The Transcontinental Route Competition Heats Up

May 13, 2013

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American recently announced that it would begin offering hourly transcontinental flights between New York JFK and Los Angeles LAX as it takes on both United and Delta on the most trafficked domestic route. All that means more choices and lower fares for consumers.

American's A321’s outfitted for transcontinental service will replace American’s current 767-200’s used on routes from New York JFK and San Francisco and LAX
American’s new A321’s will have 10 lie-flat first class seats.

Right now, American offers between 8-10 flights a day in each direction between these two hubs, but plans to increase it to somewhere around a dozen to the mid-teens. Part of the airline’s strategy is to downshift from flying its widebody 767 aircraft, many of which are aging out of service, and replace them with smaller A321’s, dropping the number of seats on each plane from 168 to just 102.

American’s strategy seems aimed at capturing more last-minute business travelers who are likely to pay higher fares for last-minute or refundable tickets – especially since the new planes will feature nearly one third of seats in premium cabins.

The new A321’s will have 10 fully lie-flat seats in a 1 x 1 configuration in first class. Business Class will have 20 lie-flat seats in a 2 x 2 configuration, while the Main Cabin will be 3 x 3 with 36 Main Cabin Extra seats. The entertainment systems on these aircraft will also have seat-to-seat chat, live text news and weather updates, 3-D moving maps, airport maps and connecting gate information. Travelers in premium classes will have access to free entertainment on the 15.4-inch screens, and Bose headsets.

The move goes hand-in-hand with the recent opening of American’s new Flagship Check-In service at JFK. Although this move means American will be flying more business and first class seats on this route and expects to get more people purchasing higher fare classes, overall I think the consumer will win from this move. It’s just another skirmish in the battle for transcontinental supremacy and means more seats open for flyers of all stripes, and more chances for Executive Platinums like myself to get upgraded.

Delta will fly 757's and 767's will lie flat seats in BusinessElite from JFK-LAX/SFO.
Delta will fly 757’s and 767’s will lie flat seats in BusinessElite from JFK-LAX/SFO.

Although American has planned to put its new A321’s on this route for a while now, this frequency update follows Delta’s announcement that it would begin operating Boeing 757 and 767’s with its fully lie-flat BusinessElite seats on all long-haul flights between Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle to the soon-to-open Terminal 4 at New York JFK.

The first of these planes started operating in March, and the airline plans to have four of its seven daily flights between JFK-LAX and one of five daily flights between JFK and Seattle operating with 767’s equipped with BusinessElite. The entire fleet of Delta widebody’s is scheduled to be completely refitted with the seats by early 2014.

The 767’s will have 29 Economy Comfort seats with 35 inches of pitch and 50% more recline (to maybe about 5 inches!). For those stuck in the 171 Economy seats back, every seat will have a personal 9-inch video monitor and USB power while Business Elite and Economy Comfort seats will have 110v power outlets.

The newly redone 757’s will continue to have 16 BusinessElite seats in a 2 x 2 configuration, 44 seats in Economy Comfort and 108 Economy seats, each of which will have its own video monitor, and every seat will have 110v and USB power ports.

United will be replacing the current first and business class seats with its BusinessFirst lie-flat product.
United will be replacing the current first and business class seats with its BusinessFirst lie-flat product.

United is also upping its transcontinental game. Back in February, the airline announced it would be updating their entire 757 p.s.  Premium Services fleet, which the airline uses to service its transcontinental JFK-LAX/SFO routes – the airline flies 40 flights each way per week between JFK and LAX, and 46 flights each way per week between JFK and San Francisco. The first aircraft with the new classes of service started flying in March, and the rest of the fleet will be retrofitted throughout the summer.

Virgin America's First Class seats.
Virgin America’s First Class seats.

For its part, Virgin America issued an opening salvo to United’s Newark dominance by launching three new daily flights each from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Newark last month with fares as low as $98 each way. United responded fast and strongly by cutting its own fares to match and then upped the frequency of its flights by about 60% – it will fly 14 EWR-LAX flights and 16 EWR-SFO flights this summer.

All of this is good news for consumers. Although there are now more premium seats on these routes that the airline hopes to sell to last-minute business travelers, there are also more seats in total, more flights to choose from, and more hubs from which to fly, which all will hopefully mean lower fares for travelers as well as better shots at upgrades for elite flyers who might not necessarily purchase those full fares.

Things are about to get very interesting on the transcontinental routes as flyers start to be able to choose from newer planes, newer classes of service and more flights throughout the day.

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