American Airlines exec details the future of the carrier’s swankiest jet

Nov 25, 2020

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There’s one route that sets the standard for premium travel within the U.S.

Before the pandemic, the Big 3 U.S. airlines, as well as JetBlue, engaged in cutthroat competition for their share of deep-pocketed travelers flying between New York (JFK) and Los Angeles (LAX).

While the premium transcontinental offerings differ by airline, American Airlines has traditionally had the most luxurious cabin in the market, Flagship First.

In fact, the Fort Worth-based carrier has primarily flown a dedicated sub-fleet of Airbus A321s, dubbed the A321T, between the coasts. With ten seats in first, 20 in biz, 36 in extra-legroom coach and 36 in standard economy, this 102-seater jet is the swankiest in the fleet — and my personal favorite.

Flagship First on the A321T

Yet, since early November, the plane has largely been grounded… Why?

We asked Brian Znotins, AA’s vice president of network planning, for the inside scoop.

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“It’s pretty simple. We have a business-focused aircraft and there’s very little business demand right now,” Znotins told TPG.

In its place, the carrier is subbing in the wide-body Boeing 777-200, Cirium schedules show. Instead of offering about ten daily frequencies between the airports, AA is down to between one and two a day.

As Znotins explained, “rather than fly a number of business- and first-class seats that aren’t getting filled, we decided to put widebodies on the route to cater the volume of the product to the current demand.”

And where exactly is that demand? Mostly in the back on the plane.

Explaining the rationale of the drastic frequency reduction, Znotins cited the “VFR (visiting friends and relatives) and leisure demand” that warrants a “low-frequency, high-gauge schedule.”

Boeing widebodies fit the (transcon) bill

Even without the A321T, American is still able to offer a top-notch product to those who are flying.

It’s current transcon wide-body strategy still includes lie-flat beds in biz for added comfort and distancing. The Boeing 777-200 sports 37 biz pods, 24 premium economy recliners and 212 coach seats.

Biz on the AA 777-200

Note that the carrier isn’t selling premium economy as a separate cabin. Instead, it’s considered Main Cabin Extra, so elite flyers can select a more spacious seat for the cost of a regular coach ticket.

Interestingly, AA opted not to use its more premium Boeing 777-300ER that features a dedicated Flagship First cabin on the route. That’s because “the 777-300ER is the best airplane in our fleet for cargo-only missions.” Flying passenger planes as freighters has become a revenue-generating alternative to flying nearly-empty long-haul flights — or keeping planes parked altogether.

You might think that New York to L.A. has a pretty robust cargo market. After all, Delta — which mainly operates twin-aisle planes between the coasts — made 46 times more cargo revenue per departure than American did in the year ending in March 2020, according to Department of Transportation data.

“There’s a cargo benefit, but not a cargo play” in the decision to swap the narrow-body A321T for the 777-200. “We’ll take advantage of cargo opportunities, but it wasn’t the driving force behind our deployment,” Znotins said.

Other uses for the A321T, Flagship First Dining

While the A321Ts have largely flown exclusively between New York and L.A., American is open to deploying them to other markets. In a “normal” environment with a healthy flow of business travel, there are “other routes with a demand profile that fit this airplane.”

While we don’t know exactly which routes AA is considering, past decisions might be illuminating. In 2019, AA deployed the A321T between Boston and Los Angeles, as well as Miami and Los Angeles, according to Cirium data.

Historically, AA has offered an elevated ground experience for Flagship First passengers. These flyers have been able to access exclusive check-in areas, as well as Flagship First Dining facilities that feature a la carte restaurant-style food and beverage service. (Yes, there’s Krug.)

Flagship First Dining LAX

Due to the pandemic, business-class-only Flagship Lounges and first-class-only Flagship Dining facilities are closed, but perhaps the access policies could change when they ultimately reopen.

With so few A321Ts flying, “our product folks are evaluating whether to roll out those premium services as an ancillary purchase… We can definitely unbundle them if we think that’s the right approach,” according to Znotins.

Increased transcon competition

AA’s move to remove the A321T from most transcon routes comes as that market is about to get even more saturated.

United recently announced that it’s returning to JFK on Feb. 1 after a five-year hiatus. The Chicago-based carrier plans to fly the premium-heavy Boeing 767-300 on its routes, with a whopping 46 Polaris seats.

Meanwhile, American and JetBlue are planning to create a “Northeast-focused alliance,” which includes codesharing on the transcon routes. “We’ll work to coordinate our schedules to the extent permitted by regulators,” Znotins remarked.

While the A321T is currently removed from L.A., you’ll still find it flying once-daily between New York and San Francisco. This will allow AA to keep the planes in service and crew up to date. “Plus, we have more demand for the widebodies in L.A. than in San Francisco.”

As to his best guess for when the plane will return systemwide, “we plan on all the A321Ts being back in 2021.” It’s very difficult to predict when exactly that is, but “once we have a widely available vaccine, you’ll likely see business travel returning.”

And once businesses take to the skies, so too will AA’s swanky A321T.

All photos by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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