Good, But not the Best: American Airlines A321T in Flagship Business SFO to JFK
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="78" ground-experience="8" cabin-seat="18" amens-ife="14" food-bev="22" service="16" pros="Delicious food, plentiful IFE options and fast Wi-Fi" cons="Underwhelming service and a middling hard product" /]
Competition on transcontinental US routes is fierce, with five airlines vying for lucrative business traffic between the Northeast metropolises and California. The prize is the routes from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco — American, Delta, United, JetBlue and Alaska all fight for it. In 2014, the competitive landscape on transcon routes changed, when JetBlue introduced its Mint premium product and American Airlines launched three-class service on the only Airbus A321 in the world configured with first, business and economy. Mint has in fact set the standard, winning the 2018 TPG Award for best domestic business class.
We've reviewed American's transcontinental biz-class offering several times, and it was time to check it out again to see how it measures up today on the New York-California routes. So we selected a weekday flight from San Francisco (SFO) to New York-JFK, one of five daily AA nonstops on the route.
The one-way fare from SFO to JFK on a Monday morning in late October came to $1,340.79, which we paid with The Platinum Card® from American Express, earning 6,705 points worth $127 at TPG's current valuations. The flight earned me 5,172 Elite Qualifying Miles, $1,235 in Elite Qualifying Dollars and 6,175 award miles. I don't have status on AA, so I didn't earn a miles bonus beyond the multiplier for business class. Redeeming miles for the nonstop segments on the premium routes between the Northeast and California can often be very difficult, but if you're lucky and find saver availability, you can expect to pay 32,500 AAdvantage miles each way plus taxes and fees.
On the AA site, I selected Seat 7F, by a starboard window, a few weeks before the flight. Biz class looked like it would be full by the time of the flight, and indeed it was.
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With a 11:52am departure, I showed up at the airport at 8:30am so I would have time to explore the Admirals Club. The AA check-in desks at Terminal 2 weren't crowded at all. I had already checked in with the American app on my phone, but checking in through the priority lane would have been a breeze too.
Security was an unremarkable passage through the TSA PreCheck lane, which was quite crowded instead — but the general-public lanes were far worse.
American departed from terminals 1 and 2 at SFO, with all transcon flights from four gates at T2. There was only one Admirals Club, at T2, close to the gates.
As an infrequent American Airlines flyer, I found the Admirals Club well above my expectations. Good light, muted colors in earth tones and classical music at a discreet volume produced a relaxing atmosphere. However, SFO doesn't have one of AA's Flagship Lounges, which are truly excellent.
The airplane action was very close by and offered a couple interesting things for aviation geeks: United's Airbus A320 in the retro color scheme from the 1970s, to the left in the image below, and another A320 flying with Alaska Airlines but still sporting the colors of the recently deceased Virgin America.
Note the trees, which, together with a mock fireplace at the entrance, contributed to the peaceful vibe.
Eames chairs, plentiful power outlets and lots of available seating space helped make the SFO Admirals Club a lounge experience above the US average.
Before a red-eye to JFK, the bar area might not have been so uncrowded, but at 10am I found lots of space.
The packaged food by the bar wasn't, however, presented in a very appealing manner.
I headed instead to the buffet, which included the recently introduced crepe bar.
A pop-up avocado-toast station was a really welcome surprise. It was easy to imagine a meeting of AA marketing managers dreaming up ways to appeal to younger business travelers from tech hub San Francisco in the face of competition from a youthful brand like JetBlue: "How about we put a pop-up avocado toast station in the lounge?" "Totally! Nothing sounds more Millennial than that!"
Whatever the story behind it, the avocado toast was really good, both in the smoked salmon and prosciutto versions.
The lounge Wi-Fi was seriously fast, too. If AA is after the young techies of San Fran, it's doing it right.
For those who did not want to read online, the printed media included magazines and four newspapers — USA Today, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and San Francisco Chronicle.
Gate 58B offered lots of free seats and, mercifully, no assault by passengers crowding the boarding lanes before their zone was called.
American uses exclusively the Airbus A321T — for "Transcon" — for the routes between New York-JFK and San Francisco and Los Angeles. AA is the largest operator in the world of the biggest Airbus single-aisle jet, with 219 delivered — that's more airplanes of that model alone than major airlines like Air Canada, Japan Airlines or Qantas have in their entire fleets. The one that would fly me to JFK was registered N111ZM, a 2014 model built in Hamburg, Germany, that only does coast-to-coast runs in the US.
Boarding began on time and in an orderly fashion just after 11am.
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At 102 seats, this configuration has the distinction of being by far the lowest-density A321 in the world, excluding private jets. A321s usually fly around 200 people, or 220 if you pack them in like Frontier or WOW Air do.
Behind the 10 Flagship First open suites arranged in 1-1 rows, I found the 20-seat Flagship Business lie-flat seats arranged 2-2. Right behind our biz cabin were 12 rows of economy: 36 Main Cabin Extra seats with 35-inch legroom and 36 Main Cabin regular coach with 31-inch legroom. (The full-cabin images were shot after arrival at JFK.)
At 7F, I was pretty close to my seatmate. The cabin looked very similar to biz class on American's Boeing 757s, but with an actual monitor for inflight entertainment instead of tablets.
The big, sharp monitor was the most remarkable feature of an otherwise pretty ho-hum hard product.
Bose headphones, comforter and pillow and amenity kit were on the seat. I had brought my own Bose set, too, though the one offered by the airline was very good.
I also had two clean windows, a plus for aviation geeks who like to photograph from airplanes.
The seat controls could not have been simpler to use.
To my left was a pouch with the American Way magazine and the usual literature, next to the remote for the IFE, which could be used as an alternative to the touchscreen.
On the armrest/tray I shared with my neighbor, menus were waiting. The tray table extended from the armrest.
Earbuds were also available, to use after the crew collected the Bose headphones prior to landing.
Above the small, open-storage area to the right of the seat, I found a universal power plug, two headphone jacks, a powered USB outlet and an accessory port. More storage options would have been very welcome.
The Cole Haan amenity kit contained all the essentials, plus offers for discounts from Cole Haan itself and mattress maker Casper.
The single business-class bathroom at the front of the cabin, a standard-sized A321 lavatory, served all 20 passengers. First class had one bathroom for 10 people, and economy had two total, or one per 36 passengers.
Boarding was complete at 11:32am, and just three minutes later, we pushed back from the gate. Flight attendants came around with a welcome drink — orange juice, water or sparkling wine in plastic glasses. As we taxied, the purser introduced the captain and first officer and announced our forecast flight time was four hours, 46 minutes. We landed at JFK four minutes earlier than that.
On the way to taking off on time at 11:52, we passed another A321 plying the transcon routes: a brand-new A321neo model painted in Alaska Airlines' "More to Love" colors, which had just come from Newark and was about to leave for its home base in Seattle.
The cabin was very quiet, even from my seat close to the engines.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="1" champagne="Zonin Prosecco" dine-on-demand="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Short version: American's food offerings on this flight were very good. The positive notes began on the ground, with the AA site offering the chance to book my meal.
The site also offered quite a few options for special meals.
The menu on board had the same options available on the site.
The wine list was a pretty standard affair: two whites, two reds, one sparkling (prosecco, a popular choice in 2018 — last year, the best-selling sparkling wine in Italy crushed the competition with 23% sales growth in the US, triple the rate for French Champagne.) But, hey, American Airlines — not one wine from the US, and on a domestic flight from a great winemaking region, too?
While reading the menu, I had my orange juice. My neighbor drank water.
Fifteen minutes after takeoff, flight attendants came to get our lunch orders. My seatmate had preordered online, like me, but changed her mind — the flight attendant showed her pictures of the available dishes to aid her choice.
"Mr. Riva, I have you down for the beef filet. Is that correct?" she asked me.
It was, and unlike my neighbor, I stuck with it.
At half past noon San Francisco time, cloth placemats were laid on the tray tables, and a pleasantly warm appetizer of mixed nuts was served. I asked for green tea with sugar, which was promptly brought. I hope in Flagship First they had real spoons, though, not the wasteful and ugly plastic stirrers we got in biz.
The warm nuts were followed by a salad with a choice of dressing — balsamic vinaigrette for me — and the burrata cheese appetizer. With burrata and prosecco, American was definitely on top of food trends, but the burrata should not have been served cold. Had it been warmer and served with the dressing in something classier than a plastic container, it would have been a world-class airline appetizer. The breads on offer were multigrain, pretzel or French.
The beef was delivered with tongs on very hot china. It was deliciously tender, accompanied by grits with the perfect consistency. Like the appetizer, the entree could have been an absolute killer but only got close — as if, afraid of serving something that would taste too much like the high-sodium horrors often found in coach, American had skimped on the salt, delivering a very good but just slightly bland filet.
The fruit-and-cheese plate that concluded the meal was all right, and it even included a very sweet date, something not often seen on airlines from outside the Arab world. I had another green tea to go with it, and felt like I had just had, overall, a meal well above average — but one that could have been better with just a few small tweaks.
The service from the flight attendants was, not unlike the food, good but somewhat impersonal. It didn't have obvious flaws — no one was rude or distant, far from it — but it lacked the warmth that sets truly great premium-class offers apart.
The cabin itself was a bit cold too, but the comforter was big and warm, and when I put my seat in bed mode after lunch, I was able to sleep with no problems for a while, aided by an excellent, firm pillow.
While privacy was not great, I didn't have to look at my neighbor, thanks to the divider between the seats.
A big plus of an otherwise middling seat was the duplicate seat and light controls easily accessible from the lie-flat position.
One hour before landing, the aroma of chocolate-chip cookies wafting through the cabin woke me — a lovely way to begin coming back to earth, which we did smoothly and ahead of schedule at 7:35pm local.
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I loved the big, sharp, responsive touchscreen. The IFE was a pleasure to use, and offered a wealth of video and audio choices, plus a very good map function. American also deserves a shoutout for offering Haitian Creole as a language option. It's a language spoken by more than 7 million people, but rarely seen on inflight entertainment systems.
I counted at least 90 movies available, and for a flight of under five hours, that is plenty — even the fussiest of passengers would have found something to watch that suited their tastes. I liked especially the depth of the music catalog. Audio often gets short shrift in IFE systems, but not here: The rock selection, to name just one, was far beefier than many other airlines'. The inflight magazine was available in electronic format on the IFE as well as a physical copy.
The map included a simulated view from the cockpit, with heading, speed and altitude data. Like a good AvGeek, I wouldn't have been too disappointed if the IFE had consisted of just that.
Several other views modes were available.
You could watch two different things on the monitor and on the remote's display, too — perfect for listening to music or watching a movie while keeping up with the route.
The Wi-Fi was very good. The flight pass I bought for $16 got me consistently high speeds.
Almost 16 megabits per second of download speed for airplane Wi-Fi is great. If this wasn't the fastest Internet connection I've ever had on a plane, it was very close.
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The cabin crew didn't provide bad service, per se, but neither did it shine. The flight attendants didn't exactly communicate enthusiasm and positivity. Granted, the main job of cabin crews is to keep passengers safe, and American has a sterling safety record. However, they have another crucial mission, one that is all the more important in the crowded and competitive coast-to-coast market: making the passengers seated up front feel like the airline wants them back. Most of an airline's revenues come from premium sections, after all. I can't say that AA's customer-facing employees made a concerted, consistent case for getting my business.
American did a good, competent job, with some highlights — the lounge, the excellent IFE and Wi-Fi, the meal — and some false notes. For example, it was annoying to have to give back the Bose headphones more than a half hour before landing and switch to vastly inferior earbuds. The service, while it didn't have any obvious failures, was kind of perfunctory, and the seat itself is no longer in the top tier — not when JetBlue's Mint offering includes closed-door suites and often costs significantly less. Aside from those issues, the airline that pioneered nonstop coast-to-coast flights in both directions in 1953 showed it can still do that pretty well.
All images by the author.