By Chris Sloan / First Published January 7, 2013
Photos by author / slideshow at bottom
NEW YORK JFK: American Airlines officially upped the ante in the high stakes, high yield LAX-JFK transcontinental wars Tuesday with the launch of its long-awaited Airbus A321T.
This latest inaugural, just one month after consummating its merger with US Airways, caps off a period of extensive fleet changes for the carrier. The Embraer ERJ-175, Airbus A319, and Boeing 777-300ER all joined the fleet as the newly merged carrier continues on its path toward the largest fleet renewal in commercial aviation history.
Ever since, American (AA) has averaged a delivery of one new aircraft per week. The airline received its first A321T in November and the company unveiled the airplane to the press and high-value customers at LAX and JFK late last month. Familiarization flights between the two cities began shortly thereafter.
With five A321T’s in the fleet at present, AA is initially operating two roundtrips per day between the two cities. The A321Ts, which are replacing the ancient 767-200s, will be joined later in the year by standard new-build A321s that are designed to replace the Boeing 757-200s. Down the road, 93 A321s (as well as 17 outstanding orders) will come over from US Airways once the merger is completed. This review covers the inaugural flight 118, scheduled for a 7AM departure.
Historically, American has been a market leader and pioneer in the transcontinental market. It has operated between the two cities, LA and NYC, almost since its founding. It launched the first non-stop transcontinental flights in 1953, and in January of 1959 upgraded the routes to Boeing 707s, the first carrier to use jets domestically in continuous service.
At one time, big jets such as Boeing 747s and Douglas DC-10s were mainstays on AA’s JFK-LAX/SFO transcon flights, but by the late 1990s, these flights were dominated and eventually operated solely by the Boeing 767-200.
Lacking personal seat-back in-flight entertainment even in premium cabins, and lie-flat sleeper seats the product has remained unchanged from the 1990s. The only real innovations in recent years have been the Samsung Galaxy tablets handed out to premium cabin customers and GoGo wi-fi (AA was first, in 2008)
The air travel market between the Los Angeles area and New York City is, by far, the most lucrative in the United States. The bi-directional origin and destination (O&D) market was worth $389.5 million in the second quarter of 2013 alone. Of this, close to two thirds, or $234.4 million flies between the primary two airports: LAX and JFK.
Despite previously operating the oldest equipment with dated passenger experience on the route, AA is still indisputably the market leader on the JFK-LAX route in O&D with 27.2% of the market, followed by Delta with 22.7%. The other three main carriers are all clustered around 15% market share (all figures from Q1 2013).
This is clearly due to two main factors. First, American is the only carrier operating a true three-class cabin with First / Business / Economy service in the market. And they also offer the most frequency in the market with Delta, United, jetBlue and Virgin America (tied) trailing in that order. With the decreased capacity of the narrow-bodied A321 fleet’s 102 seats versus the 767’s 168 seats it’s replacing, American’s frequency will further increase by four flights per day (from the current summer peak of nine) to thirteen between the city-pair from June 11, 2014 onwards. Schedule wise, JFK-LAX will be an almost hourly service in the morning and late afternoon/early evening, while LAX-JFK flights will feature a near hourly shuttle from early morning through late afternoon. The late evening flights out of JFK and red-eyes out of LAX will be retained.
A321T flights between JFK and SFO will begin in March, eventually replacing the 767 on all five frequencies. On JFK-SFO, surprisingly the market share leader is Virgin America, who slots in just ahead of United with a 21.3% O&D market share. United, Delta, and American are all clustered not far behind, with 21.2%, 21.1%, and 20.3% O&D market share respectively. JetBlue again brings up the rear with 12.8% of the market.
AA’s elderly wide-body Boeing 767-200s are configured with 10 First Class seats, 30 Business Class, and 128 in Main Cabin Economy Class. In comparison, the new narrow-body Airbus A321T offers 10 First Class seats, 20 Business Class seats, 36 Main Cabin Extra, and 36 standard Main Cabin Economy Class seats. First Class seat pitch remains the same in both aircraft at 62″, but the new A321 seats are true lie-flat beds at 82.5″ long in a spacious 1-1 configuration that feels more like an executive jet. On the A321T, Business Class pitch increases to 58″ in a 2-2 configuration from 49″/50″ on the 762. The B/E Aersopace designed seats on the A321 fold out to a lie-flat bed as well at 75-78″ instead of the reclining cradle seats on the older Boeing. Main Cabin Extra pitch is 35″-37″ on the A321 for the Recaro designed slimline seats. Main Cabin pitch is the same between both at 31″-32″ with both cabin in a standard narrow-body 3-3 configuration. Seat width is nearly the same between the two aircraft with the A321T holding a slight edge of .5″ to 1″.
Airchive business analyst Vinay Bhaskara reports the shift to the smaller A321 results in a capacity decrease of 186 seats per day, or 12.3%, in each direction. First Class capacity will actually increase a whopping 44.4% to 130 seats per day each way, perhaps accounting for residual demand from United’s elimination of First Class from its P.S. offering on the route. Business Class capacity is essentially flat, dipping 3.7% to 260 passengers per day each way, while Economy Class sees the biggest drop of 18.8%.
The A321T hard product is a major upgrade over its Jurassic predecessor. Every seat onboard features seat-back entertainment via the Thales TopSeries and its slick Android inspired GUI; very similar to that found in the A319, 777-300ER, and most recent 737-800 deliveries. It boasts up to 200 movies, 180 TV programs, more than 350 audio selections, up to tweny games, and 3-D moving maps. The full swath of entertainment is included in the premium cabins, while there will be a $4 charge for most of the VOD movies and TV series in Main Cabin as is now custom in the new domestic fleet.
First and Business Cabins boast an HD 15.4″ screen while economy’s screens measure 8.9″. Individual AC power outlets and USB jacks are available at every seat throughout the aircraft as well. Wi-Fi has been upgraded to Gogo’s ATG-4 service, though this is not of the same speed or caliber of KA-satellite based solutions.
Though it is a mostly symbolic move, American’s introduction of the A321T is just the first step in the coming shift in the balance of power towards the A321 in the US market. Currently, US carriers operate 453 passenger Boeing 757-200s, and 124 Boeing 737-900s (both ER and non-ER – as well as 176 NGs and 117 MAX 9s on order). However, many of these 757s are slated for retirement (close to 300 – basically the non-international 757s that operating trans-Atlantic and South American routes for the legacy carriers & AA will use new regular A321s to replace 757s reportedly beginning with routes from the West Coast to Hawaii). Meanwhile, US Airways operates 93 A321s (with 17 on order), American has five A321s on property (with an additional 190 – 60x ceo, 130x neo on order), Spirit Airlines operates two (with 30 on order), JetBlue operates four (with 79 more on order), and Hawaiian Airlines has sixteen A321neos on order. When all of the orders are filled for both types, the A321ceo/neo will be the most operated large narrowbody in the US, narrowly edging out the 737-900/MAX 9 with 431 frames versus 417, a massive shift from the current status.
Business Class is the heart of this premium high-yield market so we booked seat 12D in the intimate 20-seat Business Cabin to review the new product ourselves.
The morning started off bright and early. I arrived at LAX around 5:00AM local time to American’s elite Flagship Check-in. The folks at the premium cabin only ticket counter (which has its own special entrance) quickly squared away my reservation, handed me a ticket, and personally escorted me to security.
The walk to Gate 40 in Terminal 4 was short. The terminal was crowded with people going home from yesterday’s BCS bowl game, reminding me more of a zoo than an airport. Unlike many inaugural flights I have attended, there were no special decorations or acknowledgements of this new milestone (I later found out a celebration had been planned, but was scrapped due to concerns that it would look insensitive in light of the weather.
Boarding commenced approximately on time. I boarded through the L1 door (generally it will be L2 to preserve first class exclusivity), and made my way to my seat in the swank new business class cabin. Upon passing through the first class cabin I noticed a special compartment for pets, as the first class product does not have any under seat storage (same as AAs 777-300).
Before taking my seat in 7D I noticed that each seat had a complimentary SWAG bag, filled with a T-Shirt, DVD, and 500 AAdvantage miles. While settling in, the preflight customary champagne and water were offered as the cabin power flickered on and off. Best to get the jitters out of the way early, I suppose.
Once power was solidly established the airplane’s mood lighting was turned on. Shades of blue and purple swept over the cabin, eliciting ohs and ahs throughout the airplane. Our friendly crew excitedly thanked us for being on board the inaugural flight, and pointed out that for many it was their first time working on board the airplane. We pushed back at 7:03AM, taxied for awhile across the vast LAX landscape, and leapt into the sky 19 minutes later at 7:22AM.
Once aloft the flight generally proceeded like any other. One hour into the flight, Fern Fernandez, AA’s Vice President of Global Marketing, gave a spirited champagne and cupcake toast (Fernandez later gave up his business seat to an employee, taking his seat at the back of economy). After which, our breakfast service began.
Our two flight attendants (there are two in each cabin for six total, instead of the nine on the old 762) busily worked the cabin, delivering our breakfast choices. My choice consisted of tasty a gruyere fontina cheese omelette and chicken apple sausage, red pepper potatoes, and chicken apple sausage. It was superbly delicious. Other options included Belgian waffles along with cereal and yogurt.
While our meal in business might have come with the fare, all passengers on board wound up receiving free food and drinks on board the flight. Typically those in main cabin extra or the main cabin would have the option of buying off the menu.
Once I had finished the delicious breakfast I turned my attention to the seat, and promptly fell asleep. It was exceptionally comfortable. I set one of my electronics to power up, but was dismayed by the awkward location of the AC and USB power ports, both located near my head.
After my much needed and very enjoyable nap, it was time to mess around with the inflight entertainment system (IFE). All entertainment, in all classes of service, is free on the A321T (in contrast to the AA A319 and 737 where it is not in Y). The Thales powered, Android GUI based system had an incredibly quick response time – one of the faster I’ve ever seen.
While most choices mirrored a predictable set of choices ranging from movies to TV to music, two options in particular stuck out to me. The first was a sort of e-reader. It functioned much like a Kindle, offering a selection of reading material, which is certainly unique. The other was the moving maps function. Normally pretty unexciting, I found it to be mind blowing with pinching like a smart phone and multiple views including cockpit and wingman which displays heading, ground speed, and altitude. Who needs anything else on the IFE? Very AvGeek and cool. Regardless of your choice, you could listen to it via the set of spiffy three-pronged Bose headsets passed out to each premium passenger.
The system can be controlled via touch screen or by a very nifty universal remote. The remote also controls flight attendant call and overhead seat lights but doesn’t completely control the IFE, which is annoying as you have to reach far forward. #firstworldproblems.
Ultimately, however, I thought the IFE set a new standard (more photos in the slideshow, below).
As the flight neared its final hour cookies were provided, along with a selection of snacks including chips, candy, and fruit. Thanks to the weather, it was a very bumpy approach below 10k feet – not quite as smooth as the larger 767-200 it will replace.
Our pilots greased the landing at 3:05EST to applause. Predictably, there was no water cannon salute, as it would have all frozen to the airplane with the 10 degree temperature. We blocked into the gate at 3:15PM. And thus a wonderful flight came to an end.
Another point of significance not lost on the day was when American Airlines and US Airways made the significant step of allowing both airline’s customer’s miles to be earned and redeemed in the AAdvantage and Dividends loyalty programs. Billed as “Customer Day One”, the changes involve primarily premium passengers, who besides linked loyalty programs, also can use either lounge, access to preferred seats, and combined ticket counters (for more see our story here). This is the first major customer-facing change resulting from the merger.
And just a month following the completion of its merger with US Airways to form the world’s largest airline, American is clearly on a quest to become what new CEO Doug Parker says is to become “the world’s best airline” with the new A321T product being a significant factor. The Transcon Wars have only begun, however as jetBlue launches its new premium Mint and updated Core product in June followed by Delta’s new BusinessElite Cabin in July. United completed its conversion to its new P.S. product on the 757-200 platform last month. This leaves the innovative and customer friendly Virgin America left, who is now the only transcon player in the market without lie-flat seats in the market, to respond.
What is clear, however, it that AA’s quest to be the top airline in the US has found a good direction in the A321T. Our vote? It’s the new best-in-class.
Additional Stories and Galleries
* Cover & top photo by Jason Rabinowitz / Airchive