In Need of an Oasis: Flying Economy on a Legacy US Airways American Airlines A321
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Fast Wi-Fi, extensive entertainment library and ample underseat storage.
No power, no seatback IFE, and flight attendants were MIA most of the flight.
American Airlines is currently retrofitting legacy US Airways and American Airlines A321 aircraft as part of its Project Oasis fleet-harmonization project. Normally, flyers familiar with AA’s plans cringe when they hear the words “Project Oasis,” but it’s not necessarily a bad thing for American’s legacy US Airways A321 aircraft that lack inflight-entertainment screens, power outlets or significant pitch before the retrofit.
I found myself on a legacy US Airways A321 for a transcontinental flight recently. Here’s what it was like to fly across the country from Philadelphia (PHL) to Los Angeles (LAX) in economy on this aircraft.
My husband, JT, and I needed to get to Los Angeles to start a different ticket to Fiji. So, about a week and a half before our flight, we found SAAver award availability and booked Reduced Mileage Awards from Birmingham, Alabama (BHM), to Los Angeles via Philadelphia (PHL).
Reduced Mileage Awards are an excellent way to book domestic American Airlines flights. But you’ll need to have an eligible cobranded American Airlines credit card like the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® or Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® and be able to find saver award availability to or from an eligible airport. If you can satisfy these requirements, then you can book domestic itineraries for 8,750 AAdvantage miles each way (6,500 miles each way for flights less than 500 miles). In our case, BHM was on the June Reduced Mileage Awards list.
Since TPG’s valuations peg the value of AAdvantage miles at 1.4 cents each, our 8,750 miles awards from BHM to LAX were valued at $122.50 each. We put the $5.60 each of taxes and fees on JT’s Chase Sapphire Reserve so we’d be protected by the card’s trip protections. Normally, saver awards on this route would cost 12,500 miles plus the $5.60 taxes and fees per person, so we saved 3,750 miles per person by booking this way.
We started our day in Birmingham, where check-in went a bit slowly because the agent simply wasn’t in a hurry. The sole TSA PreCheck line was slightly delayed by a wheelchair passenger, but security still took less than two minutes.
Once in Philadelphia, we first stopped by the Terminal A Admirals Club using our Malaysia Airlines Enrich Gold statuses to gain access. However, JT also could’ve gotten us in with his Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. This Admirals Club was spacious and quiet, and the agents in the lounge were proactive and friendly.
The Wi-Fi was speedy, with 125.89 Mbps download, 60.28 Mbps upload and 8 ms ping.
After working there for a while, we hopped over to the nearby Centurion Lounge, which we could access as cardholders of the Platinum Card® from American Express. The lounge was crowded, but we were able to snag a three-seat table.
We had a quick meal and drink before heading to the gate. Everything I tried from the buffet tasted relatively fresh, but the green beans were particularly tasty.
When we reached the gate in Terminal C, there was a flurry of activity at the counter. We quickly learned that the flight was oversold and the gate agents were looking for three volunteers, as well as asking passengers to check their carry-on bags. The current offer was $425 plus a hotel and a confirmed seat on a very early flight the next morning.
We considered taking the offer, but decided not to due to our onward travel to Fiji on a different ticket. Boarding started one minute early, at 8:09pm, with preboarding and then Group 1. Group 2, which seemed to consist of just JT and me, boarded at 8:11pm.
The last passengers boarded at 8:43pm and were verbally told their seat numbers as they walked down the aisle. The cabin door closed before these passengers reached their seats, and the aircraft pushed back one minute later at 8:44pm. We quickly taxied and took off at 8:53pm.
The baggage area at LAX was crowded and chaotic when we arrived.
We soon found out why: Four baggage belts were in the main baggage claim area and two additional baggage belts in an adjacent area. Our baggage belt was listed as T5-6 (in the adjacent area) in the AA app and on electronic displays, but most passengers assumed this meant the baggage belt was still unassigned, since we could only see baggage belts 1 through 4. in the main area And there was no signage concerning the location of belts T5-5 and T5-6.
Passengers from our flight eventually noticed their bags coming out on Belt 1, and one of our bags appeared on this belt 22 minutes after we deplaned. Most passengers claimed their bags on Belt 1 and left, but about 10 passengers (including me) remained without at least one of their bags. Assuming my bag was misplaced, I trudged to the nearby AA customer-assistance desk. No one was at the desk, but there was a sign saying the desk had moved to Baggage Claim 5-6.
When I found Baggage Claim 5-6, I was surprised to find our second bag on a belt in this area. Despite having flown hundreds of flights — 114 segments in 2018 alone — I’ve never had my bags appear on different belts.
My take? There wasn’t adequate seating for a full flight in the gate area. Plus, the baggage-claim experience was chaotic and featured something that has never happened to me before: our bags appearing on two different belts.
Cabin and Seat
American Airlines operates four arrangements on their A321-200 aircraft: A321T, A321 (Project Oasis), A321 (Legacy AA) and A321 (Legacy US), in addition to a few A321neo aircraft. For this transcontinental route, I was on a legacy US Airways aircraft. All of the A321 aircraft feature 3-3 seating in economy, but the experience you’ll get on each is different.
You can spot legacy US Airways A321 aircraft by a lack of a Main Cabin Extra section — the only Main Cabin Extra seats are bulkhead and exit-row seats.
As I don’t particularly like bulkhead and exit-row seats due to their narrow width and a tray table that extends from the armrest, I opted for Preferred Seating — which is really just normal seating near the front of the economy section.
The aisle and window seats measured 18 inches wide, while the middle seats measured 18.5 inches wide.
I measured 31.5 inches of pitch in my row. Although the seats looked relatively new, mine wasn’t particularly comfortable. But my seat and the area around my seat appeared clean.
A tray table folded down from each seatback. The tray table measured 17.5 inches by 9.5 inches and could extend toward you by about 3 inches.
Seats could recline by 2 inches, making the pitch 29.5 inches if the passenger ahead of you reclined. Which the passengers in the row ahead of me did for almost the entire flight. Some passengers, like the passenger ahead of JT on this flight, seemed to think their seat should recline more than just 2 inches. Or at least it seemed this way: She slammed her seat backward multiple times during the flight, which made it difficult to use a laptop on the seatback tray table.
When the passenger ahead of me reclined, it also became much less comfortable for me to work on my laptop. The space for my laptop was limited, so I needed to bend my elbows significantly to type — which led to JT and me both struggling to work side by side. I tried angling sideways in the window seat to create more space, but this just made my back hurt.
There weren’t any wings or wedges to support my head while sleeping, which reminded me of seats on budget airlines I’ve flown. And the wall was too far away from my window seat to act as a headrest. This made it difficult to sleep on the late-night flight.
There was ample space underneath each seat for carry-on items like backpacks, small bags and purses.
There were three lavatories in the economy cabin. At most points during my flight, at least one person was waiting for one of the lavatories. The lavatories didn’t contain any special amenities but were relatively clean.
The seats looked relatively new and weren’t slimline, and the tray tables were full-sized. But the seats weren’t good for sleeping due to the lack of headrest wings and limited recline. And they weren’t good for working due to limited space, especially when others recline.
Amenities and IFE
There were no amenities such as a pillow, blanket or headphones at the seats when passengers boarded. None of these amenities were available during the flight. There also weren’t any seatback inflight-entertainment screens.
So the movies, TV shows and live TV all needed to be streamed to your own device.
There were 198 movies, including many new releases and a variety of genres.
There were also 115 different TV shows available. Some shows had just one episode available, some had two to four episodes and some had full seasons. You’ll need to watch a 30-second commercial before most shows.
There were 12 live TV stations. These stations loaded quickly, and the video feed was smooth and crisp.
The ViaSat Wi-Fi was functional from gate to gate. It cost $12 for a one-hour pass or $16 for a full-flight pass. But you could also connect using a Gogo subscription or a voucher.
The Wi-Fi was speedy on the ground in PHL with 31.5 Mbps download, 0.96 Mbps upload and 691 ms ping.
And the Wi-Fi continued to perform admirably in flight with 49.25 Mbps download, 0.93 Mbps upload and 648 ms ping.
There was no power — not even USB outlets — on board. Since you needed to stream entertainment to your own device, this would’ve been problematic if our devices weren’t fully charged or had limited battery life.
The quality of the Wi-Fi and stream-to-your-own-device entertainment was excellent. But the lack of power is unacceptable for a transcontinental flight, and it didn’t help that there weren’t any seatback IFE screens, headphones, blankets and pillows.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
About 30 minutes after takeoff, two flight attendants reached the front of the economy cabin with a drink cart. A variety of sodas, coffee, juice and water were offered free of charge. Although snacks like cookies or pretzels were noted on the menu, none were offered.
On this transcontinental flight, only light snacks — a fruit and cheese box ($8.99), a hummus and vegetables box ($9.99) and two snack boxes ($6.99 and $9.49) — and alcoholic drinks were available for purchase. AA generally offers more substantial sandwiches and wraps on flights over 1,100 miles, but not on flights departing before 5am or after 8pm.
I’d preordered a hummus box, which I got free of charge due to my elite status.
This hummus box arrived eight minutes after the drink service, and had my name and seat number written on top of the box.
The box contained pesto hummus, olive hummus, cucumber slices, carrot sticks and a few pieces of pita bread. The carrots and cucumbers were fresh, and the hummus was ample and tasty. Overall, I was pleased with the snack, but I’d generally recommend eating before coming on board since the snack boxes were pricey and not that filling.
The cabin lights were kept on for the departure drink and snack service but then turned off about an hour and a half after departure. The lights were turned back on just 11 minutes before landing. There was no arrival service.
AA offers complimentary meals on some transcontinental routes but not this one. Instead, only a limited selection of snacks were available to purchase on this evening transcontinental flight. The snacks were good quality, but they were expensive for the quantity of food received. And beverages were offered just once during this five-plus-hour flight.
Flight attendants were friendly, but we didn't see them much. There was no attempt to get reclined passengers to put their seats upright for landing, there were no drink services (even water) in the cabin after the departure service and an unnecessary announcement woke passengers midflight.
The flight attendants on this flight were friendly enough and came through the cabin a few times after the departure service to collect trash. However, after this we didn’t see them again in the cabin until arrival checks — which didn’t even consist of asking passengers to put reclined seats upright for landing. Multiple passengers landed with their seats fully reclined, although the seats couldn’t recline much.
Since we didn’t see any flight attendants for about three and a half hours during the flight, there was no water offered in the cabin nor an arrival drink service. Other airlines tend to have flight attendants walk through the cabin with water about once an hour on transcontinental flights; Southwest and United are two airlines I’ve noticed this on recently.
The flight crew seemed to forget that this was a late-night flight, as they made a long and unnecessary announcement about three hours into the flight. Although I like updates about landing time and weather, this wasn’t good timing, since it woke up at least half of the cabin.
American has the A321T on select transcontinental routes. On these routes you’ll get access to power, seatback IFE and even a complimentary meal in economy. But on legacy US Airways A321 aircraft on other transcontinental routes — like PHL to LAX — you get none of these benefits. No power. No seatback IFE. No complimentary meal and not even a chance to purchase a full meal on flights, like mine, that depart after 8pm.
This flight, both in terms of service and amenities, was not up to par with what a full-service airline should be providing on a cross-country route. If you’re getting ready to fly on a legacy US Airways A321, be sure to bring fully charged electronics, a full water bottle, snacks and headphones to ensure you have the best flight possible. While American’s Project Oasis is bad news for 737 flyers, it’ll be a welcome improvement for these legacy US Airways aircraft.
All photos by the author.