I admit up front that I am just a lowly Gold on American Airlines these days (since I am not flying all the time like I used to).  Everyone knows that AA Gold privileges are just marginally better than those enjoyed by the odd turnip farmer who has never flown in his life and turns up at the airport to hop a ride to DC to lobby his Congressman to continue farm subsidies for turnips.  So, right off the bat I will say that I don’t expect much anymore, certainly not the privileges I used to enjoy as an Executive Platinum when AA was really AA and not US Airways cloaked in the once-proud American Airlines brand.

Nonetheless, when I spend $1156 plus change to take my 11 year old daughter to San Francisco from Raleigh (RDU) on a father-daughter trip over her Spring Break, I expect things to run pretty smoothly.  After this build-up, you’ve probably guessed that they didn’t.

Well, at least we did get there and back in one piece. And we didn’t lose our luggage because we had only two small carry-on pieces.

Things started well enough.  To my great surprise my daughter and I were both upgraded (using AA’s expensive upgrade points, of course) from RDU to ORD, our connection airport.  It was an early morning flight on Sunday, and I guess most Executive Platinums in the Triangle area had sense and were still sleeping.  I was pleased to have two seats up front and to enjoy breakfast en route to O’Hare.

Turned out AA was just teasing me before the big letdown.  The next three segments were all in coach and not any fun.

The misery began with a six hour layover that Sunday morning at O’Hare.  When I booked our flights months before, AA had a timely mid-morning ORD/SFO connection with an mid-afternoon arrival, allowing plenty of time to get to our hotel and then relax with friends who had offered to pick us up and invited us to dinner in Pacific Heights.  However, AA dropped the mid-morning flight from its schedule, leaving an early afternoon flight as the sole option.  It was a long six hours in the Admirals Club.

Of course, one less flight option to San Francisco meant much higher demand, so there were no upgrades on that flight to SFO for the likes of me.  I resigned myself to sit in coach, and we trudged tiredly to our gate after the mind-numbing six hour wait.

Once we boarded, I discovered that we had bad seats to boot.  AA charges Golds now for Main Cabin Extra seats, but I had managed to get row 10, first row on the 737-800 behind MCE, which I thought would be comfortable.  Trouble was, AA’s website didn’t indicate that there is no window in that row on the left side (737-823 series aircraft). It felt like being locked in a closet, very claustrophobic. My daughter had been looking forward to seeing Chicago on takeoff and San Francisco on landing, but that wasn’t to be.

Once again, I resigned myself to the five hour flight locked in a closet and waited for boarding to complete. At least the closet lights were on, I thought, which was better than being in the dark.

When finally the plane was buttoned up, the pilot announced that our aircraft was being taken out of service due to a maintenance problem. He asked us to sit quietly (my daughter and I locked in the closet of row 10) while AA tried to find a replacement airplane.  I called and told our friends in SFO to forget about picking us up or having dinner.

After about an hour, American did find a replacement airplane but would not say when we might get to San Francisco.  Still we sat on the plane, a nightmare for my daughter and me. We were already terribly exhausted.

Finally our captain announced a gate where a replacement 737-800 would soon be landing, and they let us off to march down the concourse.  So after suffering a six hour layover at ORD because AA eliminated their mid-morning connection and what would be a two hour delay because American can’t keep their aircraft operational, we had a five hour claustrophobic flight locked in a damn closet to look forward to.  The cherry on top was that we would have no one to pick us up when we arrived as originally planned. It would cost me $80 to get a car into the city.

We waited for the replacement plane to land and unload its passengers, baggage, and crew.  Finally we re-boarded, and I wasn’t surprised to find that row 10 on the new plane, also a 737-800, had no window, just like the broken airplane.  Still locked in a closet, I thought.  I had tried to get different seat assignments when we were waiting between planes, but was told nothing was available, period.  Bummer.

Once underway (finally), the captain (same cockpit crew) announced that we had significant tailwinds and would make up about 30 minutes, so we reached SFO a mere 100 minutes or so late.  En route, the very nice cabin crew took pity on my daughter and gave her a choice of free goodies.  It didn’t make up for the long delays or the claustrophobia, but it was a kind gesture just the same.

Coming home, I checked and found the same 737-800 aircraft type assigned to our SFO/ORD and ORD/RDU flights.  Since I had grabbed the same seats in row 10 on all four segments not knowing row 10 lacked a window on the left side, I tried in vain to change to a different row.  Unavailable, I was told.  Once at the SFO Admirals Club, I asked again.  Just before we left the club for our gate, an agent brought me two seats in different rows, but I knew I could swap to keep my daughter and me seated together.  (Of course I had asked about upgrades, but was told we were numbers 23 and 24 on the upgrade list for the flight and that just one seat up front was available.)

I had noticed on the flight out that the seats in coach were the modern “slim-line” design and that they seemed very uncomfortable.  I also noticed that because every one of those very skinny seats had a big LCD screen built into the seatback, AA had been forced to place the electronics boxes which controlled the flatscreens on the floor, thereby taking up valuable and scarce underseat storage and leg room.

In fact there are two electronics boxes per row per side so that only the center seats in each row have the usual width and depth of storage and leg room space under the seats.  Thus seats A, C, D, and F in each row are considerably narrower under those seats.  That means AA has robbed two-thirds of its coach seats of underseat space.  Good thing we had so little carry-on luggage and were allowed to board in the “Priority” group because it’s now impossible to stow anything other than a small bag under those seats.  I could hardly even get my feet and legs under the seat, so large was the electronics box.

We were very glad to have been able to move back a row, though, because at least we had windows on both sides.  I noticed once again that the left side seats ABC in row 10 had obscured views.  My daughter and I endured five hours in the air to Chicago in the cramped space of row 11, during which time my back began to ache from the uncomfortable slim-line seats.  Even my 11 year old daughter complained about the seat’s discomfort.

At O’Hare we had a three hour wait this time (again because of schedule change which had occurred since I bought the tickets), and the ORD/RDU flight was due in at midnight rather than 9:00 PM as originally planned. Our final leg was a carbon copy of the previous two: uncomfortable skinny seats on 737-800 airplanes with no underseat legroom and in the locked closet of row 10.

We landed, bleary-eyed and aching and feeling like prisoners held in solitary, a minute before midnight.  My wife had offered to pick us, bless her soul, but arrived at midnight to find us stranded on the tarmac with no ramp agent to guide us in.  AA had insufficient RDU ground staff to handle all the late arrivals just ahead of us.  The final insult was to sit there with the terminal so tantalizingly in sight for another 20 minutes before reaching the gate.  When the door finally opened, I was never so glad to get off an airplane.

In retrospect, it felt like the drip, drip, drip of Chinese water torture: the accumulation of many small pains that summed into misery.  I cannot fault the AA flight attendants for any of the problems.  At least on the four flights to and from San Francisco, FAs were universally upbeat, helpful, and kind–light years better than the dragon ladies on United flights. That said, the overall experience was bad.

It was especially disappointing after flying more than a million miles on American Airlines (well, actually many more than that, but a million since they started counting, anyway) over four decades.  Perhaps if I had paid less for our passage I would be less critical.  For almost $1200, though, I did not judge the experience as either comfortable or approximating value for money.