My Love of Coach and My Foiled Quest to Buy on Board

For the first time in a long time, I was excited to fly coach.

Now, there are two times of the week that as a general proposition, across US domestic airlines and across routes, are especially difficult to upgrade: the first bank of flights Monday morning, and the evening bank of flights on Thursday. Hard core road warriors hop on a plane Monday first thing, off to their work assignment fo rhte week, and they head back home on Thursdays.

These aren’t the only tough times to upgrade domestically, of course. Friday evening is hard too, not every road warrior gets to come home on Thursday. And generally speaking if you want to upgrade, avoid 6am – 9am on Mondays, Tuesdays even to be extra safe, and avoid 5pm – 7:30pm at the end of the week.

Back when I first had status, about 14 years ago, it was just the first tier and I thought I was a hard core flyer. I was a Premier with United! But I did understand that was bottom of the food chain for upgrades, I used to try to fly out to the West Coast on Wednesdays. At noon. Connecting through Denver. On a 777. My upgrade percentage was pretty good…

Knowing what I know about upgrades, I still went for the Thursday 6:25pm flight from Washington’s National airport to Dallas. There were only 2 first class seats left for sale even before the Executive Platinum upgrade window opened.

Sure, I’ve been on flights where first class was zeroed out and I still cleared at the gate. In January I was on a Los Angeles – Chicago flight where I checked in at the airport kiosk, got my coach boarding pass, went through security and grabbed a bottle of water at a newsstand. They were boarding early when I got to the gate so I walked right up, scanned my boarding pass, and it buzzed. They had a new first class boarding pass for me.

Not this time. I was number 9 on the upgrade list. I emailed an Executive Platinum friend with my dismay. He was shocked, “I only missed 1 upgrade last year, and in my entire time as an Executive Platinum I’ve never been that low. Something must be wrong.”

Hah. He doesn’t fly out at 6pm on a Thursday. In a market with lots of “KUP” fares — high priced coach fares, still less than full fare, but that book right into first class.

The woman boarding ahead of me was voicing her displeasure at the upgrade list. She was an Executive Platinum. And she was number 14.

As I made it to my row, I was in the window seat. The aisle seat wasn’t one you wanted to brush against though. The seat cushion was soaking wet. And it smelled, a familiar smell…. Unfortunately this was discovered the hard way. Fortunately for the gentleman seated there, we called a flight attendant’s attention and they managed to erplace the seat cushion.

But nothing was going to spoil my coach experience! As I said, I was looking forward to sitting in back for this flight!

Because I was looking forward to trying the Buy on Board. American gives their Executive Platinums a free buy on board item and a free alcoholic beverage when seated in coach.

Honestly, and I didn’t really think the execution would match the descriptions, I wanted to try the “Brisket, Lettuce, and Tomato” or the “California Cobb Sandwich.” I was tempted by the brisket, I was almost sold on it because it’s served on a pretzel roll and I’m just a sucker for pretzel rolls. Ultimately, though, I decided I was going to order the California Cobb, which just seemed like it would turn out better overall –

…guacamole, blue cheese dressing, roasted chicken, slices of hard-boiled egg, Romaine lettuce and tomato on a country style white bread.

But they came on the PA to announce thebuy onboard options, and there were no sandwiches.

I guess I should have gotten to know the Buy on Board catering schedule better. I assumed a 6:25pm departure on a key business route would feature the sandwiches. They only had the snack items – the cookies, the hummus, the cheese and crackers. I’m sure there are plenty of road warriors who know when they’re going to serve the sandwiches. I’m not one of those. I usually clear my upgrades, and frankly I even try to time my travels around what I know about how best to clear my upgrades, at least whenever I can. But I figured if it was a dinner flight then it would be sandwiches in back… So my excitement to try the new showcased buy on board was squashed.

In fact, the flight attendants skipped my row for drink service. And by the time I got their attention, the snacks they did have were mostly depleted. So they brought me everything that was left:

They couldn’t have been more apologetic. I didn’t actually eat the cookies. I had a few chips, I was pretty hungry. Looking out the window, though, I got the very same view as if I had been in first class…

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. I guess you really wanted a biscuit, not a brisket sandwich. 🙂 And you’re the foodie. Spell check is your friend!

  2. Makes you want to stay in coach all the time. Life’s better in the back of the plane.

  3. I do wonder if your choice of flight was particularly unfortunate. In addition to KUP’s, my guess is that Thursday early evening ex-DCA is congressman heavy. Now, they may have some mean status, but I am pretty certain they are also treated a bit better even without status. For some reference, I recently travelled BZE-HOU-DCA as a premier executive on. BZE-HOU cleared, but HOU-DCA – on a Monday late afternoon – did not. Three F pax had congressional lapel pins, and I specifically recognized one of them. The moral – on Mondays going into DCA and Thursdays/Fridays, status as a congressman may trump out the highest elites.

  4. Nice finish. And my experience this week mirrored your observations — I got a nice bump to first on a Tuesday evening flight, but sat in cattle class on a Thursday evening return… I’m now plotting what my itinerary should be when I head back out in 2 weeks..

  5. Why on earth don’t they serve sandwiches on a flight that leaves slightly before people will have had a chance to have dinner and arrives after dinner?

  6. From all of us back in Economy…especially those stuck behind the engines…Welcome to the back of the bus! We’re the cool kids! (At least we think so!)

  7. Coach is very tolerable, even on transcon flights. Just buy something before you board and somehow everyone still looks jealously at you. Just read a book and enjoy the view.

  8. Sorry for your experience in trying to Buy On Board. Makes me doubly glad I BYO (Bring Your Own food). I can buy what I want at much lower prices and know I will have what I want – not what an airline happens to want to cater that day!

  9. Gary, how tall are you? My knees are always pressed into the seat in front of me in coach.

  10. @Marion I rather thought my comment about the view being the same either way recognized that it wasn’t ACTUALLY a problem! 🙂

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