Before the pandemic I speculated on American Airlines eventually eliminating international first class altogether. They don’t offer a first class product today that is worth paying for.
The American Airlines first class seat wasn’t one of the better ones in the industry when it was first introduced seven years ago. It’s since been completely eclipsed. Couple that with lackluster meal service that’s closer to business class, and bar service that lags as well, American’s international first class isn’t a competitive product even before you get to the service that American’s flight attendants seem to consistently fail to deliver in the cabin.
American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER First Class, Credit: American
American may well add more business class seats to long haul aircraft but leadership never seems to talk about their first class product (except often conflating it with business class, or talking about ‘premium product’ as though it’s a singular).
However as the only U.S. carrier offering international first class and on a limited number of aircraft, there’s potential to make it work. There’s even less competition among foreign carriers for the market. American just hasn’t made the investment to do so.
To be sure, it’s a limited market to a limited set of destinations. It’s people trading down from flying private on ultra-long haul flights, and top finance and legal professionals working on multibillion dollar deals. American is strong at London Heathrow where there’s traditionally been demand. They’re growing in relevance at New York JFK. They have a joint venture partner which hubs in Tokyo. And they’re now flying to Delhi and will fly to Doha.
American has the potential to offer a really competitive product. Already they have several of the pieces.
- Flagship check-in is excellent. It’s uncrowded and expedites transit through security.
- Flagship dining is excellent, as well. Flagship lounges get crowded, and are a mass product (albeit a nicer one that Admirals Clubs). But the dining rooms are uncrowded and offer reasonably good food.
Flagship First Dining New York JFK
Miami Corn Chowder With Corn Fritters
- All they need to do to offer a competitive international first class ground experience is include Five Star service to tie it all together. American sells meet-and-greet and escort services, and included this service with first class tickets on the Los Angeles – Sydney route when that launched six years ago. Meet passengers on arrival, escort them through checkin to the lounge, and bring them from lounge to gate.
- Onboard there are three elements where American Airlines lags – seat (and lavatory, but we’ll ignore that for this purpose), catering, and service. But if we they delivered a top notch ground service a little bit of improvement inflight would go a long way.
- The seat has plenty of space but zero privacy. They really should offer a better seat, but even assuming in the short-term that’s off the table, better catering is easy and better service should be possible.
- The airline needs to hire someone familiar with premium inflight dining. Their current providers are capable of providing a better product even at the same price point when the customer cares about quality and execution – pays attention to the details and makes thoughtful selections. And these same providers deliver better product for other airlines willing to spend more. A decent food and beverage program is the easiest thing they could deliver, and combined with great ground service would make up for the seat.
Wine for the inaugural Los Angeles – Sydney flight, Penfolds Grange was for one flight only in each direction, but the McLaren Value d’Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz was fantastic
- Flight attendants working international first class should have to be ‘first class qualified’. The airline is in the midst of negotiating its flight attendant contract, this should be a part of any discussions. This means first class training, and both observation and evaluation to continue to be eligible to work the cabin. International first class shouldn’t be where the most senior crew bid because it involves the least work it should involve a lot of work!
Maybe this management will never do this. But I think they should. The investment would be within the margin of a bet they can make, not a bet the company move. They learned that the Airbus A321T could make sense with first class, even though legacy US Airways management came in with the expectation that they would remove the first class cabin from these aircraft operating on premium cross country flights. And they’ve introduced a really nice product in Flagship First dining rooms – and do execute well with Five Star ground service.
American Airlines is capable of offering a great international first class experience. It may make sense financially on its own for a handful of routes. It also has the benefit,
- Of offering a ‘halo effect’ to the rest of the airline’s product, which is often judged by the best that it offers. Emirates built a reputation on its first class, even though that’s not what most passengers experience, for instance.
- Of offering something aspirational, for customers to look forward to in choosing the airline. Imagine the effect of talking about how great an American Airlines experience is, and looking forward to it again? And offering something world class that customers could access through their loyalty and credit card spend – even if most people rarely ever do – motivates loyalty and card spend beyond the direct revenue attributable to the cabin.
I’m not predicting this! Two years ago I wrote that I expected first class to eventually be phased out at American. But they’re doing a lot of fresh thinking coming out of the pandemic. A new leadership team has been named, and though it’s mostly made up of the same people there are people in different roles. There’s an opportunity to distinguish the carrier from its recent past and also give employees and customers something to be proud of. International first class service can be a point of pride that leads to employees delivering better service across the board.