Now that United has retired Polaris First, American Airlines is the only North American carrier that offers three true and distinct premium cabins on intercontinental flights. Over the years, TPG has reviewed these cabins many times, and I myself have flown in all of them. There’s a lot to consider when spending your hard-earned dollars or points on an AA premium-cabin flight. Let’s take a look at what differentiates them — on the ground, in the air and in your wallet.
American’s Three Premium Cabins
American’s Flagship First seating is only available internationally on the Boeing 777-300ER. With only eight seats, this cabin is very private. The seats afford plenty of room and comfort with none of the narrow footwells found in some of AA’s business offerings. The 90-degree swivel seat and two enormous tables provide office and dining space simultaneously. On the downside, these seats aren’t true suites and are arguably less private than those in business. The product finishes appear dated and less than high-end.
American offers its branded Flagship First product exclusively on its fleet of 20 Boeing 777-300ERs and domestically on its Airbus A321Ts on select transcontinental routes. AA is the only North American airline that offers a true first-class product on its international and transcontinental flights.
American’s Flagship Business hard product is a hodgepodge, with up to six configurations in its fleet of eight airplane types. Flagship Business is available across AA’s international fleet and on its A321T sub-fleet for domestic transcontinental flights on premium routes. Although most of AA’s long-haul aircraft are outfitted with thoroughly modern seats and cabins, you’ll find that its Boeing 757s and 767s are not.
The hard product on AA’s 777-300ERs is universally praised. It’s equipped with 52 seats in a 1-2-1 reverse herringbone configuration spread over two cabins. The Safran (formerly Zodiac) Cirrus seats provide firm comfort, moderate storage and are ergonomically great for working, relaxing and sleeping.
The entire 787-9 fleet and 28 of the 777-200s feature the Rockwell Collins (formerly B/E Aerospace) Super Diamond seat in a 1-2-1 configuration. The finish is a drab gray plastic, except for the faux-wood sliding table. Storage at arm-level is improved over the 777-300ER with a small seat-side compartment, and there is a clever storage nook for your mobile device.
Twenty of American’s fleet of 787-8 and 19 of its 777-200s are equipped with the Safran (formerly Zodiac) Concept D. They’re notorious for being “rocking chairs,” as the forward- and rear-facing seats are anchored to each other in pairs. This configuration transfers passengers’ movements to the other seat.
American has retrofitted all 23 of its 767-300ERs (set to be phased out in 2021) with Thompson Vantage staggered seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. This is the same basic model employed by Delta on its pre-retrofit 767s. These seats are not equipped with inflight entertainment (IFE) screens, which feels decidedly not premium. Passengers are provided with tablets instead.
The A330-200 fleet, operating primarily out of the former US Airways hubs of Philadelphia and Phoenix, uses the Cirrus I seat in a 1-2-1 configuration. This seat was originally used in US Airways’ Envoy product dating back to before the AA/US Airways merger in 2014, and it still holds up quite well.
American’s dwindling fleet of 757-200s has been fitted with Rockwell Collins Diamond seats. Arranged in a 2-2 configuration, these 18 seats are the same as those in AA’s Flagship Business on the A321T, although they don’t have personal IFE screens. This results in an unfinished appearance when the tablets are not snapped into position on the seatback. This is AA’s only international business product that doesn’t provide direct aisle access for every premium passenger.
In 2016, American was the first US-based airline to introduce a true premium-economy product, similar to what you’d find in first class on one of AA’s newly-retrofitted narrow-body planes. Premium economy bridges the gap between the business and main cabins and appears to have been successful for the carrier.
You can find premium economy on 124 aircraft in American’s fleet, including the 777-300ER, 777-200ER, 787-8, 787-9 and A330-200s. Typically found in a “mini-cabin” of its own with 24 to 28 seats, premium economy is arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration on the 777s and 2-3-2 on the 787s, and is separated from the main cabin by a partial bulkhead. The Airbus A330-300s, Boeing 757s and 767s will not be re-configured with premium economy, as these aircraft are being retired soon.
Seats feature a recline of up to 10 inches and a four-way adjustable headrest. Under-seat storage and legroom can be compromised by a rather useless footrest, but the armrest storage is abundant. A headphone jack and universal power outlet are also provided. The table is adequately sized, but it doesn’t fold, making egress awkward.
As for the lavatories, this varies, but generally for international aircraft, first has at minimum a ratio of one dedicated lav per 8 passengers. The two-three dedicated business lavatories produce a ratio of one per 19 passengers. AA’s premium lavatories on its newer wide-bodies are a step up in terms of finishes, vessels, dimensions and hygiene products. Premium economy shares its unadorned lavatories with Main Cabin with a ratio of up to one per 50 passengers.
On the Ground
Flagship First passengers, regardless of status, are able to access Flagship First Check-In that is located at five major airports: Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), New York JFK, Miami (MIA), Los Angeles (LAX) and London Heathrow (LHR). Concierge Key and Executive Platinum AAdvantage passengers booked on any qualifying international flight, regardless of cabin, are also able to use this check-in service.
These exclusive counters range from semi-private areas — such as in Miami — to completely-private, enclosed areas. They provide personalized check-in service that feels more like a hotel elite-member desk than an airport. Expedited — and often escorted — access to the front of the security line is part of the package.
Flagship First passengers checking in at an airport without Flagship First Check-In, as well as passengers flying in Flagship Business and premium economy, use AA’s standard priority check-in desks.
American really distinguishes itself in this area. It’s the only North American airline to offer a lounge exclusive to first-class passengers with its Flagship First Dining.
Discretely tucked behind a frosted, sliding glass door within select Flagship Lounges, these dining rooms are full-service restaurants without the bill.
Refined waitstaff serve made-to-order dishes, including the famed Flagship Burger. The sit-down bar offers a level of wine and spirits on par with the Flagship First onboard offerings. Flagship Lounges are intimate and quiet by comparison to other lounges.
Flagship First Dining rooms are found at New York’s JFK, Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Miami (MIA), Los Angeles (LAX) and soon at London Heathrow (LHR). Access is strictly limited to ticketed Flagship First passengers on the three-cabin 777-300ERs and A321Ts. However, American has issued special “surprise and delight” invitations to Concierge Key members from time to time.
AA’s beautiful and spacious Flagship Lounges are a decided step up from the standard Admirals Clubs. With an expanded and upgraded food and beverage program, these lounges feature complimentary premium alcoholic beverages and buffet-style meal service.
The level of catering allows passengers to dine on the ground before their flights to maximize sleep once in the air. The aesthetically appealing lounges also have the requisite showers, rest areas and business centers.
Concierge Key, Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro and Platinum passengers are granted access on qualifying international flights, regardless of cabin. Concierge Key passengers are the only customers who can access these lounges regardless of cabin or destination. Premium economy passengers don’t have access unless they have eligible AA or Oneworld elite status.
American’s Arrivals Lounge is unique to London Heathrow. Passengers can order a full English breakfast or just a snack, take a shower and have a shirt pressed before leaving the airport. It is not designed for connecting passengers because it’s located after passing through customs, immigration and bag collection. Business- and first-class passengers on long-haul flights are eligible to enter. Passengers with Oneworld Emerald status can access the lounge when flying in economy.
Since 2017, American Airlines has had a whopping nine boarding groups. These are broadly broken into Priority (Groups 1-4) and Main (Groups 5-9). After Concierge Key elites are given the chance to pre-board, boarding starts with Group 1 — which is for first-class passengers or business class passengers when the aircraft doesn’t have a first-class cabin.
Group 2 is for Executive Platinum and Oneworld Emerald elites as well as Flagship Business passengers on aircraft with a first class cabin. Platinum Pros, Platinum and Oneworld Sapphire elites board in Group 3. Premium economy passengers are relegated to Group 4 unless the passenger has AA or Oneworld-equivalent status. Groups 5 though 9 are for economy passengers.
Inflight Entertainment (IFE) and Wi-Fi
American has been criticized for removing built-in IFE screens from its domestic fleet and replacing them with bring-your-own device (BYOD) streaming options. But, most of its international fleet offers a vast and well-curated catalog of complimentary content across all cabins. The airline has differentiated itself as the only US carrier with live TV on international flights, but it’s limited to a handful of news and sports channels.
The 757s and 767s are devoid of embedded IFE screens in business, instead offering streaming content via BYOD, or AA tablets that are pre-loaded with content and collected prior to landing. Note: Tablets are not handed out for domestic flights utilizing these aircraft, leaving a void.
First and business class use new Bang & Olufsen noise-cancelling headphones. To prevent theft, these are collected up to an hour before landing and replaced with poor quality headphones or earbuds.
Premium economy has non-branded noise-reducing headphones.
Wi-Fi connectivity is an egalitarian aspect of AA’s international inflight service in that it’s not complimentary in any cabin. The satellite-based Panasonic Wi-Fi is notoriously slow and unreliable. It is, however, installed across the entire international fleet including the 757s and 767s. When it works, pricing is relatively reasonable and consistent regardless of flight duration.
Over the years, my experiences have been mostly positive, despite mixed reviews about AA’s flight attendants. Cabin crew can make or break a flight. Flight attendants are able to provide more personalized service when they have fewer passengers to look after.
One of the key measurements is the cabin-crew-to-passenger ratio. Flight attendants are able to provide more personalized service when they have fewer passengers to look after.
For instance, in American Flagship First on a 777-300ER, two flight attendants are dedicated to eight passengers: one in the cabin and one in the galley. This results in a ratio of 1:4.
This ratio more than doubles for AA Flagship Business. For example, in Flagship Business on an AA 777-200ER, there are four flight attendants dedicated solely to the 37-seat cabin, resulting in a 1:9 ratio of flight attendants to passengers.
Although it is marketed as a premium product, AA’s premium economy does not have dedicated flight attendants. Instead, the flight attendants are shared with the Main Cabin and Main Cabin Extra. This results in a single-course, trolley-based service that’s not much more “premium” than in the main cabin.
Food and Beverage
Flagship First and Flagship Business are quite aligned in food portions and quality, so customization is the key in its most premium cabin. Flagship First is more “elevated” with “bespoke, restaurant-style dining,” according to a manager in AA’s food and beverage program. Customers can pick menu items to create individually-plated meals. (Interestingly, 40-50% of passengers select beef for “comfort food,” despite lighter options.)
In Flagship First, soup is offered as a starter along with two small-plate options and four dessert choices. In business, there is one small-plate and three dessert selections. In both cabins, passengers on overnight flights can choose between a traditional hot or continental breakfast with fresh fruit.
American has partnered with celebrity chefs like Sean Connolly to create special menus for flights to Sydney and Auckland, and Jun Kurogi for Japanese meals in partnership with Japan Airlines.
The business-class menu offers the same number of main-dish choices, though. Quality and portion size are comparable to first class.
For passengers who want to be sure to get their first choice, American Airlines allows pre-ordering of the main course online between 30 days and 24 hours before departure.
The presentation in Flagship First is more sophisticated than in business with full-size wine glasses, Champagne flutes, large plates and bowls and no tray. The quality of the china and cutlery is consistent in both cabins.
Spirits and beer are aligned in both cabins, as well, but it’s the quality of the wine and Champagne list that sets Flagship First apart. American Airline’s sommelier Bobby Stuckey focuses on pairing the wines with the entrées. Passengers in first class have three choices for reds and whites, compared to two in business.
American’s self-service snack bar has been significantly improved, and I’ve experienced it twice this year on flights between Miami and London.
It offers an overwhelming choice of tapas, such as antipasto, crudité, fruit and sandwiches. Regional selections such as Bibim-guksu, a Korean spicy noodle dish, are offered on select flights. The snack table is well stocked with sweet and savory treats, particularly on daytime flights.
Previously offered only at the galley bar on 777-300ER’s, this service has now been rolled out on most of the wide-body international flights. “Everybody wants to pass the time with their junk food, fruit, cheeses and sweets,” says an AA spokesperson.
Premium economy’s catering is similar to AA’s domestic first class. Key differences are a choice of red or white wine served in the same plastic cups as other beverages, and bread served at room temperature on the tray. Typical dinner options include one salad, two main choices and one dessert all served on a tray. All alcoholic beverages, including spirits, are complimentary in premium economy.
Amenity Kits, Bedding
In 2018, American Airlines offered a variety of Cole Haan amenity kits, with the contents and bag designs varying by cabin. For 2019, American Airlines has switched to using three different brands of amenity kits depending on the cabin.
The International Flagship First and Business kits are designed by This is Ground and feature skincare products from Allies of Skin.
The amenity kits in premium economy are designed by State Bags and feature skincare products from Baxter of California.
All Flagship First routes feature Casper-branded bedding with a mattress pad, pillow, duvet, day blanket, lumbar pillow, pajamas and slippers. There is a turn-down service provided by the flight attendant.
In Flagship Business, longer flights to the South Pacific and Hong Kong add a mattress pad and pajamas in addition to the standard pillow, duvet and slippers.
Premium Economy makes do with a lumbar pillow and day blanket.
Fares and AAdvantage Awards
For comparison, we researched multiple round-trip flights operated by American in 777-300ERs configured with three premium cabins. Our tickets were 21-day advanced, restricted lowest fare tickets during the peak summer travel period. Premium Economy fares can command a premium over Main Cabin of anywhere from 35% to more than double that. Stepping up from premium economy to business costs three to four times more. Upgrading from business to first costs as little as $708 extra between New York and London to as high as $2,409 between Los Angeles and London.
AAdvantage award travel on the same flights were unavailable at the lower MileSAAver awards redemptions, so we resorted to the higher redemption level AAnytime Awards. This has become a bigger trend as AA moves to a dynamic award-pricing model. Premium economy award tickets must be booked using a special desktop tool at AA.com.
Although American offers the ability to use miles to upgrade cabin classes when there’s availability, premium economy isn’t available as an upgrade from Main Cabin. For now, upgrades from Main Cabin skip premium economy and clear in business class.
American has taken a lot of deserved heat for its domestic product: premium and otherwise — especially Project Oasis. Internationally, however AA is a tale of two airlines. In my view, the international long-haul premium product deserves praise from a comfort and value standpoint. Of all the U.S. legacy carriers, American has seized on the concept of segmentation the most, offering the most choices across its fleet for premium products and a ground experience that its competitors struggle to match.
I am an AA Executive Platinum member who has flown every single current American premium cabin and configuration. I can vouch that — for the most part — these cabins continue to evolve for the better, especially since the nadir of the early 2000s. Though there will always be detractors longing for the “glory days” of prime rib hand-carved at one’s seat, I believe the improvements outweigh the negative.
American doesn’t have the world’s absolute highest-rated first-class or business cabins; no U.S. airline does. AA’s premium economy cabin is on par with any airline. But if you look at the entire picture we’ve laid out, in many cases American is increasingly rising to the level and in many cases surpassing their Oneworld partners and many of their competitors. What’s been your experience? Fire away!
Featured image by JT Genter / The Points Guy