Are the days of flying domestically in a lie-flat seat over?

May 13, 2020

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Most people know what to expect when flying domestically in the U.S.

If you’re ticketed in coach, your seat will probably have a small tray table and pocket. There may be a personal television and you might be served a drink and get a pick from the snack basket. Passengers at the pointy end of the plane typically have a bit more room and added recline, as well as an elevated culinary experience.

But every so often, flyers are treated to internationally configured aircraft on domestic routes. These planes have lie-flat seats in first class that convert into full beds. Savvy travelers looking to maximize the inflight experience know to choose flights operated by these planes.

American Flagship First on the Airbus A321T (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Before the coronavirus pandemic, each of the big three U.S. legacy airlines offered multiple flights around the country on such planes. Sometimes these aircraft needed to be repositioned between hubs or there was ample downtime between international flights to allow for a quick domestic turn.

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For instance, TPG’s CEO Brian Kelly always chose the American Airlines Boeing 767 or Boeing 777 for his hops from New York to Miami. As a United flyer myself based in New York, I often got the opportunity to fly the carrier’s internationally configured Boeing 757 on routes to Denver, Fort Lauderdale, Seattle and more.

Nonetheless, there were some domestic routes that were always operated by planes with lie-flat seats, primarily the premium transcontinental routes between New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco. In fact, my review of Flagship First on the American Airbus A321T just published on Monday (be sure to follow my Instagram for highlights from the flight).

But then the pandemic halted travel.

With carriers bleeding cash and flights going out empty, airlines quickly sent a good chunk of their fleets to the desert. As the weeks went on, routes continued to get consolidated and some metro areas like New York lost most of their air connectivity.

During the slowest weeks, we even saw American suspend its premium transcontinental flights. United continued flying these once-lucrative routes, but it pulled the lie-flats from the market. (Delta and JetBlue maintained their premium Delta One and Mint offerings, respectively, throughout).

JetBlue Mint (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Now that travel is slowly starting to rebound, and some passengers are booking future travel, they might be surprised to see many fewer domestic flights operated by internationally configured aircraft.

In American’s case, that’s because the carrier retired a large swath of its fleet that used operate domestically, namely the Boeing 757 and 767. With many fewer planes with lie-flat seats, there’s simply going to be less chance that AA puts these premium aircraft on domestic flights (once international travel picks up again).

Plus, AA strategically kept the now-retired 767s on domestic hops since these planes offered an outdated business-class product that couldn’t compete internationally. But they were a big improvement (in biz) for domestic flyers used to the carrier’s Boeing 737s.

There’ll still be some domestic routes operated by AA’s 787 Dreamliners and 777s, but far fewer than before the crisis.

Related: A look inside the newly delivered American Airlines Boeing 787-8 with ‘enhanced’ business class

Delta is also going to downsize as demand recovers from the pandemic. The carrier hasn’t formally announced the retirement of any planes equipped with lie-flats, though it plans to bid farewell to an unspecified number of its aging Boeing 767s.

United hasn’t made formal plans to retire its Boeing 757s with lie-flat seats. Instead, it’s parked a subset of them, along with its 16 Boeing 767-400s, in long-term storage. That means we can expect fewer domestic lie-flats in the short-term.

However, United still has a sizable number of pre-merger Continental 757s with lie-flat seats that’ll likely grace the domestic skies once again. Plus, like AA, United operates some domestic flights with other wide-body aircraft that aren’t getting retired.

United Boeing 757 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Though all three major U.S. carriers will likely reduce the number of lie-flats we’ll see domestically, don’t expect much to change on the premium transcontinental routes. These routes are hyper-competitive, so airlines have traditionally brought their best products to these markets. In fact, American just restarted operations with its swankiest domestic jet, and United has resumed flying from New York to California with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Related: A review of American Airlines Flagship First on the Airbus A321T

A reduced number of domestic lie-flats could just be a short-term reality. American and United both had orders for the Airbus A321XLR and Boeing 737 MAX 10 respectively before the coronavirus crisis hit. It’s unclear if the airlines will go ahead as planned with those orders. United’s new MAX 10s are confirmed to be fitted with a with a lie-flat premium domestic product, and there’s a good chance that the new AA aircraft get lie-flats.

All in all, the coronavirus pandemic will have lasting implications on the airline industry. We’re going to see carriers emerge much smaller, with fewer domestic lie-flat flights on offer. There’ll still be some of these jets flying around the country, but it’s just going to be a lot harder to find them.

Featured photo by Daryl Chua/The Points Guy

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