American (Hot) Air

American Airlines rewarded me this week for the nice comments I made about their airline on Twitter.

Don’t get excited. It was a voucher for $25 which, given their exorbitant prices, is enough to buy me one inch of taxiing time on the runway before take-off.

I have a chequered history with the airline. A few years back, they were spectacularly unhelpful when my entire life’s worth of jewellery was stolen. AA had insisted I check in my hand baggage and I remembered, too late, that all my jewellery was in there as I was taking it away to be cleaned. The lot went. It was devastating – not just because of what it was worth, but because I lost so many pieces of huge sentimental value. AA could not have cared less. A deaf mute would have been more reassuring.

But I was willing to give them another chance (only thanks to their excellent Twitter staff), and my gift came as a result of Tweeting that the new planes, which fly East to West Coast, really are the best in the business. It’s the only airline that offers a truly First Class cabin: individual pods that are bigger than my bathroom, and gourmet food. The airline is also blessed with pilots who keep passengers well informed in advance of any turbulence that might be imminent. As a nervous flyer, the latter is particularly important.

Once airborne, however, it all goes horribly wrong. Maybe it’s because AA is a sister airline to snooty British Airways (don’t even get me started on them); maybe it’s because the staff training instructs them never to laugh; maybe it’s because they have all been in their jobs so long, they just resent every moment. Or maybe they’ve just watched too much Downton Abbey. I suspect the latter: what else could account for their behaving like airborne Lord Granthams and treating me like the scullery maid?

This trip started well. The Admirals Club lounge at JFK airport is outstanding. Does any other lounge have Bollinger champagne (probably Emirates, but that’s way out of my Air Miles range)? I treated myself to one glass (I don’t like to drink too much when flying – dehydration and jet-lag are not a good combination) and was in a good mood when I boarded.

Good, until I sat down and a metal panel by the side of my seat fell open and cut my foot because there was a screw that had not been tightened. The crew could not have been less interested but said they would report it.

The second crew member in First (I was lucky enough to have accumulated enough points for this) was pleasant enough, if a little obsequious (very BA style). Take-off went smoothly enough, but the first sign of resentment came when I asked for a set of headphones.

Clearly, I had breached some ludicrous etiquette that dictated headphones (Bose, no less) cannot be given out at an altitude below 30,000 feet, but the crew were up and about in the cabin, so it didn’t seem like a big deal. He (let’s call him Pete, to disguise his identity) practically threw them at me.

And so, to the TV system. It’s terrible. I was catching up on series four of House of Cards, and a  loud buzzing noise was more pronounced every time a character talked softly (which Robin Wright does. A lot). I mentioned it to Pete, who moved me to another seat, but the same problem occurred.

Then, during viewing, the system decided to rewind, fast forward, pause, and play up in all manner of ways. Pete could not hide his irritation but agreed to re-set it. This made no difference and I discovered that the handset had a mind of its own; although I was using the touch screen, the handset had other ideas and was in aggravating mode.

But let’s rewind (a bit like the handset). I had pre-ordered my main course but was given a choice of starters. I ordered the salad with “roasted beets”. Now, I’m not a huge beets fan but can manage them if they aren’t pickled or boiled. The salad, beautifully presented, arrived. The beets were boiled. Horrible. I politely asked to change it and explained why. “You didn’t read the menu properly, did you?” said an exasperated Pete. I said nothing and ate my smoked salmon replacement quietly. Fearfully. I actually hate smoked salmon.

The main course arrived almost without incident, but when it came to choosing the wine, I said that I didn’t like Californian. “I’m from California,” snapped Pete. I really don’t give a flying ferret where you’re from, Pete; I just want a glass of wine that is not going to require chloroform in order for me to get it down my neck.

That said, the meal (chicken, kale quinoa and roasted sprouts (yes, really roasted – talk to your beets guy) was delicious; I just wasn’t that hungry and had to leave some of it. “You really are stuffed,” said Pete, despondently taking it away.

When I asked for a second bottle of water, you’d think I had declared war. “Another one?” “Yes, I get dehydrated when I fly,” I (again) politely explained. Pete wanted to take my half full glass away, but I explained I hadn’t finished it yet. “It’s going to spill when we fly into LA,” he argued. We were, at this point, about two hours from landing. I like water. What can I say?

Earlier, I had gone to the rest room and, on my return, asked for another glass of Spanish wine. “You’ll have to sit down to drink it,” said an ever more exasperated Pete. “This isn’t a bar.” No shit, Sherlock! Do I look like someone who’s only ever flown on the back of a pigeon?

It’s not the first time I’ve had – or seen – problems with First Class (and Business) on American. I fly all the time, on many different airlines, but the superior attitude on both AA and BA is something to behold. Neither airline offers great deals, but when flying First, I expect to be treated with respect (as, indeed, every passenger should be, regardless of class of travel), not like an errant child who is too nervous to raise her hand for fear of causing offence.

I am the customer here, American, and I wish as much attention went into staff training as has gone into your fancy new designs.

By the way, the cut on my leg from said new design is healing nicely, should you be interested. No. I thought not.

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