In the summer of 2020, my girlfriend and I booked two American Airlines First Class tickets from Philadelphia to San Francisco using points. In this article, I'll be sharing our experience flying during the pandemic.
Why We Flew
As much as I love (and miss) flying, it is my personal opinion that at least on my part, flying should really be minimized to essential travel to help contain the spread.
I had just finished graduate school on the east coast and was moving to San Francisco for my new job. We were only a couple months into the pandemic, and there were many unknowns about the virus, including how safe it was to fly.
Since we were set on moving one way or another, I immediately thought about flying in premium class (preferably on points) so that we would have more space during the 6-hour flight.
Keep in mind that this was about a year ago. At the time, policies regarding masks and spacing on flight were still all over the place, with rules seemingly changing every week. In addition, even up until a few days before our flight, we kept getting notifications from the AA App informing of us yet another schedule change. This along with equipment swaps or outright cancellations is the price to pay for flying during the pandemic (especially in the early stages).
I used 42,000 AAdvantage miles + $11.20 in taxes to book two American Airlines First Class tickets from Philadelphia (PHL) to San Francisco (SFO). Check out this article where I covered the process in more detail.
There were a lot more people at PHL, where our journey began, than I had expected.
Even though Priority Check-In was an advertised perk for AA First flyers, what we got was the furthest thing from "priority"...
It was at least a 20-minute wait just to get to the front of the line, with only one AA agent checking people in. It was an absolute joke.
Also, since we had 4 pieces of heavy luggage (we were moving!), the agent could not take them at the counter. Instead, we had to reload the bags onto the cart, bring them halfway across the terminal and line up again at the oversize drop-off. Nothing about this felt premium at all, but with no expectations going in, this honestly wasn't too bad. At least we got to check in all 4 pieces (max 70lbs/32kg per piece) for free!
Since my girlfriend and I both have TSA PreCheck (included in our Global Entry membership), we used the TSA PreCheck-only checkpoint at PHL. The entire process was incredibly smooth and frictionless. Furthermore, because of PreCheck benefits, we were able to keep our laptops, camera, shoes etc. on going through security, thus minimizing unnecessary contact.
Only certain trans-con routes allow First Class passengers Admirals Club access.
Unfortunately, PHL-SFO was not one of them. I still went upstairs to get away from the crowds and also snapped a quick picture of the reception area.
Great views of the tarmac!
The airport had way more people than I was comfortable with. Many were also not masked correctly.
People started crowding around the gate before boarding...
Although some airlines adjusted their boarding procedures due to the pandemic, our AA flight did not and First Class passengers were invited to board in Group 1 as usual.
Passengers generally kept a good distance from one another during the process, especially in First where there were only a total of 16 passengers. Thankfully, everyone in our vicinity were courteous and fully masked. In fact, most passengers who boarded before us were already wiping away at their area - which made me feel much more comfortable sharing the cabin with them.
One thing I did not understand was that the pilot stood in front of the cockpit door and greeted every passenger one by one, even shaking hands with some.... If the idea is to minimize contact and keep distance, why did anyone think it was a good idea for the pilot to personally great EVERY passenger on this plane?!
Hearing the roaring jet engines and feeling my ears pop again turned out rather delightful. I realized how much I missed the simple things of air travel - or any sort of traveling at all!
Here are a couple pictures from our flight...
I also took advantage of the Wi-Fi reimbursement credit included in my Barclays Aviator Red credit card to get free internet during the flight!
One nice perk of flying in front is the complimentary in-flight premium dining. Although what we got was already a watered-down version due to COVID-19, it turned out we were actually pretty lucky for having gotten any hotel meals at all! Shortly after our flight, AA announced changes to their policy and served First Class passengers with snack boxes instead.
Even though I was skeptical about the safety of eating in-flight, by the time we took off we were beyond starving (having not ate much the night before because of packing etc.). Thankfully, the flight attendant heated and served the meals by row, so passengers actually took turns taking their masks off to eat. Everyone in our proximity were also very responsible, and put their masks on immediately after eating.
In regards to food quality - I'd say given its a domestic AA flight in the midst of a pandemic, it wasn't bad at all! My girlfriend and I really had no expectations coming in so were not disappointed with the experience.
After almost 6 hours, we arrived at SFO's brand new Harvey Milk Terminal! Such a stark contrast from PHL! Modern terminal with high ceilings, lots of natural light, and lack of people (YAY)!
Just when we thought everything was going great....
AA informed us they somehow did not load ANYONE's checked bag onto the plane (including our 4 luggages filled with essential move-in stuff). Typical American Airlines, right? Anyways, here is a separate post on how I was eventually reimbursed for the incident.
After that whole fiasco, we made our way (empty-handed) to the rideshare lot.
I've flew into SFO multiple times in the past. Every time there would be endless Lyfts and Ubers rolling in to pick up passenger. This time, not a single car was in sight. What a surreal feeling.
On the bright side, we didn't have to lug our oversized suitcases to the new apartment ourselves!
Overall, the priority check-in wasn't much use, AA misplaced our luggage, and there was no lounge access included. Would I pay $500+ for such an experience? Definitely not. However, as I detailed in my previous post, this was essentially a free flight that allowed us to have more personal space during a time that really mattered, making it a no-brainer for us to book. The food was also surprisingly solid and AA (spoiler alert) did eventually deliver all our checked bags right to our door and reimbursed us for all expenses.
Coming Next: How AA Misplaced Our Bags and Reimbursed Us
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