BusinessClass.com unravels the conundrum behind how airlines in the USA class their premium cabins.
Premium cabins for domestic flights in the United States run the gamut from large recliner seats with complimentary drinks, to flat-bed suites with multi-course meals and similar perks to those found on long-haul flights.
Understanding how each carrier approaches its onboard product on domestic routes, which often are priced lower than long-haul international flights, is key when managing expectations. Please review these guidelines as well as checking with your airline so you are not disappointed with their offering.
Unlike in other countries, US carriers often refer to the premium cabin as First Class - many other airlines refer to it as Business Class. Only one American carrier boasts both cabins - American Airlines. While calling the product First Class makes sense to most American travellers, it does not live up to the high standards expected by international First or Business Class passengers. Each airline offers a slightly different product with its own roster of included perks.
Lounge access is rarely granted for premium cabin fliers in the United States. Some airlines make exceptions depending on the route and type of ticket, which is outlined below. Some airlines offer expedited security lane access, but this can vary depending on the airport terminal. It is a nice perk, but it is better not to expect it as many airports do not offer it.
Here is an airline-by-airline rundown of the major U.S. carriers:
With flights to Mexico and Hawaii as well as coast-to-coast flights, Alaska’s First Class is pleasant but nothing exceptional. Expect 2-2 seating with better meals and an open bar. At boarding, a bottle of water waits at each seat. The airline offers fast Wi-Fi on all of its services except on its Bombardier Q400 Dash 8 aircraft. This allows passengers to access Alaska Airlines entertainment - films and music - on their own devices.
Passengers in paid First Class on Alaska flights enjoy access to the airline’s lounge network. Alaska is the only airline to offer this to all of its paid, premium cabin passengers.
On the airline’s longer flights - like those to Hawaii - a printed menu is provided, but no flat-bed seats or fancy amenity kits are offered.
American offers the most varied premium cabin product in the United States as it is the only US carrier to offer both Business and First class, respectively, and in a variety of different configurations. Most domestic flights feature a 2-2 seating configuration in the First Class cabin (or 1-2 on regional jets), and the service consists of a full meal or snack basket plus an open bar on most flights. It will vary based on the length of flight and time of day. Service is similar on flights to the Caribbean, Central America and northern South America. Passengers travelling on any international flight - including to the Caribbean - in the premium cabin can use a lounge in the Admirals Club network.
The airline occasionally operates its international, widebody aircraft on some domestic routes - between New York and Miami or Dallas and Miami as examples. The onboard service will be similar albeit with a flat-bed seat and large entertainment screen. At the moment, American is in the process of removing entertainment screens from its narrowbody domestic fleet as it opts instead to offer streaming entertainment via one’s own personal device. The only planes that assure you of an entertainment screen are in its widebody fleet.
On flights between Charlotte, Dallas or Chicago and Hawaii, international, flat-bed seats are a treat as are multi-course meals served from a printed menu. On flights from Phoenix or Los Angeles to Hawaii (no matter what the aircraft; the airline can use narrowbody planes on these routes), onboard service is a one-tray meal rather than the more elaborate meal service on its longer flights to the islands.
Flagship Business (and its flat-bed seating and premium menus) is also offered on select Airbus A321 aircraft. These are used on domestic transcontinental flights between New York or Miami and Los Angeles (and New York and San Francisco). A slightly modified menu is available based on the time of flight. The same excellent Casper bedding as well as amenity kits are on offer as those on international flights. On these flights, as well as the longer Hawaii flights, passengers are treated to Admirals Club or Flagship Lounge access when they travel.
The airline offers a similar open bar on domestic Flagship Business as on international flights. The seats have the same flat-bed and recline features as well as entertainment systems as the widebody aircraft.
On these transcontinental premium flights, American also offers Flagship First (and its flat-bed seating and premium menus). This is not to be confused with First Class on the majority of American’s domestic flights. Flagship First is akin to a long-haul flight’s services. The key here is looking for the word Flagship in front of the name that sets it apart from most other domestic flights.
Flagship First is only present on American’s Boeing 777-300ER - and indeed select Airbus A321 aircraft. On domestic American flights that offer Flagship First, the menu outlines the multi-course meals, and Casper bedding and amenity kits are on offer as well as access to Flagship First check-in, Flagship Lounges and Flagship First Dining in certain airports.
Delta Air Lines
Delta’s domestic First Class cabin layout varies depending on the aircraft type. Meals are served on longer flights with a snack basket on shorter flights depending on the time of day. Delta is known to offer some of the most attentive premium cabin service. This same type of inflight food standard and service are offered on Caribbean and Central America flights.
Delta One (the name it gives to its Business Class cabin with flat-bed seating and premium menus) is available on domestic transcontinental flights between New York and Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco or the airline’s longest Hawaii flights including Atlanta to Honolulu. Delta One is also available on other select routes including transcontinental flights from Boston, among others. A similar printed menu to long-haul flights is available based on the time of flight. The same excellent Westin Heavenly Bed pillow and duvet as well as TUMI amenity kits are on offer. Passengers on select domestic, transcontinental Delta One flights can use the Sky Club network of lounges.
The airline offers an open bar on domestic Delta One and standard First Class. It should be noted that on Delta One-equipped planes, Business Class seats can vary based on the aircraft used, and Delta is known to fly different narrowbody and widebody aircraft on many of the same routes.
Delta also flies its Delta One-equipped planes on some domestic flights including between New York JFK and Atlanta or some of its island destinations. While these shorter flights may have more varied entertainment programming and flat-bed seats, the inflight service remains the same as the rest of its domestic service.
On inter-island flights, Hawaiian offers 2-2 seating on its Boeing 717 aircraft with a drink service on the short sector. On its longer Airbus A330 flights, its First Class offers flat-bed seating, multi-course meals and pre-loaded entertainment devices.
On its shorter flights to mainland USA, using the Airbus A321, Hawaiian offers a larger seat that reclines, but is not a fully-flat bed. Similar island-themed meals and entertainment are available just like on the A330.
jetBlue does not offer a premium cabin on its Airbus A220, Airbus A320 and Embraer 190 aircraft. On select domestic Airbus A321 flights and many to the Caribbean and Central America, jetBlue flies its “Mint” cabin product, which features 12 flat-bed seats, large-screen entertainment programming and multi-course meals that can be customised on board.
In August 2021, the JFK-based airline completed the inaugural flight of its New York to London service, using one of its new A321LR aircraft. These aircraft boast 24 lie-flat Mint Suites with sliding doors. While designated for transatlantic services, these aircraft also make appearances on domestic flights.
On most domestic, Caribbean and Central American flights, United’s standard First Class product consists of recliner seats as well as an open bar. On longer flights, meals are available with shorter flights being treated to a snack basket depending on the time of day. On some flights, the airline flies international, widebody planes between certain cities like the Houston and Los Angeles or Washington Dulles and Denver routes. These flights have lie-flat seats and larger entertainment screens, but just receive the standard domestic meal service.
United Polaris (the name the airline gives to its Business Class cabin with flat-bed seating and premium menus) is available on domestic transcontinental flights between New York/New York and Los Angeles/San Francisco. It is also available on other select routes including transcontinental flights from Boston among a few others. A similar menu to long-haul flights is available based on the time of flight. The same excellent Saks Fifth Avenue bedding as well as amenity kits are on offer. As with international flights, transcontinental Polaris passengers can use the United Club network of lounges.
The airline offers the same open bar on domestic Polaris flights as on most international flights. It should be noted that on these aircraft, Business Class seats can vary based on the aircraft used, and United is known to fly different narrowbody and widebody planes on these routes. Passengers may have direct-aisle access on one flight, but have to crawl over their seatmate on another.
Flat-bed seats are offered on all of the airline’s Hawaii flights with the exception of a handful of flights from California to the islands where the standard recliner seat is used. Hawaii flights enjoy island-themed menu items, nuts, Mai Tais and small amenity kits. It is typically a one-tray service, which differs from the international Polaris experience where the food is delivered in courses.
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