The Best Way to Cross the USA: JetBlue Mint in an A321 From New York to San Francisco
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The Points Guy is introducing a brand new review format that includes numerical scores for each section of the experience. These scores were used to determine the winners at the 2018 TPG Awards, where JetBlue’s Mint product on the A321 was named the Best Domestic Business Class of the year.
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="86" ground-experience="5" cabin-seat="25" amens-ife="12" food-bev="20" service="24" pros="The best premium-class seat on domestic US routes by far, and smiling, warm service to match" cons="No lounge at JFK" /]
Just 18 years old, JetBlue is a newcomer to the lucrative market for transcontinental business-class seats in the US. In 2014, it launched its Mint business class on coast-to-coast flights, featuring lie-flat seats as well as the airline's trademark live television. Available only on the largest airplane JetBlue flies, the Airbus A321, Mint rapidly gained a loyal following and challenged the legacy carriers to keep up — especially since the airline expanded Mint service in 2016 on flights from Boston and other cities, not just New York-JFK. With an excellent seat and service plus attractive prices, Mint has become a TPG favorite for coast-to-coast flights.
So it was time to review Mint again after our most recent take on it in 2017.
The one-way fare for the flight we selected, a Saturday-morning run from JFK to San Francisco (SFO), came to a relatively cheap $758 which we paid for with The Platinum Card® from American Express, earning 3,790 points worth $72 at TPG's current valuations. The flight earned 4,464 True Blue points in my account, worth $58.
If you're flying Mint, there is one thing to keep in mind: You can experience the unique (for the US) "throne" seat in rows 2 and 4. You'll have no seatmates and a minisuite with a door, a luxury found only in long-haul international first class (and rarely business) on some airlines. When we booked, only one solo seat was left, 4F, and we quickly grabbed it on the JetBlue site. The seat map showed clearly that the odd-numbered rows in Mint were arranged 2-2, while those four coveted thrones were found in the even-numbered rows.
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I checked in online the night before the flight, a quick and straightforward process. I could already see the gate my flight would depart from, No. 26 at JetBlue's Terminal 5. My boarding pass was sent in a text message, but I couldn't get it to open. It was, however, available in the JetBlue app, which I used to scan through the TSA security check and to board. The app also included a DirecTV schedule for my flight, a nice reminder that JetBlue had live television on board — not a small competitive advantage in the New York-to-Los Angeles market, where demand from people who work in media and entertainment is strong.
JetBlue was also issuing waivers to ticket-change fees because of expected heavy weather in New York. I took my chances on my original Flight 615, betting that it would depart as scheduled, and opted not to change.
I had forgotten to enter my Known Traveler Number in my JetBlue user profile, so I didn't have TSA PreCheck, a mistake I realized only when I got to security. I did go through the special Mint lane, which was extremely fast — but then queued up with the slow line for non-PreCheck passengers, whom the TSA agents treated with a rudeness exceeding even the usual low standards of JFK. "Take that off," one said curtly, pointing to my jacket.
The lack of a lounge for Mint passengers — or any passengers, really — at T5 after the Airspace Lounge closed earlier this year detracted significantly from the ground experience. I went straight to the gate after meandering a while through the terminal. JetBlue did provide very useful "juice bars" where you could charge your electronics.
I got to the gate — which was not No. 26 but No. 8, after a gate change — as Madonna's "Holiday" played loudly on the PA system. The terminal was spacious but really loud. Monitors offered a wealth of information, including the airlines this flight was codeshared with — Emirates, Qatar and South African.
The A321 parked at Gate 8 was a 1-year-old machine with the tail number N985JT, and a peculiar feature distinguished it from most other Airbuses: it was a "Bama Bus," assembled at the Airbus plant opened in 2015 in Mobile, Alabama. (The European plane maker builds most of its jets in France or Germany.) And keeping up the Madonna vibe, it sported the name "Minterial Girl." (JetBlue gives its planes names, which are usually puns on "blue" or "mint." )
The soundtrack provided by those loud songs over the PA was interesting. Madonna was followed by another 1980s throwback, The Smiths' "This Charming Man," definitely not a cheery song, and then by The Cure's "Friday I'm in Love," a far better tune for putting people in a nice mood before boarding — which began at 10:50am on the dot, as the gate monitors had promised.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="25" tpg-rating-max="25" width="22.3" bed="80" lavs="2" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Mint-equipped A321s have 159 seats, far fewer than JetBlue's standard A321s with 200. Of those 159 seats, 16 are Mint, in three rows of 2-2 and two rows of 1-1 throne seats.
The verdict was easy: The JetBlue single seat in Mint was the best domestic business-class hard product in the US. At 22 inches wide and converting to a flat bed 6 feet, 8 inches long in a minisuite with a closing door, the Mint throne just didn't have an equal among domestic US seats.
The 2-2 seats at rows 1, 3 and 5 were great for couples. The privacy divider was not huge but prevented you from looking your seatmate in the face if you didn't want to.
In a nice touch, I found a card at my seat introducing the two flight attendants working the Mint cabin.
On the wide ledge, blanket and amenity kit were arranged neatly.
Three power outlets to the left and right of my seat made keeping devices charged a breeze.
Storage was tailored for phones, a thoughtful touch, with two mesh pockets on each side of a bin for larger objects. The bin could be closed.
Another storage area under the inflight entertainment monitor was good for small objects. Coupled with the large ledge, the seat offered all the storage I wanted.
Intuitive seat controls and a simple, easy-to-use remote were placed in an easily reachable spot. The controls included a button for a massage function, which didn't really do a lot.
The larger storage bin and mesh pocket were substantial enough for most onboard needs.
Literature was stored in a pouch at the foot of the seat.
The Hayward amenity kit, featured in Mint since 2016, contained the essentials for a cross-country flight — toothbrush and toothpaste, moisturizers, socks, eye mask, ear plugs and pen.
With the blanket on the floor or in use, the ledge was quite spacious. This seat would have been extremely comfortable for a much longer flight, too.
When I had settled down, flight attendant Afesha came to welcome me and ask if I had flown Mint before. She also asked if I needed headphones and whether I wanted lunch, and if I required my welcome drink with vodka or not.
Emily then offered to hang my jacket in the galley closet, but neither she nor Afesha showed me how to use the most distinguishing feature of the throne seat: the door, which gave JetBlue the only premium-class suite on US domestic routes (and the only enclosed suite on any US airline except Delta, which only flies it internationally).
With boarding complete at 11:27am, four seats remained unoccupied in Mint. As Emily and Afesha milled about the cabin doing their job, they were clearly having fun. Their positive, smiling demeanor contributed to an enjoyable atmosphere in the Mint cabin, which remained open to the rear throughout the flight. The captain, who was introduced by name later in an announcement by flight attendants after the safety demonstration, welcomed us on board over the PA system and announced a flight time of five hours, 40 minutes, with a bumpy ride expected for the first 40 minutes.
During a mercifully short taxi to the runway, much quicker than the JFK average thanks to the midday traffic lull on a Saturday, JetBlue's preponderance at the airport was evident. All three of its aircraft models were visible in large numbers from my window — including the tail of this Embraer 190, the smallest ship in the fleet.
After an on-time takeoff at noon, the captain's prediction that we'd have a bumpy climbout turned out to be inaccurate. The only, very moderate, turbulence we hit throughout the flight happened briefly during cruise.
There was one dedicated bathroom for Mint passengers at the front of the cabin, standard-sized and with no special amenities. Sixteen people per bathroom is a good ratio on an airplane, and there was also another one at the rear of the cabin, shared with economy.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="12" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="15" movies="60" live-tv="Yes" tailcam="No" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
The pièce de résistance of JetBlue's IFE, live TV, worked on the ground and in the air, and enabled me to keep up with the news even when I wasn't using the onboard Wi-Fi. Even without that, I would have been entertained more than enough by the selection of 60 movies. My only, minor, gripe with it was that the oldest film in the classics section seemed to be Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," from 1977, which is what I ended up watching for the umpteenth time.
A reset of the IFE just after takeoff took only five minutes, not a huge problem on an almost six-hour flight. A good thing to have on a flight across the continent would have been a better map allowing me to zoom in and see physical features.
With views like these outside the very clean windows, it would have been nice to know where we were with more precision.
Other than that, the IFE did its job well. The remote, useful when the seat was reclined too far for the touchscreen, was easy to use; the sound quality of the provided headphones was good, although they couldn't match the noise-canceling Bose set I'd brought along.
The Fly-Fi Wi-Fi was pretty fast. Speedtest returned a download speed close to 12 megabits per second, not a bad number at all. On the ground, it would have been a decent speed, although just adequate for streaming video.
Speaking of streaming video: I could have watched Amazon video using my Amazon Prime membership, as well as listen to SiriusXM satellite radio.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="20" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="1" champagne="N/A" dine-on-demand="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Just after sitting down, I had the alcohol-free version of the signature Mint welcome drink — featuring, naturally, a mint sprig — with lime juice and club soda. I loved its refreshing, minty flavor, and if it had been later in the day, the version with vodka would have been perfect.
Twenty minutes after takeoff, Emily came to take my lunch order. I could select three out of five dishes, some of them created by the New York restaurant Saxon + Parole, which The Infatuation rated 7.5/10.
Like the trendy menu — in which the word "Brooklyn" appeared not once but twice — the wine list was definitely in line with the zeitgeist, featuring two rosés. The gloomy, drizzly fall day in New York hadn't inspired me to drink rosé, however, and I chose the Wind Gap red, attracted by the promise of a wine "just right to pair with most of the Mint menu" and two grape varietals I had never drunk before: Valdiguié and Carignan.
Wine, sparkling water and the appetizer, crostini with a pea-and-ricotta pesto dip, came at the same time. The crostini were very garlicky, and the dip should not have been cold.
I ordered the kale Cobb salad and seven-grain mushroom risotto from the Saxon + Parole dishes, and the pan-seared halibut. The three main dishes were presented together on a tray (from left in the image below: risotto, halibut and salad). The cute, polka-dotted placemat served just fine instead of a more formal tablecloth, and felt in keeping with the svelte, contemporary image projected by the menu and the airline's branding.
As for the actual food, I agreed with the Infatuation grade: good but nowhere near a showstopper. The main problem was the dryness of the risotto and halibut. Creamy risotto and properly moist fish in the dry atmosphere of an airplane are difficult to do, but I've had better executions of similar dishes on planes. The wine paired well with the risotto, though, and didn't feel out of place with the halibut either.
My choice of dessert, the fruit plate, came on a new, smaller tray with a new set of cutlery and a heavy paper (not cloth) napkin.
After lunch, the two flight attendants walked up and down the aisle a few times to check on their passengers. There was a self-serve minibar located between the Mint and economy cabins, but I didn't use it.
Probably because I was so happy with my seat, I forgot that I could make it even better by sliding the door closed, and I slept a couple hours in lie-flat position with the door open. I had plenty of privacy all the same.
The footwell was smaller than in the 2-2 seats, but it was a small price to pay for extra privacy, and I did not feel too constrained.
At 5pm New York time, 2pm at our destination, whoever was still sleeping was awakened by an announcement on the PA. Ten minutes later, we got a Milk Bar cookie, which I skipped. A three-course midday meal was plenty: My Mint lunch may not have been quite top-notch for quality, but definitely was for quantity.
Hot towels were distributed 15 minutes from landing, and we touched down five minutes ahead of schedule at 2:50pm local, after a smooth approach over the San Francisco Bay.
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Simply put, Emily and Afesha were the best crew I've had thus far in premium class on a US domestic flight. With four seats out of 16 free, they had only six passengers each to take care of, and they did so with gusto and style. They could have shown me how to close the suite door, but that was a tiny glitch in an otherwise near-flawless six hours of discreet, smiling attention to their passengers. For an airline that's been doing premium class for just four years, that is remarkable — and it speaks to a company-wide customer-oriented culture.
As we made our westbound final approach into SFO and Mount Diablo appeared in the distance, I knew I had just made one of my more pleasant cross-country flights. Mint lived up to its billing and, save for relatively minor issues with lunch, delivered a superior premium-class onboard experience relative to the competition. The lounge situation at JFK's Terminal 5 needs to be fixed, though.
As we rolled up to our gate at SFO, we passed a couple of our sister ships, sleek JetBlue A321s. I knew I would want to fly on them again, up front in Mint.
All photos by the author.