I Was Quite Surprised By Some Things On My American Airlines International 'Economy Class' Flight

American Airlines wing

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Everyone’s always complaining about how horrible flying is–especially “economy class” flying.And compared to other ways that one can spend one’s time, flying is indeed often unpleasant and aggravating. Absent a need to get somewhere else, it’s hard to imagine choosing to fly.

Among the common complaints about flying are lousy service, cramped seats, yucky food (if any), egregious add-on fees, frequent delays and cancellations, and a general impression that one is less a customer than a herd animal.


If we airline customers have demonstrated anything over the past few decades it’s that what we care about most is cost. Given the choice between paying more for better service, food, space, etc., or suffering and saving, today’s flyers almost unanimously choose the latter.

So you can’t blame airlines for cutting amenities. Especially when, even with these cuts, airlines still go bankrupt all the time–like American Airlines.

What’s it really like to fly international “economy class” these days? And what’s it like to fly on a bankrupt airline?

I always fly economy, unless someone else is footing the bill. And, yesterday, I flew American from Zurich to New York. So this was a good opportunity to step back and assess the experience.

I was flying in a 767, in Seat 29J--in the heart of cattle class. The plane was relatively full, and the flight was an interminable 9 hours.

I got a free pillow.

And a free blanket. I didn't necessarily expect either of those. The blanket came in a plastic pouch, and it didn't obviously have hair or any other foreign matter on it.

I'm not going to show you pictures of the gum-chewing stewardess or the pee all over the plane's bathroom floor. Those things certainly did not enhance the flight. But I actually blame my fellow passengers for the latter.

No surprise--the biggest challenge of long-haul economy class these days is the lack of space. I'm not colossal or anything. And even when I sat up straight, there wasn't much room between my knees and the seat ahead.

On a 9 hour flight, you're going to want to sleep. But when you tilt your chair back the 3 inches your chair tilts back, there's no room for your legs. You can shift your knees left and invade your neighbour's space.

Or you can shift them right and try to squeeze them between the next seat up and the fuselage.

But nothing is going to be comfortable. The traveller in the next row up appears to have developed a technique that involves jamming one's head between the window and seat ahead. Maybe I'll try that one next time.

Of course, some people get lucky, and sack out on the middle seats.

But, face it, it's just not going to be comfortable, and you're not going to get much sleep. So you'll be looking out the window a lot. (And when you do get sleep, by the way, it's likely to be vertical sleep, which means your jaw will drop open and hang there unattractively until you wake up. Don't try that if you're famous. Too many cell-phone cameras around.)

So, yes, the seats are just super-cramped. Especially when you're juggling a laptop and food, and your neighbour's juggling his smartphone and food. (See the elbow?)

Speaking of food, there was a surprising amount of it on this American Airlines international flight. It's really cool to trash airline food, but this just wasn't that bad. That was a very pleasant surprise. Most flights don't have food anymore.

The hot portion came in a plastic dish with sealed plastic on top. Not the most attractive presentation. But, then, this wasn't a restaurant.

I'm not going to say it was the best pasta I've ever eaten, but it certainly wasn't the worst. Tortellini in cheese sauce. With some tomato sauce, too. And not-terrible steamed broccoli. Bottom line, it was totally fine food. I was hungry (no breakfast). And considering that I wasn't expecting to get food at all, this was a very pleasant surprise.

It came with Laughing Cow cheese and crackers. Hard to complain about that.

I ate the salad, too. (Fine). And I created a food-cache of some of the other stuff for later consumption. After all, there were still 8 hours to go.

Eating while also watching Homeland, by the way, proved to be a real challenge. (No room). So I gave up on the latter.

I slept a bit, I think.

With my jaw hanging open.

And my knees stiff and bruised.

And then, with an hour and a half to go, we actually got another snack. (More unexpected free food!)

Pizza. And it, too, was perfectly edible. It was a bit of a carb-fat-and-salt bomb, but so is most pizza. And we got a free cookie, too.

Most importantly, we got there! 40 minutes early! And the flight was cheap. I'm not going to tell you that I would CHOOSE to spend 9 hours that way--12 when you factor in the unavoidable hassles at both ends. But inasmuch as I had to get from Zurich to New York without bankrupting myself, this was a more than acceptable choice.

Now read about my trip over, which was quite different...

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