A Cut Above: American Airlines A321T in Economy From New York to San Francisco
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I fly back and forth between the coasts often, since I live in New York but my family is in the San Francisco Bay Area. These frequent trips have led me to earn Alaska MVP elite status, and I’ve shied away from most other airlines on the five-plus-hour journeys.
I was assigned to review American Airlines’ transcontinental economy product, which is a step above what it offers on its other domestic (and even some international) routes. I’ve flown American on short hops many times over the past couple years and can never say I’ve been impressed by the hard or soft product, but I was hoping this upgraded service would change my mind.
The transcon market is saturated with all major carriers who compete on the premium-cabin-heavy routes. This helps keep economy fares low, meaning you can normally get round-trip nonstop transcon fares for about $260 (at least in the low season).
However, we booked this flight from New York-JFK to San Francisco (SFO) about a week out from departure, so we had to pay $242 for the one-way flight. We used the Platinum Card from American Express to net us 5x points on flights purchased directly from the airline or through Amex Travel. The fare booked into S class, meaning I avoided basic economy, which actually didn’t seem to be an option when flying this particular product.
Since this was booked as a cash fare, I earned both elite and redeemable miles. I netted 2,586 Elite Qualifying Miles, 212 Elite Qualifying Dollars and 1,060 redeemable American miles (5x miles on the base fare of $212) — those redeemable miles were worth about $15, according to TPG’s valuations.
Had we booked with miles, there were two easy options, either through American Airlines itself, which would have run 12,500 American miles, or through Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express transfer partner British Airways, which would have also cost 12,500 miles for a one-way award.
I arrived at JFK’s Terminal 8 via Lyft (three cheers for 2x SkyMiles!) well in advance of my early-morning flight to make sure I’d be able to capture the full experience. The terminal is home to a variety of Oneworld airlines, like American, Qatar and LATAM, making connections through the airport more seamless.
American had a massive check-in area for its flights, since it has so much departing traffic out of JFK. This meant dozens of self-check-in kiosks were there, so there wasn’t much of a wait checking in or printing a luggage tag. There were also a dozen desks if you needed to speak to an actual American check-in agent.
The area was mostly empty when I arrived, with about 25% of the kiosks being used and only a small line to talk to an agent.
I checked my bag, which normally would cost $30, but because I was a Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard holder, American waived the fee.
American had a handful of agents floating around the kiosks who asked if I needed any help, clearly seeing that I had my hands full with my camera and bags. The agent attached my luggage tag for me with a smile.
I headed to the bag drop and seamlessly handed off my cargo with an agent after they quickly weighed the bag.
I breezed through TSA PreCheck, which I was able to snag for free with my Chase Sapphire Reserve’s PreCheck/Global Entry credit. I still think this may be one of the best perks of airport travel.
Since I arrived at the airport hours early, I had time to kill before my flight. Bobby Van’s Steakhouse was recently added to Priority Pass, and members received a $28 dining credit. I used my Priority Pass, which I also received through my Sapphire Reserve, and went hog-wild ordering coffee, pancakes, sausage and fresh fruit. Everything was delicious and everything was free! I’d go as far to say that I’d rather get real meal at an airport restaurant than a half-assed one in an airport lounge.
While heading to my gate, 42, I got a glimpse of a couple of wide-bodies, including a LATAM 787 Dreamliner and a Cathay Pacific 777.
I was able to see the aircraft I’d be flying on for AA Flight 179, an Airbus A321T. The “T” stands for “transcontinental” — it’s not used by any other airlines and doesn’t actually denote anything different about the size or other specifications of the plane, just designates that this aircraft had four different classes of seating on the inside — an unusual layout for narrow-body aircraft.
The flight started boarding 30 minutes before takeoff at 10:30am, right on time. Since I was an American cobranded-credit card holder, I was bumped to preferred boarding, so I was able to board in Group 5, before the rest of the economy cabin.
The boarding process on this flight was quite smooth, unlike the usual AA hordes packing the boarding area way before their group is called. I’m assuming this had to do with the four cabins meaning there were a lot fewer people waiting to board (the A321T only has 106 seats) and less blockage in the economy aisle, like when someone is putting their bag in the overhead bin.
Cabin and Seat
With just 72 economy seats, the coach cabin on the A321T was quite small for a larger single-aisle aircraft. There were 36 Main Cabin Extra seats, which had extra legroom, and 36 regular economy seats.
I was in standard coach, since this was a nearly full flight, and had chosen a window seat, 18A, to be my throne for the six-hour journey.
The cabin was clean, although the fabric looked worn for an aircraft just a few years old. After settling in, I found the seats to be quite comfortable, at least as far as economy goes. They had thick padding and an adjustable headrest and were on the wider side at about 17.5 inches — that’s half an inch wider than other economy seats, where 17 inches is slowly becoming the norm. Recline seemed standard for a legacy economy product, giving me a few inches to lean back and relax.
With 31 inches of pitch, these weren’t the smallest of seats, but they by no means gave you a lot of legroom — but hey, at least it was no American 737 MAX. Still, I felt like I had enough space, with about four to five inches between my knees and the seat in front of me.
My main frustration with this seat was that there was an inflight-entertainment box underneath the seat in front me, restricting my ability to stretch out my legs. Airlines need to figure out a way to reduce the size of these hindrances, or at least store them elsewhere (without getting rid of seatback screens altogether).
I had just enough space to fit my 15-inch Macbook on the tray table. It was already pretty tight before the person in front of me leaned back, but once they reclined, it was much harder to work comfortably. The table was still a decent size, and a smaller computer would likely work better in this situation.
The back of the Airbus cabin was kept dark and made even darker by the fact that most people kept their windows shut. However, it let the blue mood lighting show off its subtle powers. It helped illuminate the cabin enough so you could safely get down the aisle or access overhead storage but wasn’t overpowering for people who wanted to catch some shut-eye.
Another perk of a tiny economy cabin is that you don’t have to share the bathroom with many others. There were two lavatories available for the 78 in the rear of the aircraft. The two bathrooms were well-kept and not incredibly small, like on the 737 MAX.
Amenities and IFE
For an economy flight, American really scored in the IFE and amenity department. I found a nice, thick fleece blanket waiting on my seat as I arrived. Receiving a blanket on a domestic economy flight is becoming rarer than spotting a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Even better was that it was comfortable and not paper-thin, like many other airline blankets you receive in international economy.
We received complimentary headphones before takeoff. Although the sound quality was pretty awful, it’s an overlooked amenity, as Bluetooth headphones become more popular.
Unlike newer aircraft, American A321Ts still had IFE screens, although you could stream movies and shows to your personal device if you pleased. The screen size was about standard and was touch-sensitive. Like TPG’s shower test, I’ve started my own IFE touchscreen-response test, and American passed with flying colors, as it was more than easy to navigate the system, and no lag meant no time wasted.
There was a USB port that you could use to charge a phone or tablet, but the regular power outlet on my plane wasn’t working, as the flight attendants announced shortly after takeoff.
You definitely had more than enough entertainment to bide the time if that meant you couldn’t work — there was a great variety of new movies to choose from, about 50 in the new-release section alone (“Annihilation,” “Avengers,” “Deadpool 2” and “Chappaquiddick”). Traveling families will be happy to hear that there was a deep Disney section.
My inner travel geek was elated when I discovered that American had six episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s hit “No Reservations” — one of the shows that inspired me (and many TPG staff) to start traveling. Old and new TV shows abounded: “30 Rock,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Silicon Valley,” with each program sporting at least five or six episodes.
Games like “Angry Birds,” “Tetris” and “Plants vs Zombies” were available, as were meditation exercises.
American had a solid interactive map that displayed our arrival information and flight time, and it even had an e-reader with inflight magazines like American Way and Nexos (the Spanish-language version). That was something I’d never seen before, and it was a nifty feature, but as a millennial who somehow still appreciates physical things, I think I’ll stick with print for now.
What I was most impressed by about American was the incredible speed of the Wi-Fi. American uses Viasat’s satellite-based connection and is slowly replacing the older Gogo ground-based system.
I truly have never been on a flight with an internet connection like this. I was able to stream video with nearly no issues, and would have been able to work at nearly the same capacity from the air as at the office. While upload speeds weren’t anything to be wowed by, the download speeds did impress. Viasat’s Wi-Fi could also be used from gate to gate, which eliminated the need to hit a certain altitude to connect to the internet.
What made the whole thing so unbelievable was the price — $12 for one hour or $16 for a full-flight pass. That was a third of the price I paid on a recent Delta flight and about half what I paid on Alaska — and both had slower service.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
The first and only meal service occurred about 30 minutes after takeoff. Food came quickly, since the flight attendants only had to serve a few rows before they got to me.
Since this was a premium route, American served a complimentary meal to coach passengers. Another rarity that harkened back to the golden age of travel! I could choose from a fruit-and-cheese plate, chicken wrap and hummus-and-veggie plate.
I went with the veggie option, which was probably a mistake from my growling stomach’s standpoint. It was pretty small, with five baby carrots, three sticks of celery, a tiny piece of dark chocolate and a small package of tiny pita bread. I also ordered a Bloody Mary, which ran me $9. (I had to pour the vodka into the mix myself.) Along with everything else, the flight attendant gave me small bag of pretzels.
However small they were, the veggies and hummus were surprisingly fresh tasting. The meal didn’t leave me with a lump in my stomach, unlike other heavier options. With about two hours left in the flight, the FAs came around for a final beverage service. I got a Dr Pepper and Biscoff cookies.
With such a small economy cabin the two American flight attendants were able to provide quick service all with a friendly smile.
Interacting with the the ground agents at JFK was pleasant but not exceptional, though as an economy passenger, there was nothing for me to complain about. It was nice to see American staff their airport even when it was not busy, meaning flyers could get help a lot quicker than they might normally.
Early on in the flight, one of the flight attendant asked my seatmate and me if either of us wanted to move into the row ahead of us, since there was only one person in it. I’ve never had an FA go out of there way when there was no reason to to make a passenger more comfortable! She was sincere about it and offered again later.
The two FAs came around at least two times offering glasses of water outside of the regular meal and beverage service, and were always friendly. Which again is something I rarely experienced before on American flights.
Not to harp on the benefits of a small cabin, but because there were only two FAs tending to less than half the amount of a normal load, the other passengers and I received great service on this flight.
American truly values its transcon product, both in its premium and economy cabins, and that investment shows. The service, IFE and Wi-Fi were top-notch, and the free meals didn’t hurt either. The hard product isn’t bad but doesn’t really shine, however I’d be surprised if anyone was truly disappointed by it. Even as an Alaska loyalist, I definitely wouldn’t mind flying American’s A321T again, and would choose it if I couldn’t find any suitable options on my preferred airline.
All images by the author.
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