No, American isn't retiring its Flagship First product right now
Could American Airlines be gearing up to retire its Flagship First product?
That's the question industry observers are asking on Thursday after the airline started marketing its premium transcon first-class fares as a "Premier" product dubbed "Flagship Business Plus." It didn't take long for a FlyerTalk forum to start trending, and aviation blogs to pick up the news.
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It also didn't take long for American Airlines to remove all references to the "Flagship Business Plus" product and restore its "Flagship First" fares on premium transcon flights operated by the carrier's swanky Airbus A321T.
In a statement acknowledging what happened, an American Airlines spokesperson told TPG that first class is here to stay:
We are not getting rid of our first class product. An error due to testing caused the temporary removal of our Flagship First fare product. We have resolved the issue, and the fare is once again available for booking on our A321T and 777.
While there's no telling what's next for American's first-class cabin, it's back to business as usual on the premium transcon routes.
That means that flyers in the pointy end of the plane will continue to enjoy the dedicated Flagship First check-in and dining experience, as well as the most private and exclusive seats in the American fleet.
For context, American Airlines is the only carrier to offer both a first- and business-class cabin on its transcon routes from New York to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Orange County in California, as well as from both Boston and Miami to Los Angeles.
All flights, except for those to Miami, are operated by American's three-cabin Airbus A321T, which is outfitted with 10 Flagship First pods, 20 Flagship Business lie-flats, and 72 coach seats, half of which are in an extra-legroom configuration. (Some Miami flights are operated by the Boeing 777-300ER, which features four cabins — first, business, premium economy and coach.)
Being the only U.S. carrier to offer a first-class product, American's Flagship First fares can easily top $2,000 for a one-way transcon flight. While the product is a marked improvement compared to the 2-2 configuration in business class, the airline has struggled in recent years to fill the first-class cabin with paying passengers. That's been especially hard during the pandemic when business travelers (and those with large corporate expense accounts) have been grounded and working remotely.
In many cases, non-revenue employees and those using upgrade certificates have been the ones seated in first class on these routes.
For American, that's likely an issue that it'd like to address.
In fact, based on the "testing error" on Wednesday, it appears that the airline is considering doing something similar to JetBlue. Last year, JetBlue inaugurated its first Airbus A321neo with a new Mint business-class cabin, all arranged in a 1-1 configuration.
Review: American Airlines Airbus A321T from New York-JFK to Los Angeles in Flagship First
However, the two bulkhead pods in the new Mint product are substantially better than those "in the back." They're larger, offer more sleeping surface and feature a small closet, buddy seat and second tray table.
JetBlue sells one Mint fare on all its premium transcon flights — both those operated by the new and old Airbus A321s — and instead charges a buy-up for a bulkhead seat assignment on the A321neo, which it brands as the "Mint Studio."
For American, it appears that something similar is under consideration. The 10 Flagship First pods on the Airbus A321T are arranged in a 1-1 configuration, with direct aisle access for each passenger. They're more spacious and offer more storage and privacy than the Collins Aerospace Diamond seats in business class.
Just like JetBlue charges a modest premium for its Mint Studio (roughly $200 on transcon flights), it's possible that American might be considering a similar setup for Flagship First with a rebranded "Flagship Business Plus" product.
That said, there are still more questions than answers. If American makes the switch, will travelers who are sitting in the front of the plane continue to enjoy access to Flagship First check-in and dining? Will the onboard service flow change for those seated in the most exclusive seats? What happens to upgrades? And, does the change also apply to international flights aboard the Boeing 777-300ER?
At this point, all we can do is speculate about what's next for American's first-class product. Until then, American has reassured us that Flagship First is here to stay.