Will American Airlines Eliminate Flagship First Class Next Year?

As fewer airlines offer first class, and those with a first class cabin offer fewer seats, there’s a real opportunity to win in this market.

American Airlines is the only U.S. airline which purports to sell a true first class product, on their Airbus A321T cross country aircraft and their Boeing 777-300ERs. They’re not known for a great first class, the food and inflight service especially are lacking, but with a few small changes they could be really competitive. They have great first class lounge offerings at New York JFK, Miami, and Dallas – Fort Worth (and could re-open Los Angeles). They could add Five Star service on the ground, dial up catering a bit, and institute stronger standards in the cabin.

American Airlines Flagship First Dining New York JFK

Two years ago I wrote that American might drop their first class product altogether with the introduction of a new and improved business class. That seems even more likely as time passes.

American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER First Class, Credit: American

American Airlines Airbus A321T First Class Seat

The timing to eliminate Flagship First Class on premium cross country routes would be once there’s a critical mass of Airbus A321XLRs in the fleet. The airline wouldn’t have to retrofit its Boeing 777-300ERs to take out the seats in order to stop selling Flagship First Class internationally. Instead they could sell the current business cabin as business class, and the old first class seats as Business Plus akin to how they might brand their new Boeing 787-9 seats with doors.

It would be a shame to see Flagship First Class disappear from American Airlines. I’d far rather see them invest in a truly first class product. They have Flagship First Class Dining, Five Star service on the ground, and aircraft selling the product already. And it’s a market that few airlines compete against them to service. Modest tweaks would go a long way, but unfortunately signs point in the opposite direction.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. How many people actually by a first class international seats. My guess very few

  2. Gary – I’ve been waiting all day for you to post this, after the little teaser you gave us yesterday. Unfortunately, I’m saddened by the outlook for AA’s first class. I agree, AA could really chalk up a win if they tweaked their existing F service and differentiated themselves somewhat from the others. For once AA, try to be an industry leader. Being an industry follower is not working so well for you.

  3. What is the justification for AA to have first class when UA and DL don’t? Also many people that would actually pay (versus upgrade or use miles) to fly first on any route worldwide fly private. IMHO the days of first class seats on airlines is numbered. It just doesn’t make sense

  4. Agree with CS. Time for AA to step up big time and be a leader. Just seems Iike since the merging of US Airways and AA, everything has gone noticeably down hill. Service and soft product is inconsistent and not dependable across the board.

  5. AA could lead with premium first class seats and service. However, judging by their history of poor execution it will not happen. It would be great to see UA or DL offer a true first class product. I think that competition would make this much more likely to happen.

  6. The real reason for getting rid of Flagship First SHOULD BE that there aren’t enough seats on either the A321T or the 777-300ER in order to generate profits.
    The A321Ts compete with B6 A321 Mint aircraft w/ about 170 seats; DL 757s with about the same number of seats, 2 versions of 767s which seat approx 220-240 seats; and a variety of UA aircraft from JFK
    Leaked info about DL’s A321NEOs in premium transcon configuration will have about 40 more seats than AA’s A321Ts (which are not NEOs) but less than B6, although DL will offer their Premium Select cabin.
    AA simply does not get high enough fares to cover the much higher cost of those aircraft.

    AA’s 777-300ERs have about the same number of seats as DL’s A350s but the latter burn 1/3 less fuel. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist which aircraft is losing money at current fuel prices. AA’s 77Ws also have 40 fewer seats than UA’s 77Ws.

    The 787 announcement of much larger premium cabins probably will not work because AA simply doesn’t get the revenue even in their largest markets outside of LHR to justify the configurations and system costs they have. But if they can get some more seats on both the A321Ts and 77Ws, they might improve the economics of those aircraft – both of which will be in service in one configuration or another for years to come.

    Given that AA has consistently been the least profitable US airline and lost $2 billion on its international network in just the first 3 quarters of last year while UA lost “just” $600 million and DL showed a profit, Isom needs to fix the parts of AA that aren’t working – and its aircraft configurations are undoubtedly part of the problem including its premium First Class cabins.

  7. While this is disappointing, at the end of the day good service and better products aren’t really profitable because customers aren’t willing to pay for them. There’s no point in “winning” in international first class because there’s no profits to be had there. The people I find bemoaning this development the most are points & miles fliers (including myself), but not that many paying passengers (because they are few and far between). There’s not a single airline that 1. offers long-haul first class and 2. is expanding the number of first class seats because they’re got good demand. We can go down the whole list:

    AA: least profitable US long-haul carrier
    BA (IAG): most profitable legacy carrier but they’re cutting back cabins from 14 seats to 8, ordering more planes without first and their first class is still derisively regarded as the “world’s best business class”
    AF: small first cabin, offered on fewer and fewer routes, and not a profitable carrier
    LH / LX: fewer and fewer seats / planes with first, and Lufthansa Group aren’t as profitable as IAG
    ME3: Qatar and Etihad have gotten rid of it entirely even though they’re hubbed in places that should be great for first, while Emirates is moving from 8 seats to 6
    Other Middle Eastern Airlines: pretty much all states supported
    Korean Air / Asiana / Malaysia Airlines: working towards getting rid of it entirely / already have (and not profitable)
    Thai / Garuda: state supported, not profitable and have basically removed it
    Singapore: state supported
    Cathay: struggling even pre-COVID, though first class seemed steady
    ANA / JAL: I’m less familiar with the current situations here but I don’t think they’re really rushing to add more first class seats
    Qantas: profitable but only on a handful of routes that have the A380, but the workhorse 787 doesn’t have it, which I think represents a reduction over time
    Mainland Chinese Airlines: don’t think people really consider these on par with top first class products anywhere outside of China and they’re state supported, so it’s not relevant

    So in summary, there’s not a single commercially oriented long haul carrier that offers first class, is growing first class, and is profitable, and that’s because customers don’t want to pay for it. As we all know, the most profitable airlines are ultra-low cost carriers, and that’s because around the world customers demonstrate in droves every day that they would prefer to be treated like garbage if they can save a couple dollars.

  8. I’m excited to see the single row first class Lufthansa debuts on the A350 next year. In a perfect world all the international flag carrier airlines would have a single 4 seat first class product

  9. As a high-end corporate travel agent, I’ve never seen more demand for intl F class than I have right now. If you check many days in the next few weeks, BA, LX and AF F cabins are already sold out with paid passengers.

    As Gary has argued, if they made it just a little bit better, they could charge a whole lot more for it.

  10. I consider AA to be the bottom of the US3 airlines for so long when it comes to service levels that the natural outcome for AA is to further erode any remaining “premium” aspect that AA considers costly.

  11. I think there’s a market for a good, US F carrier. My last Flagship 1st flight was DFW – LHR, but on a BA 747 () in 2019. The Flagship lounge was exceptional, and although BA First is nothing special, I had a huge soft spot for the 747, and would always choose BA over AA for transatlantic, mostly for the service, but, AA could make this their own, if they chose to. I hope they do, as Gary said, they have all the landside infrastructure for it, it’s just the planes and service that needs to be stepped up.

    Flying SIN F later this year…it seems all the airlines with a great F product are partially or majority state-funded.

  12. Tim, busy day for you between Delta going back to 2013 with their Business class product on their new LATAM A350

    And your usual stupid rants about “xx less seats on an a350 to AA 77W”. Airlines lay out their seat choices differently. The delta a350 has 32 flat beds. The 77w has 60. Comparing the two on cost “with the same seats” when there’s such a huge difference in premium seats is just dumb. Not that you’ve ever let dumb pro-delta comments stop you.

  13. With all due respect, I think the conclusion and overall premise of this piece are flawed. To me, a product’s branding is far less important than its quality. The sentence, “I’d far rather see them invest in a truly first class product.” is the polar opposite of everything else that was written in the piece. And it’s a sentence with which I wholeheartedly agree. American needs to step up its in-flight food offering and its crew’s attitudes. That’s far more important than how its product is branded.

  14. Patrick Ferrillo, regarding AA international, the answer is 8 per flight. I regularly fly F on AA and BA and the seats are always filled. Regarding AA transcon, the answer is 10 per flight. I regularly fly F on AA between LAX and JFK and the seats are almost always filled. So, it is not as if AA can’t fill the seats.

    Of course, a fair question — or should I say “fare” question — is what percentage is revenue versus non-revenue. Another fair question: if FF transcon was NOT working for AA, why did it restart FF between LAX and MIA after canceling it? Why did it expand FF to include SNA and BOS? And, dare I start a rumor, why would it expand FF to include PHL?

    All of the comments are reasonable speculations from knowledgeable people. But, then, Ted Williams only batted 0.400.

    Until something happens, I know where my seat is.

  15. @Reno Joe – SNA and BOS were less about the First product and more about getting lie flats in Biz available in the markets. AA didn’t have another suitable aircraft to deploy.

  16. I had aa first class booked from ord to nyc to lhr in June and I got downgraded to ord to let direct in biz. American refuses to compensate me for the change in award price. They basically say biz is as good as first lollllll. I paid 90k miles for biz. Is there any chance I can get a refund of some miles? And wtf. How can they claim it’s the same?!?

  17. Julie,
    you clearly don’t have access to average fare data but AA DOESN”T get any better average fares with fewer seats and more of the them in business class than Delta does with more seats and a fewer percentage of them in business class.
    Delta gets more revenue per international flight on average across their system because they get the average fares that United gets but has far more seats per aircraft; Delta clearly has a better grasp of when they have tapped out all of the people that are willing to pay decent fares for Delta One.
    Some of you don’t grasp that lie flat business class suites can take up the space of 6-10 coach seats. The reason why premium economy is the highest margin cabin for airlines right now is because it takes up far less space but offers far more profit per square inch of cabin space than any other cabin – including the international first class cabin.

    And AA consistently NEVER has the right airplane in the right market at the right time. It is beyond baffling to hear AA fan children argue about “the X (whatever fleet type you want) is not based in hub X” or the “X aircraft is the only aircraft that AA had available.”
    Did AA make money on JFK-SNA? probably not but not because there aren’t enough people that would pay for first class but because there simply aren’t enough seats on the A321T – just as there aren’t on the 77W. AA simply does not get enough revenue in its aircraft to offset the much higher costs.

  18. I heard Ted Williams name invoked on an airline/miles blog.
    It is the end times…..

  19. AC: “Also many people that would actually pay (versus upgrade or use miles) to fly first on any route worldwide fly private.”

    No offense but you clearly don’t fully understand the costs of flying private. I just dropped $10k on a BOS-LHR-BOS flight in BA F last week. Mostly for the Concorde room at LHR, lol.

    That same flight, flying private, would have cost $50-$70k one way, and probably $150k round trip. And that’s being generous with the times/dates.

  20. That will sure disappoint the non-revenue traffic, for which the majority of this cabin is utilized for, lol

  21. They need to drop the “flagship” stuff. It’s just confusing. “Flagship Business” is a good example of that. Why is it different than just “business” I understand it but many don’t. They need to concentrate on providing a better overall premium cabin and keep “first” to the 77W’s. In fact, they need to use the 77W seats they fly to Hawaii as “first” seats instead of “businesss” and generate more revenue.

  22. Thanks Tim. I have access to gate data. Unlike you, I know how to use it and not make up storylines that don’t exist with it.

    If you knew anything about airlines, you’d be working for one, but you don’t because delta fired you because you literally have no idea what you’re talking about. Own your past. Stop lying with data that doesn’t support your position.

  23. Julie,
    so you’re an American gate agent that has a deep-seated need to trash anyone that speaks the truth even you don’t want to hear it?
    I haven’t ever been fired from anywhere.
    The actual facts are that are supported by data that American itself has sent to the US Dept. of Transportation:
    American, as hard as it is for you to accept, does not generate average fares on its international network esp. to Europe and Asia anywhere close to what Delta and United do.
    American has consistently lost more money on its international network than United – which touts itself as the US’ international carrier – and Delta is the most profitable US airline both domestically and internationally.

    American’s international network will turn around when it 1. puts more seats on its planes 2. decreases its fuel burn (pretty hard to do with the same aircraft types) and 3. generates more revenue per seat.

    It is highly unlikely that American will generate enough new revenue per seat on its more premium 787-9s to offset the lower costs; whether they make the right call on their 777-300ERs remains to be seen.

    btw, Delta just kicked off the airline earnings season and says fuel for the 2nd quarter will be $3.20 plus even with a 20 cent/gallon savings from their refinery, something American won’t have. Southwest is hedged. American and United will be flying around the least fuel efficient international fleet while paying the most for fuel. Hardly seems like a strategy to win which is probably why American revised its 1st quarter guidance to now lose over $2 billion – which means over 1 in 5 dollars in revenue that American takes in is a loss. That is a stunningly poor track record for any business.

  24. Don’t lie, tim. You and your alter-egos have been around for a long time. Like when you were banned from a.net.

    There’s a reason your thoughts are only published on others’ blogs… in their comments.

  25. just deal w/ the facts that everyone except you knows and understands:
    American has been the least profitable US airline for years including on their international system. Google “bureau of transportation statistics net income all U.S. carriers all regions” to see the data that American and every other airline has provided the DOT itself.

    Calling other people liars because you don’t like the data they present says far more about you than anyone else.

  26. Why all of the drama over first class how many people actually travel first for the food. I just want to sleep

  27. Tim Dunn wrote: “just deal w/ the facts that everyone except you knows and understands:
    American has been the least profitable US airline for years including on their international system. Google “bureau of transportation statistics net income all U.S. carriers all regions” to see the data that American and every other airline has provided the DOT itself.

    Calling other people liars because you don’t like the data they present says far more about you than anyone else.
    Why do you have this constant and insatiable desire to compare Delta to other airlines? Why the insecurity? It’s apparently not enough to simply state that Delta is an excellent airline and simply leave it at that. Obviously, American has been the least profitable major U.S. airline recently. That is hardly breaking news. But why the constant urge to shove that fact down others’ throats unless you’re hoping that American ultimately gets liquidated? The bigger question is why so many people love to gloat and celebrate when others are going through difficult times?

    When people deliberately misuse and weaponize data, they should be called out.

  28. Ghost,
    why do you have such a hard time having AA or any company compared to others? I have no insecurity whatsoever but I’m not blind to what other companies do.

    The discussion about AA’s fleet charges are DIRECTLY related to how it uses its fleet relative to the competition.

    And the “weaponization” comes from people that making up lies about other users. I would have had no need to make a second post until Julie came unglued and started making personal attacks.

    Why can’t you and she understand that your best reply is to either admit the truth which someone else posts might be in true (in this case I provided the actual sources so it most certainly IS true) or just ignore the facts that you don’t like.

    Attacking another person only keeps the discussion going longer and provides me to continue to provide MORE data to back up my point.

    And get over your nauseating fixation that anyone who says anything negative about American means they want them liquidated.

    and, finally, American is a COMPANY. If you are emotionally attached to AA to the point that you suffer, then you need to back off

  29. @Gary hmmm…”Will American Airlines Eliminate Flagship First Class Next Year?”
    Sadly, I think there’s a better than even chance that they will. I had a conversation with a lady who described her job to me as, I think, “Director of premium cabin service” (n.b., I may not have that exactly right) at a recent Concierge Key mixer at DFW. I told her that rather than dumbing down cabin service in Flagship First, which AA has been stumbling over themselves to do, they needed to quickly return to pre-COVID service levels. Her body language told me that wasn’t going to happen. My message to her was, look, if you want to start getting business and premium cabin passengers back in the air, you need to make the experience palatable. Little things matter.
    Pre-Covid I was flying hundred of thousands of miles a year in Flagship First. The cabins were largely full of paying business customers. I’m back to flying to LHR in Flagship First, which isn’t what it used to be, but it’s way better than Business. However, most of the passengers are upgrades, not paying business customers.
    If AA axes F across the Atlantic the only option will be BA, who I can’t say I like very much, but at least they have full table service. But with AA F gone that price will get jacked.
    AA’s Flagship First was never the most expensive and it deserves better from AA.
    In closing, I wish the Gulf carriers would fly via LHR from the US. Doesn’t Singapore make European stops from the US?

  30. Why is everyone fixated on AA ? I will admit that I basically fly AA for the past 25 years always top tire including Key. 6.7 million Miles. Yes I have had problems with them I have colleagues top tier United and Delta Same complaints

  31. Gary -If you fly LAX – MIA recently American has done much worse. They have removed almost all their wide-body aircraft switching the cross country flights to a regular domestic first-class product.
    I had a number of flights booked and paid for in Flagship First and then suddenly get moved to an A321 with domestic first-class – no notification, no compensation. I have switched to flying JetBlue cross country much better product.

  32. Ashley,
    alot of domesic passengers got used to widebody aircraft on domestic routes during the pandemic. Those aircraft are returning to int’l service and w/ it most of the premium international configured aircraft. It was never sustainable to have that many widebody aircraft on domestic routes so, yes, if you think another carrier offers a better product on a narrowbody, jump. Note that some routes, esp. JFK to LAX and SFO are heavily widebody for DL. AA DL and UA still have widebodies on many routes – but widebodies jsut aren’t the majority.

    and for those that think I have nothing good to say about AA, the DOT just released (finally) the March Air Travel Consumer Report which includes on-time, cancellations, baggage complaints etc.

    The REALLY GREAT NEWS is that AA ran the 2nd most on-time operation among US airlines. I won’t tell you what airline was in first place to protect Ghost but you can google the report if you want to find it. I also won’t tell you which AA domestic alliance partner was dead last – nearly 20 points below the best in the industry – as well as AA.

    Rejoice oh AA fans! AA’s operational focus IS paying off

  33. Today, I flew LHR-JFK, confirmed FC ticket but downgraded to business…..ultimately due to equipment change from 777-300 to 777-200. I checked in at the dedicated 1st class area, no one said a word. No email, no text, nothing….zero.

    Get through security and go to the Concorde Room and can’t get in because I’m in business class. The first I noticed the change. Very kind woman from BA guarding CCR front door was exceptionally pleasant and helpful. She found out about the equipment change after the usual run around from AA and allowed me access to CCR. And of course I was denied Flagship First Dining at JFK while waiting for my connection. Told I’d need to speak to a “supervisor”.

    Screwed again by AA. Skip all US airlines when flying overseas.

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