We tried every premium transcon cabin in the US and American Flagship First is the best.
American Airlines transcontinental First Class is the most exquisite way to fly across the United States and it really is the “Flagship First” class. American operates this 3-cabin experience on just two routes: between SFO (San Francisco) and JFK (New York) and between LAX (Los Angeles) and JFK. If you have the opportunity to try First Class on either of these American routes, we enthusiastically recommend it.
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We were flying one-way from SFO to JFK. When booking the ticket, First Class was significantly more expensive than Business so we booked Business. It was also almost twice the cost to fly on the midday 11:19 AM flight compared to the 6 AM and 8:15 AM flights, so we reluctantly booked the 8:15 AM flight.
Approximately a day before departure, we began to have second thoughts about needing to rise at 5 AM for our trip back east. Some quick research revealed that American allows free changes to another flight the same day when flying Business or First. So exactly 24 hours ahead, when we attempted to check in, we were presented with an option to change to the 6 AM flight… not the flight we were hoping for! The trick with changing to flights later than your own is to wait until 24 hours before the NEW flight to check in to your own. When we attempted at 11:19 AM the prior day, we were indeed presented with the option to change to the later flight for free, an option we happily took for no cost.
When proceeding through the check in, we were also presented with the option to upgrade our Business Class seats to First Class. The cost was $281 per person, which we took for a chance to try American’s transcontinental First Class.
Check In at SFO was probably the least luxurious part of the trip. For the prices one is paying for these flights, it would be great if American could provide a separate check in area. There was, at least, a separate line, for JFK First Class passengers which was drastically shorter than the line for Priority passengers and Economy passengers, but it still took us more than 20 minutes to check in and drop our bags, mainly due to there being only one agent to handle First Class passengers.
American Airlines Transcontinental First Class passengers have access to the Admirals Club lounge at SFO, as do Business Class passengers on transcon routes. Unlike at LAX, where a Flagship First lounge is available to First Class passengers exclusively, San Francisco International Airport is home only to an Admirals Club lounge. The lounge had standard breakfast lounge fare, though a bit minimalist, along with a full bar. We were provided 1 premium drink ticket for each of us in order to be able order any premium drink from the bar, beverages that would usually be charged to other passengers.
For all the details, you can read our full review of the Admirals Club SFO.
As expected, the First Class seats on American’s Airbus A321 are fully lie flat seats configured in a 1-1 configuration. The amount of privacy achieved in this layout is exceptional, seconded only to the single seats available in JetBlue’s Mint business class. These seats give the best of both world: aisle access for convenience and window access for great views and lightning control.
The seat comes with two good-sized pillows, both very comfortable and more substantial the many other pillows we’ve encountered. There was also a duvet and a blanket. All the bedding was provided and branded by Casper, the mattress company. Midway through our flight, I prepared the bed to give it a try. It was long enough to comfortably fit my 5′ 10″ frame with room to spare. The larger pillow and extra smaller pillow made all the difference in comfort. As I was making the bed, the purser asked if he could it for me or if he could bring me an extra duvet to make it even cushier. I declined both but this kind of service is welcomed.
Plenty of storage is available in several places through the seat. There is a bright reading light which came in handy after the cabin lights were dimmed. However, the overhead light was either not wired up by design or was broken, because ours did not function and therefore the reading light was the only supplemental light available.
One of our seats had a malfunctioning armrest and despite several attempts by various crew members to fix it, it was not movable. The captain came back and personally asked us we were willing to move seats so as not to delay the flight. Luckily there were several available. He also specifically mentioned that he would write up the defect for maintenance.
Before takeoff, a pre-departure beverage was offered. The purser walked the cabin with a tray of orange juice, water, or champagne. The drinks were served in delicate glassware branded with the AA logo, contrasting with the disposable plastic cups provided in many domestic premium cabins these days. This was a harbinger of good things to come.
Shortly before take off, our lunch orders were taken. The menu offered four main courses: lamb cutlets, grain and greens bowl (with optional chicken), seafood medley, and vegetarian Thai green curry. I ordered the lamb, as it’s the toughest food to get right on an airplane. For the appetizer I chose the goat cheese croquette, rather than the seared tuna. I was asked if I wanted to soup as well and of course I said yes.
Immediately after take off, warm nuts and olives were distributed along with our drink orders. I had ordered a gin and ginger ale, one of my favorite in-flight combinations because it’s a little different but also readily available.
As we were nearing the completion of our nuts and drinks, the tables were prepared for lunch service. Beautiful two-tone cloth napkins were laid, our appetizers delivered, and a bread basket was offered. My goat cheese croquettes were a bit odd. They were goat cheese, seemingly coated and fried but served cold. They were plated on top of a salad called Waldorf, but it was a bit bland. Still, overall, the dish was pleasing and I ate the entire thing.
A disappointing “salad” was served after the appetizer but it was hardly a salad and more just a bowl of baby greens with a light dressing. The greens were not accompanied by anything at all, and the bowl was deep so after about four bites, I was pretty tired of it.
The soup was the most delicious course of the day and one of the best soups I have ever had in the air. Delicate and flavorful, I wanted to ask for 2 or 3 more bowls of it, it was that good.
Our meals were fairly well paced, though there was a longer delay than we would would have hoped before the main courses came out. However, the service was otherwise attentive and we were consistently asked if we wanted drink refills. It really makes a different in the service level when the attendant asks me rather than me having to chase them down.
Eventually the mains did come out. My lamb chops were panko crusted and served with micro greens along with wild rice. Everything was delicious, although the lamb chops were overcooked. However, I expected that as it’s pretty much impossible to serve medium rare or even medium meat of any kind on an airplane. One of these days I will find an airline that manages to do it.
After dinner, dessert was served. Several choices were offered, including a cheese plate and two cakes. But when ice cream is offered, I find it hard to refuse, so an ice cream sundae was prepared for me after I chose from a variety of available toppings. The vanilla ice cream from Haagen Dazs was delicious, of course.
American’s in flight entertainment in First Class is of course the same content available in other classes, however displayed on a large 15.4″ HD screen. Many airlines, including American, are removing seat back screens, but on these longer, hyper-competitive transcontinental routes, they are still prevalent. It was great to see American have a pretty comprehensive selection of movies and television, both current and classic.
The most important part of any inflight entertainment system for us is the recent movie selection. Watching recently released movies on airplanes is one of our favorite ways to pass the time. On this route, I was able to watch Free Solo and The Bill Murray Stories.
Wifi access was available and it was better than expected. In fact, it blew away every other flight we have taken in the past decade in terms of speed and price. The price for a full flight (6 hours) was $16, and a speed test showed more than 8 Mbps download speeds, good enough even to stream. Internet access is provided by Viasat, a competitor to the more prevalent Gogo. Our other recent flights have cost as much as $40 for a shorter flight and service speeds that tops out at less than 1 Mbps, so these prices and speeds were a welcome change.
Just when we thought the meals and food service were over, there was more to come. While we were watching some movies and relaxing, the cabin crew offered warm chocolate chip cookies and asked if we wanted a cold glass of milk with it. What a perfect snack to accompany movie time. There was also a basket of granola bars, chips, pretzels, nuts, and fruit presented in the cabin several times during the remainder of the flight.
Delicious food, a generously sized seat, and the latest inflight entertainment are all essential components to a premium flight experience. And just about any airline Business or First Class can deliver these relatively well. But where American Airlines Transcontinental First Class stands apart from the pack is with its service. The level of attention received in a cabin with only 10 seats is extraordinary. We were attended to by the flight’s purser, who is the most senior attendant on board, and typically the one with the most experience. In this case, the experience and attention to detail really showed.
Our drinks were constantly refreshed, without asking, our food was prepared and presented in a timely fashion, all of our needs were attended to without hesitation. And we were constantly referred to by name with every interaction. Nothing makes you feel more special than when being greeted by name by someone you’ve barely met. “Can I get you another drink, Mr. Bartlett?” “Do you need another pillow, Mr. Bartlett?” Ultimately, this pampering is what you’re paying for in these premium cabins on these premium routes. American Airlines Transcontinental First Class is truly the most luxurious way to fly.
Airline: American Airlines
Flight Number: AA 16
Aircraft: Airbus A321 (32B Layout 3)
Route: SFO to JFK
Schedule Departure Time: 11:20 AM PDT
Schedule Arrival Time: 8:19 PM EDT
Flight Time: 5 hours 59 minutes
Full details available on FlightAware.
What It Cost
$658.30 one way for Business Class
$281.40 upgrade for First Class
How We Paid
We used our Amex Platinum card because it earns 5x Membership Rewards points on airfare. Apply now through our link and you can get 60,000 Membership Rewards points and we can get 15,000.
Points We Earned
4,698 American Express Membership Rewards points
We value Membership Rewards points as at least $0.02 each because we usually redeem them for Business Class international flights. That means we earned at least $93.96 in Membership Rewards points by booking with our Platinum card.
3,000 American Airlines Miles
600 American Airlines EQD (Elite Qualifying Dollars)
5,172 American Airlines EQMs (Elite Qualifying Miles)
1 American Airlines EQS (Elite Qualifying Segment)
It looks like American doesn’t count dollars spent on upgrades as EQDs (Elite Qualifying Dollars) which is a little disappointing. But since we don’t fly American enough to achieve status anyway, it won’t impact us.
American Airlines Transcontinental First Class is simply the best premium cabin available in the US. There is no better way to fly across the United States.