American Airlines Introduces New Flagship Business Plus Instead Of First Class, What Does It Mean?

Could this be the end of first class on international routes and premium cross country flights on American Airlines? Or the introduction of a really stepped up business class, or both?

Wednesday evening American was marketing cross country flights on its premium Airbus A321T aircraft as offering “Flagship Business” and “Flagship Business Plus,” the latter instead of first class, even though the more expensive ‘business plus’ was still booking into the ‘F’ fare class. Indeed, the column heading where ‘First’ used to be was replaced with ‘Premier’ at (Update: See American Airlines response at the bottom)

This morning, however, it appears they are simply marketing both business and first as ‘Flagship’ which is their moniker for premium, and the column header has reverted to ‘first’. This tells me that American Airlines is re-working the branding of at least these flights.

Currently first class – the top cabin on some international flights and on New York – Los Angeles, San Francisco and Orange County and at times on Los Angeles – Miami, exists on the airline’s Boeing 777-300ER and Airbus A321T aircraft. It’s a true lie flat seat that’s more spacious than business class.

Generally speaking American Airlines differentiates it with better ground service such as private check-in and sit-down Flagship First Dining at some airports, but only modest differentiation in onboard catering. I’ve written about the steps they could take to offer a truly competitive international first class though it seems unlikely they’d do that.

American Airlines Airbus A321T First Class Cabin

American Airlines Airbus A321T First Class Seat

I’ve reached out to American for an explanation of what this temporary branding change means. It appears to have been replaced prematurely, but isn’t clear whether it’s ‘the end of first class’ and whether this will apply just to Airbus A321T or to their international routes as well.

There’s a trend in the industry for some airlines to drop first class and market former first class seats as premium business class seats. That’s what Malaysia Airlines and Asiana have done, for instance. (Etihad is referring to its new business class product as ‘Business Plus’ rather than referring to former first class seats with that name.)

Leaving first class seats in planes, but selling them as business class – with an upcharge – is what outgoing American Airlines CEO Doug Parker did at US Airways with that airline’s Airbus A330-300s. Row 1 had been international first class with sleeper seats and a divider from the rest of the aircraft, but instead of spending money to retrofit the plane with consistent seats when US Airways dropped first class they offered those seats for an upcharge (and free to top tier Chairmans Preferred elites) but with the same meals and service as business class.

This strategy both saves money (on new seats) and reduces costs (on differentiated inflight product). It also creates a separate upsell opportunity for those better seats offered to business class customers.

Overall American Airlines is planning to offer more business class seats and this would be one way to get there though it wouldn’t mean more premium seats overall. While at the same time there’s been discussion of retrofitting Airbus A321T aircraft to a less premium configuration and first class seats could just be an upsell opportunity during a retrofit where only certain aircraft have this option.

Here are some possibilities.

  • If they did this on cross country flights only, dropping first class would bring their product into line with Delta, United, and JetBlue – the latter is an alignment that makes sense given the two carriers’ Northeast Alliance. However as the only airline with first class from Los Angeles to New York they’ve had an advantage with some Hollywood studios.

  • However when American introduces its speculated new business class for international that could be marketed as ‘flagship business plus” to differentiate it from standard lie flat business class, a branding play along the lines of United Polaris and DeltaOne.

    Credit: Adient Aerospace

    Aviation watchdog JonNYC discusses this possibility.

  • As an upsell opportunity it could come bundled with some premium services like Flagship first class check-in.

  • Although it would also be interesting if, to encourage upsales, American offered standard business class as a more stripped-down ‘basic business’ product that might not come with Flagship lounge access, or even seat assignments the way that joint venture partner British Airways does (charging a la carte for those, except for full fare business passengers and mid-tier elites and above).

  • If they do drop international first class and premium cross country first class, that calls into question the outstanding Flagship First Dining project, since those passengers currently gain access to these exclusive rooms with sit down meals and greater privacy.

    Flagship First Dining New York JFK

    Miami Corn Chowder With Corn Fritters

It’s not yet clear exactly what “Flagship Business Plus” presages. It appears to have been released as a marketing term earlier than intended. But it does seem as though it’s a replacement for first class on at least some routes, the implications of which should become evident shortly.

Update: American shares the following response,

We are not getting rid of our first class product. An error due to testing caused the temporary removal of our Flagship First fare product. We have resolved the issue, and the fare is once again available for booking on our A321T and 777

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. It would not surprise me if first is being called Premier since domestic first on all routes is significantly inferior.

    I suppose it is also possible that American thinks more people could could expense first if it wasn’t caed first-class.

  2. And if the flight attendants get their way, none of this will matter.. You can call it what you want….its still just a more expensive Spirit without the booze.

  3. They changed First Class to Hawaii from DFW to Flagship Business, it makes sense to do it on all Domestic Flights. International where there is a JBA as BA, then product consistency requires a Three class (FCY / PJM) layout. (Not counting the coach variants – Plus, Premium etc).

    International First has improved of late but it still has a long way to go. One feels that not only do the Flight Attendants Union want to downscale the First Class Value but American’s accountants do too.

  4. No matter what they were testing why change the names in the first place? A programmer wouldn’t change names without some direction or to test what would happen if names were changed. Something is up, this is not a random mistake.

  5. The “Hollywood advantage” clearly doesn’t amount to much given that there are repeated statements that First Class on the A321Ts is filled with non-revs.
    Besides, AA is not in a financial position (they just reported another $1 billion loss for the 4th quarter) to be able to offer a class that appeals to a very small subset of passengers. If AA doesn’t offer domestic first class, then all other airlines will compete on the same basis. If the Northeast Alliance is doing what it is supposed to do, then AA and B6 have an advantage based on size – assuming the NEA remains intact despite the DOJ’s challenge.

  6. Keep in mind that two of the four locations that offer Flagship First Dining remain closed. Perhaps Flagship lounges go the way of Chicago — that is, no table service dining.

    It seems that AA has struggled with FF Dining. Some of us have been given FF Dining certificates for use when traveling on non-FF flights. These certificates expire at the end of April and the question is when one might be able to use them.

  7. Tim Dunn
    You’re gloating again. Why are you rejoicing over American’s loss?
    Gary Leff
    Someone has too much time on his hands. When did it become a crime for a company to change its branding?

  8. Is that corn chowder picture a joke?
    Why make a bowl that big when it’s going to hold two ounces of food.
    Waste of resources plus I would dirty 7 bowls to get my fill.
    Sorry dishwasher!

  9. Reminds me of how UA got rid of Global First by making it Polaris Global First, then closing/converting the international first lounges like at IAD and LHR , and eventually all the Global First seats were replaced by the new Polaris seats.

  10. We find with most of our clients they are not allowed to travel first class but business is OK on long flights. This would allow us to sell them the first class and it would pass the system checks. It is a win win for everybody

  11. Let’s not kid ourselves that American widebody first class is truly first class. Parker just decided that instead of actually trying to improve first class to international standards it was easier to lower expectations by offering another level of business class. After all, Parker has been the king of low expectations.

  12. ghost,
    facts you don’t like is not gloating. AA cut a bunch of international flights that haven’t worked – they are trying more but they realize that they cannot continue to do what they have done. Given that Delta managed to report an adjusted profit and United’s loss was about half of American’s (those are the only 3 US airlines that have reported for the 4th quarter so far), AAL isn’t done cutting out dead wood.
    If AA had a viable thing going w/ transcon first class on the A321T, there wouldn’t be multiple sites saying that AA non-revs are frequent occupants of the cabin.

    Looking at the dashboard does wonders to validate whether some of these rumors have the potential to be true.

    I am betting this one is more likely to be implemented than not.

  13. Changing Aadvantage to a credit card program will cut their frequent business flyers so there will be less demand fir First Class. If they were smart they would play to an advantage but the current plan seems to be a race to the bottom.

  14. Gary, I was just leaked documents indicating the rollout of the new Flagship Basic Economy. Pax receive two sanitary wipes rather than one and a breath mint.

  15. This seems to me to be a rehash of the late 90’s when first class was eliminated on many US airlines in favor of an enhanced business class. As JerryTravel says almost all companies do not allow their travelers to pay for first class, the accountants that never travel think all business trips are just company paid vacations. I was one of the last Pax in NEA first class, I used my upgrade certain as my NGO – DTW flight was the final one before first class was switched to their new business class product. At the time first class was always full because business class always always overbooked, I had about a 50% upgrade rate from biz to first.

    The big revenue comes from business travelers using the bosses money, and the boss doesn’t pay for first class

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