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Pods, lie-flat seats and recliners: A look at premium transcon service by airline

Nov. 10, 2020
7 min read
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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.

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Alaska Airlines on the Airbus A321 and Boeing 737

Review of Alaska Airlines first class on the A321neo

Alaska Airlines simply doesn't compete with the four other airlines serving the transcon market.

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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

Review of AA Flagship First on the A321T

Review of AA Flagship Business on the 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

Review of 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

Review of JetBlue Mint on the Airbus 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

Review of United transcon Polaris on the 787-10

Review of United Polaris on the "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 image by American Airlines Griff

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  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
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  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
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  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

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  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
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Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more