Comparing premium transcon flights in the age of coronavirus
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If you’re after the best domestic flight experience, then you’re going to want to fly between New York and Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO).
That’s because all the major U.S. carriers offer their top products on these lucrative — and competitive — routes. Passengers sitting in biz (and even in first on American Airlines) will be treated to an exclusive ground experience, lie-flat seats, multi-course meals and more.
Before the coronavirus came stateside, I’d written a guide to choosing between American’s Flagship First, JetBlue Mint and United Polaris. But now that inflight service protocols have been modified to promote safety and social distancing, let’s take a look at how the premium transcon experience differs in the age of the coronavirus. This time, I’ll also add in Delta One to the mix, although it was left out of the guide to the best transcon experience since its seat isn’t as up-to-date or private as the other three. And don’t forget to pack your mask, since you’ll be required to wear one throughout your journey.
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On a typical domestic flight, you won’t be entitled to lounge access when flying in biz. However, the airlines make an exception for premium transcon flyers.
Across the board, American offers the best transcon ground experience since passengers can use the Flagship Lounge, which is typically reserved for international biz flyers. Flagship Lounges offer refined dining options, an expanded bar and nicer seating options than the regular Admirals Club.
However, due to the coronavirus, all Flagship Lounges are currently closed indefinitely. American says it doesn’t plan to reopen the lounges until there’s sufficient demand. In the meantime, Flagship Business and First flyers will be able to access the regular Admirals Club at JFK, LAX and SFO. The LAX location in Terminal 4 is currently open, and the JFK outpost reopens on June 22. There’s no date yet for when the SFO outpost will reopen.
Related: Is American Flagship First worth it?
Delta doesn’t (yet) offer a lounge dedicated solely to business-class passengers. For now, all transcon Delta One passengers can access the Sky Club. The JFK and LAX lounges are open, but the SFO location is still closed with no updated reopening date.
Unlike the big three U.S. carriers, JetBlue doesn’t operate any airport lounges. Flyers in Mint, its business class, have access to a dedicated check-in area at JFK’s Terminal 5, but there’s hardly a reason to get to the airport early when flying Mint since there’s no lounge to use. As such, the Mint ground experience is unchanged.
United’s premium transcon service doesn’t include access to the Polaris Lounge. Instead, flyers can use the regular United Club. While there are clubs open at both LAX and SFO, the Newark (EWR) club is only open for customer service issues (no food or beverage service).
Cabin and seat
Because of the coronavirus, airlines have accelerated the retirement of many aircraft types. Additionally, we’ve seen some carriers remove their premium transcon jets in favor of more fuel-efficient ones.
American suspended its transcon routes between JFK and LAX and SFO for a short period when passenger traffic was at its lowest point during the outbreak. Fortunately, the carrier is once again seeing demand for these flights, so it brought back its swanky Airbus A321T to the routes. These 102-seater jets are configured in three cabins: first, business and coach.
The Delta 757 is outfitted with the Collins Aerospace Diamond business-class product, which is arranged in a 2-2 configuration. On the other hand, Delta’s 767 sports the Thomson Vantage biz product, arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration. As such, each passenger gets direct aisle access, so if faced with the choice, I’d definitely recommend choosing flights operated by the 767.
JetBlue offers Mint on just one aircraft type, the Airbus A321. You’ll find 16 lie-flat seats arranged in an alternating 2-2, 1-1 configuration. The Mint Suite in the 1-1 rows is definitely the way to go, since it has a sliding door and added space to help maximize your social distancing. You’ll find Suites in rows 2 and 4.
United didn’t stop flying between the coasts during the coronavirus pandemic, but it did make the experience much less comfortable. It substituted lie-flat-equipped jets with 737s that sported recliners up front.
Fortunately, those days are over, and United’s back to offering service on a mix of the Boeing 757, 767 and 787-10 Dreamliner. If you get the choice, the 787-10 Dreamliner offers the most private Polaris experience, since it has the “new” seats. Some 767s do too, but it’s not a guarantee like it is on the 787-10. Finally, I’d avoid the 757 is possible. Like Delta, the 757 is equipped with the Collins Aerospace Diamond business-class product, arranged in a 2-2 configuration.
Amenities and IFE
Though airlines have updated their service protocols, most of the amenities and IFE remain unchanged.
Delta continues to offer Westin heavenly bedding and Tumi branded amenity kits on its flights.
JetBlue continues to offer a pillow and blanket, and Hayward and Hopper amenity kit. To decrease touchpoints, Mint customers will receive a pair of complimentary earbuds rather than shared headphones.
United Polaris customers will receive Saks branded bedding, as well as amenity kits. The headphones remain unchanged.
Food and beverage
Aside from the ground experience, the food and beverage offerings are the most heavily modified in light of the health and safety precautions implemented due to the coronavirus. Across the board, we’re seeing the elimination of the pre-departure beverage, though the details of the food and beverage service differ across the airlines.
The meal options remain unchanged — you’ll still have a choice of warm entree. However, it’s all going to be served on one tray, so you can (temporarily) say goodbye to multi-course meals. Regular alcohol service is still available.
You might want to pack your own food and drinks if you’re flying with Delta. The carrier has suspended the traditional meal service for those flying domestically in Delta One. Instead, you’ll be served a packaged Flight Fuel snack box. Your sole drink option is an individual 8.5-ounce bottle of water (you can get more than one). Note that there’s no alcohol, plastic cups or ice available.
Like Delta, JetBlue is also abandoning hot food service in Mint. Instead, you’ll be served a selection of fresh fare from the EatUp Café menu, which includes options like a turkey and pepper jack sandwich and a jicama and grape salad shaker.
Beverage service is limited to a selection of water, red and white wine and beer, which will be served in single-use cups instead of glassware. In addition, the self-service Pantry will be unavailable.
United Polaris customers will still be served a hot meal, but it’ll all come packaged on one tray. There will be a packaged snack service before arrival too. Sadly, the ice cream sundae trolley is temporarily suspended.
All beverages will be served sealed, and there won’t be any ice, coffee, tea or poured alcohol. Instead, there will be canned beer and bottled individual wines on offer.
The transcon flight experience will look a lot different as travel begins to slowly rebound. Though the hard product isn’t changing, many elements of the service, especially the food and beverage options, are going to be quite limited.
Delta and JetBlue have totally suspended hot meal service. American and United still offer hot entree choices, but American’s got the broadest offering since it still offers the alcohol service.
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy
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