MIAMI — As someone who has traveled to Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport frequently for business and pleasure, I decided to take the “scenic route” from Washington D.C. by connecting via Dallas-Fort Worth (D/FW) instead of Miami. Why, you ask? To experience the longest route on American’s new Airbus A319. Depending on winds, the 2,438-mile trip can last up to five and one half hours. So hop aboard, and take a ride with me as I travel in business all the way to Bogota!
I arrived in DFW at 3:30 PM, three hours before scheduled departure to Bogota. I took a quick Skylink train ride from Terminal C to Terminal D and settled into the Admirals Club to relax and enjoy a great view of the ramp.
I headed to gate D34 forty-five minutes before the scheduled 6:20 PM departure. Boarding was already underway, and I quickly settled into seat 1A. The business class cabin was entirely full (all eight seats), though the flight as a whole was roughly 70 percent full.
It seemed like we were going to push back a bit early. However, the First Officer, Captain Waters, announced the aircraft had an improper weight and balance configuration. The problem would require unloading and reloading all bags and freight boxes. Captain Waters apologized and said it was only the second time in his 28-year career he had experienced a weight and balance delay and further speculated that ground crews were still getting to know the new A319. He came to our section and chatted with us, while the ground crew got to work, and flight attendants offered drinks. Soon after he went back to the cockpit, he went on the PA and said the crew chief suggested the eight business class passengers move to economy to help get the right center of gravity. He said “no way” and asked the chief to figure it out.
Finally, as the one hour mark approached, Capt Waters told the ground crew to leave the freight behind and just load the baggage. Captain Waters kept a very good sense of humor during the delay, but the attitude and competence of the loading crew was left in question. I’m sure they had a few “lessons learned” to discuss, and I assume very frustrated cargo customers in Bogota had to wait at least an extra day to get their products. The ground delay lasted 80 minutes.
Once underway, we received hot towel service, and the flight attendant asked me if I still wanted the spinach ravioli I had ordered online. American and other airlines allow their premium customers to choose their entree within thirty days of a flight, online. I stuck with my initial choice. After the main course, the crew offered a very delicious ice cream sundae.
The entertainment system on the A319 permits passengers to start playing their choices as soon as they take their seat. Business class passengers get Bose headsets. I decided to take advantage of the large selection of movies by catching up on some Oscar fever. The flight was scheduled for five hours and one minute, which gave me plenty of time to watch “Captain Phillips” and “Twelve Years a Slave”. WiFi service is available from Gogo Inflight, but becomes unavailable one hour after leaving the coast.
We landed in BOG at 1 AM. This meant immigration, baggage claim, and customs were a breeze. Since I only had one carry-on, it took me less than ten minutes to get from the gate to the taxi stand.
I unexpectedly had to extend my trip to Bogota, which meant I would not get to experience the A319 red-eye service that departs BOG at 1 AM and lands in DFW at 6:16 AM. Instead, I took one of my sentimental favorites, the “flying pencil”, AKA Boeing 757, from BOG to MIA. Over the last 20 years, the 757 is the aircraft I have mostly experienced from my hometown of Miami to and from Bogota.
I arrived at the airport 80 minutes before our scheduled 7:50 AM departure. Check-in to U.S. destinations requires additional security questions to ensure passengers packed their own luggage and kept it within sight during the trip to the airport. The check in area at the new international terminal in BOG is very vast and comfortable. Also, before checking-in, passengers with stays of less than 90 days should stop at the booth opposite the check-in counters to get an “exemption” stamp to avoid paying an exit tax, which is $38 USD. The new passenger facilities in BOG opened in 2012 and are scheduled to be completed later this year.
There is no dedicated first or business class lines in security, but between screening and passport control that morning, it took only five minutes. American Airlines premium, elite, and Admirals Club member passengers can use fellow Oneworld Alliance member LAN’s spacious lounge facility, where drinks, snacks, magazines, computers, WiFi, and comfortable seating are available. LAN’s lounge is across gate 34.
A staff member at the lounge made a boarding announcement 50 minutes before departure, and I made my way to gate 45. Security procedures in BOG for U.S. bound flights include randomly selecting passengers for a carry-on search, which includes similar security questions to those at check-in. I was not selected and proceeded to the aircraft, after taking a couple of pictures.
When I entered the aircraft, I quickly noticed the business class section was in domestic configuration, which meat no angled lie flat seats. American’s “international” 757s have sixteen of these seats, while the “domestic” 757s have 22 standard reclining first class seats. Scheduled flight time to Miami was 3 hours 17 minutes. We quickly pushed back, only to be informed that traffic was a bit backed up that morning, which meant a 20-minute hold on the taxiway, while others landed and took-off ahead of us using runways 13R and 13L. BOG is 8,340 feet above sea level, which requires longer take-off distances. However, with those Rolls-Royce RB211 engines, my 757 take-offs from BOG always feel overpowered and we’re airborne and climbing very quickly.
Once in the air, I realized the flight attendants would not be handing out any portable personal entertainment systems, as American does in other international flights that have no personal screens. We were at the mercy of the predetermined movie and short programming. Also, there were no Bose headsets available for use during the flight. The lack of a modern entertainment system was eclipsed by the very attentive service in the front under the leadership of head flight attendant Luis Carlos Amado. I enjoyed a Colombian continental breakfast that included fresh tropical fruits, yogurt, and delicious almojábana (a Colombian cheese bread). Luis Carlos was constantly asking if we needed anything else. A huge kudos to him and the rest of the Bogota-based flight attendant crew!
With the ground hold, we landed at MIA at 1 PM about 15 minutes behind schedule. Despite the outdated entertainment options on the 757, the crew was great, which made for a very enjoyable flight. Then, it was time for the painfully long line to get to an immigration agent, which is common at MIA, but that’s another story.
I’ve been a frequent flyer with American Airlines since 1990 and have lifetime Gold status, based on passing the One Million mile threshold. The crews into and out of Bogota were friendly, attentive, and kept passengers at ease during the two delays with their great sense of humor.
The DFW-BOG route opened in November 2013. With the free trade agreement signed in 2012 between the U.S. and Colombia, travel between the two countries will continue to grow. If the DFW-BOG route is successful, American will need to start thinking about the discerning business traveler, especially given the late hours of the return leg. Although I did not personally fly the return leg, a 1 AM departure for a five-hour and a half flight from BOG to DFW might not provide the ideal comfort for a business passenger who wants some decent rest before a full day of work in Dallas. The eight seats in the premium section of the A319 offer some recline, but they are nowhere near the comfort of the old business class recliners American used prior to installing angled lie flat seats in their long-haul fleet.
American is also starting to phase out its 757s, and even if those with angled lie flat seating in business were available for this route, they could prove to be too large to guarantee full or close to full flights. DFW-BOG is also by far the longest of all the American Airlines A319 routes. DFW also offers BOG passengers connection options that are not available in MIA, which should keep demand relatively high for this route, especially in the summer and winter peak vacation periods. If DFW-BOG indeed succeeds in the long term, American might want to include a more comfortable business seat. American uses its 18 757s with angled lie flat business seating on some routes across the Atlantic from the U.S. northeast and from MIA to Lima, Peru; La Paz and Santa Cruz, Bolivia; and Brasilia, Brazil. The domestically-configured 757s will be retired before the internationally-configured batch. The challenge for American will be how to configure the A321s that will take over many of the five to six hour segments. Seasoned business travelers will no doubt want something closer to a lie flat option.
The three hour MIA-BOG/BOG-MIA segments are usually served by 757s and 767s. The 757s on this route will be gone soon, but while they fly, American could offer some of the portable entertainment systems, such as the Samsung tablet and Bose headsets currently available on other routes, in order to improve the passenger experience on these older airplanes.
This year, I’ve flown American’s business class from DCA to DFW and MIA and from DFW to Cancun (CUN), in addition to this experience to and from Colombia. The crews I have had so far have been very upbeat, attentive, courteous and friendly. I’m sure with the approved AA/US merger morale is higher, and it’s definitely showing. I hope the mood at the new American stays this way.