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With friends and employees in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, I generally fly across the US at least once a month. Over the next couple years the trend of putting nicer planes (with a focus on premium cabin products) is going to increase as United, Delta, American and even JetBlue have plans for fully lie-flat business class cabins.
However, the airlines are not planning to just “give” these seats away. Transcontinental routes can demand huge premiums since many companies will purchase business class for flights over 5 hours and the entertainment business certainly helps keep prices high. Flying in business/first on JFK-LAX is always a fun time – just this year I’ve sat next to Danny DeVito and Marcus Mumford in United First Class and have met countless other interesting people in the entertainment world. So how does someone who isn’t a celebrity or millionaire get to sit up front? Luckily, some airlines still give complimentary upgrades (American Airlines to their Executive Platinum members starting 100 hours before departure and Delta to all Medallions, but not until departure) and others allow elites to use upgrade certificates (United) or even same-day upgrades (Virgin America).
My Flights.. Miles vs. Cash?
For my last minute, one-way flight I was looking at ~$600 coach tickets and $2,500 business class fares. Luckily, I was able to snag two saver level awards at 25,000 miles and $2.50 each for me and a friend. I avoided a $75 last minute ticketing fee because I’m United Premier Platinum, thanks to a status match. I would have preferred to buy a cheap coach ticket on American and then upgrade, but this trip was last minute and American prioritizes upgrades based on when they were requested, which greatly disadvantages those of us who can’t plan far in advance. Plus, I was traveling with Miles (my dog) and since I don’t really fit in coach as a 6’7″ traveler, I certainly didn’t want to also cram my dog in what little space I’d have in coach. So instead of shelling out thousands, I decided to use United miles, which took the stress out of the trip and would allow me to get some rest on my flight.
United’s plan is to rip out all existing business and first class seats on their 757 p.s. planes and install all new lie-flat BusinessFirst beds. While the planes are losing the first class cabin, in my opinion the new business class seats are more comfortable for sleeping since the old first class seats never become fully horizontal.
My plane was one of the newly retrofitted ones United started operating on transcon routes back in March (the airline plans to finish retrofitting all its planes on these routes by the end of the summer), and instead of the old p.s. planes which had first, business and Economy Plus classes, this one had 28 United BusinessFirst seats with 180-degree flat-bed seats with 6’4” of space when fully extended, and 15.4-inch entertainment monitors; 48 seats in Economy Plus with 36 inches of legroom and 9-inch entertainment monitors; and 66 seats in United Economy with individual seatback 9-inch entertainment monitors.
Personally, I don’t miss the old first class since United’s BusinessFirst is also lie-flat and stretches to 6’4″ and was the same seat I had when I flew from Newark-Dublin back in December on United as well. Currently only 4 of these 15 757’s are retrofitted. You can track the p.s. fleet reconfiguration progress here which is suppose to be complete by the end of 2013.
Here are the other new features of United’s refreshed p.s. product:
- Complimentary in-seat audio/video on-demand entertainment
- USB and standard 110v power outlets accessible from every seat
- Quicker Gogo Wi-Fi
Meal service was pretty decent, though nothing to go on and on about – as usual, I thought the steak was probably the wisest choice and it was pretty tasty vs. a creamy stuffed chicken or creamy tortellini pasta option.
I was able to access the United Club at JFK, since United provides complimentary lounge access to BusinessFirst customers on their transcon routes, and while the lounge isn’t the most exciting, at least it’s a quiet place out of the main concourse where I could get some work done before my trip.
Overall, my experience was really nice and a good upgrade from United’s previous business class offerings on this route. Even more exciting, though, is that it heralds a new day in transcontinental flying.
How the Competition Stacks Up
American currently offers between 8-10 non-stop flights a day between JFK-LAX and it will start replacing its aging widebody 767 aircraft with a huge new order of smaller A321’s beginning in November 2013 through 2014, dropping the number of seats on each plane from 168 to just 102 and then increasing the number of flights per day to about 14.
The new A321’s will have 10 fully lie-flat seats in a 1 x 1 configuration in first class. Business class will have 20 lie-flat seats in a 2 x 2 configuration, while the Main Cabin will be your typical 3 x 3 configuration with 36 Main Cabin Extra seats. The entertainment systems on these aircraft will also have seat-to-seat chat, live text news and weather updates, 3-D moving maps, airport maps and connecting gate information. Travelers in premium classes will have access to free entertainment on the 15.4-inch screens, and Bose headsets.
American has Flagship Lounges at JFK and LAX, and any ticketed business or first class passenger on an F or Z fare can access them, while travelers in business with J or U fares can also access the regular Admirals Club at these locations and at SFO.
Delta is currently operating Boeing 767’s with its fully lie-flat BusinessElite seats and 757’s with 16 recliner BusinessElite seats on all long-haul flights between Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.
They began operating fully lie-flat 767’s back in March, and now have four of their seven daily flights between JFK-LAX and one of five daily flights between JFK and Seattle operating with 767’s equipped with latest BusinessElite product. The entire fleet of Delta widebodies is scheduled to be completely refitted with the seats by early 2014.
The 767’s have 29 Economy Comfort seats with 35 inches of pitch and 50% more recline (to maybe about 5 inches). For those stuck in the 171 Economy seats back, every seat has a personal 9-inch video monitor and USB power while Business Elite and Economy Comfort seats will have 110v power outlets.
The 757’s have 16 recliner BusinessElite (expected to be converted to lie-flat seats within next 2 years) seats in a 2 x 2 configuration, 44 seats in Economy Comfort and 108 Economy seats, each of which will have its own video monitor, and every seat has 110v and USB power ports.
Customers flying in Delta BusinessElite on transcon flights receive complimentary access to the Delta Sky Club.
JetBlue announced earlier this year that they plan to add a business class product to their current all coach fleet. The new business class will include 4 single seats that are ‘mini-suites’ types. These mini-suites consist in a seat with surrounding furniture intended to provide privacy to the occupants.
In addition to a new business class, there will actually be an ultra-premium first class on the airline’s new A321 aircraft, which are scheduled for delivery by the end of this year. There will be 16 premium seats total which will be broken down into 4 first class suites, and 12 business class seats. These will only be used for their transcon flights, but if they do well, it’s possible that JetBlue will add first class to other types of aircraft in their fleet. These planes are scheduled for delivery by the end of 2014.
Virgin America currently flies a fleet of A320′s between JFK and Los Angeles/ San Francisco. They currently have 5 daily flights to/from LAX and 4 daily flights to/from SFO. The A320 has 8 First Class seats, 12 Main Cabin Select seats, and129 Main Cabin seats and occasionally an A319 will fly this route, which offers the same number of First and Main Cabin Select seats, but only 99 Main Cabin seats. Their planes are probably best known for their sleek/futuristic interiors that feature mood lighting and are equipped with Gogo Wifi on-board. All of the seats feature audio visual on demand touchscreen seatback TV’s and personal power plugs.
Virgin America’s First Class cabin features white leather recliner seats with 55 inches of pitch, 21 inches of width and 165 degrees of recline. First Class passengers receive complimentary food, drinks and entertainment, two free checked bags and priority boarding. This product is similar to Delta’s current 757 recliner style BusinessElite seats.
Virgin America has Clubhouses at SFO and JFK (and Washington Dulles). Confirmed First Class, Main Cabin Select and Elevate customers can purchase access to the lounge at SFO (either at online check-in or at the airport) for $35. Only Confirmed First Class and Main Cabin Select passengers can purchase access to the Clubhouse at JFK for $75.
Which new product are you most excited to test out?