The best transcon US flight: Comparing American Flagship First, JetBlue Mint and United Polaris
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Editor’s note: During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. However, we are publishing new flight, hotel and lounge reviews, from trips taken before the lockdown. We have also been publishing a selection of our most popular reviews from the past year. We hope this will help you choose once we’re all ready to start booking trips again.
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.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, I flew to Los Angeles to get a first-look at the brand-new Amex Centurion Lounge at LAX. Since I’m based in NYC, I’ve got lots of choices for getting to California. I wanted to maximize my comfort on this cross-country trip, so I decided to review some top-notch products there and back.
On my way to LAX, I flew United Polaris on the carrier’s flagship Boeing 787-10. To get home, I decided to try something different. I’m a newly-minted AA Executive Platinum member (thanks to Hyatt), so I flew in AA Flagship First on the A321T to get an EQM boost. And in my review, I called it the “best transcon in America.” After all, none of the other airlines offer a true first-class product in the U.S.
But now I want to take a deeper look at that claim. Each year at the TPG Awards, the editorial team awards a U.S. airline with the best domestic business class. I have recently flown the 2019 winner — JetBlue Mint — so let’s see how these three top transcon experiences compare.
There’s no question about it. Getting a seat in JetBlue Mint is the easiest of all three products.
All of JetBlue’s transcon flights from JFK to San Francisco (SFO) and LAX feature 16 Mint seats. Though JetBlue’s TrueBlue loyalty program is the weakest of the three airlines, the paid fares are quite reasonable. In fact, JetBlue shocked the industry when it introduced pricing starting at around $600 for the one-way business-class transcon.
Not all of United’s flights between its hub in Newark and LAX and SFO are flown on the Boeing 787-10. During the coronavirus crisis, some are being flown with single-aisle airplanes and some with 787-8s, not all of which have the latest Polaris cabin. The fares are typically in line with JetBlue’s — especially when booking in advance. From time to time, you can find award and upgrade space for the 787-10 as well.
Naturally, the most exclusive product is AA’s Flagship First. With just 10 seats in the cabin, it’s no surprise that unless you’ve got deep pockets, it’s going to be a challenge to sit up front. These fares are often priced much higher than biz, even in miles. The key to sitting in first is using an upgrade certificate, which I’ve discussed here.
Once the actual experience begins, American wins on the ground — if you’re flying from JFK or LAX. That’s because AA includes Flagship Lounge and Flagship First Dining for passengers seated in the first-class cabin. When I flew from LAX to JFK, I was wowed by the ground experience. The lounge was a big step up from your typical Admirals Club, and Flagship First Dining is one of the most exclusive spaces in all of AA’s terminals. Note that there’s no Flagship Lounge or Dining at SFO, so I’d prefer United’s ground experience if starting your journey there. (These ground experiences will be very different until restrictions due to the virus will be lifted.)
United comes in second place, but by a wide margin. Though it operates five Polaris Lounges, a transcon biz ticket doesn’t give you entry to these exclusive spaces. So you’ll be stuck spending time before your flight in overcrowded United Clubs. They’re not the most inspiring business-class lounges out there, but it sure beats JetBlue’s offering.
And finally, JetBlue. The New York-based carrier doesn’t operate lounges, so there’s little incentive to arrive early to the airport. There’s a small dedicated check-in facility at the carrier’s hub in JFK, but that’s about it.
Here’s the thing, though. When flying domestically, I don’t necessarily plan time to relax in the lounge before my flight. So while AA definitely wins here, if you’re like me, you could make do with the lack of a (good) lounge when flying Mint or Polaris.
Cabin and seat
This may be surprising, but while AA’s Flagship First is more exclusive than the 44 seats in United Polaris, it’s only marginally more private than the 16 Mint seats.
Flagship First is arranged in a 1-1 reverse herringbone configuration. Each seat offers a decent amount of privacy and between two and three windows per seat. At 77 inches long, it’s quite comfortable in bed mode. When relaxing, there’s a large footwell, and some exposed storage on the counters and three shelves.
With JetBlue and United, your experience is going to differ based on where you’re seated. My personal preference when flying Polaris is one of the odd-numbered solo seats. To me, these offer more privacy than Flagship First, and a similar level of seat comfort. The bed may not be as long (76 inches in Polaris), but the footwell, especially in the bulkhead, is about the same size. Plus, these true window seats have about three oversized windows.
If you manage to snag one of the four JetBlue Mint suites, you’ll have even more privacy than on AA or UA. That’s because each suite has a sliding door. With two large tables, there’s also more storage in a Mint suite, but it’s all exposed. Though the bed on AA and UA is more comfortable, it’s hard to beat a throne suite.
Amenities and IFE
Overall, American is the winner here — but it’s nuanced. AA offers two Casper-branded pillows, two blankets and a well-stocked Athletic Propulsion Labs amenity kit. Though I slightly prefer the IFE system on United, the 15.4-inch screen is crisp and offers a good assortment of movies and TV shows.
And to listen to the content, you’ll be given a pair of Bang & Olufsen headphones (that will inevitably get collected way too early before landing). Wi-Fi is fast and reliable thanks to the strong Viasat signal.
United’s Saks-branded pillow and blanket is supremely comfortable, but I’d still prefer the more varied assortment of bedding in Flagship First. The amenity kit is downright paltry for biz. While the IFE system is the most robust of the three carriers, the Wi-Fi, provided by Panasonic, is the least reliable.
JetBlue’s pillow and blanket aren’t great. But the amenity kit is well above-average and its IFE offering is unique — it has 93 live stations of DirecTV, as well as SiriusXM. There’s a limited on-demand movie selection, but the screen quality is quite poor. The Wi-Fi provided by ViaSat is the strongest of the three — and it’s free!
Food and beverage
This one’s pretty easy. If you’re after the most extensive meal, you’ll want to choose AA. But if you’re looking for an innovative dining concept, Mint is the way to go.
AA offers a five-course meal for lunch. Everything I tried was good, and I particularly loved the two desserts. The drink selection is also quite impressive for a domestic flight.
United’s catering could definitely use some improvement. The food itself was okay, but the pre-arrival snack basket and wrapped sandwiches weren’t appetizing. The On the Rocks Old Fashioned is its saving grace.
JetBlue does its dining concept a bit differently. There are five small plates on offer of which you choose three. There’s also a light starter before the meal and local artisanal ice cream for dessert. In my experience, the food offering in Mint may not be the most extensive, but it’s always the tastiest.
Service is going to differ based on the crew staffing your flight. When I flew American’s A321T, I was very impressed by the lead flight attendant. However, I also recently flew Dallas to Hong Kong in Flagship First, and the service I received was lousy.
United’s also a mixed bag. When Zach Honig flew a few transcons last year on the 787-10, he described the service he received as needing improvement. My experience was much better, though not flawless.
Finally, JetBlue Mint. Over the course of many Mint flights, I’m always impressed with the level of service. I find the JetBlue flight attendants friendlier across the board. Plus, the airline staffs two crew for the small 16-seat cabin, almost guaranteeing that your needs will be cared for.
And the winner is…
In breaking down the differences between these top three premium transcon flight experiences, it’s clear that there’s no one winner.
In a vacuum, Flagship First beat Polaris and Mint. But, if you consider how hard it is to actually book a seat in the cabin (short of paying thousands of dollars), then it’s no longer as attractive.
If faced with the choice between flying in a Flagship First and a Mint suite for $1,000 less, I’d choose Mint in a heartbeat. And if the Mint suites were all taken, I’d fly Polaris in one of the odd-numbered window seats.
Regardless, these three carriers offer some of the best transcon experiences. If you’re fortunate to try any of them, you’ll likely have a great flight.
All photos by the author.
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