Domestic Travel: What Really Matters

I write frequently about all of the ways that American Airlines disappoints me. They are intentionally making their domestic product worse along several dimensions even as they invest heavily in their international premium cabins.

  • Less space between seats — and not just in coach but also their ‘Main Cabin Extra’ and even in first class.
  • Less comfortable seats — slimline seats with less support in back, and poor quality seats up front even aside from the bar that protrudes out the lower back.
  • Removing seat back entertainment so that passengers can stream (older) shows to their phone instead.
  • Smaller lavatories

New American Airlines Domestic First Class

What’s more American is very poor at communicating with customers during delays. They tend not to provide updates at all until flight times have already passed. Nearly every delay in my experience is a rolling delay, with projected departures updating a little at a time only when Newton’s laws dictate that the previous departure time is impossible.

When I fly Delta I don’t find that their operation is that much better than American’s. They have squeezed more seats into planes too. There’s no enough leg room in first class even. However,

  • Delta first class offers pillows and not just blankets, and a bottle of water at each seat — and yet they still offer predeparture beverages.
  • Their flight attendants seem happy to be there.
  • And when delays happen they seem to communicate more regularly.

Delta Domestic First Class Pillow and Water

In other words, the dimensions along which Delta seems to be better are modest. But they make a difference.

I was supposed to fly home from DC on American via Charlotte this week. My inbound aircraft was coming from Charlotte but didn’t have crew. It was posted (naturally) as a rolling delay, and eventually I was going to misconnect. Since I’m an Executive Platinum the airline was still willing to put me on another airline. They moved me over to United and I made it home.

Two things struck me about flying United.

  1. Their slimline seats seem worse than American’s (and Southwest’s). They’re hard and 90 minutes in I needed to stand up, because they were just rough on the back.

  2. Internet was basically non-functional through the flight. That happens occasionally, though United’s internet is generally worse than Delta’s and American’s.

And I realized that all I really want on a domestic flight is to get where I’m going safely with enough space to work and functional internet. Once I’ve hit that basic I’d like to be treated like a human being rather than self-loading cargo.

Other passengers have different priorities. I’ve written frequently that inflight entertainment doesn’t matter to me at all. I don’t want to rely on an airline to keep me entertained. However I know this is something that matters to more people than it doesn’t.

For me though I’ll choose American or Delta over United because of their functional internet. When US Airways finally installed internet on its plane, CEO Doug Parker explained that they didn’t believe they were going to make money selling it which is why they hadn’t made the investment. When they saw customers were booking away onto other carriers because they lacked internet they changed course. Now merely having internet isn’t enough, the internet needs to work. And American is doing a good job providing that on their mainline narrowbody aircraft.

Living in Austin Delta isn’t an option for much of my travel. I’m often choosing between American’s (Dallas) and United’s (Houston) hubs. United needs to make a bigger investment in internet or else I won’t contribute much to their ‘natural share’ of business in any market.

What’s the most important thing for your domestic travel, and what does that mean for which airline you fly?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] It was an interesting week as two blogs got introspective and re-evaluated what were the most important things to them when flying. Lucky on One Mile at a Time wrote about how his opinions on what’s the best business class seat are evolving (marriage is starting to change him already :-)) while Gary on View from the Wing described what things are the most important to him when on a US domestic flight. […]


  1. In the end I predict airlines will be hit with a MASSIVE class action lawsuit related to medical injuries induced by slimline seats.
    It will be just like the Tobacco Lawsuits: even though you had a choice of not smoking (not flying), and smoking health issues were known (back seat back pain are known), Tobacco companies were held liable (and so will airlines).

  2. If I were an AA executive and saw “For me though I’ll choose American or Delta over United because of their functional internet.” I’d think nothing is needed. Why improve if you’ll still pick AA anyway. That seems to be the direction of the industry unfortunately.

  3. I think part of the problem in serving the domestic market is, well, people like me. What I want out of a domestic flight can vary. If time is critical (short trip, important events, or connecting to an international flight), I’ll fly delta, full stop. In my experience, even when delays happen they are shorter and quality communication helps me plan around the problem. If it’s a long trip (e.g., transcon), I care a lot more about legroom and comfort. Economy is perfectly fine for up to ~90 min. Otherwise I’ll be balancing the cost of extra legroom/ first class against schedules and need for timeliness. I’ve come to really appreciate the “big front seat” on spirit when I’m not in a hurry.

  4. Me? I need to arrive on time. That’s most important. Then like, Andy says, different things come into play. For short flights, price and schedule really are the most important, I can deal with cramped coach to save a buck. But for longer flights, then I start looking at seat pitch, E+, and what not.

  5. I don’t mind the seats on the United RJ I fly regularly. I have given up on the inflight internet, though. It used to work okay, but for some reason they increased the price and made the service so bad as to be unusable.

  6. I have such low expectations flying domestic now. And maybe that’s how I have been conditioned by the airlines. I just save my money and fly in premium cabins on Intl flights.

  7. I just want to be treated like a human being – in a comfortable seat – without my knees being up in my face. For me, United seems to be the worst at all three

  8. United American Delta free here and loving life
    Walked away from two lifetime elite status levels @ American & UA
    Goodbye to gouging fees rotten food uncomfortable seats with no leg room
    With consistently rotten customer service
    I don’t miss the frequently surly or fake nice team members
    Sure a number tried to be great but their management prevented their success 99% of the time
    Enjoying Mint on Jet blue Alaska and the occasional Southwest flight if it’s an hour or less.Life is great
    Feel sorry for all those stuck on the awful legacy carriers and personally thank you for being willing to stay there because I’m cleaning up while the going is good
    Sure some routes can be challenging to fly but the enjoyment & rewards worth it

  9. We fly out of CVG and recently flew DL to Tampa. I sprung for a few extra bucks for Comfort + and enjoyed the flight. I think Comfort + may be the sweet spot for short domestic hops: extra legroom, dedicated overhead space, free drinks. What REALLY struck me was the crew. They were friendly, personable, asked by name “Mr and Mrs “X”, would you care for a drink?”. My inlaws were with us, and they felt like mini-VIPs. We flew a B717-200, the thin seats still suck, but the FAs came by twice on a 2 hour flight, offering drinks and snacks.
    The people made a huge difference. Now, on a 4 hour flight the craptastic seat would have irritated me, but for a short flight it was perfect. We fly quarterly, always for leisure, but we appreciate the little courtesies we were shown on this trip.

  10. If given a choice (within acceptable price and schedule constraints) I will always pick an aircraft with 2×2 seats in coach (no middle seat!). For me, that’s Alaska Airlines. Not on all the flights on the route I fly most frequently, but more often than not. On a flight < 4 hours I really don't care about seat pitch or Slimline seats. I don't use Internet or try to work on an airplane. If there is a seatback entertainment unit I will sometimes watch it, but don't miss it if it's not there. But nothing improves the comfort of a flight like not having to fight over those middle arm rests!

  11. Gary,

    I agree with many of your sentiments about AA. This past week, I was scheduled to fly out of LGA at 7:30 pm on Thursday, the day that the snow storm hit. When client meetings kept me in the financial district of Manhattan until 5:00, I had to decide between making the (minimum) 2 hour trip to LGA, with the possibility of dealing with a flight cancellation, or staying in Manhattan and rebooking for Friday. Due to the storm, available space in hotels and Friday flights was rapidly disappearing. At this time, AA shows that the flight was scheduled to leave on time.

    Fortunately, I decided to find a room and stay in city (it still took a 2+ hr taxi ride to the hotel in midtown…the city roads were utter chaos). Around 7:00 pm, I get a message that the original flight is delayed until 9:30 pm. The AA Executive Platinum desk was able to rebook me into the last seat (coach) on the second early morning flight out of LGA. I later learned that the flight was cancelled, as was the first Friday morning flight.

    This leads to my first complaint: Had I received realistic flight status information in a timely manner, I would have had better options to deal with a flight cancellation. If I had chosen to travel to LGA Thursday night, because the flight status showed as normal or delayed, then I could have been stuck in transit to LGA in dangerous conditions. (Many drivers stuck on the Washington Bridge for hours simply abandoned their cars and walked home through the snow!)

    Friday morning, their were hundreds of passengers on the standby list for my flight. I was thankful to the AA EP desk for their efforts. On my connecting flight from DFW to TUS, and due to a plane change, I got my first taste of Project Oasis (again, in coach).

    This leads to my second complaint: The Project Oasis seat configuration is horrible. I experienced the same problems with the slimline seats that have been documented here. Very uncomfortable. The space between rows is uncomfortably close. There is absolutely no room to open a laptop and get any work done. The AA executive team should take a 2-3 hour flight in coach, in this configuration, to see what an awful experience it is. I doubt that Doug Parker could even fit his fat wallet in a coach seat.

    My takeaways are this:
    1) During weather events (or anything else, for that matter), do NOT expect timely information about flight statuses from AA. Have a plan B prepared to protect yourself.

    2) Never fly coach on a Project Oasis configured AA flight. The Executive Platinum seated behind me agreed that this configuration is enough to cause us to leave AA.


  12. I agree with much of what you say here, and I’ve found myself using Delta instead of AA frequently. However, in the interest of accuracy I’d like to comment on your statement that content streamed to personal devices is “older.” While technically accurate, let’s look at what that really means. Movies on unseat screens are generally available 60 to 90 days after theatrical release. Depending on the studio, movies streamed on personal devices are generally available as soon as they are released on digital download or packaged media. In some cases that’s about the same time as release to in-seat screens. In others it may be 30 to 60 days later. So technically that’s older. But does that small amount of time really make much difference?

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