Back in Business: A transcon trip in the American Airlines A321T

Is $50/hour a fair price to pay for upgrading to a business class seat? American Airlines suggested that price to me last week, and after a long couple days of work north of Los Angeles I took the offer. With a transcon flight home ahead, I figured the extra space and comfort would be worthwhile. It was a pleasant and comfortable trip, though the A321T fleet is starting to show its age.

Boarding the American Airlnes A321T at LAX

The last time I can remember being on an American Airlines A321T plane is about 9.5 years ago, when the fleet was introduced. I was at JFK for a walkthrough of the new cabins, exploring the new features on board.

And then I didn’t really fly too many transcon trips, and none on American.

On a last minute (literally, purchased less than three hours prior to departure) booking, however, the American flight was best timed and priced for my needs. And thanks to the Northeast Alliance partnership with JetBlue, American now operates the Boston-Los Angeles route with its premium configuration.



Pre-departure

Terminal four at LAX is almost entirely unremarkable. Clearing TSA PreCheck security took longer than I expected and moved much slower than the regular security line. The PreCheck lane uses the new 3D scanner. Each bag took, on average, 20-30 seconds to be processed. The regular line was running about 3x faster per bag. And I had plenty of time waiting for my bag to confirm those timings.

Enjoying the arched ceilings just prior to clearing security at LAX T4
Enjoying the arched ceilings just prior to clearing security at LAX T4

The Flagship Lounge was next on the agenda, with just enough time for a pre-departure lunch. Sure, it was already 2p and dinner would be served in just a couple hours once on board. But I hadn’t had anything since a couple donuts at 6:30 in the morning and the lounge snacks would keep me from getting hangry.

It is also offered up a glass of champagne at the entry, which is a very, very nice way to transition into air world. From there I headed to the buffet. As I’ve experienced in the past, the food goes quickly and keeping the trays full is a challenge for the staff. Still, I managed to cobble together a decent meal.

Poke salmon bites in the AA Flagship Lounge

The salmon poke bowl bites were tiny servings, but tasty.

The sausage chicken bao was messy, but also delicious

The bao to order offered giant servings that overflowed the bun. Messy, but delicious.

I also enjoyed the pork agrodulce on offer, though it would’ve been better with carbs of some sort to soak up more of the sauce.



Seat & on-board dining

I mostly justified the extra $282 to myself in the form of being able to take a much needed nap before making the drive home from the airport to New Hampshire at midnight. I was investing in my safety.

And I briefly tried to take a nap on board. I failed. Not because of the seat, but because I started to worry about completely messing up my sleep cycle taking a nap late in the afternoon. And then dinner showed up.

The short rib was tasty, though the veggies were a bit the worse for wear in making it from catering to the seat

Printed menus are back on board, as are four meal choices. I chose the short rib, as did everyone else in the first row of business class.

The meat was tender and moist, as one would expect. Short ribs reheat well and this was no exception. The veggies, however, did not survive the experience. The sauce advertised as “southern-style barbecue.” I guessed Asian sweet-chili when eating it on board and only learned it was a “BBQ sauce” after rereading the menu. Still, it was a decent enough meal.

Ice cream sundaes hit different in the sky, in a good way

And, of course, an ice cream sundae on board is always fun.

The Vantage seat wasn’t new when American chose to install it on the A321T fleet for business class. I’m personally a big fan of that seat in general, and the AA implementation is fine. But the plane I was on showed the wear of 8.5 years bounce back and forth across the country.

The footrest pad on my seat wouldn’t stay attached. The monuments are dinged and scratched. My power outlet would not hold the plug (and I overheard the passenger behind me complain of the same problem.

I tried taping my plug into the power port in hopes of getting a charge on the flight. I was unsuccessful.

I still find it a comfortable seat upright, reclined, and in bed mode. I also don’t have trouble climbing out of the window seat over a sleeping seatmate, a finely honed skill I proved a couple times on the flight. Entirely passable, if not particularly special, for the premium domestic transcon market.

The cabin interior has seen better days, but the seats are still reasonably comfortable.
The cabin interior has seen better days, but the seats are still reasonably comfortable.

IFE/C On Board

Speaking of 8.5 year old on-board products…the inflight entertainment system on board gets the job done. But, like the seats, it is showing its age.

THe Thompson Vantage seat and embedded IFE is a very familiar scene

Some of that comes in the form of aging hardware. The secondary control pad can select a movie or switch to the flight map, but only if you have the patience to put up with its slow response to inputs. The regular screen itself is fine, and AA has a decent selection of movies on board. But the mini remote comes up wanting.

Gate 35X lives on, at least in the AA IFE system
Gate 35X lives on, at least in the AA IFE system

Also, while the movie selections are fine, there are other content bits where American could use a little help. I doubt the terminal maps get much usage, for example. But the map of Reagan airport in Washington, DC still has Gate 35X showing on the map. That gate hasn’t existed for more than 15 months. And the new pier at DCA is conspicuously absent from the maps.

American's operations at LaGuardia haven't looked like this in years, but the company still advertises it on the IFE system this way.
American’s operations at LaGuardia haven’t looked like this in years, but the company still advertises it on the IFE system this way.

Similarly, the old LaGuardia shows up on the screen. These were the sort of updates that used to be handled promptly when the maps were published in the in-flight magazine. That the company can’t manage the digital updates is rather unfortunate, even if no one ever really depends on the maps for their wayfinding.

On the plus side, the in-flight WiFi service on board upgraded from the original Gogo ATG4 to Viasat’s Ka-band satellite solution. I took advantage of the free 30 minute session for watching an ad. I did not see the value in paying $20 for an hour nor $29 for connectivity through the full trip.


My booking included a Main Cabin Extra seat. That probably would’ve been fine for the trip. The check-in process offered me the upgrade, however, at $282 for the flight. On top of my $372 fare that comes to about $650 for the one way trip.

If prompted with that at the initial purchase screen I likely would have declined. Mostly because my work travel policy wouldn’t cover it. Also, the offered fare at time of purchase was over $1300. But the split transaction, my exhaustion, and finally realizing it would be a real business class seat all contributed to me buying it.

Good night over Grand Rapids
Good night over Grand Rapids

No regrets on that decision.


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