats looked a bit worn, and there was damage to the side of the seat. But nonetheless, it was much more comfortable than the usual A321 that does this route.
The seats do recline all flat, but they have a weird arrangement where the seat and the back rest join, making it a bit uncomfortable in the flat position. The seat had a bottle holder on the side facing the aisle, and the seat controls were on the opposite side. There is also a small compartment to place glasses or maybe a very small phone. There is a small foot cubby that was not very restrictive.
The seat comes with its own IFE screen, but it must stay latched during taxi, take-off and landing. It doesn’t have the best resolution out there, but it’s much better than AA’s 757s and older 777s. The FA who would take care of my aisle passed around with water, orange juice or sparkling wine. I chose the juice and sat patiently while the rest of the aircraft boarded. Next to us was another A330, which I imagine was going to Philadelphia.
After pushback, we taxied for what felt like an eternity. The airport was very congested and tarmac delays reminded me of the effects of sequestration a few years back. After about 30 minutes after pushback we finally took off.
Once in the air, I put on the airshow (my favorite part of the IFE). The flight attendant passed through the aisle asking what passengers wanted for lunch. The choices were a cold chicken salad, or hot lasagna. I chose the lasagna since I would rather have a hot meal.
After taking our orders, the FA came by with hot towels. Soon after, the FA brought a ramekin with hot mixed nuts and our choice of drinks. The lasagna entrée was pretty good, and it hit the spot. The tray also came with a caprese salad appetizer and a small salad. There was a choice of breads between sourdough and another roll. I am a huge fan of AA’s rolls so I had once of each. After the meal, the FA’s distributed dessert. Dessert was a piece of cheesecake. I decided to pas since I am not a fan of cheesecake.
After the meal, we still had about two hours out of San Juan, so I reclined my seat and took a good nap. I have to say that the seat was not the most comfortable, but I was so tired that I hardly noticed. About 25 minutes before landing, I woke up to my alarm, and set my seat for landing.
On my first flight, the FA was very nice and professional, while the hard product was miserable. On the second flight, the hard product was the best you can possibly get in or out of PR, but the service was lacking. Food was good on both segments but nothing too wow. I really miss when AA repositions the aircraft for the summer schedule and I am forced to travel on the older A321s to San Juan. I highly recommend to anyone who is traveling to PR during the Winter and Spring months (either in coach or business) to try to fly the A330.