It is no secret that true international-style first class service is quickly becoming an endangered species. Airlines like American and United are either eliminating or drastically reducing the number of three-class aircraft they operate, but a few exceptions remain. On American, lie-flat first class can still be found on the flagship Boeing 777-300ER, unrefurbished 777-200ERs, and also the subfleet of Airbus A321T’s operating the premium transcontinental routes.
Occasionally, American will operate a three-class aircraft on different and unexpected routes. When that happens, savvy passengers in the know (that’ll be you in just a few minutes) can fly business class for the price of economy, or maybe even true first class if they’re lucky enough. That’s exactly what happened to me on a flight between Boston and New York’s JFK Airport.
Rather than have the aircraft sit all day (an aircraft on the ground doesn’t make any money), American occasionally schedules the A321T to operate between JFK and Boston or Dallas, and the 777-200ER between various hub cities. When I noticed one of my business trips to Boston happened to coincide with one of these turns, I immediately booked the flight.
When American operates a three-class aircraft on a non-standard route, business class is often available to anyone booked in Economy. The seats are right there on the seat map when booking, but how many people would even think about clicking on a business class seat when booked in Economy? Not many. At some point before the flight, Business Class was locked down to elite status passengers or full fare Y (economy) ticket holders, but I was in before the cut. Oh, I almost forgot to mention. If I wanted a Main Cabin Extra seat instead of my business seat, I would have had to pay extra.
I was totally excited for the short hop from Boston to JFK, a route normally operated by an ordinary Boeing 737-800 or Embraer E190 on JetBlue. I carefully watched the upgrade list as boarding time neared, but I remained at number two. I would have to slum it in a full-flat seat in a 2-2 configuration for the 187-mile flight.
After settling into my seat and playing around with the nifty Thales entertainment system for a few minutes, the gate agent walked up to me, dropped off a new boarding pass, and vanished. What had just happened is known to frequent flyers as a “battlefield upgrade.” Someone either missed the flight or canceled their trip, and that last remaining seat was mine for the taking thanks to my paltry AAdvantage Gold status. I had successfully booked an economy ticket, selected a business class seat, and received an upgrade to first class on a 40-minute flight. Rock on!
While waiting for our departure time, the energetic flight attendant greeted a commuting pilot by saying “welcome to the employee shuttle!” Indeed, half the passengers on board the A321 had to have been employees catching a ride to the JFK hub, which made for a very laid back experience. The entire flight crew were clearly enjoying themselves. Who could blame them?
The service offered in the first class cabin in these circumstances is what passengers would normally get in domestic first class on any other aircraft. But, the passengers seated in business class receive regular economy service. I was offered a pre-departure beverage (something I know frequent flyers look forward to) and we were on our way to New York. Once at cruising altitude, the drink and snack basket service began. I enjoyed a Sam Adams beer served in a proper glass, as well as a bag of popcorn.
I didn’t bother watching anything on the in-flight entertainment system, mainly because the first class seat doesn’t have access to the screen during taxi, takeoff, and landing, which encompasses a majority of the time spent on this flight. I snapped a few pictures and slowly sent them out over the Gogo in-flight internet, and just like that we were already on approach to JFK.
I wanted more time. How about a nice racetrack holding pattern for an hour or so, or maybe a diversion to Chicago? My first class experience was over just as quickly as it began. So, what’s the moral of the story here? The next time you fly American on a domestic route, look closely at the aircraft code. If you see a three-class aircraft, book it and enjoy the ride!