Review: Is American Flagship First still the most exclusive domestic flight during the pandemic?
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Flying across the country is a lot different now. The route between New York and Los Angeles has historically been the most premium in the U.S. — and competition between airlines has been fierce.
However, the ground and in-flight experience have radically changed because of the pandemic. And for many passengers, priorities have shifted. The product and service remain important, but safety and well-being have taken precedence.
So how exactly has COVID-19 changed flying between the east and west coasts, especially for the important transcontinental routes where expectations may remain high?
I recently flew on the popular (and premium) JFK-LAX route on American Airlines to find out. Here are 15 observations of Flagship First on the A321T, known as the most exclusive domestic flight. Let’s dive in to see if it still lives up to that title in the midst of a pandemic.
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Flight: New York (JFK) — Los Angeles (LAX)
Airline: American Airlines
Cabin: Flagship First
Aircraft: Airbus A321T
JFK and LAX were eerily empty
In recent years, the American at JFK Terminal 8 has been relatively quiet as the airline transitioned more international flying to its neighboring Philadelphia hub.
However, the terminal is even more desolate now as American further cuts flights in the travel downturn. At check-in, security and throughout the terminal areas, only a few passengers could be spotted at a time.
Before the pandemic, mid-afternoon on a Thursday would be a peak time for business travelers going to other American hubs like Charlotte, Miami and more. However, Terminal 8 would have still been barren compared to other airports — even before COVID.
According to the official JFK Terminal 8 website, as of this writing, only one food outlet is open throughout the entire terminal. Additionally, only two retail shops — a Hudson News and a sunglasses store — are available to passengers.
The only noticeable area with crowds was at the gate. My LAX flight was departing out of JFK Concourse B, at Gate 3. The only other American departure around the same time was a flight to Miami, which was boarding at the adjacent gate.
Upon landing in the late afternoon at LAX, the gate area and terminal were again a ghost town. In fact, after being on board in a vacuum for over five hours, I nearly forgot the devastating impacts of the pandemic on travel — and almost expected LAX to be bustling with people.
Don’t expect a true ‘Flagship’ ground experience
First, the bad news. The American Flagship Lounges and Flagship First Dining are closed throughout the entire American system.
With major service reductions and international flights curtailed, it’s no surprise that American’s most premium, international-focused airport lounges aren’t available. That meant even though I was flying on a transcontinental Flagship First ticket and had access to an incredible, a la carte dining experience, it was closed — and it won’t be opening for the foreseeable future.
Instead, I had access to the standard Admirals Club (my American Admirals Club experience can be found here).
Flagship First Check-In remains
However, there is one element of the Flagship First experience that remains open and available: Flagship First Check-in. At JFK, that means a dedicated area of Terminal 8. At the entrance, the agent checked my name off of a list, similar to what you’d experience before COVID.
I waltzed inside and was greeted by two friendly agents, given the paper boarding pass that I requested and proceeded on my way to security.
Usually, there would be another ground agent who would whisk you to the front of security. However, as expected, that’s not available now — and it would be superfluous since the TSA security line was so short. (Unfortunately, TSA PreCheck was closed.)
The Admirals Club experience varies wildly by city
While Flagship Lounges aren’t available, there are still Admirals Club locations open to eligible passengers in both New York and Los Angeles. However, as mentioned in my review of the Admirals Club experience, each location will have different amenities and services.
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Hopped off the plane at LAX…to this view. One of my favorite things to do is just sit back and watch some planes. With amenities and service stripped back at most airline lounges — including the @americanair Admirals Club — it’s good to know you’ll still have this awesome view of Tom Bradley International.
A post shared by Chris Dong (@thechrisflyer) on
For instance, at JFK, American did not allow guests to consume anything on the lounge premises — which meant no snacks, no drinks and no service. Be prepared for some locations to be nothing more than highly-sanitized waiting rooms (with fast Wi-Fi).
In contrast, the LAX Admirals Club had a full bar, snacks and even hot food for purchase. Both clubs were quiet, uncrowded sanctuaries though.
However, it would have been nice to see eligible Flagship Lounge and Flagship First Dining passengers (like myself) get something extra at Admirals Club locations (like a complimentary premium drink or hot food item at LAX).
Several years ago, American handed out drink vouchers (called “chits”) when premium cabin and status-eligible passengers entered standard Admirals Clubs instead of the Flagship Lounges.
Airports have adapted to the times, for the most part
Throughout JFK and LAX, social distancing signage, decals and placards were visible everywhere.
And while some covered their noses better than others, nearly every person I observed onboard and in the airport wore a mask. That should be expected since the major U.S. airlines require appropriate masks not just onboard, but throughout airport and lounge facilities as well.
To keep airline employees safe, commercial-grade shields at reception and service desks were present throughout JFK and LAX.
Unfortunately, with TSA PreCheck closed at JFK Terminal 8, that meant everyone needed to take out laptops and place them in security bins. These bins did not seem to be regularly cleaned (at least not after each use).
Additionally, there were no hand sanitizer stations present immediately after security. While everyone should pack their own anyway, I was surprised not to see any available following a high-touch area.
Boarding was a civilized affair
American’s special transcontinental A321T aircraft is premium heavy, with 10 first class seats, 20 business class seats and just 72 economy seats.
As an American frequent flyer, I’ve traveled on this particular aircraft many times, and boarding has always been a relative breeze. That’s because there are so few passengers to load onto the plane.
Unlike other airlines like Delta, American hasn’t changed their boarding process to fill the plane from back to front.
While that might be a concern on other planes, it’s less of an issue on this A321T. In fact, if you’re worried about too many passengers boarding and deboarding, flying American on this plane might be your best bet. While first and business were full, economy was at half capacity which meant there were only about 60 passengers in total.
A seat that is perfectly made for social distancing
American has arguably the most exclusive seat flying domestically (it’s biggest competition being the JetBlue Mint suite).
Everyone gets both a window and an aisle in Flagship First on the A321T and the 1-1 configuration naturally ensures passengers are spaced out throughout the private 10-passenger cabin.
Business class is arranged in a lie-flat 2-2 configuration. However, because American is not blocking any seats onboard, business isn’t an ideal option if you want an empty seat next to you.
There may be the possibility that seats remain unoccupied but between upgraded passengers and airline employees, the odds aren’t in your favor that you’ll get an empty adjacent seat in business.
Back in the small economy cabin, seats are arranged in a standard 3-3 configuration. This particular flight had only about half of its main cabin seats occupied which meant a good amount of space to spread out. In fact, economy passengers had more personal space than business class flyers.
Say goodbye to pre-flight service
The days of pre-departure beverages are mostly gone. Even before COVID-19, American was notorious for inconsistently serving pre-flight drinks in its premium cabins.
However, for obvious safety reasons, the usual array of water, champagne and orange juice isn’t available when you board. This not only minimizes contact with cabin crew, but also prevents first-class passengers taking off their masks as they sip champagne (and have people from the entire business and economy cabins pass them during boarding).
A bottle of water was available at the seat (this was present before the pandemic as well) along with the amenity kit, noise-canceling headphones and Casper bedding.
American touts “deep cleaning of tray tables, seatbelt buckles, armrests, window shades, seatback screens doors and overhead bin handles.” However, strangely, I did not receive any hand sanitizer or wipes upon boarding or at my seat. There was a wipe hidden within the amenity kit though.
AA employees still occupy most of first class
Similar to before the pandemic, American Flagship First was mostly filled with airline employees.
I monitored the seat map closely in the days leading to departure, and I was the only passenger in the cabin up until shortly before boarding when first class was filled to capacity.
While I would have preferred an empty cabin, the flight experience didn’t change much with nonrevenue passengers. In fact, I found the crew provided high levels of service for all of first class and was particularly attentive on this flight.
Note that is is easier for airline employees to immediately get a seat in American first versus business, because revenue passengers can upgrade from economy to business (which often happens). However, you cannot double upgrade from economy to first — which frequently leaves empty first class seats available for nonrevs.
The ‘First’ experience is actually ‘Business’
Flagship First actually doesn’t exist right now.
American is not differentiating between Flagship Business and Flagship First onboard the Airbus A321Ts or the Boeing 777-300ERs (the two aircraft that have first class).
With lounges and dining closed, the main element of Flagship First that passengers are essentially paying for is the seat (and social distancing). From the menu and catering to bedding and the amenity kit, the entire soft product is business class.
Masks are strictly enforced
Cabin crew was diligent about ensuring everyone was wearing a mask. I even saw flight attendants gently remind passengers to wear a mask when they were not eating or drinking.
Bedding and amenity kits remain
A well-stocked American business class amenity kit was waiting at my seat. While the physical APL-branded kit itself was just alright, I was impressed with the contents inside. Nothing has changed here with a full array of items from Zenology lip balm to hand cream and even a full-sized toothpaste tube.
Thankfully, there also is a sanitizing towel in the kit too. I was surprised that American didn’t hand out any wipes or sanitizer to passengers.
Casper bedding was also plastic-wrapped and waiting at my seat. Again, this was the business class bedding. While there was no extra day blanket or lumbar pillow usually found in first, the duvet and standard pillow did the job for the five-hour afternoon flight.
This is also a marked improvement over United Polaris transcontinental flights where they have eliminated the duvet from the bedding entirely.
Catering was a surprising highlight
The Flagship Business menu had a full selection of hot meals and a full bar available on the flight.
This is in stark contrast to what American is serving on other non-premium transcontinental flights both in first and economy.
While warm mixed nuts are no longer served, a bag of pistachios was handed out. Immediately after, the hot meal arrived covered in plastic and foil and served all on one tray. However, I was amazed to see the use of real dishware, silverware and even a linen tablecloth.
The burrata appetizer and cheesecake dessert may have been dairy overload, but they were both well-prepared and hit the spot. My short ribs main course tasted way better than it looked, and the meal overall was delicious.
However, what was sadly missing was the sundae cart — those are no longer being served.
The standard snack basket was available at the front of the first class cabin following the meal service and had a full selection of chips, nuts and more.
I was even surprised to see American still serving the pre-arrival chocolate chip cookie before landing at LAX. The only difference is that the cookie came pre-wrapped in plastic and is not warmed.
In-flight entertainment is still stellar
American really shines when it comes to the in-flight entertainment selection. With hundreds of movies, shows and even Apple TV+, the airline isn’t skimping during coronavirus on these flights that are equipped with monitors.
Personally, I watched the view from out the window (my preferred method of entertainment) and had the airshow on for a majority of the flight.
Wi-Fi is still speedy, but pricier for some
Earlier this summer, American released a new sign-on portal when connecting to the onboard Wi-Fi for one-time sessions. The major difference is that American now manages the end-user experience and requires you to connect to your AAdvantage account.
It’s still speedy though and pricing is reasonable for one device. However, you’ll have to pay each time you want to connect on more than one device in-flight — that’s a new (and unfortunate) change.
Service was delightful and personalized
The onboard service was better than I expected. In fact, it was downright delightful.
As an Executive Platinum, I’ve actually never been approached by a cabin crew member to ask for my meal preference before anyone else in the cabin. That changed on this flight.
Additionally, the crew frequently passed through the cabin asking if anyone needed anything. This surprised me even more since I expected the crew to remain out of sight as much as possible during the pandemic.
From topping up drinks to addressing me by name, I would’ve been pleased with the service even before COVID-19. However, my expectations were low for this trip — and they were clearly surpassed.
Let’s cut to the chase. For one of my first flights since mid-March, I was impressed. Sure, the Flagship First experience is no more but Flagship Business isn’t actually much different. And for flying during the pandemic, this is probably the best you can get. From a hot meal to spacious seating (perfect for distancing) and above-average service, it was hard to nit-pick the experience.
However, I would like to see more readily available wipes and sanitizer — that seemed like a blatant oversight.
2020 is about adapting and tempering expectations. If you look at it from that lens, this is still one of the most premium domestic flights flying right now.
All photos taken by author.
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