American Airlines Could Offer A Great International First Class Product. Here’s How.

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,

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Not going to happen. American Airlines has no vision for the future. Their business decision makers are completely blind.

  2. I love this plan and hope AA considers it. As an AA ExPlat based in DFW, Qatar is my go-to because the product & service makes it worth doubling travel time & changing planes in Doha. However, getting to Europe on Qatar is weirdly priced so AA could really have an edge if they stepped it up.

  3. Union would never agree to having to “qualify” to work a First Class position. That would violate seniority which the most important thing to the union and senior flight attendants

  4. @Gary Leff…stay out of the flight attendant contract. That’s none of your business. You don’t get to dictate who should work where or what kind of training the inflight crew should have to work in any cabin. Know your place.

  5. As long as AA has a joint venture with BA, JL, and QF, it makes zero sense for them to invest in first class; one of the features of a JV is harmonized pricing, and first class is no exception. There is no world in which AA improves their service enough to have a product advantage over BA/JL/QF, and without a price advantage, there is no reason for a customer without a strong predisposition to AA to choose their F product over their partners’. In addition, AA cannot even control the pricing of their first class cabin for itineraries originating in Europe and Asia- BA and JL do those directions’ pricing. Why should DFW invest in upgraded catering, etc., when the actual pricing, and thus ROI, will be determined by some random pricing analyst in LON or TYO?

    I think a more sensible move is for AA to take out F and replace it with more business and PY, where a competitive seat is the most important product attribute, and the ability to drive revenue is far greater.

  6. Who exactly is the target customer for this? Some segment that is willing to pay out of pocket for F but is still somehow bound to the loyalty program? Rich, patriotic Texans? Execs and high-net-worth individuals will still be flying premium int’l carriers or private. This would just end up being upgrade fodder from paid J, or points redemptions. At the end of the day to sell seats you either have to create a market or steal share, and I don’t see this doing either. Maybe if you got the price right you could convince some upmarket leisure travelers who’d ordinarily buy J to splurge for F but that doesn’t strike me as a cash cow.

  7. American will not gain any financial benefit from their international first class product because the cost of operating the 777-300ER is so much higher than other airlines. They have the same number of seats on their 777-300ERs as Delta has on its A350-900 which burn 35% less fuel which translates into a cost difference of tens of thousands of dollars.
    Further, AA doesn’t have average fare parity with Delta and United on longhaul international routes where they directly compete except for LHR and Tokyo. AA can’t make a single airplane do something that AA can’t achieve across its entire international network.

  8. AA will not likely invest in a first class product when their current business model is targeting low cost fares to compete with Spirit. The AA of old is no longer. The airline has become America West.

  9. “There’s even less competition among foreign carriers. Oh, so Singapore, Emirates, Qatar are chopped liver?
    Schlepping people around on the ground is not noteworthy. Others already do it well.
    There is nothing in management/mission statement that even hints that they can spell First Class, let alone deliver it.
    My experience tells me that they can, if they want, excel at business class, where is large potential. Really great first class is costly, to chase the limited potential. I think American succeed with a top notch business class without redoing management or union contracts. It’s ludicrous to think you need to maintain a separate group of flight attendants. Just look at how Singapore trains all its flight attendants. If you have to different flight attendants for each class if service, the basic training program is for shit, which many of your readers have been saying for years.

  10. American Airlines is in trouble, and grasping at straws.

    On another note, yesterday, I had to cancel a flight, over 24 hours before departure. Fact: I have been flying regularly for my hospitality jobs. I FULLY understand the reason why they didn’t refund my ticket cost. However, here’s the kicker.

    Does my seat go empty, or does the airline double dip, if another guests pays and sits in the seat I already paid for?

    I don’t know the answer. However, if American Airlines does in fact, “SELL” my already paid for seat, this is HIGHLY UNETHICAL. And don’t attempt to give any intelligent response resemblance, that justifies this.

  11. I believe the purser on international flights has to be purser-qualified. But yes, it’s different from First-Class qualified.

    +1 for an executive who has experience in a truly premium product. In some ways, this is echoing when Continental management took over United. At the same time, travel demand and policies have changed, and in some cases the business class product rivals, if not is better ( or can be better) than first class products. If the front cabin is filled with mostly upgraders and employees, and not with true first class buyers, there may not be a business case to support a differentiated first class product.

  12. I am not anti union but I think it’s crazy that unions don’t allow quality control or secret shoppers on airlines. Unions should be about pay, safety, benefits etc. You should still have to perform good work to keep your job. Call me crazy

  13. I had worked in the aviation business since 1969 and had the opportunity to experience a number of international domestic first class.
    What Mr. Leff has described how American Airlines needs to improve overall service is absolutely correct.
    It appears to be all those decision-makers to improve the in-flight service had never observed the experience of the era of the glory of the airline before the deregulation of the industry.

  14. I like the AA first class seat. It is the only seat that swivels to face the windows and has a desk. The desk is great because you can keep your work station set up even when the sub-par meals and beverages are served. Privacy of so-called suites is overrated as anyone walking in the aisle can see in. I’d like to know how having eliminating or keeping international first class might affect business class which is where Qatar gets its halo effect.

    VALUE JET 717’S,757,767’S.
    WAKE UP!

  16. Not expecting this to happen. Frankly, I don’t expect AA or UA to be around 10-15 years from now. Their corporate culture pretty much guarantees their demise. Delta would be the logical international ‘flag’ carrier in the US , with AS and SW and the ulcc’s still in the game.

  17. This article conveniently leaves out the fact that the carriers offering a truly comprehensive first class are all pretty heavily subsidized by their respective governments. And while I have no strong feelings about that one way or the other, I do think it bears consideration when making direct comparisons. All that pampering costs real money…the article doesn’t seem to mention anything about much actual profit there is to be had from all those 5-star offerings. I’m not even sure there’s really enough demand for them to offer that level of service (non-professional opinion). I actually think American Airlines has been pretty good at providing the level of service that their customers are prepared to pay for.

  18. ATC, I trust your supervisor at the union office has authorized you to speak.

    Otherwise get back to important work like calling in sick.

  19. @Phillard Milmore – that’s simply not true. Neither ANA nor Japan Airlines are more heavily subsidized than US carriers. Emirates was consistently profitable before the pandemic, and attributed 85% of its profits to the A380. I don’t think you could say that pre-pandemic Cathay Pacific was heavily subsidized, though perhaps protected somewhat at HKG [again, certainly not more protected that legacy US carriers].

  20. You make some compelling arguments but you still use the term leadership for the management crew at American when management has studiously avoided leading. I have no great love for United but at least in a few minor ways they’re exhibiting some leadership. Maybe the Isom posse will break the mold but I’m not hopeful. Ironically, if Isom undid as far as possible everything that Parker has done, he would be showing vision, leadership, and benefit customers, employees, and ultimately shareholders.

  21. My family of four flew LAX to LHR is AA first, then onward in business via BA to CDG. The food on the one hour BA flight was vastly superior to the TATL one on AA. As for the AA cabin attendants after plopping down our meals we barely saw them for the rest of the flight. The return was about the same with the crew focused on chatting among themselves. Unfortunately it was the same with our flight a few years ago to HKG. The best way to experience First on AA is to bring your own food and once you are done eating go immediately to sleep.

  22. To me, it is the F&B in the lounge and on board that is critical to distinguish a First Class flight. I’ve always found having someone walk me through an airport that I am already familiar with to be a little awkward, though admittedly there will be some airports where it makes a difference. But AA would have to have a sea change in their approach to come close to BA, AF or the others.

  23. We work very hard and always try to demand the best training for international flight attendents especially those who attend first class, so this new era of AA flight experience should be a motivation for those who really need it and not just anyone.

  24. We work very hard and always try to demand the best training for international flight attendents especially those who attend first class, so this new era of AA flight experience should be a motivation for those who really need it and not just anyone.

  25. Agree on the inflight catering Gary

    It’s possible with some thoughtful choices

    This kind of harmonization / standard should be in the alliance JV contract

  26. I fly Flagship First (full paying customer) between Miami and LAX and AA cannot even load the plane with the right food, for the last few trips MIA to LAX then only load the plane with business class meals, pillows etc. Speaking to the Flight Attendant they just don’t know what to do – menu doesn’t match the food offered etc.
    I do agree that the FA should be First Class trained – I sometimes have the best crew and sometimes the absolute worst – almost treating customers as if they are mad they have to deal with premium passengers. I actually saw the purser tell a Flagship First customer who was having trouble stowing a carry-on bag (correct size) she should have checked it and walked away….

  27. Gary is right on the money. There’s an opportunity for American to really improve itself and own high end international and transcon travel. Not sure there are enough people willing to pay FC prices to justify the real estate on aircraft though.
    There might be more demand and better profit with business and premium economy. That’s what other airlines have determined.

  28. Coach class mentality managers should NEVER be in charge if premium products ( First Class) and unfortunately that’s the actual AA mentality

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