Transcon Premium Cabin Throwdown: American Airlines Business Class

I had the opportunity to fly American’s three cabin First Class JFK-SFO last May and again flew JFK-SFO in business in February 2015. This review will be a summary of the business class flight, followed by the next installment which will focus on American’s Flagship First Class.

  • Introduction: Scoring and Considerations
  • United Airlines p.s. (757)
  • Delta One (757)
  • AA Business Class (A321T)
  • AA Flagship First (A321T)
  • JetBlue Mint (A321T)
  • Virgin America (A320)
  • Results and Summary

Hard Product

Having one of the newer transcon fleets (ten of the A321T, the same aircraft JetBlue operates), American was one of the last carriers to launch a refreshed premium product coast-to-coast. It also offers the only regularly scheduled three-cabin first class on these routes, primarily to service Hollywood contracts that entitle high profile actors and actresses to fly in this class of service from Los Angeles to New York.

American has definitely learned from and iterated beyond other airlines. In business class, there are 20 seats distributed a 2-2 configuration across five rows. They use seats similar to those used by United, but with nicer finishes and, a clamped shelf just under the in-flight entertainment system that keeps laptops or tablets from flying all over the place, better lighting, and a lipped shelf above and behind the seat to store a phone or bottle of water (avoiding the risk of it falling into the seat).

The lavatory ratio is 20 passengers to one, which could pose some waiting issues, and only half of the seats have direct aisle access. However, I think this is probably one of the best designed seats you can get coast-to-coast, as only JetBlue appears to have put more thought into the design and finishes and only Delta offers a greater chance of aisle access.

AA Business Class A321T

The seat is an updated version of the kind found on United. American didn’t skimp and got nicer finishings and trim and put a lip on the shelf behind the seat to keep things from rolling around.

AA Business Class A321T - console and shelf

If you sit in row 6, there is a large shelf above the IFE. Note also the hinged bin just below the screen. Great for a laptop or tablet!

AA biz seat controls

Pretty simple and intuitive controls.

Overall the interiors are gorgeous and spotless, giving the cabin an almost futuristic appearance. I remember thinking “ah this must be what it’s like to fly in 2015,” a reaction that airlines rarely inspire.

Soft Product

The service on American’s transcon routes is good, but there are more personalized options. The service was very efficient, with meal service sprung into action as soon as we leveled off, but was quite cold and perfunctory (not sure if the tradeoff of “fast but impersonal” trumps “friendly, but slow”). It seems like American has a little variability in crew, as the other flight had friendly attendants that lacked confidence, but were eager to please.

AA biz appetizers

The food had both color and flavor!

AA biz entree

I thought the entree was good for airline food, but approximating the quality of a mediocre restaurant. But hey! More color.

AA Menu Biz - food

The selections weren’t terribly adventurous, but don’t want to catch the caterers out of their comfort zone.

AA Business Wine List

The wines were fine, but the beers and liquors could stand to be upgraded.

While most of American’s catering has taken a hit during the merger, the dinner was actually pretty tasty, including a quinoa salad, an appetizer of fresh salmon, chicken with broccoli rabe, and ending with a signature ice cream sundae. The drink list was a little lackluster, mirroring what AA offers on other domestic first class flights, but refills were very frequent and two of the wines were quite pleasant. Not quite to the level of Delta, but a notch above United. The flight attendant also remarked that they didn’t have a large range of mixers to work with (your standard sodas and juices).

AA biz amenity kit

The felt amenity kit was passed out preflight, and while nicer (with eye mask, lip balm, red flower lotion and earplugs) than some international business class offerings, it didn’t reach the WOW effect that the JetBlue or Delta kits did. The duvet was comfy and warm, but didn’t quite reach their level either, with the pillow feeling slightly cheap. However, the snack basket onboard did have the most “modern” offering, showcasing interesting sweet and savory craft brands and healthy options instead of raiding the grocery store junk food aisle and sad shrink-wrapped apples.

Ground Experience

AA SFO check in

SFO Terminal 2 has nice open check-in areas. AA’s are pretty good, as are Virgin America’s.

AA Admirals Club SFO

The Admirals Club in JFK. The ones in SFO and LAX are similarly huge and nicely apportioned. Ironically, this lounge was actually less crowded than the Flagship Lounge when I visited, but that may be a fluke.

While the onboard experience is middle of the road, American really excels on the ground experience and clearly put the most thought into it. The terminals at SFO (T2) and JFK (T8) are probably the nicest in the airports and are very easy to navigate, with the lounges placed in very logical and convenient locations. LAX similarly has a better terminal than average, though the lounge is a bit harder to find. The Admirals clubs are all new, spacious and have good tarmac views at all three airports. The LAX lounge (once you find it) is probably one of the nicest in the system. Definitely the airline you want to have if you have a long connection at either end.


American offers GoGo WiFi onboard and it performs as expected, though on a flight this long, usage is high and speeds are average to below average. Really only JetBlue nailed it on this one.

AA IFE - Garden State

Garden State pretty much sums up the kind of movies you’ll find on the IFE.

The in-flight entertainment selection is eerily similar to United, so I’d venture that they use the same vendor, though the controls are slightly better.

Bose headset AA

So quiet, but collected way too soon and with suspicion.

American is the only carrier that uses Bose noise-canceling headphones, which do make a noticeable difference in shutting out cabin noise, though they still collect them way too early and give you the impression that the inventory check-in is ostensibly aimed at keeping passengers from stealing them.

Fleet and Operations

American has four flights daily to SFO and a whopping 11-13 flights daily to LAX, making it the biggest carrier by volume on that route and overall. Award availability in business class is generally pretty good, about on par with United and better than Delta, though American’s first class is generally more available.

American’s on time arrival record is slightly below average at 74% blended across all three airports. Not as bad as JetBlue, but it has a particularly high delay rate into SFO with only two out three arrivals getting in on time.

Overall Impression

American has been making significant investments in its product and it shows in the business class seat and on the ground. There are also a ton of these seats flying, so your chances are good on snagging an award ticket or a reasonable cash fare. I’ve enjoyed my experiences, and while the service and amenities are still a little rough around the edges, it’s a pretty good way to get around.

4 Responses to “Transcon Premium Cabin Throwdown: American Airlines Business Class”

  1. Eric, you forgot to mention —> unlike Delta and United, AA elites can use 500 mile-upgrades to go from Y to J class on the Transcons! I did on my last JFK-SFO transcon….

    • True, I did just that to get my seat! This route has historically been one of the best uses of United’s RPUs out there, since elites don’t get complimentary upgrades on it.


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