Back in April, I finally completed a long-term goal of sampling all domestic premium transcontinental products. A trip in American’s swanky transcontinental A321T completed the “big four” products. With all four now complete, I decided to put together a quick comparo to rate them all side by side. So what do I define as a “premium transcontinental product”? Basically, any transcontinental product with a lie-flat Business Class seat. That narrows it down to four offerings: American’s A321T, Delta One, jetBlue Mint, and United’s “p.s.” Note that not all carriers offer premium service on all transcontinental routes. But I booked flights on each on the following routes:
- American Airlines A321T First Class, New York JFK to Los Angeles
- Delta One New York JFK to Los Angeles
- jetBlue Mint Los Angeles to Boston
- United Business Class (Polaris seat) San Francisco to Newark
Granted, this is an imperfect comparison. First, yes, I flew First Class on American, but Business Class on the others. However, I think the fairest comparison is the “top line” product offered by each carrier; I do address the value proposition of American’s First product towards the end. Second, my United experience was on a Polaris-equipped aircraft; the airline offers only a few transcon flights in that configuration. Once again, though, while the Polaris seat makes a difference, the general experience holds across products.
In this comparison, I’ll look at the following features: seat and interior, food & beverage, ground experience (including lounges), service, and pricing/award availability. And so without further adieu, on to the comparo.
Domestic Premium Transcontinental Products – Seat and Interior
American’s top-line transcontinental product, the First Class cabin, features just 10 seats in a 1-1 configuration. That means a lie-flat seat and direct aisle access from every seat.
I also found the seat comfortable in upright mode, though I found the footwell slightly narrow. The Casper bedding is a nice addition. In addition, the 10-seat cabin provides a high level of privacy, especially with seats angled towards the window.
I should also add, based on both my experience and what I’ve read elsewhere, the First Class cabin rarely goes out full. I noted 5 of 10 seats filled on my flight back in April. That really does provide an unparalleled level of quiet and relaxation. And of course, the fact that every seat is a window seat rocks.
I won’t spend much time discussing in-flight entertainment, since all carriers offer roughly the same thing. You can choose between either an in-seat screen or streaming entertainment, everyone offers WiFi, and seats include both USB and 110v power points. However, I’ll offer a quick mention of headphones, since I did note some variance here. American provides Bang & Olufsen H9i, an excellent (and pricey) product.
Delta One (B767)
Note: when I took this flight, Delta used 767-400s with 40 seats in Delta One. Today, Delta uses 767-300s with either 26 or 36 seats. However, the seats are the same.
Delta outfits the Delta One cabin in a 1-2-1 configuration, with direct aisle access at every seat. Although Delta’s 767s are far older than their competitors’ aircraft, they maintain the interiors reasonably well. Note that the interiors feature a “staggered” configuration, where window seats alternate between closer to the aisle and closer to the window.
The seat itself felt fine when reclined, though posterior padding seemed lacking in full upright mode. Unfortunately, the seats lack storage, and provide narrow egress to the aisle. Taller passengers might find footspace constrained.
The fully-flat beds felt a little tight at the shoulders, but are otherwise comfortable for sleeping. I do enjoy the Westin Heavenly bedding as well.
As for headphones, Delta provides LSTN units in Delta One. They look nice, but sadly, just aren’t very good.
Delta also gets extra props for its Tumi “19 Degree” amenity kits. They’re well equipped, and I like the faux Tumi hardside case.
jetBlue Mint features 16 seats in alternating 2×2 and “throne” 1×1 configurations. Unlike the competition, Mint lacks direct aisle access at all seats. You have to get lucky and score a throne seat for that. (I should also note, the throne seats feature doors, a unique feature for a transcon product.) On the other hand, the divider between seats still provided decent privacy from your neighbor when extended. I found storage space mediocre in the 2×2 seats; it looks noticeably better in the throne seats, thanks to double armrests.
All beds go fully flat, and were probably the most comfortable of all products sampled.
jetBlue provides Grado Labs SR60e headphones to Mint passengers. These aren’t noise-cancelling, but are pretty good standard headphones.
Also, jetBlue provides free WiFi to all passengers, as well as DirecTV. The ability to catch up on a Cops marathon at 35,o00 feet certainly counts as unique.
United p.s. (777-3ooER)
United offers perhaps the most maddening premium transcontinental product due to equipment inconsistencies. (Then again, product inconsistency seems like the United brand standard in general these days.) On LA and San Francisco to Newark flights, you’ll find 6 (!) different configurations up front. Some use 787-10s or 777-300ERs with real Polaris seats. Or you might find a 787-9 in a 2×2 configuration. Perhaps you’ll get a 757 – with either 16 or 28 seats in a 2×2 configuration. Or a really old school 777-200 with the dense 2x4x2 setup. If you have some schedule flexibility, you can find a Polaris cabin daily, which is what I reviewed. If not, you seat experience may differ significantly, though the remainder of the product remains the same.
Anyway, if you do snag a Polaris-equipped plane, you’ll enjoy the swanky 1-2-1 cabin. All seats provide direct aisle access. But what I find best about Polaris cabins is the array of seating choices for different tastes. You can choose windows close to the aisle, or closer to the wall if you prefer privacy. In the center section, seats alternate between “honeymoon” seats and ones spaced away from each other. I found the seat comfortable, though the knob to change the seat’s position felt counter-intuitive. In addition, unlike Delta’s and jetBlue’s non-throne seats, storage space is plentiful.
I also found the bed comfortable, and the Saks Fifth Avenue bedding is high quality.
United offers no-name headphones, which are fine, though unremarkable. I did find them a bit uncomfortable after a couple of hours.
Winner: American. It’s hard for anyone to compete with First Class on the A321T in terms of seating. Especially its intimate, 10-person cabin that rarely goes out full. I give United second place, with the caveat that the rating applies to the real Polaris cabin. jetBlue earns third; the throne seats are a game changer, but the regular ones don’t stand out. Delta brings up the rear, as although they do offer direct aisle access, the narrow seats and lack of storage create issues. In fairness, though, everyone here offers at least a pretty good seat. You’re talking about a range from “very good” to “exceptional”.
Domestic Premium Transcontinental Products – Food & Beverage
Everyone has their own preferences, of course. But when it comes to premium cabins, food & beverage sits high on my list of priorities. So how do the carriers fare in the on-board fare department? Note, though all airlines served a full meal, I won’t post photos of everything here. Instead, I’ve picked one or two photos from each (mostly main courses) as highlights. Please refer to the review links up top if you want to see full meal reviews.
American – New York to Los Angeles
Historically, American exclusively provided the ability to pre-order meals in First Class; however, Delta and United recently started trialing this perk as well. Anyway, American’s First Class meal went downhill from start to finish. Things started decently with the appetizer and soup. A salad followed, fresh but overwhelmed by 99% arugula and little else. But my pre-ordered chicken Romanesco earned the Harry Potter “D” for “Dreadful”. Think awards banquet rubber chicken with rubber pasta.
At least American still does the sundae pretty well.
American doesn’t offer a signature cocktails, but I found the wine selection decent. Though only $15 a bottle, the Chardonnay was quite pleasant. The First Class FA provided fairly efficient service, completing the meal in about an hour and 10 minutes.
Delta One – New York to Los Angeles
Though American in the era of the “Dougie Diet” wins few awards, I find plenty of negative reports about Delta’s First Class catering. I actually found Delta’s meal on this route pretty good. The highlight was a tasty main course of baked cavatelli in cream sauce. Delta’s FAs also get the “little things” right, like offering grated cheese to top the pasta.
Delta also offers passengers a rotating signature cocktail. In March, 2018, that was the Delta Sunrise. Too sweet for me, but kudos for offering something different. Delta also joins American as the only two carriers offering formal wine lists on their flagship services.
One issue – meal service took quite a long time, almost two hours from start to finish. That’s fine on a westbound daytime flight. I hope they’re more efficient on shorter eastbound runs, though.
jetBlue Mint – Los Angeles to New York (redeye)
Unlike the competition, jetBlue actually offers a proper (though shortened) meal service on redeyes. Daytime Mint flights include a fixed appetizer, a choice of 3 of 5 small plates, and a fixed dessert. Nighttime Mint flights skip the appetizer, but still offer 3 pre-selected small plates and a fixed dessert. Those redeyes also include a small breakfast item prior to landing. I started off pre-departure with the signature cocktail, the RefreshMint, which I enjoyed.
The main meal was decent. I found the cheddar and turkey bacon panini excellent, the corn chowder watery but tasty, but the couscous quite poor. Few things in life come off as more unpleasant than undercooked couscous. The generous helping of ice cream was excellent, though. And kudos for partnering with local businesses Saxon + Parole (New York) and Coolhaus (Los Angeles) on the meals.
Breakfast, on the other hand? Truly dreadful. I still can’t figure out how they messed up bacon, cream cheese, and a bagel. Yet I threw it away after one salt-infested bite.
On the bright side, the Mint FAs completed meal service quickly on this short eastbound flight. They completed everything by about an hour after departure. In addition, jetBlue offers proper espresso and cappuccino in Mint; unfortunately I slept too long to order one before landing.
United – San Francisco to Newark
United domestic flights on Polaris-equipped aircraft don’t actually feature full Polaris service. Instead, it’s the same “p.s.” service seen on transcons over the last several years. United’s offering included a fixed appetizer, salad (but no soup), and dessert, but a choice of main course. I decided to take a chance on the beef short rib, which was excellent.
The appetizer and salad were fine though unmemorable. There is also no choice of dessert, but at least it’s a tasty sundae.
United also offers no signature cocktail, nor a formal wine list. The house red wasn’t bad, though. The FAs provided efficient service, completing the meal in just 50 minutes.
Winner: tough call here, but I give Delta the slight edge over United for the top spot. United won the main course, but Delta provided a more complete experience, with a soup course, proper wine list, and signature cocktail. jetBlue takes third, with a dreadful breakfast offsetting a pretty good small plate dinner. American finishes a distant last with one of the worst premium cabin mains I’ve had in a long time.
Domestic Premium Transcontinental Products – Ground Experience
American – Flagship First Check-In and Lounge
American offers two ground benefits for transcon First Class customers. First, these passengers have access to “Flagship First Check-In” at Los Angeles and New York. You get a dedicated check-in and waiting area, and an escort to the front of the security line. Nice gimmick, if one with limited utility in the era of TSA Precheck.
The real treat, though, is access to the Flagship Lounges and Flagship First Dining. Note that these benefits extend to each stop on your trip. So, if you decided to fly DFW to Los Angeles to New York, you can access the lounges and dining in both Dallas and Los Angeles. Anyway, see my review of the JFK Flagship Lounge, but it’s one of the better Stateside lounges out there.
What you really want to sample, though, is Flagship First Dining. It’s a legit fine dining experience within an airport lounge. And you often have the place to yourself, given the strict access requirements.
I thoroughly enjoyed my filet mignon and a couple glasses of Bordeaux prior to my flight. But in a way, it really ticks me off that AA can do this, yet fall so short in other ways.
Note that when traveling transcon Business, you can visit the Flagship Lounge, but not Flagship First Dining.
Delta – Delta One Check In (LAX Only) and Delta Sky Club
Delta also offers special check-in of sorts, but only at LAX. The Delta One Check In at Terminal 2 offers dedicated check-in space and a waiting area. But unlike Flagship First Check In, passengers receive no escort through security. So I’m not sure I see the point, or the value add.
Delta does provide SkyClub access to transcontinental Delta One customers. The clubs are pretty nice visually, and offer a halfway decent food selection including hot options. But they can get crowded. Both the JFK Terminal 2 and Terminal 4 clubs had lots of people around on a Saturday morning. Delta’s flagship Terminal 4 lounge does have an impressive bar and a “SkyDeck” outdoor seating area, though.
United – United Club
Unlike Delta and American, United offers no special check-in, apart from the usual Business Class desk. However, United does permit p.s. customers traveling in Business Class access to United Clubs. These are about what you expect from domestic airline lounges. Which is to say, alright, but crowded, and with a highly limited food and drink selection. The San Francisco United Club does offer some nice California house wine varietals, though.
jetBlue Mint – Bupkis
This is where jetBlue falls short. They offer nothing in terms of special ground handling or a lounge.
Winner: American takes this by a mile. The Flagship Lounges and Flagship First Dining beat the pants off of anything the competition offers. Second goes to Delta. I do find SkyClubs better than standard Admirals or United Clubs, but they fall short of the new Flagship Lounges. Third goes to United, where the United Club beats nothing, but isn’t particularly special. They’d change the calculus drastically if they allowed transcon passengers access to Polaris Lounges. jetBlue brings up the rear, since they really do offer nothing.
jetBlue takes this category without much debate. From start to finish, I just felt the flight attendants went the extra mile for passengers. The two Mint FAs personally greeted each passenger, and provided an overview of the seat for newbies. They even did little things like asking if we wanted to be woken for breakfast, and even offering to retrieve carry-ons once we reached 10,000 feet. And just in general, both seemed to take genuine pride in the product.
As for the other three carriers, I found service – fine. Nobody provided bad or even disinterested service, so I appreciated that. Delta in general did better, so I give them second place. They get some of the finer points right, like offering freshly grated cheese with the pasta. And in general, I found our Delta One FA more proactive than American or United. American comes in third, though I did appreciate that the FA did a good job of reacting to the service level his passengers wanted (i.e. more for those awake, whereas he left those who wanted to rest alone). United, while not bad by any means, felt a bit unpolished and reactive, thus the last place finish.
Pricing and Award Availability
For the most part, Delta, jetBlue, and United tend to match each other with Business Class pricing. With a little flexibility, you can find discounted, advance-purchase fares in the $550-700 range, each way. American charges the same price for Business, but usually a ~$250 premium for First. To be honest, I have a hard time justifying the premium. You receive a somewhat better seat and Flagship First Dining. But is guaranteed aisle access and the dining worth $250? Doesn’t feel like it to me.
As for award availability:
Good luck finding saver availability on any of American, Delta, or United on a transcon in Business or First. Occasionally, though, you can get lucky on Delta. Once in a while, they release generous space in the saver buckets, which you can then book using Virgin Atlantic Flying Club for just 22,500 miles each way. Thanks to frequent Amex transfer bonuses, the final cost often ends up even lower. So that’s probably your best bet if you don’t want to pay full freight.
Meanwhile, jetBlue True Blue is a fully revenue-based redemption system, so you can redeem points on any flight. However, jetBlue actually offers a lower point value for Mint redemptions compared to Economy. You receive ~1.5 cents/point for Economy redemptions, but only 1.1 cents/point for Mint. That’s not a great value, in my opinion.
So who do I think provides the best overall value when it comes to domestic premium transcontinental products? jetBlue Mint was probably my favorite flight of the four. American provided the best seat and lounge experience, but at a $250 premium to the competition. So I’m going to declare Delta One the winner of this unscientific comparison. A decent seat, good service, quality food and drink (thought I may have lucked out on the food part), and an overall, hard to describe “sunnier” experience from start to finish makes it the best value, in my opinion.
BUT, there is one wild card in the room, and that’s American’s Business Class option. You lose the fancy check-in and dining, and you don’t get direct aisle access. But you still get a flat bed, and the Flagship Lounges beat the SkyClubs. Of course, American’s service is so hit-and-miss these days, my overall opinion may not change. It’s an alternative to consider, at least.