The most exclusive domestic flight: A review of American Airlines’ Flagship First from Los Angeles to New York
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Bear in mind that for the foreseeable future, service on board will be greatly reduced to lower the risk of contamination, and that the ground experience — with lounges closed or without food and amenities — will also be very different from what was available before the pandemic.
When it comes to flying coast to coast in the U.S., there’s no commercial option more exclusive than American Airlines’ Flagship First. Of the airlines flying the super-premium routes between New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco, AA’s the only one offering a true first-class product. Delta, United and JetBlue offer business class as their best experience, and Alaska only has recliner seats.
But is AA’s first class actually the best of the transcon bunch?
After my flight, I can say that it is. Read on for more about why, and stay tuned for my full comparison of AA Flagship First, JetBlue Mint and United Polaris. (Keep in mind that we took this review flight just before lockdowns began in the U.S.; as demand dropped, American decided to temporarily park its fleet of Airbus A321Ts — the planes configured with lie-flat first class for transcon services. But as of May 7, service has resumed.)
Unless you’ve got deep pockets or a cushy expense account, getting your ticket is the hardest part of the transcontinental Flagship First experience.
With fares starting at around $1,500 one-way, I can’t imagine how many people are actually paying for their tickets — especially when JetBlue Mint offers fares as low as $599 one-way.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to lessen the out-of-pocket cost. You could redeem miles for a first-class ticket, but award availability is notoriously hard to find. I’ve had some success with married-segment availability on flights from Boston to Los Angeles, connecting in New York, but it’s very hard to find seats on the nonstop from New York to L.A. or San Francisco.
Your best bet is to apply an upgrade certificate to confirm a seat in first. You’ll need to be ticketed in biz in order to qualify for an upgrade, but once you’re there, there’s plenty of availability to first (specifically, you should be looking for the “A” fare class). Executive Platinum members can use systemwide upgrades to confirm a bump from biz to first and non-elites can use Business Extra points or miles to move up to first.
I personally like to hold onto my systemwide upgrades for international travel, but this could be a good use… Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post about whether I thought Flagship First was worth it.
AA offers what’s easily the best ground experience for transcontinental flights. When flying in first, you get access to the Flagship First check-in area, lounge and dining facility. All those things combine to easily make AA the transcon champion in this aspect.
I walked to LAX (my favorite way to get there) from the Hyatt Regency airport hotel. When I got to Terminal 4, I made my way to the Flagship First check-in facility, which is accessible from the curb on the departures level between Terminals 4 and 5.
There’s an agent outside guarding the door to this exclusive entrance, ready to help you with your bags.
After quickly confirming that I was indeed eligible to use this facility, I made my way inside. Both check-in counters were staffed and I had my boarding pass printed within minutes.
I was then escorted up the elevator to the TSA PreCheck security line. The agent didn’t just drop me at the end of the line, but rather took me right to the front before bidding me farewell. What a great ending to a top-notch check-in experience.
Once through security, I made my way to the Flagship Lounge near Gate 40. This is a more exclusive and upscale lounge than the Admirals Club, and it showed.
It still was relatively crowded during my morning visit.
The LAX Flagship Lounge has three main seating areas. The main one is beside the buffet along the hallway facing the west side of Terminal 4 and Tom Bradley International Terminal.
The next two are located side by side as you enter the facility. There’s a bunch of reclining chairs arranged in rows in front of a TV and then another small sitting area with a variety of seating options.
The restrooms and eight shower rooms are located along a narrow corridor just to the right of the lounge’s entrance.
Each shower was stocked with C.O. Bigelow amenities, though it is much smaller than those in the United Polaris Lounge.
Right next to the restrooms is a hidden treasure — the quiet room. True to its name, it was very quiet, and empty throughout my entire stay in the lounge.
It isn’t just the variety and design of the seating options that is a step up from the Admirals Club. The food selection is too.
The extensive buffet featured breakfast staples and some unique additions. The selection included scrambled eggs, potatoes, sausages, bacon, pancakes, egg drop soup, steel-cut oats, bacon and egg pasta, smoked salmon, bagels, pastries, muesli, charcuterie, assorted cheeses, sushi, sweet potato and kale salad, and cereals.
Everything I tasted was delicious and well above average for an airport lounge. Unlike the Dallas Flagship Lounge, there weren’t any create-your-own omelets here.
The drink selection is just as impressive as the food. The fridges were stocked with a bunch of refreshing options, including boxed Just Water, Perrier, Coke-branded soft drinks, craft beers and sake.
There is also an extensive self-serve bar with top-notch spirits, including Grey Goose and Black Label.
My favorite bar wasn’t the one with liquor. It was the candy bar which had massive jars filled with caramelized almonds, chocolates, fig bars, Starburst, Twizzlers and chocolate-covered pretzels.
The refreshment station had a Franke coffee machine, Coke Freestyle machine and La Colombe drip coffee.
Both biz- and first-class passengers can enter the Flagship Lounge on qualifying transcontinental flights, but only first-class passengers can use the Flagship First dining facility.
Flagship First Dining is AA’s lounge-within-a-lounge concept. It offers sit-down dining with chef-inspired food and top-shelf liquor and wine.
This beautifully designed space is located all the way at the end of the Flagship Lounge next to the relaxation area. It has frosted-glass doors, and behind them sits AA’s most premium lounge experience.
Since this area was designed for dining, it’s no surprise that it’s mostly filled with two- and four-top tables. In addition to the tables, there’s a communal high-top table and a gorgeous bar with a few barstools.
Though the dining area overlooks the ramp between Terminal 4 and 5, the bar area just overlooks the terminal.
Breakfast is served from opening at 4:30 a.m. until 11 a.m., when the menu transitions to all-day dining. I tried the ancient-grain bowl and an omelet with potatoes for breakfast, both cooked to order and delicious.
Perhaps the best-kept secret of Flagship First Dining is the Krug champagne on offer. When I ordered and they brought it, pouring a glass and then asking if I wanted to keep it on the table or not, I closed my eyes for a moment and pretended that I was flying with Singapore, not AA.
For those interested, you can find the full Flagship First Dining menus below.
With private check-in, an escort through security and access to AA’s top lounge, the transcontinental Flagship First ground experience is the best of U.S. transcon flights.
Cabin and Seat
Like JetBlue, American has a dedicated sub-fleet operating its premium transcontinental flights. The A321T, as AA calls the premium-heavy Airbus A321, holds just 102 passengers in a three-class configuration. That’s about half the standard number of seats on an A321.
The Flagship First cabin is spread across five rows in a 1-1 configuration. These reverse-herringbone seats are essentially the same as the those in the biz cabin on the airline’s long-haul, twin-aisle Boeing 777-300ER.
This private cabin is about as good as you’re going to get for a transcon, short of flying in a Mint one-person closed suite. Plus, seats are pointed away from the aisle, giving you even more separation from your neighbor.
Nonetheless, solo window seats in Polaris and JetBlue Mint suites provide more privacy than the AA first-class product.
At 20 inches wide, the seat is quite spacious, especially for a narrow-body plane.
There is copious storage, including the large side table and three open shelves — one by the table and two near the footwell. The only thing missing is a dedicated storage area for shoes.
The bifold tray table slides out from just underneath the side table. It’s quite large at 19.5 inches wide and 14.5 long and easily fit my 13-inch MacBook Pro.
The seat controls are located at shoulder level, close to the window. There are some preset positions, as well as fine-tuning adjustments.
The seat converts to a 78-inch-long, lie-flat bed. Plus, the aisle armrest lowers to add about six more inches of seat width to the center portion of the seat. Combined with the oversize footwell, I had no trouble napping on this flight.
Though I generally love reverse-herringbone seats, they’re not all created equal. Specifically, some have particularly small footwells, like Air Canada and Bamboo Airways. In those cases, it almost always pays to select a bulkhead seat since they’ve got much larger footwells.
You don’t need to do that on AA’s A321T. Because of the spacious cabin configuration, there’s about the same amount of space for your feet at each seat. I measured the footwell in Seat 5F as 21 inches wide, 18 inches deep and 12 inches high. This was large enough to even pass Brian Kelly’s “canoe test.”
Each seat has two windows. There’s a reading light next to the seat controls as well as one overhead, where you’ll also find an individual air nozzle.
As is standard for the Airbus A320 series, the overhead compartments are large enough for most carry-on bags. Plus, with just 102 seats on the plane, the chances you’ll have to gate-check your bag are slim.
There’s one standard-size lavatory in front of Row 1 outfitted with C.O. Bigelow hand soap.
Amenities and IFE
I was impressed with the amenities on this roughly five-hour flight.
Waiting at my seat during boarding was a well-stocked Athletic Propulsion Labs amenity kit. It included an APL-branded eye mask, dental kit, earplugs, tissues, lip and hand balm and sanitizing towel. There was also a FlyFit vitamins and minerals supplement, the first time I’ve seen such a thing in an airline amenity kit.
The plastic-wrapped Casper bedding was also a nice treat for such a short flight. There was both a full-size and lumbar pillow, as well as duvet and throw blanket. This was plenty to keep me comfortable while napping and relaxing, and with all this bedding, I wouldn’t hesitate to take the red-eye in the future.
Each seat features a universal AC port and USB outlet. Among the travel hacks I post on my Instagram (follow me!), is a recommendation to always travel with an international power adapter, even when flying domestically. This was especially true on this flight since my charging brick kept falling out of the port when using the standard U.S. two-prong adapter. I quickly switched to the European duckhead, and I was able to charge my devices without an issue.
The IFE was loaded with tons of content, though it was missing both live TV and a tailcam. It featured 179 movies, including 71 new releases like “A Hidden Life” and “The Lion King.” There were also 109 TV shows, including full seasons of the “Big Bang Theory,” “Downtown Abbey” and “Friends.” (You could find even more content on your personal device through the streaming Wi-Fi network.)
As a reviewer, I loved the list-view feature, which enabled me to quickly count (and browse) the movie selection.
The 15.4-inch touchscreen TV swivels out from the seat in front. It doesn’t tilt up or down, making it hard to watch a show while in bed mode.
If you can’t reach the TV, you can use the 3.5-inch touchscreen remote to control the big screen.
To listen to the content, AA lent each passenger a pair of Bang & Olufsen headphones. The sound quality was quite good, though I still miss the Bose QC35s that AA used to offer. But, as usual on American, the real issue was how early the headphones were collected — a full 30 minutes before landing.
Last, there was Viasat internet available for purchase on the flight. The $22 full-flight pass was reasonable and the speeds (38 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload) were impressive.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
My 10 a.m. PDT departure meant that I’d be served a full lunch and a snack.
AA’s been steadily rolling out its meal preorder system, so I knew exactly what to expect before my flight. When I logged into my reservation on the airline’s website, I preordered my main dish to guarantee that it’d be available for me on board. I can’t wait for United to roll out this feature across its network.
Waiting at my seat upon boarding was the full menu, including drink choices.
Service began promptly once we hit 10,000 feet. I was first served some warmed mixed nuts and olives with my drink of choice (water, in this case).
After the snacks, my table was set by hand. The purser then brought out my appetizer of beet tartare with edamame and pickled onions. It was a delicious taste of California cuisine.
Shortly thereafter, the flight attendant brought around a bread basket with a choice of white, wheat or pretzel roll. Though I love pretzel rolls, I didn’t touch mine. Why? Because the flight attendant took the bread basket to each seat and allowed each passenger to point at their selection. Though he served the bread with tongs, I was nervous about possible contamination in light of the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if bread baskets were gone forever.
I was served a butternut squash soup about five minutes after finishing my appetizer. I loved this soup, and wish that more airlines served soup on board. It reheats well and retains its flavor at high altitudes.
Almost on cue, the flight attendant brought my salad just as I was finishing my last spoonful of soup. The summer salad mix was a nice change from a traditional salad served on a plane, and included fresh orange slices and spicy roasted sunflower seeds.
The highlight of the meal was the grain-and-greens bowl with hot smoked salmon. Like the appetizer, this dish was a perfect embodiment of California cuisine. The salmon was cooked nicely and the vegetables tasted fresh.
At this point, I’d been so healthy, so decided to go all in on dessert. I tried both the signature sundae with the works and the caramel apple butter cake à la mode. Both were superb.
I then took a brief nap and woke up about 90 minutes before arrival to the smell of warm chocolate chip cookies wafting through the aisles. This meant that it was time for the prearrival snack.
First came the snack basket, which was stocked with a grain-free granola, apple crisps and potato chips. And then came the feature presentation — AA’s signature warm cookies.
Though these cookies aren’t nearly as good as they used to be, I couldn’t turn down a warm chocolate chip cookie.
Overall, the service well exceeded my expectations for American Airlines. I recently flew Flagship First on AA’s longest flight from Dallas to Hong Kong and was thoroughly disappointed with the service I received (review coming soon!).
This was the exact opposite. Though it wasn’t perfect, it was darn good, especially for AA.
Service began on the ground with a predeparture beverage of choice. Though boarding was completed from door 1L, it didn’t take long since the plane only carries 102 passengers. The flight attendant spent extra time introducing himself to everyone before departure, including taking meal orders.
Once in the air, hot towels were promptly distributed. The meal service was completed expeditiously, with each dish cleared just as it was finished. Likewise, all food was plated directly at the seat instead of using carts.
The lead flight attendant continued to check on first-class passengers throughout the flight and responded immediately to the call button. At the end of the flight, he handed out handwritten cards thanking each passenger for flying with AA.
There were two very minor missteps: No one asked to hang my jacket when I boarded and I had to ask for a missing fork during my meal.
The service was a massive improvement from my previous Flagship First flight, but I’m still torn about how to rate it. Why? Because I’ve experienced even better, more personalized service from JetBlue Mint, at a fraction of the price of the AA ticket. You’ll have to wait for my comparison of these two products to read my full thoughts.
All in all, AA offers the best experience for flights across the country.
And that begins on the ground with a private check-in experience and access to AA’s most private lounge. In the air, the 10-seat cabin continues the air of exclusivity, even if the seat isn’t as good as JetBlue’s. The amenities and food and beverage selection are top-notch. The real issue is how hard and expensive it is for someone in the points-and-miles world to get a seat up front.
But here’s the real question: Is it really that much better, for the money, than a JetBlue Mint suite or United Polaris seat? My full comparison should help answer that.
All photos by the author.
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