Want Your Own Row in Coach Across the Pacific? Book Now

Sep 18, 2018

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Every time I think I might get my own row on a long-haul flight, I watch the seat map obsessively in the days and hours up to my flight — and then cross my fingers as each passenger heads down the aisle during boarding. And, for about a month more, if you want to have a good chance of your own row in economy — or an almost certain upgrade to business class with a systemwide upgrade — boy, do I have a route for you.

In late October, American Airlines will no longer fly nonstop from Chicago to China. The last AA flight from ORD to Beijing is on October 20 and the last flight to Shanghai is on October 26. AA’s Vice President Vasu Raja said in the company’s public internal news podcast that these routes are being stopped because although the Chicago hub generally performs well, they have been creating “colossal” losses.

Routes can make a profit from two main sources: transporting people and transporting cargo. When I traveled from Chicago to Beijing on September 13, I witnessed firsthand how few passengers were being carried:

  • The business cabin didn’t have many passengers who had paid for business-class tickets. I could have cleared a systemwide upgrade immediately when I booked the trip as well as in the days before departure. The upgrade list was empty at the airport, and at least one non-revenue passenger was upgraded to business class after boarding completed.
  • Most passengers in Main Cabin Extra had their own three-seat row.
  • Most middle seats in the main cabin were empty as well.
  • The night before departure, an Admirals Club agent said there were more than 80 seats still being sold on the 226-seat 787-8 Dreamliner.

Although it’s unclear how profitable AA’s cargo operation is between Chicago and Beijing, apparently it wasn’t good enough to save the route.

My experience on this route seems common. Below are the loads currently showing on ExpertFlyer for a few flights between Chicago and Beijing in the upcoming week:

Blue seats are filled and white seats are open.
Blue seats are filled and white seats are open.

The end of a route usually isn’t good news for passengers. With American offering Basic Economy fares to Hawaii now, China has quickly become the best destination for special fares mileage runs. Plus, AirMule can help offset costs on trips to China so I tend to jump on cheap AA fares to China. The Chicago routes are particularly appealing, because they’ve offered a good chance of systemwide upgrades clearing — although to the 787-8’s rocking Zodiac Concept D seats — and also a good chance of getting a row to yourself in economy.

Once the Chicago routes are gone, AA’s Dallas and Los Angeles routes to China will likely see higher loads — which means more competition for using systemwide upgrades as well as fuller cabins.

So, if you’re hoping to use a systemwide upgrade or sleep flat in poor man’s business class with an entire three-seat economy row to yourself, you’ll want to fly on one of AA’s Chicago routes to China before they’re discontinued in October. The Beijing (PEK) flights are generally less crowded, so flying on one of these flights — especially in Main Cabin Extra — will give you the best shot at having a row to yourself. And some dates show as many as seven upgrades available to business class with a systemwide upgrade.

If you’re looking to take advantage of this opportunity, flights to Beijing (PEK) before the route is discontinued are currently available from $539 round-trip nonstop from Chicago (ORD), from $480 round-trip from Denver (DEN) through ORD or from $484 round-trip from San Jose (SJC) through ORD.

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