Upgrades are great and getting harder these days. So when I had the chance to fly American Airlines' new Airbus A321T aircraft in first class I took it.
Full disclosure: No, I did not pay thousands of dollars for a ticket, and I was not a "guest" of American. I spent 32,500 AAdvantage miles for the privilege of flying from L.A. to JFK up front.
It's a "high value" way to spend your miles for sure, considering that the current fare one-way is $3354.
It's all about privacy
The new first class cabins have just five rows of seats in a one-by-one configuration, for 10 total, all fully-horizontal lie flat, compared to the old 767 planes that used to fly to route with two rows of five non-horizontal seats in a 2-1-2 configuration
So there's much more privacy in the new jets, and all seats have aisle access (they're also window seats for that matter).
For those of you who abhor the idea of having to deal with someone sitting next to you, or having to choose between window and aisle, the new seating arrangement is ideal. But what's odd about this new cabin, at least on my flight, was that people were chatting with total strangers pre-flight. Perhaps, since all five passengers knew they had no one sitting next to them, they realized that could retreat into their private cocoon if all the socializing got out of hand.
One of the passengers was an American employee evaluating cabin service on the flight. I wish I had talked to her more—at least I got her business card--but I was too absorbed with the huge selection of first-run movies (best picture Twelve Years a Slave and Captain Phillips were on offer, along with 200 other options and 180 TV choices) on AA's new inflight entertainment system (gone are the Samsung Galaxy tablets they used to hand out, although they've kept the Bose noise-canceling headphones).
Speaking of the inflight entertainment system, there's a small glitch that if you use the USB port to charge your phone or whatever: you can't watch anything on the system. And the touch-screen wasn't working properly so the flight attendant had to reboot it.
Although I've never flown on a private jet, the new cabin is what I imagine the experience to be like. It's a world of its own. And because there's a galley and washroom separating first from the business cabin (unlike on the 767s), it seems even more isolated.
I think that the extra privacy, in general, is the best thing about flying in first or business, and AA's new first cabin is all about privacy. Although I recently wrote about how weird it is that airline passengers pretend that their seatmates are invisible, I do like having the option to sit by myself.
Some nice touches
Passengers get an amenity kit in first, and there's a large video monitor, a decent menu and wine selection (two white, two reds and a Port for desert). The new planes have "real" power outlets (the old ones required a DC adapter) along with the aforementioned USB ports. Meals are served course-by-course (starter, salad, entrée, dessert) just like on American's international first class flights. One suggestion for improvement: for what some passengers pay for this service, AA should serve real French Champagne rather than California sparking wine (apologies to Gloria Ferrer). It wouldn't cost that much more to keep one bottle on board.
About those lie-flat seats
Oddly, in the lie-flat position, I actually found the new first class seat, although very roomy, to be less comfortable in the fully-flat position than even AA's business class seats on the A321T (which are also lie-flat horizontal), or United's new business/first seats on the transcontinental route. I just couldn't get fully comfortable in the horizontal—something seemed to be putting pressure on my lower back. Maybe it's just me.
Airline of the stars
Just ten passengers in splendid isolation is great. But it's interesting that American kept a dedicated first class cabin on the transcontinental route at all (Delta and United now have just a two-cabin service on these routes, as does Virgin America). Of course, maybe the transcontinental service holds a special place in AA's corporate heart since American was the first airline to fly New York-L.A. nonstop, using DC-7 propeller aircraft way back in November, 1953, and I'm pretty sure it was a single cabin with two-by-two seating back then. Economy class hadn't been invented yet; and probably there was no such thing as flying private, so movie stars and other celebs had no other option.
Speaking of movie stars, it's also interesting that in February American took out 8-page ads in Variety and Hollywood Reporter touting their new service, featuring Neil Patrick Harris and "The Good Wife's" Juliana Marguiles, in hopes that Hollywood's movers and shakers would take notice and pay for commercial in case all the studio's Gulfstreams were booked. When you think about it, if I were a movie or TV star I'd appreciate the privacy of American's first class seating arrangement—no need to sit next to potential autograph hounds. Or me.
Tip: When booking on American's website, look for the aircraft designation "32B" and not "762," since some trans-con flights are still flown using the older 767 models
If you've flown in first and business class lately, what airline has the most comfortable lie-flat seats in your opinion? Let us know in the comments.
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.