Trip Report – The AA A321T First Class, JFK-LAX (Part 1 – Ground services and boarding)

Trip Report – The AA A321T First Class, JFK-LAX (Part 2 – Takeoff and inflight services)

I know I’ve been hinting at flying American’s new transcon product since spring. In fact, I booked it on a whim back in April, had to cancel, and only just recently was able to reschedule. To say I was a bit stoked would be an understatement. No particular reason why other than trying a new product, and nostalgia reasons – the last time I did this flight it was aboard a DC-10 and an earlier edition of the Flagship transcontinental service. Caviar and lobster are no more, but I’d say the first class seat (essentially the same as AA’s biz seat on its 777-300s) is an improvement. It certainly beats the old recliner style from the 767-200s.

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Image courtesy of American Airlines

The Trip

I booked the 3:00PM Saturday departure from JFK for a couple of reasons. I wanted to have plenty of time to get to JFK, and 3PM was the only afternoon flight available. It worked out perfectly. I repositioned to JFK by flying into LaGuardia on the back half of an expiring Delta award ticket.  The Delta flight was fine, and on time. I covered the yummy breakfast served on that flight in an earlier post. I took a car service to JFK, and with no traffic on a Saturday, I was standing at AA’s terminal 8 just before 11am. I wandered around for a bit before heading over to AA’s Flagship Check-in, which is adjacent to the Air Train entrance. If you are walking in from the front door, just go all the way to your right. The rules for using Flagship Check-in are as follows:

  • A ConciergeKeySM member
  • A Five Star ServiceSM customer
  • Traveling First Class onboard an American three-class transcontinental flight
  • Traveling First Class onboard an international American or select oneworld® alliance carrier anywhere in your outbound itinerary

I had already checked in on my phone, but I wanted the full immersion experience. There’s a concierge waiting outside who will ask for your name and flight number. He checked his handheld device, found my name, and I was in. There was an agent, a gentleman to handle bags, and MJ on Travel. Within a second or two, I had my first paper boarding pass in months, and I was exiting the facility which happens to lead right into the TSAPre line, which was empty on a Saturday.

The Flagship Lounge

The JFK Flagship Lounge resides within the main Admirals Club just inside security. After checking in with the concierge, they hand you a key for the lounge if you’re eligible for access, and you walk in. The door to the lounge is to your right after entering the Admirals Club. I arrived during the changeover from breakfast to lunch, and found the lounge completely empty except for a couple of staff folks. Business did pick up later, but for a good 40 minutes or so, I was alone.

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The lounge was comfortable, and well-equipped with power outlets. I really enjoyed the awesome views of ramp operations at JFK. I was seriously geeked up with airplane pictures. :)

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The A321T in that shot ultimately turned out to be my ride to LAX. Planes aside, I’d be remiss if I did not point out the most remarkable thing about the lounge for my purposes that day.

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The wi-fi was remarkably fast. Assuming it’s true, that’s pretty decent speed, and is certainly better than AT&T is delivering to my home right now. In any event, I wrote about the Flagship Lounge experience in its entirety here. After a few hours of getting work done in the lounge, I made my over to gate 33 for my flight to LAX.

The A321T

If I had one observation to make about the entire experience, it would be that AA chose gate 33 to operate what is supposed to be a premium transcontinental product from JFK. Gate 33 is by the Eagle operation, and is about as far from the Flagship Lounge as you can get. There is a second Admirals Club that is closer. I’m sure gates are at a premium as a big push of international arrivals begins, but I would think they’d aim to be closer to the larger club, and the Flagship Lounge. Just a thought. In any event, boarding began the minute I arrived, and I was shortly taking my seat, 3A, for the flight to LAX. It was one of those flights that you board, and immediately know you’re going to like the crew. The purser and one other flight attendant were working the first class which ultimately wound up with 6 of 10 seats filled. Welcome aboard sparkling wine was offered.

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My old friend, the plastic pre-departure “glass.” :) Oh well….. it was drinkable, and the crew was friendly. It was going to be a good flight. I took a few minutes to explore the seat.

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The seats are arrange 1 x 1, so you have both a window and an aisle, but the windows are not close. That’s not an issue, just an observation. I immediately liked the seat. It was comfortable, spacious, and just genuinely nice. A full size pillow and duvet were already at the seat as was an amenity kit. Better yet, there are multiple options for powering your electronics and enjoying the inflight entertainment.

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That 3-prong plug is proprietary and the Bose headsets AA provides are setup for it. However, just below that is a standard single-prong plug, so I was able to use my Bose QC20i’s and enjoy the inflight entertainment too. USB and (I think) Empower? are just below. A little further over, and you’ll find a standard power outlet.

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If you’ve wondered how anyone could see the typical video screens provided on most airplanes, you won’t have to worry about that on the A321T. The screens are 15″ and provide a lot of options.

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It wasn’t an issue for me, but one of the things I found most interesting about the seat was the tight pass-through between the seat and the aisle.

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There was generous legroom when seated, and I was very comfortable throughout the flight.

 

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The bottom line – the seat is quite nice, and I’m looking forward to trying AA’s 777-300 in Business on our next flight to Europe. Believe me, I can sleep in this seat!! Although the airplane was near full, with a max capacity of 102 passengers, we boarded quickly and buttoned up for an on-time departure from JFK.

Coming up: Part 2 of the trip report – takeoff, inflight service, and arrival in LAX.

There are two deals in this week’s Weekly Cruise Deal. One based on the price and the itinerary, the other…less so based on price and certainly on the itinerary. First up – a 14-night Holy Land cruise aboard the beautiful Celebrity Silhouette departing Rome starting at $799 per person plus taxes and port charges. Look at this itinerary.

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Yes, I watch the news and read a few newspapers, so I’m aware that certain parts of this itinerary could prove challenging or be changed, but it’s too good not to share.

My other favorite for this week, an 11-night Black Sea cruise departing Istanbul aboard Celebrity Constellation. Here’s the itinerary.

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While there’s much to like here, I think the ability to hotel 2-nights in Istanbul aboard the ship at the end of the cruise is very attractive. This cruise starts at $1,199 per person plus taxes and port charges. Not cheap, but not woefully expensive either. Each of these must be booked today for the current best pricing. I hope some of you are able to take advantage of these wonderful itineraries.

-MJ, August 20, 2014

 

According to Raleigh-Durham International’s blog, Delta Air Lines will add new nonstop services from Raleigh/Durham (RDU) to the warm weather destinations of Miami and Nassau later this year. Per the blog, “Nonstop service to Nassau is scheduled daily for the peak holiday travel period of Dec. 20, 2014-Jan. 20, 2015. Miami nonstop service will operate on Saturdays from Dec. 20, 2014- Aug. 15, 2015.” However, my own look at the schedules shows both services as Saturday only at the moment, with the last Nassau flight on January 10, 2015.

While these markets might seem a little odd at first glance, RDU is a bit of a focus city for Delta with a big number of flights to Delta’s major hubs and large markets like Los Angeles. Delta has operated a Saturday only nonstop from RDU to Cancun for a few years, and these new Saturday only flights are likely using aircraft that have some spare time on the weekend. Miami is well served from RDU by American, but I guess Delta could capitalize on its inherent strengths in the local RDU market, and deliver a few folks to weekend departing cruises too.

Now for the next big question – will Delta revive its idea that never took flight from years back of 757 service to Paris from RDU? Hmmm.

-MJ, August 20, 2014

It’s hard to believe that the MJ on Travel team is just 104 days away from boarding the beautiful new Quantum of the Seas. One of the restaurants I’m looking most forward to visiting onboard is Michael’s Genuine Pub. Introducing the Gastropub aboard a cruise ship should be no small feat, but I’m pretty confident that the chef and the folks at Royal Caribbean will figure it out. One of the features I’m looking most forward to sampling is the craft beer selection, including the pub’s own brew, Michael’s Genuine® Home Brew, working with Back Forty Beer Company. Here’s a look behind the scenes at Back Forty where the new brew will be crafted.

Last weekend I took my first United mainline flights in several years. At least 3 years…maybe 4 or even 5….the memory is fuzzy. I think the last one was a reroute from AA Eagle to UA from Raleigh to Washington. I’ve had an interesting relationship with United over the years. After working for their primary competitor for so many years, I found flying them to be interesting. I like to compare and contrast airline operations, and the differences (and similarities) between United and my ex-employer were always curious to me. There really weren’t that many, but it was just different enough to be novel at the time. It didn’t hurt that they had a good number of flights to where I needed to go at the time either.

I’ve held both Premier and Premier Executive status in the then Mileage Plus program. I’ve flirted with United on and off since 2004. It was always interesting, but never quite real. For whatever reason, I’d find myself flying someone else after a flirtation with United. I liked their mileage program just fine, but something about the airline itself always bugged me. And being the kind of guy who finds that the airline matters more than its mileage program, I always wandered away. The final parting came when I was spending more time flying US Airways, but crediting to Mileage Plus. Probably not a bad plan, but I was flying enough that upgrades began to matter – even on 2 hour flights. I made the final switch to Dividend Miles and spent most of my MileagePlus miles in late 2012 on a Lufthansa First Class trip. With that as background, I thought I’d share some details of recent flights given the drubbing (at times deserved I think) that United has taken from some circles.

The Trip

I needed to get home from LAX, and studied my options – money, miles or walking. I went with miles as I had some MileagePlus miles leftover that were burning a hole in my pocket – just enough for a domestic first class award. I found a one-way itinerary from LAX to Atlanta via SFO and booked it. I thought the 737 transcon experience might make for an interesting experience as United has been flying nonstop from SFO to ATL for a several months now. When the time arrived, I checked in via United’s fairly functional iPhone app the day before, and enjoyed my evening. As I was getting ready the next morning I got a little push notification from United letting me know that my flight from LAX to SFO was delayed. I couldn’t help but think I was about to get Jeff’d. I selected my routing with purpose. First, it assured me mainline jets all the way, something of which I found to be challenging with UA. Second, I wanted to check out the transcon service on the 737-800. I elected to get out to the airport and try and standby for an earlier flight even though it did not look promising on ExpertFlyer.

I checked in with an agent, and she placed me on the standby list. The flight was booked solid, and I wasn’t very hopeful. However, I stuck it out at the gate, and what do you know? I cleared – 32D in an A319 was not the same as 2A on the A320 I was originally scheduled or, but I would make my connection with ease. This flight left right on time, arrived SFO early, and I wandered around the terminal a bit. It’s been years since I’ve flown United but portions of their terminal are clearly improved. I burned a day pass for the United Club, camped out and got some work done. In no time it seemed, I was walking down to board my flight home to the ATL. We were a tiny bit late boarding, but things went smoothly, and we pushed right on time. I was looking forward to the flight, partially thanks to an email I received from United the day before:

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The Seat

I surmised that it is such an event to actually get wi-fi on a United flight that they need to send you an email to let you know you’ll have it. :) Funny thing is, both of my United flights that day were wi-fi ready. I boarded, and took my assigned seat 3E, on the aisle. The seats were a tiny bit old school, but comfortable, and I enjoyed catching up on a little news via DirecTV while we boarded. Legroom was plentiful. Perhaps they felt extra roomy because I was waaaay back in coach on my first flight of the day. Let’s compare…here’s 32D:

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And 3E.

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To tell you the truth, I found the coach seat very comfortable until the person in front of me reclined into my lap. But I’ll take 3E, thank you very much. Soon enough, we were airborne and winging our way towards Atlanta. I did try out United’s satellite wi-fi. I found it to be sufficiently speedy for my needs (4mbps download speed when I tried), and I liked the pricing plan very much. Basically, you buy as much as you want in 1 hour blocks for $2 per hour. I don’t know if that is a test phase price or not.

The Meal

Dinner was served during our flight. Our choices were chicken cacciatore and some kind of spinach filled thing that didn’t sound all that great. I went with the chicken with red wine for my beverage. Service began with hot towels, beverages, and my eternal favorite, a ramekin of warm mixed nuts.

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While the pre-dinner services were going on, I began to explore the entertainment offerings. DirecTV offered a LOT of channels, and I found myself surfing a bit. My eyes settled on VH-1. Yes, I said that. Why? The movie Purple Rain was playing. The rest of the flight was made as I enjoyed the music of Prince at FL370. But alas, dinner did eventually arrive so here ya’ go.

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If you’re counting, that’s approximately 1/3 of a chicken breast under some sauce with veggies and something resembling pasta. It doesn’t look like much, but it actually tasted OK. The salad was fresh, if skimpy (1 olive, 1 chunk of tomato, lettuce). A bread basket was offered as well. Dessert was a cranberry and white chocolate cookie. The meal was good enough, but I’m not sure it would have passed muster with Delta, much less American, and I’m not talking about the A321T First Class meal I had the day before. The first class F/A, on the other hand, was ever present, frequently offering refills of beverages and routinely checking on passengers. She absolutely made the flight. Well, other than Purple Rain on the TV, she absolutely made the flight.

The Bottom Line

I viewed the idea of flying United again with some trepidation based on a bit of media attention they’ve been receiving. Even though my original flight was delayed, I stood by for an earlier trip, and everything worked out fine. The agents and crew I interacted with were all uniformly polite, smiling, and helpful. Two flights doesn’t mark a trend, and living where I live, it’s not likely that I’ll go out of my way to fly United. That said, I won’t actively avoid it either. I enjoyed my flights.

-MJ, August 19, 2014 (OMG, I took my first airplane ride 34 years ago today!)

Dear Delta,

I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone against the grain in support of Delta Air Lines. Even when my little inside voice has told me to just keep my mouth shut, or let other people worry about it, I’ve piped in with support. Don’t get me wrong, I know my place in Delta’s world. I’m one guy who flies a little, spends more than some, less than many others, and to my knowledge has only ever sent one formal complaint to Delta that I can remember in all my years of flying. Let’s review a few gems from the past from me.

And those are just a small sample. Here’s the thing, I still believe every good thing I’ve said about you, really, I do. But when you pull chicken sheet little nonsense like removing upgrade inventory from ExpertFlyer.com, a service which many of us that fly like to use, you make it difficult to love on you, even if I am personally not all that impacted by your decision. I’m sure you’ve got some reason as to why you did this. It may even make some sense if I heard it. However, all we know is that in addition to changing everything we know about mileage programs, you’ve removed a good bit of the utility from an extremely useful tool that many of us like a lot. I still love you, I still seek to fly you, and I’m pretty sure you don’t hate having me as a customer…but seriously….is this where you take your stand? I don’t get it. Explanations welcome.

Love,

MJ

-MJ, August 18, 2014

 

As a self-described airplane nerd, I could not help but wax a little nostalgic when I read that the final flights of the Boeing 737-400 for US Airways were scheduled. According to the FlyerTalk thread dedicated to the topic, the last flight will be tomorrow, August 19th, from Philadelphia to Charlotte. Some dedicated frequent flyers have booked the entire last day’s flying which includes CLT-DFW-PHL-CLT.

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I well remember my first ride aboard a brand new 737-400 operated by Piedmont Airlines, the type’s launch customer. The flight was from Los Angeles to Charlotte, and it had that new airplane smell. It’s hard to believe so many years have passed, and now there’s a whole generation of newer 737s and coming soon, the 737MAX to fly us where we need to go. August 19th has special meaning for me because August 19, 1980, was the day I took my first airplane flight. It was aboard an Eastern Air Lines DC-9-50 from Raleigh (RDU) to Washington (DCA). The fare was $68.00 one-way, and I still have the boarding pass safely preserved in a scrapbook! I wish I’d been paying attention as I would’ve considered booking one of these segments just for fun!

Goodbye old friend. You’ve served us well.

-MJ, August 18, 2014

Marriott recently upgraded its smartphone app (iOS and Android) to accommodate mobile check in at many of its hotels. This weekend was my first opportunity to try the app’s mobile check in feature. It was as easy as it appears to be in this video from Marriott.

I checked into my LA hotel while I was sitting at JFK. Upon landing at LAX, I had a notification waiting in the iPhone notification center informing me that my room was ready.

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Upon arrival at the hotel, I proceeded to the front desk where I picked up my key. No muss, no fuss, but I still had to wait for a front desk attendant to assist a hapless couple. There is a large sign that says something to the effect of “pick up your key here for mobile check in” but the person working that position was also working the regular line. I expect that’s something that will evolve as more people try mobile check in. It will certainly need to if Marriott wants people to use this option frequently. In reality, my wait was only a few minutes, and the actual process of getting my key once I was in contact with a front desk attendant seemed to go very quickly as my room key was already prepared, etc.

Mobile check out appeared as an option on the morning of my departure. It was really easy. You have the option of checking out with an email receipt or no receipt. The whole thing took about 5 seconds, and I was done. Much quicker than the option of checking out via in room TV, which always seems to be agonizingly slow to me, no matter the hotel brand.

The bottom line – I’ll be a frequent user of Marriott mobile check in, and I’m looking forward to watching it evolve as both guests and hotels get comfortable with it.

-MJ, August 18, 2014

Yesterday, I paid my first visit to the AA Flagship Lounge at JFK. With my only other Flagship Lounge experiences having been LHR, MIA, and ORD, I was curious to see the lounge. I am not 100 percent positive, but I believe it may be the most recently opened. I’m sure some readers know the scoop on that and can correct me in comments if it’s not true.

I haven’t frequented Flagship Lounges because I don’t fly AA that much anymore with my relocation to Atlanta, and I’m not now, nor have I ever been an AA Executive Platinum. My previous Flagship Lounge experiences were all courtesy of international First Class itineraries. Indeed, my JFK visit was available to me as a First Class customer on an AA 3-class transcon flight. In my case, I was purposely there to sample the AA A321T product.

The JFK Flagship Lounge is located in AA’s terminal 8, just beyond security. It is housed within the B Concourse Admirals Club. You enter the regular club, and upon check in, they will provide you with a key card for access to the Flagship Lounge, which is just to the right of the Admirals Club check in desk. I was politely assisted, and offered a key to the lounge, which I happily took. Once inside, the lounge concierge greeted me, and took the key card. I’m guessing they’d just give you another if you needed to leave, but I did not….I had 3 hours to kill, and I was looking forward to enjoying the lounge. For the first 40 minutes, I was the only customer there.

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Furnishings weren’t necessarily better than you’d find in the Admirals Club, but they had me at power outlets. In short, there were power outlets everywhere! I arrived just as the staff was transitioning from breakfast to lunch. I would enjoy a full dinner on my 3:30PM flight to LAX, but I wanted to at least sample the food. Being the only person there, I was able to enjoy a few lunch items before I was joined by more customers. The lunch spread was great for a US airline lounge and included different salads, cheeses, etc. There were two soups, Minestrone and a chili.

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The food was tasty….I was actually pleased with it. It wouldn’t pass muster at some international lounges, but it was what it was. I enjoyed lunch. There was also a complimentary self-serve bar setup.

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I’ve become a bit of a wine snob, even if I don’t understand why or how. The Show Cabernet is certainly drinkable, but I don’t love it. Admittedly, even though I had the opportunity, I did not try the rest of the wines to see if I liked something better. No matter what, I appreciated the opportunity to relax in a very quiet lounge with reasonable food and drink options. That said, I think my favorite part of the JFK Flagship Lounge experience was the beautiful views of the ramp. In short, I was geeking things up when it came to plane spotting.

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That A321T in the shot was ultimately my ride to LAX. :) In the end, I really enjoyed the AA Flagship Lounge at JFK. Furnishings were comfortable, the atmosphere was pleasant (and in my case, exclusive), and the upgraded food was a step up from the usual Admirals Club fare. I enjoyed my visit, and it was a great setup for the A321T First Class experience.

-MJ, August 17, 2014

A great week of travel talk, and a long sought travel experience is the story this week. Yesterday’s ride aboard the A321T 3-class airplane in First with American Airlines was a highlight of the week. I’ll have a full trip report up later this week. Here’s a look at the weekly recap.

And this week, at MJ on Travel -

  • Trip Report – The AA A321T First Class
  • Trip Report – My First United Flights in Years
  • Hotel Review – Renaissance LAX

These topics, the weekly cruise deal, and no doubt more, this week at MJ on Travel.

-MJ, August 17, 2014

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