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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available – Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard
As part of TPG’s summer intern trip to Maui, each of our interns flew an initial leg from New York-JFK to LAX on a different domestic carrier (American, Delta, United and JetBlue) in order to compare the economy or premium (extra legroom) economy products on this major transcontinental route. TPG Intern Kevin Song flew on American’s A321T in Main Cabin Extra — here’s his review of the experience.
On a Thursday noon flight from New York-JFK to Los Angeles (LAX), I flew aboard one of American’s new Airbus A321 Transcontinental (A321T) planes. American now exclusively operates this aircraft on its transcontinental routes between JFK and both LAX and SFO.
In recent years, US-based airlines have been slowly adding enhanced legroom seating, each under a different moniker but collectively defined as “premium economy.” American’s premium economy product is called “Main Cabin Extra” — and I booked one of these seats for this transcon flight.
Booking the Flight
Unlike premium economy on Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines, Main Cabin Extra isn’t booked as a separate class; instead, it’s a slightly better seat in the same cabin of service. This means that your seat isn’t protected in case of irregular operations, but it does mean that 1) it’s cheaper and 2) you can purchase a seat that’s defined as Main Cabin Extra even if your company’s travel policy doesn’t allow seat upgrades.
My one-way ticket from New York-JFK to Maui (OGG) via Los Angeles (LAX) cost $849.22, though one-way flights from New York to Los Angeles are available for as little as $169 on American.
As an AAdvantage Executive Platinum elite, I was able to choose a Main Cabin Extra seat for free. Note that Oneworld Emerald, Oneworld Sapphire, and AAdvantage Platinum elites are also able to choose Main Cabin Extra seats for free. However, Oneworld Ruby and AAdvantage Gold elites can only choose Main Cabin Extra seats for free at check-in within 24 hours – otherwise, they’ll receive a 50% discount.
Here’s the fare breakdown for my one-way flight between New York and Maui:
One-way fare: $785.00
Taxes and fees: $64.22
Cash prices for Main Cabin Extra vary depending on the route, which seat you choose and the demand. But on this flight, prices ranged from $67-$86, with the bulkhead commanding the highest price, followed by aisle seats.
You could also book this JFK-LAX flight with 12,500 AAdvantage miles (each way), but you’d need to pay for the upgrade to Main Cabin Extra, as there is no way of redeeming miles for that.
Terminal 8 and Check-In
American’s operation out of New York-JFK is based in Terminal 8, which is composed of two concourses that are connected by an underground passageway. As an Executive Platinum, I used the priority check-in desks, which are a separate, glassed-off area to the left of the regular counters. I was the only one there and was quickly helped, but sadly, the desk agent neglected to attach the yellow priority tag to my checked luggage and I didn’t notice until my bag was already on the belt… gliding away.
The one security checkpoint at Terminal 8 can be a bit of a mess, due to its awkwardly placed entrance. If the regular line is long, you often have to cut through it to reach the TSA Precheck lane, which tends to inspire angry glares from passengers who think you’re cutting the regular line; this was my experience on this particular travel day. Once I reached the TSA Precheck line, though, it was empty and security was a breeze.
Once through, I headed to the remote Admirals Club in the opposite concourse, since that’s where my flight would depart. Economy passengers can get a day pass to this lounge for $50, but I got in with the Admirals Club membership that comes with my Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. (Note that earlier this year, this card added a $100 credit for Global Entry, which also includes TSA Precheck.) The lounge was nearly empty, allowing me a few moments to relax before heading to my plane to board.
The boarding process was less hectic than the usual JFK crush, possibly due to the lower number of economy passengers relative to premium cabin passengers. However, the flight was still pretty full, and after all standbys were cleared there were no empty seats.
Note that booking in Main Cabin Extra entitles you to Group 1 boarding on American, which means that you board after all premium cabin passengers and elites, with holders of its co-branded credit cards, like the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard. (Conversely, Delta boards its Comfort+ passengers in the “Sky Priority” group along with all Platinum and Gold Medallions, before its Silver Medallions and co-branded credit card holders.)
Cabin and Seat
American is the only of the domestic airlines to offer a true first-class cabin on this route. The A321T features 10 first-class lie-flat suites in a 1-1 configuration, and even includes a “pet cabin” for your furry friend. The seat is almost identical to the highly rated one American uses on its Boeing 777-300ER (77W) planes in business class. Further back in business class, the plane offers 20 very comfortable business seats in a 2-2 configuration. These are again fully lie-flat and highly rated.
Unlike the competing Boeing 757, the A321T boards from door 1L, instead of 2L; this means that economy passengers get to walk through the premium cabins and sigh deeply with lust. However, the A321T features American’s new slim-line economy seats, which, while not the most comfy ever invented, are at least decently well designed.
The economy cabin on the A321 takes up roughly half of the plane, and is divided into two sections — Main Cabin (standard economy) and Main Cabin Extra, each containing 36 seats arranged in a 3-3 configuration. Both versions of the economy seat have 18 inches of width, but differ in terms of legroom; Main Cabin offers 31 inches of legroom, while Main Cabin Extra offers roughly 36. This difference in pitch would mean a lot to a taller guy, but for me, the biggest benefit of Main Cabin Extra is that when the person in front of you reclines, you still have a bit of breathing room.
Every Main Cabin extra seat has a standard AC power outlet, conveniently located on the seatback in front of you, rather than awkwardly tucked under your seat, accessible only to gymnasts and/or contortionists.
Every seat also features an in-flight entertainment system, but unfortunately, unlike Delta Studio, American doesn’t offer free entertainment in Main Cabin Extra. Although they claim to have a free selection of NBC material, they don’t really — unless you want to watch the “American Way” documentary over and over.
Prices for entertainment start at $4.99 for Disney shows or the “premium package” of TV shows. Movies start at $5.99, but the latest flicks will run you $7.99.
The plane features Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi as well, and when I tried it, it was spotty throughout the flight. Speeds were decent at times, though — I got up to 9.43 Mbps down, but only 0.26 Mbps up. Prices vary considerably, but it costs $16 for a day pass if you buy it ahead of time.
Alternatively, you can use the free Gogo passes offered by The Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN if you’d like.
Catering and Amenities
Unlike other domestic airlines like Delta, American doesn’t make any special considerations for passengers seated in Main Cabin Extra. In fact, the service is absolutely identical to the regular Main Cabin.
On American, this means that there’s a limited selection of food for purchase, none of which tastes amazing. The menu on this transcontinental flight isn’t any more premium or special than any other domestic route, and all of the food options are cold, unfortunately.
As an Executive Platinum AAdvantage member, I received a free drink and any food item on the menu. I went with the Pastrami & Rye Sandwich, which ordinarily costs $9.99. It was a bit gross, bland and definitely not worth $9.99. The only other lunch option was an Asian Chicken Salad, which I didn’t try.
There are also snack options like chips and a fruit-and-cheese plate. I tried the latter, which cost $8.79 and wasn’t too bad, though the crackers that came with it were pretty stale.
Notably, paying for food purchases with an co-branded card such as the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard will net you 25% back as a statement credit, effectively giving you a 25% discount.
American is the only one of the major domestic airlines to offer complimentary elite upgrades on this route, as they do with all domestic routes. Unfortunately, the premium/elite-heavy nature of the route means that it’s exceptionally difficult to clear an upgrade.
Executive Platinum elites receive free upgrades, while other elites can use 500-mile upgrade “stickers” to request an upgrade. Since the distance between JFK and LAX is 2,470 miles, you’ll need to use five upgrade stickers for the flight.
I booked this flight about two weeks ahead of time and as an Executive Platinum, I ended up second on the airport upgrade list, out of 12 requests total. Since I wanted to review Main Cabin Extra, I asked them to take me off the upgrade list, though it’s unlikely I would’ve cleared anyway.
Be sure to check out our post on maximizing your upgrade chances on American, and know that Saturday morning flights are often the easiest to clear, while Monday morning and Thursday/Friday evening flights are often the most difficult.
Main Cabin Extra isn’t all that different from regular Main Cabin. You don’t get any special treatment, free food, free entertainment or really anything else.
The main perk is a few inches of legroom — and on a five hour flight, that can mean a lot. I’m not especially tall, but I did appreciate that when the passenger in front of me reclined their seat, I still had enough room to continue using my laptop, and wasn’t annoyed like I normally would be if someone reclined straight into my face.
So, as long as you manage your expectations, a seat in Main Cabin Extra is well worth the upgrade on such a long flight. Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, the 50,000 miles are worth $700. In addition, you can earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) toward elite status after spending $40,000 in a calendar year. As of July 23, 2017 this is the only card that offers Admirals Club lounge access so if you are an AA flyer this card might make sense for you. Aside from lounge access the primary cardholder will receive a Global Entry application fee credit every 5 years, first checked bag free for up to 8 travel companions on domestic itineraries and a 25% discount on eligible in-flight purchases on American Airlines flights.
Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, the 50,000 miles are worth $700. In addition, you can earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) toward elite status after spending $40,000 in a calendar year. As of July 23, 2017 this is the only card that offers Admirals Club lounge access so if you are an AA flyer this card might make sense for you. Aside from lounge access the primary cardholder will receive a Global Entry application fee credit every 5 years, first checked bag free for up to 8 travel companions on domestic itineraries and a 25% discount on eligible in-flight purchases on American Airlines flights.