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Comparing Domestic Business and First Class: American Airlines

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As an AAdvantage Executive Platinum member, I’m generally a big fan of American Airlines. However, not all flights are equal, so today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr examines the value of the airline’s various first and business class offerings.

When you’re deciding whether to fly in a premium cabin, it’s important to account for the wide variety of domestic airlines and their products. It’s no fun to pay double the miles or triple the cash for a first class ticket on an old plane with a subpar product, especially when a little research could put you on a new plane or in a more luxurious widebody product.

To help you get the most out of your time at the front of the plane, in this post I’ll continue my series comparing domestic first and business class products by looking at American Airlines. I’ll present an overview of the domestic first and business class products, and analyze the value American offers on both revenue fares and award tickets in terms of the quality of the product you receive.

Note: You’ll have plenty of miles to book either of these premium cabins with the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard‘s current bonus offer, which gets you 75,000 bonus miles after spending $7,500 in the first three months.

The American Airlines Fleet

As with with other US legacy carriers, trying to discern what your domestic first class seat is going to entail can be tricky given the number of different aircraft and configurations American offers. Add in that the US Airways fleet is currently being integrated into American Airlines, and things become even more complicated.

American Airlines A319 first-class seat.

AA’s domestic fleet is quite dynamic. The former workhorse of the fleet, the MD-80, is scheduled to be completely out of the fleet by 2017. The Boeing 737-800 (738) and its 160 seats are becoming the mainstay on domestic flights in addition to the newer Airbus A321’s and converted US Airways A320’s. Regional jets and Airbus A319’s will serve markets that do not have sufficient demand for the 160-seat 738 or A321S.

The MD-80 has seen better days, and its first-class cabin isn’t very appealing, though I still find them comfortable and relaxing. Having the engines all the way in the back makes for a quiet ride on a red-eye, but you’ll still find DC power ports and worn out, smaller seats with less pitch than those on the 738. Still, many AA fliers prefer the MD-80’s first class over the new 738 first seats.

American flies several CRJ and ERJ regional planes. I flew first class on an ERJ-175 that still had the new plane smell over the holidays, and I really enjoyed the ride. There’s nothing fancy, but the seat was comfortable and the cabin layout was pleasing. I had space to store what I brought onboard, and there’s a lavatory in the front for first-class passengers (unlike the CRJ-700).

American has several new A321's entering service.
American has several new A321 aircraft entering service.

Ill be the first to admit that flying transcon routes like Miami-LAX on a 737 is unappealing. There are a few domestic routes served by widebody aircraft with internationally-configured first and business-class cabins. Via this helpful Flyertalk thread, I found the AA Cargo schedule, which shows domestic routes serviced by 767-300, A330, 777-200 and 787 aircraft. To be clear, it would take a lot of convincing for me to fly American 134 between Miami and Seattle nonstop for almost 7 hours on a Boeing 737.

American Airlines Classes of Service

First Class — The majority of domestic flights have Main Cabin and First Class cabins. Main Cabin Extra provides a few extra inches of legroom, but I wouldn’t qualify it as a premium cabin offering. Domestic first class on most flights and aircraft consists of a larger leather recliner seat, complimentary drinks, snacks and dining.

The one exception to standard first class is on 777-200 domestic flights, which offer the true premium experience of a 3-cabin aircraft. The 1 x 2 x 1 layout provides lie-flat seats, a cabin douvet and noise canceling headphones (also available on 767 service).

Boeing’s newest and soon to be most common fleet aircraft, the 737-800, offers slimline first-class seats, Boeing’s Sky Interior, in-flight power and personal IFE. Seat reviews seem to be a toss-up, as plenty of passengers equally criticize and compliment the cabin layout and level of comfort. Some 737-800 aircraft only offer overhead entertainment with the fold-down screens directly above the seats. On flights of less than 2.5 hours, complimentary programming like NBC Universal is shown on the overhead screens.

American's newer 737-800 First Class.
American’s newer 737-800 first class.

Business Class — This mid-tier cabin is offered domestically on 777-200 (772) and 787 domestic flights. The 787 is flying almost all international routes, but occasionally hops between Chicago and Dallas for crew familiarization. The 777-200 routinely flies MIA-LAX, MIA-DFW and MIA-ORD a few times daily.

American 777-200 Business class in a 2x3x2 layout. Photo Courtesy of Points Summary.
American’s 777-200 Business Class in a 2 x 3 x 2 layout. Photo Courtesy of Points Summary.

The 772 has a very undesirable 2 x 3 x 2 business cabin layout, tiny outdated IFE screens, DC power ports and recliner type seats. I actually prefer first class in a narrow-body aircraft over the 777-200 business class for long-haul domestic flights. Better yet, stick to the 767-300 first class if you want the wide-body domestic flight — at least you’ll have a window or aisle seat.

A321T — American really upped its game when it began offering Airbus A321 transcontinental flights on all JFK-LAX and JFK-SFO flights. The three-cabin airplane has wonderful business and first class products. The A321T features 10 flat-bed first-class seats in a 1 x 1 configuration, which are 62 inches long with 21 inches of pitch. They’re essentially open suites, and aim to bring the glory days of transcon flying into modern times. Notably, the first-class seat on the A321T is nearly identical to the wonderful business-class seats on the international Boeing 777-300ER (77W).

First class will only set you back 32,500 miles for a one-way ticket, and offers Flagship Lounge access, Flagship Check-in, full amenity kits, Bose headphones and three-course meals.

American flies the A321 between JFK-LAX with lie-flat seats in First Class.
American flies the A321 between JFK-LAX with lie-flat seats in first class.

The A321T business class is in a 2 x 2 configuration with lie-flat seats that are 58 inches long and 19 inches wide. You do receive Admirals Club access, but not Flagship Lounge access.

A321T Business Class
A321T business class.


Like other airlines, AA bases its food offerings on the length of your flight and aircraft type. Meals are served on flights longer than 900 miles from 5am to 8pm. There are exceptions and additional information for specific routes and the number of meal options offered. Check out this Flyertalk thread for the full details, as well as some entertaining reports and visuals of onboard meal experiences.

Made to order salad from A321T First Class.
Made to order salad from A321T first class.

Domestic airline food isn’t going to blow anyone away, but truly horrid offerings can deter a lot of travelers. I have found American’s menu to be perfectly adequate, and the menu aboard the A321T transcontinental flights have generated favorable reviews with most passengers, especially the ice cream sundaes and cookies with milk.


Like most US carriers, service can be great or indifferent with AA. Sometimes I catch a crew that makes the flight awesome when sitting up front. Other times I get a senior attendant who can’t be bothered to serve pre-departure beverages. I have yet to see any discord between former US Airways crew and American crew, but I imagine some stories will begin to reveal themselves over time.

I don’t have too many complaints for American, but not too many compliments either. My last AA first class flight left Atlanta at 5:55am and the attendant napped the whole flight after serving water. To be fair, most of the passengers were napping as well.


Value has different meaning for each of us, and it’s hard to pinpoint one aspect to say definitively whether American’s premium cabins offer good value.

For award redemptions, a one-way domestic flight in the lower 48 states is 25,000 AAdvantage miles in first or business, with A321T first class costing 32,500 miles. This is in line with the other domestic legacy carriers, but offers a leg up on Delta since you no longer know what you should be charged when using SkyMiles.

32,500 AA miles for A321T First Class  is good value, but availability can be sparse.
32,500 AA miles for A321T first class is good value, but availability can be sparse.

For award flights, I look at how many cents per mile a redemption offers to help me decide whether to pay cash or redeem miles. TPG’s latest valuations peg AAdvantage miles at 1.7 cents apiece, so if I can get better than that, I’m content.

For revenue fares, my searches for flights 60 days out showed me first class costing roughly 3 times as much as economy. On competitive routes, American often matches United and Delta on first-class fares. Paying cash for first class on domestic flights is a hard sell for me, as most flights aren’t long enough to justify the extra expense.

Bottom Line

I personally wouldn’t pay extra to fly first class on American for any flight under 3 hours. You’re likely getting little more than a slightly bigger leather seat and a few free snacks. I can deal with a seat that’s only a little smaller and save a few hundred bucks or 12,500 miles for such a short flight. Taking into consideration American’s vast number of domestic nonstop flights, the value of AAdvantage miles earned, on-time reliability, and the quality of the seat and service, I think American offers better value than United for domestic premium cabin fares, but you need to pay attention to which aircraft you book.

The one exception is American’s A321T business and first-class flights out of JFK. If it’s within your means (either with cash or with miles), I definitely recommend taking this flight.

What has been your experience in American Airlines premium cabins?

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