More masks, fewer glasses: American Airlines Flagship First from JFK to LAX

Dec 20, 2021

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American Airlines’ Flagship First is one of the most premium ways to fly from coast to coast.

In fact, the airline is the only one of the “big three” U.S. carriers — American, Delta and United — to offer a true first-class cabin on its transcontinental flights, as opposed to just business class. (However, the Airbus A321s which American operates on these routes also have a distinct and separate business-class cabin, in addition to economy.)

The Flagship First transcontinental experience is set apart from its competitors by its specialized airport ground services and an onboard cabin limited to a mere 10 seats, practically guaranteeing personalized service.

The last time I’d flown American Airlines first class cross-country was about a year before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, I thought it was luxurious, but perhaps not worth booking instead of business class on DeltaUnited or JetBlue (and this was even before JetBlue began flying its new Mint Studios and Mint Suites on these routes).

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

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In the face of the pandemic, American Airlines closed many of its airport lounges, including the exclusive Flagship First Dining facilities that really differentiated it from other airlines.

Those lounges have slowly been coming back online, though. So when the chance arose to fly American Airlines Flagship First from New York-JFK to Los Angeles (LAX) in mid-November, I jumped at the chance to see what had changed (and what hadn’t) about this truly rarefied experience.

In This Post

 

Booking

My journey commenced rather unexpectedly.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, I had to book a same-day ticket from New York-JFK back to Los Angeles (LAX) within a matter of hours. I searched in the morning for afternoon and evening flights to see what I could come up with.

Paid fares on American Airlines started at $357 in economy, or 16,000 miles plus $5.60 in taxes — though award tickets were not available at that price on many of the airline’s nonstop flights.

There was no business-class award availability on American’s nonstop transcontinental flights, either. However, four of the airline’s nonstop afternoon and evening flights priced out for first class at 38,500 miles plus $5.60. Other flights were going for as much as 95,000-121,000 miles. While 38,500 miles was still a lot for a six-hour flight, it seemed like a relative bargain in comparison, at just over twice the number of miles required for economy.

Paid first-class fares were $2,703, so I would be getting a value of seven cents per mile, well above the 1.68 cents that TPG currently estimates AAdvantage miles to be worth.

After a moment’s consideration, I booked a seat — then headed to the airport with plenty of extra time to enjoy the Flagship First Dining experience.

Ground experience

American Airlines operates out of Terminal 8 at New York-JFK. I took a Lyft to the airport and asked the driver to drop me off at the door designated for Flagship First check-in.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

A random assortment of signs and rails piled in front of it did not bode well for the experience, but I brushed it off as I entered the terminal.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

My first stop was the podium outside the private area for Flagship First check-in, which is only available at five of the airline’s hubs: Chicago O’Hare (ORD), London Heathrow (LHR), Los Angeles, Miami (MIA) and New York-JFK.

To access it, you must be flying on American in Flagship First on a qualifying international or transcontinental flight, which means between the U.S. and Asia, Australia, Europe, or South America (excluding several countries in the airline’s South America 1 zone) or on domestic non-stop flights aboard three-class jets with Flagship First cabins.

American AAdvantage Executive Platinum elites flying internationally on American to Asia, Australia, Europe, New Zealand, or South America (with the same exclusions) can also enter, as can ConciergeKey members on American Airlines flights, non-AAdvantage Oneworld Emerald elites flying American or folks who purchase Five Star service.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

The agent at the podium could not find my name on her roster of passengers since I had booked so last minute. I showed her my boarding pass in the American Airlines app, but she still asked me to wait there while she entered the check-in area to confirm I was indeed flying Flasghip First. While I appreciate the fact that they are trying to keep this experience exclusive and cater only to folks who should be there, I felt like she could have given me the benefit of the doubt and simply accompanied me in to the desks.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

After checking with her colleagues inside the private check-in area, she came back out to the podium to collect me, handed me my boarding pass (since I wasn’t checking luggage) and then walked me over to the public TSA lines, where I was processed within moments thanks to TSA PreCheck.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

From there, it was a short walk to the American Airlines Flagship Lounge, which is located one level up from the main concourse near Gate 12 and not far from the entrance to the underground connector to Gates 31-47.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

American Airlines’ Flagship Lounges are different from your average Admirals Club. They are only open to passengers in first or business class on a qualifying same-day international or transcontinental flight and some domestic routes with qualifying seats ticketed as Flagship.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

As a customer in the airline’s Flagship First on a transcontinental route, I also qualified to enter the special Flagship First Dining area within the lounge, which is sort of like a private restaurant open only to a very few flyers.

To get in, you must be flying on American Airlines in Flagship First on a qualifying international or transcontinental route marketed and operated by the airline. The one I visited at JFK is open from 4:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

The airline closed its Flagship First Dining locations in March 2020 and has only recently begun reopening them, starting with its locations in Miami and New York-JFK. The ones in Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) are still closed.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

When I checked in at the lounge, the reception agent personally escorted me through the lounge and to the door of the Flagship First Dining room, introduced me to the host there and then wished me a pleasant journey.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

The Flagship First Dining room has a bar with high stools, about a dozen two- and four-top tables by its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the tarmac and a handful of larger booths.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Because it was a slower day, I asked for one of the booths so I could stretch out and get some work done (there are power outlets under the seats) while enjoying a meal.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

I noticed that the other passengers took their masks off while seated but replaced them when coming or going from their table. For personal comfort, I kept mine on except when actively eating or drinking.

As soon as I sat down, my server, Monica (also masked), came by to introduce herself, handed me the menu and asked if I would like anything to drink. During my previous visit to Flagship First Dining, American Airlines had been serving Krug Champagne (which retails for around $200 a bottle), though it sold its stock of bottles at the end of 2020. These days, you’ll find Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle (retails for $150 per bottle). Though I love Krug and have fond memories of sipping it in first class on Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, I also really enjoy Laurent-Perrier’s crisp, mineral structure and satiny finish, so I ordered a glass along with some (non-Laurent) Perrier sparkling water.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

The unique thing about Flagship First Dining is that, as its name suggests, it’s pretty much a high-end dining room, complete with a la carte menus that change periodically and a selection of wine and spirits, including a few higher-end options that are better than what you’ll find out in the main Flagship First Lounge.

I tried a starter of grilled artichoke salad with arugula, tomato, Parmesan tuiles and preserved truffle vinaigrette, which was tangy and light.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Then I tucked into button-sized seared diver scallops over a bed of freekeh and late summer corn succotash, basil “caviar” and a sweet-and-sour butternut-squash puree, which was also light but flavorful. I paired it, per the menu’s suggestion, with a glass of Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay from Sonoma since it’s one of my favorite wineries up there.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Among the dishes I did not get the chance to try were warm smoked trout over a crunchy pole bean salad with toasted almonds and a shallot-dill dressing and the herb-crusted halibut with smoked bacon and a candied ginger drizzle. I also skipped the desserts, which included flan with fresh raspberries and pistachio biscotti, a cranberry-pomegranate crisp and an artisanal cheese plate.

The menu of specialty cocktails included a Flagship Lemonade with Jack Daniel’s whiskey, lemon, mint, simple sugar, ginger ale and aromatic bitters and a blueberry-basil gimlet with Tito’s vodka, blueberry syrup, basil, lime juice and soda. The wine list included Chateau Loudenne Le Chateau Blanc from Bordeaux, Massolino Barbera d’Alba from Italy and Louis Roederer Collection 242 Brut Champagne, which an attendant was also serving by the glass to customers entering the Flagship First Lounge.

I had some extra time, so I walked around the main lounge to get a sense of what had changed since the pandemic. The answer was: surprisingly little.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Although it was busy during my visit given the number of flights departing in the evening, it still felt spacious and like there were plenty of corners where travelers could enjoy some privacy.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

No one was in a large room set aside for quiet lounging.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

There were also plenty of available workspaces and single-person mini-booths, which featured plugs and USB ports where travelers could charge up their devices during a layover or before their flight.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

The popular seats seemed to be by the windows.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Even the cafe-style tables by the buffet were mostly empty.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Although I didn’t partake, I thought the serve-yourself whiskey-tasting station looked fun, along with a self-serve bar with cocktail recipes written on cards.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

There was a separate high bar with various wines on display that you could help yourself to, including many that were also available in Flagship First Dining.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

The buffet offered over a dozen different dishes created by chef Ayesha Nurdjaja of Shuka and Shukette in New York City that were inspired by the cuisine of Italy, Morocco and Tunisia.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

There was Andalucian gazpacho salad with avocado and sweet bell peppers, baked sea bream with lemon caper butter and sautéed eggplant arrabiata, among other options.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

The lounge had shower facilities, though I did not use them.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Instead, I caught up on work and then headed to my gate at around 4:45 p.m. for a scheduled 5:29 p.m. departure.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

By the time I got there, boarding was well underway. I was able simply to walk through the premium side of the line and head to my seat in the last row of first class.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Although I’d been wondering how folks would comply with mask mandates, I noted that everyone I saw had their masks on over their noses and mouths throughout the flight. Even while folks were eating, I saw them replacing their masks between bites — so there were no incidents of flight rage on my trip to report.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Cabin and seat

American Airlines’ premium-heavy transcontinental A321s have just 102 seats in three cabins — 10 in first class, 20 in business class and 72 in the main cabin — split into 36 Main Cabin Extra seats and 36 regular seats.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

The first-class cabin is at the front of the plane. All the other passengers must pass through here to get to their seats, so you might want to wait to be last to board.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

The 10 seats in first class are arranged in five rows of a 1–1 pattern, with just one seat on either side of the aisle.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

You might recognize them as the same style of seats that American Airlines features in many of its international business-class cabins. These ones are Safran Cirrus reverse-herringbone seats like you’ll find on the airline’s 777-300ERs.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

When I arrived at mine, I found a light blanket and small pillow, plus a slightly heavier Casper blanket with a medium-sized pillow wrapped in plastic that I tucked away for later.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

The seat was 21 inches wide and had 62 inches of pitch between it and the seat in front, though this is sort of a slippery metric given the seats’ diagonal orientation.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

In lie-flat mode, the seat reclines to a full 82.5 inches, which should accommodate even tall travelers, though the small foot cubby might restrict your movement slightly.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Although the seats look slightly clunky compared to some of the newer business-class seats with touchscreen controls that American’s 787-9s and certain 777-200s sport, I really liked them. They were easy to understand and use, and you could manipulate individual sections of the seat, including the back, the bottom and the leg rest.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

I especially appreciate premium seats like this, without limited preset options, that you can adjust to your own ergonomic needs so you can work, eat, lounge or sleep in a position that’s comfortable for you.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

To one side of the controls was a panel of plugs for headphones and a USB port, and above those was a small reading light. To the other side was a touchscreen remote for the inflight entertainment system.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

On the window side of the seat there was a small storage shelf where I found a bottle of water and a Shinola amenity kit along with an AC adapter. There was also a wide, wood-paneled surface where I set drinks and my computer during the flight.

The seat’s bi-fold tray table swung out from a compartment under this section. When fully open, it was more than large enough to work on my MacBook Pro comfortably, especially because it slid a few inches backward and forward along a track.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Although my seat was not as private as a suite with a closing door, there was a privacy partition that shielded me from the aisle so that when my neighbor got up or when other folks walked past, it didn’t disturb me at all.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

I had chosen the last row of first class because it was farthest from the forward lavatory, and business-class passengers would be using a lavatory behind their cabin, so there was little foot traffic.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Later on in the flight, I set my seat to lie-flat mode. It took about 30 seconds using the controls.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Then I wrapped myself in the Casper blanket and got a good 90-minute nap in before waking up to the smell of fresh-baked (or fresh-warmed, at least) chocolate chip cookies served prior to landing.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Amenities and service

Although not the newest product in the air, American Airlines Flagship First seats function well as both private in-air lounges and workspaces thanks to their amenities.

There are power sources galore depending on how you like to charge up. They also feature 15.4-inch entertainment screens that swing out from the seatback ahead of you. You can control the system either with the touchscreen remote or by simply touching the screen itself.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

The major drawback to these is that they have to be stowed in the seatback for takeoff and landing, and the crew tends to be zealous about making sure they are clicked in place a good 15-20 minutes before touchdown, so you might miss out on some viewing time.

The airline stocks Bang & Olufsen headphones for passengers to use with the systems. The first set waiting at my seat was defective, but the flight attendant brought over a replacement pair that worked just fine, and I thought the sound quality and noise-cancellation features were excellent. Unfortunately, I had to hand my set back 40 minutes before we arrived in Los Angeles.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

As for the entertainment selection, there were hundreds of choices including new-release movies like Cruella, Free Guy and Luca, as well as interesting educational options like Rosetta Stone language courses.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

I didn’t have a lot of time to watch the entertainment since I was working, but I was pleased to find the plane’s Viasat inflight Wi-Fi worked perfectly for emailing, online chatting and using a variety of web apps at the same time. It only cost $22 for the entire flight.

The amenity kits came courtesy of American Airlines’ partnership with Shinola and Brooklyn-based skincare brand D.S. & Durga, but the inclusions were pretty paltry. It only included a small dental kit, foam earplugs, an eye mask, socks and a single, tiny tube of hand cream.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

As for the service, just one flight attendant named Mary was charged with caring for our full, 10-person cabin, and she did so with aplomb.

She greeted me by name after I’d taken my seat, replaced my defective headphones within 30 seconds of my asking and came to check on me repeatedly throughout meal service and while I was working on the flight to see if I needed anything. She kept my glass of water constantly refilled, even apologized that the airline had not yet resumed using glassware instead of plastic cups and said she hoped I’d be back for the full service experience before long.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

More than the comfortable seats and amenities, Mary really made my flight — and thanked me again by name as I deplaned at the end.

Food and beverage

American Airlines touts partnerships with chefs such as Sam Choy and Sarah Grueneberg as a standout feature of its Flagship First onboard service, but I’ve found the airline’s catering to be lackluster at best. This flight was no exception.

Upon boarding and taking my seat, I was offered a selection of water or De Castelnau Reserve Brut Champagne. While Castelnau is certainly a lovely wine, after the Laurent-Perrier in the lounge, I opted for water.

Unfortunately, there were no printed dining menus due to a service snafu, so Mary had to list the three main course options for each passenger as she took their order before we taxied onto the runway.

The selections on my flight included a gorgonzola-crusted beef filet, cacciatore chicken or cheesy pasta. Figuring it was safest, I opted for the chicken.

About 15 minutes into the flight, Mary came by with the first drinks service and bowls of warm mixed nuts.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

I asked what wines were on board, and she went to the galley to bring back the bottles for me to see. There was a South African Chenin Blanc and a Macon Lugny Chardonnay from France. I opted for the latter, which was enjoyable at altitude thanks to its acidity and crispness.

Dinner arrived about 15 minutes after that on a single tray, including a shredded beet and ricotta salad, a roll and a lemon tart, each wrapped in plastic. The salad was fresh but bland. The chicken arrived with a foil topper and tasted like it had been thrown in a dehydrator. The tomato sauce beneath it could best be described as … salty? Yes, that’s probably the most positive thing to be said about it. The polenta had the texture of grainy butter, while the squash was flavorless and stringy.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

I don’t compare in-air food to that on the ground, but this would have been a disappointing meal regardless of where you attempted to enjoy it.

For the meal, I asked for a glass of Argentinian Appellation Vista Flores Malbec from Catena that retails for about $22. It was fruit-forward (in a good way, with hints of blackberry and blueberry) but balanced with a modicum of spice that tasted nice in the air.

After many, many flights in coach since my last Flagship First experience, I’ll admit that I was surprised when Mary brought me a selection of sliced lime and lemon to accompany the club soda I ordered. When I remarked on it, she simply replied, “I serve like I want to be served.” I just wish she had better material to work with.

Dinner service ended about 90 minutes after takeoff, leaving plenty of time to work, watch entertainment and relax.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Flight attendants passed through all the cabins about 40 minutes before landing collecting headphones and picking up used service items. Then, at 25 minutes to touchdown, the captain came on with the typical pre-landing announcement, and we rolled up to the gate about 45 minutes early thanks to a quick taxi and takeoff in New York, favorable tailwinds and an empty gate at LAX.

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

Masks aside, flying American Airlines Flagship First transcontinentally felt like I was marking a return to pre-pandemic flying. I found the Flagship First Dining experience at New York-JFK to be as welcoming and exclusive-feeling as before, and flight attendants aboard my plane seemed eager and happy to welcome their guests.

While I appreciate that American’s Flagship First is the only true first-class product to fly cross-country, I think that you might be just as well served flying United Polaris or Delta One, or perhaps do even better in JetBlue’s new Mint, thanks to the privacy of those other airlines’ seating configurations and their stronger focus on onboard catering and drinks.

The two true differentiators are the fact that there are just 10 first-class seats on American’s transcontinental A321s, so service is very personal, and that you get the airline’s Flagship First Dining experience on the ground, which features restaurant-style service and some truly high-end wines and spirits. If you don’t have the time to enjoy those amenities at the airport, then this option might not be worth it for you — unless you find a great mileage deal as I did.

Featured photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy.

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