New Neo: A Review of American Airlines' A321neo in Economy From Phoenix to Orlando
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="78" ground-experience="7" cabin-seat="18" amens-ife="12" food-bev="18" service="23" pros="Wide seats, extensive inflight-entertainment options, fast Wi-Fi, good fresh food options available for purchase and friendly service." cons="Lack of seat padding, smaller (but not tiny) bathrooms, lack of built-in inflight-entertainment screens and only basic free drinks and snacks." /]
On February 1, American Airlines took delivery of the first of 100 Airbus A321neo aircraft. After two months of extensive testing, certification and training, the plane entered service on April 2 with flights from Phoenix to Orlando and back.
To check out every aspect of the new bird, I booked the flight both ways. I ended clearing into first class for both legs but switched seats with an economy passenger to fly one leg in economy. Here's what I found from touring the aircraft and flying in coach on the inaugural from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX) to Orlando Airport (MCO).
[Note: While TPG's policy is not to alert the airline that we are reviewing a flight, American Airlines corporate communications representatives checked and discovered that I was booked on this flight. Since the airline was aware I'd be on the flight, we arranged for an early look inside the aircraft before departure.]
We purchased the full itinerary (PHX-MCO-PHX-LAX) as a combination of two one-way tickets (PHX-MCO and MCO-PHX-LAX) for a total of $393, which we put on the Business Centurion Card from American Express. This card has become our go-to for AA flights, because it allows free changes/cancellations on AA flights booked through American Express Travel. Sure enough, that perk came in handy when the A321neo inaugural flight was changed. Amex Travel was able to quickly rebook me on the new flights from Phoenix to Orlando and then back to Los Angeles, via Phoenix.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="7" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="N400AN" age="0" departure="8" departure-2="45" duration="3" duration-2="29" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Upon arrival at Phoenix Sky Harbor, I walked past numerous empty kiosks and short lines in both the economy and priority-service desks. Seeing a couple of columns of balloons, I inquired of the priority-line-guarding agent if this was for the inaugural flight.
Turns out that it was -- but for another inaugural flight. Just a couple of days earlier, American launched nonstop flights direct from Phoenix to London Heathrow (LHR). The agent wasn't aware at all of the launch of the Airbus A321neo, but recommended I check out the "brand-new 777" operating the flights to London. I didn't have the heart to burst her enthusiastic bubble with the fact that the airline hasn't gotten a new 777 in over three years.
TSA PreCheck security at the Terminal B gates took just a few minutes, as the short line of passengers efficiently moved through the screening process. The walk down to the end of Terminal B to reach Gate B14 took only a few more minutes. There was nothing at the gate to mark the inaugural flight. However, as noted earlier, I did get a chance to check out the new aircraft before boarding -- both inside and out:
Unlike Delta and United, American doesn't alert passengers when a flight is boarding by text message or app push notification. Instead, passengers have to make sure they keep track of the boarding time and make their way to the gate -- whether or not the flight is boarding on time. As is common on AA, the gate agents began boarding before the stated boarding time. In this case, about five minutes early.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="18" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="3" configuration-2="3" width="18.25" pitch="30" tray="16.5" tray-2="8.5" lavs="3" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
The Airbus A321neo -- as with most mainline AA aircraft -- is arranged with three seats on either side of the aisle. On this plane, there are 176 economy seats. Most measure in at 18.25 inches between the thin armrests, and all seats have a bifold headrest to cradle your head or neck for sleep.
Of these 176 seats, there are 47 extra-legroom Main Cabin Extra seats. Generally, these have 33 inches of pitch and 3 inches of seatback recline.
The two sides of the aircraft aren't the same. The port side, seats A-C, has a lavatory a little more than halfway back.
Because of this lavatory, the economy rows differ from side to side. There are Main Cabin Extra seats on both sides of the aircraft in rows 8 to 11, 17 (the over-wing exit row) and 27 (with the exit-row door). In addition, on the D-F side, the starboard, there are Main Cabin Extra seats in rows 18 to 21.
While the pitch for most Main Cabin Extra seats is 33 inches, the exit rows have more: Row 17 has 38 inches of legroom.
On the A-C side of the aircraft, Row 27 only consists of two seats with unrestricted legroom at the exit door. The downside: reduced seat width. Seat 27B only measures 16.5 inches between armrests, and 27C 17 inches. So I'd recommend these seats only for tall, skinny passengers.
Seat 28A also had limitless legroom and featured both window and aisle access. Plus, there was no reduction in seat width. Surprisingly for a seat that's one of the best economy seats, it was only labeled a Preferred seat instead of Main Cabin Extra.
The seats with the most legroom and pitch in the entire aircraft -- including first class -- are 27D, E and F, with around 43.5 inches of pitch. However the location right next to an exit-row door makes 27F very cramped at just 17.25 inches wide. When I climbed into the seat to test it, my belt loop caught momentarily on the door-arming lever — this is a very awkwardly placed seat. 27D and 27E aren't as narrow.
Another option with plenty of legroom is Row 8, the first row of economy. Since there's no bulkhead between the first-class and economy cabin, passengers sitting in this row enjoyed all 40 inches of pitch and were able to store carry-on bags under the first-class seat in front of them.
There are 129 standard-legroom Main Cabin seats. Most rows measure 30 inches of pitch, but there are some scattered rows that have an extra inch of pitch.
It's important to note that legroom wasn't the issue with these seats. The shape of the slimline seats means that there is plenty of knee room, even for moderately tall passengers. I've seen a 6-foot, 5-inch man sit in these seats and not have his knees touch the seat in front.
That said, this extra space comes at the expense of padding. And the lack of padding was obvious after my four-hour ride in these seats.
One must-avoid standard economy row is Row 26. In addition to not being able to recline -- since there is an exit door behind it -- the exit door protrudes into this row's space. To compensate, AA installed smaller seats in the row, measuring 17 inches between the armrests instead of 18.25 inches.
One of the game-changing differences with the A321neo is the Airbus XL overhead bins. Janelle Anderson, vice president of marketing for American, has boasted that the bins are "the largest available for this aircraft and hold 65% more bags than our earlier A321s."
That said, there were a few pinch points to the overhead bin space. The flight attendants' safety-demo equipment was stored above Row 8, but there was enough space around it for bags. However, there's a small section blocked entirely above Row 11.
In the far back of the plane, there were a few more blocked overhead bins. However, there was still plenty of space for passengers' bags in the surrounding bins.
American's other new plane is the 737 MAX. One of the worst things about it is the tiny 24-inch wide lavatories. So that was one of the first things I measured on the A321neo. All three economy lavatories measured 28 inches from wall to wall. That's by no means large, but those four inches make a big difference.
Speaking of lavatories, there are three of them for up to 176 passengers in the economy cabin. While that 59 passengers per lavatory ratio might not sound great, it compares well with most of AA's domestic mainline fleet.
Another place where there's more space than on AA's MAX: the galley. Galleys feel claustrophobic in the MAX. When flight attendants sit down in the jump seats, their knees seem to almost touch the carts across the galley. Comparatively, the A321neo galleys felt downright spacious.
I measured 40 inches from the back of the jump seat to the carts on the opposite side. I don't have many measurements to compare that to, but it's 6 inches wider than the galleys on the Boeing 737-800s from before the retrofit. Hopefully, this space will lead to happier flight attendants -- and more space for when passengers need to maneuver around each other to get to and from the lavatories. (By the way, see anything that doesn't match in the photo above? That's a US Airways cart between two AA ones — a reminder that today's AA is the result of a merger.)
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="12" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="0" movies="162" tv-shows="239" live-tv="Yes" tailcam="No" wifi="1.07" wifi-2="14.89" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Citing obsolescence, cost and weight, American Airlines has decided to ditch inflight-entertainment screens on its domestic fleet. All new Boeing 737 MAXes, retrofitted Boeing 737-800s and now Airbus A321neo aircraft are going to be fitted with a tablet holder rather than an IFE screen.
In front of each row of economy seats are three universal power outlets. One between seats A and B and E and F, with two side-by-side outlets between seats B and C and D and E. In addition, each seat has a USB outlet on the seat back next to the tablet holder for convenient charging.
As someone who doesn't travel with a tablet -- and as someone who notices that few passengers do -- this lack of IFE screens was a big strike against my judgment of the A321neo's inflight-entertainment score. However, for those who have a tablet or use their phone or laptop and know how to connect to the inflight entertainment, there were plenty of options.
In April 2019, American Airlines is streaming 162 movies, 239 TV episodes and 12 channels of live TV for free through the ViaSat Wi-Fi system.
While earbuds weren't proactively handed out, a flight attendant said that they were available for free to those who asked.
AA's Airbus A321neo aircraft are entering service with high-speed, satellite-based ViaSat Wi-Fi. This is my favorite of the three different Wi-Fi providers that American Airlines uses, as you can be connected gate to gate and it's truly high-speed, with the download speed clocking in faster than many hotels that I've stayed at.
Gogo monthly subscribers don't need to worry about extra cost. On the Wi-Fi landing page, there's a link for Gogo subscribers to log in with their Gogo account and access the ViaSat system for free. While it does take an extra step to log in, it's great that AA brokered a deal between the two providers to make a relatively seamless experience.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="18" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="0" meals-purchase="Fresh food from Zoës Kitchen" comp-alcohol="No" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
On this four-plus-hour flight, flight attendants offered numerous drink services,with complimentary sodas, juices, coffee, water and other nonalcoholic drinks. The first drink service also featured Biscoff cookies, but no other snacks were served.
As an Executive Platinum elite, I'm entitled to a complimentary onboard snack. And even through I'd self-downgraded from first class to economy for this review, the flight attendants let me keep this perk. I asked for a Zoës Kitchen continental breakfast box -- Belgian waffle, hazelnut spread and fresh berries -- but ended up being served a fruit-and-cheese plate instead. This plate typically costs $8.99.
After taking a look at the healthy contents, I figured it'd be better if I ate this instead of asking to swap it out. While the fruit tasted fresh, the biscuit and cheese seemed a little older. Having boarded the flight without eating breakfast, I felt surprisingly full after eating, and it kept me satisfied until dinner on the return flight.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="23" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="Flight attendants were cheery and helpful on this inaugural flight." /]
This section comes with a big caveat: We typically don't do full reviews of inaugural flights, especially when we've received early boarding to be able to take clean photos of the cabin. Between the excitement of the inaugural flight and being outed as a member of the media, this can lead to a very different experience than what a typical flyer would get.
With that said, the flight attendants were cheery, friendly and helpful on this flight. They performed three drink services on the just-over-four-hour flight with plenty of trash-pickup runs. I heard flight attendants explaining to passengers in Main Cabin Extra about how they were eligible to get free alcoholic drinks on board. FAs explained the new Zoës Kitchen fresh meal options to those who were unfamiliar.
An interesting choice for the inaugural: One of the flight attendants hadn't worked a flight in months. He'd been coordinating for special projects for flight attendants rather than working flights himself. While he was a tad slower on service as he got back into the groove, his cheery attitude made up for it.
These flight attendants didn't seem to mind at all that they needed to do a manual safety presentation, as the lack of inflight entertainment screens meant that they couldn't just play a video. I assume the average AA flight attendant will be less thrilled with having to do an old-school demonstration.
I came into this flight assuming that AA's Airbus A321neo was going to just be a larger version of the cramped and frankly miserable AA Boeing 737 MAX. Don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of similarities: slimline seats, lack of seat padding, narrow pitch, lack of a bulkhead between first and economy, seats crammed in where they shouldn't be and smaller-than-average bathrooms.
However, I was relieved that it wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. Larger and more lavatories, wider seats, more Main Cabin Extra seats, larger galleys and huge overhead bins really make this a lot better of a product than it could've ended up being.
With all that said, this isn't an aircraft type that I'm going to seek out. While there are still legacy American Airlines 737-800s and A321s with IFE screens, fast internet and more pitch still flying around, I'm going to pick those instead -- if I have the choice. However, the A321neo isn't going firmly on the "nope" list like the AA 737 MAX did after my first flight on it.
All images by the author.