Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Premium Transcontinental Market (JFK - LAX/SFO)

San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. These three cities are the epicenters of the global technology, entertainment, and finance industries.

They're also the terminals of two of the domestic aviation industry's most popular and lucrative transcontinental routes. Understandably, the demand for premium-class fares on these routes is strong.

Of the five domestic airlines operating non-stop service from New York-JFK to San Francisco and Los Angeles, three offer a unique premium product particular to those routes; four offer flat-bed seating (a rarity on domestic flights).

Here's a chart comparing the New York < > California non-stop offerings. More details on each product after the jump.

United operates its specially configured "premium service" (p.s.) Boeing 757-200 on the JFK to LAX / SFO route. The first seven rows are configured like United's international business-class cabin in a 2-2 configuration.

Source:  United

Each seat has a 15.4" video monitor with an AVOD (audio-video on demand) system.

Source:  United

Each seat folds down into a flat bed.

Source:  United

Lounge: Access to the United Club at the departure airport.

Award travel: 25,000 MileagePlus miles each way; or upgrade from the lowest coach fares for $250 and 20,000 miles.

Other: United used to operate these routes using a first-business-economy configuration. The first-class seats were angled lie-flat seats (a worse product than the current business-class product).

Old United p.s. First

The business-class seats were recliners. First class passengers got access to United's Global First Lounge - a big step up from the United Clubs. But in response to low demand, United decided to drop first class from the route.

When United dropped its first-class product, American became the only airline to operate separate first- and business-class cabins on its JFK-to-California routes. At the time, American used a wide-body 767-200.

Now, American's latest addition to its fleet is a specially configured Airbus A321T (Transcontinental). The airline decided to keep a separate first- and business-class cabin.

First class is in a 1-1 configuration; the seat is the same as American's international business-class seat.

First Class
Source:  American

Business class is very similar to United's offering: a 2-2 configuration with lie-flat beds.

Business Class
Source:  American

In both cabins, the seats have a 15.4" monitor with AVOD.

Lounge: Access to the Admirals Club at the departure airport. First-class passengers also get access to American's Flagship Lounge (the international first-class lounge) at LAX and JFK (SFO doesn't have one).

Award travel: 25,000 AAdvantage miles for business class each way; 32,500 miles for first class each way; or upgrade from the lowest coach fares for $75 and 15,000 miles.

Other: Business- and first-class passengers can pre-select their meals before the flight. There doesn't seem to be any difference between the business- and first-class offerings. These were the dinner selections on a recent mock booking:

Unlike American and United, Delta doesn't have dedicated aircraft for the JFK-California route. Most of the flights are operated with 757-200s; some JFK-LAX flights are on a widebody 767-300. And most (but not all) the flights feature flat-bed seats.

The lie-flat 757-200s are in a 2-2 configuration.

Source:  Delta

And the 767-300s are in a 1-2-1 configuration (giving all passengers aisle access).

Source:  Delta

Each seat has a 16" monitor with AVOD.

Lounge:  Access to the Delta SkyClub at the departure airport.

Award travel:  Award tickets begin at 32,500 SkyMiles each way, but good luck finding a seat at that low rate.  The lowest one-way I found in March or April was 45,000 SkyMiles.  12,500 miles to upgrade from non-refundable coach.

JetBlue offers the newest premium offering for the JFK-California market. It's called JetBlue Mint; it was launched on the JFK-LAX market in June 2014, and expanded to JFK-SFO in October 2014.

Mint is JetBlue's first foray into the world of premium-cabin products. And at $599 each way, it's the most affordable business-class product on this route.

Rows 1, 3, and 5 are in a 2-2 configuration; rows 2 and 4 have "suites" (with closing doors!) in a 1-1 configuration.

Source:  JetBlue

Source:  JetBlue

Each seat reclines into a fully-flat bed and has a 15" monitor with AVOD.  Wi-fi is free for all passengers.

Lounge:  No lounge access

Award travel: Starting at 45,400 TrueBlue points each way; upgrades from coach using points are not yet available.

Other: I'll be flying JetBlue Mint later this month and will post a trip report soon with more details.

Virgin America
I like Virgin America a lot.  Their first-class product is generally much better than other U.S. carriers' domestic first-class products.

Source:  Virgin America

But on the premium JFK-California market, Virgin America falls short of the competition. Every other airline offers lie-flat beds; Virgin offers reclining seats.

Source:  Virgin America 

The AVOD system monitors check in at an industry-trailing 9"; they're those old-school monitors that stow into the armrest during takeoff and landing.

Source:  Virgin America

If Virgin America charged less for their product than the legacy carriers, they'd offer a great alternative for mid-high-end travelers on these routes. But they charge about as much as United, American, and Delta - at that price, I'd take the bed.

Lounge: Complimentary access to the Virgin America Clubhouse at LAX; $75 for access to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK; $40 for access to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at SFO.

Award travel: The award chart is variable based on the price of the flight; it looks like you can get a ticket for about 100,000 miles each way.

Unbeknownst to many frequent fliers, there is a sixth airline offering non-stop flights between LAX and JFK. Qantas, the Australian flagship carrier, operates a Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet from Sydney to JFK with a stop in Los Angeles. The route has no first-class cabin; business class is in a 2-2 configuration in the nose and the upper deck (with flat-bed seats).

Source: Qantas

Unfortunately, Qantas doesn't have "fifth freedom" rights to fly passengers on the route unless they're originating in or departing for Australia. That means you can't book just the JFK <> LAX leg on Qantas.

JetBlue's product is the most intriguing for these routes - the single suites are the best business-class product among the competitors. I'll be curious to try it and report back. The disadvantage, of course, is that you won't be earning miles with one of the major airlines' loyalty programs. Delta, American, and United look roughly fungible in business class; Virgin America is bringing up the rear.

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