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For most domestic flights within the US, premium travel is a misnomer. Forget about getting the kinds of perks you’d see on international premium products, like double-bedded enclosed suites, in-flight showers or even lie-flat seating, for that matter. Instead, expect to see nothing more than a wider recliner seat with a little additional legroom and meals that look better than they taste.
But on transcontinental routes, things are different, and carriers are pulling out all the stops to attract travelers, offering everything from lie-flat seats to designer meals.
My mission was to find out if the transcon business class offering on the carrier I knew best — American Airlines — measured up to the international long-haul product. Here’s what I found.
Post from RICOH THETA. – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
Transcontinental business-class fares rarely see great deals, and this time was no exception. I paid $716 for my one-way ticket with the Platinum Card from American Express so I’d be able to earn 5x points — in this case, 3,580 Membership Rewards points — for booking directly with the airline. One-way flights from JFK to LAX tend to start around $809 and can be as high as $1,709 depending on when you fly, so I lucked out this time around.
The same one-way flight could have also been theoretically booked for 32,500 American AAdvantage miles plus $5.60 in taxes, but it was extremely hard to find AA award space. However, if space had been available, I could’ve also booked American flights using British Airways Avios, since the airlines are oneworld alliance partners. The Avios cost for business class was triple the economy price and well over the price in AAdvantage miles: 37,500 Avios.
But I could’ve transferred both Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards to British Airways, whereas American didn’t have any transfer partners. So depending on what type of points you have, paying a few extra Avios could make sense.
Since I paid cash for my flight, that meant I would earn miles on the ticket. And instead of crediting my flight to AA’s frequent-flyer program, I put it toward Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan. With a status match to Alaska’s MVP Gold 75k, I was entitled to earn 275% of eligible miles flown — that’s 100% base + 50% cabin bonus + 125% MVP Gold 75k bonus — yielding a total of 6,807 miles for this one-way flight.
Upon entering JFK’s Terminal 8, I tried to avoid the self-serve kiosks, since I prefer to collect my boarding passes printed on AA stock rather than as flimsy kiosk print-outs — isn’t that just the AvGeek thing to do?
At the manned counters, there was no separate line for business class vs. elite AAdvantage members, so you can imagine the number of people in front of me. To make matters worse, there were only two or three agents tending to the crowd, and many of these folks seemed to be having issues. After getting nowhere for 15 minutes, I made the painful decision to use the kiosk instead.
I haven’t visited the Admirals Club since the recent renovation, so I was really excited to check it out. I stopped by at 1:00pm, giving myself enough time to grab lunch and see some of the new features before my flight.
I was greeted by two enthusiastic agents. I could tell they were extremely proud of the new setup as they explained all the improvements since I last visited.
With the new layout, passengers with access to the Flagship Lounge headed to the left while the Admirals Club was located behind the sliding doors on the right. A set of flight-information monitors let passengers check on their flight status.
The lounge was bright and cheery, thanks to the flood of natural light and bright color scheme of red, orange, white and silver. The lounge was almost empty when I first entered, but slowly filled up as time progressed.
There were plenty of seating options, from lounge chairs overlooking the tarmac to bar seating facing the buffet table to couches for groups.There were two dining options, depending on your class of travel. First-class passengers on three-cabin flights had the luxury of dining in the private dining room. I didn’t get a chance to visit, though. Instead, I hit the buffet.
The spread was a huge improvement over what was previously offered, and was pretty tasty. Two Coca-Cola dispensers offered sodas while the touchscreen espresso machines gave caffeine-craving passengers their last shot of joe before the flight.
There was also an alcohol section that was pretty similar to the regular lounge setup. What was new and interesting, though, was the DIY Bloody Mary station, as well as the nice setup for wine and champagne in the middle of the lounge.
Shower rooms were also nicely done up and well-stocked with the necessary amenities for a quick shower before the flight. Toiletries from C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries were provided, including shampoo, hair conditioner and body wash.
The aircraft taking me to Los Angeles was one of the four-class Airbus A321s featuring first, business, premium economy and economy. American calls them A321T for Transcontinental. They do all of American’s flying between JFK and LAX, as well as San Francisco.
Boarding commenced on time, and in orderly fashion according to group numbers. I was quickly welcomed aboard by a flight attendant as I made my way through the aircraft door.
Cabin and Seat
Since boarding for the narrow-body A321 aircraft is always from the L1 door, I walked through the first-class cabin, which was configured in the 1-1 configuration featuring lie-flat seats similar to the international business-class product available on the carrier’s Boeing 777-300ER. At the end of the 10-seat first-class cabin was a galley, followed by 20 business-class lie-flat seats in a 2-2 configuration of five rows.
Each seat had 58 inches of pitch and was about 19 inches wide, with a bed length of between 75 and 78 inches. More comfortable than private, each business-class seat was angled away from the center, so when slightly reclined, you couldn’t see your neighbor.
On each seat was a fluffy pillow and a blanket that kept me sufficiently warm throughout the flight. There was a bottle of Dasani water in the little compartment, which was big enough for me to keep my headphones in. On the wall were USB and AV ports, headphone jack and power outlets.
To the side of the seat was a side pocket, touchscreen entertainment console and tray table. The pocket was big enough to fit my 13-inch MacBook Air. The 15.4-inch, fixed-screen entertainment system could be used during take-off and landing, and it came with a small shelf underneath. From the side console, the seat could be reclined to a full 180 degrees.
From flying on this product a couple of times, I’ve realized that not many people are aware of the dedicated shoe well at the corner of the seat in front.
Once we were airborne, attendants handed out Bose headphones — possibly the best headphones to be provided by an airline. Unlike other airlines, this wasn’t placed at the seats before boarding, but only handed out upon request. More annoying, however, was that they took them back almost an hour prior to landing, which was especially irritating if you were halfway through a movie. (They gave out cheap earbuds as a substitute.)
There was also an amenity kit by Cole Haan, with a toothbrush and toothpaste, a pair of socks, an eye mask, and creams and moisturizers by C.O. Bigelow.
The media library was comprehensive, but I found the handset less responsive, so I just fiddled with the touchscreen.
In-flight Wi-Fi was available on this flight, though download speeds were, as usual, nowhere as fast as on the ground.
Food and Beverage
Since my last flight with the airline, AA had changed the look of the in-flight menu, opting to go with a simple white card. My menu featured a selection inspired by restaurateur Sam Choy, but I’d already decided what I wanted a couple of days prior online — American allows passengers in premium cabins to book their meals up to 24 hours prior to departure. That, to me, is a big win, both in terms of improving passenger experience and on the operational front, since it minimizes wastage.
Right after departure, beverage service began. On this flight, instead of pushing the cart and fulfilling orders as she went along, the flight attendant took our orders and served them individually from the galley. My gin and tonic came with a side of warmed nuts.
Half an hour later, lunch service began as flight attendants cleared empty glasses and laid out white tablecloths. I had beef carpaccio with a salad of spring greens, fresh strawberries and hearts of palm with a Fuji apple vinaigrette. The thinly sliced beef was tender and pink but bland.
The bread basket included pretzel, sourdough and multigrain rolls. My main course was pan-seared crabcakes with jicama slaw and a tomatillo-poblano cream sauce, and I washed it down with white wine. The crabcakes were huge but lacked flavor and composed largely of breadcrumbs.
I love ice-cream sundaes. I mean, how can you go wrong with that? I opted for hot fudge, chopped nuts and a little bit of what seemed to be severely over-whipped cream over Haagen-Dazs.
Flight attendants were attentive and cleared plates and refilled glasses throughout the hourlong service. Had I been in first class, I would have asked for a cappuccino after the meal, but that’s not available in business class.
After they dimmed the lights, the attendants put snack baskets out at the front of the cabin. They included chips, cookies, popcorn, bananas and apples. They also served freshly heated cookies an hour before landing, with a choice of chocolate chip or snickerdoodle, and doled out mints and sparkling water just before we touched ground.
To the Point
American checked off all the requirements for a good business-class product, but there were no defining moments. The service and food were acceptable but not exemplary, and losing the Bose headphones in the last hour was not the best way to end an otherwise good flight. If there was one area where AA did shine, it was in its remodeled JFK lounge. Until the carrier improves on its catering, I’d recommend you grab a meal at the lounge, skip the onboard meals and just enjoy the sundae and cookie on the plane.
All images by the author.
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