US1053 CLT-NAS B737-400 seat 13A

In the gloom of rain CLT looked like any other older American airport, all scuffed linoleum, white-on-black signage and acres and acres devoted to parking, but next morning proved sunnier and the terminal looked rather more modern and welcoming. US Airways made amends by checking me in speedily (although I had to assist the check-in lady with punching in my EuroBonus card) and allowing me into the US Airways Club which, to damn it with faint praise, was the best I’ve seen in the USA to date. Clean, spacious, free ice water, a powerplug-equipped cubicle to compute in and more free T-Mobile goodness was all I needed.

Today’s airplane was a bog-standard regional B737, which didn’t even pretend to offer frills like headphones or movies for this two-hour flight. The seat pitch was as bad as previously, but my seat was a window over the wing and thus a marginal improvement on yesterday, especially as I had no seatmates in my 3-seat row and was thus able to sprawl out freely.

No matter how many times I’ve done it, I still love the first few minutes of flight. Hitting the throttle, feeling the aircraft accelerate to Ludicrous Speed(tm), the moment of takeoff — and then as the aircraft banks, twists and turns on its way to its flight path and level, the cabin moving around in three dimensions, you remember that this is not a bus and you’re flying, an idea so magical and captivating that the entire state of North Carolina still commemorates the first successful attempt on its license plates.

Signs you’re in a country where people don’t do too much international travel: the pilot spends 10 minutes announcing line by line how to fill in the Bahamas immigration form and how to fill out the US Customs form for the return leg.

 

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US968 SJU-CLT B767 seat 8F

SJU looks slick from the outside (well, at least those parts that aren’t under construction), but there’s a fair dose of island/US airline lackadaisicalness about it. After I’d queued for 15 min in the First/Star Gold line, I was asked why my check-in bag didn’t have an agricultural inspection tag. What inspection? That inspection, she said, pointing over to a room behind me and off to the side, with a gaggle of people swarming around it. How was I supposed to know? Well, if you came regularly you’d know, she pouted. So why can’t you put a sign to tell people to go there before checking in? It’s a USDA inspection and not our problem. No, I told her, it’s your problem because it’s your line. I was advised to go complain to the USDA, and was duly punished for my effrontery by being assigned an aisle seat next to a blocked window, with a strategic sprinkling of crying babies around me.

As if this initial impression of US Airways weren’t unpleasant enough, the flight was also delayed by an hour. Once past the security circus filled with vacationing clowns (“Hey Bozo! Is Diet Coke a liquid?”), I settled down to munch on my mallorca con jamon y queso and mooch somebody’s free wifi.

On board, the plane smelled of old as soon as I stepped and was still in the old USAir livery. My knees were firmly jammed against the seat in front, just the way I like to spend 4-hour flights, but at least I was assigned a harmless (and non-bulky) crossword-filling granny as a seatmate. The deepest impression, though, was the sheer incompetence displayed by the staff when trying to run through the in-flight safety demo: not only did two different steward(esse)s try to talk simultaneously, but they did so on top of the video, with both their mike and the video flaking out at random intervals. Just how hard can it be?

US Airways’s in-flight magazine consists of thinly disguised advertorials and you have to pay $5 for headphones if you want to listen to Yanni on Channel 1. Not for the first time, I said a prayer of thanks to the elves at Panasonic’s battery factory and set to work computing. But I’ll say one good thing about US: at least they give you a full can of drink, even juice, instead of fiddling about with United-style urine sample cups.