American Airlines has a new aircraft for its mid-haul transcontinental flights – the A321, with fully-flat beds in both first and business class.
At the time of this review in January, the A321 was on two of AA’s daily departures between New York’s JFK airport and Los Angeles’ LAX. By June it will operate all frequencies between the two airports, when American increases its frequencies to 13 daily flights.
In addition, the A321 will begin flying between JFK and San Francisco International airport in March and will operate all frequencies between the two airports in June, when American increases its frequencies to five daily flights,
These new flights are part of a larger, and long overdue, upgrade of domestic services by US airlines, including Delta, United and low-cost carrier Jet Blue, all of which are offering fully flat beds in business.
I arrived at JFK Terminal 8 at 0920 for my AA flight AA03 from New York to Los Angeles, a flight of around six hours. There is kerbside check-in for flights, but it was very cold (wind chill taking it down to -10 degrees Celsius) so I went into the terminal and made my way to Zone 1, where the premium check-in is.
The check-in attendant was very helpful and offered to put me on the 1030 flight, since I was so early, but I wanted to see the terminal and do some work before the flight, so I stayed on the 1200 departure. From there it was a short walk to security, where despite there being only a few passengers it took over ten minutes to be processed.
AA has a few lounges at Terminal 8 – both an Admiral’s Club lounge and Flagship lounge around Gate 12, and then an Admiral’s Club lounge at 46, which was right by my departure gate. Since I had time, I went into the Flagship lounge by gate 12 and relaxed, had some breakfast from the buffet and worked for a while. I also took some photos.
I then went down towards the gate, which means taking an escalator down to go under one of the taxiways and then coming up on a different concourse. The Admiral’s lounge here is accessed pretty much as soon as you come up on the other side – don’t do what I did and walk straight past it and look for it near the gate. In fact, it has a strange icon sign that, doubtless, is immediately recognisable to millions of AA regular flyers, but meant nothing to me, so look out for that on the signs.
I spent about 20 minutes in the large Admiral’s lounge which has several different areas, from a quiet area to a bar, work area and kid’s area, then since the flights were not called, went down to the gate at around 1130.
This had begun when I arrived and there was priority boarding for premium passengers via an airbridge. When I got to the aircraft a flight attendant was operating an interactive screen just inside the door, and when he saw me coming he stepped back so I could pass and gestured that I should go into the cabin, which I did.
The aircraft is configured in three classes, or four if you count the Main Cabin Extra (a sort of premium economy for the main cabin). To see a seatplan, click here.
This flight was boarded from just one door, and that was the one right at the front, which meant that every passenger then walks through the First cabin and then, if in the main cabin, the business section as well.
I don’t know if this is because being a narrow-bodied plane only one airbridge is needed, but if it is the case I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to use the door between business and first. It would certainly make the initial experience of being in First a little less like sitting in a corridor.
The five rows of First (configured 1-1) are all angled towards the window, and all of them have windows, though for this departure many of the blinds were down, and remained down for take-off and the remainder of the flight.
The seat is similar to that on the B777-300ER, and fully flat is just as comfortable as that seat for sleeping.
There is a storage area to one side, where on the B777-300ER the headphones are kept, and a large side table as well as a dining and work table which swings out from the arm and then folds out from one leaf to two. There is a magazine holder close to the floor, and inset in each seat is a footstep so you can gain access to the overhead lockers, though this would only be necessary if you were short.
The in-flight entertainment (IFE) is similar to that on the B777-300ER and has a wide choice of entertainment – 200 films, up to 180 TV programmes, more than 350 audio selections and up to 20 games.
One difference is that instead of the more traditional handset for controlling the screen, there is a touchscreen handset. I found this very tricky to use. I can see it might be an advantage being able to view one thing on this screen and another on the large IFE screen, but if you make a mistake while, for instance, trying to brighten the screen halfway through a film, you can very easily find you’ve quit the movie altogether. I made so many mistakes with the handset that I put it to one side where it wouldn’t get knocked, and instead just reached the screen, which is easy enough to do while you’re sitting up.
There was also a fault in my system so when I paused a film it would not restart. Despite having my system reset, this problem continued so I tried to listen to some music while working, but the music jumped around so I gave up with it altogether, and instead just worked, keeping my laptop charged using the individual power (which takes a UK plug).
The price of Gogo’s upgraded ATG-4 Wi-Fi service was US$11 for one hour, US$22 for two hours (but with one free, so three hours), or all day US$28.95. I thought this was expensive and did not connect, but at least four out of the six passengers on board in First did, so perhaps I’m alone in that.
My coat was taken after a few minutes, and I was offered a either Champagne, water or orange juice. We backed away from the stand at 1200 and then had a 15-minute taxi before taking off at 1215.
As on other AA flights, there is a recorded announcement that is repeated several times, which says: “We’ll be ready to leave when all carry-ons have been stowed and all passengers are seated.” In other words, it’s the passengers’ fault we haven’t set off yet, not the airport’s, the airline’s or air traffic control.
Menus came around shortly after take-off, and the option of another drink. This was done individually (i.e. not from the trolley). The IFE pauses every time an announcement is made in any of the cabins, so you get to hear the option of buying food on board (US$10 for sandwiches or salads) and US$5 for headphones, though these are “yours to keep”.
- Salad — seasonal greens and fresh vegetables
- Entrees — Chicken pot pie with gravy, potatoes, carrots, green beans and peas (“An American Classics item”) or
- Lemon and Dill Grilled Salmon served with baby fennel, broccoli and buttered new potatoes.
- Ice cream Vanilla Health Bar Crunch
- Gourmet cheese plate
- Light refreshment
- Whole fruit and snacks
- Cookies freshly baked on board.
The portions were huge, and it was all very tasty, particularly the salad, which came with the option of two large grilled chicken breasts which made it entrée size.
- Sparkling wine — Valdo Prosecco Brut, Venetto
- White wine — Cecchetti Line 39 Sauvignon Blanc, California Rued Chardonnay, Russian River Valley
- Red — Ottimino 2008, Zinfinity Zinfandel, Sonoma Echelon California Cabernet
I reclined the seat midway through the flight and relaxed for a while. The seat is just as comfortable as the version on the long-haul American Airlines B777-300ER. I didn’t get much sleep, however, because of the noise from the galley of all the flight attendants laughing and talking.
Throughout the flight the service had a sense of being almost improvised. The same flight attendant who’d been trying to work the screen by the doorway as I boarded was relaxed, almost casual, and was very happy to help with everything and answer my questions — “How long was the flight? Wasn’t this seat just like the one on the B777-300ER? Did I have to buy my headphones as well?” I liked his answer to my question: “Do you pay for the wifi?” — “I don’t, you do.”
But later on in the flight, he was one of the ones keeping me awake when I tried to sleep. Yet when I gave up and sat up and requested a drink, he asked me “if I was feeling refreshed”. And later still, when I asked if they had any herbal tea or anything without caffeine, he said he didn’t, but then both he and a colleague went into their own flight bags to offer me what they brought along on the flight for themselves. So how do you rate service like that?
We arrived on time into LA and there were no problems getting off, with First given priority. As I was arriving as a domestic passenger, I was quickly out of the airport.
It was disappointing that the IFE didn’t work on this flight, but this was true of all three American Airlines flights I took in business and first on three consecutive days. The service was very good at times, and not so great at others.
- DEPARTURE TIME 1200
- FLIGHT TIME Six hours and 15 minutes
- PLANE TYPE A321
- CONFIGURATION 1-1
- SEAT WIDTH 27.4in/70cm
- SEAT LENGTH 81in/206cm
- SEAT RECLINE 180 degrees
- PRICE Internet rates for a return first class flight between New York and Los Angeles in April started from £3,565
- CONTACT aa.com