New York to California: The Transcontinental Showdown

30 Jan

If you’ve recently embarked on a coast to coast trip, typically from New York to either Los Angeles or San Francisco, you’re likely aware of several things: there are at least 5 carriers offering point to point nonstop flights, these carriers are more than ever in a fierce battle to dominate, or at least, carve out a decent share of this highly trafficked and lucrative route and, premium (First and/or Business) travelers have never been so wooed — with cabin refreshes, fleet upgrades, chef designed cuisines, etc.

All trips aren’t created equal, however, and the class of flight still largely dictates what sort of experience you’ll have. While airlines have one after the other raced to raise the ante for premium travelers, sadly, when it comes to the Big 3 legacy carriers, American, Delta and United, coach class still remains a largely uncivilized affair. There have been some marked improvements, to be fair, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

JetBlue and Virgin America are the additional two carriers vying for the piece of the aforementioned pie. These two, in comparison to the big 3, are likely the better of the pack when it comes to overall customer experience for your average passenger in coach. JetBlue built a business on this but even it has broken ranks with the single-class one size fits all offering and split up the cabin, introducing a premium class, MINT, on these coast to coast itineraries, in an effort to compete with the  Big 3. It’s a swanky cabin that even spots a few ‘closed’ suites (yes these pods have doors that close for added privacy). It remains to be seen however if the customer experience in the back stays in tact or if this begins to slip with more attention focusing on those in the front. We’ll keep watch.

American Airlines arguably dominates these routes. At last count, there are about 13 daily flights making the trip from JFK to LAX. The carrier in the last year or so went through a (much needed) fleet upgrade, retiring it’s long overworked wide body 767-200s that made the trips, replacing them with brand spanking new narrow body Airbus 321Ts (T for Transcontinental). It remains a wonder to me why American opted to downsize the aircraft capacity (albeit adding more flights). Back to this point later. Ever since the inaugural flight, I’d been seeking opportunities to give the new aircraft a try. I’d been on the new 777-300 which was and remains a joy to fly so I wanted to see what the experience would be like on A321.

I booked two trips: one to LA and one to San Francisco in the hope that I could try both Business and Economy. My thinking was that on at least one of these trips/legs I’d get upgraded. As of this writing, I’m on my 3rd leg, the outbound to San Francisco, an upgrade is yet to happen. Picking up my earlier point about downsizing aircraft, it means there are now fewer premium seats to be had on any given flight, making it that much harder to score an upgrade. I hold Platinum status with American but that doesn’t seem to cut it on these routes. So far on these trips there have been Executive Platinum (level above my lowly grade it would seem in comparison) in coach, in fact, occupying seats beside me. If they can’t score the movement up then I suppose I haven’t got the slightest chance.

The flight is a 3-class service; the only carrier to offer such. First is a 1:1 configuration with all aisle access. The pods face away from the aisle offering a bit more privacy. They’re lie-flat beds and are reminiscent of Business Class seats you find on the 777-300s. Business class is a 2:2 configuration, all lie-flight and quite similar to what you’d find on United PS (who eliminated First Class when it refurbished its cabins) on these routes. Coach  sees the introduction of Main Cabin Extra (MCE) to match Economy Plus and Comfort on United and Delta respectively.

Power ports (AC outlets and USB plugs) at every seat is the most significant (complementary) addition to the coach experience in my opinion. It sort of ends there. Yes there are seat-back screens now for personal inflight entertainment (which is really just a parity thing since every other carrier has this) but even there, you have to reach for your wallet to watch any decent programming. There is a complementary section of American’s IFE but all you get is a few NBC shows that no one really seems to be interested in. For anything worthwhile it’ll cost you at least $5. Catering remains in the same deplorable state. Either an uninspiring turkey sandwich or tired looking salad for $10 or, you can get a handful of other calorie laden snacks for heavily marked up fees. The only thing that does not involve the swipe of a credit/debit card is your choice of non alcoholic beverage for roughly 6 hrs. This boggles the mind.

Delta by comparison (though far from being perfect) fares much better than American. It does expectedly cater to the premium traveler, too, but it hasn’t lost sight of those in the back of the cabin. For starters, at the very least, passengers get a choice of complementary snacks: Biscoff cookies, pretzels or peanuts. Secondly, food for purchase offerings are much more inspiring and worthy of a credit card swipe. I recently tried a chef-inspired wrap on one of these flights and it was quite tasty. And, if you happen to be seating in Economy Comfort, these bites are free. A commendable move and step in the right direction.

Bottom line: American has made some nice improvements overall. It has a highly competitive, perhaps arguably the best, premium product on these routes but it still falls glaringly short in its economy class offering. Of the Big 3, Delta does the better job holistically. I’m hopeful, however, that these carriers devote more effort to reassessing their current strategies as it pertains coach and upgrade the experience.

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