Just a thought piece today on the future of international first class on American Airlines.
Not Too Late: How American Airlines Could Offer A Leading First Class Product
View From The Wing wonders whether American’s Flagship First Class product will disappear next year. The discussion comes as leaks suggest American Airlines will be adding new premium-heavy Boeing 787 Dreamliners to its fleet, including business class suites with doors. Importantly, those aircraft will not feature a Flagship First Class cabin. In fact, AA is not currently scheduled to take delivery of any aircraft that will include an international first class cabin.
Where does that leave the future of first class on American Airlines, especially as the carrier has blurred the soft product between business and first class to a degree in which there is very little recognizable difference?
At the outset, I’ll state my prediction: American Airlines will indeed eliminate its Flagship First Class product next year, marking the end of the final U.S. carrier to offer a true international first class product. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Below I posit five ways American Airlines could offer a compelling first class product that could attract a revenue premium (versus a cabin full of employee standbys). Note, the first class seats are fine…they are not the problem. Nor is the bedding. A total revamp is not needed.
1. Limit First Class Cabins To Four Seats
As a world traveler who loves to use miles and points for first class air travel, I see there is still demand for a true first class product, but it limited. Offering a small first class cabin will make it more exclusive and better allocate the limited real estate onboard.
AA’s Boeing 777-300ERs currently have eight seats in first class while the Airbus A321T has 10 seats. Cut both to four.
2. Ground Service From Hubs That Provides Personalized Service To First Class Passengers
Chauffeur service to the plane (like Air France or Lufthansa) would be great and certainly within the realm of possibility with only four passengers per plane, but it need not even go that far.
AA already offers a superb Flagship check-in at major hubs and it could take that to the next level by simply offering an escort to first class passengers from check-in through security to the lounge, then from the lounge to the plane.
First class passengers enjoy being pampered during every step of the travel experience and this seems like small investment if AA can sell more very pricey tickets.
3. Specially-Trained Flight Attendants Onboard
This one is controversial, but the problem with first class on American Airlines (and I’ve experienced it myself) is that you will often find grouchy and surly flight attendants. This cannot be fairly reduced to age or seniority, but many “veteran” FAs prefer to work Flagship First because it is actually the least-demanding cabin to work, especially when proactive service between meals is not dispensed.
AA should follow JetBlue’s lead and specially-train flight attendants to work in Flagship First, working with the union to offer incentive bonuses beyond seniority for those who step up and provide great service in first class.
4. An Improved And Differentiated Soft Product Onboard
I’m not calling for Dom Perignon and caviar. However, the only difference, as far as I can tell, between the business and first class meal service is a larger salad, soup course, and the availability of espresso-based drinks. That all needs to stay, but there should be better wine, more and varied entree choices, and extra touches to distinguish business and first.
Most importantly, first class should be a totally a la carte dining experience, in which a wide range of food and drinks can be pared per the passenger’s wish at the time of the passenger’s choosing.
5. Prohibit Cheap Upgrades And Employee Standby
As I alluded to above, a common complaint about AA’s current first class product is that it should more aptly be called “employee class” because the majority of the cabin is often employees versus revenue passengers. While most employees are well-behaved when non-revving, there is a certain kinship between airline employees that manifests itself in extended conversations and more personalized service, sometimes to the detriment of revenue passengers. To avoid that, AA should eliminate first class standby for employees and tighten up upgrade rules so that the cabin becomes much more difficult to access.
There’s one upside to my prediction: as part of the dismantling of Flagship First, the current Flagship First dining facilities will become annexes of the Flagship Lounges, making them better able to compete with Polaris lounges. That could be a plus. But while I do see the writing on the wall, I remain (faintly) hopeful that American would actually try to spruce up its first class product instead of just giving up on it. Its failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when AA fails to invest in it while lamenting there is no demand for it.
Do you think Flagship First Class on American Airlines can be saved? What would you do to make it more viable?
image: American Airlines
International first should only be on premium leisure routes, not business routes. That is one mistake airlines are making. Businesses do not pay for F these days. However, wealthy leisure travelers will
F should only be on routes like HNL (Asian carriers do this), OGG, PPT, LAX, MIA, and other very premium leisure locations
The really rich people are flying private to Hawaii.
If Hawaii was really about making a revenue premium in premium cabins, AA would fly 77Ws there and AS and WN wouldn’t fly there. UA wouldn’t have planes going to Hawaii with their old J product, they’d use their overstuffed J widebody planes. DL would be doing Delta One out of SEA. Nobody would be flying 737s and 752s/753s with standard domestic products.
It’s pretty comical to think airlines who’ve been flying to Hawaii for decades and who have a huge variety of products they could put on routes, somehow have been completely oblivious about how to make money and optimize their plane cabins on routes, in an industry that is ruthlessly cutthroat and shamelessly copycat.
The airlines are simply wrong. How is it the Asian airlines figured out to put their very best aircraft on the HNL routes? People are willing to pay for a luxury experience
US airlines are too hooked on OPM, that they forgot about the segment of the population that is willing to pay their own money for a luxury experience. Hopefully, the airlines now see people are willing to pay for premium cabins to leisure routes, given that UA has been filling their premium cabins on these routes
You have an interesting idea but the specifics are wrong. There are leisure destinations where access to first class product is inadequate. But Hawaii isn’t one of them. Hawaii is part of the expansive nowhere for wealthy leisure travel. Take a pic and move on. Sorry, VP of finance for some pointless US tech company is not a great profile for first class product. If you could land a widebody on mykonos, every first class seat would be full with trust fund kids and others with money to spend. For that profile it’s still New York, London, Sydney with honorable mention for LA, Shanghai, Paris and a few other places. That’s where their friends are so that’s where they go. Pair up two of those cities and there is demand independent of corporate expense accounts.
Who cares about the elitist, privileged part of the plane where only the entitled feel they have to sit. I often wonder how you can devote your life to trying to hobnob with the elites and scrounge every upgrade possible. There is way more to life than than sitting in a plane pretending you’re more important than the people behind you.
The people who read this site, that’s who. This blog really isn’t for the Ham & Eggers that fly Spirit.
And the seats are available for anyone who sees value in paying for them. Life is too short to be jealous of others.
You are on the wrong blog. I’m sure there’s a poor people travel blog somewhere where they have Spirit deals to Branson MO. I think you should find a site that promotes deals like that
BTW you don’t always have to be rich to fly F or J, just need to be savvy
Jan, to your point, a person of humble means can walk through a few welcome bonuses and obtain enough points for a round-trip to wherever in F. What person of good conscience would deny someone of one’s trip of a lifetime? The commenter’s argument sounds like “if I can’t have fun, no one else should have fun.” Massive chip.
Sorry to burst your bubble: the ELITES don’t fly F, they fly private.
I fly in F because I busted my ass my whole life so I could enjoy travel in retirement and my old body can’t take a 10-hour flight in economy.
Who says I am pretending to better than most others? Either we are all equal or somebody is better. Objectively, I am better on nearly every metric that can be measured. Consider yourself fortunate that I even responded to your post.
Ah yes the non-rev argument. A quick glance at flyertalk will see numerous threads complaining about non-revs/deadheads/etc stealing Elite upgrades which 90% of the time are nothing more than people complaining about that they didn’t get the upgrade or somehow were more entitled to it/the airline would create more goodwill if they gave the seat to customers rather than employees. Somehow there is this thought that those situations would entice people to pay for the premium cabin the next time around, but as you alluded to in your post, you use miles and points to secure First. Right there lies the issue with most premium cabins where 8-10F international cabins aren’t filled with paid tickets but rather with mileage point redemptions or upgrades……and yet you also are complaining about cheap upgrades.
In all of my experiences as a non-rev, I’ve yet to get the “personalized” service as a result of the kinship between airline employees. In fact I would argue that either I was treated as if it was a bother to offer even minimal service to someone that wasn’t a paid/revenue passenger or that I received the same mediocre service as the rest of the cabin…..granted I was flying UA. Again I think this is mostly exaggerated and more the result of the Flyertalk crowd being more perceptive/aware of their surroundings and airline policies/operations/etc (or looking for some sort of issue to begin with) rather than the majority of the flying public actually being able to spot out the non rev/employee seated in their midst.
So let’s say AA goes with your suggestion of limiting employee access to F. Is that going to lead to more people paying for the cabin? Is it as a whole going to provide better service? Or will empty cabins with at best 1-2 revenue passengers lead to situations where someone is now complaining that the FA’s spent the majority of the time assisting in Business Class, brought drinks to the nonrevs in Y or hanging out in the galley? Or will it then again be an argument that all of those empty seats went to waste because the airline could have sold them/given them away?
From the reviews I read, the big problem is AA’s F soft service. I don’t think the number of seats or availability really matters if F soft service is weak.
Yes, soft product which is cabin crews must be properly trained how to look after the guest onboard and be proactive
As for staff concession ticket, must pay higher service charge, that will eliminate all those lowend and cheap staff to be place in that cabin
There is hope! AA please wake up
F is really about serving people who would otherwise go private but can’t for reasons of range. Also as private becomes increasingly unacceptable for environmental reasons, the opportunity continues to grow for those airlines which understand that market. But AA doesn’t, and its product simply doesn’t begin to offer what those customers want.
American cannot be fixed, their widebody product is a disaster across the board. Like every plane has a different seat configuration, you never know what you are going to get. And they all suck. Even the 777-300 isn’t good. Polaris is so much better and it is consistent across the fleet, with the exception of the 767-400, no idea what is going on with those planes but it’s an unmitigated disaster.
I prefer both of AA’s J products over Polaris. Polaris is just too cramped. I especially dislike the slanted Polaris seats that have no place on the floor to set a small bag.
And Polaris is not consistent across the fleet — some 787s still have the old seats.
Looking at Seatguru, it looks like there are also 2-2-2 772s, as well as an ever crappier 2-4-2, still flying.
There are only 4 of 40 total 787-9s flying around with the old seats. Will be finished by June. 787-8 and 787-10 are already complete. The 777 is also complete, the subset of 777-200 without Polaris do not fly international routes, these are used for high density hub to hub routes.
How about NO! on not letting Non-Rev travel in Business class seats. I was in First class just recently to London and i love my experience!
Why can’t non revs travel in business class seats if those seats will otherwise go out empty. Non revs are on standby until all revenue passengers have been accommodated. What’s your logic or bias towards employees and their families traveling ?
I don’t think the differences between J and F need to be night and day, for me it would mainly be:
1) More privacy
2) More personalized service
3) Better/more food options (champagne & some caviar is a nice touch)
4) A more exclusive airport experience
Not to harp on this but American downgraded me from first to business to london and say they won’t refund points because it’s basically the same thing?!?? How’s that for an indictment.
Mind you American business is very good.
“We don’t consider it a downgrade because of the equipment type and First Class features.”
That can’t be. How many agents did you speak to? Kind of humorous, though.
I did it all on twitter. I had ord to jfk to lhr in f for 90k points. I checked my reservation and it had moved to direct from ord to lhr because the jfk flight has been cancelled. I asked for a refund down to 57.5k miles and I agree it’s been hilarious that they claim it’s basically the same thing.
It got shifted to the AAdvantage department for recourse but that was 4 days ago.
Reminds me of when I spoke to American about my seat being broken and not able to recline in j from ord to hnl. Their response “thanks for the heads up. We’ll fix it!”
Lol. That’s so absurd I’ll do a story on it if AA does not quickly rectify it.
Matthew and Mick, the problem here is Twitter. The Twitter team has become useless to no avail. They have hurt more than helped, will not do anything that amounts to more than “we’re sorry for ____” these days. They take care of tiny non-financial type situations, then tell you to call customer service with the elongated wait times. That’s the story (also Mick’s issue, which a REAL AA CSR will refund). I actually have good SOFT product experiences on AA which is the only reason I stay–or was. Lucky me, my new job is in Dallas. 🙂
Here here – high time they got the meal service right, and a la carte again.
FYI they do have better wines in First than Biz on AA, especially the champagne. But better meals paced out a la carte, or take what you want for quick diners, served when you want it, is a key and easy differentiator.
I see you got Heather Poole agitated on Twitter so that’s a good sign you’ve found the blocker.
International First class is being phased out . No way American would invest money in a product that is being filled with upgrades , miles , and employees.
The 8 first class suites in the 77W will just recieve business class service for a total of 60 business class seats until those planes are refurbished with the new business class product.
You want chauffeur service ? Feel free to order yourself an Uber black or Uber lux on your next trip to the airport.
Dine on demand is a real difference maker IMHO & creates that personalized on board experience.
You lost me on the employee non rev in first. That’s not how it works. They don’t kick out paid customers and put employees up there. Employees only clear non rev in premium cabins if there are seats. If you don’t clear then, the seats stay empty. What’s the point of that? Your comment makes zero sense in that. Are you trying to stay employees shouldn’t travel in premium cabins at all because they take up the FAs time?
No one said they kick out paid passengers. But yes, in tri-cabin first I’ve witnessed how they become a deterrent to providing outstanding service to revenue passengers.
Interesting discussion. I came into it with a genuinely open mind,but I am becoming more and more convinced that the business case for a F product is very dubious. Synthesising some of the discussion, I am coming to the conclusion that:
– Fewer and fewer people are travelling on expensive tickets paid by employers and clients- a lot of meetings happen online and long haul business class is usually sufficient for getting a good night’s rest before a day of work.
– Premium leisure pax tend to be less time sensitive and will understandably want to maximise value for money, thereby making it harder for airlines to charge a large premium for F (and/or a direct flight) over C (and/or over a trip with a connection). Lufthansa are regularly selling F from France to the Far East for around €3k return.
– Even when an airline does offer a good F product, connections to/from regional flights tend to take place in conditions that are not worthy of the’first class’ label (mystery sandwiches, 30″ pitch, lousy/no lounges, no priority security, no food because the flight is ‘outside meal times’ and so on). Never mind paying actual cash for F, this is a key reason for me not bothering to spend my miles on F tickets.
– Despite bloggers and avgeeks getting excited about it, being driven to the plane in a van or SUV tends to be less convenient than boarding through a jet bridge. It’s only a real benefit for those who have difficulty walking or at airports where bus boarding is the norm (e.g. SKG where Aegean board through the lounge- it’s only a bus but then there aren’t any F seats offered from there).
I appreciate that there may be some wealthy people who will want to virtue signal by flying commercial instead of hopping on the private jet, but I can’t see that being sufficient to counter the points above. Airlines should continue to focus on making business class (and possibly even premium economy!) a compelling value proposition for the ‘mass affluent’ as opposed to trying to catch the odd multimillionaire passenger.
Upgrades to Flagship First are possible but come at a cost. You have to use a System Wide Upgrade (which require a lot of spend/loyalty to get), 15k miles plus $175 co-pay after paying for business class on transcon, or 25k miles plus $550 co-pay after paying for business class on international routes. Still, it is nice to have something to look forward to every now and then when the rare opportunity presents itself.
I agree on all other points made to offer a better true first class product. One thing I love about the product is Flagship First Dining, which is a wonderful experience all around.
As far as the argument of keeping it or not, AA has all the data needed. If the cabin is more profitable per square foot versus business, they’ll keep it. Also, from a marketing perspective, having it helps to create a halo effect.
Matthew you sound like a whiney jealous narcissistic individual. Why do you care what AA does as far as service and their product because it obvious you have a big dislike of the company and love the likes of UA’s inferior product in my opinion. That’s me and we are entitled to our opinions. Now as for you to say they should not allow their employees to fly in F is way out of line. Companies have guidelines and benefits for their employees who work and deserve the benefits for the service they provide for their companies and have to deal with whining complaining jerks like you. I am 100% positive you were on a flight that I paid for not via an upgrade and you were more of a distraction and prevented the crews from going above and beyond but the service was still good. Perhaps you should give up your gig here and see if you can become a crew member at one of the carriers that’s hiring. I doubt you would be selected and doubt you could fulfill the duties of a crew member and put up with the likes of yourself. Get your bottle and go sit in the corner Lil Matthew!
Lol. Thanks for the laugh.
Another commenter mentioned this but unless something changed very recently, F does have a different and better wine list. Not to mention Flagship First Dining!
Correct. It may not be the best First Class out there, but it is a materially upgraded product to what is offered in Business Class.
Here’s another reason for maintaining first class – upgrades from business class. As an EXP, I get several VIP upgrades each year. Since all my flying is in paid business class, having a first class cabin gives me something to upgrade to. Otherwise, one of the biggest perks of EXP status (and reason to steer my premium business to AA) is irrelevant to me, which makes it more likely that I won’t go out of my way to maintain that status.
For me, first class is an upgrade product. As such, it need not be the best first class out there. It just needs to be materially better than business class. And, on AA, it is.
On the few times I have flown AA Flagship First I have very much enjoyed the non-revs/deadheads in the seats around me. Polite. Professional. No histrionics.
At this point all my travel is all personal in nature, and frankly a good percentage of travel is on charter since I cannot get flights direct to my destinations. Dollar wise it still makes sense to fly international first. A first ticket is $25k vs a charter which is $170k. Now obviously that charter is carrying more that one person, so the costs are not comparable. But time wise, that charter is taking me directly to my destination with no airport craziness.
The worst part of flying first or even domestic business, is having to deal with the booking. There are such few seats available that if you don’t book way in advance, you don’t have even a remote chance of getting first. As for upgrading from business – those days seem to be long gone. That’s especially true if you’re travelling as a couple.
So here’s the actual experience summary of first class on American. You book you’re tickets way in advance of your trip. If you put too many seats in the reservation, price goes up. Booking with points is a waste of time since they like to suggest that you should expand a 4 hour flight into a 10 hour extravaganza with multiple stops in your least favourite cities. You arrive at the airport and there’s a 10 to 15 minute wait time to get to the counter at Priority Check in. You are now within your 60 minute check in time, so the supervisor gives you a “telling off” at the counter and reminds you how lucky you are to even be allowed on the flight. Everyone gets through TSA and arrives at the gate 15 minutes before boarding. Five minutes before scheduled boarding the gate agent makes an announcement that boarding will begin in 20 minutes. About this time you’re thinking “Well at least the bags made it!” After being herded through crowds of people, you finally arrive at your seat, where you have a 50/50 chance of being offered a drink while you wait for departure. You are however reminded constantly that all bags need to be stowed… duh.
As you can see here, it really doesn’t matter what class you’re in, the experience is terrible, and I’m betting that American will aim towards greater mediocrity. After all, it’s the airlines fault that they are letting non revenue passengers into first while forcing revenue passengers into business.
No US carrier will ever have the motivation, passion and psychological makeup to consistently deliver a customer-focused F international experience.
A plastic container serving cheap sparkling wine and your bedding dumped on your seat as the first images you experience as you board with luggage and the normal stress of flying, make the rules of engagement very very clear.