DALLAS — A little over 2 years after American Airlines shocked the industry with the largest order of commercial aircraft in history, American inaugurated its Airbus A319 service Monday morning September 16th with flight 1728 departing Dallas/Ft. Worth for Charlotte. With DFW and Charlotte being American and USAirways largest hubs respectively in terms of market-share, this is perhaps not coincidental. The 3rd inaugural flight of the day, flight 2377 was destined for Wichita, site of an event at Airbus North America Engineering which played a significant role in the development of the Sharklets. Airbus claims on longer stages that these Sharklets reduce fuel burn by 1.5%. As American chose to do a soft-launch on the type, we switched from being on the original first flight out to Charlotte to the flight to Wichita for the event. With 6 A319s out of the 260 A319/A321 family on order already delivered, there were 8 round-trip flights from the DFW base to Wichita, Memphis, Cleveland, Charlotte on the first day.
This is a significant inaugural for AA in a number of ways: The A319 is the first all-new type added to the AA fleet since the arrival of the Boeing 777 in 1999. It’s the first Airbus type operated by the airline since the 2009 retirement of the Airbus A300-600R. The politics and deal-making behind this order were chock full of intrigue and will be detailed in an exclusive post next week on Airchive “Operation Apollo 11: American’s Deal with Airbus” by our business analyst Vinay Bhaskara. Importantly, American is receiving the first Airbus A319 delivered new with Sharklets. The A319 is the first arrival of the 2011 order of 460 narrow-body aircraft. This historic order is designed to hasten the retirement of American’s elderly 757 and MD-80 fleet, creating the youngest fleet of any legacy airline in North America and most importantly substantially improving fuel efficiency. On a CASM basis (cost per seat mile), the A319 is 35% more fuel efficient then the MD-80s they replace, while the A321 is 12-15% more fuel efficient then the 757-200 and 767-200. The order was split between Boeing and Airbus with 200 737-800s / MAX’s for the former and 260 A319/A321s (130 ceo’s and 130neo’s). As other airlines are moving to up-gagued aircraft such as the A320, American’s outsize order of the A319 was a contrarian move on the face of it, but “remember the A319 was specifically ordered to replace the MD-80 fleet. American is turning a cost disadvantage with the old fleet into an advantage with the A319 and A321. Their existing 737-800s already in the fleet perform the mission similar to the A320” according to Herb Franck, VP of Sales for Airbus North America who brokered the deal. This blockbuster $13 billion order will be fulfilled by 2022, though there are options in place to adjust the fleet mix as well as augment it. American hasn’t disclosed the exact numerical breakdowns of the fleet, but reportedly there’s flexibility in the contracts to convert to more neo’s as delivery comes online in 2017 and possibly even turn back in existing A319 / 321s ceos back to the lessor or Airbus in exchange for neos, sometime in the next decade. All of these new build Boeing and Airbus aircraft will be delivered with seat-back IFE’s and wi-fi at every seat – a first for American’s narrow-body fleet. The first Airbus A321 arrives in November and first Boeing 737-800 from the 200 airplane order arrives in October. Put it all together and this is a reason to celebrate an airline whose merger with US Airways is being contested by the Department of Justice (much more on that below), while trying to rebrand as “The New American” and still emerge from the almost 2 year-old bankruptcy filing. This caps off an incredible year with the launch of “The New American” and the 777-300ER entry’s in the fleet, and all the merger drama that reads like a soap opera.
We have covered the fleet strategy behind the A319/A321, delivery event from Hamburg, and the debut of the aircraft at the Dallas/Ft. Worth base, and finally here we are at “dark-thirty” at DFW finally ready to take our seat on the first day of A319 flying and finally review the flight.
In spite of all that it has going for it, the new A319 has already drawn some criticism among AA frequent flyers with its new 128 seat configuration, especially in relation to the elderly MD-80s it was ordered to replace. The 16 First Class seats of the MD-80 become now only 8 First Class seats on the A319, reducing chances for upgrades. “Capacity planning, fleet, and revenue management felt this was the appropriate mix for the markets the A319 will be serving”, according to Andrea Hugely spokesperson for American Airlines. However, 18 Main Cabin Extra seats with a 35″-37″ seat pitch are now offered as an upgrade over the 102 31″-32″ Main Cabin seats. The seats are all finished in a dark black leather with red trim, a quite striking yet durable upgrade from the current AA narrow-body fleet.
Upon arriving at our gate, I notice our A319 is N8001N which was the first one delivered to American back in July from Hamburg. There is very little fanfare on our departure from DFW Gate A8 as we board for our 9:15A departure. The story was the same at the adjacent A319 inaugural Memphis flight at Gate A10. Beyond the crew, no one seemed aware they would be flying on an entirely new airplane. No announcements were made at the gate that made this flight seem anything but routine. American had planned events initially but then chose to go with a soft launch.
As we make our way onboard, the first thing I notice is of course that new plane smell. A few passengers start noticing the individual seat-back monitors which is a definite change, but again no mention was made that we are participating in anything noteworthy until we take our seats. Just prior to pushback, our Captain welcomes us to “the newest member of the American fleet, the Airbus A320”. This gaffe goes pretty much unnoticed by everyone except myself and Herb Franck, the VP of Sales for Airbus North America. Our flight attendant then points out that we’re flying to Wichita since part of the wing was designed there. She remarks how excited that they are to be onboard the new jet and that with the exception of the chief purser, this is their first time stepping on it, much less working it. The cabin crew have undergone extensive ground training on the new type, however. With that, flight 2377 is buttoned up and departs 10 minutes late due to weather at Wichita Mid-Continent. We make our way out to runway 18L/36R for a Northerly depar ture. After a brief 30 second roll, the fully loaded A319 is airborne at 10:34AM CST and banks to the west on the way to FL33 which we reach in 29 minutes. Due to the weather en-route we deviate over Western Oklahoma. We pickup moderate turbulence along the way which the A319 handles well. The flexing wings punctuated with the new Sharklets put on a nice show.
Once in the cruise, we are all handed little commemorative American Airlines cookies to go with our mid-morning snack service. I take the opportunity to try out the hard product beginning with the different reclining positions of my Weber manufactured firm leather-clad First Class Seat 1A. With 39″ pitch, it is quite generous for domestic configuration and offers a suitable recline for the short-to-medium haul flights that AA will employ the A319 on. I also tried out Main Cabin and Main Cabin Extra which offer a decent recline sensation and a bit more feeling of spaciousness owing to the A319’s wider cabin then a 737. Main Cabin, in particular feels more spacious then I expected due to the slimly Recaro seats. The padding was a bit hard for my taste, however.
From a passenger experience point of view, the Thales TopSeries IFE is undoubtedly the star of the show. It uses the same GUI as the IFE found on American’s flagship 777-300ER. If anything, it is even more responsive. Its operation confuses the passenger next to me who until I help him settles for Portuguese. In First Class, The IFE offers up to 200 movies, 180 TV shows, 350 CD’s, 18 channels of radio,the NBC Universal linear programming feed, and 15 games on a 12.1″ HD monitor. The complete offering is free in First Class. In Main Cabin, the NBC Universal TV linear programming channel found on AA flights is free along with short-form videos and 18 channels of radio is free with the full package available as an upgrade option for $4. The service is free in all cabins through November 30th. Curiously, the IFE with all of its features down to airport maps and arrival information doesn’t feature a moving map, but does offer estimated arrival times and outside temperature. We also do a speed test on the GoGo ATG-4 Wi-Fi and at 3mbs down and 1 mbs up find it an improvement on other terrestrial wi-fi services we have encountered.
After just 40 minutes in the air, we begin our 22 minute descent and vector around weather in the area. At 11:36AM we touch-down into Wichita. Our arrival into Mid-Continent Airport is greeted by the only real fanfare planned for the day with a water cannon salute and a throng of press and Airbus staff cheering our arrival at the gate and on the ramp. Billed as “The Air Capital of the World”, this is no coincidence as what was former “Boeing Country”, is now “Airbus Country” as well as other manufacturers and contractors including Spirit AeroSystems and Cessna. The Airbus Engineering Center of North America, first opening in 2002, is located here. The employees here helped design the distinctive wing-tip Sharklets for the A320 family aircraft that were previously equipped with the wing-tip fences. The Wichita facility was particularly focused on the wing modifications to support the new Sharklets. With a staff count that nearly totals 400 employees, Airbus Wichita engineers wing ribs, stringers, and skins in coordination with Airbus UK. It also supports A380 continuous product development, design work for the A350 XWB’s window-belt, in-service repairs and more.
After a quick 40 minutes on the ground, American’s newest aircraft was back in the skies beginning its first day of routine service. The absolutely uneventful nature of it all was unusual for the inaugural of a new member of a fleet but perhaps that was the point. By the time I returned back to DFW late that evening, the airline’s newest fleet of Airbus A319s had completed most of their 4 round-trip missions as if they were routine, which of course they had now become.
The next big event planned for “The New American’s” fleet renewal is the delivery of AA’s first A321 in November and the January 7, 2014 inaugural of it’s new potentially game changing transcontinental product using the specially configured Airbus A321T. We will be onboard the launch flight as well with Live coverage and a full review.