DCA-PHL-DUB-PHL-DCA SEP 2018:
PE, USPC, and 51st+Green
Is that subhead code for something? What the hell do I mean? Despite this being a trip to celebrate Brother Patrick’s 60th spin around the sun, this trip was full of firsts: my first sampling of American Airlines’ relatively new Premium Economy (PE) offering, transiting a U.S. Pre-Clearance (USPC) airport, and enjoying DUB’s 51st + Green departure lounge. So, while 60 might seem a little old, this trip was full of fresh and new! (And, pushing 50, I’m not in any position to see 60 as anything less than “the new 40.”)
Setting out on a mid-September Tuesday, the routine was usual. Mom had arrived a day prior from Florida. She’s traveled the world plenty, living in the U.S., Switzerland, and Brazil before she even graduated high school, but she finds today’s rigmarole daunting. Meeting her in Ireland would not be an option. So, off we three headed to Washington National/DCA. I had us out the door early, as I was worried about the weather. Hurricane Florence remnants were still blowing about and could certainly make a mess of any mid-Atlantic airport. We had about a four-hour Philadelphia layover scheduled, but that’s a guarantee of nothing.
THE ONLY COMFORT I GET IS KNOWING THAT
YOU BELIEVE ME
Speaking of layovers, that reminds me of a complaint. Our original itinerary included a PHL layover of about three hours. With a couple months till departure, American sent one of those cryptic emails: There’s been a change to your itinerary, here’s the new one. But wait…. What was the old one? Just what did you change?? After some rudimentary sleuthing, seemed our DCA departure had been pushed back, giving us a Philly layover of only about an hour. No! Anything can go wrong, and that AA flight to Dublin was their only flight to Dublin. It was also the final Oneworld transatlantic flight of the evening. It’s not like we could miss it and be re-routed on British Airways – at least, not until the next day. Accordingly, I called American and got us on a much earlier flight to PHL, hence the four-hour layover. What grinds my gears is that when I booked initially I had Platinum status. By the time of this re-booking request, I’d been knocked down to the lowliest Gold status. This meant I now had to pay for our three Main Cabin Extra seats. The nerve! For some reason that remains a mystery, if I wanted us to be considered for gratis upgrades on the short DCA-PHL-DCA legs, the itinerary would need to be separated, with Mother Dora on mine and Husband Fernando on his own. OK. Whatever. When we went to check-in online, Fernando was blocked because his passport expiration date was a day off. Of course, that looked like my fault. I am certain, however, it was the fault of the agent who gave us the new itineraries. I will never be able to prove this. The only comfort I get is knowing that you believe me, even if Fernando does not.
How was the weather ahead of our DCA departure? That depended on which direction you were looking. Blue skies blended with ominous storm clouds right above our heads!
Not our American Eagle plane, but next to it! Along with the weather we met. More pretty than bumpy. Don't be scared.
I think we may have left DCA a little bit late, but made all of those minutes – and then some – up on this very short flight. We landed in PHL with plenty of time. So, off to the larger of PHL’s two Terminal A Admiral’s Clubs. Checking Lounge Buddy, seemed that with plenty of time to kill, the larger one was far preferable, even if the tiny basement-level offering was closer to the departure gate.
About an hour before departure, we met Patrick and Sandy’s flight and sampled the basement shame-hole Admiral’s Club. Very personable service, but still depressing. Sandy, a domestic road warrior, hadn’t flown internationally in quite a while, so she grabbed a sandwich for the plane thinking service had sunken so low that we’d be offered nothing on board. Who can blame her?
From the PHL Admirals Club: The upside of crazy weather was this beautiful rainbow to send us on to our Irish pot of gold; some AA guac – with cheese, to go with that last cheesy statement – and soup for Mom; a view of how very empty the club was; some great plane spotting, including the A330 we'd be boarding; and a gorgeous glimpse at a BA Queen of the Skies.
We were only down there about 10 minutes before the guy running the club announced our plane was boarding. We boarded with Group 4, the lowest Priority group. Whether we had Group 4 due to booking Premium Economy, the branded credit card, or our lowly AAdvantage Gold/Oneworld Ruby status, I don't know. Having checked our bags, one advantage was early access to the Premium Economy overheads for Sandy’s roller bag so that she wouldn’t need to worry about fighting for space with the Group 6’s.
Entering the little PE cabin, there were no surprises. I’d seen most of the offering online. Then again, I wasn’t expecting such a large Casper bag of pillow and blanket. Almost made me wish that I would occasionally use the blanket! The only way I can hope to sleep on a plane is to be near freezing. And we were wonderfully cold on this plane, with personal vents to boot! Didn’t even break a sweat. That’s possibly the biggest advantage of the PE seat: It’s wide enough, with a dedicated arm rests for each passenger. That makes it possible to sit for hours without hugging myself, which leads to guaranteed pit-ness. Gross.
THAT MAKES IT POSSIBLE TO SIT FOR HOURS
WITHOUT HUGGING MYSELF
A peek at the cabin (and my birthday bro) and the adjacent lavatories. With curtains closed, one was on the PE side, the other in business. But no restrictions were enforced. PE pax were free to use both, thankfully.
A sense of the PE pitch, the ample legroom, and the four glorious vents aimed at our three seats below.
My previous PE experience has been with Thai (JKF-BKK and back) and British Airways (IAD and BWI to LHR and back, as well as one OpenSkies flight from JFK to ORY). The Thai offering was in a class by itself, so I’m not going to think about that. This cabin was fully comparable to BA’s updated Premium Economy. (I’ve steered clear of the older version.) But I’d still give BA a few more points. The primary reason would be the power outlet and the headphone jack. I nearly cramped my back trying to reach that spot in the seat, practically behind me.
BA’s also going to win on service. On the night flight to DUB, the service seemed rushed. I excused that, thinking they wanted us to have as much time as possible to sleep. So the drinks service, meal service, any post-meal coffee/tea service was not to be. Everything – aside from Fernando’s pre-ordered pasta – “Sorry, all we’ve got left is chicken, unless you want the economy pasta...” – came at once. I got the impression the Premium Economy crew are still finding their footing. Actually, I couldn’t tell if we were being served by Economy crew or Business crew. We were the borderlands for either cabin, getting a little of both.
On the daylight flight to follow about a week later, the service was the same. One exception, however, was that the cabin crew specifically served the pre-orders first. Still, everything came at once, leaving me to order a pre-dinner drink and dinner beverage at once. With time to kill, I really wish the American team would follow BA’s lead: drinks service, meal service, coffee/tea service. But, no. Just an advisement that if you wanted something else to drink, you could head about 20 rows back to the rear galley, where to crew would be happy to accommodate you. It’s really great, in instances like that, to have a spouse who demands an aisle seat, is an extrovert, and won’t sit still for six hours. “Heineken, please. Thanks. Love you.”
The second service on the way over offered a breakfast with plenty of fruit. Nothing to complain about. On the way back to Philly, however, the pr e-landing meal was just downright odd. Granted, my experience with BA is that they’ve gone crazy for kale. Just give me carbs on a plane! American out-kale’d BA, though, with something they called “Mediterranean Salad: tzatziki sauce, sautéed asparagus, roasted eggplant, roasted bell peppers, fusilli pasta.” That was the sole choice. “If we only offer one choice, we need to make sure it’s vegetarian.” Fair enough. But I won’t even whip out asparagus and eggplant at a dinner party if I haven’t cleared it with the guests first. Those are trigger foods, like squash or organ meats, that plenty of people find unappetizing. Attempting to please 21 PE palates with asparagus and eggplant was an incredibly risky maneuver. It was fine by me, but I can’t say the same for my seatmates. I’m guessing their turned-up noses were more in line with the rest of the cabin.
THOSE ARE TRIGGER FOODS,
LIKE SQUASH OR ORGAN MEATS
When beverages are offered, better grab while the getting's good. In AA's defense, I grabbed the Bailey's Sleep Aid during a post-dinner service.
The husband's not-pre-ordered consolation dinner: 'oven-roasted chicken breast, baby bow tie and barley pasta salad, roasted mushrooms and fava beans, chipotle-lime cream sauce.'
Heavy carbs for me, please! 'Classic Cheese Ravioli' on the flight over, 'Tomato and Mozzarella Filled Fiorelli Pasta' on the return.
The Seasonal Fruit Plate breakfast on the outbound, along with the previous night's satisfying Hot Chocolate Cheesecake, as well as the return's questionable 'Mediterranean Salad.' Who doesn't love eggplant?? Plenty.
The entertainment system, however, was just as dandy as BA’s, with countless hours of entertainment. For me, it was The Death of Stalin on the way over. Having studied enough Soviet history to count as a sort of unofficial minor, I just found it depressing. Applying a Monty Python-esque filter to Stanlist Kremlin cruelty didn’t make for madcap hilarity. Rather, it just emphasized humanity’s shortcomings. Great cast, but I just don’t think you can make Stalin (or Lavrentiy Beria, particularly) funny. Solo: A Star Wars Story on the way home made up for creepy Kremlin yuks. Solo was great! Nearly as good as Rogue One. The only downside to the entertainment was my controller. On the way over, it was stuck in its cradle. I just used the touch-screen option and thought little more about it. Then, on the way back, same seat, same stuck controller. Seemed a passenger before me shoved it in, pinching the cord rather then retracting it. So, a portion of my in-flight entertainment was, inspired by Solo’s L3-37, freeing the controller. The sense of satisfaction was well worth chipping my driver’s license.
The stuck controller that became my successful sky-high project.
Also enjoyed some superb audio – the soundtrack to The Tribes of Palos Verdes, for example.
The power outlet/USB port-area is a little tricky to reach. Contorting to make the connection nearly gave me a cramp.
The flight-deck crew also did a wonderful job, regardless of where you sat on the plane, landing us in a windstorm. Little did we know that Dublin was about to be buffeted by 80 mph gusts. We learned after landing, thanks to a chatty flight attendant speaking with Patrick and Sandy, that the crew were fully prepared to land in Paris. A little bouncy, but we made it!
By the time we headed home, the weather was just fine. The only wrinkle was the check-in time. Pointing to DUB’s security screening followed by U.S. pre-clearance, American posted a clear advisement on its site that passengers should arrive “at least” four hours prior to departure. Seriously? Four hours? For an 11:20 a.m. flight, this meant grabbing the 6:30 a.m. Airlink bus at Heuston Station. Because my name was somehow not matching my passport for the return (which was squarely the fault of a software-screwing apostrophe, no doubt), I was anxious enough to heed this advice. The husband thought I was crazy. Didn’t help that after our bumpy 40-minute-plus ride to the airport, the American Priority check-in employee greeted us with, “The Philadelphia flight? O, my, you’re early!”
PASSENGERS SHOULD ARRIVE 'AT LEAST' FOUR HOURS
PRIOR TO DEPARTURE. SERIOUSLY?
Thanks for that. Maybe you didn’t write the advisement yourself, but sheesh! Relative to reality, granted, she was right. The Irish security screening was over in no time. I certainly hope the on again/off again integration of Aer Lingus into Oneworld comes to pass, if only to bypass Heathrow in favor of Dublin. The advantage over LHR that was cited as the reason for needing so much time, U.S. Pre-Clearance, was also a plus. While we made it through in about 10 minutes, I could imagine a summer rush overwhelming the place. After clearing the U.S. security portion, where we spotted no TSA Pre option, we made it to U.S. passport control. Once we were about 50 feet into the roped lines, we spotted the Global Entry kiosks. Across the border, so to speak, of vinyl belts and plastic poles, we asked a nearby member of Customs and Border Protection about the kiosks. Well, not so much asked, but gestured and grunted, “You’ve got Global Entry?”
She was very helpful. “Yeah, you could get out of line and come back around….” With a wait ahead of us looking like five minutes, that option seemed silly. Still, no complaint about the regular lines in late September. It’s just a point about the lack of signage.
While that came as a surprise, we were fully prepared for a vending desert once we entered the U.S. portion of Terminal 2. That was the general warning from cranky blogs. Sure, there’s less on offer than you’ll find between Irish security and U.S. security, but there’s still plenty. Want a sandwich, a Guinness, giant Toblerone, and a coffee? You’re covered. Don’t worry.
There’s even more on offer if you make it to the post-USPC lounge, 51st & Green. It’s complimentary for business passengers, and possibly for higher levels of elite status than we have. Regardless, I wasn’t going to miss this experience, handing over 39 euros per person to enter. This lounge has great views, so I likely would’ve paid for the plane-spotting alone. The mimosas, cappuccinos, and various breakfast snacks were icing on my airport cake. It was a splendid way to say good-bye to Ireland – even if, technically, we'd already re-entered the U.S.
You think I'm making this up? I'm not making this up.
American's Priority check-in was not very crowded. Nor was regular check-in, for that matter.
A glimpse of our pre-departure hangout, 51st & Green.
The retro Aer Lingus livery made my morning.