Pods, lie-flat seats and recliners: A look at premium transcon service by airline
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Well, it’s finally happening.
United Airlines is returning to New York’s largest and busiest airport. Five years since it pulled the plug on flights from JFK, the Chicago-based carrier has announced that it’s returning.
Beginning on Feb. 1, 2021, UA will add flights between JFK and both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO).
United will face stiff competition from nearly every major U.S. airline. Alaska, American, Delta and JetBlue all vie for the deep-pocketed travelers crisscrossing the country.
As such, the airlines fly their most luxurious jets on these five-plus hour domestic routes. Aside from Alaska, all feature fully-flat beds in the pointy end of the plane.
Nonetheless, the business- and first-class products differ significantly, so let’s take a look at where things stand today.
Alaska Airlines on the Airbus A321 and Boeing 737
Alaska Airlines simply doesn’t compete with the four other airlines serving the transcon market.
That’s because the carrier offers a standard domestic first-class product on its cross-country flights. Arranged in a 2-2 configuration, the recliners are no different than the ones you’ll find on a short hop from Los Angeles to Seattle.
In addition, there’s no seatback entertainment throughout the Alaska fleet. You’ll need to BYOD (bring-your-own-device).
Coach is outfitted in a standard 3-3 configuration. Unless you have a specific reason to fly with Alaska, you’ll likely have a more comfortable premium transcon flight on any of the airlines flying between the coasts.
American Airlines Flagship First and Business on the Airbus A321T
American Airlines is the only carrier to offer both biz and first in the premium transcon market.
AA has 16 dedicated Airbus A321Ts that exclusively fly between the coasts, making the carrier a preferred choice for corporate executives looking for the best commercial option.
The A321T sports 10 seats in first and 20 in business.
Flagship First is arranged in a 1-1 configuration across five rows. Each of the reverse herringbone Safran Cirrus seats features direct aisle access, a large table, decent storage and more.
Aside from an improved seat, AA differentiates the first-class experience with access to Flagship First Dining (when it’s open), an elevated onboard catering offering, an additional lumbar pillow and throw blanket and a more premium APL amenity kit.
Flagship Business isn’t too shabby either. It’s arranged in 2-2 configuration and sports the Rockwell Collins Diamond seat.
Though each seat reclines to a bed, traveling solo in business class is quite claustrophobic. There’s not all that much privacy, and you’ll need to climb over your neighbor to use the lavatory if you’re sitting in the window.
Note that business-class flyers can access American’s Flagship Lounge, a noticeable step up from the more bare-bones Admirals Club. (Unfortunately, Flagship Lounges remain closed due to the pandemic.)
The rest of the plane is outfitted with 72 coach seats in a 3-3 configuration, with half of them dedicated to the extra-legroom Main Cabin Extra section.
In recent weeks, AA has been making some changes to its transcon flying. Cirium schedules show that some flights will be operated by a wide-body Boeing 777-200, instead of the A321T.
Delta One on the Boeing 767
Delta’s transcon offering isn’t the most modern.
The carrier flies its aging Boeing 767-300s (and 757-200s) on its high-profile coast-to-coast routes. These planes have staggered Delta One seats, each offering direct aisle access.
Though the Thompson Vantage pods are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, the seats lack privacy. Plus, when you recline to a bed, you feel very close to the floor of the plane.
All Delta One flyers are invited to use the Sky Club before their flight.
In “normal” times, Delta offers a multi-course meal in biz, as well as a Tumi amenity kit and Westin Heavenly bedding. Due to the pandemic, the Atlanta-based carrier is only serving pre-packaged snack boxes.
Coach on the 767 is quite comfortable. It’s arranged in 2-3-2 configuration, split between Comfort+ and regular economy seating.
JetBlue Mint on the A321
JetBlue jolted the industry when it first announced Mint, the carrier’s take on business class.
Since its unveiling in 2013, the New York-based carrier has disrupted the legacy transcon pricing strategy. Plus, Mint is a flyer-favorite. In fact, it’s a two-time winner of the TPG Award for the best domestic business-class product, even though the airline doesn’t operate any departure lounges.
The five rows alternate between a 2-2 and 1-1 configuration.
This pattern means that there are four suites (2A, 2F, 4A, 4F) — each offering a retractable door that can be closed for added privacy.
The other Mint seats are still comfortable, but they’re a tight squeeze, especially if you’re traveling solo.
Unlike the legacy carriers, the Mint meal is served tapas-style. You choose three of five choices (two cold, three hot options). Flyers are given a Hayward amenity kit, as well as a comfortable pillow and blanket.
The JetBlue coach experience is also one of the best in the U.S. The cabin is arranged in an industry-standard 3-3 configuration.
JetBlue offers unlimited snacks, free Wi-Fi, live TV and a walk-up pantry bar on the A321. Just note that some of the services have been modified due to the pandemic.
United Polaris on the 787-10 and “High-J” 767-300
In years past, United’s best transcon offering has been on its Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner.
The longest variant of the 787 offers a very comfortable ride, both domestically and internationally.
There’s a single 11-row Polaris cabin with seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. You’ll typically find this plane operating once-daily between Newark and both LAX and SFO.
The “High J” 767 will exclusively operate the JFK routes.
This plane was designed for business-oriented routes, like Newark and Chicago to London. It sports 46 Polaris seats (instead of the standard 30), as well as 22 Premium Plus premium economy seats, 43 extra-legroom Economy Plus seats and 56 economy seats.
Polaris on the 767 is arranged in a 1-1-1 configuration, meaning passengers get their own pod. In a vacuum, I’d prefer the -10 Dreamliner, but both planes offer United’s latest product.
The transcon Polaris experience begins in the United Club (note there’s no lounge at JFK). Once airborne, flyers can expect a multi-course meal, a small amenity kit, Saks throw blanket and a pillow.
United is the only airline to offer a premium economy experience between the coasts.
The seat is quite similar to domestic first class, though it sports a footrest, additional recline and a larger inflight entertainment system.
The economy cabin on the 767 is arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration, with each seat offering a personal TV, power outlet and USB port.
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy
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