American Airlines Launches First Class

New York -- For $8,000, American Airlines treats 'first-class' passengers to private berths, three-course meals boasting shrimp scampi and even vented compartments that can house a socialite's pet chihuahuas.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network are looking forward to this luxury flying experience.

The newest and costliest U.S. domestic fare is a bet that some fliers will pay for the ultimate in pampering from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The 10 first-class seats on each of the Airbus Group NV A32 are the only ones offered on any route within the U.S.

Picture a front cabin where the aisle is flanked by just one berth on either side, in the space usually given over to three-abreast rows. The water is cucumber-infused, the wines billed as award winners.

Noise-canceling headphones muffle a six-hour trip. The biggest question after an investment of almost $2 billion of planes and millions more in upgrades is whether the experiment will work?

American Airlines first class seats include a lie-flat bed. The 17 Airbus jets, dubbed A321Ts for “transcontinental,” are alone in flying within the U.S. with three cabins, for first, business and coach. United Airlines went to a two-class setup on cross-country routes in 2013. Delta Air Lines Inc. already had just two cabins on its aircraft.

Huge Sum

Chief Executive Officer Doug Parker and his top lieutenants initially were skeptical of the $8000 flight. A321T, the brainchild of former CEO Tom Horton and Virasb Vahidi, his chief marketing officer. Fort Worth-based American had the plan in the works when Parker moved over from running US Airways as the companies merged in December.

A321T flights began in January, and President Scott Kirby said the service generated an enthusiastic response at an investor conference near Los Angeles this week.

“I bet I had at least six to eight people seek me out at the conference to tell me how great the transcon product was,” Kirby told analysts yesterday at an Imperial Capital event in New York. “It’s a huge hit with our customers and doing well.”

The seats are 27.4 inches (70 centimeters) wide, compared with 19 in business and 17.7 in coach.

Niche Market

A round-trip fare to Los Angeles today from New York’s Kennedy airport in first class was offered on American’s website yesterday for about $7,400. Some recent tickets topped $8,000. Either would be an expense-account stretch for a typical corporate flier.

The A321T’s routes let American tap a niche that includes entertainers, investors and lawyers willing to pay for exclusivity.

At yesterday’s prices, buying that New York-Los Angeles round trip for tonight in business class would have run about $5,200. (A reservation with a month’s notice would pare the bill to about $3,200).

Filet, Gnocchi

For those springing for first class, the seats are 27.4 inches (70 centimeters) wide, compared with 19 in business and 17.7 in coach.

Three-course meals -- don’t like shrimp? Try the beef filet or butternut squash gnocchi -- are included. The heartiest coach entrée: a $9.99 chicken Cobb sandwich.

American offers 13 daily Kennedy departures to Los Angeles, and five to San Francisco.

No west-coast bound flights are red-eyes, so the first-class pillows, bedding and lie-flat seats are more a convenience for napping than a full night’s rest. To wake up, passengers can sip an espresso or cappuccino, and refresh with hand lotion, lip balm and toothpaste in the amenity kit.

First-class pets are cosseted as well.

The two berths at the front bulkhead each have a space with a vented door to hold a kennel or carrying case for takeoff and landing. It’s known as the “Paris Hilton compartment,” for the celebrity who often flies with her dogs, Atmosphere’s Harteveldt said. Los Angeles-based Miller PR, which represents Hilton, didn’t return messages.

Reclaiming Glory

Parker is positioning the premium service as part of a bid to return American to its role as an industry innovator in the 1970s and 1980s, when it introduced the AAdvantage loyalty program and the hub-and-spoke route system.

American has configured the entire plane to cater to high-fare fliers.

With 102 seats, the A321T has barely half as many as A321s flown by other airlines. First and business class account for 29 percent of the total, more than twice the share as on the Delta and United jets flying the same trips. Another 36 seats boast extra legroom, for a fee. There are 36 in coach.

Keeping Track

Even as Delta and United parent United Continental Holdings Inc. say they aren’t considering adding a cross-country first class, the American competitors may be paying attention.

For American, a first-class cabin can act as a lure to regain corporate contracts lost during the carrier’s two-year bankruptcy and merger negotiations. With the A321T, business travelers can guarantee themselves same level of service across the U.S. and onto other American flights to Europe, Asia or Latin America.

Offering the only first-class seats on domestic routes sets American apart.

Today's homepage Featured Art Video offers a vintage view of the groovy old days enjoying first-class fun in the Boeing 747 upstairs lounge.