The Transcontinental Business Class Comparison

The Transcontinental Business Class Comparison

"Which airline has the best Business Class from New York to the west coast?"  This question is raised often.  While there are a lot of opinions, there are a number of important factors and this isn't a one-size-fits-all answer.  The correct answer to which is best depends on how you travel and what matters most to you.

Non-stop flights from New York-JFK to LAX and SFO are known as “transcons.”  This report will focus on just the carriers' service from JFK to LAX and/or SFO.  Are there other cities west of the Hudson?  [Joke]   Although it's about the same distance (or longer!) to SAN, PDX or SEA, those markets don't produce the same yields for the carriers and, as a result, on most (but not all) carriers, do not offer the same premium experience for passengers.

The good news is that these are competitive routes in terms of product offering - and airlines generally offer a meaningfully higher service level on these routes when compared to other domestic routes.  The bad news is that as of this writing (February 2012), premium cabin fares on these routes are extremely high - in some cases, approaching the prices of Business Class to Europe.

At present, there are four main ways to fly from JFK to LAX or SFO in a premium cabin.  (There is also a special fifth way – but it only works in certain circumstances.)  Over the past few years, I’ve flown all five options in every premium cabin offered.  I’ve gathered all of my observations in this consolidated post.

Further, many of the carrier-specific rules are quite complex (particularly regarding lounge access), so readers are encouraged to check all the applicable details very carefully.

Also of note is that these premium services are principally offered only out of JFK, and not LGA or EWR.  LGA is subject to distance limits (except on Saturday) which preclude travel to the west coast from that field.  With limited exception, flights from EWR operate as traditional two-class domestic flights, without the premium benefits offered via JFK.

I have flown in every premium cabin offered on the transcon route.  This post is based on my personal experience (supplemented with seat measurements gathered from authoritative websites).

Market Overview

Each of American (AA), Delta (DL) and United (UA) offer a unique premium product from JFK to the west coast.  AA brands theirs as "Flagship Service," DL as "BusinessElite" and US uses the "p.s." moniker (which stands for “premium service”).  While Virgin America's (VX) transcon Business Class product isn't meaningfully different than their premium cabin offering on non-transcon routes (nor is it branded differently), their Business Class product is sufficiently premium to warrant consideration.  There is also a way to fly Qantas (QF) on the LAX route in certain circumstances (this is the fifth option that was referred to earlier).  JetBlue (B6) also serves this route, but they do not offer a true premium cabin or premium on-the-ground experience so they have not been considered.

An important difference to highlight at the outset is that at present, AA and UA offer 3-class service on these routes, while DL and VX operate only a 2-class service.  AA and UA have specially equipped planes for these routes which they operate on essentially no other route.  (AA uses these planes on a small number of services to Miami, as well.)  DL operates planes configured the same as they use for their international narrow-body service (ie: low capacity routes to Europe).  VX's equipment is the same that they use on all of their routes.  (Note that at present, one of American's four daily round trips to SFO is operated on a 2-class plane.  For purposes of this post, unless stated otherwise, this report covers AA's 3-class service.)  UA has announced plans to convert PS to a 2-class service soon as part of fleet plans surrounding its merger with Continental (CO), with the changes anticipated to be rolled out in 2013.  I’ll make a point to fly the new PS service when it is launched, and will update this report then.

AA and UA are longstanding incumbents on these routes; DL and VX are relative newcomers.  Around 2000, DL undertook an effort to ramp up on these routes (offering international-equipped 767 aircraft), but ultimately backed off that effort shortly after 9/11, returning to more traditional domestic service until about two years ago.

Description: /wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifOn the Ground

Each of the carriers offers a premium check-in line.  Except for VX at LAX, each of the four carriers also offers a premium line at security.  Your Business Class (or First Class) ticket will allow you to use the premium security line.

AA offers lounge access for certain transcon passengers, based on your fare class.  AA has the most complex (and limiting) rules regarding lounge access for transcons.  Unfortunately, most premium tickets won't qualify for lounge access.  First Class passengers ticketed in F (full fare) or Z (award ticket) and Business Class passengers in J (full fare) and U (award ticket) are able to use a lounge.  Note that discounted First Class or Business Class tickets (including common D and I fares) are not eligible for lounge access, nor are passengers who use 'sticker' or 'SWU' upgrades.  (Passengers on paid J-class tickets who upgrade to First Class may use the Admirals Club.)

At each of JFK, LAX and SFO, AA has some of the newest Admirals Club lounges in their system (SFO being the newest AA-only lounge system-wide).  They have shower facilities at each of these airports.  At LAX and JFK, they offer both Admirals Club(s) and Flagship Lounges.  Flagship Lounges are sort of a club-within-the-club, and offer services more akin to a mid-level European airport lounge (moderate buffet, complimentary premium alcohol, free internet, etc) versus a traditional domestic airline lounge.  Passengers ticketed in F or Z may access the Flagship Lounges.  I find the Flagship Lounges usually to be pretty quiet and quite pleasant.  In fact, the LAX Flagship Lounge is my favorite lounge operated by any domestic carrier.  In addition, regardless of class of service, non-AA Emeralds (and AA Emeralds/EXPs on international itineraries) can also access the Flagship Lounges and non-AA Sapphires (and AA Sapphire/Platinums on international itineraries) can access Admirals Clubs.

AA’s SFO Admirals Club is surprisingly nice, and is located airside in the new T2 at SFO.  T2 is, at present, the newest major airport terminal in the United States (having opened in April 2011).  T2 serves AA and VX only.  The airside area of the terminal was very well designed, and many have remarked that the entire terminal is like a lounge.  SFO management has done a great job bringing in local vendors with more natural and wholesome offerings – you won’t be stuck deciding between Cinnabon and Auntie Annie’s pretzels.

Beyond JFK-LAX/SFO, AA offers lounge access for certain premium passengers on flights from LAX to MIA/BOS/EWR/IAD and from SFO to MIA as well.

For a modest additional fee, AA offers what they call “Five Star Service” in LAX, SFO and JFK, as well as a number of other domestic and international locations.  This service is an in-airport VIP service.  If you request (and pay for) the service, you will be met curbside and escorted through all the various in-airport formalities (including skipping the security queue) by a uniformed AA host.  You’ll ultimately given the option to pre-board your flight before everyone else, too.  (I find gate agents turn a blind eye to oversized carry-ons, as well, when using Five Star.)  Read more about this service here: /sitinfirst/american-airlines-expands-5-star-service.html

DL offers SkyClub lounge access for all passengers in their BusinessElite cabin, as well as full-fare coach passengers (ticketed in Y-class) on the JFK-LAX/SFO routes.  This includes discounted Business Class tickets, upgrades and Business Class award tickets.  DL has four SkyClubs at JFK (three in T3, one in T2).  The lounges themselves are not too memorable, and should be thought of as standard DL lounges.  The LAX lounge is probably the nicest of the lot, and benefited from a renovation in the past 18 months.  Several of the JFK lounges have also been renovated recently, though not as dramatically as LAX.  At present, DL’s SFO lounge is landside, and is very tired.  DL’s lounges offer shower facilities at JFK (three out of four lounges) and LAX, but not at SFO.

DL also allows customers traveling on a nonstop First Class, BusinessElite, or full Y-class (economy) tickets between JFK and DEN, LAS, PDX, PHX, SAN and SEA to visit the lounge.  Flights to SLC are not included, despite DEN being less distance than SLC.  There have been reports of the JFK lounge agents not allowing passengers heading to eligible destinations other than LAX/SFO into the SkyClub.  You might print out a copy of this page from DL’s website (http://www.delta.com/traveling_checkin/airport_information/delta_sky_club/sky_club_locations/index.jsp) to have on-hand if you are flying to a field other than LAX or SFO.  Several have remarked on receiving 7,500 bonus miles when they lodged a complaint after being denied access to the JFK lounges when travelling to these other cities.  Frankly, if I only had 30 minutes or so to spend in the lounge, I’d hope to get rejected, politely noting the name of the employee that disallowed me, and sit in the concourse and write in to get the 7,500 miles.  If my visit were an hour or longer, I’d probably have the website printout with me to make sure I got access.

For round-trip travelers, note that there aren’t SkyClubs in DEN, PHX or LAS, so there you’ll be stuck with the masses.

UA offers Red Carpet Club access for customers flying in Business Class on the transcon, regardless of ticket type.  Non-UA Star Alliance Gold flyers also have RCC access.  The LAX and SFO lounges are some of the nicer RCCs in the system, though the JFK lounge is a bit tired.

UA also offers International First Class Lounge (IFL) access (at JFK, LAX and SFO) to customers flying in First Class on the transcon (regardless of ticket type).   These lounges are separate from the Red Carpet Club and offer improved amenities, a selection of food and generally a more quiet experience, and are akin to a mid-level European lounge.  I’ve only been to the IFLs at JFK and LAX, not SFO.  UA no longer offers international flights from JFK, so the lounge is principally used by PS First Class passengers, and passengers connecting to international flights from other cities.  I find the JFK IFL to be a bit lost in time…UA is seemingly investing no capex into the lounge at JFK.  This either mean s a significant renovation is forthcoming…or the IFL will be dismantled and merged into the RCC (my bet).

At SFO, UA passengers have a choice of several lounges.  Passengers in Business Class can use either the T3 RCC or International Terminal RCC.  Passengers in First Class can use either of the RCCs, or the IFL in the International Terminal.  Most PS flights depart from T3, so the International Terminal options are a bit of a walk, but can all be reached airside (so no need to re-clear security).  I understand that certain PS flights do depart from the International Terminal.

The LAX IFL is a notch or two ahead of JFK’s.  I’ve not been to the SFO IFL, though I understand it is the nicest of the three.  Showers are not available at any of these lounges.

Non-UA/CO/US Star Alliance Gold members may access the United Clubs regardless of their class of service.  I believe you must be in First Class (on ps, or an international flight) to access UA's IFLs.

VX passengers have access to some of the best airport lounges in the United States (at JFK and SFO, at least) – the Virgin Clubhouses – but only some of the time!  However, VX does not include complimentary lounge access for premium cabin transcon passengers.  For $35, certain customers can buy a day-pass to visit the lounge, either at JFK or SFO (though the access rules, and hours of operation, vary significantly at each airport).

If you have more than an hour to kill at the airport, these lounges are worth the small price of entry.  Virgin's Clubhouses are among the most enjoyable lounges of any airline, and are principally designed to be used by Virgin Atlantic for their long-haul UpperClass (Business Class) passengers.  While other premium lounges operated by foreign carriers are intended to be luxurious (BA’s Concorde Room, Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal, etc), the Virgin lounge experience is designed to be fun.  They really nail it, and it is worth trying one of their lounges once at least.

At JFK, the Clubhouse is located landside (before security) within T4 (where VX operates from).  Only confirmed forward cabin passengers are allowed to buy Clubhouse access at JFK.  You’ll need to bake in extra time to clear security after your visit (which always weighs on me when I’m in landside lounges).  The JFK Clubhouse is open from 2:00pm till 9:30pm (as it is mainly intended to accommodate passengers heading to Europe) – VS’s morning departures are out of luck as the clubhouse isn’t yet open.

Using their complimentary Priority Pass Select card, American Express Platinum cardholders can get free access to The Lounge and The Oasis (two lounges that are unaffiliated with any carrier) at JFK’s T4.  Both of these are landside and neither are memorable.

At SFO, the Clubhouse is located landside in the International Terminal, which is not the same terminal that VX operates from.  The Clubhouse is about a 10 minute walk from VX’s T2 – you’ll also need to clear security after you visit the lounge, so bake in extra time.  At SFO, the group that is eligible to buy access is greater than at JFK, with forward cabin, as well as Main Cabin Select and Elevate members (their frequent flyer program) (read: anyone) can buy a day-pass.  Hours vary based on the day of the week at SFO, but opening times are either 3:00pm or 4:00pm.  The SFO lounge is also principally to accommodate the LHR flights, so if you have a morning departure, similar to JFK, you won’t have a lounge option.  The only Priority Pass Select option at SFO is landside in T1, and is not a viable option for VX passengers.

Children under 12 are not allowed in either Clubhouse at any time.  Showers are available in the Clubhouses at SFO and JFK

VX doesn’t have a lounge at LAX.  Any VX passengers (or passengers on any airline) can buy a day pass to the Alaska Airlines Boardroom for $45.  This lounge pales when compared to the Clubhouses, but is at least open all day and is located airside (after security).  This lounge is a typical domestic airline lounge, and is probably only worth paying the fee if you have more than an hour to wait.  Your Priority Pass Select card gets you free access to this lounge.

Verdict: A draw!  VX has the best lounges, but the least availability.  AA’s lounges are the probably second best (including showers in each lounge), but have very limited access rules for Business Class passengers.  UA has a reasonable lounge access policy, but its lounges are mixed (their SFO and JFK lounges are of widely different quality).  DL has probably the worst overall lounges (marginally worse than UA, and no First Class Lounges), but the most generous access policies.

Ignoring the lounges, AA’s terminal at JFK (T8) and AA/VX’s shared terminal at SFO (T2) are the most pleasant (and the newest) terminal options for transcon flights from those two cities.  DL at JFK is, in general, a wreck - DL operates out of three separate terminals (two of which are woefully dilapidated) – but which are undergoing a wholesale demolition and reconstruction at present.  At LAX, the terminal options are probably a push between DL, AA and UA, with VX’s situation being a bit of a laggard.

Description: /wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifSeats and Power

AA’s Business Class seats were great international Business Class seats – 15 years ago.  The cabin, in 2-2-2 configuration, is cozy with fairly tight pitch (distance to the seat in front of you).  I am not usually a bulkhead guy, but in AA’s J, due to the generous recline and limited pitch, I find sitting in the bulkhead to be the best option on these flights.  AA’s Business Class seats are the narrowest, and have the least pitch, of any premium cabin seat on any transcon flight.  AA’s Business Class seats have a 49” pitch and are 18.5” wide, the least pitch and most narrow width of any premium seat flying these routes.  While I'm not normally a bulkhead fan, in this cabin, due to the significant recline and limited pitch, I prefer the bulkhead row (row 7).  Seatguru marks these seats as yellow because they have 1" or so less legroom; avoiding having the person in front of you recline into your lap far outweighs the cost of foregoing 1" of legroom.

AA’s First Class cabin seats were also great international First Class seats back in the mid-1990s.  The cabin is in a 2-1-2 configuration.  The seats have an “almost flat” recline, and a generous leg-rest and 62” of pitch.  The seats are about 21” wide, allowing for many different sitting positions.  The seats have a modest (not tremendously impactful) massage feature, which is nice to use once or twice during the flight.

This cabin also has the fairly uncommon single center seats – allowing you to sit entirely by yourself.  This is the cabin I fly in the most on the transcon, and I have formed views on the pros and cons of each seat in the cabin.  My preference, in order, on a full flight, is: 2D, 3D, 2H, 2J, 2A, 3H, 3B, 3J, 3A, 2B.  My detailed rationale for each can be found here: http://milepoint.com/forums/threads/f-on-762-what-to-expect.15079/#post-660697 (There is also a photo in this link which shows the seat fully reclined.)

AA offers “cigarette lighter-style” 15 volt DC power at all First and Business Class seats.  You’ll need an adapter, they do not have loaners onboard.

DL’s seats are in a 2-2 configuration.  The seats offer 55” of pitch and are 19.5” wide.  These seats offer a generous 150-degree recline (close to AA’s F).  The seats are fairly new, having been rolled out in the late ‘00s.  DL’s seats do recline into the seat behind them, but with the more generous pitch (when compared to AA J), being in the bulkhead is less critical.  DL’s seats offer US-style 110-volt outlets (requiring no adapter) as well as a powered USB port.

UA’s Business Class seats are in a 2-2 configuration.  They are 20.5” wide, and are at a pitch of 54”.  The seats are fairly contemporary non-flat international Business Class seats.  I find them to be quite comfortable.  Row 9 is notable, in that it is an exit row in Business Class.  These seats offer significantly more pitch than the other rows, and the one time I sat in the row, I couldn’t touch the seat in front of me, even when it was reclined.

UA’s First Class seats are also in a 2-2 configuration.  They are the some of the few lie-flat seats (albeit angled lie-flat) in domestic service in the US today.  The seats are not parallel to the floor.  The seats have 68” of pitch (the most available on this route) and are 21.5” wide (also the widest!).  The seats recline in their shell, so even if you’re not in the bulkhead, you won’t have someone in front of you reclining into your lap.

As a sidebar, the exact same seats found in UA’s PS First Class cabin are offered as Business Class seats on Singapore Airlines (SQ), though SQ has largely already replaced them with even nicer seats in business!  Whenever people say US carriers are comparable to the big ones based overseas, I point out that UA’s First Class seats are the same as SQ’s phased-out Business Class!  As part of their announced 2013 upgrades, UA has said they will replace their First and Business Class seats with a lie-flat seat.

All of the UA seats offer US-style power outlets, requiring no adapter.

VX’s premium cabin is the same on LAX-JFK as it is for shorter flights like LAX-SFO.  The seats are 21” wide, and offer 55” of pitch.  The seats don’t have a shell, so if you are in row 2, there’s a chance row 1 will be reclining into your space.  The seats have a massage function (which is more meaningful than AA F’s) and I find to be quite comfortable.  The seats come in a cream colored leather.  I’ve only been on fairly new VX planes; I don’t know how these are holding up to several years of use.  They looked quite attractive when they were new.  The seats include standard US power outlets which do not require an adapter.

Verdict: UA takes the prize in both First and Business Class.

Description: /wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifUpgrading into the Premium Cabin

While UA and DL have special upgrade rules (read: limitations) or practices for the transcons, AA doesn’t.  VX also doesn’t have special rules, but only has cash upgrade options (no points/segments schemes).  All upgrade pricing reflected is for one-way, one-class upgrades.

AA allows sticker, miles and SWU upgrades from economy to Business Class.  AA allows miles upgrades from discounted economy for 15,000 miles one-way, with a $75 co-pay.  Upgrading from a full Y fare is only 5,000 miles, without a co-pay.  Usually, however, a full Y fare is more than a discounted business fare.  Upgrades to First Class are available from any paid Business Class fare, including “I” fares, which are deeply discounted Business Class fares.  Business to First upgrades can only be done with miles (plus co-pay in many circumstances) or with SWUs; segment upgrades aren’t available.  The upgrade costs 15,000 miles, plus, if you are on a fare other than J (full fare business), a $175 co-pay.  Note that lounge access is governed by your paid fare basis, not the upgraded cabin.

AA applies normal rules for sticker upgrades on the transcon routes for elites.  These routes can be very competitive (read: a lot of elites trying to upgrade from Y to J), but at least the normal rules of the road apply, including advanced upgrade windows.  EXPs have a decent shot at an upgrade, Platinums and below, on peak hour flights, stand little chance.  I’ve seen the upgrade list have over 50 names on it (for only 30 Business Class seats!).  Stickers can only be used from economy to business on this route, not business to first.

DL also allows sticker, miles and SWU upgrades.  DL allows upgrades from full Y fare for 5,000 miles, and from many (but not all) discounted economy fares for 12,500 miles.  DL does not require a co-pay for miles upgrades, even from discounted fare classes.  Miles upgrades are only valid on fares in the K, H, Q, M and B categories (and of course, Y).  L, U, T and E fares aren’t eligible for miles upgrades, though are eligible for sticker upgrades (though would be unlikely to clear).

What DL doesn’t advertise is that they typically hold back upgrade inventory (for all types of upgrades) until 30 minutes prior to departure.  So much for “at time of booking” for elites on certain fare classes that DL so often mentions in its elite-program literature.  Like most carriers, DL shows the upgrade list at the gate, so you can see where you stand.  The forward cabin has 16 seats, and I’d say DL has among the lowest percentage of paid premium cabin traffic on this route (UA and AA have 40+ premium seats on their metal – and, in my experience, there are often a half dozen seats open on DL for upgrades).  The drawback is you have to stand at the gate and wait and hope you get upgraded.  Until your upgrade clears, you don’t get lounge access – so, if you’re an upgrader, while you do get lounge access on your upgraded ticket, you won’t have time to use it – because your upgrade will clear when it is time to board the plane.  Once in a while, I understand DL makes upgrade inventory available in advance for weekend flights, but this is certainly the exception.

DL’s upgrade priority provides that miles and SWU upgrades trump free sticker upgrades.  This is one way to move to the front of the line if you don’t have high status on DL.  Against that, some agents don’t seem to understand this priority and don’t always follow it.  Playing the gate lottery stinks, but on DL, it is part of the drill.

Of the three legacy carriers, UA is the stingiest with upgrades on the transcon.  UA does not allow sticker upgrades to be used to move forward one cabin on the PS flights.  You can use CR-1 upgrades, SWU upgrades or miles to move forward one cabin (economy to Business Class, or Business Class to First Class), but most passengers have a limited supply of these instruments.  Processing for these upgrades can be done at time of booking, but remain subject to capacity controls.  The one upside of this is people who are upgrading generally really want to upgrade.  Unlike AA and DL, which offer sticker upgrades (unlimited on DL, unlimited for AA Executive Platinums, too), lots and lots of people try to upgrade – and the gate area can become a bit chaotic as lottery players what to see what happens.

VX is a non-legacy carrier, and goes about things a little differently when it comes to upgrades (among many other things).  VX doesn’t have an elite upgrade program the way the legacy carriers do.  VX offers upgrades for purchase at check in (up to six hours prior to departure).  These upgrades are not capacity controlled – if there is a seat in front available, you can get it.  The charge from economy is $270 one way for the transcon, though the amount is only $160 if you are already in Main Cabin Select (VX’s premium economy).

VX also allows paid on-board upgrades.  If there is a seat open in front, you can speak with a flight attendant, swipe your card to pay the upgrade charge, and move forward during the flight.  I don’t know how often people take them up on this, but it sounds like a great idea.  While the seat remains available throughout the flight, the price does not drop as time passes.

Verdict: AA (simply because they allow segment upgrades, and don’t play DL’s games), with DL a close second

IFE (In Flight Entertainment)

All carriers offer in-flight Wifi on this route – for a fee.  At these mid-four digit fares, Wifi should be included.

I find the best entertainment involves my iPad – where I control the content.  A few pre-downloaded movies – plus email and web access – are usually all that I need to keep me occupied.  For those who prefer airline-provided IFE, you’re generally in luck on the transcon.

AA and UA each offer tabletop video units for passengers in First Class and Business Class.  The video players have about a roughly 7” screen (plus or minus) on UA and are loaded with a selection of fairly recent movies – as well as a few older films, television shows and other special interest type programing.  AA has a newer tablet which has a broader selection of content and screen about the size of an iPad’s.  The flight attendants hand these out between 20 and 40 minutes after take-off, then re-collect them with about that same amount of time before landing.  It can be tricky to find a spot to rest the video unit while eating.

DL has seats with built in video screens, which stow in the center arm rest when not in use.  DL’s screen is 7” and offers similar programing to AA and UA.  The system allows you to play games in competition with other passengers, which can be enjoyable.  Being integrated into the seat, the tabletop issues during meal time found on AA/UA won’t be a challenge with on DL.

VX’s premium cabin also has built in arm-mounted video screens.  VX’s screens seem a little bigger than DL’s, but not materially so.  The IFE system on VX has all of the same functionality as DL’s system, plus a number of other features – the most notable of which being 24 channels of live television.  They also offer a plane-wide chat room, and seat-to-seat private chats.  I found VX’s IFE system to be particularly intuitive to use.

Verdict: VX, with DL and AA tied in second.

Description: /wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifFood

I rarely eat the food on domestic flights (except breakfast).  With very limited exception, it is simply not that good on domestic carriers.  VX offers the most appealing (or least unappealing?) food of the four (unlike other factors, food is probably the most subjective to personal tastes).  The three legacy carriers (AA, DL, UA) offer some form of ice cream sundae-esque dessert on afternoon and evening flights, which I sometimes indulge in; VX also has desserts, though not sundaes at present.  The legacy carriers seemingly constantly modify their sundae offerings…sometimes they’re pre-made, other times you get to specify what you want on them.  I think AA even has different preparations at different times of day.  While I enjoy detail as much (or more than), this level of detail seems to be overkill as it is always changing.

I would not pick a domestic carrier based on food offerings.  The food offerings change somewhat regularly – so any more detailed commentary may be stale.  If you had to score the carriers based on food, VX should be tops, unless you really enjoy a sundae, then it would be a tie between the three legacies.

Verdict: If you don’t care about the sundae, VX.  If you do, a tie between AA, DL and UA.

Description: /wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifAccruing Miles

AA will accrue miles on AA or any OneWorld carrier (BA, CX, QF, JL, among others).  For miles credited to your AA account, in addition to the miles traveled, you’ll earn a 25% bonus for paid Business Class travel and a 50% bonus for paid First Class travel.  You may also accrue points on Alaska Airlines when flying AA.

DL will accrue miles on DL or any SkyTeam carrier (AF, KL, KE, among others).  In addition to the miles traveled, travel in paid Business Class will accrue a 50% bonus.  (NB: Delta also awards a 50% bonus on Y, B and M class tickets in economy.)  You may also accrue points on Alaska Airlines when flying DL.

UA will accrue miles on UA or any Star Alliance carrier (LH, SQ, NZ, AC, US, CO, A3 among others). Travel on most paid Business Class tickets will accrue a 25% bonus above the distance traveled and paid First Class travel will accrue a 50% bonus.

VX will accrue points with any of the Virgin-branded frequent flier programs (Virgin Atlantic, V Australia, Virgin Australia) in addition to VX’s Elevate program.  The Elevate program credits points based on the fare paid, not the distance you travel, and redemptions start at much lower points levels.

There’s no blanket answer on this one. The right choice for you depends on what alliance(s) you care about.  DL will get you slightly more miles in Business Class, but most consider DL’s miles to be some of the least valuable (on a CPM basis).  The “right” answer can only be determined with information about the traveler’s personal travel needs and pre-existing mileage balances!

For many readers, this may be the deciding fact - which alliance they care to keep their points on.  Indeed, many of these other issues are more akin to "splitting hairs" compared to getting someone to change what carrier they seek elite status on.

Verdict: A tie between AA, DL and UA.  DL should take a penalty for having the most expensive redemption options, but they offer the highest earning rate for Business Class which at least partially offsets that negative.  You can break the tie based on which alliance you care on the most.

Description: /wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifOther Considerations

British Airways Tier Points

The one other scenario to consider is if you are working on maximizing your BA Tier Points.  (Tier Points are BA’s method for elite status qualification.)  There are two routings which I find to be accretive for maximizing Tier Points between New York and the west coast.

AA runs a limited number of flights between LAX and EWR (Newark Airport) each day.  AA operates these flights as traditional two-class domestic flights, and they market the forward cabin as First Class.  However, they fare the forward cabin at roughly the same fare as they offer Business Class from JFK.  BA awards 120 Tier Points for a Business Class transcon, and 180 Tier Points for a First Class transcon.  I did this once – painful as it was (joke) – to make sure I kept my BA Gold Card.  Those 60 incremental TPs made the difference in requalification for me.  If BA Tier Points are important, and you can’t pay for First Class on a three-class plane, you might consider the EWR option.

If you’re willing to connect, you could fly JFK-LAS-LAX.  Each of these is operated as a two class flight, with the forward cabin marketed as First Class.  JFK-LAS is slightly over 2,000 miles, so you would get the 180 TPs for this flight, plus you’d earn another 60 TPs for the LAS-LAX flight.  On a return ticket, you’d collect 480 TPs – nearly enough for BA Silver (OW Sapphire).  (Note you will need four flights on BA tickets to earn elite status on BA, but this will get you the bulk of the TPs that you need!)  You can usually save a bit of dough on this routing too, particularly if you ticket the journey as point to point.  (Pay for JFK-LAS as one segment, then LAS-LAX as another.)  These fares, together, are nearly always far less than Business Class on the non-stop transcon.  Be careful not to spend all your savings while stopping over at LAS!

Qantas

QF operates a once-daily round trip service between JFK and LAX on their A330 equipment at present.  Flying on this flight is basically a little bit of Australia over the US.

Until [early 2010], this flight was operated on a 747, which was a real treat for a domestic flight.  The A330 is also very nice, and is equipped with QF’s angled-lie-flat international Business Class cabin.  QF’s seats on the A330 would be my favorite Business Class seats offered on the route.  They have 60” of pitch and are 21.5” wide, the most of any Business Class offering on this route.  I find QF’s non-A380 international service to be some of the best.  Their flight crews are seasoned – but rarely sour.  The soft product on QF is easily classified as a top-tier international Business Class service – far better than offered on AA, DL, UA or VX!  You can also enjoy some popular Australian Beers…VB, Crown and others…on the flight.  The only thing you don’t get on this flight which you do on their trans-Pacific services are pajamas!

QF runs these planes from Auckland to LAX, and then across to NY from LAX, then all the way back to Auckland (via LAX).  (Based on their current routing, these planes essentially never make it to Australia!)

There are two challenges to flying on the QF flights:  (a) they only fly once a day and (b) QF cannot legally operate a domestic air journey within the United States.  Details!  Assuming their schedule works for you, there is a way you can make the QF flight fit.  QF can sell a ticket on this flight as part of an international journey.  Most people’s knee-jerk reaction is, “Well, I’m not flying to Australia.”  However, all you need to be flying to is ANY international destination…not necessarily Australia or New Zealand.  And, your international travel doesn’t have to be on the same day as you fly on the QF transcon.  You could fly LAX-JFK on Day 1, then on day 300, fly JFK-YYZ (Toronto) on AA or the once-daily LAN service to Toronto.  You could include in your itinerary future travel to Europe, Asia, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Mexico or any destination outside of the US.  I’ve never done this, but I’ve set it up for others – who were legitimately travelling onward outside the US at some date in the future.  (You could even consider throw-away ticketing to make your journey an international one…but there are probably additional considerations to be mindful of before making that your plan.)  If you’re curious about Qantas, or if their schedule aligns with yours, trying this flight is something I recommend highly.

With QF announcing the discontinuation of their Los Angeles-Auckland service (as of May of this year), I’m not sure what will happen to this flight (the plane used on this route is the plane they use to/from Auckland).  QF downguaged this flight from a 747 due to weak yields.  I suspect the only reason they maintain a New York presence is pride, not profits.  I hope the domestic transcon will be operated by a 747 again soon – though there is a decent chance it is cancelled completely.

Fare Anomalies

I’m most familiar with AA’s fare structure on the transcon.  At the time of this writing, their fares are very expensive for these routes – though there are some attractive anomalies.  One way Business Class ranges between $1,500 and $2,500, and one-way First Class is about $3,000.  (These fares aren’t off market, the other carriers will be in these areas, too.)  Beyond the LAS stopover (which can save $1,000 off of the round trip Business Class fare, but keeps you off of the actual transcon flight!), other ticketing tricks I’m a fan of include:

Hawaii – The phrase “free First Class to Hawaii” usually gets the attention of most people.  Adding on a segment to HNL, OGG or KOA to a one-way JFK-LAX ticket usually slightly reduces the price of a ticket when compared to just JFK-LAX.  So, basically, you can have a free airfare trip to Hawaii as part of your journey out to LA.  If you have a few extra days, go out for the weekend – enjoy yourself!

Bermuda – Heading east, the fare comes down roughly 50% (from $3,000 one way LAX-JFK in First Class to about $1,400) if you add a connection onward to BDA.  Even closer to the mainland than Hawaii, if business takes you to NY, you might add the weekend in BDA.  This could save you thousands!  Enough for a suite at the Fairmont Southampton!

While all of these airfare anomalies could change at any time, they’ve been in place for some time, and seem to get better as the fares on the straight transcon flights move up more and more every few months.  I know there is a logic behind the carriers’ thinking in situations like this…there’s also a strong logic in capitalizing on them yourself, if your schedule permits.

Conclusion

There is not a right answer as to which carrier is best.  A lot has to do with what you value as a passenger.  Hopefully this post has been helpful in laying out the facts about the options – so you can decide.  The category verdicts are:

On the Ground: A draw!  VX has the best lounges, but the least availability.  AA’s lounges are the probably second best (including showers in each lounge), but have very limited access rules for Business Class passengers.  UA has a reasonable lounge access policy, but its lounges are mixed.  DL has probably the worst overall lounges (marginally worse than UA, and no First Class Lounges), but the most generous access policies.  Also note that with the American Express Platinum Card, you get access to the Delta and American clubs, as well as the Alaska club (which covers you for VX in LAX).

Seats: UA takes the prize in both First and Business Class.  AA has the worst physical Business Class, but does offer the potential to upgrade to First Class (which is superior to DL/VX's forward cabin).

Upgrading: AA, with DL a close second.  There are no segment or sticker upgrades available on UA or VX.

IFE: VX, with DL and AA tied for second.

Food: If you don’t care about the sundae, VX.  If you do, a tie between AA, DL and UA.

Miles: A tie between AA, DL and UA.  DL should take a penalty for having the most expensive redemption options, but they offer the highest earning rate for Business Class, which somewhat offsets that negative.  You can break the tie based on which alliance you care on the most.

Verdict: There isn't a clear winner.  Each have some relative strengths and weaknesses.  If you are paying for Business Class, and you're agnostic as to the miles, you're probably supposed to go with United - simply because of the seats and certainty of lounge access.

The differences, in aggregate, however, are so subtle, that the answer of which is best for you probably comes down to which carrier/alliance you care about the most for miles.

* * * * *

If there are any mistakes, the fault is entirely mine.  This is the most technical post I've put together.  I would appreciate if you would share any corrections with me at tpm@sitinfirst.com.

Enjoy your flight!

Comments

As of 1/2013, there are a few changes to the details of the post. Most notably, AA has relaxed their lounge access rules.

I will get an update together over the coming days.

#2
Julia Valdovinos October 24, 2013 at 06:06 pm

My 98+ year old boss is traveling to NYC this coming January. I am merely looking for the most comfortable, spacious, bathroom accessible first class round trip flight for him. I have not heard positive feedback regarding UAL.

Unfortunately I do not travel 1st class and would appreciate your feedback.