Editorials

January 9, 2014

Flying in Style: Onboard American Airlines Inaugural A321 Transcontinental Service

Being a seasoned cross country traveler on domestic US carriers, I was very excited to be invited to fly on one of the very first flights of American Airlines’ new Airbus A321T. These new aircraft will be dedicated to the highly competitive premium routes between New York City and both Los Angeles and San Francisco. While it isn’t a new concept, American remains the only airline that offers a choice between three classes of service on transcontinental routes. What is new however are the lie flat seats in in both First Class and Business class. This is something no other carrier has done and American hopes it will lure customers away from the significant competition.

American Airlines A321T Cockpit

American Airlines A321T Flightdeck

In 1953, American Airlines became the first airline to offer non-stop transcontinental service between the East and West coast. Those initial flights used the propeller powered Douglas DC-7 on flights lasting eight to nine hours. Later, American became the first airline to use the Boeing 707 on the coast-to-coast routes beginning January 1959. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the venerable Boeing 747 and Douglas DC-10 began to replace the older, less efficient 707s. More recently, nearly all of the transcontinental flying along this premium route has been done on the wings of the airline’s fleet of Boeing 767-200ERs. As some of the oldest and least efficient aircraft in American’s fleet today, the time had come to once again change which aircraft would be dedicated to these routes. Following American’s record-breaking order for 460 narrowbody aircraft in 2011, The airline named the Airbus A321 as heir-apparent to the old Boeing widebodies.

The smell of a brand new plane is unmistakable. This flight was operated aboard the aircraft registered N101NN, which American Airlines took possession of on November 22nd 2013. Onboard, American had staffers from across the operation available to answer questions on a variety of topics. Meanwhile, technicians from Thales were kept busy troubleshooting minor glitches with the inflight entertainment system (IFE). They too were available to answer questions about the elaborate new system.

The Experience Begins

American Airlines Terminal 8 Gate 44 Panorama

A Panorama of the Gate Area inside JFK’s Terminal 8

I arrived at JFK for the flight a bit early. Wait times at the security checkpoint early in the afternoon were minimal, so I had some time to kill before boarding. Around 3:00pm, I headed for the gate in anticipation of our 3:45pm scheduled departure time. At the gate, there was little fanfare. There was an obvious excitement and unusually high activity compared to a normal flight, but nothing that would seem extraordinary to most passengers. Off to one side, a few media folks were chatting about the new plane, the new seats and the excitement of riding on a brand new product. Others had no idea that they were on an inaugural flight. Given the massive weather headache that had gripped airlines around the Northeast for several days, most of them were just happy to have an on-time flight.

American Airlines JFK Terianl 8, Gate 44.

JFK Terminal 8, Gate 44.

When boarding was announced, those passengers in the ten First Class seats on the flight boarded first. They were then followed by the Business Class passengers, while those in the Main Cabin were not far behind. Noticeably absent was the usual jamming of the doorway leading to the jetway. Everyone was very patient and orderly, gladly waiting their turn. With just over 100 seats on the aircraft, boarding was completed relatively quickly. The flight’s cabin crew left plenty of time in their routine to welcome each passenger with a warm smile and offer to help finding their assigned seat. Walking through First Class, it very quickly became clear why this plane is such a big deal. Each seat in the forward cabin was very spacious and personal. In fact, the entire First Class cabin seemed immense! For the seats in First Class, American has chosen to use the same seats as Business Class on the airline’s fleet of 777-300ER aircraft. Being one of the first to board, I did not have the luxury to slow down and take it all in so I hurried back to the Business Class cabin just a few more feet down the aisle. My assigned seat for the flight was 8A, which is in the fourth row of business class, just past a galley and lavatory area. Curiously, all the seats are positioned facing outwards toward the window at a slight angle.

Business Class Cabin in-flight on American Airlines A321T

The Onboard Mood Lighting in Business Class

The cabin lighting is a mix of a cool metallic blue hue down the center of the plane, with warm white lights beneath the overhead bins directing light towards the windows. All of the lighting seemed to be computer controlled. Any time the lights were brightened or dimmed, the fade was so slow that it was unnoticeable. This was a far cry from the sudden on and off that most air travelers are accustomed to, and it made for a very relaxing experience. Aside from the usual engine hum, the cabin was quite comfortable and free of rattles or squeaks for the duration of our time onboard. Even the aisles felt wider and more comfortable than I was used to. Once at my seat I took a moment to take a look around before everyone settled in. As in first class, the open space was the first thing that I noticed. Even though this was a domestic flight, it felt like I was onboard an international widebody flight. While the window seats in Business Class do not have direct access to the aisle, there is plenty of room between rows for a window seated passenger to jump over the aisle passenger without much disturbance, even when the seat is in the fully extended lie flat mode.

IFE Television Choices

Television Choices on the IFE Screen.

The second obvious upgrade were the IFE screens at each seat. In Business Class, these were large, 15.4 inch touchscreens. At a distance of approximately 4 feet, they felt like having a 30″ panel in your living room. While most functions of the entertainment system could be accessed via the tethered remote control, a few still required the user to reach across the abyss and handle it on the main display. I is an insignificant price to pay for the much better immersive experience. The IFE system onboard presents a wide variety of entertainment options:

Up to 200 movies and another 180 TV programs to watch on the screen. For those who don’t want to feel like a couch potato on board, there are more than 350 audio selections available. And for those who want to be fully involved in something, there are up to 20 video games to play. Then there is the 3D moving map. With multiple views of the rolling earth below, it is enough to keep geeks like me busy for long periods of time. One incredible feature was a terrific pilot’s perspective view which included a heads up display showing altitude, heading, and ground speed, as well as nearby cities and landmarks.

Closeup of Touch Remote Controller on American Airlines A321T

Closeup of the Touch Remote Controller

Inflight internet connectivity is provided by Gogo’s upgraded air-to-ground Wi-Fi technology (ATG4). This new system is much more reliable and able to keep up with demand than previous generations of the technology. Each seat on the A321T features a universal AC power port and a USB port. An espresso and cappuccino machine is also available exclusively for passengers in First Class. Overhead was a reading light, speaker for announcements, seatbelt and no smoking indicators, in addition to a call button. All of the controls overhead were also duplicated on the seat’s touch controller. The controls for the seat itself is placed just behind and to the rear of the main shared console table between the seats. They are in a somewhat uncomfortable position and I found myself using my opposite arm to reach across and manage the controls. Not a big deal but for those who like to tinker, it can be a bit inconvenient. Similarly, the universal A/C outlet and USB jack are behind your head and to the left (or right depending on your seat) and it requires one to twist around to reach them. However, these minor inconveniences are somewhat balanced out by the multiple storage compartments for stashing away things like personal electronics, water bottles, and headphones.

Pilot's View Moving Map on the IFE screen.

Pilot’s View Moving Map on the IFE screen.

The tray table is neatly stowed under the center armrest/table and functions very smoothly. It opens to provide ample room for a full sized laptop and tablet. Also in this area just underneath the armrest is a pouch with a selection of magazines, the ubiquitous Sky Mall catalog, the aircraft safety card and the air-sickness bag. I quickly stowed away my laptop and headphones underneath the leather-wrapped ottoman in front of me, and placed my camera bag in the overhead compartment. My immediate reaction was that the seats were very comfortable. The seats are upholstered with fabric, with a leather wrapped headrest. The Business Class seats are laid out in a 2-2 configuration and are fully lie flat. These lie-flat seats are a first for American Airlines on a transcontinental flight, and is something that no other airline is offering. The space allotted to a row in Business Class is a generous 60 inches, and with the seat fully flat there is about 78″ of space from the top of the headrest to the foot well in front. The area is made up of the seat itself and the ottoman in front, with space beneath it for small bags with enough room above it to allow even my large feet to fit comfortably. Seat width is approximately 19″. A comfy blanket and large pillow were waiting for passengers on every first and business class seat, wrapped in a sealed bag.

On The Move

We left the gate about 15 minutes late and took a nice scenic tour of JFK as we taxied for departure. A runway change was in progress, giving us about a half hour of taxiing and sitting next to Jamaica bay on the southwest corner of the field. Finally, we were cleared for takeoff from runway 31L. Mother Nature treated us to a gorgeous sunset as we lifted off smoothly and effortlessly at 4:35pm. We headed towards the west and eventually leveled off at around 35,000 feet. About twenty minutes into the flight, the flight attendants came around with hot towels for us, which I welcomed. Soon after, a small cup of warm assorted nuts arrived accompanied by a glass of red wine. I opted for a Cabernet, which was soothing and relaxing. The meal service began almost immediately thereafter, with a menu handed to each business class passenger offering an upgraded menu specifically tailored for the Airbus A321T. For the dinner service on this flight, it offered the following:

Starter

Thai Seasoned Breast of Chicken with grilled pineapple and watermelon served with Asian mint dressing

Salad

Seasonal greens and fresh vegetables with chile cucumber salad and a choice of balsamic vinaigrette or Caesar dressing and assorted gourmet breads.

Entrées

Grilled Fillet of Beef with sautéed spinach and kale with potatoes au gratin Pumpkin Seed Crusted Breast of Chicken with brown butter sauce, sugar snap peas and mashed potatoes Cheese Tortellini and Manicotti Duo with Alfredo sauce and tomato sauce.

Dessert

Traditional Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla Ice Cream Sundae with hot fudge, butterscotch and whipped cream Gourmet Cheese Plate

Light fare

Whole Fruit Snacks Cookies Fresh baked on board

I went with the steak for my entree, and of course I can never resist an ice cream sundae. The salad came out immediately after our flight attendant took my order. The steak followed and it was delicious. While not quite as good as a New York City steakhouse, it was still better than some fine restaurants, and I am quite critical when it comes to steak. It was juicy and flavorful and cooked to a perfect medium rare. While spinach and kale are not generally on my favorites list, I ate them all they were so good. The au gratin potatoes were crunchy on the outside and soft and buttery on the inside. Yum! The ice cream sundae that followed was a good old fashioned creamy frozen delight. Frozen just right, with the fudge and butterscotch melting it ever so slightly as it disappeared into my mouth. The service thus far had been exemplary. I am not sure if it was because there were senior executives on board, or if American just wanted to make a big first impression. Whatever the motive, I was delighted by the level of attention and the kindness and efficiency of the crew.

Alice Liu, Managing Director of Onboard Products.

Alice Liu, Managing Director of Onboard Products.

Flying with us was Managing Director of Onboard Products, Alice Liu. I had an opportunity to speak with her and ask a few questions about the new airplane and onboard service offerings. “We took a close look at our numbers and placement in the marketplace and listened to feedback from our high value customers” said Ms. Liu. “We realized that ticket value, entertainment and amenities offered were the drivers to retain and attract valuable customers. Those were the primary reasons why this new airplane, its configuration, and in-flight entertainment system are a reality”

When asked about the reduction in seat capacity, Ms. Liu went on to say “Our Business and First Class customers like a more flexible schedule. While we are reducing the number of seats on each aircraft, we are now going to offer higher frequency throughout the day with an additional 3, 4 or 5 daily flights compared to the current schedule.” Clearly the business traveler is high on the list of passengers American Airlines wants to target. “The new First Class seats, each with direct aisle access, is something that no other airline is doing. It feels like a twin aisle aircraft, but in a single aisle airplane. Or to put it another way, it’s like a private airplane experience on a commercial flight. The value we offer customers for their purchased ticket is critical to our success. We are also offering more familiar amenities throughout our fleet, all with a common theme. No matter what aircraft in the fleet, the menus and look and feel are all going to be the same. This unification builds trust and confidence in our brand.”

A Champagne Toast and a Bit of Chocolate Cake

A Champagne Toast and a Bit of Chocolate Cake

Ms. Liu went on to say that other details such as A/C and USB power at every seat in the fleet, available Wi-Fi on every flight, and more airplanes with full lie flat seats will keep the New American Airlines ahead of the competition. As I walked back to my seat, the captain announced that in celebration of the first Airbus A321 Transcontinental flight, the flight attendants would serve a champagne toast with cookies and a small cake to which a small cheer broke out through the cabin. Shortly thereafter, we began our descent into the Los Angeles area. However I would not be staying long, as I was booked on the red-eye back to New York in order to fully test the 180 degree lie-flat bed. Sweet dreams, here we come…

The Red-Eye

When given the option to stay in a hotel overnight at LAX and return in the morning or take the red-eye flight right back to JFK, I figured what better way to test the new product than the lie flat seats?

A First Class Seat

One of the Spacious First Class Seats

The inbound flight was slightly late arriving from JFK. Aircraft N102NN pulled into gate 40 at LAX and we were told the flight would be delayed about 30 minutes before boarding could begin so the gate and ground crews could have some time to clean and prepare the aircraft for the return flight and so that they familiarize themselves with the new airplane. Finally, the plane was ready and flight 10 from LAX to JFK was starting to board. I made my way to the gate and, just as in NYC, aside from a special announcement by the gate agent that this was a new airplane, no other fanfare was scheduled or prepared. While boarding was not as smooth as it was in New York City, everyone from the ground crew to the gate agents were visibly apologetic for the delays and very warm in welcoming us aboard the new airplane. Once again I was in seat 8A, which was fine with me. All I really wanted to do was sleep. Once I sat down, I put on my own noise canceling headset, broke open the comfy pillow and blanket and promptly dozed off. After about 20 minutes of boarding and settling in, we pushed back and taxied towards runway 25R for departure. We wasted no time getting to the departure threshold and took off without even stopping. Wheels up at 10:06pm Pacific Time.

View from Seat 8A in Business Class

The View from Seat 8A in Business Class

One thing I love about seasoned flight crews is their knowledge that, on a red-eye, almost everyone just wants to sleep. The wonderful crew never turned the overhead lights on after departure and quietly faded away and did not bother us much with unnecessary overhead announcements. Once airborne, it was time to test out the reason why this airplane is so special. I took off my shoes, pressed the bed icon on the seat controller and waited until it was fully flat. The foot of the seat meets the edge of the ottoman beneath the IFE, perfectly creating a seamless space to stretch. While I am 6’ 2” tall, my feet did not touch the end of the space nor did my toes touch the bottom of the small shelf beneath the IFE. The space is very well designed and thought out. The armrest opposite the central divider between the Business Class Seats is also fully adjustable from high to completely stowed. This gives you even more side to side space, allowing you to roll from left to right without bumping into anything.

Bose noise canceling headphones are offered to all First and Business Class passengers, along with a pillow and blanket.

Bose noise canceling headphones are offered to all First and Business Class passengers, along with a pillow and blanket.

I must have fallen asleep almost immediately, because the next thing I knew, I was being awoken by slight turbulence as we descended into New York City airspace. I have never slept better, nor nearly as long without waking up, on any previous transcontinental flight. We touched down on runway 31R at JFK at 5:48am Eastern Time. The gate was only a short taxi away, and at this time of the morning JFK is very quiet, allowing us to quickly get to the gate. By around 6:00am, we were parked at gate 44, just where my journey began the previous day. American Airlines has indeed raised the bar with their new A321 transcontinental service. Never before has an airline been so daring or forward thinking, especially in an extremely competitive market, with cost control being the number one concern from the competition. Time will tell if American is successful but they are confident that their research and understanding of their customers will help them retain and attract business and elite passengers. I will definitely consider American Airlines transcontinental service between JFK and LAX/SFO for my future business travel.

In the Interest of self-disclosure, all travel expenses were covered by American Airlines, but our opinions are our own.

 

Manny Gonzalez is a military and commercial aviation photographer, IT pro and technology evangelist based in New York City.



About the Author

Manny Gonzalez





 
 

 

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  • Douglas Wint

    Sounds like it was a great ride, Manny! Thanks for sharing.