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Flight Review: American Airlines A321 First Class JFK-SFO

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Back in January of 2014, American Airlines launched their new A321T plane on flights between LAX-JFK, and between SFO-JFK in March of 2014. By June 2014, all five daily flights between the JFK-SFO cities in either direction have taken place on the new aircraft.

Flying in first class aboard this plane is great because the 10 seats are similar to American’s new international flagship business class aboard the 777-300 that I got to fly from Sao Paulo to New York last spring. They resemble the reverse-herringbone seats of Cathay Pacific business class and EVA Royal Laurel business class. I flew first class on this plane on the JFK-LAX route back when it first launched, and now that it’s almost a year later, I was looking forward to seeing how the in-flight experience has evolved.

The AA321 First class seat
The A321 First class seat
The AA321 First class seats
The A321 First class seats

My Ticket

I flew this product from JFK-SFO before connecting on to Tokyo first class on Japan Airlines, which I was really excited to try (stay tuned for review). The total out-of-pocket cost for my first class flights—from JFK to San Francisco on American Airlines’ new A321T, then onward from San Francisco to Tokyo Haneda on a Japan Airlines 777—was 62,500 American Airlines miles and $5.60. That’s 7,746 glorious miles of first-class travel for less cash outlay than a beer at most Manhattan bars! (For more details on how I booked my ticket, read this post.)

A Christmas welcome at the JFK Flagship check in
A Christmas welcome at the JFK Flagship check in

On the Ground

Check In

I was really looking forward to trying out the new flagship first-class check-in at JFK. I’d experienced this at Miami and previously at LAX, and the airline opened a new one at JFK in May. Basically, you get to go to a little room off the first class check-in counters where there are a few more counters staffed by special representatives, which is much more chic than the random, cordoned-off premium section in the middle of the terminal. After you complete the check-in process, you’re led straight to TSA Pre-Check, smooth and easy.

The desks at the JFK Flagship check in
The desks at the JFK Flagship check in

To be eligible to use Flagship Check-In, you must be one of the following:

  • Five Star Service customer (those who pay $125+ per person to get extra attention in the airport)
  • A ConciergeKey member (invitation only = be super important or spend a ton on premium class tickets)
  • Traveling first class onboard an international American Airlines flight or select oneworld alliance carrier anywhere in your outbound itinerary (eligible carriers including British Airways, Cathay Pacific, JAL and Qantas)
  • Traveling first class onboard an American three-class transcontinental flight departing from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Miami International Airport (MIA), or now from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)
The food in the Flagship lounge. Pretty good!
The food in the Flagship lounge. Pretty good!

The Flagship First Class Lounge

There are only four AA Flagship first class lounges, and JFK has one of them (the others are in LAX, ORD and London). The food quality in the lounge has improved in my opinion. It just seemed more visually appealing and looked fresher. It also tasted fresher, which was a plus! I had some cheese, as well as some turkey. In airport lounges, the food sometimes looks as if it’s been sitting around for awhile, which is a huge turn-off;  I was pleasantly surprised at the nice spread here.

The Flagship Lounge bar was well-stocked
The Flagship Lounge bar was well-stocked

Our flight was delayed 1.5 hours, so we ended up spending a long while in the lounge. Thankfully, the bar had a nice vibe, but the rest of the lounge was rather crowded and noisy, probably because you can access it in a variety of ways—not just by flying first class.

Ways to access this lounge:

  • Fly first class on an American Airlines or oneworld international flight in First Class on a 3-cabin transcon (JFK to Los Angeles or San Francisco)
  • Be an American Airlines Executive Platinum on an international itinerary, regardless of the class of service flown
  • Be an American Airlines Concierge Key member
  • Be a oneworld Emerald (top-tier elite, but excluding American’s own top-tier elites) flying on or connecting to a same-day oneworld flight
The first class seat...long enough but a bit tight
The first class seat: long enough, but a bit of a tight squeeze

Once I was on board, the seats were the same as I remembered. In first class, it has 10 fully lie-flat seats in a 1 x 1 configuration in five rows. Business class also has five rows of four seats each, for a total of 20 lie-flat seats in a 2 x 2 configuration. The seats are long enough for my tall body but are rather tight; this wasn’t a huge problem for me, but if you’re heavyset, this may be bothersome.

The AA 321 Seat/Bed
The AA 321 Seat/Bed

The main cabin is laid out in 10 rows of a 3 x 3 configuration with 36 Main Cabin Extra seats up front. Travelers in first and business classes have access to free entertainment on 15.4-inch screens, and are given Bose noise-canceling headsets. Back in the main cabin, seats have 8.9-inch touchscreens and the same entertainment options, as well as the big plus of AC outlets at every seat. The entertainment systems on these aircraft also feature seat-to-seat chat, live-text news and weather updates, as well as 3-D moving maps, airport maps and connecting-gate information.

The Menu
The Menu
The menu
The menu
My un-appetizing Veggie Stuffed Mushroom main course
My un-appetizing main course, the Veggie-Stuffed Mushroom

Meals

Lately, the in-flight catering in American Airlines’ first class has gone way downhill. For my main course, I chose to order the Veggie-Stuffed Mushroom, which looked horrendous and tasted like pure blah; the salmon and tuna appetizer and sundae dessert were equally average. I think that AA’s cutbacks in catering may be due to their impending merger with US Airways, but in all my recent AA flights, I’ve been extremely disappointed with the food service. When it comes to premium-class in-flight cuisine, both Delta and JetBlue are blowing AA out of the water. Really, healthier and fresher options should be available ASAP. Step it up, American Airlines!

The Salmon Tuna appetizer
Salmon/tuna appetizer
Sundae dessert
Sundae dessert

WiFi

WiFi was extremely slow. Lately, I’ve noticed that Gogo has been very spotty on almost all flights. Has anyone else encountered this issue?

Service

Service was initially interesting on this flight, as I had a borderline aggressive purser. He seemed obsessed with checking whether or not everyone’s phone was on airplane mode or not, and while I understand that there are rules that prohibit in-flight phone usage, it seems extreme that an attendant should stop in front of passengers’ seats and stare/glare at them. Other than this, the service was just fine, and only five of the 10 first-class seats were taken, so it was fairly quiet and empty. I slept for a couple of hours and the flight passed quickly.

Overall

Overall, this flight provided a solid service. I still haven’t flown business class on this route, but aside from the exclusiveness of first, there really there isn’t much difference in-flight—you’ll get the same (terrible) food and (average) drinks.

They could use a better wine selection
They could use a better wine selection

I think that American has an amazing opportunity to differentiate from other carriers with these routes, but I feel they lack elegance in their in-flight experience. They could really benefit from better food, some nicer wines—and perhaps some calmer flight attendants.

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