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With the phase-out of United’s Polaris First product, American Airlines stands alone among US airlines with a true international first class product, which it calls “Flagship First.” While it doesn’t compete among the best international first class products — certainly falling short of Emirates, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa and Singapore — it’s one of the best products that an US-based airline has to offer.

If you want to experience Flagship First for yourself, here’s everything you’ll need to know.

In This Post

Aircraft

While you can fly “first class” on many American Airlines planes, most of these are simple domestic first class. There are only two aircraft in AA’s fleet that have a true first class product — dubbed “Flagship First” by the airline: Airbus A321T and Boeing 777-300ER.

The A321T is a special configuration of American Airlines’ Airbus A321-200 aircraft designated for coast-to-coast flights. These aircraft are configured with 10 first class seats arranged in five rows of 1-1 seating. That’s a surprisingly-large first class cabin considering this premium-heavy arrangement of the A321 has just 102 seats in the aircraft.

Image by JT Genter / TPG.
Image by JT Genter / TPG.

Comparatively, the 777-300ER first class cabin is small. There’s just 8 first class seats in two rows of 1-2-1 seating on an aircraft that holds more than 300 passengers.

First class on AA’s 777-300ER.
Image by Brian Kelly / TPG.

Routes

The A321T is assigned to premium transcontinental routes:

Note that this aircraft also operates between New York-JFK and Boston, but this is a re-positioning route that doesn’t offer Flagship First service.

While the A321T routes are fixed, the 777-300ER is a bit more flexible, being moved around to different routes seasonally based on demand. Based on American Airlines’ schedule filed through the end of April 2019, the aircraft is operating on the following routes:

  • Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to São Paulo (GRU)
  • Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Hong Kong (HKG)
  • Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to London-Heathrow (LHR)
  • New York Kennedy (JFK) to São Paulo (GRU)
  • New York Kennedy (JFK) to London-Heathrow (LHR)
  • Los Angeles (LAX) to Hong Kong (HKG)
  • Los Angeles (LAX) to London-Heathrow (LHR)
  • Miami (MIA) to Buenos Aires (EZE)
  • Miami (MIA) to São Paulo (GRU)
  • Miami (MIA) to London-Heathrow (LHR)

Ground Experience

American Airlines has really upped its ground game in the last few years. Unless you opt to take a helicopter ride to the airport, your Flagship First experience will start at the check-in counter. If you’re originating from one of five airports with a Flagship First Check-In, you’ll get to use the private check-in area designed only for passengers flying Flagship First and top-tier elites flying on qualifying routes. You’ll find this option in Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), London-Heathrow (LHR), Los Angeles (LAX), Miami (MIA) and New York-JFK:

Photo of the New York JFK Flagship First Check-In by JT Genter / TPG.
Photo of the New York JFK Flagship First Check-In by JT Genter / TPG.

At the exit of Flagship First Check-In, you’ll be escorted to the front of the security line — which hopefully will be TSA PreCheck. After clearing security, it’s time for the lounge experience. If you’re originating or connecting in four airports — New York-JFKMiamiChicago or Los Angeles — you’ll get to use the Flagship Lounge.

Image of the New York JFK Flagship Lounge courtesy of American Airlines.
Image of the New York-JFK Flagship Lounge courtesy of American Airlines.

One of the biggest benefits of flying true Flagship First class is the sit-down, restaurant-style Flagship First Dining experience. Unfortunately, it’s only found in three of the six US airports that have Flagship First: New York-JFK, Miami and Los Angeles. American Airlines plans to open the Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) Flagship Lounge location in Q2 2019, which will include Flagship First Dining. However, there are no plans to add Flagship First Dining — or even a Flagship Lounge — to Boston or San Francisco.

AA Flagship Dining at JFK. Image by Brian Kelly / TPG.
AA Flagship Dining at JFK. Image by Brian Kelly / TPG.

The experience doesn’t have to end once you’ve arrived at your destination. If you don’t have to clear immigration upon landing — whether flying domestically or having gone through pre-clearance before an international flight — you have the option of going to Flagship First Dining upon arrival. For those arriving in London-Heathrow on Flagship First, you can head to the American Airlines Arrivals Lounge for a bite to eat from the buffet or a la carte menu. You also have the ability to grab a shower or even get your clothes pressed.

One of 30 shower suite at the American Airlines Arrivals Lounge in London Heathrow. Image by JT Genter / TPG
One of 30 shower suite at the American Airlines Arrivals Lounge in London Heathrow. Image by JT Genter / TPG

On-Board Experience

In addition to more spacious seats than in business class, one of the primary benefits of Flagship First is the level of service and food/beverage that you’re supposed to get. In a 2017 review of the 777-300ER product, The Points Guy himself wasn’t very impressed. However, American Airlines taken steps to improve its on-board experience since that review.

In Flagship First, you’ll get the full suite of new Casper amenities — including pajamas, slippers, mattress pads, pillows and blankets.

Image by JT Genter / TPG.
Image by JT Genter / TPG.

American Airlines just released new Flagship First amenity kits for 2019. The transcontinental Flagship First kits are by APL:

Image courtesy of American Airlines.
Image of APL transcontinental business and first class kits courtesy of American Airlines.

The international Flagship First kits are by This Is Ground:

Booking With Miles

Searching award availability

First, let’s make one thing clear: American Airlines first class award availability can sometimes be very hard to find. There are times where I can’t find a single nonstop first class award seat on a Flagship First route for months. At other times, I’ve found at least one seat available most days in a month on a transcontinental route. Also, the more prestigious the route, date and flight time is, the harder it’s going to be to find award availability — as AA obviously would rather sell these seats at high cash rates.

The easiest way of searching for American Airlines first class awards is right on AA’s website. Since AA can be frustrating about showing mixed-cabin awards, I recommend searching the true first class segment (i.e. MIA to GRU) and choosing the “nonstop only” filter to see which dates are available in first class.

If you’re connecting to a first class flight, you’ll then want to search first class awards from your origin on the date(s) you’re hoping to fly in order to see if there’s award availability on the connecting leg(s). Make sure to check the cabin of the connecting flight(s), as some options may actually book into economy and/or a subpar first class product.

Another option for searching American Airlines award availability is Qantas’ website. While you can also search through ExpertFlyer, you’ll need a paid subscription to do so and you won’t be able to see a calendar view of the availability. While it’s not the best option for searching, if you’re set on flying a particular date and don’t want to have to check for award space manually, you can set up an award alert on ExpertFlyer to be notified when an award seat opens up.

American Airlines AAdvantage

The most obvious way of booking American Airlines first class is to use AAdvantage miles. The cost for these awards is going to depend on what route you fly. Here are the prices for first class MileSAAver awards on the current routes that AA operates Flagship First:

  • Domestic transcontinental (JFK/BOS-LAX/SFO): 50,000 miles each way
  • US to Europe (DFW/JFK/LAX/MIA-LHR): 85,000 miles each way
  • US to South America Region 2 (DFW/JFK/MIA-GRU/EZE): 85,000 miles each way
  • US to Asia Region 2 (DFW/LAX-HKG): 110,000 miles each way

If you’re short on AAdvantage miles, you can transfer Marriott Bonvoy points at a ratio of 3:1 with 5,000-mile bonus for transferring 60,000 points. While it’s not as quick as transferring points, you can earn AAdvantage miles through the following credit card sign-up bonuses:

Etihad Guest

Just because AAdvantage is the most obvious choice doesn’t mean it’s the best way to book AA first class. Indeed, a much cheaper way to do so is through the Etihad Guest program. The trouble is, this sweet spot might be coming to an end soon.

  • Domestic transcontinental (JFK/BOS-LAX/SFO): 25,000 miles each way
  • US to Europe (DFW/JFK/LAX/MIA-LHR): 50,000 miles each way
  • US to South America Region 2 (DFW/JFK/MIA-GRU/EZE): 50,000 miles each way
  • US to Asia Region 2 (DFW/LAX-HKG): 55,000 miles each way

The other advantage of using the Etihad Guest program is that there’s more ways of accumulating points. Etihad is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards points (1:1), Citi ThankYou Rewards (1:1), Capital One (2:1.5) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 with 5,000-mile bonus for transferring 60,000 points). Also, Etihad Guest sells its miles for no more than two cents per mile — with the cost dropping even lower during promotions. Once you’ve accumulated Etihad Guest miles, here’s the process you’ll want to go through to book the award flight.

Japan Airlines Mileage Bank

Another program to consider when booking American Airlines first class awards is Japan Airlines Mileage Bank — especially when you have enough miles and there’s enough availability to book a round-trip in first class. Mileage Bank uses a mileage-based award redemption scheme where a round-trip will cost less than two one-way awards. Here’s the nonstop round-trip pricing for Flagship First routes:

  • Domestic transcontinental (JFK/BOS-LAX/SFO): 90,000 miles round-trip
  • New York-JFK to London-Heathrow: 120,000 miles round-trip
  • Dallas/Fort Worth to London-Heathrow: 135,000 miles round-trip
  • New York-JFK to São Paulo: 135,000 miles round-trip
  • Miami to Buenos Aires/São Paulo/London: 135,000 miles round-trip
  • Dallas/Fort Worth to São Paulo: 145,000 miles round-trip
  • Los Angeles to London-Heathrow: 145,000 miles round-trip
  • Dallas/Fort Worth to Hong Kong: 190,000 miles round-trip
  • Los Angeles to Hong Kong: 190,000 miles round-trip

Unfortunately, Japan Airlines miles are harder to accumulate than other options. Mileage Bank is only a transfer partner of Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 with 5,000-mile bonus for transferring 60,000 points). Also, transfers typically take 48 hours — which makes it even less appealing when you need to jump on rarely-open award availability.

Cathay Pacific Asia Miles

A final program to consider when looking to book American Airlines first class awards is Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles program. The catch here is that Asia Miles charges award prices based on distance flown rather than region-based, so it doesn’t have as straight-forward pricing, especially when you want to add a connection. There’s plenty of opportunities once you know how to maximize stopovers and open jaws, but here are the nonstop Flagship First routes for simplicity:

  • Domestic transcontinental (JFK/BOS-LAX/SFO): 45,000 miles each way
  • Dallas/NYC/Miami to London-Heathrow: 75,000 miles each way
  • Miami to Buenos Aires/São Paulo: 75,000 miles each way
  • New York-JFK to São Paulo: 75,000 miles each way
  • Los Angeles to London-Heathrow: 120,000 miles each way
  • Dallas/Fort Worth to São Paulo: 120,000 miles each way
  • Los Angeles to Hong Kong: 120,000 miles each way
  • Dallas/Fort Worth to Hong Kong: 135,000 miles each way

It’s also easy to earn Asia Miles, as the program is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards points (1:1), Citi ThankYou Rewards (1:1), Capital One (2:1.5) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 with 5,000-mile bonus for transferring 60,000 points).

Comparison Chart

Putting those four options together, here’s a recap of your options for one-way awards:

From To Flight Miles Etihad Guest Asia Miles AAdvantage Mileage Bank
JFK LAX 2,475 25,000 45,000 50,000 65,000
JFK SFO 2,586 25,000 45,000 50,000 65,000
BOS LAX 2,611 25,000 45,000 50,000 65,000
JFK LHR 3,451 50,000 75,000 85,000 65,000
MIA GRU 4,072 50,000 75,000 85,000 90,000
MIA EZE 4,406 50,000 75,000 85,000 90,000
MIA LHR 4,425 50,000 75,000 85,000 90,000
JFK GRU 4,745 50,000 75,000 85,000 90,000
DFW LHR 4,750 50,000 75,000 85,000 90,000
DFW GRU 5,111 50,000 120,000 85,000 90,000
LAX LHR 5,456 50,000 120,000 85,000 90,000
LAX HKG 7,260 55,000 120,000 110,000 120,000
DFW HKG 8,123 55,000 135,000 110,000 120,000

And for round-trip awards:

From To Flight Miles Etihad Guest Mileage Bank Asia Miles AAdvantage
JFK LAX 4,950 50,000 90,000 90,000 100,000
JFK SFO 5,172 50,000 90,000 90,000 100,000
BOS LAX 5,222 50,000 90,000 90,000 100,000
JFK LHR 6,902 100,000 120,000 150,000 170,000
MIA GRU 8,144 100,000 135,000 150,000 170,000
MIA EZE 8,812 100,000 135,000 150,000 170,000
MIA LHR 8,850 100,000 135,000 150,000 170,000
JFK GRU 9,490 100,000 135,000 150,000 170,000
DFW LHR 9,500 100,000 135,000 150,000 170,000
DFW GRU 10,222 100,000 145,000 240,000 170,000
LAX LHR 10,912 100,000 145,000 240,000 170,000
LAX HKG 14,520 110,000 190,000 240,000 220,000
DFW HKG 16,246 110,000 190,000 270,000 220,000

Know before you go.

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